22 January 2022

The New York Times: “Epstein-Barr Virus may play Role in Multiple Sclerosis Development”

In their study, published Thursday in Science, the group examined data from 10 million people on active duty in the United States Armed Forces over two decades. The strength of their study, said its principal investigator, Dr. Alberto Ascherio, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, is that they were able to follow people for years and ask whether infections with Epstein-Barr preceded multiple sclerosis.

At the same time, the virus in question, Epstein-Barr, is common, infecting nearly everyone in the population at some point. Although few are aware that they were infected, some develop mononucleosis. The virus remains in the body for life.

Because so few who are infected with the virus get multiple sclerosis, it cannot be the sole cause of the disease. Other risk factors have been identified, including some, like low levels of vitamin D and smoking, that were seen previously by the Harvard group using the same data set. There also are genetic factors — 900 abnormal genes have been identified in patients with multiple sclerosis, said Dr. Anthony J. Reder, a multiple sclerosis expert at the University of Chicago, who was not involved in the new study. Gender also plays a role; most patients are women.

But, Dr. Ascherio said, no risk factor stands out like Epstein-Barr infections.

Gina Kolata

Another example of an endemic virus likely triggering debilitating diseases over the long term – just as some HPV strains are responsible for nearly all cervical cancer cases. One has to wonder what sort of medical complications current coronavirus infections will cause 5 to 10 years from now. Already studies point to conditions varying from increased risk of diabetes in children, to neurological symptoms similar to those who’ve undergone treatment for cancer following even a mild SARS-CoV-2 infection, to worsening mobility and physical function in people older than 50, to increased vascular damage resulting in blood clots and strokes. How so many latched onto this narrative that the current Omicron variant is somehow ‘mild’ and it’s OK that everyone will get infected is truly irresponsible.

20 January 2022

The Washington Post: “Djokovic is another whiny sports superstar with an exaggerated sense of entitlement”

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Djokovic was looking to game the system at the risk of putting people’s lives in danger. What makes this spectacle even more distasteful is the way that Djokovic’s supporters insist on casting him as the victim. His father, Srdjan Djokovic, claims that his overprivileged, overpaid son, who is staying at a Melbourne hotel used to house refugees and asylum seekers, is the “Spartacus of the new world” — a “symbol” of “poor and oppressed countries and peoples”.

How absurd. If Djokovic is Spartacus, then I’m Rod Laver. In truth, Djokovic is another whiny sports superstar with screwy ideas and an exaggerated sense of entitlement.

I hope that Australia deports him — and that he will not be allowed to enter the United States to play the U.S. Open unless he presents proof of vaccination. Just because sports stars are showered with rewards unknown to ordinary mortals doesn’t mean that they should be allowed to evade the (sensible) covid rules imposed on everyone else.

Max Boot

Speaking of accountability, I too am glad that this peculiar tennis-meets-coronavirus drama concluded with Djoković having his visa revoked and deported out of Australia. Exemptions from general rules for the rich and famous are never justified. In this situation it would be all the more unfair to the people who respected heavy travel restrictions for the past two years, some of them separated from family and friends for extensive periods.

19 January 2022

Reuters: “Tesla recalls almost half a million electric cars over safety issues”

The model years affected in the recall range from 2014 to 2021, and the total number of recalled vehicles is almost equivalent to the half a million vehicles Tesla delivered last year.

Around 200,000 Tesla vehicles will be recalled in China, the country’s market regulator said on Friday.

The U.S. electric vehicle manufacturer is recalling 356,309 2017-2020 Model 3 vehicles to address rearview camera issues and 119,009 Model S vehicles due to front hood problems, the federal regulator said.

Hyunjoo Jin

Turns out having a chaotic manufacturing process and an unpredictable boss do eventually have negative consequences. Evidently it’s not the first time Tesla issued recalls, struggled with glaring faults, or rolled back software upgrades, but to recall a year’s worth of deliveries is remarkable. The stock market though has blissfully ignored the signal, as it has done in the past, and Tesla’s stock barely moved on the news. Ironically, just days before this was announced, Elon Musk sold another $1 billion in Tesla shares (overtly to pay a massive anticipated tax bill) – almost as if he expected significant negative news around the company…

17 January 2022

Bloomberg: “Slaying the Blood Unicorn”

And so when Holmes was charged with wire fraud, it was for a mix of investor fraud and patient fraud. Jurors heard Theranos patients testify their blood-test results falsely led them to believe they had unhealthy conditions, but found Holmes not guilty on those counts. I don’t know why — I was not at the trial, and I certainly wasn’t in the jury room — but it seems plausible that Holmes was less personally culpable for those tests than she was for her own pitches to investors. But never mind that.

Instead, my point here is that if you do a fake blood test on a patient, you have arguably defrauded him (though Holmes was acquitted of that), but how much have you defrauded him really? Arguably the answer is quite a lot; arguably he is quite badly harmed by thinking he had a deadly disease and taking drastic steps to fight it, or thinking he did not have a deadly disease and missing the chance to fight it. But arguably the answer is $14.95, or whatever he paid for the blood test (I made that number up3): You were doing fraud for money, and the money you got from any one patient is fairly small. Whereas the money you got from Betsy DeVos was $100 million.

Matt Levine

Good to finally see some accountability in the Theranos case – although this reasoning for acquitting Holmes of defrauding the patients by strictly measuring how much each person paid for tests feels completely backwards to me. While investors lost millions of dollars in absolute terms by investing in Theranos, in relative terms this loss was barely a blip on their cash flow, whereas for individual people the anguish of a false positive or the damage of a false negative result may have impacted their lives heavily, regardless of the test cost. This way of thinking, estimating damages solely based on monetary loss, is a deep perversion of justice, putting the interests of the rich always above those of the rest of the citizens.

15 January 2022

Not Even Wrong: “Witten Goes Anthropic”

I ended up adding an additional chapter to the book about this, and covering developments closely here on the blog. For many years I found it impossible to believe that this pseudo-scientific point of view would get any traction among most leaders of the particle theory community. How could some of the smartest scientists in the world decide that this was anything other than an obviously empty idea? After a while though, it became clear that this was getting traction and that there was a very real danger that particle theory would come to an end as a science, with most influential theorists giving up, justifying doing so by claiming they now had a solid argument for why there was no point in trying to go further. String theory is the answer, but the answer is inherently unpredictive and untestable.

It has become clear recently that we’ve now reached that end-point. From the new video of his discussion with Rovelli, it’s clear that David Gross has given up. No more complaints about the multiverse from him, and his vision of the future has string theory solving QCD 80 years from now, nothing about it ever telling us anything about where the Standard Model comes from. Today brought an extremely depressing piece of news in the form of a CERN Courier interview with Witten. Witten has also given up, dropping his complaints about the string theory landscape:

Reluctantly, I think we have to take seriously the anthropic alternative, according to which we live in a universe that has a “landscape” of possibilities, which are realised in different regions of space or maybe in different portions of the quantum mechanical wavefunction, and we inevitably live where we can. I have no idea if this interpretation is correct, but it provides a yardstick against which to measure other proposals. Twenty years ago, I used to find the anthropic interpretation of the universe upsetting, in part because of the difficulty it might present in understanding physics. Over the years I have mellowed. I suppose I reluctantly came to accept that the universe was not created for our convenience in understanding it.

Peter Woit

Quite extraordinary for a scientist to openly state that the universe is beyond our understanding, embracing agnosticism and abandoning the scientific method, along with any hope for future developments and novel ideas. The poor state of fundamental physics seems to reflect wider trends in society towards nihilism, ignorance, and rationalizing predominant narratives instead of striving for better solutions.

13 January 2022

Bloomberg: “Podcasting hasn’t produced A New Hit in Years”

None of the 10 most popular podcasts in the U.S. last year debuted in the last couple years, according to Edison Research. They are an average of more than 7 years old, and three of the top five are more than a decade old (“The Joe Rogan Experience”, “This American Life” and “Stuff You Should Know”). Only a few podcasts in the top 50 (“SmartLess”, “The Michelle Obama Podcast”, “Frenemies”) are less than two years old. And none of them are in the top 25.

This trend vexes executives and producers across the podcasting industry, who worry they are wasting a lot of money on new shows. Spotify, Amazon, SiriusXM, iHeartMedia and outside investors have plowed billions of dollars into production companies. Spotify has spent more than anyone, paying about $500 million for three studios. Where is all this money going if these companies aren’t producing new hits?

Pretty much everyone agrees on the reason. There are more podcasts than ever before. Spotify hosts more than 3 million podcasts, up from a few hundred thousand just a few years ago. While the vast majority of those new shows are either defunct or have minuscule audiences, there are still way more podcasts than there were just a few years ago.

The number of new podcasts has grown more quickly than the podcast audience, and so the number of listeners per show is going down. The list of shows competing to be that program you try on your weekend walk is longer than the backlog of TV shows you want to watch.

Lucas Shaw

It seems to me that this last paragraph mainly sums up the answer to this dilemma: podcasts were perceived by many as a new opportunity for content creators, a medium unencumbered by Big Tech platform dynamics such as poor and inconsistent revenue sharing, opaque rankings and rapidly changing moderation policies, and the reliance on algorithmic ads. This led to a large influx of new podcasts, but the audience hasn't followed suit, because people’s attention is more easily captured by short-form videos on TikTok. These figures show that podcasting isn’t immune to the underlying forces of digital content creation, where top performers capture an overwhelming share of the audience – and of revenues.

11 January 2022

MSNBC: “Our Afghanistan exit won’t shatter U.S. credibility the way ditching the Iran deal has”

Where credibility matters most is in diplomacy, but Washington rarely exhibits the same level of concern when U.S. leaders diminish the value of America’s word. As American diplomat par excellence, William Burns, explains in The Atlantic, credibility in diplomacy is vital since America’s ability to mobilize other countries around common concerns is becoming more crucial in a world where the U.S. no longer can get its way through diktats. He asks, If our elected representatives won’t give a negotiated agreement a fair hearing, support it, or at a minimum avoid undercutting it even before the ink dries, why would any friend or foe enter into any kind of good-faith negotiations with the U.S.?

In a democracy, Secretary of State Antony Blinken asserted, there is no way to tie the hands of a future president. Essentially, he argued that America is inherently untrustworthy because it is a democracy, and that, contrary to what Mattis asserted, the U.S. does not have to honor its word. One would expect an authoritarian to make such a charge against a democracy and not the democracy to freely admit to it.

Blinken’s statement not only serves as perhaps the worst argument made for democracy, but it also contradicts liberal theories about the superiority of democratic governance in international relations. Democracies are considered more stable and pursue a more consistent foreign policy, whereas the abrupt leadership changes in autocracies also give rise to massive swings in policy. Moreover, because of the many domestic constraints leaders face, making promises that they do not intend to keep is more politically costly and thus less common, scholars of international relations conclude. This makes democracies more credible.

Trita Parsi

One might debate which event harmed US credibility more in recent years: unilaterally leaving the nuclear Iran deal, the January 6th events, or the retreat from Afghanistan, but that’s a somewhat irrelevant distinction, as the damage is cumulative over time. If the US may come and go from international treaties as they please depending on its president’s shifting views, then what value does NATO have going forward? What value do the current negotiations with Russia over tensions in Ukraine have? Or efforts to combat the pandemic and climate change?