31 October 2018

Cancer Doctors Discover Powerful Diet Drug

Researchers looking for a new cancer drug in mouse models found something else instead, a natural protein that caused obese mice to loose a third of their body weight in eighteen days with just eight treatments. It is on a fast track for human trials because proteins like this one that naturally exist in the body have a simpler FDA approval process.

The drug seems to work by powerfully influencing the metabolism of whomever takes it.

Three Kinds Of Depression

[S]cientists collected clinical, biological, and life history data from 134 individuals -- half of whom were newly diagnosed with depression and the other half who had no depression diagnosis- using questionnaires and blood tests. Participants were asked about their sleep patterns, whether or not they had stressful issues, or other mental health conditions. Researchers also scanned participants' brains using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to map brain activity patterns in different regions. . . . 
[T[he researchers identified a group of closely-placed data clusters, which consisted of measurable features essential for accessing mental health of an individual. Three out of the five data clusters were found to represent different sub-types of depression. 
The three distinct sub-types of depression were characterized by two main factors: functional connectivity patterns synchronized between different regions of the brain and childhood trauma experience. They found that the brain's functional connectivity in regions that involved the angular gyrus -- a brain region associated with processing language and numbers, spatial cognition, attention, and other aspects of cognition -- played a large role in determining whether SSRIs were effective in treating depression. 
Patients with increased functional connectivity between the brain's different regions who had also experienced childhood trauma had a sub-type of depression that is unresponsive to treatment by SSRIs drugs, the researchers found. On the other hand, the other two subtypes -- where the participants' brains did not show increased connectivity among its different regions or where participants had not experienced childhood trauma -- tended to respond positively to treatments using SSRIs drugs. 
This study not only identifies sub-types of depression for the first time, but also identifies some underlying factors and points to the need to explore new treatment techniques.
From here. The paper discussed above is:

Tomoki Tokuda, et al., "Identification of depression subtypes and relevant brain regions using a data-driven approach." 8(1) Scientific Reports 14082 (2018) (open access). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-018-32521-z

The money chart is here.

The study also makes findings about the two key binary factors identified and remission:
For the relationship between CATS and remission, our finding is consistent with the meta analysis of previous studies38, which clearly suggests that experiences of child abuse trauma have a negative impact on treatment of depression. The contribution of our study in this regard is that we were able to identify among a huge number of possible associations this specific association in an unsupervised manner without prior knowledge of feature selection. As for the medical causal relationship, recent studies suggest that treatment-resistant depression may be linked to release of pre-inflammatory cytokines, which can be caused by childhood adversity39,40. However, in our research framework, biomarkers of inflammation were not included, which prevents us from confirming this point. 
Concerning the key role of the angular gyrus (AG) in predicting remission, our finding is consistent with the results of a t-test on differences between TRD and non-TRD18,19. Unfortunately, these two previous studies are contradictory because the former study suggests that a higher FC is associated with TRD, while the latter study found that a lower FC is associated with TRD. Our result supports the former study. Moreover, recent studies have revealed that AG is related to several functions, such as semantic processing, default mode network, number processing, attention and spatial cognition, and memory retrieval41. Such multiple functions of AG are consistent with an fMRI study42, which suggests that AG is one of the major connecting hubs, together with the occipital and ventral-medial parietal. Nonetheless, these results of previous studies do not adequately explain the possible association between AG and remission of depression implied in our study. Further research is required for clarification of this point, which may provide useful insights into possible treatment of depressive patients by means of neurofeedback.
The paper sheds little insight on what distinguished the two clusters of control subject from each other that I could discern from reading the paper and the supplemental materials. 

What Triggers Religious Violence?

 The methodology is somewhat dubious so take it for what it is worth.
The findings revealed that the most common conditions that enable long periods of mutually escalating xenophobic tension occur when social hazards, such as outgroup members who deny the group's core beliefs or sacred values, overwhelm people to the point that they can no longer deal with them. It is only when people's core belief systems are challenged, or they feel that their commitment to their own beliefs is questioned, that anxiety and agitations occur. However, this anxiety only led to violence in 20% of the scenarios created -- all of which were triggered by people from either outside of the group, or within, going against the group's core beliefs and identity.
From here.

30 October 2018

Musings On Relevance And Litigation Expenses

This post was mostly written on November 12, 2015.


One of the most powerful ways to make courts reach reasonable fair decisions quickly and at a relatively modest cost is to narrow the scope of the evidence that substantive law considers to be relevant to enforcing rights and resolving disputes.


It is common place to blame lawyers or their clients for the fact that civil litigation is slow and expensive. But, a great deal of the blame really needs to be laid to placed upon the substantive and procedural law involved, and upon the underfunding of the public sector component of the judicial dispute resolution process.

Contrary to popular belief, the law is not simply a set of clear rules that can be called quickly and easily by a judge and all the participants, as players and umpires do in sports.

Often, the substantive law is inherently vague, setting forth standards rather than rules.  And, even when the law is not inherently vague, the proper application of the law to the facts is often ambiguous.

It doesn't help that civil procedure allows for clarification of how the law applies to a particular set of facts, in all but the clearest cases, until after all of the facts have been developed and presented to a tribunal.  Jury instructions, for example, are rarely finalized until all of the evidence in the case has been presented.

The rules of civil procedure generally allow the formal process of investigating the facts, known as "discovery" to extend not only to evidence that is relevant, but also to evidence that is reasonably calculated to lead to relevant evidence, even if it is not itself relevant to the dispute.

At a trial in a court, only relevant evidence is admissible, but the standard for what constitutes relevant evidence is a loose one, subject only to a handful of specific exceptions.

In an arbitration hearing, the standard for what evidence is considered relevant is loose indeed.  The American Arbitration Association rules, as they are usually applied, allow almost any evidence related in any way to the dispute to be considered, even if it does not meet the loose standard of relevance to an element of a legal theory applied in a court setting, on the theory that a legally trained arbitrator will not be swayed by legally irrelevant evidence.

Some of this bias towards loose rules of discovery (some judges sum up this attitude by saying that they are "full discovery" judges),  and loose relevance boundaries on the admissibility of evidence, is driven by underinvestment in judicial resources.

Judicial engagement in a case earlier on in litigation to carefully analyze the legal issues presented and to narrow the scope of discovery and subsequent hearing evidence only to the matters that are really legally relevant is much more time consuming than allowing the parties to exchange information and present evidence at trial with minimal judicial intervention, even if this dramatically increases the cost of the litigation to the parties.

Given the extreme emphasis on the finality of decisions in private civil litigation, and an even greater emphasis on finality in arbitration settings, rational litigants need to prepare for every possible interpretation of the law or determination that facts could be relevant, even if that possibility is fairly remote.  Presentations at trial, and pre-trial discovery and presentations, could be dramatically shorter, if judges and arbitrators made clear at the outset which of many ambiguous interpretations of the law regarding what is relevant were provided.

It is also the case, particularly in a court forum, that it often simply takes a long time for a judge to rule on pending matters particularly at the higher end of the judicial hierarchy in general jurisdiction trial courts and in appellate practice.  This isn't a case of judges being lazy.  It is simply a case of a systemic underinvestment in judges relevant to the benefit which society would receive from having enough judges to produce more prompt rulings and to have a great ability to be involved in a case at its early stages.

In those rare areas where the scope of what is relevant at a particular stage of a case is narrow and well defined, such as in a foreclosure or eviction hearing, or an action to regain possession of tangible personal property, hearings can be quite short, can be held quickly, and can be resolved quickly and inexpensively.

In part, this is also because those decisions are highly structured.  In a foreclosure or eviction hearing, for example, the sole inquiry is usually whether there is a default in payments or in other contractual obligations which justifies the remedy sought, not a determination regarding the exact amount owed, which is deferred to a later date if a breach of the agreement is found to exist.

Similarly, in criminal cases, which are often decided quite swiftly, the sole decision presented to a judge or jury at trial is usually whether a criminal statute has been violated in a single, well defined incident, not the punishment that is appropriate to impose if indeed this is the case.

Should Subprime Lending Die For Good?

This post is resurrected from a draft post written April 28, 2012 when the aftermath of the Financial Crisis was still fresh in our minds.

The subprime mortgage industry is dead. Should it die for good?

There are basically two reasons to object to subprime lending. First, the industry as it was conducted before the financial crisis is unsustainable. Second, the industry as it was conducted before the financial crisis relied on unconscionably luring borrowers into making objectively bad decisions from an economic perspective for most of its business.

Subprime mortgage lending should be revived only on a sustainable basis, and only in the narrow subset of transactions where the decisions borrowers are making to borrow money on this basis are not objectively bad ones from an economic perspective.

But, it is possible to reform the subprime mortgage lending industry to be sustainable with important, but relatively subtle modifications to its business model. Its underwriting standards need to be reformed, mostly by rethinking how the risk that the collateral will be insufficient to satisfy the loan in the event of a default is evaluated. The way that the subprime mortgage industry funds itself also needs to be changed to create simpler, more transparent mortgage backed securities whose risks are more clear and that have inherently less risk than those that the markets declared to be toxic.

Situations where subprime lending makes sense

It is also possible to identify categorically situations where subprime lending transactions do make economic sense for both the lender and the borrower, and to limit subprime lending to categories of loans, in some cases with terms necessary to make them appropriate to that category of loan, where the transaction is not objectively bad for the borrower.

These situations include:

(1) reverse mortgages to provide cash flow for the elderly while allowing them to remain in their homes,

(2) hard money lending on business and investment properties where the owner's income from sources other than the property is not the main source from which the loan is expected to be repaid,

(3) loans where (i) conventional loan refinancing is not available because the homeowner is in default or at a high risk of defaulting or has a hard to determine risk of defaulting, (ii) that replace existing secured or unsecured loans, and (iii) reduce the homeowner's effective interest rate, monthly payment, or both, (iv) that the homeowner believes he or she has a realistic change of paying, (v) that do not unduly increase the homeowner's obligations beyond those that would survive a bankruptcy.

(4) loans to people whose past bad credit was due to causes that are no longer present, have a present ability to pay the loan, and would not be better off renting a home,

(5) hard money loans for personal residences to people who can make a substantial down payment and would not be better off renting a home, and

(6) loans to people who have significant home equity, have no investments or lower cost source of credit from which they can obtain funds, urgently need funds for purposes that are practical necessities (such as medical care, bail, defense against serious criminal charges, a pending judgment or tax lien, etc.), and for whom selling their home is not an option that is available soon enough to meet the need or is for some other reason an unreasonable option.

The big constraint is that for first time subprime buyers, the cost of owning is often much greater than renting, mostly because rental rates reflect the prime credit interest rates of the landlords much more than they do the often subprime interest rates of the tenants.  Otherwise, subprime lending pretty much only makes sense for existing homeowners who have an interest in stability and face a "choice of evils" situation.

A subprime mortgage lending industry organized within these constraints would be much smaller than the industry as it existed before the financial crisis and would have a much different character. But, there is a good case that subprime mortgage lending should not die for good, but instead should be dramatically reformed. Indeed, the creation of a subprime mortgage lending industry that is available to meet subprime borrower's legitimate needs would be a positive development because it would discourage the development of more toxic subprime mortgage lending.

Is Subprime Lending Inherently Unstable?

As it was, was the financial crisis proof that subprime lending was an inherently unsustainable industry?

If the subprime mortgage industry is inherently unsustainable, it should die, for the same reasons that, for example, the Ponzi scheme industry should die, or Tulip mania had to collapse in Holland in 1637. Even if some people can profit from it, in the end it might be an inherently unstainable business model. The financial markets killed the subprime market because, as it was originized at the time, it was an unsustainable industry that was rotten to the core.

But, was subprime lending inherently unstable? Not necessarily. So long as its business model doesn't rely on rising asset prices and insists on enough equity or credit strength to buffer the harm to the lender if there is a default, it can be a sustainable industry, and with suitability rules incorporated into underwriting standards, it can even be non-exploitive.

But even though it is possible to organize a subprime lending industry on a sustainable basis (with government or private sector customary practices that prevent it from repeating the mistakes of its past business model, which itself would limit its scope somewhat), a recreated subprime lending industry should also be subject to regulation that would often make subprime lending unavailable in circumstances where it was most commonly used in the past.

Does Subprime lending prey on irrational decision making?

The main objection to subprime lending that liberal policy analysts like myself, who accept the conclusions of mainstream economics and have a healthy respect for the autonomy interests that market economics advance, have is not that subprime lending is inherently unsustainable. 

Liberal policy analysts, instead, are concerned that subprime mortgage lending, and many of its cousins like payday loans and rent-to-own transactions, lend mostly in circumstances where borrowers are making decisions that are objectively bad when viewed by a well informed third party observer, and are made only as a result of deceptive marketing and insufficient information that could be provided cheaply enough if someone had the right incentives to provide it.

When private business transactions are objective bad ones, a strong presumption arises that they are unconscionable, and there is a long common law and regulatory tradition that holds that unconscionable private contracts should not be upheld, or at least, should be enforceable in the courts to the extent that they are unconscionable despite the general rule that agreements reached between private parties create legally enforceable obligations.

Why did the subprime mortgage industry die?

The subprime mortgage industry died because: (1) the underlying mortgages were underwritten on the assumption that the property values that provided security for the mortgages would fall only slightly or increase in value, without sufficient regard for the risk created by a developing housing price bubble, (2) mortgage backed securities were created in ways that enhanced the risk inherent in the underlying mortgages that backed up these securities, and (3) credit rating agencies understated the risk involved in these securities causing them to be underpriced and causing them to be purchased by inappropriate investors.

Credit rating agencies understated the risk involved in these securities. They understated the risk because: (1) they too underestimated the risk that the mortgages would decline in value as a result of falling housing values when the housing bubble collapsed, and (2) they underestimated the counterparty risk involved in credit enhancing guarantees in the form of credit default swaps from third parties. They underestimate the counterparty risk because the credit default swap market and credit default issuers were insufficiently transparent for credit rating agencies to evaluate the risk. Credit rating agencies were also insufficiently aggressive in insisting on more accurate estimates of the risks that they underestimated because credit rating agencies had conflicts of interest arising from the fact that they were chosen and paid by the issuers of the securities to which they assigned credit ratings.

In theory, regulating disclosure in mortgage backed securities would solve the problems that caused its collapse, because the money to fund them would dry up when underwriting became reckless, but in practice, it is very hard to regulate anything that effectively.

The financial crisis was triggered when subprime loans soured in large numbers, and years later, the losses that the financial industry is suffering in the mortgage market overwhelmingly involves subprime loans, which are defaulting at astronomical rates.

The subprime industry was killed by the marketplace, not by government regulation, and the market was far more swift and decisive than government regulators. Investors divested themselves from the market so completely that the entire subprime and Alt-A mortgage lending industry almost entirely ceased to exist in a matter of months. Government regulation has since made it virtually impossible to resurrect the subprime mortgage industry on the business model that was in place before it crashed, but that regulation came after the industry was dead anyway, it was not the cause of the collapse which died without government regulatory intervention.

The investors weren't wrong.

"Planet Money," an NPR syndicated program about business issues, illustrated this point graphically by having their staff by a $1,000 "toxic asset." It was a complex mortgage backed security tied to the performance of a portfolio of mortgages with unexpectedly high default rates, but was still producing a small stream of interest payments. They named it "Toxi" like a mascot. They traced its life, interviewed people whose loans were included in the pool and tracked its returns. Last week, Toxi died, reaching a point where it would no longer ever make any more payments. Despite the fact that they bought Toxi at a 99% discount from the price it was originally sold to investors for of $100,000, they lost a little more than half their investment. The return on the original $100,000 of principal investment was less than $500.

Some of those mortgage backed securities really were horrible investments that lost a very large percentage of their value.

Most often this is because the securities were highly leveraged investments.

In some cases, mortgage backed securities had leverage that flowed from the collateral they held itself, because the collateral they held was made up of non-recourse or poor credit borrower second mortgages on part of the last 10% to 20% of assumed value of the loan, rather than first mortgage loans of the first 80% to 90% of the loan (often available from conventional commercial banks or government banked lending programs). This second mortgage collateral could be significantly impaired by even a modest decline in the value of the home that was collateral for the mortgage.

In other cases, the underlying assets weren't particularly highly leveraged, but a pool of loans was broken up into subpools of risk in which higher tier securities received paybacks only when lower tier pools were repaid in full. Thus, leverage was created from fundamentally sound underlying mortgage investments in the pool in the higher tier subpools.

Sub-Prime Mortgage Lending And Hard Money Lending

These mortgage backed securities were themselves examples of hard money lending. The ability of the loans to be repaid from the underlying mortgages that were collateral for the loans, while unrealistically high, was always in doubt. But, the mortgage backed securities received inflated credit ratings because in addition to the underlying mortgages they were also backed by guarantees from the originating mortgage finance companies, which were themselves big businesses sometimes with long track records, that default rates would not exceed a certain level, and from third party guarantors via derivatives called credit default swaps, who were themselves often reinsured by big established financial institutions like AIG., which the U.S. government eventually bailed out in exchange for 80% of its stock which the U.S. is now about to start reselling to the public in an effort to recover some of the money spent on the AIG bailout.

Investors in mortgage backed securities were making hard money loans backed by the ability of the underlying mortgage borrowers to repay, by the value of the houses that were collateral for those mortgages, by the ability to repay of the mortgage finance companies, by the ability to repay of the credit default swap issuers, and by the credit of the credit default swap issuers reinsurers. The soundness of these collateral and guarantee arrangements was then blessed by credit reporting agencies.

Not necessarily.

Banks take losses on loans only when both of the following two circumstances are present.

First, the borrower defaults, something that generally happens in the case of a recourse loan when the borrower is unable to repay the loan, or when there is a dispute over whether the loan is owed.

Second, the collateral securing the loan is worth less, on a distressed sale basis, after the costs of collection and the costs of disposition of the collateral, than the amount owed.

In California, which was the epicenter of mortgage losses when the housing market collapsed, and to a lesser extent in Florida, both of these conditions were absent in a huge number of loans.

The first condition didn't apply, because the loans were non-recourse, so borrowers had the ability to not pay mortgages, even if they had the ability to repay them and did not dispute that the debts were valid.

The second condition didn't apply because the loans were made against collateral valued at prices that had risen dramatically during a housing price bubble which then collapsed to amounts far below the purchase price, in the case of purchase money loans, or the appraised value, in the case of home equity loans.

Regulators and the market have responded to the massive failure to their collateral to prevent them from suffering losses by becoming much more strict about the first condition. Now, underwriters are usually approving loans only to people who can prove that they have an ability to repay their loans as they come due from their incomes.

In this business model, the collateral is as much an incentive for borrowers to prioritize payment of the debt as it is something that lenders are relying upon to make them whole if the borrower defaults.

The borrower's more than economic attachment to a personal residence, and the hard that a foreclosure does to a borrower's credit rating, along with the hope that losses from declining home values can be recovered if the home owner keeps the property until real estate values appreciate again, encourage borrowers who have an ability to repay not to default on upside down loans (i.e. where the house has a fair market value of less than the loan), even in states like California where the loan itself is non-recourse and they have the ability to simply send in the keys and walk away from the home.

But, the whole point of the subprime and Alt-A mortgage market was that lending to people who can't prove that they have an ability to repay their loans from their income can be good business too, since the second condition is true, even if the first is not.

At its greatest extreme, this kind of lending is called "hard money" lending. I've represented private lenders doing hard money lending. 

 For example, it makes sense to make this kind of loan to people who need a small amounts of money relative to the property value for legal and business expenses necessary to cure problems that make it unmarketable for legal reasons. I've also represented borrowers seeking hard money loans because their income is hard to document, for example, because they are relying on income from a loved one to whom they are not married.

There is a small network of affluent private individuals out there in Denver who make hard money loans for real estate developers who build spec houses, fix and flip, scape and increase density, or pop top and flip houses, all of which are basically different species of infill development in Denver. In these deals, what matters is that the proposed sales price after the development is realistic, that the costs and time frame for the improvements is realistic, that the purchase price of the property is sufficient low, and that the developers have enough business acumen and enough of a financial incentive to finish the deal. Sometimes the principals of the borrowers actually would have an ability to repay, but organize a limited liability companies to make the loans effectively non-recourse, and the private lenders agree because the economics of the hard money loan still make sense and they can charge a higher interest rate.

When the lender is primarily relying on the value of the collateral, and not the ability of the borrower to repay a loan, "no doc" or "low doc" lending (in theory, including so called "liar loans") can make sense, because the loan can be good business for the lender even if the loan defaults.

2018 Colorado Ballot Issue Polling

According to Ballotpedia based on a poll from October 12-17, 2018 with 800 surveyed (MOE 3.5%).
Issue 73 (add progressive income tax brackets for education): 58-42  
Issue 74 (inverse condemnation suits for state laws and regulations): 63-37  
Issue 75 (relax campaign limits in face of self-funding): 39-61 
Amendment Y (redistricting commission for Congress): 78-22 
Issue 111 (limit payday loans to 36% per annum interest rates): 84-16 
Issue 112 (increase oil and gas setbacks): 52-48
Most of the results are unsurprising. But, strong support for Issue 74 which is really bad is concerning. And who is behind Issue 74?
Two committees were registered in support of the measure: The Committee for Colorado's Shared Heritage and the State Ballot Issue Committee. The Committee for Colorado's Shared Heritage reported all of the support campaign's $10.1 million in contributions, 99.9 percent of which came from Protect Colorado—the committee registered to oppose Proposition 112.
The language of Issue 74 is as follows:
Section 15. Taking property for public use—compensation, how ascertained. Private property shall not be taken or damaged, or reduced in fair market value by government law or regulation for public or private use, without just compensation. Such compensation shall be ascertained by a board of commissioners, of not less than three freeholders, or by a jury, when required by the owner of the property, in such manner as may be prescribed by law, and until the same shall be paid to the owner, or into court for the owner, the property shall not be needlessly disturbed, or the proprietary rights of the owner therein divested; and whenever an attempt is made to take private property for a use alleged to be public, the question whether the contemplated use be really public shall be a judicial question, and determined as such without regard to any legislative assertion that the use is public.
This state constitutional amendment would put property rights ahead of all other values in every form of legislation and wreck havoc. But, if this polling is even remotely accurate, Issue 74 will soon become the law in Colorado.

28 October 2018

Trump Has Opened The Flood Gates Of Evil

There have been times in history when both parties were comparably engaged in corruption and misconduct. This is not one of those times. Right now, evil and the Republican party have never been more closely aligned. (I'm not the only one who thinks so.)

Fanning Domestic Terrorism

The far right holds a near monopoly on political violence (see also here):
Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project says that “if you go back to the 1960s, you see all kinds of left-wing terrorism, but since then it’s been exceedingly rare.” She notes that eco- and animal-rights extremists caused extensive property damage in the 1990s, but didn’t target people.
In just 72 hours this week a Trump zealot sent 14 pipe bombs in the mail to the enemies Trump has identified again and again in campaign rallies. A Neo-Nazi Trump follower killed eleven people and injured six more (including four police officers) at a synagogue in Pittsburg in the worst incident of anti-semitic violence in U.S. history. And, a white supremacist killed two African-Americans in a Kroger in Kentucky after the shooter couldn't manage to get into a locked black church. Earlier this week another white supremacist plotting a school shooting in Kentucky was thwarted based upon a Facebook post driven tip. Earlier this month, white supremacist threats caused a black female legislator in Vermont to resign from office. An Uber driver in Colorado Springs threatened to kill a Muslim passenger.

The atmosphere of politically motivated right wing violence and threats of violence is palpable in the mid-term election season this year.

He blamed the media and political figures targeted by the bomber for the violence directed at them. Trump and other conservatives argued absurdly that it was a false flag conspiracy. Trump blamed the synagogue for the massacre it experienced and has absurdly suggested that anti-semitic violence is a self-inflicted false flag operation

He is a stochastic terrorist. His routine endorsements of political violence in his rallies have predictably produced a wave of hate crimes. There has, for example, been a surge in anti-semitic violence since Trump was elected (also anti-semitic online harassment). Trump's unprecedentedly extreme tirades against the media probably also contributed to a mass shooting at a newspaper. Emboldened by Trump, white supremacists and Nazis have come out of the closet.

His rhetoric was already stirring up and motivating three men to launch a bombing campaign against Somali refugees two years ago on the eve of his election in Kansas (they were caught before they could carry out their plan). Some of his other supporters on the eve of that election burned down a black church.

He called the rallying Nazi's in Charlotte "good people" with blame on both sides, when one of those Nazis murdered a counter-protestor and committed dozens of other felonies. He has called himself a "Nationalist", and called for banning protests and shutting down newspapers.

Misconduct and Corruption

The list of corrupt activities that Trump has engaged in is a long one, which the New York Times summarizes.

One after another senior Republican affiliated with Trump has pleaded guilty to serious crimes. He endorsed for U.S. Senate an old man who'd had such a penchant for pursuing jail bait girls in his younger days that he had been banned from a mall who is also known for defying the U.S. Supreme Court's authority. The line between the Republican party organization and Neo-Nazi street gangs has blurred.

Trump lies, constantly, about almost everything, in easily provable ways. Trump has confessed on audio tape to sexual assault and allegedly has committed multiple sexual assaults, was denied a casino license in Australia for possible mafia connections, has settled a high dollar fraud cause involving Trump University (and is the subject of multiple other fraud allegations), and has paid off at least one mistress with whom he had sex while married to his current wife (having cheated on his previous two wives as well).

Brett Kavanaugh, his latest U.S. Supreme Court appointee, who has also lied to Congress, both in previous hearings and in his most recent confirmation hearing in provable ways, and has committed multiple sexual assaults, and didn't manage to keep his cool and a judicial demeanor in his confirmation hearing.

Support For Bad Actors Abroad

Trump tried to point blame away from the Saudi Arabian regime for the torture-murder of a Washington Post journalist in their Turkish embassy, in the face of overwhelming proof to the contrary. 

Trump is beholden financially to Saudi Arabia and Russia, both of whom have been treated well by his administration. His son in law is in close communication with the Crown Prince of the Kingdom. His son is also carrying water for them.

Aided And Abetted By Evangelicals

One has to go back to the antebellum and Jim Crow South to find a time period when a political faction was so indisputably evil.

Evangelical Christians, in contrast, have been evil since at least the Second Great Awakening that gave rise to their religious movement, and remain as committed to evil as they have almost always been, if not worse. Their most prominent leaders are constantly making the most deplorable pronouncements. Trump has stirred up pastors that support him to the point where they are urging people to assassinate liberal figures and develop a "more violent Christianity."

22 October 2018

The Death Of A Language

In Iceland:
Recent research shows an alarming rise in students under 15 struggling to read their own language. And they are picking up English at a much faster pace than before – it is not strange to hear them speaking it in the playground.
From the Guardian.

This is particularly notable against the backdrop that Iceland is somewhat famous in education circles for revolutionizing how it raises its children, going from a typical experience for children similar to that of working class kids in an Northern English industrial city (booze, drugs, unsupervised time and anomie) to the life of kids in shiny upper middle class American suburbs in less than a generation.

Kids in Iceland get in less trouble, have after school time filled with extra-curricular activities and family time, and are also losing a language that persisted for a thousand years before them.

Herpes Causes Alzheimers In Some People

Herpes is the dreaded 'gift that keeps on giving'. But could it also be taking our memories? Decades of research show a striking correlation between Alzheimer's disease risk and infection with Herpes Simplex Virus 1 (HSV1) in people carrying a specific gene. Now, newly-available epidemiological data provide a causal link between HSV1 infection and senile dementia -- raising the tantalizing prospect of a simple, effective preventive treatment for one of humanity's costliest disorders.
From here.

Alzheimer's disease isn't the only cause of dementia in the elderly, but it is probably the most common. And, while it may have more than once cause, some cases, at least, are caused by a Herpes infection that interacts with a particular gene. If this causes even a significant share of Alzheimer's cases, this dreaded disease could be greatly curtailed. And this may be a huge share of the cases:
"HSV1 could account for 50% or more of Alzheimer's disease cases," says Professor Itzhaki, who has spent over 25 years at the University of Manchester investigating a potential link. 
HSV1 is better known as the cause of cold sores. Itzhaki has shown previously that cold sores occur more frequently in carriers of APOE-ε4 -- a gene variant that confers increased risk of Alzheimer's. 
"Our theory is that in APOE-ε4 carriers, reactivation is more frequent or more harmful in HSV1-infected brain cells, which as a result accumulate damage that culminates in development of Alzheimer's."
Best of all, anti-viral drugs can be effective, even after someone is infected:
[A]ntiviral drugs drastically reduce risk of senile dementia in patients with severe herpes infections.
There is no herpes vaccine for reasons both commercial and technical, but the commercial reasons have involved the fact that even though two-thirds of adults in the world under age fifty have been infected with the virus, that it is often asymptomatic for long periods of time and has seemingly mild symptoms when it does manifest itself. But, like HPV, for which vaccination became a higher priority when we learned that it caused cancer and not just genital warts, an HSV vaccine may become a higher priority now that we know that it is so closely associated with Alzheimer's disease. 

The paper is:

Ruth F. Itzhaki. "Corroboration of a Major Role for Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1 in Alzheimer’s Disease." Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience (2018); 10 DOI: 10.3389/fnagi.2018.00324

This potential medical breakthrough that could have a massive impact on public health isn't unique either. For example, great progress is being made in the cheap and effective treatment of sepsis, another major killer in the First World.

Roundworms Can Double Their Healthy Lives With A Mix Of Drugs

A research team has discovered a combination of drugs that increases healthy lifespan in Caenorhabditis elegans. The team administered combinations compounds targeting different ageing pathways to C. elegans. Results showed that two drug pairs extended the mean lifespan of the worms synergistically, and combined with a third compound almost doubled mean lifespans, an effect larger than any lifespan extension previously reported for any drug intervention in adult animals.
From here.

Taking drugs that have been proved effective in roundworms and applying them to humans (or even other vertebrates like rats) can be a long time coming. But, this study is proof of concept that the biochemical aging process can be dramatically slowed down with a particular set of drugs. And, different animals often have more basic biochemistry, such as the biochemistry governing the aging process, in common with each other than they have physiology and anatomy in common.

Also some of the drugs in the mix are further along already: "previous experiments by other research groups showed that it extends the lifespan of many organisms, including the C. elegans worms, fruit flies and mice." Fruit flies have been given similar drug cocktails with positive results.

The paper is:

Tesfahun Dessale Admasu, et al., "Drug Synergy Slows Aging and Improves Healthspan through IGF and SREBP Lipid Signaling." 47 (1) Developmental Cell 67 (2018). DOI: 10.1016/j.devcel.2018.09.001

Quote of the Day

Miserable failure that I am, I evidently managed to live to the ripe age of 42 without knowing the difference between a TRS and a TRRS plug.
- Sabine Hossenfelder.

17 October 2018

Granulomatosis with polyangiitis

Today, I learned about a new, nasty autoimmune disease called Granulomatosis with polyangiitis (GPA). By analogy, M.S., is an autoimmune disease that causes the immune system to attack the myelin that insulates the nervous system, while GPA causes the immune system to attack the small and medium sized blood vessels that feed key organs like those in the upper respiratory system and the kidneys.

GPA was first identified as a condition by Heinz Klinger, a German medical student, in 1931. Several years later, a German pathologist, Friedrich Wegener, a nasty and unethical Nazi doctor, found additional cases and his name was associated with the disease until the medical community decided that he didn't deserve the recognition.

It had a two year survival rate of under 10% until the 1970s, when immune suppressant drugs and steroid based treatments have brought five year survival rates to 80% or more with some people living as long as twenty years or more after diagnosis. But, 86% of the time, survival comes with serious complications: mainly chronic kidney failure, hearing loss, and deafness. Also, like cancer treatments, GPA treatments often have serious side effects of their own. Remissions following treatment are common (75%), but so are recurrences (they occur in about 50% of people who experience remissions).

GPA afflicts about 1000 people a year in the United States. It affects men and women in roughly equal numbers. It is rare in African-Americans and in Japan. It appears to be most common in Northern Europe with an incidence of up to three and a half times that of the United States. GPA is most common in middle-aged adults, with an average age of onset between 40 and 65 years. It is rare in children, but has been seen in infants as young as 3 months old.

The cause of GPA is unknown, although germs, such as bacteria and viruses, as well as genetics, have been implicated in the biological mechanism by which the disease progresses. According to the Mayo Clinic:
No one knows exactly what causes granulomatosis with polyangiitis. It appears to develop after an infection or other inflammation-causing event triggers an abnormal reaction from your immune system. 
This reaction can lead to inflamed, constricted blood vessels and harmful inflammatory tissue masses (granulomas). Granulomas can destroy normal tissue, and narrowed blood vessels reduce the amount of blood and oxygen that reaches your body's tissues and organs.
It isn't easy to diagnose:

Initial signs are extremely variable, and diagnosis can be severely delayed due to the nonspecific nature of the symptoms. In general, rhinitis is the first sign in most people. Involvement of the upper respiratory tract, such as the nose and sinuses, is seen in nearly all people with GPA.Typical signs and symptoms of nose or sinus involvement include crusting around the nose, stuffiness, nosebleedsrunny nose, and saddle-nose deformity due to a perforated septumScleritis and conjunctivitis are the most common ocular signs of GPA; involvement of the eyes is common and occurs in slightly more than half of people with the disease. Other signs and symptoms include: 
  • Oral cavity: strawberry gingivitis, underlying bone destruction with loosening of teeth, non-specific ulcerations throughout oral mucosa

GPA came to my attention because author L.J. Smith (most famous for her "Vampire Diaries" series that was made into a long running television show) was diagnosed with it in 2015 at about age 49.

Trump Administration Effort To Screw For Profit College Student Loan Debtors Thwarted

This is a huge victory for students harmed by a flawed for profit higher education sector.
Students defrauded by for-profit colleges scored an important victory on Tuesday, when a court cleared the way for an Obama-era policy that will make it easier for them to get their student loans forgiven. 
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos had said the regulation, known as borrower defense, made discharging loans too easy and was unfair to taxpayers. The rule was due to take effect in July 2017, but DeVos froze it while she worked on devising a new regulation. 
But U.S. District Judge Randolph Moss ruled last month that DeVos’ delay was unlawful. On Tuesday, he denied a request by an organization representing for-profit colleges in California, to further postpone the rule, thus paving the way for borrower defense to enter into force. . . .
A progressive think tank estimates Tuesday’s decision will affect tens of thousands of students at over 1,400 schools who will now be eligible for $400 million in automatic debt relief across the nation.
From the Denver Post.

Of course, appeals will likely follow and could derail this win.

16 October 2018

Quote of the Day

Pain on pain on play, repeating
With the backup makeshift life in waiting. 
Everybody says that time heals everything.
But what of the wretched hollow?
The endless in-between?
Are we just going to wait it out?
- Imogen Jennifer Jane Heap

Quote of the Day

I've lived in a frat, I'm more than familiar with dudes who are into dudes.
From here.

15 October 2018

Class Rank Matters

People who are the top of their class in elementary school have better outcomes in school than people at the bottom, even compared to people of equal academic ability in absolute terms with a lower (higher) class rank.

From a practical perspective, this means you are better off starting you kids in school later rather than early, if you have a choice, because they will be more mature relative to other kids in their primary school classes.
This paper establishes a new fact about educational production: ordinal academic rank during primary school has long-run impacts that are independent from underlying ability. Using data on the universe of English school students, we exploit naturally occurring differences in achievement distributions across primary school classes to estimate the impact of class rank conditional on relative achievement. We find large effects on test scores, confidence and subject choice during secondary school, where students have a new set of peers and teachers who are unaware of the students’ prior ranking. The effects are especially large for boys, contributing to an observed gender gap in end-of-high school STEM subject choices. Using a basic model of student effort allocation across subjects, we derive and test a hypothesis to distinguish between learning and non-cognitive skills mechanisms and find support for the latter.
Richard Murphy, Felix Weinhardt, "Top of the Class: The Importance of Ordinal Rank" NBER Working Paper No. 24958 (Issued in August 2018).

The Trouble With The Science Of Healthy Living

We got every possible vaccination for our children. I get a flu shot every year. I almost always favor allopathic medicine (the kind M.D.'s practice) over the various "holistic" alternatives (e.g. over osteopathic medicine, herbal remedies, faith healing, homeopathy, chiropractic, acupuncture, etc.).

Bad, Evidence Based Nutrition Advice

But, some of the biggest, supposedly evidence based health recommendations of my lifetime have turned out to be unsupported as past evidence was critically reviewed and new evidence was gathered.

* The recommendation of a low fat diet has been almost universally discarded in the weight loss field in favor of diets that are low carb and high in green vegetables, mostly because few people can keep to a low fat diet and loss weight on a sustained basis, while many people can lose weight on a diet that focuses on lower carbs and relatively more proteins. The recommendation was based on low protein, high carb (on a percentage basis) diets in places like Japan during periods of dietary scarcity and accompanied by more physical activity, that didn't translate well to Americans.
Several recent systemic reviews show that high-fat diets produce greater weight loss than low-fat diets, when both groups in the trials are given equivalent support. 
Most importantly, reducing fat intake did not lower rates of cardiovascular disease in two major clinical trials, Look Ahead and Women's Health Initiative, whereas increasing fat intake in the Predimed Mediterranean diet study did. Consistent with these findings, a study this year found that people consuming a high-fat diet had 16% lower rates of premature death than those consuming a low-fat diet (although the type of fats played a significant role in determining risk). 
Responding to new evidence, the 2015 USDA Dietary Guidelines lifted the limit on dietary fat, unofficially ending the low-fat diet era.
* The recommendation of a low salt diet has been largely discredited.

* The recommendation of moderate alcohol consumption with a very large effect size (a reduction in cardiovascular disease by something on the order of 50%), accompanied by anecdotal evidence from France (where wine consumption is high and cardiovascular disease rates seem low relative to a very rich diet) and from many people who lived very long lives with moderate alcohol consumption as a habit. 

But, it turns out that the data was skewed by the fact that in American society a lot of people who consumer no alcohol at all do so due to a prior history of alcohol abuse that they are responding to, or because they take drugs for other health problems that don't interact well with alcohol. This is the so called "sick quitter" problem. New research shows essentially that no alcohol consumption is optimal from a health perspective.

* Low does aspirin regimes also had a very large effect size (a reduction in cardiovascular disease and some cancers by something on the other of 50% in a manner potentially cumulative with moderate alcohol consumption), but while this does have a powerful effect in people who are actually diagnosed with a cardiovascular disease, it is harmful in older people who have not been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease.
For decades, a daily dose of aspirin has been widely considered a way to protect healthy people from cardiovascular disease and even cancer. But a large international study finds that even at low doses, long-term use of aspirin may be harmful — without providing any benefit — for older people who have not already had a heart attack or stroke. 
The new research reinforces the results of a study published in late August, which found that daily low-dose aspirin was too risky to be prescribed to patients at moderate risk of heart disease. In the August study and the new one, researchers found a significant risk of internal gastric bleeding caused by the medication, which thins the blood. Older patients experienced no health benefits from taking aspirin, according to the new report, published Sunday in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Individually, these results revisions make sense. But, the initial discredited results screwed up the lives of tens of millions of people at a time over half a century or so, and seriously tarnishes the credibility of evidence based health recommendations in the process.

Finally, there is no serious doubt that sugary drinks like sodas make obesity more likelyNew studies have found that diet sodas are correlated with health risks almost as great as sugary sodas. But, those studies have almost identical flaws to the moderate alcohol consumption studies. Most people drink diet sodas because they are obese after a history of drinking sugary sodas. Obesity is bad for your health. And, lots of people who drink diet sodas nonetheless fail to lose substantial weight.

The Bigger Issue

The big picture issue is that a cultural mix of diet, exercise and patterns of daily life that persisted, sometimes for centuries, has been thrown out of whack by new conditions that most people have encountered in the modern developed world and the United States, in particular.

New agricultural methods, international trade, and affluence have made foods that were previously very scarce, like refined sugars and simple carbohydrates and red meats, easy and cheap for everyone to obtain, while technologies from widespread personal automobile ownership to computers and agricultural and factory automation, with changed urban planning patterns driven by these technologies, has also produced dramatically mode sedentary lives.

Try as we might, our patterns of diet, exercise, sleep and all other aspects of daily living have fallen into disequilibrium in this period of dramatic economic and technological change. But, try as we might to seek scientific guidance and to change our lifestyles (and food and tobacco consumption statistics for the U.S. show genuine significant mass responses to the latest public health recommendations of all kinds with a decade or two lag in most cases), we still haven't struck a comprehensive balance that can become a new tradition that is part of a new globalist, modern culture.

As a result, a lot people people are overweight and a lot more people are obese and morbidly obese with associated health problems like type two diabetes, cardiovascular risks, cancer and more.

In a couple of generations, we will probably as a society, strike a new balance of daily life traditions of eating and activity and other practices that make us all healthy, but we aren't there yet, although the latest rounds of reassessed evidence bring us closer than we were fifty years ago.

Of course, it may take longer, because the situation is still in flux.

New foods (like pea based meat substitutes and lab grown meats) are being created. New lifestyles (like intermittent fasting) are developing.

Considerations like the water demands of different kinds of foods, the environmental issues associated with petroleum based fertilizers and pesticides, and with toxic pesticides, the potential issues (thus far, with worries not realized) of genetically modified (GMO) foods, and the efficiency with which different foods convert energy and other resources into food, may put economic pressures on different mixes of foods that aren't yet present. World populations are growing, although they are leveling off as countries develop. Climate change and rising fossil fuel prices in the long run could also be relevant.

14 October 2018

The Serenity Prayer For Education

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
- Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) (there is more to the Serenity Prayer, but the first stanza it what is most widely remembered and what is relevant here).

The tendency of genetic investigation is to focus on what is hereditary, to identify who has hereditary traits and to what extent, and to determine the exact reasons why that is the case right down to the molecular level. But, really, from the point of view of an educator, and anyone making education policy, it is really more helpful to be mindful of the trait that have a low hereditary component, because those are the traits with respect to which an educator can make a difference to the greatest extent.

And, what are those traits?

By and large, they are traits that have to do, not with individual level psychology, like intelligence and personality, but with group level social matters, like language, one's religion (as opposed to one's religiosity), how people react to authority and interact in groups (like the capacity of groups of people to self-organize), and matters like how much people are comfortable with (or need) physical touching in non-sexual relationships.

Put more succinctly, the educational process has much more of a capacity to influence how people are socialized than it does to change, for example, their IQ.

By focusing on the possible, instead of expecting the impossible or extremely difficult to achieve accomplishments, from the educational system, we might be able to produce results that are more fruitful.

The Paradox Of Technological Progress And Societal Decay

Technologically, the world has never been more advanced. And, there is currently nothing so profoundly screwing up our world that this seems likely to be stopped, even if it may be slowed down by political mismanagement and negative cultural trends.

But, the larger context does look bleak. The economic gains from technology are concentrated with oligarchs. Trump and a Republican party that seems to have gone mad along with him is doing incredible damage to our country, our world and our culture. Looming trade wars, already partially in progress, threaten the global economy. 

Far right movements are making gains not just in the United States, but across Europe, in Hungary, Greece, Poland, Sweden, France, Italy and the United Kingdom. And, it isn't just far right movements. Russia has grown militant, ruthless and corrupt, has illegally annexed Crimea and is fighting an ongoing conventional proxy war in the Ukraine. The former Central Asian Republics of the Soviet Union have become authoritarian dictatorships.

China seems to be falling into a period of more severe totalitarian tendencies, ramping up censorship, persecuting dissidents and oppressing minorities in its frontier territories.

Saudi Arabia has a leader who on one hand seems to have some reformist tendencies, but on the other seems to condone some of the Kingdom's darkest tactics. Fundamentalist Islam may have retreated to a simmer with the defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, but battles for the fates of civilizations continue in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the African Sahel. Violent civil wars are ongoing in Syria and Yemen and Afghanistan. 

Venezuela has collapsed economically and much of Latin American is overwhelmed with gang violence, much of it fought with guns imported from the United States where they are loosely regulated and money from the ongoing drug trade. The Philippines is also riven with an out of control drug war and battles against Islamist insurgents.

Is there light at the end of the tunnel? What are we to make of a paradox in which science advances while society falls apart?

12 October 2018

Many Union Soldiers In The Civil War Were Immigrants

An interesting bit of civil war history that influenced the character of our Republic, at least in the North.
Here we arrive at one of the least appreciated factors in the equation that led to the Union victory: the military service of immigrants. Foreign-born recruits provided the Union army with the advantage it needed over its Confederate rival. An estimated 25 percent of the soldiers in the Union army (some 543,000) and more than 40 percent of the seamen in the navy (84,000) were foreign-born. If one includes soldiers with at least one immigrant parent, the overall figure climbs to 43 percent of the Union army… 
The demands of war meant that Union officials needed to appeal to immigrants. Military recruitment placards were printed in foreign languages; Union officials presented the war as part of a transnational struggle for republican government, thereby decoupling the idea of the nation from Anglo-Saxon Protestantism… 
The military service of the foreign-born did more than enhance the Union’s advantage in the field. It also transformed the politics of nativism in the United States. From the nativism of the 1850s, exemplified by Know-Nothingism and bigoted anti-Catholicism, the Union now moved in the direction of welcoming — indeed, encouraging — foreign arrivals. 
That is all from the new book by Jay Sexton, A Nation Forged by Crisis: A New American History.
From Marginal Revolution.

11 October 2018

A Republican High Water Mark?

The President is a Republican. The Republicans hold (thin) majorities in both the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate. There is a solid conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Two-thirds of state Governors with a party affiliation are Republicans.
[T]here are 33 Republicans, 16 Democrats, and 1 independent (Alaska) holding the office of governor. Additionally, there are 2 Republicans (Guam and Northern Mariana Islands), 1 Democrat (American Samoa) and 1 independent (U.S. Virgin Islands) holding offices in the U.S. territories; furthermore Ricky Rosselló (Puerto Rico) is registered with the New Progressive Party but nationally affiliated as a Democrat. The Mayor of the District of Columbia, Muriel Bowser, is a Democrat.
Republicans also have a solid hold on state legislatures relative to Democrats:
Republicans hold 1,000 more state legislative seats than Democrats, giving them control of two-thirds of state legislative chambers across the country. This election could shift the balance in some key states: 
Democrats are within five seats of reclaiming control of state Senates in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Maine, New Hampshire, New York and Wisconsin. 
The party is only a handful of seats away from winning control of lower chambers in Michigan and New Hampshire, too.
This is really pretty stunning from the perspective of someone who sees the Republican elite as awash with criminals, frauds, and crazies with no seriously sensible policy agenda, and a serious deficit in self-identified Republicans including big deficits among women, young people, and almost every non-white and non-Christian demographic.