Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Secrets of Math From the Bee Whisperer

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Scarlett Howard has taught honeybees how to add, subtract and understand zero. Their ingenuity suggests that all animals may have more mathematical talent than we thought. – photo credit: Anne Moffat for Quanta

Susan D’Agostino writes in Quanta:

carlett Howard teaches math to honeybees. She began with a few hives on a concrete balcony at RMIT University in Melbourne, when she was a doctoral candidate in zoology. Today, at the University of Toulouse, where she is a postdoctoral fellow, her lessons take place in a small field with approximately 50 hives.

It might seem a little strange — bees are insects, after all; what do they know about mathematics? A lot, it turns out. These eusocial flying insects can add, subtract and even comprehend the concept of zero.

“You can see their decision-making process in their movements and flight patterns,” Howard said. While deciding which of two answers is correct, they often fly toward one of the solutions before seeming to think better of it and flying off toward the other.

Howard teaches one bee at a time, placing it next to an apparatus known as a Y maze, a covered box shaped like a block letter Y. The bee enters the bottom leg of the Y and sees a mathematical question, expressed in shapes and colors. In the arithmetic lessons, blue shapes mean “add 1” to the given number of shapes, and yellow shapes mean “subtract 1.” To answer the question, the bee chooses from one of two possible solutions posted at the entrances to the Y’s upper arms. The bee will find a reward — sugar water — in the arm associated with the correct answer, and a punishment — tonic water, which bees find bitter — in the arm with the incorrect answer.

To teach bees about zero, she first trained them to understand the concept of “less than.” As with the addition and subtraction problems, she offered reinforcements for correct choices. Once an individual bee demonstrated it understood “less than,” she advanced that bee to the testing phase of her experiment, where it would decide if any number of shapes is less than zero shapes — a number the bee had never encountered before. Each bee had only one chance to answer. The bees often identified “zero shapes” as smaller than any number of shapes, and Howard concluded that they must possess an innate understanding that zero is smaller than any positive integer.

For each experiment, Howard trains and tests approximately 100 random bees from the thousands in her hives. Handling them is simple enough. After each correct choice, the bee flies back to the hive on its own, to offload its sweet reward. Then, at some point, it’ll come back. That’s because bees are central place foragers, meaning they will remember the experiment and return to it for additional resources. To prepare for her next pupil, Howard changes the stimuli on the Y maze. She has hundreds, possibly thousands of stimuli printed and laminated.

“They’re laminated so we can clean them with ethanol, because bees will scent-mark,” said Howard. “They’ll do anything to cheat the tests. They’re smart! They’ll mark the correct answer. Bees are not as simple as we used to think they are. Or even as some people still think they are.”

Quanta Magazine recently spoke with Howard about her research. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What first inspired you to research bees’ mathematical abilities? Were you a fan of the bugs?

I had always been really scared of bees. But when I was at university in Australia, Adrian Dyer, who works on bees’ cognitive abilities, told me, “Bees can do really cool things. They can recognize human faces and navigate mazes.” I thought, “Really? Is that true? I want to see that for myself.” So I pitched the idea of working on bees’ cognitive abilities to my potential Ph.D. supervisors.

We thought, “We can do something either really high-risk/high-reward, or we can do something less risky but less interesting.” We tried something risky first — whether bees could understand zero at the same level as some primates and birds do.

Most animals know, for example, whether or not they have “some food” or “zero food” in front of them. Do bees really possess more than this basic understanding of zero?

Bees are able to place zero within a numerical continuum. They know that zero is less than 1, it’s less than 2 and it’s less than 3. They also know that zero is more “less than 6” than it is “less than 1.”

Many animals have difficulty with zero. The number 1 might have been the lowest number they’d ever seen. When we got positive results from that experiment showing that they knew zero is lower than any positive integer, it was really exciting to see.

Of course, different bees have different processes of learning. Some do really well from the beginning. Some are really quite bad. You see this moment where they start to get things more and more right. You don’t want to anthropomorphize them too much, but it’s really incredible to watch how they learn.

Wait — some bees are better at math than other bees? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 January 2020 at 2:29 pm

Posted in Daily life, Math, Science

Trump Pushed for a Sweetheart Tax Deal on His First Hotel. It’s Cost New York City $410,068,399 and Counting.

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Andrea Bernstein reports in ProPublica:

In 1975, New York City was run-down and on the verge of bankruptcy. Twenty-nine-year-old Donald Trump saw an opportunity. He wanted to acquire and redevelop the dilapidated Commodore Hotel in midtown Manhattan next to Grand Central Terminal.

Trump had bragged to the executive controlling the sale that he could use his political connections to get tax breaks for the deal.

The executive was skeptical. But the next day, the executive was invited into Trump’s limousine, which ushered him to City Hall. There, he met with Donald’s father Fred and Mayor Abe Beame, to whom the Trumps had given lavishly.

Beame put his arm around the Trumps. “Anything they want, they get,” Beame said, as recounted by Trump’s first biographer, journalist Wayne Barrett.

Trump got an unprecedented 40-year tax break. According to new figures given to us by the New York City Department of Taxation and Finance, the break has cost the city $410,068,399.55 in forgone revenue to Trump and the hotel’s subsequent owners. The break ends this April.

In “The Art of the Deal,” Trump said there was a reason for the 40-year deal: “Because I didn’t ask for 50.”

Trump got it over the misgivings of some state officials. The former chairman of the state economic development agency, Richard Ravitch, recalled in an interview that Trump approached him in December 1975. Trump, who had ties to Gov. Hugh Carey, “started raising his voice, and threatening me, and said, ‘If you don’t give me a tax abatement, I’m going to have you fired.’ I said, ‘Get the fuck out of here.’”

Ravitch was not fired, but the state agency did approve the break. Trump has said the decision was made on the merits.

“Really the story of Donald Trump, rather than this Horatio Alger figure, this is a guy who managed to learn how to turn politics into money,” said Barrett during a 1992 WNYC interview, the same one in which he told the Beame story. (Barrett died on Jan. 19, 2017, on the eve of Trump’s inauguration.) . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 January 2020 at 12:23 pm

The IRS Decided to Get Tough Against Microsoft. Microsoft Got Tougher.

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Paul Kiel reports in ProPublica how the US government has become an accomplice if not an errand boy for big business::

Eight years ago, the IRS, tired of seeing the country’s largest corporations fearlessly stash billions in tax havens, decided to take a stand. The agency challenged what it saw as an epic case of tax dodging by one of the largest companies in the world, Microsoft. It was the biggest audit by dollar amount in the history of the agency.

Microsoft had shifted at least $39 billion in U.S. profits to Puerto Rico, where the company’s tax consultants, KPMG, had persuaded the territory’s government to give Microsoft a tax rate of nearly 0%. Microsoft had justified this transfer with a ludicrous-sounding deal: It had sold its most valuable possession — its intellectual property — to an 85-person factory it owned in a small Puerto Rican city.

Over years of work, the IRS uncovered evidence that it believed laid the scheme bare. In one document, a Microsoft senior executive celebrated the company’s “pure tax play.” In another, KPMG plotted how to make the company Microsoft created to own the Puerto Rico factory — and a portion of Microsoft’s profits — seem “real.”

Meanwhile, the numbers Microsoft had used to craft its deal were laughable, the agency concluded. In one instance, Microsoft had told investors its revenues would grow 10% to 12% but told the IRS the figure was 4%. In another, the IRS found Microsoft had understated revenues by $15 billion.

Determined to seize every advantage against a giant foe, the small team at the helm of the audit decided to be aggressive. It used special powers that the agency had shied away from using in the past. It took unprecedented steps like hiring an elite law firm to join the government’s side.

To Microsoft and its corporate allies, the nature of the audit posed a dire threat. This was not the IRS they knew. This was an agency suddenly committed to fighting and winning. If the aggression went unchecked, it would only encourage the IRS to try these tactics on other corporations.

“Most people, the 99%, they’re afraid of the IRS,” said an attorney who works on large corporate audits. “The other 1%, they’re not afraid. They make the IRS afraid of them.”

Microsoft fought back with every tool it could muster. Business organizations, ranging from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to tech trade groups, rallied, hiring attorneys to jump into the fray on Microsoft’s side in court and making their case to IRS leadership and lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Soon, members of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, were decrying the IRS’ tactics and introducing legislation to stop the IRS from ever taking similar steps again.

The outcome of the audit remains to be seen — the Microsoft case grinds on — but the blowback was effective. Last year, the company’s allies succeeded in changing the law, removing or limiting tools the IRS team had used against the company. The IRS, meanwhile, has become notably less bold. Drained of resources by years of punishing budget cuts, the agency has largely retreated from challenging the largest corporations. The IRS declined to comment for this article.

Recent years have been a golden age for corporate tax avoidance, with massive companies awash in profits routinely paying tax rates in the single digits, or even nothing at all. But how corporations manage to do this and keep the IRS at bay is mostly shrouded in secrecy. The audit process is confidential, and the IRS, for all its flaws, simply doesn’t leak. Microsoft’s war with the IRS offers a rare view into how a giant company maneuvers to avoid taxes — and how it responds when the government tries to crack down. ProPublica has reconstructed the fight from thousands of pages of court documents, information obtained through public records requests and accounts from current and former IRS employees.

Microsoft declined to discuss its taxes in any detail. In response to extensive questions provided in writing, the company said it “follows the law and has always fully paid the taxes it owes.”


In 2010, the IRS announced that it was creating a new unit to audit international, intra-company deals. Tech, pharmaceutical and other giants had figured out how to use these dubious deals to avoid taxes on a colossal scale. It was hardly a secret: News articles had detailed how GooglePfizer and others saved billions. Senate hearings ensued.

Despite the publicity, nothing changed. The trend, which had taken off in the 2000s, intensified. The losses to the U.S. Treasury in uncollected taxes ran well into the hundreds of billions of dollars. In 2016 alone, according to an estimate by economists including Gabriel Zucman of the University of California, Berkeley, U.S. corporations avoided $61 billion in taxes by sending profits to tax havens.

The concept was simple. A U.S. company sold its most valuable asset — for a tech company, its intellectual property — to a subsidiary in a place (Ireland, Singapore, Puerto Rico, etc.) where the tax rate was extremely low.

The details of these deals were monstrously complex, making it difficult for the IRS to prove they were done solely to dodge taxes. Essentially, the IRS had to argue that the company had set the wrong price for its intellectual property. And to do that, the agency had to understand the company, its markets and its prospects top to bottom. It was a near-impossible task, and the IRS suffered some key losses in court, which only emboldened companies to stake out even more aggressive positions.

In 2011, the IRS picked Samuel Maruca to lead the new unit. A partner at the prominent law firm Covington & Burling, Maruca had spent decades advising corporations on “transfer pricing,” as this area of tax is called, and facing off against the agency on audits. He came to the job, he said, to help fix a broken system.

Maruca is the picture of a tax lawyer (thinning hair, glasses). But unlike many of his colleagues, he expresses himself clearly, sometimes in moral terms. He told peers at industry conferences that the nation’s corporations had grown excessively bold. “We would all benefit,” he said, “from a resurgence of moderation and heightened regard for principle.”

To restore balance, the IRS “must produce some winners,” he said. “I really want to make a difference.”

Maruca built a team of about 60 — agents, attorneys and economists — with half recruited from outside the agency. For the IRS, this was a notable influx of talent. But it was still modest when compared with the scale of the challenge.

Among the key advisers on the new team was Eli Hoory, an attorney who had worked under Maruca at Covington and followed him over to the IRS a few months later. Hoory, then in his mid-30s, had a shaved head and prominent nose that gave him an angular appearance. Known for being extremely bright, he was also frank and outspoken, sometimes to a fault. A graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, he’d served as a reservist during law school and studied at the London School of Economics before landing at Covington.

Maruca and his team set about canvassing the IRS’ inventory to find good targets for producing “some winners,” as he’d put it.

Microsoft’s Puerto Rico deal almost slipped by. The week before Maruca started at the IRS in May 2011, the agency, which had already been auditing the transaction for four years, completed its work and sent Microsoft its findings.

That 2011 assessment by the IRS isn’t public, but it’s clear Maruca and Hoory were unimpressed. The IRS, they thought, had been credulous, accepting too many of Microsoft’s numbers. They also thought the IRS was set up for failure. The agency had been able to retain only one outside expert, an economist. If the case went to court, Microsoft would surely summon a cast of varied experts to undermine the IRS’ position.

It seems likely, given the size of Microsoft’s Puerto Rico transaction, that the IRS in May 2011 had hit the company with a tax bill in the billions. But Maruca and Hoory thought the agency was thinking small.

Maruca told Microsoft the IRS needed more time, and in early 2012, the IRS withdrew its findings. By then, Hoory had taken leadership of the audit. He began sending new document requests to Microsoft, asking for more interviews and considering what other experts the IRS needed to round out its case. Over the next three years, he and his team amassed tens of thousands of pages and conducted dozens of interviews with Microsoft personnel. (Hoory, who still works at the IRS, declined to comment.)

The evidence they assembled told a story. It revealed how Microsoft had . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 January 2020 at 12:17 pm

Dark Clouds Over Facebook: The $5 Billion Settlement Isn’t Finalized

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“It’s a long road that has no turning.” “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.” “Pride goeth before a fall.” And so on. Facebook is riding high now, but drawing ire and making enemies. (Much the same is true of Amazon, Apple, Twitter, Google, and the US.) Matt Stoller writes in Big:

Today I’m going to discuss some quiet but potentially significant problems hanging over Facebook and the big tech ecosystem in general. The big tech story has cooled a bit as reporters increasingly focus on the Presidential race, but it will come back. I’m going to stay on it. I also have a short blurb on the cheerleading story at the end of this newsletter, I’m going to stay on that too.

Goliath-Slaying Congressman David Cicilline

Yesterday Nancy Scola at Politico wrote a piece profiling Antitrust Subcommittee Chairman David Cicilline, who is conducting an investigation into big tech corporations. It is, as Institute for Local Self-Reliance director Stacy Mitchell notes, one of the important Congressional investigations in the last forty years. Last Friday, his subcommittee held a hearing in Colorado about how Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple bully entrepreneurs, with witnesses from PopSockets, Sonos, Tile, and Basecamp. All of us will recognize in their stories the basic bullying at the heart of the economy right now, and the courage these entrepreneurs showed in speaking out.

This bullying is pervasive. Yesterday, I spoke before the American Booksellers Association, book store owners who have been in Amazon’s crosshairs for two decades. Book sellers are exhausted keeping their stores going in the face of Amazon’s power, but also see the political argument shifting. Cicilline is one of the key reasons why.

I talked to these small business owners about the historical analogue to today, the anti-chain store fight in the 1920s and 1930s against the A&P, which was the Amazon of its day. A&P, like Amazon, was able to use its access to capital to sell popular products below cost, and thus kill its competitors. Today, a small book store has to make a profit and sell books at the list price, whereas Amazon doesn’t have to make money and can sell that book below cost. So Amazon wins, not because its technology is good, but because it can get access to cheap money to drive its competitors out of business.

Our local stores are dying, and so are our communities. One quote, from Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, captures the political problem this caused, and it has eery resonance today. Corporate monopolies, in particular chain stores, he argued, were “converting independent tradesmen into clerks” and “sapping the resources, the vigor and the hope of the smaller cities and towns.”

Cicilline is bringing back this understanding of the moral power of free commerce, and the threat concentrated finance poses. Scola’s profile of Cicilline is worth reading, but what I found fascinating (if a bit self-serving) was Cicilline’s view of the importance of history. Here here is discussing my book, Goliath: The Hundred Year War Between Monopoly and Democracy.

Giving speeches alongside Cicilline at the event were Faiz Shakir, Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign manager; and Rohit Chopra, a Democratic Federal Trade Commission commissioner who has strongly criticized his own agency for what he sees as its inadequate approach to Silicon Valley. Cicilline called Stoller, a staunch proponent of more stringent antitrust enforcement, “an inspiration,” and thanked him for telling such an “important story.”

The fight Cicilline is helping to lead is a political struggle over what commerce means in America. In his nomination speech for the 1936 Democratic convention, Franklin Delano Roosevelt framed the politics of commerce clearly, “If the average citizen is guaranteed equal opportunity in the polling place, he must have equal opportunity in the marketplace.”

The debate is raging, and some of it is happening over the historical narrative I wrote about in Goliath. Institutional Investor magazine had a very positive review of Goliath, basically making the argument that Republicans and Democrats are beginning to see the problem of monopoly. Meanwhile, a Marxist historian writing in the pages of the left-wing magazine The Nation said I got the history all wrong, and that we need a socialist revolution.

And there we go. The history is echoing today, as it always does.

A Long Lit Fuse Under Facebook

Last July, the Federal Trade Commission and Facebook agreed on a high-profile $5 billion for various privacy violations. While that amount of money seems like a lot, the actual settlement was underwhelming. $5 billion is a parking ticket for Facebook, and the corporation got a lot in return. First, Facebook made sure that in return for the money, the FTC wouldn’t investigate Mark Zuckerberg’s emails or do an interview with him. Second, Facebook got a total release from pretty much all potential violations of the FTC’s consumer protection law, a kind of retroactive get out of jail free card.

It’s a sweet deal, and Facebook’s stock price skyrocketed when the corporation told Wall Street about it. It was a thorough embarrassment for the FTC; not a single Senator or House member praised the commission in the days after the settlement, which is a bit unusual for such a high profile case.

Now normally this would be old news, a judge usually rubber stamps these kinds of agreements and lets them go through. It’s true that a nonprofit protested; the nonprofit Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) sued to stop the settlement. EPIC’s argument was that the settlement didn’t fix the problem with Facebook, and that liability release was so vague as to be against the public interest and procedurally unfair. Judges however often ignore such pleadings. But in an unusual legal scenario, the Judge who is supposed to approve the settlement hasn’t done so, and asked the government to respond by this Friday to EPIC’s arguments.

And here’s where it gets interesting. This settlement seems like it . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 January 2020 at 11:35 am

Facebook allows pro-Trump Super PAC to lie in ads

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Facebook is becoming a serious problem. Judd Legum reports at Popular Information:

Facebook has taken a lot of criticism, including from its employees, for its policy to allow politicians and political parties to lie in ads. It’s a policy that puts Facebook in a position to directly profit from political misinformation. And it gives the green light to the Trump campaign to mislead the public.

But the policy only applies to political candidates and political parties. By the terms of the policy, therefore, most accounts that run political ads still cannot include claims debunked by Facebook’s third-party fact checkers.

Facebook’s policies specifically state that “organizations like Super PACs or advocacy organizations that are unaffiliated with candidates” are subject to fact-checking.

But Facebook is allowing a major pro-Trump Super PAC, the Committee to Defend the President, to run ads with lies. The Committee to Defend the President, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, is one of the “two biggest non-party outside spenders of this cycle.”

Since Saturday, the Committee to Defend the President is running multiple ads that claim former Vice President Joe Biden is “a criminal who used his power as Vice President to make him and his son RICH.”

This claim is false, according to Facebook’s own fact-checking partners. PolitiFact, which is part of Facebook’s fact-checking program, wrote in September that “Hunter Biden did do work in Ukraine, but we found nothing to suggest Vice President Biden acted to help him.” Another Facebook fact-checking partner, FactCheck.org, named Trump’s suggestion that Biden did anything improper with respect to Ukraine one of its “Whoppers of the Year.”

In response to an inquiry about the Biden ads by the Committee to Defend the President, a Facebook spokesperson said it was entirely up to its fact-checking partners whether to evaluate the ad. And, thus far, none of them have chosen to do so. The fact that the ads contain a claim already debunked by its fact-checking partners does not matter. Facebook will only remove these ads if one of its fact-checking partners independently reviews them.

Popular Information is very much worth reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 January 2020 at 9:11 am

An Italian shave

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A grain of hulled barley photobombed this morning’s shave set-up, but (as you see) it’s an all-Italian line-up. The Omega 20102 is a fine brush, and I like I Coloniali shaving cream a lot but so far as I can tell it is no longer made or available. Too bad: it’s great product, and the lather is abundant, fragrant, and effective.

My Fatip Testine Gentile, a razor “TOTALLY made in Italy,” has all-brass construction and is wonderfully comfortable and efficient. (The Fatip Grande, an open-comb razor, is quite uncomfortable for me, but some do like it.) Three passes left my face totally smooth, and a splash of Floïd finished the job.

Now: what country for tomorrow?

Written by LeisureGuy

22 January 2020 at 7:49 am

Posted in Shaving

Migraines through history

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Landscape with Aura, from the Migraine Action Art Collection, 1981.
Courtesy Migraine Action Art Collection (463)/Wellcome Collection.

Katherine Foxhall writes in History Today:

Migraine affects one in seven of the world’s population – approximately a billion people. The World Health Organisation calculates it to be the seventh most disabling among all global diseases, more prevalent than diabetes, epilepsy and asthma combined. Virtually everyone will live with, work with, be related to, or be friends with someone who has migraine. But how, over the centuries, have people interpreted, explained and treated this disease?

What is migraine?

The writer and broadcaster A.L. Kennedy has described migraine as ‘a ghost, it’s a gaoler, it’s a thief, a semi-perpetual dark companion’. Rudyard Kipling, on the other hand, wrote in a letter that it was ‘a lovely thing’, though it divided him in two: ‘One half of my head … throbs and hammers and sizzles and bangs and swears while the other half – calm and collected – takes notes of the agonies next door.’

There are many types of migraine. Migraine without aura is most common. Characterised by severe pain, often in one side of the head, attacks can last from a few hours to three days and often include nausea and vomiting. Before and during a migraine attack, many people experience various other symptoms, such as tiredness, emotional disturbance, poor concentration and sensitivity to light or sound. Migraine with aura involves additional neurological symptoms, most commonly a visual aura lasting between five and 30 minutes. Many people see a C-shaped zigzag pattern that spreads across the field of vision. Aura can affect any of the senses, manifesting as vertigo, tinnitus, reduced hearing, pins and needles, whistling sounds, numbness or speech disturbance. On average, migraine sufferers experience one or two attacks a month, but around two per cent of the world’s population has chronic migraine, classified by the International Headache Society as headaches that occur for 15 or more days per month (of which eight are migrainous), for three months or more.

Migraine affects women two to three times more than men, is common among children and seems to be more prevalent among people with low socio-economic status. As well as the pain and discomfort of each attack, the cumulative effect of migraine can bear on all aspects of daily life, affecting relationships with family, partners, friends and work. We know that migraine involves nerve pathways and chemicals in the brain and it seems likely that the headache pain comes from neurogenic inflammation. But much remains unknown about migraine, including its cause and the extent to which antimigraine drugs can access the brain. It is this uncertainty which makes understanding migraine’s history so important.

A migraine by any other name

For nearly 2,000 years, people have talked about a disorder called migraine. In the second century ad, the Roman physician, surgeon and philosopher Galen used hemicrania to describe a pain that affected half the head and was caused by rising vapours from bilious humours in the stomach. Through translation and use, Galen’s term spread. We find emigranea in Latin and Middle English, migran in medieval Welsh. The early modern period saw many variations on the English ‘megrim’ or ‘meagrim’. Galen’s term also provides the common root for migraine in a variety of languages, including migräne (German), migraña (Spanish), migréna (Czech and Hungarian) and, of course, the French migraine. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 January 2020 at 9:13 am

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