Feline asthma

Cat asthma as a political argument to Republican pet owners.

This is about public policy, promise.

My elderly cat Hobbes now has a respiratory problem, as I do. It’s probably feline asthma. Cats get asthma like humans, while dogs don’t. One cause, say vets, is air pollution.

Credit: MeowValet on YouTube

The literature seems stronger on indoor air pollution than outdoor. Second-hand tobacco smoke is a culprit, as are wood fires and incense. I found a serious controlled Taiwanese study on indoor pollution making the link. The effect of outdoor pollution has been less studied for animals. One Mexican study creepily found similar lesions in the brains of big-city dogs to those found in humans with Alzheimer’s.

It seems safer just to rely on the parallelism in the symptoms and mechanisms of cat and human asthma, and the massive literature connecting the human form to air pollution, to conclude that all air pollution is bad for cats too. The effect is reinforced by the height difference: cats and dogs breathe in air at car exhaust level.

This hypothesis suggests a political strategy. In the USA, there are said to be 49.2 million households with a cat. There are 50.4 million with children under 18. That’s 39% each. I couldn’t find a combined breakdown, but let’s assume that the two are independent. That would give 30 million childless households with a cat. The real total will be different, but it’s still a very large number.

This demographic skews old, white and therefore Republican. It cares for its cats. It strikes me as a good argument to make to this group in favour of the energy transition and the GND that the policy will protect the health of their pets.

Some will say: this is ridiculous. Are there really a non-trivial number of voters who will be swayed by the health of cats but not the health of children? If there are, surely they are either “low-information voters” – idiots – or moral imbeciles, and lost causes in either case?

My answers are (a) quite likely and (b) no.

Let me make the case for the defence. The questions are linked by the broader issue of moral myopia.

Continue reading “Feline asthma”

Kavanaugh’s reputation destroyed in real time

Brett Kavanaugh is, as far as we can tell, a respectable and competent lawyer and jurist. He could have had a distinguished, or at least successful, career as a federal judge.  Now he’s the latest victim of Trump’s systematic, relentless, demolition of the honor and reputation of everyone within his reach.

He may well be confirmed, in which case he will find the appointment a thoroughly poisoned chalice.  Most important, he wears around his neck the stain, on both his character and his competence, that he was the first choice of a deliberately–obsessively–ignorant, hateful, narcissist. The guy who found him suitable for the job is a historically mendacious and malevolent fool, whose staff (what remains of the “best people”) spend half their time protecting the nation from his childish impulses and recklessness and the other half patching a bubble inside which he might float to the end of his term.  Trump’s understanding of the law and the constitution is well summarized by today’s whine that the criminal indictment of two Republican congressmen should have been put off until they were reelected this fall (or, I guess, forever).

He will also be the justice confirmed by the McConnell senate that cheated to substitute Gorsuch for Garland, and that was denied the documentation (i) necessary to evaluate his qualifications and competence (ii) that, when it comes to light during his lifetime appointment, is quite likely to throw serious shade on him (or why were those documents secreted?).  All we really know about him is that the reactionaries and troglodytes of the Federalist Society believe he’s just the guy to protect the rights of the richest to get richer and buy elections and policy, of industry to poison their neighbors and workers, and of Republican politicians to choose their voters. Not to mention, the guy to send women back to the coathanger era.

Poor Brett: if this comes out as it seems headed, he will forever be “the guy Trump nominated to fend off his impeachment”; one of his senate interlocutors wisely said “you will always have an asterisk next to your name”, which is right except that the asterisk will be an indelible and devastating blot. No respectable judge or lawyer will be comfortable citing his decisions; his influence will be restricted to hacks and stooges, and he’s smart enough that he will eventually realize this, but alas, too late.


Give to every man that asks of you…

I took a friend, my bro-in-law, and my daughter to Starbucks by Union Station. An apparently homeless man came in and asked us for money. I really didn’t want to engage him since I had my hands full at that moment. So I shoo’d him away, maybe a little more brusquely than I would like to have done.

My daughter, who has a sweet disposition, glared at me. She went running off after the man across the street down Monroe Street. I could see she had her wallet out and is holding a wad of bills. He was pointing down the street, and the two of them started walking away from where I can see them. I have my friend watch my bro-in-law, and I dash out and catch up with them. My daughter tells me that the man needs baby formula and wanted her to buy some for him at Target. He’s holding whatever money she just gave him. He’s a rugged looking guy, none to happy that I ran up like that. I explain that we don’t have time for her to go with him, but no-harm-done, we wish him the best, and we hope the $6 or whatever will be helpful. He walks off.

As we head back to Starbucks, I started saying all the obvious things about the need for street smarts when strangers ask for money. She was having none of it, and just said: “But Daddy, he looks tired and worn out. Who will help that man?”

“I don’t know, sweetheart.” And I put her onto her train.

The treason debate

The founding fathers set down a very specific definition of treason, partly because of a history of British monarchs beheading people with whom they were personally displeased for one reason or another on treason charges. Especially back when state, nation, and government were not well distinguished, nettling the king was easily treated as a capital crime.

Since adoption of the constitution, the legal, technical, operational definition of treason in the US has involved a (i) foreign (ii) enemy, and an enemy is a party with which we are at war.  Not just competing for arms sales or disliking for human rights violations or even mutually rattling nuclear weapons: at war.

OK, it’s technically wrong to accuse Trump of treason, at least in the sense that he might face a sentence from a court for his behavior; James Risen has a deep dive into this question here.  But we really need another word for what Trump is doing. I find it incontrovertibly evident, more than a year into the administration’s term, that Putin has a collar and leash on him and his calling a lot of shots. Trump’s inability to say a bad word, or even throw a teeny bit of shade at him, satisfy me as evidence of a financial chokehold, blackmail evidence of personal or financial behavior, or something else (or all of the above), and that he is basically a Putin stooge (whatever other revolting qualities he presents) fits comfortably with the news of Russian assistance to his election coming out today.

Is Russia an enemy? OK, maybe we need another word, but Putin doesn’t just want to sell more natural gas than we do, or even prevent Russians from listening to hip-hop: he wishes us ill, and the primary expression of this wish is that he has done everything he can to saddle us with a deliberately ignorant, racist, kleptocratic, mendacious, incompetent whose principal pleasures are being adulated and hurting the weak and unfortunate, and who has salted the government with liars, cheats, deliberate saboteurs like Pruitt and Devos, and completely incompetent bozos.

Some words have simultaneously a common, conversational but well-understood and serviceable, meaning and a specific, narrower, technical one in particular contexts. A vehicle is anything that rolls and carries people or stuff, including a riding lawnmower, but also a machine operating on the public ways and subject to traffic rules. My students can conspire to organize a surprise party for me, and conspiracy  is also a sharply defined criminal offense. I’m ready to (i) recognize treason as acting affirmatively against the welfare of one’s country in cooperation with, or in the service of, foreign interests, and at the same time the particular crime delineated in the constitution, and (ii) to characterize the governance of the Trump administration as treasonous in the first sense. If anyone has another word for that, the comment section is open.

The NY Times Posted a Lott of Crap

So John Lott is promoting guns again, this time in an op-ed piece in yesterday’s New York Times. But this time he’s taking a different tack. Some years ago Lott maintained that a survey he conducted on defensive gun use showed its benefits. However, no one could check it; he said that he lost the data in a hard drive crash – but he couldn’t even provide evidence that he hired and paid interviewers to perform the survey.

He also used published crime statistics to promote his idea that relaxed gun laws prevented homicide. He subsequently was found to have misused the statistics in, shall we say, “innovative” ways, to “prove” that more guns leads to less crime.

Abandoning data and surveys to promote guns, this time he uses a couple of anecdotes relating to individuals. That is, one person who was improperly denied a concealed carry license is more salient to him than the deaths of dozens of schoolchildren across the country.

I first encountered Lott when he began to use crime data improperly and wrote to him explaining the issues. When he did nothing about it, I wrote an article criticizing his research. To counteract my criticism, a woman named Mary Rosh started appearing on the web, who vilified me and who praised Lott as one of the best teachers she ever had. Then it turned out that Mary Rosh was a fiction, a persona created by Lott to debunk his critics. [He even implicated his four children: he admitted that the name “Mary Rosh” was cobbled together using the first two letters of his kids’ names.] In other words, he hid behind the skirts of a woman he created out of whole cloth, just to promote himself and his pro-gun ideology. Here is my take on his actions in 2003.

At the time Lott was a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, an organization with which he is no longer affiliated – which makes me look more kindly on AEI. Now he hangs his at the Crime Prevention Research Center, where he is president. I have no idea who funds this center, but I can guess. Those who want to learn more about the organization and Lott should read this article.

I realize that the New York Times is trying to do its best to look at both sides of controversial policies, but this really takes the cake. To publish a person who admitted to lying about his professional life, and who is writing about the policies he lied about, is offensive to me and should be to all those who look upon the Times as a credible source of information.

Cross-border election meddling and “whataboutism”

The Russian government intervened, overtly and covertly,  in the 2016 U.S. elections to damage Hillary Clinton and help Donald Trump. Whether the primary goal of that activity was actually to elect Trump, or instead merely to weaken Clinton in the event of her expected victory, isn’t really an answerable question.

The obvious things to say about this are:

  1. That was a wicked thing for Putin & Co. to do.
  2. Encouraging that help, accepting it, exploiting it, and subsequently covering it up was and is a wicked thing for Trump & Co. to do. It should mark everyone who engages in it and defends it as profoundly disloyal, and make all of them political pariahs.

The defenders of Putin and Trump make four responses: Continue reading “Cross-border election meddling and “whataboutism””

Perspective again

The best I can do this Christmas is to repost this effort of mine from six years ago. The theme of moral perspective is even more necessary today. As Dickens’ great fable reminds us, there are Christmases past and future as well as present, some for the worse, many for the better. Hold on.


For Kenneth Clark, it was ¨the greatest small painting in the world¨. It’s certainly a masterpiece – and a puzzle. Why did the Umbrian master Piero della Francesca choose around 1450 to paint an overworked stock subject, the Flagellation of Christ, in this extraordinary way?
(Warning: large page below the jump) Continue reading “Perspective again”

To Bind Our Future Selves

Many thinkers have analyzed the relationship between the person we are right now and the person we will become. A young Tom Schelling habitually went to bed without blankets only to wake up hours later as “cold boy” who cursed “warm boy’s” earlier decision but could not stop the next day’s warm boy from making the same decision again. Derek Parfit wondered why we save for retirement, given that the person we are 40 years from now might as well be a stranger to us.

In behavior change, the difference between the current and future self can be observed in the gym every January. Early in the month, resolution makers crowd the place, but within a few weeks their future selves will have undone their earlier resolve.

Probably no group of people struggle with this duality as much as those who are addicted to alcohol, nicotine, and other drugs. I write about their experiences and what new pharmacology can offer them — a chance to bind their future selves — today in STAT/Boston Globe.

Actually, Don’t Follow Your Dreams

I often listen to books on tape. The ones you pay for generally have excellent readers, like the magnificent George Guidall. But the free ones (e.g., through LibriVox) are of uneven quality. I am in the midst of listening to a famous Victorian Era novel through LibriVox, and some of the chapters are read by a woman with such a thick accent and poor command of English words and cadence that I keep laughing because her rendition reminds me of this Monty Python sketch.

But it’s no big deal. People can certainly read the book on their own if they don’t like someone else’s reading, and she’s not harming herself. She’s a volunteer doing something she finds intrinsically enjoyable in what I suspect is her retirement. Indeed I get the sense she really admires the author of the words she is mangling.

But it makes me think of a situation I and many other professors encounter where the stakes are much higher, namely when someone is at the beginning of their adulthood, and just not that good at what they want to do in their career. What is my or any other faculty member’s responsibility to the pre-med student who dreams of being a surgeon but is better suited to being a barber? What onus is on the high school basketball coach to tell his star player that he’s never going to be an NBA player, so he should focus instead on doing well in math, science and language class?

This is a very un-American topic to raise. “Gotta have a dream” American movies are a dime a dozen, and virtually all of them feature a scowling older person who tells our young hero/ine that s/he’s never gonna be a movie star/top athlete/brilliant scientist/successful musician etc. Most professors don’t want to be that scowling figure; it’s easier to tell everyone to go confidently in the direction of their dreams, even when we suspect it’s going to be a train wreck (Food for thought here: I never should have followed my dream).

A couple years ago I was talking to a high-ranking professional staffer at one of the country’s leading universities. I asked him how he chose his career, and he said he owed it all to the mentor who told him in graduate school that he was never going to achieve his ambition of becoming a chemistry professor at a great university. His mentor told him, compassionately, that he didn’t have the scientific chops or drive it took to make independent research breakthroughs, and that he would probably end up at a community college or low-tier 4 year college where he would be required to teach all the time (and he didn’t like teaching). He dropped out and is now in a very different but well paid and meaningful line of work. His tribute to his beloved mentor stayed with me: “Thank God he didn’t believe in me”.

I don’t claim certainty about how faculty can know in advance for which mentees unwavering support is the right medicine and for which it is cruel. But I do feel pretty confident that American academic institutions tend to worry less than they should about leading on optimistic, unrealistic, dream-chasing students.