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Archive for July 28th, 2021

How Do You Convince People to Eat Less Meat?

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Jan Dutkiewicz has an interesting article in The New Republic with the subheading:

A recent fracas in Spain shows that simply telling people to reduce meat consumption in the name of climate and personal health won’t work.

I’m not a good source on this: I dropped meat, dairy, and eggs (except for an occasional rare exception) exactly for reasons of health, and of course it was difficult at first — as I write in my (lengthy and detailed) post about my diet,

It takes a few weeks to get the hang of a new approach to food when you change your diet, so I would recommend you stick with this approach for two months and then take stock, evaluating it in the light of your own experience. Changing your diet is difficult because it requires revising patterns of eating that you have learned so well you use them unconsciously. Just as you don’t have to think much to get around your own town or neighborhood, the diet you already know is easy because it’s based on established dishes and established routines.

And just as moving to a new city requires a lot of work and attention at first just to find your way around, moving to a new way of eating requires thought and attention to figure out a new repertoire of “standard” dishes and meals. But over time, both become easy once again as new patterns are figured out, learned, and become familiar, and easy routines again emerge.

You gain the new knowledge and regain the old comfort more readily if you have the mindset and attitude of a new permanent resident rather than a visitor, because as a permanent resident you’re more motivated to explore and discover what all it has to offer beyond the obvious tourist attractions (or obvious recipes) See this post: “Finding pleasure in the learning of new skills.”

So my method would be to focus on the health benefits plus the interesting new foods — the new dishes, tastes, and textures — that a whole-food plant-based diet offers. But here’s the article:

In early July, Spain’s minister of consumer affairs, Alberto Garzón, posted a short video on Twitter urging Spaniards to decrease their meat consumption. From a political communication perspective, it was flawless. He listed the many ways large-scale meat production and consumption harm humans, the environment, and animals, all backed by peer-reviewed science. He focused on reducing meat intake, not eliminating it—he praised nonindustrial livestock systems and family barbecues. He acknowledged that changing diets is hard for those without access to cheap, accessible, and diverse food choices. He explained that the government would launch food education campaigns and implement regulations to incentivize more sustainable diets. He even added a hashtag: #MenosCarneMasVida (Less Meat More Life).

Spanish politics exploded. While Garzón’s nuanced, well-researched message received some support (the number of Spaniards who claim to want to reduce their meat consumption is rising), several fellow politicians turned to juvenile trolling. Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, of Spain’s socialist party, gushed about his love of the chuletón steak to a press conference, and Teodoro García Egea of the right-wing People’s Party tweeted out a picture of a grill packed with slabs of meat with the caption, “To your health.”

The affair brilliantly displayed the fraught politics of dietary change. The average Western diet—prevalent in Spain, just as it is in the United States and the United Kingdom—is high in meat, fat, and sugar, its production and consumption an environmental and public health disaster. This has been true for decades. But in the past few years, a growing chorus of voices have begun to call for major dietary changes in the interest of human and planetary health. The EAT-Lancet report published in February 2019 called for a global shift to a primarily plant-based diet if we are to keep agricultural production within planetary limits. The problem, however, is that actually changing what people eat is extremely difficult. Who should drive this change: individuals, governments, or corporations? Can a balance be struck between consumer freedom and regulation? And how can rational policymaking be squared with food’s significant cultural, nationalist, and personal meaning?

Beef is where this kind of discussion usually starts because it’s where the scientific consensus is particularly strong. The world’s one billion cows contribute about 6 percent of all greenhouse gases through their methane-rich burps, require vast amounts of grazing land, and are often fattened for slaughter on industrial feedlots where they are fed a diet of monocrops like corn and soy, whose planting in turn contributes to widespread deforestation and pesticide use. Overconsumption of red meat has also been linked to a range of health issues.

Steaks, in other words, are the SUVs of meat: expensive, unnecessary, environmentally noxious status symbols that do far more harm than good. There’s a good case for eliminating beef consumption entirely, and drastically reducing it ought to be a no-brainer: The EAT-Lancet model diet, for instance, suggests limiting beef to 98 grams per week (and all meat to under 500 grams). That amounts to a 60 percent decrease, relative to a Spaniard’s average diet, and a massive 86 percent decrease in the USA.

The traditional way for NGOs, companies, and governments to approach dietary change is through information campaigns and so-called nudges that don’t impinge on individual choice or risk regulatory and legislative battles. They’re nonintrusive ways of suggesting more healthy or ethical choices to consumers—like releasing EAT-Lancet recommendations or national dietary guidelines, slapping “fair trade” labels on coffee or “humanely raised” labels on meat. It can also mean deciding not to promote a product, as the food website Epicurious did when it vowed to stop running beef recipes for many of the reasons mentioned by Garzón.

The problem with these interventions is that they are not all that effective. While consumers may claim they want to make more informed or sustainable decisions, they tend to default to their usual habits in the supermarket aisles. And information doesn’t necessarily shift behavior; it may even have the opposite effect. Psychologists argue that when consumers face the “meat paradox” of eating meat while being opposed to the harms caused by it, they will often create justificatory narratives and rationalizations that deny harm or personal responsibility rather than actually halting meat consumption.

These mild, less effective policy efforts also tend to be attacked by critics as if they were actually reducing consumer choice. EAT-Lancet was met with a coordinated online countercampaign under the hashtag #yes2meat. Epicurious was lambasted by pro-beef critics, including foodies and food writers, in the wake of its decision. When the United Nations tried to call for meat reduction to mitigate climate change, it too was brutally critiqued, including by pro-meat climate scholars.

Changing the scope and availability of choices in any given situation may be more productive. This is called changing “choice architecture,” and there’s good evidence for its efficacy. For instance, removing beef jerky from among the impulse-buy items in a checkout line disincentivizes jerky purchases just by moving them out of sight and out of mind. Major opportunities for choice-architecture manipulation exist in supermarkets and restaurants, which could commit to selling less beef, promoting more healthful options, or replacing meat with alternative proteins, as a growing number of fast-food joints are doing.

These changes can have an even bigger impact in institutional spaces like schools that have large provisioning budgets and feed large numbers of people; such changes can shift both individuals’ habits and influence the economics of food distribution. Studies have shown that simply increasing the number of vegetarian options or making plant-based meals the default instead of meat massively increases more sustainable eating. And shifting food patterns in schools can build the next generation of more sustainable eaters.

But there’s stiff opposition here, too. When schools in Lyon, France, moved to make lunches plant-forward (albeit with fish and egg and dairy options available), farmers stormed the city in protest and the French minister of agriculture clamored against anti-meat “ideology.” In the U.S., Joni Ernst, the infamously meat-industry-friendly senator from Iowa whose campaign advertising included boasts about pig castrationhas introduced an act to preemptively preclude federal institutions from engaging in nudges like “Meatless Monday.”

That brings us to state intervention. Government has tremendous power to address collective action problems through incentives, regulations, and taxation. In the world of public health, these interventions are ranked on a scale called the Nuffield Ladder, with gentle nudges at the bottom and outright bans at the top. One of the most commonly used tools is taxation. In particular, governments can implement what are known as Pigouvian taxes on things like sugary drinks, tobacco, or polluting factories—the idea is to force producers to cover the cost of the harms their products do. They can also slap so-called “sin taxes” on products to increase direct costs for consumers. These taxes work. Numerous studies show that these are very effective in decreasing consumption, leading groups like the World Health Organization to strongly support them. The academic case for such taxes on meat is robust and convincing. But taxes in general are massively politically unpopular and lead to accusations of a nanny state interfering in consumers’ free choice, as the battles over sugar taxes around the world have shown.

On July 15, the U.K. released its Food Strategy, a well-researched document urging a reshaping of the British food system in the interest of health and sustainability. It called for reductions in sugar, salt, and meat. But the authors only suggested a tax on sugar and salt, shying away from a “politically impossible” meat tax. Instead, they recommended plant-forward dietary nudges and subsidies for the development of alternative proteins.

It’s a good illustration of the way policymakers often self-edit when it comes to such a fraught topic. The problem is that, while this approach is politically pragmatic, it is naïve to expect that clinging to the lower rungs of the Nuffield Ladder can lead to even the Food Strategy’s suggested 30 percent reduction in meat consumption, let alone the EAT-Lancet standard.

But the problem isn’t only that policymakers are wary of inviting pro-meat backlash. It’s also that virtually all governments subsidize and promote meat production and consumption. The EU, despite its Green Deal commitment to carbon neutrality by 2050, has spent millions of Euros on a “Beefatarian” advertising campaign, and both Europe and the USA support animal agriculture through extensive subsidies and supports. Changing this dynamic—a status quo in which politicians pick up points by slamming vegetarians while support for the meat industry is baked into countless national budgets—will require a multifaceted approach.

Incentivizing the production of alternatives in addition to, or ideally instead of, harmful products like beef, as the U.K. Food Strategy does with its support for alternative proteins, is one good option. But such support should include not only plant-based or cell-based “meat alternatives” but also plants as alternatives to meat. A recent study published in Global Food Security, for instance, shows that humble legumes, with the right government push, could provide a far more sustainable and diverse source of protein than meat. Creating opportunities for food access is also . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

And note this interesting map of land-use in the UK from the recently published National Food Strategy, which can be download at the link and which has some very interesting information (for those who make decisions in that way):

Written by Leisureguy

28 July 2021 at 3:24 pm

Proof Assistant Makes Jump to Big-League Math

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Computer-assisted cognition is here. Kevin Hartnett writes in Quanta:

Computer proof assistants have been an intriguing subplot in mathematics for years — promising to automate core aspects of the way mathematicians work, but in practice having little effect on the field.

But a new result, completed in early June, has the feel of a rookie’s first hit in the big leagues: At last, a proof assistant has made a real contribution to the leading edge of mathematical research by verifying the correctness of a complicated, modern proof.

“It demonstrates that modern maths can be formalized in a theorem prover,” said Bhavik Mehta, a graduate student at the University of Cambridge who contributed to the work.

The proof in question is by Peter Scholze of the University of Bonn, one of the most widely respected mathematicians in the world. It is just one piece of a larger project called “condensed mathematics” that he and Dustin Clausen of the University of Copenhagen have been working on for several years.

Their goal is to create new foundations for topology, replacing the traditional notion of a topological space — whose examples include the sphere and the doughnut — with more versatile objects that the authors call condensed sets. In this new perspective, topological spaces are thought of as being assembled from infinite points of dust glued together.

That project includes a particularly important, difficult proof that Scholze worked out himself during a consuming week in July 2019. It establishes that an area of math called real functional analysis still works if you replace topological spaces with condensed sets.

Scholze began the proof on a Monday. He worked entirely in his head, barely writing anything down, let alone using a computer. By Thursday afternoon he’d nearly figured it out, save one piece that he just couldn’t get right. He was also feeling the strain of the intense concentration required to hold such a complicated argument in his active memory. So that night he unwound with some friends at a bar. He paid for it the next morning, Friday.

“I was completely hungover,” said Scholze.

But he also knew that he wouldn’t have time to work over the weekend, making Friday his best chance to finish the proof. The thought of losing touch with everything he’d built up in his mind over the past week, then having to start again fresh on Monday, was more than he wanted to consider.

“I didn’t think I’d have the mental capacity to rebuild this in my head again,” said Scholze.

So he powered through and finished the proof. But afterward, he wasn’t certain that what he had done was correct. The reason was more than the hazy circumstances in which he’d cleared the final hurdle. The proof was so complicated Scholze knew it was possible he had missed something.

“It’s some very convoluted thing with many moving parts. It’s hard to know which parts move by how much when you shift one of these parameters,” said Scholze.

Scholze didn’t find time to actually write down the proof until November 2019. A year later he contacted Kevin Buzzard, a mathematician at Imperial College London and a prominent evangelist for a proof assistant program called Lean. Scholze wanted to know whether it would be possible to type his proof into Lean — turning it into lines of code like a software program — so that the program could verify whether it was really true.

Buzzard shared Scholze’s inquiry with a handful of other members of the Lean community including Johan Commelin, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Freiburg. Commelin had the perfect background for the job — he’d been using Lean for several years and was familiar with condensed mathematics — and he was convinced that verifying Scholze’s proof would do a lot to legitimize the proof assistant’s standing in the mathematical community.

“Being able to collaborate with Peter on such a project and having his name attached to it would be an enormous boost for Lean,” said Commelin.

But he also thought it could take a year or more to do it, which gave him pause. Commelin was worried he might spend all that time verifying the proof and, at the end, the rest of the math world would just shrug.

“I thought that if I spend two years working on this and I come out of my cave and say, ‘This is fine,’ the rest of the world is going to say, ‘Wow, we already knew this, Peter proved it,’” said Commelin. It wouldn’t matter that Scholze himself wasn’t entirely sure.

So Commelin asked Scholze if he’d be willing to make a public statement vouching for the importance of the work. Scholze agreed, and on Dec. 5, 2020, he wrote a post on Buzzard’s blog.

They called it the “Liquid Tensor Experiment,” a nod to mathematical objects involved in the proof called liquid real vector spaces, and to a progressive rock band he and Commelin enjoy called Liquid Tension Experiment. In the 4,400-word primer, Scholze explained some technical aspects of the result and then added a note testifying in plain language to what he saw as the importance of checking it with a computer.

“I think this may be my most important theorem to date. (It does not really have any applications so far, but I’m sure this will change,)” Scholze wrote. “Better be sure it’s correct…”

Assurance in place, Commelin set to work. After explaining to Lean the mathematical statement whose proof he ultimately wanted the program to check, he brought more mathematicians into the project. They identified a few lemmas — intermediate steps in the proof — that seemed most approachable. They formalized those first, coding them on top of the library of mathematical knowledge that Lean draws on to determine if a given statement is true or not.

Last October, Quanta wrote that the collective effort to write mathematics in Lean has the “air of a barn raising.” This project was no different. Commelin would identify discrete parts of the proof and post them to Zulip, a discussion board that serves as a hub for the Lean community. When mathematicians saw a part of the proof that fit their expertise, they’d volunteer to formalize it.

Mehta was one of about a dozen mathematicians who contributed to the work. In May he saw a post from Commelin asking for help formalizing the proof of a statement called Gordan’s lemma, which related to Mehta’s work in the area of combinatorial geometry. He spent a week coding the proof in terms that were consistent with the larger proof the mathematicians were building. It was emblematic, he said, of the way Lean works.

“It’s one big collaboration with a lot of people doing what they’re good at to make a singular monolith,” he said.

As the work proceeded, Scholze was a consistent presence on Zulip, answering questions and explaining points of the proof — a bit like an architect giving directions to builders on a job site. “He was always within reach,” Commelin said.

At the end of May the group finished formalizing the one part of the proof Scholze was most unsure about. Commelin entered the final keystroke at 1:10 a.m. on May 29. Lean compiled the proof, and . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

28 July 2021 at 1:50 pm

Posted in Math, Software, Technology

Our democracy is under attack. Washington journalists must stop covering it like politics as usual.

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Margaret Sullivan, one-time Public “Editor for the NY Times and now a columnist for the Washington Post, has a good piece today:

Back in the dark ages of 2012, two think-tank scholars, Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann, wrote a book titled “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks” about the rise of Republican Party extremism and its dire effect on American democracy.

In a related op-ed piece, these writers made a damning statement about Washington press coverage, which treats the two parties as roughly equal and everything they do as deserving of similar coverage.

Ornstein and Mann didn’t use the now-in-vogue terms “both-sidesism” or “false equivalence,” but they laid out the problem with devastating clarity (the italics are mine):

“We understand the values of mainstream journalists, including the effort to report both sides of a story. But a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality. If the political dynamics of Washington are unlikely to change any time soon, at least we should change the way that reality is portrayed to the public.”

Positive proof was in the recent coverage of congressional efforts to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

The Democratic leadership has been trying to assemble a bipartisan panel that would study that mob attack on our democracy and make sure it is never repeated. Republican leaders, meanwhile, have been trying to undermine the investigation, cynically requesting that two congressmen who backed efforts to invalidate the election be allowed to join the commission, then boycotting it entirely. And the media has played straight into Republicans’ hands, seemingly incapable of framing this as anything but base political drama.

“ ‘What You’re Doing Is Unprecedented’: McCarthy-Pelosi Feud Boils Over,” read a CNN headline this week. “After a whiplash week of power plays . . . tensions are at an all-time high.”

Is it really a “feud” when Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy performatively blames Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for refusing to seat Republicans Jim Jordan and Jim Banks — two sycophantic allies of Trump, who called the Jan. 6 mob to gather?

One writer at Politico called Pelosi’s decision a “gift to McCarthy.” And its Playbook tut-tutted the decision as handing Republicans “a legitimate grievance,” thus dooming the holy notion of bipartisanship.

“Both parties have attacked the other as insincere and uninterested in conducting a fair-minded examination,” a Washington Post news story observed. (“Can it really be lost on the Post that the Republican party has acted in bad faith at every turn to undermine every attempt to investigate the events of Jan. 6?” a reader complained to me.)

The bankruptcy of this sort of coverage was exposed on Tuesday morning, when the Jan. 6 commission kicked off with somber, powerful, pointedly nonpolitical testimony from four police officers who were attacked during the insurrection. Two Republicans, Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, even defied McCarthy’s boycott to ensure their party would be sanely represented.

Law officers became truth seekers about who was responsible for the Capitol attacks

This strain of news coverage, observed Jon Allsop in Columbia Journalism Review, centers on twinned, dubious implications: “That bipartisanship is desirable and that Democrats bear responsibility for upholding it — even in the face of explicit Republican obstructionism.”

This stance comes across as both cynical (“politics was ever thus”) and unsophisticated (“we’re just doing our job of reporting what was said”). Quite a feat.

Mainstream journalists want their work to be perceived as fair-minded and nonpartisan. They want to defend themselves against charges of bias. So they equalize the unequal. This practice seems so ingrained as to be unresolvable.

There is a way out. But it requires the leadership of news organizations to radically reframe the mission of its Washington coverage. As a possible starting point, I’ll offer these recommendations:

  • Toss out the insidious “inside-politics” frame and replace it with a “pro-democracy” frame.
  • Stop calling the reporters who cover this stuff “political reporters.” Start calling them “government reporters.”

  • Stop asking who the winners and losers were in the latest skirmish. Start asking who is serving the democracy and who is undermining it

  • Stop being “savvy” and start being patriotic.

In a year-end piece for Nieman Lab, Andrew Donohue, managing editor of the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal, called for news organizations to put reporters on a new-style “democracy beat” to focus on voting suppression and redistricting. “These reporters won’t see their work in terms of politics or parties, but instead through the lens of honesty, fairness, and transparency,” he wrote.

I’d make it more sweeping. The democracy beat shouldn’t be some kind of specialized innovation, but a widespread rethinking across the mainstream media.

Making this happen will call for something that Big Journalism is notoriously bad at: An open-minded, nondefensive recognition of what’s gone wrong.

Top editors, Sunday talk-show moderators and other news executives should pull together their brain trusts to grapple with this. And they should be transparent with the public about what they’re doing and why.

As a model, they might have to swallow their big-media pride and look to places like Harrisburg, Pa., public radio station WITF which has admirably explained to its audience why it continually offers reminders about the actions of those public officials who tried to overturn the 2020 election results. Or to Cleveland Plain Dealer editor Chris Quinn’s letter to readers about how the paper and its website, Cleveland.com, refuse to cover every reckless, attention-getting lie of Republican Josh Mandel as he runs for the U.S. Senate next year. . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by Leisureguy

28 July 2021 at 1:34 pm

A flower, a tree, a walk

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I took a new route: 3623 steps, just over half an hour. The latter part of the week is forecast to be hot, but I’ll try to get out early to beat the heat.

Written by Leisureguy

28 July 2021 at 1:21 pm

The Real Source of America’s Rising Rage

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Kevin Drum has a good article in Mother Jones that begins:

Americans sure are angry these days. Everyone says so, so it must be true.

But who or what are we angry at? Pandemic stresses aside, I’d bet you’re not especially angry at your family. Or your friends. Or your priest or your plumber or your postal carrier. Or even your boss.

Unless, of course, the conversation turns to politics. That’s when we start shouting at each other. We are way, way angrier about politics than we used to be, something confirmed by both common experience and formal research.

When did this all start? Here are a few data points to consider. From 1994 to 2000, according to the Pew Research Center, only 16 percent of Democrats held a “very unfavorable” view of Republicans, but then these feelings started to climb. Between 2000 and 2014 it rose to 38 percent and by 2021 it was about 52 percent. And the same is true in reverse for Republicans: The share who intensely dislike Democrats went from 17 percent to 43 percent to about 52 percent.

Likewise, in 1958 Gallup asked people if they’d prefer their daughter marry a Democrat or a Republican. Only 28 percent cared one way or the other. But when Lynn Vavreck, a political science professor at UCLA, asked a similar question a few years ago, 55 percent were opposed to the idea of their children marrying outside their party.

Or consider the right track/wrong track poll, every pundit’s favorite. Normally this hovers around 40–50 percent of the country who think we’re on the right track, with variations depending on how the economy is doing. But shortly after recovering from the 2000 recession, this changed, plunging to 20–30 percent over the next decade and then staying there.

Finally, academic research confirms what these polls tell us. Last year a team of researchers published an international study that estimated what’s called “affective polarization,” or the way we feel about the opposite political party. In 1978, we rated people who belonged to our party 27 points higher than people who belonged to the other party. That stayed roughly the same for the next two decades, but then began to spike in the year 2000. By 2016 it had gone up to 46 points—by far the highest of any of the countries surveyed—and that’s before everything that has enraged us for the last four years.

What’s the reason for this? There’s no shortage of speculation. Political scientists talk about the fragility of presidential systems. Sociologists explicate the culture wars. Historians note the widening divide between the parties after white Southerners abandoned the Democratic Party following the civil rights era. Reporters will regale you with stories about the impact of Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich.

There’s truth in all of these, but even taken together they are unlikely to explain the underlying problem. Some aren’t new (presidential systems, culture wars) while others are symptoms more than causes (the Southern Strategy).

I’ve been spending considerable time digging into the source of our collective rage, and the answer to this question is trickier than most people think. For starters, any good answer has to fit the timeline of when our national temper tantrum began—roughly around the year 2000. The answer also has to be true: That is, it needs to be a genuine change from past behavior—maybe an inflection point or a sudden acceleration. Once you put those two things together, the number of candidates plummets.

But I believe there is an answer. I’ll get to that, but first we need to investigate a few of the most popular—but ultimately unsatisfying—theories currently in circulation.

Theory #1: Americans Have Gone Crazy With Conspiracy Theories

It’s probably illegal to talk about the American taste for conspiracy theorizing without quoting from Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” It was written in 1964, but this passage (from the book version) about the typical conspiracy monger should ring a bell for the modern reader:

He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, the quality needed is not a willingness to compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Nothing but complete victory will do.

Or how about this passage from Daniel Bell’s “The Dispossessed”? It was written in 1962:

The politics of the radical right is the politics of frustration—the sour impotence of those who find themselves unable to understand, let alone command, the complex mass society that is the polity today…Insofar as there is no real left to counterpoise to the right, the liberal has become the psychological target of that frustration.

In other words, the extreme right lives to own the libs. And it’s no coincidence that both Hofstadter and Bell wrote about this in the early ’60s: That was about the time that the John Birch Society was gaining notoriety and the Republican Party nominated Barry Goldwater for president. But as Hofstadter in particular makes clear, a fondness for conspiracy theories has pervaded American culture from the very beginning. Historian Bernard Bailyn upended revolutionary-era history and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1968 for his argument that belief in a worldwide British conspiracy against liberty “lay at the heart of the Revolutionary movement”—an argument given almost Trumpian form by Sam Adams, who proclaimed that the British empire literally wanted to enslave white Americans. Conspiracy theories that followed targeted the Bavarian Illuminati, the Masons, Catholics, East Coast bankers, a global Jewish cabal, and so on.

But because it helps illuminate what we face now, let’s unpack the very first big conspiracy theory of the modern right, which began within weeks of the end of World War II.

In 1945 FDR met with Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill at Yalta with the aim of gaining agreement about the formation of the United Nations and free elections in Europe. In this he succeeded: Stalin agreed to everything FDR proposed. When FDR returned home he gave a speech to Congress about the meeting, and it was generally well received. A month later he died.

Needless to say, Stalin failed to observe most of the agreements he had signed. He never had any intention of allowing “free and fair” elections in Eastern Europe, which he wanted as a buffer zone against any future military incursion from Western Europe. The United States did nothing about this, to the disgust of many conservatives. However, this was not due to any special gutlessness on the part of Harry Truman or anyone in the Army. It was because the Soviet army occupied Eastern Europe when hostilities ended and there was no way to dislodge it short of total war, something the American public had no appetite for.

And there things might have stood. Scholars could have argued for years about whether FDR was naive about Stalin, or whether there was more the US and its allies could have done to push Soviet troops out of Europe. Books would have been written and dissertations defended, but not much more. So far we have no conspiracy theory, just some normal partisan disagreement.

But then came 1948. Thomas Dewey lost the presidency to Harry Truman and Republicans lost control of the House. Soon thereafter the Soviet Union demonstrated an atomic bomb and communists overran China. It was at this point that a normal disagreement turned into a conspiracy theory. The extreme right began suggesting that FDR had deliberately turned over Eastern Europe to Stalin and that the US delegation at Yalta had been rife with Soviet spies. Almost immediately Joe McCarthy was warning that the entire US government was infiltrated by communists at the highest levels. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the architect of the Manhattan Project, was surely a communist. George Marshall, the hero of World War II, was part of “a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.”

Like most good conspiracy theories, there was a kernel of truth here. Stalin really did take over Eastern Europe. Alger Hiss, part of the Yalta delegation, really did turn out to be a Soviet mole. Klaus Fuchs and others really did pass along atomic secrets to the Soviets. Never mind that Stalin couldn’t have been stopped; never mind that Hiss was a junior diplomat who played no role in the Yalta agreements; never mind that Fuchs may have passed along secrets the Soviets already knew. It was enough to power a widespread belief in McCarthy’s claim of the biggest conspiracy in all of human history.

There’s no polling data from back then, but belief in this conspiracy became a right-wing mainstay for years—arguably the wellspring of conservative conspiracy theories for decades. Notably, it caught on during a time of conservative loss and liberal ascendancy. This is a pattern we’ve seen over and over since World War II. The John Birch Society and the JFK assassination conspiracies gained ground after enormous Democratic congressional victories in 1958 and again in 1964. The full panoply of Clinton conspiracies blossomed after Democrats won united control of government in the 1992 election. Benghazi was a reaction to Barack Obama—not just a Democratic win, but the first Black man to be elected president. And today’s conspiracy theories about stealing the presidential election are a response to Joe Biden’s victory in 2020.

How widespread are these kinds of beliefs? And has their popularity changed over time? The evidence is sketchy but there’s polling data that provides clues. McCarthy’s conspiracy theories were practically a pandemic, consuming American attention for an entire decade. Belief in a cover-up of the JFK assassination has always hovered around 50 percent or higher. In the mid-aughts, a third of poll respondents strongly or somewhat believed that 9/11 was an inside job, very similar to the one-third of Americans who believe today that there was significant fraud in the 2020 election even though there’s no evidence to support this. And that famous one-third of Americans who are skeptical of the COVID-19 vaccine? In 1954 an identical third of Americans were skeptical of the polio vaccine that had just become available.

So how does QAnon, the great liberal hobgoblin of the past year, measure up? It may seem historically widespread for such an unhinged conspiracy theory, but it’s not: Polls suggest that actual QAnon followers are rare and that belief in QAnon hovers at less than 10 percent of the American public. It’s no more popular than other fringe fever swamp theories of the past.

It’s natural to believe that things happening today—to you—are worse than similar things lost in the haze of history, especially when social media keeps modern outrages so relentlessly in our faces. But often it just isn’t true. A mountain of evidence suggests that the American predilection for conspiracy theories is neither new nor growing. Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent, preeminent scholars of conspiracy theories, confirmed this with some original research based on letters to the editors of the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune between 1890 and 2010. Their conclusion: Belief in conspiracy theories has been stable since about 1960. Along with more recent polling, this suggests that the aggregate belief in conspiracy theories hasn’t changed a lot and therefore isn’t likely to provide us with much insight into why American political culture has corroded so badly during the 21st century.

Theory #2: It’s All About Social Media

How about social media? Has it had an effect? Of . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more — along with what he views as the main cause.

And note these:

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Written by Leisureguy

28 July 2021 at 12:00 pm

Re-counting the Cognitive History of Numerals

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In The MIT Press Reader Philip Laughlin, who acquires books for the MIT Press in the fields of Cognitive Science, Philosophy, Linguistics, and Bioethics, interviews Stephen Chrisomalis, Professor of Anthropology at Wayne State University and author of, among other books,Reckonings: Numerals, Cognition, and History.”

Those of us who learned arithmetic using pen and paper, working with the ten digits 0–9 and place value, may take for granted that this is the way it’s always been done, or at least the way it ought to be done. But if you think of the amount of time and energy spent in the early school years just to teach place value, you’ll realize that this sort of numeracy is not preordained.

Over the past 5,500 years, more than 100 distinct ways of writing numbers have been developed and used by numerate societies, linguistic anthropologist Stephen Chrisomalis has found. Thousands more ways of speaking numbers, manipulating physical objects, and using human bodies to enumerate are known to exist, or to have existed, he writes in his new book “Reckonings: Numerals, Cognition, and History.” Remarkably, each of the basic structures was invented multiple times independently of one another. In “Reckonings,” Chrisomalis considers how humans past and present have used numerals, reinterpreting historical and archaeological representations of numerical notation and exploring the implications of why we write numbers with figures rather than words. Drawing on, and expanding upon, the enormous cross-cultural and comparative literatures in linguistics, cognitive anthropology, and the history of science that bear on questions of numeracy, he shows that numeracy is a social practice.

Chrisomalis took time out from a busy end to the spring semester to field a few questions about his new book, his spirited defense of Roman numerals, his complicated relationships with mathematicians, and his thoughts on the validity of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.


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Philip Laughlin
: We’ve worked with a number of linguists and anthropologists over the years but you are our first author to specialize in written numerical systems. What sparked your interest in this topic? Why are numerals an important area of research?

Stephen Chrisomalis: I first became interested in numerals when I wrote a paper in an undergraduate cognitive anthropology course in the mid-1990s. After moving away from the subject for a couple years, I came back to it when I was looking for a PhD topic along with my advisor, the late Bruce Trigger at McGill. This resulted in my dissertation, which later became my first book, “Numerical Notation: A Comparative History” (Cambridge, 2010). It was an unorthodox project for an anthropology department — neither strictly archaeological nor ethnohistorical nor ethnographic. But that was exactly the sort of creative project that it was possible to do at McGill at that time, and that sadly, given the exigencies of the modern job market, is almost impossible to imagine doing today.

What brought me to numerical notation as a dissertation subject is much of what still appeals to me about it now. We have evidence from over 100 different systems used across every inhabited continent over 5,000 years, including all the world’s literate traditions. Numbers are a ubiquitous domain of human existence, and written numerals are virtually everywhere that there is writing. While, of course, the historical and archaeological records are partial (which is in turn both exciting and frustrating), understanding their history and cross-cultural transmission is a tractable problem. We can tell, roughly, when and where they originate and how they relate to one another.

Also, every user of a numerical notation system is also a speaker of one or more languages, which lets us ask great questions comparing number words to numerical notation and to show how they interact. These questions can be as simple as “Do people say ‘two thousand twenty one’ or ‘twenty twenty one’?” and as big as “Were numbers first visual marks or spoken words?” As a linguist and an anthropologist, that’s very attractive. Because there is a significant and large literature on numerical cognition, the comparative, historical data I bring to the table is useful for testing and expanding on our knowledge in that interdisciplinary area.

PL: You had the cover image and title for this book in your head for years. Can you explain the significance of the watch and why you chose the title “Reckonings” in the first place? What were you trying to get across to potential readers with that evocative word?

SC: The title ‘Reckonings’ invokes the triple meaning of the word ‘reckon’ — to calculate, to think, and to judge — which parallels the three parts of the subtitle: “Numerals, Cognition, and History.” Reckoning is not mathematics, in its technical, disciplinary sense, but it reflects the everyday practices of working with and manipulating numbers. Then, in English and in other languages, we extend the verb for calculation to thinking in general — to reckon thus involves the more general cognitive questions I hope I’ve addressed. Finally, we come to reckoning as judgement — every numerical notation faces its own reckoning as users decide whether to adopt, transmit, and eventually, abandon it. As I spend a lot of time talking about the obsolescence of numeral systems, most notably but not limited to the Roman numerals, I wanted to echo this decision-making process of judgement by which users decide to abandon one notation in favor of another. “Reckonings” signals that the book might be about arithmetic — but it’s about a lot more than that.

The cover image of the book is a watch designed by the French watchmaker Jean-Antoine Lépine in 1788, now held at the British Museum (BM 1958,1201.289). Lépine was one of the first horologists to consistently use Western (commonly called Arabic) numerals instead of Roman numerals for hour markers, but in the 1780s he made a number of watches like this one, where he instead playfully mixed the two systems. The hybridity on this sort of artifact is visually striking and memorable to the viewer, both then and now. But actually, it isn’t as weird as it seems; we combine numerical representations all the time, like when we write something like “1.2 million” instead of “1,200,000.” Unlike the Roman numerals alone, which would be visually ‘unbalanced’ on a watch, this hybrid system expresses every number from 1 through 12 in no more than two digits. To me it embodies the passage of time in material form and the replacement of the Roman numerals. By the 1780s, they had been replaced for most purposes, but watch and clock faces are one of the places where, even today, they’re pretty common. As a sort of metonym for this historical process, the Lépine watch highlights that the decline and fall of the Roman numerals was not a slow, steady, predictable replacement, but one with many disjunctures.

PL: At the book launch, you talked a bit about the future of number systems, but with the caveat that you are not a “Futurologist.” So I’ll ask you to put on a historian’s hat instead: What kind of cultural changes are necessary for a society to switch from one number system to another? It seems to me that significant changes would have to happen at least at the political and economic level for one numerical system to supersede another, right?

SC: One of the key arguments in “Reckonings” is that . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

28 July 2021 at 11:49 am

How Variation Can Trump Sensation and Lead to Overeating

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Food variety is a two-edged: eating a variety of foods reduces the risk of not getting enough of specific nutrients, but it also leads to eating food (and thus foods that are not calorie-dense — e.g., fruits and vegetables — are a good idea).

Written by Leisureguy

28 July 2021 at 11:13 am

Posted in Daily life, Food, Health, Science

The testimony from the police who stood against the insurrectionists

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Heather Cox Richardson:

This morning, the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol began its hearings with testimony from two Capitol Police officers and two Metropolitan Police officers.

After Representatives Bennie Thompson (D-MS) and Liz Cheney (R-WY) opened the hearing, Sergeant Aquilino Gonell and and Officer Harry Dunn of the Capitol Police, and Officer Michael Fanone and Officer Daniel Hodges of the Metropolitan Police, recounted hand-to-hand combat against rioters who were looking to stop the election of Democrat Joe Biden and kill elected officials whom they thought were standing in the way of Trump’s reelection. They gouged eyes, sprayed chemicals, shouted the n-word, and told the officers they were going to die. They said: “Trump sent us.”

Lawmakers questioning the officers had them walk the members through horrific video footage taken from the officers’ body cameras. The officers said that one of the hardest parts of the insurrection for them was hearing the very people whose lives they had defended deny the horror of that day. They called the rioters terrorists who were engaged in a coup attempt, and called the indifference of lawmakers to those who had protected them “disgraceful.” “I feel like I went to hell and back to protect them and the people in this room,” Fanone said. “But too many are now telling me that hell doesn’t exist, or that hell wasn’t actually that bad.”

The officers indicated they thought that Trump was responsible for the riot. When asked if Trump was correct that it was “a loving crowd,” Gonell responded: “To me, it’s insulting, just demoralizing because of everything that we did to prevent everyone in the Capitol from getting hurt…. And what he was doing, instead of sending the military, instead of sending the support or telling his people, his supporters, to stop this nonsense, he begged them to continue fighting.” The officers asked the committee to make sure it did a thorough investigation. “There was an attack carried out on January 6, and a hit man sent them,” Dunn testified. “I want you to get to the bottom of that.”

The Republicans on the committee, Representatives Adam Kinzinger (IL) and Liz Cheney (WY) pushed back on Republican claims that the committee is partisan.

“Like most Americans, I’m frustrated that six months after a deadly insurrection breached the United States Capitol for several hours on live television, we still don’t know exactly what happened,” Kinzinger said. “Why? Because many in my party have treated this as just another partisan fight. It’s toxic and it’s a disservice to the officers and their families, to the staff and the employees in the Capitol complex, to the American people who deserve the truth, and to those generations before us who went to war to defend self-governance.”

Kinzinger rejected the Republican argument that the committee should investigate the Black Lives Matter protests of summer 2020, saying that he had been concerned about those protests but they were entirely different from the events of January 6: they did not threaten democracy. “There is a difference between breaking the law and rejecting the rule of law,” Kinzinger observed. (Research shows that more than 96% of the BLM protests had no violence or property damage.)

The officers and lawmakers both spoke eloquently of their determination to defend democracy. Sergeant Gonell, a U.S. Army veteran of the Iraq War who emigrated from the Dominican Republic, said: “As an immigrant to the United States, I am especially proud to have defended the U.S. Constitution and our democracy on January 6.” Adam Schiff (D-CA) added: “If we’re no longer committed to a peaceful transfer of power after elections if our side doesn’t win, then God help us. If we deem elections illegitimate merely because they didn’t go our way rather than trying to do better the next time, then God help us.”

Cheney said: “Until January 6th, we were proof positive for the world that a nation conceived in liberty could long endure. But now, January 6th threatens our most sacred legacy. The question for every one of us who serves in Congress, for every elected official across this great nation, indeed, for every American is this: Will we adhere to the rule of law? Will we respect the rulings of our courts? Will we preserve the peaceful transition of power? Or will we be so blinded by partisanship that we throw away the miracle of America? Do we hate our political adversaries more than we love our country and revere our Constitution?”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) both said they had been too busy to watch the hearing. But the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, John Thune of South Dakota, called the officers heroes and said: “We should listen to what they have to say.”

Republicans are somewhat desperately trying to change the subject in such a way that it will hurt Democrats. Shortly before the hearing started, McCarthy House Republican conference chair Elise Stefanik (R-NY), who was elected to that position after the conference tossed Liz Cheney for her refusal to support Trump after the insurrection; and Jim Banks (R-IN), whom McCarthy tried to put on the committee and who promised to undermine it, held a press conference. They tried to blame House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) for the attack on the Capitol, a right-wing talking point, although she, in fact, has no control over the Capitol Police.

Shortly after the hearing ended, some of the House’s key Trump supporters—Andy Biggs (R-AZ), Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Louie Gohmert (R-TX), Bob Good (R-VA), Paul Gosar (R-AZ), and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA)—tried to hold a press conference in front of the Department of Justice, where they promised to complain about those arrested for their role in the January 6 insurrection, calling them “political prisoners.” The conference fell apart when protesters called Gaetz a pedophile (he is under investigation for sex trafficking a girl), and blew a whistle to drown the Republican lawmakers out.

This story is not going away, not only because the events of January 6 were a deadly attack on our democracy that almost succeeded and we want to know how and why that came to pass, but also because those testifying before the committee are under oath.

Since the 1950s, when Senator Joe McCarthy (R-WI) pioneered constructing a false narrative to attract voters, the Movement Conservative faction of the Republican Party focused not on fact-based arguments but on emotionally powerful fiction. There are no punishments for lying in front of television cameras in America, and from Ronald Reagan’s Welfare Queen to Rush Limbaugh’s “Feminazis” to the Fox News Channel personalities’ warnings about dangerous Democrats to Rudy Giuliani’s “witnesses” to “voter fraud” in the 2020 election, Republicans advanced fictions and howled about the “liberal media” when they were fact-checked. By the time of the impeachment hearings for former president Trump, Republican lawmakers like Jim Jordan (R-OH) didn’t even pretend to care about facts but instead yelled and badgered to get clips that could be arranged into a fictional narrative on right-wing media.

Now, though, the Movement Conservative narrative that  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

28 July 2021 at 9:55 am

Coaches who care more about winning than about the athletes they coach

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Byron Heath has an interesting post on Facebook:

This realization I had about Simone Biles is gonna make some people mad, but oh well.
Yesterday I was excited to show my daughters Kerri Strug’s famous one-leg vault. It was a defining Olympic moment that I watched live as a kid, and my girls watched raptly as Strug fell, and then limped back to leap again.

But for some reason I wasn’t as inspired watching it this time. In fact, I felt a little sick. Maybe being a father and teacher has made me soft, but all I could see was how Kerri Strug looked at her coach, Bela Karolyi, with pleading, terrified eyes, while he shouted back “You can do it!” over and over again.

My daughters didn’t cheer when Strug landed her second vault. Instead they frowned in concern as she collapsed in agony and frantic tears.

“Why did she jump again if she was hurt?” one of my girls asked. I made some inane reply about the heart of a champion or Olympic spirit, but in the back of my mind a thought was festering:

*She shouldn’t have jumped again*

The more the thought echoed, the stronger my realization became. Coach Karolyi should have gotten his visibly injured athlete medical help immediately! Now that I have two young daughters in gymnastics, I expect their safety to be the coach’s number one priority. Instead, Bela Karolyi told Strug to vault again. And he got what he wanted; a gold medal that was more important to him than his athlete’s health.

I’m sure people will say “Kerri Strug was a competitor–she WANTED to push through the injury.” That’s probably true. But since the last Olympics we’ve also learned these athletes were put into positions where they could be systematically abused both emotionally and physically, all while being inundated with “win at all costs” messaging. A teenager under those conditions should have been protected, and told “No medal is worth the risk of permanent injury.” In fact, we now know that Strug’s vault wasn’t even necessary to clinch the gold; the U.S. already had an insurmountable lead. Nevertheless, Bela Karolyi told her to vault again according to his own recounting of their conversation:

“I can’t feel my leg,” Strug told Karolyi.

“We got to go one more time,” Karolyi said. “Shake it out.”

“Do I have to do this again?” Strug asked.

“Can you, can you?” Karolyi wanted to know.

“I don’t know yet,” said Strug. “I will do it. I will, I will.”

The injury forced Strug’s retirement at 18 years old. Dominique Moceanu, a generational talent, also retired from injuries shortly after. They were top gymnasts literally pushed to the breaking point, and then put out to pasture. Coach Karolyi and Larry Nassar (the serial sexual abuser) continued their long careers, while the athletes were treated as a disposable resource.

Today Simone Biles–the greatest gymnast of all time–chose to step back from the competition, citing concerns for mental and physical health. I’ve already seen comments and posts about how Biles “failed her country”, “quit on us”, or “can’t be the greatest if she can’t handle the pressure.” Those statements are no different than Coach Karolyi telling an injured teen with wide, frightened eyes: “We got to go one more time. Shake it out.”

The subtext here is: “Our gold medal is more important than your well-being.”

Our athletes shouldn’t have to destroy themselves to meet our standards. If giving empathetic, authentic support to our Olympians means we’ll earn less gold medals, I’m happy to make that trade.

Here’s the message I hope we can send to Simone Biles: You are an outstanding athlete, a true role model, and a powerful woman. Nothing will change that. Please don’t sacrifice your emotional or physical well-being for our entertainment or national pride. We are proud of you for being brave enough to compete, and proud of you for having the wisdom to know when to step back. Your choice makes you an even better example to our daughters than you were before. WE’RE STILL ROOTING FOR YOU!

I’ve read a fair amount about the psychology of athletes and performers. It would be interesting to read more about the psychology of coaches — not how they employ psychology on their charges, but on the psychology that drives them — why some coaches are so willing to sacrifice an athlete to secure a win.

Written by Leisureguy

28 July 2021 at 9:47 am

Moving people about in cities

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Victoria has seriously adopted bike lanes, which are not universally popular — in fact, some people seem to find bike lanes completely offensive. But cities should accommodate a variety of forms of people movement:

It’s important to recognize that things change and diversity deserves honor and respect, whether among people (race, religion, sexual orientation, language, and so on) or among modes of transportation (or among music or literature genres, styles of clothing, and so on).

And speaking of moving people about: “This is what we’d call a “design challenge”. A 5 car-leg, 7 bicycle leg roundabout with a bidirectional cycleway, an at-grade train line, and a car underpass.”

And regarding the advent of electric cars, this chart was compiled by pulling Wikipedia data on early sales (beginning with the year of introduction) of the Ford Model T and the Tesla

Traffic control via street markings can work well, especially if the markings are well designed to convey information at a glance — zebra stripes for pedestrian crosswalks are one example; here’s another:

Written by Leisureguy

28 July 2021 at 9:16 am

Another artisan-only fragrance: Dark Chocolate

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With some fragrances I particularly notice the difference between the initial hit, when the fragrance is freshly applied, and the way it smells after the drydown. This is one of those fragrances: definitely dark chocolate from the lather and fresh out of bottle of aftershave, but later, after the aftershave has dried and settled in, it’s a different (and still very pleasant) fragrance altogether: warmer and darker. The same is true of (for example) Planet Java Hive: coffee and honey to start with, but transforms later into another fragrance.

This Rooney Victorian has a particularly nice knot, which I like a lot, though it feels nothing like the Omega Pro 48’s boar knot, which I also like a lot. I suppose it’s analogous to how raspberries (which I like a lot) taste nothing like collard greens (which I also like a lot): each has its virtues.

With a very nice lather working in tandem with Moisturizing Pre-Shave on the stubble, I set to work with my Dorco PL602, and since I shaved just yesterday with the RazorRock Baby Smooth, I had an opportunity for a direct comparison — and I have to say that, in terms of feel and performance, the PL602 edges ahead of the Baby Smooth.

Of course, in other ways, the Baby Smooth is superior — in aesthetics, for example, and also in lifespan. The PL602 is made of molded plastic which, over time, becomes somewhat brittle and breaks when (for example) you are changing the blade, whereas the Baby Smooth is made of aircraft-grade aluminum alloy or even stainless steel. But while the PL602 lasts…. man! what a great razor!

The PL60 was at one time available for $1.50 a copy, and I wish I had bought a dozen ($18, though a display rack of a dozen sold on ebay for $15). But those days are gone and they’re now hard to find and cost more — but they are still out there, and you really should give it a try (and not only give a try, but let me know what you think of it).

A splash of Dark Chocolate aftershave, balmified a bit with Hydrating Gel, and I’m ready for the day.

Written by Leisureguy

28 July 2021 at 8:49 am

Posted in Shaving

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