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Saturday, February 27, 2021

On science in a "democracy"

From a Science Magazine editorial:
Science, civics, and democracy
   Michael J. Feuer

Will the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris—a transition made “orderly” with barbed wire, National Guard soldiers, and the closure of downtown Washington, D.C.—be remembered as an inflection point? After 4 years of boorish incivility, incendiary nativist extremism, a crippling pandemic, resurgent racism, and riotous mobs incited to attack the Capitol, can the United States rebuild its civic and moral infrastructure? To repair the damage and prepare the next generation of citizens and leaders requires a new spirit of cooperation between the science and civics education communities.

About 30 years ago, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, the publisher of Science) recommended major overhauls of science education. The drive for reform confronted partisan conflicts along the way, but the good news is that more students today benefit from stimulating instruction in many subjects. Now the country must sustain this momentum for progress in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) while heeding the call for more attention to civics, the humanities, and the foundations of democratic pluralism.

This is not a zero-sum competition...
What ingredients should be included in this recipe for reform? Policy-makers and legislators must acknowledge the effects of economic inequality on educational outcomes and invest resources to protect disadvantaged youth. Research on disruptions caused by the pandemic shows that, on average, American students in K–12 experienced less “learning loss” than anticipated, but for disadvantaged and minority children, the setbacks were substantially worse. This is no surprise to researchers who study the effects of poverty and racism on achievement. A strategy to raise average performance in STEM while shrinking the variance would help instill an ethos of the common good—a core aspiration of civics.

Good science education means equitable science education... Research on the origins of bias and its effects is bringing new ideas into the development of methods to combat discrimination in K–12 schools, colleges, and universities. Again, good science and good citizenship are mutually reinforcing...

Certainly, not every young person will become a practicing scientist, but every student should appreciate the processes of scientific inquiry and its uses. In the United States and other countries, relations between the scientific community and government can be tense. But today, the United States is suffering from years of distrust for evidence—about the pandemic, climate change, racism, immigration, and the economy. Let's integrate into hands-on STEM education some hands-on learning about objective inquiry as a cornerstone of American democracy and the preparation of a well-informed citizenry.

President Biden says he is determined to restore dignity to government and trust in science. Miguel Cardona, the nominee for Education Secretary, is a seasoned educator whose path from poverty to leadership exemplifies the possibilities even in the nation's fractured system. The country must work with them toward the inseparable goals of scientific excellence and fulfillment of our noblest egalitarian dreams.
To that end...
LinkReport (pdf).

Is Something Happening Here?

In 2016, The Economist’s Democracy Index downgraded the United States from “Full Democracy” to “Flawed Democracy,” a disturbing demotion that has not  reversed. In the 2019 edition of “Freedom in the World,” the United States earned a disappointing 86/100 score in the leading indicators of democracy and freedom, placing 52nd of 194 countries – significant slippage compared to just a few years ago. The report cites “partisan manipulation of the electoral process, bias and dysfunction in the criminal justice system, flawed new policies on immigration and asylum seekers, and growing disparities in wealth, economic opportunity, and political influence” as  evidence of democratic decline…

Lawrence, Susan. Grown-up Civics: Important Things You’ve Forgotten Since High School (p. 7). Kindle Edition.
$1.99 Kindle price, well worth ii. Extremely well written. A great refresher resource—for us old coots and gen-z'ers alike. Focused on the US polity, but "civics" has a long multinational cultural history, one going well beyond "democracy."

I'm about 2/3rds through the book. Beyond a thorough explication of the structure, mechanics, and history of US governance, she does not shy away from illuminating, cogent commentary.

The forces that sort American society are not hard to  identify. They are what they have always been: race and  money. Weaponizing the former and monopolizing the latter maintained social cohesion throughout much of  American history. Today, the “cultural warfare” being waged by those who traditionally benefitted from that social order and those who are challenging it is generating blistering friction.

While the United States has never been an ethno-state, it is accurate to say that historically, government operated in the interests of the white (particularly male) population. From colonial planters to 19 th century robber barons to the office suites of “Mad Men,” the political and economic dominance of white males was secure and WASP culture prevailed. While this social arrangement left out large populations, it unified the majority. It still does, but the  push-back by outliers is growing bolder and the white majority is shrinking.

The disruptive “culprits” are immigrants and racial minorities principally, but also groups that deviate from historical norms or are seen as their allies (feminists, the LGBTQ community, non-Christians, the “politically correct”). White nationalists talk of race suicide and “replacement” and accept conspiracy narratives that claim orchestration by Jewish masterminds (thus, the chant “Jews  will not replace us!” repeated ad nauseum at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia). Predictions of impending “civil war” play on the same resentments. Rage of this magnitude is a minority view, but is amplified by social media and is taking a heavy civic toll. Is this new? Not at all. Is it disruptive? Most certainly. Is it damaging to American society? Absolutely. Is it an existential threat to American democracy? It is. If we allow it to be..
. [pp. 82-83]

Finished the book Highly recommended.

Exigent in a time of overlapping, "Concurrent Pandemics."
See also

"The most shameful moment in the history of U.S. science policy"

A few noteworthy recent cautionary reads. BTW: How do "civic norms" fit into this topic?

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

"Global Health" data initiative

Let's hope this bears fruit.

Per STATnews:

Last January, Samuel Scarpino wasn’t sure what to make of Covid-19. The director of Northeastern University’s Emergent Epidemics Lab, he, along with every other epidemiologist in the world, was trying to interpret the earliest data on the new virus.
He was soon pulled into working on a spreadsheet, started by a group of international epidemiologists, to collect and openly share granular data on individual Covid-19 cases around the world. Today, that project launched its complete website,, which will enable open access to more than 5 million anonymized Covid-19 records from 160 countries. Each record can contain dozens of data points about the case, including demographics, travel history, testing dates, and outcomes.
The project is supported by $1.25 million in funding and other resources from, with additional support from the Rockefeller Foundation, and is led by academics from the University of Oxford, Harvard, Northeastern, Boston Children’s Hospital, Georgetown, University of Washington, and Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security...
Looks very promising. We shall see. 5 million case-level records sounds like a lot, until you necessarily begin to recursively stratify (But, then, it is also true that a "large N" is no panacea out of the gate—i.e., the risks of "spurious 'statistical' significance" yielding little to no clinically actionable significance).

503,438 Americans were unavailable for comment.

Monday, February 22, 2021

9,800+ US Covid-19 deaths per week for 51 weeks

500,000+ dead in 51 weeks.*
4.3% of world population.
25% of world cases.
20% of fatalities.

*And, probably an undercount.

Friday, February 19, 2021


While the Texas Senator @TedCruz family luxuriates in Cancun.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

US Covid-19 pandemic a full year out

A year ago I began posting on what became the Covid pandemic. Where we are now:

Daily US new cases ("incidence") are finally abating subsequent to Q420 (charts updated thru Feb 14th). US fatalities now approach 500,000—139,000 since New Year's Day 2021 through Feb 14th. Notwithstanding that daily new US cases are in decline, there were still 7.54 million from New Year's Day thre Feb 14th.

90% of all of this misery avoidable, in my view.

I've not left the house since Feb 7th when we got our first Covid shots (Moderna). Getting a lot of reading done, and loving being the "Graycare" staff for our now-13 month old utter delight grandson Calvin.

From a Science Magazine review:
In a digital, global world where information is projected to double every 12 hours, the memorization of facts will become less of a commodity than the ability to think, find patterns, and generate new ideas from old parts. Thus, a cradle-to-career approach to educating children must be mindful of how children learn to learn, not just what they learn. Combining insight, scientific acumen, and exquisite narrative, The Intellectual Lives of Children allows readers to peer into the minds of infants, toddlers, and preschoolers as they explore and learn in everyday moments, emphasizing what constitutes real learning.

Children are bursting with playful curiosity. By age 3, they ask questions about everything they see—Why does a tree have leaves? Why does the Sun come up each day?—and by age 5, they pose even deeper questions, about God and morals. These questions not only provide fodder for knowledge, they help children discover the causal relationships among things—all with adult mentors by their side.

Children also need time to explore. One child might collect dead things like worms and slugs, and another, assorted leaves of different shapes and colors. These collections, Engel argues, become treasured resources for the discovery of patterns, and they invite even more inquisitiveness. Indeed, the adults who guide this exploration by asking questions themselves reinforce curiosity and innovation. Hidden in these playful encounters are rich opportunities for learning…
UPDATE: Just finished it. Excellent. News Grandaddy Can Use.
I'll be cross-referencing it with this one.


Imagine this: instead of sending a four-hundred-pound rover vehicle to Mars, we merely shoot over to the planet a single sphere, one that can fit on the end of a pin. Using energy from sources around it, the sphere divides itself into a diversified army of similar spheres. The spheres hang on to each other and sprout features: wheels, lenses, temperature sensors, and a full internal guidance system. You’d be gobsmacked to watch such a system discharge itself.

But you only need to go to any nursery to see this unpacking in action. You’ll see wailing babies who began as a single, microscopic, fertilized egg and are now in the process of emancipating themselves into enormous humans, replete with photon detectors, multi-jointed appendages, pressure sensors, blood pumps, and machinery for metabolizing power from all around them.

But this isn’t even the best part about humans; there’s something more astonishing. Our machinery isn’t fully preprogrammed, but instead shapes itself by interacting with the world. As we grow, we constantly rewrite our brain’s circuitry to tackle challenges, leverage opportunities, and understand the social structures around us.

Our species has successfully taken over every corner of the globe because we represent the highest expression of a trick that Mother Nature discovered: don’t entirely pre-script the brain; instead, just set it up with the basic building blocks and get it into the world. The bawling baby eventually stops crying, looks around, and absorbs the world around it. It molds itself to the surroundings. It soaks up everything from local language to broader culture to global politics. It carries forward the beliefs and biases of those who raise it. Every fond memory it possesses, every lesson it learns, every drop of information it drinks—all these fashion its circuits to develop something that was never pre-planned, but instead reflects the world around it…

Eagleman, David. Livewired (p. 3). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

David Eagleman rocks.


Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Incitement of insurrection?

Donald Trump's 2nd impeachment trial began on Feb 9th. This is the opening evidentiary video presented by the House (NSFW: repeated obscene vulgarity, graphic violence).
UPDATE: YouTube removed the video, notwithstanding it being public evidence of a constitutional High Crime. House Manager Rep. Jamie Raskin's opening remarks. We'll see if they suppress those as well.

UPDATE2: Now YouTube has rescinded the total removal, opting for "this video is age-restricted and only available on YouTube," with an external link.
We know there was a "riot." We know its mob-mentality intent was that of pro-Trump "insurrection." Is Donald Trump therefore constitutionally culpable, in light of his repeated indendiary "incitement" rhetoric?
My 2 cents after Senate impeachment trial day two.

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Mobile information technology: surveilling Ronnie Vincent

In 2019, a source came to us with a digital file containing the precise locations of more than 12 million individual smartphones for several months in 2016 and 2017. The data is supposed to be anonymous, but it isn’t. We found celebrities, Pentagon officials and average Americans.

It became clear that this data — collected by smartphone apps and then fed into a dizzyingly complex digital advertising ecosystem — was a liability to national security, to free assembly and to citizens living mundane lives. It provided an intimate record of people whether they were visiting drug treatment centers, strip clubs, casinos, abortion clinics or places of worship.

Surrendering our privacy to the government would be foolish enough. But what is more insidious is the Faustian bargain made with the marketing industry, which turns every location ping into currency as it is bought and sold in the marketplace of surveillance advertising.

Now, one year later, we’re in a very similar position. But it’s far worse.

A source has provided another data set, this time following the smartphones of thousands of Trump supporters, rioters and passers-by in Washington, D.C., on January 6, as Donald Trump’s political rally turned into a violent insurrection. At least five people died because of the riot at the Capitol. Key to bringing the mob to justice has been the event’s digital detritus: location data, geotagged photos, facial recognition, surveillance cameras and crowdsourcing…

The data we were given showed what some in the tech industry might call a God-view vantage of that dark day. It included about 100,000 location pings for thousands of smartphones, revealing around 130 devices inside the Capitol exactly when Trump supporters were storming the building. Times Opinion is only publishing the names of people who gave their permission to be quoted in this article….

This is Ronnie Vincent
We traced a phone inside the Capitol to Mr. Vincent’s home in Kentucky. Confirming his identity led us to his Facebook page, where we found a few photos of him standing on the steps of the building during the siege. Another photo shows a crowd standing in front of the Capitol, its doors wide open...

A bracing long-read, replete with an eerie animated graphic of the January 6th "Stop the Steal" mob march on and insurrectionist storming of the U.S. Capitol building.
Unlike the data we reviewed in 2019, this new data included a remarkable piece of information: a unique ID for each user that is tied to a smartphone. This made it even easier to find people, since the supposedly anonymous ID could be matched with other databases containing the same ID, allowing us to add real names, addresses, phone numbers, email addresses and other information about smartphone owners in seconds.

The IDs, called mobile advertising identifiers, allow companies to track people across the internet and on apps. They are supposed to be anonymous, and smartphone owners can reset them or disable them entirely. Our findings show the promise of anonymity is a farce. Several companies offer tools to allow anyone with data to match the IDs with other databases...
"While some Americans might cheer the use of location databases to identify Trump supporters who converged on the Capitol, the use of commercial databases has worrying implications for civil liberties..."
Ya think?
I've been onto privacy issues for a long time—since grad school and before.
Anyone recall "Total Information Awareness" in the wake of 9/11?
This NY Times piece concludes:
"Americans deserve the freedom to choose a life without surveillance and the government regulation that would make that possible. While we continue to believe the sentiment, we fear it may soon be obsolete or irrelevant. We deserve that freedom, but the window to achieve it narrows a little more each day. If we don’t act now, with great urgency, it may very well close for good."

Monday, February 1, 2021

#Covid19: Where are we now? Where are things headed?

7.1 million new US cases in January 2021, along with 95,000 US January deaths [per JHU data]. The daily new case count ("incidence") has clearly begun to decline of late. But, these trend lines tend to go down or up until they no longer do. Extrapolating from them has limited value. 

Interesting regularly episodic "sawtooth" variability in the mortality graphic. Gotta be administrative reporting logistics.
Been a full year since this new SARS-Cov2 virus hit us here. 103 million cases world-wide, with 2.2 million global deaths, more than 441,000 of them in the US since the pandemic arrived.

Again, we are 4.3% of global population, yet we currently account for 25.4% of cases, and 19.8% of Covid deaths.
Interesting WaPo article on Trump, the pandemic, and the 2020 election
My Twitter reaction:
I first devoted a post to the incipient pandemic in Feb 2020. What a year.