John Green on emergencies versus long-term problems

Novelist and vlogger John Green very succinctly raises the point that humans are often pretty good at dealing with emergencies but often a lot less good at dealing with long-term problems. (But see below.)


Of course, John Green has previously said things that at least seem to contradict what he says here. The UN's Millennium Development Goals, for example, represent attempts to address long-term problems, and a pretty respectable amount of progress has been made, as pointed out by none other than John Green in a video I referenced in this post from 2015.

He's elsewhere talked about unexpected good news from poor countries and how even 2016 had its good points.

But Green isn't really contradicting himself. We humans probably don't do as well with chronic problems as we do with those that can be addressed and fixed more fairly quickly. We ought to pay more attention to the serious problems that exist and haven't yet been adequately addressed. At the same time, some people are working hard on a lot of long-term problems and in a lot of cases getting good results. It's reassuring to know that a lot of seemingly huge and unsolvable problems actually can be addressed and at least mitigated.

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The immigration debate and Trump's misconceptions

The immigration debate is still going on in Congress and may lead to another government shutdown. Part of the problem is that President Trump keeps changing his position, and as the following clip demonstrates he seriously (in fact, bizarrely) misunderstands at least some important points, such as the so-called visa lottery:


As the video also points out, the administration has also wildly misrepresented so-called "chain migration," the false notion that anyone with a green card can immediately start bringing in family members who in turn can bring in still other family members, and so on. In reality, family visas are granted only to immediate family members, and it can easily take a decade, even two decades, for one of these visas to be granted. The chain, to the extent that it exists at all, barely moves.

Most recently President Trump claimed, in an interview with CNBC's Joe Kernen, that he was not to blame for ending DACA, asserting, "And by the way, the court -- it wasn't me. The courts were not upholding that executive order." DACA -- Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals -- is an executive order issued by President Obama. It allowed persons illegally brought to the United States as children to stay here temporarily provided they met a number of conditions, including registering with the federal government. Some lawsuits have been threatened on the theory that Obama overstepped his authority, but no courts have ruled against it, and in fact earlier this month a federal district court temporarily suspended Trump's order doing away with DACA. The Trump administration is appealing that district court ruling the Supreme Court.

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A scientific sea shanty about insulin

Here's a sea shanty from the A Capella Science YouTube channel about the discovery of insulin. The song's first-person narrator is a man named Leonard Thompson, who is dying of pneumonia but who would have died over a decade sooner had he not been the first person ever treated with insulin using an approach invented by Frederick Banting.


The full lyric can be found at the link above. Here's some background:

A century ago childhood diabetes was a terminal illness, but in 1920 a surgeon named Frederick Banting came up with an idea for treating it. There was evidence that something produced in the pancreas, or more specifically in clusters of cells called the islets of Langerhans, and Banting had an idea for extracting that substance from the pancreas of an animal. He persuaded John Macleod at the University of Toronto to give him and a colleague access to research facilities to experiment on his idea, and though Macleod was skeptical he allowed Banting to give it a try. Banting, along with a medical student named Charles Best, succeeded in extracting the secretions of the islets of Langerhans first from dogs and then from cattle.

The substance was successfully used to treat diabetic dogs. The team brought in a biochemist named Bertram Collip to work on a way to purify the substance so that it could be tested on humans and in early 1922 it was, on a 14-year-old boy named Leonard Thompson who was near death from diabetes. The injection proved successful, and Thompson lived another 13 years before dying of pneumonia.

Macleod suggested naming the purified secretions from the islets of Langerhans "insulin," from insula, the Latin word for "island." The following year Banting and Macleod were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Banting thought the prize should have gone to himself and Best, so he split his share of the monetary award with Best, and Macleod to his credit split his with Collip.

(For more on the history see this page on the Nobel Prize and this one on Leonard Thompson.

Finally, the music is borrowed from a shanty by Stan Rogers, "Barrett's Privateers," which you can listen to here:


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Do people overreact to minor sexual misconduct?

There are a lot of real jerks out there, most of them men, who harass and worse their students, employees, or just those they happen to run into. The good news is that a lot of these people -- Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, and a long list of others -- have finally started paying a pretty serious price for their actions.

There's a wide spectrum of bad behavior here, from rape to groping to stupidly clumsy flirtation (think Howard in early seasons of The Big Bang Theory). About a week and a half ago blogger Kevin Drum did a quick survey of his readers (link) and found that they tended to rate different sorts of conduct about the same in terms of seriousness, and that at least among his readers, men and women rated the degree of seriousness quite similarly. That's of course not a random sample, but my guess is that a larger, more scientific survey would turn up pretty similar results.

But that hasn't stopped some people from insisting that people stop lumping everything together as equally bad, and other people treating that as an attempt to minimize the harm of lesser sorts of misconduct, sometimes in terms that come close to implying that everything amounts to rape. In fact, I've on occasion seen claims of high rates of rape in college based on surveys of how many students report unwanted sexual touching, which could mean an unwanted arm on the shoulder. Touching someone who doesn't want to be touched is offensive and shouldn't be trivialized, and neither is it rape, and I think the vast majority of people agree with that.

Here are a couple of tirades from people who specialize in opinionated humorous political commentary. I watch them both from time to time and find them both usually very funny and sometimes very irritating, the latter explaining why I don't watch them more. It's interesting to see the difference of opinion and the enthusiastic audience response to both. Curiously, they have almost diametrically opposite opinions on this and yet I'd say both have some valid points to make.

Anyway, here's Bill Maher:


And here's Samantha Bee:


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Get your dang flu shot

As you surely know by now, this influenza season is turning out to be very bad. This is mainly because the predominant type of flu virus this year mutates rapidly, making the vaccine less effective.

But "less effective" doesn't mean "ineffective." It still helps, and when you get vaccinated that doesn't help just you but other people to whom you might otherwise pass on the virus. With most insurance the shot is free, and you can get it not just at your doctor's office but in drugstores and even many supermarkets.

The flu season often extends into May, so it's got weeks to run. Unless you're allergic to eggs or otherwise shouldn't get vaccinated, go ahead and get a shot. It rarely does more than make your arm a little sore. And the vaccine can't give you the flu.

(I've known people who say that they caught it from the vaccine, but what they mean is that they got vaccinated and then shortly afterward contracted the flu. What happened was that they got vaccinated and then happened to catch the flu. It takes a week or two for the vaccine to take full effect, so it's not at all unlikely that you'd be infected by bad luck right after getting a shot.)

Don't take my word for it. Listen to pediatrician and medical school prof Dr Aaron Carroll:


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About that increased standard deduction...

If you've paid any attention to news coverage of the new Republican tax law, you've probably heard that the standard deduction is being doubled. But did you know that personal exemptions are going away?

This means that if you're a single taxpayer without dependents who doesn't itemize deductions, your savings will amount to under $200 as a result of increased standard deduction. it's roughly double that for married couples filing jointly.

Why is that?

In tax year 2017 (that is, having to do with your income during 2017) your standard deduction is $6350 for single individuals, $9350 for heads of households, or $12,750 for married couples filing jointly. For 2018 it's increasing to $12,000 for individuals, $18,000 for heads of households, and $24,000 for married couples filing jointly. (The standard deduction is higher for both years for those who are over 65 for have certain disabilities, and it's lower if someone else claims you as a dependent, but I'm not wading into that swamp right now.)

But for tax year 2017 you are able to subtract an additional $4050 personal exemption for yourself and each dependent, regardless of whether you itemize deductions or claim the standard deduction. That's not the case for tax year 2018.

The net result is that a higher standard deduction will mean fewer people itemizing, but not that much in tax savings. The tax savings of consequence come mainly from somewhat lower tax rates. And, of course, most of the savings will end up in the pockets of the very wealthy.

For more detailed information, see the website of the Institute for Tax and Economic Policy here.

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The new CFPB head sides with payday lenders

Lower income people dealing with unexpected expenses often turn to companies that offer very short-term loans. These businesses are commonly known as "payday lenders" since the loans are typically meant to last just until the next payday.

This isn't at all a bad thing in itself, but payday lenders typically charge astronomically high fees and interest, with rates often over 100 percent per year and even has high as 900 percent, rates that would embarrass even a credit card company. Many borrowers end up unable to repay the loan entirely and have to get an extension, which costs even more money. They end up paying many times the amount they originally borrowed.

Yes, ideally, people shouldn't get themselves into such fixes to start with, but in the real world people do, and many of these companies are there to take advantage of them. Previously this was one of he specialties of organized crime, known as loan sharking, but banks and other financial institutions appear to be out-sharking the sharks.

Some states, such as North Carolina, have tried to crack down on corrupt payday lenders, but some of them have escaped state regulations by being owned by a federally chartered national bank. The federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, created a few years ago to protect people from predatory lending and other dishonest practices of the big banks, had started cracking down on payday lenders, but Trump installed a new head of the organization, Mike Mulvaney, who opposes its existence. He has received a lot of campaign money from payday lenders, and has recently acted to protect them from law enforcement, including ending ongoing actions against wrongdoing by the companies.

There's a lot more to it than I want to try to cram into one blog post, but here are some recent and relatively short articles from credible sources that describe Mulvaney's actions and why they're harmful to consumers:

"Under Trump Appointee, Consumer Protection Agency Seen Helping Payday Lenders" by Chris Arnold, published January 24 by National Public Radio

"Mick Mulvaney Says the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Works for Payday Lenders, Too" by Jordan Weissman, published January 23 by Slate

"'Legalized loan sharking': payday loan customers recount their experiences" by Joanna Walters published January 22 by The Guardian

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Tariffs on solar panels make no sense

President Trump has announced a steep 30 percent tariff on Chinese solar panels supposedly to protect U.S. businesses from cheap Chinese competition. (The tariff falls to 15 percent after four years.)

The remaining U.S. solar panel manufacturers are happy with the administration's actions, but the rest of the country's solar power industry is worried that higher prices will result in a fall in demand and a significant net loss of jobs As an article published today by The Guardian points out:

The Solar Energy Industries Association said 23,000 jobs would be lost in 2018, pointing out that most solar manufacturing in the US revolves around making parts for cheaper imported panels, rather than the cells and panels themselves.


“It boggles my mind that this president – any president, really – would voluntarily choose to damage one of the fastest-growing segments of our economy,” said Tony Clifford, chief development officer of Standard Solar, which finances and installs panels.

Bill Vietas, president of RBI Solar, which makes mounting systems for panels, added: “The US solar manufacturing sector has been growing as our industry has surged over the past five years.

“Government tariffs will increase the cost of solar and depress demand, which will reduce the orders we’re getting and cost manufacturing workers their jobs.”

If the goal was to help U.S. businesses and workers in the solar power industry, there's a good chance the higher tariff will find up doing the opposite.

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