Later On

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

Asimov’s Foundation analogy

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I just decided to reread the Foundation series, which I firt read in junior high, and thanks to modeern technology, I had determined through an easy Google search the best order in which to read them:

  1. The Complete Robot (1982) Collection of 31 Short Stories about robots.
  2. The Caves of Steel (1954) His first Robot novel.
  3. The Naked Sun (1957) The second Robot novel.
  4. The Robots of Dawn (1983) The third Robot novel.
  5. Robots and Empire (1985) The fourth (final) Robot novel.
  6. The Currents of Space (1952) The first Empire novel.
  7. The Stars, Like Dust– (1951) The second Empire novel.
  8. Pebble in the Sky (1950) The third and final Empire novel.
  9. Prelude to Foundation (1988) The first Foundation novel.
  10. Forward the Foundation (1992) The second Foundation novel.
  11. Foundation (1951) The third Foundation novel, comprising 5 stories
  12. Foundation and Empire (1952) The fourth Foundation novel, comprising 2 stories
  13. Second Foundation (1953) The fifth Foundation novel, comprising 2 stories
  14. Foundation’s Edge (1982) The sixth Foundation novel.
  15. Foundation and Earth (1983) The seventh Foundation novel.

Having determined that, I decided that I really wanted the Foundation part, so I bought the 9th book in the list and had it on my Kindle in 10 seconds if that. “Impulse purchase” doesn’t touch it.

At any rate, I was stunned to see Trantor as a clear analogue of the United States, and the specificity with which the mindset described in the book corresponds to the mindset of the US. I would say that the analogy is deliberate. (And maybe that’s well known—that I just figured it out doesn’t mean that it’s not a well-established reading.

Hari Seldon, I take it, represents Asimov.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 November 2017 at 12:39 pm

Here’s why Australians will never understand the US obsession with guns

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Well worth a click and a look. I do understand that Australia’s population is just over 7% of the population of the US. In such cases, per capita figures are more relevant: Australia has 1 firearm death per 100,000 each year, and the US has 10.2 firearm deaths per 100,000, an order of magnitude greater.

Figures from this 2008 CBS News article.

Still, the graphic at the link is impressive.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 November 2017 at 10:45 am

Posted in Guns

How Politics and Bad Decisions Starved New York’s Subways

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Another sign of the decline of the US: the inability to maintain and improve public infrastructure. Brian Rosenthal, Emma Fitzsimmons, and Michael LaForgia report in the NY Times:\

After a drumbeat of transit disasters this year, it became impossible to ignore the failures of the New York City subway system.

A rush-hour Q train careened off the rails in southern Brooklyn. A track fire on the A line in Upper Manhattan sent nine riders to the hospital. A crowded F train stalled in a downtown tunnel, leaving hundreds in the dark without air-conditioning for nearly an hour. As the heat of packed-together bodies fogged the windows, passengers beat on the walls and clawed at the doors in a scene from a real-life horror story.

In June, after another derailment injured 34 people, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo declared that the system was in a “state of emergency.”

But the problems plaguing the subway did not suddenly sweep over the city like a tornado or a flood. They were years in the making, and they might have been avoided if decision makers had put the interests of train riders and daily operations ahead of flashy projects and financial gimmicks.

An examination by The New York Times reveals in stark terms how the needs of the aging, overburdened system have grown while city and state politicians have consistently steered money away from addressing them.

Century-old tunnels and track routes are crumbling, but The Times found that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s budget for subway maintenance has barely changed, when adjusted for inflation, from what it was 25 years ago.

Signal problems and car equipment failures occur twice as frequently as a decade ago, but hundreds of mechanic positions have been cut because there is not enough money to pay them — even though the average total compensation for subway managers has grown to nearly $300,000 a year.

Daily ridership has nearly doubled in the past two decades to 5.7 million, but New York is the only major city in the world with fewer miles of track than it had during World War II. Efforts to add new lines have been hampered by generous agreements with labor unions and private contractors that have inflated construction costs to five times the international average.

New York’s subway now has the worst on-time performance of any major rapid transit system in the world, according to data collected from the 20 biggest. Just 65 percent of weekday trains reach their destinations on time, the lowest rate since the transit crisis of the 1970s, when graffiti-covered cars regularly broke down.

None of this happened on its own. It was the result of a series of decisions by both Republican and Democratic politicians — governors from George E. Pataki to Mr. Cuomo and mayors from Rudolph W. Giuliani to Bill de Blasio. Each of them cut the subway’s budget or co-opted it for their own priorities.

They stripped a combined $1.5 billion from the M.T.A. by repeatedly diverting tax revenues earmarked for the subways and also by demanding large payments for financial advice, I.T. help and other services that transit leaders say the authority could have done without.

They pressured the M.T.A. to spend billions of dollars on opulent station makeovers and other projects that did nothing to boost service or reliability, while leaving the actual movement of trains to rely on a 1930s-era signal system with fraying, cloth-covered cables.

They saddled the M.T.A. with debt and engineered a deal with creditors that brought in quick cash but locked the authority into paying $5 billion in interest that it otherwise never would have had to pay.

In one particularly egregious example, Mr. Cuomo’s administration forced the M.T.A. to send $5 million to bail out three state-run ski resorts that were struggling after a warm winter.

At the same time, public officials who have taken hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions from M.T.A. unions and contractors have pressured the authority into signing agreements with labor groups and construction companies that obligated the authority to pay far more than it had planned.

Faced with funding shortfalls, the M.T.A. has resorted to borrowing. Nearly 17 percent of its budget now goes to pay down debt — roughly triple what it paid in 1997.

“It’s genuinely shocking how much of every dollar that goes to the M.T.A. is spent on expenses that have nothing to do with running the subway,” said Seth W. Pinsky, the former head of the city’s Economic Development Corporation. “That’s the problem.” . . .

Continue reading.

The US is becoming a highly dysfunctional country, I fear.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 November 2017 at 12:09 pm

The cutthroat world of English pubs: Here’s what we learned from ordering 213 curries at Wetherspoons

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Bryce Elder has an interesting article in Financial Times:

How cheap is JD Wetherspoon? There’s a simple answer — it’s the cheapest place within ten minutes of where you’re stood — and then there’s a much, much more complicated answer.

Though all Wetherspoon pubs use the same base menu, no two Wetherspoons charge the same prices. This is no secret, but neither is it made obvious. The corporate website keeps exhaustive records of ingredients, allergen information and calorific values for each and every one of the 150 or so menu items on offer, but omits any mention of prices. All of Wetherspoon’s 893 pubs across the UK and the Republic of Ireland get individual landing pages but, again, there’s nothing to indicate what things cost. What gives?

The FAQ has an explainer of sorts:

Why do prices vary across different pubs?

For various reasons, such as rents, rates, staffing, local competition and so on, food and drinks prices may vary per pub. This tends to be the case with all pubs, in general.

What we do try to achieve, however, is having the lowest prices, on average, in each location where we operate.

But what does “prices may vary per pub” mean in practice? To find out, we scraped data from Wetherspoon’s smartphone app, which can be gamed into placing food and drink orders to any bar in the country. In every pub we ordered exactly the same thing:

And here are the results:

That’s 130 different prices across 213 pubs sampled, with a £10.96 swing between the cheapest (suburban Birmingham) and the most expensive (urban Manchester). Remember, that’s on just five items taken from a menu the size of a theatre programme.

Here’s how the totals look as a blob map. . .

Continue reading.

Lots more at the link, including many charts.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 November 2017 at 10:00 am

Posted in Business, Daily life

Elon Musk: The Architect of Tomorrow

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An interesting profile by Neil Strauss in Rolling Stone:

It’s mid-afternoon on a Friday at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California, and three of Elon Musk’s children are gathered around him – one of his triplets, both of his twins.

Musk is wearing a gray T-shirt and sitting in a swivel chair at his desk, which is not in a private office behind a closed door, but in an accessible corner cubicle festooned with outer-space novelty items, photos of his rockets, and mementos from Tesla and his other companies.

Most tellingly, there’s a framed poster of a shooting star with a caption underneath it that reads, “When you wish upon a falling star, your dreams can come true. Unless it’s really a meteor hurtling to the Earth which will destroy all life. Then you’re pretty much hosed, no matter what you wish for. Unless it’s death by meteorite.” To most people, this would be mere dark humor, but in this setting, it’s also a reminder of Musk’s master plan: to create habitats for humanity on other planets and moons. If we don’t send our civilization into another Dark Ages before Musk or one of his dream’s inheritors pull it off, then Musk will likely be remembered as one of the most seminal figures of this millennium. Kids on all the terraformed planets of the universe will look forward to Musk Day, when they get the day off to commemorate the birth of the Earthling who single-handedly ushered in the era of space colonization.

And that’s just one of Musk’s ambitions. Others include converting automobiles, households and as much industry as possible from fossil fuels to sustainable energy; implementing a new form of high-speed city-to-city transportation via vacuum tube; relieving traffic congestion with a honeycomb of underground tunnels fitted with electric skates for cars and commuters; creating a mind-computer interface to enhance human health and brainpower; and saving humanity from the future threat of an artificial intelligence that may one day run amok and decide, quite rationally, to eliminate the irrational human species.

So far, Musk, 46, has accomplished none of these goals.

But what he has done is something that very few living people can claim: Painstakingly bulldozed, with no experience whatsoever, into two fields with ridiculously high barriers to entry – car manufacturing (Tesla) and rocketry (SpaceX) – and created the best products in those industries, as measured by just about any meaningful metric you can think of. In the process, he’s managed to sell the world on his capability to achieve objectives so lofty that from the mouth of anyone else, they’d be called fantasies.

At least, most of the world. “I’m looking at the short losses,” Musk says, transfixed by CNBC on his iPhone. He speaks to his kids without looking up. “Guys, check this out: Tesla has the highest short position in the entire stock market. A $9 billion short position.”

His children lean over the phone, looking at a table full of numbers that I don’t understand. So his 13-year-old, Griffin, explains it to me: “They’re betting that the stock goes down, and they’re getting money off that. But it went up high, so they lost an insane amount of money.”

“They’re jerks who want us to die,” Musk elaborates. “They’re constantly trying to make up false rumors and amplify any negative rumors. It’s a really big incentive to lie and attack my integrity. It’s really awful. It’s…”

He trails off, as he often does when preoccupied by a thought. I try to help: “Unethical?”

“It’s…” He shakes his head and struggles for the right word, then says softly, “Hurtful.”

It is easy to confuse who someone is with what they do, and thus turn them into a caricature who fits neatly into a storybook view of the world. Our culture always needs villains and heroes, fools and geniuses, scapegoats and role models. However, despite opinions to the contrary, Elon Musk is not a robot sent from the future to save humanity. Nor is he a Silicon Valley savant whose emotional affect has been replaced with supercomputer-like intelligence. Over the course of nine months of reporting, watching Musk do everything from strategize Mars landings with his rocket-engineering team to plan the next breakthroughs with his artificial-intelligence experts, I learned he is someone far, far different from what his myth and reputation suggest.

The New York Times has called him “arguably the most successful and important entrepreneur in the world.” It’s an easy case to make: He’s probably the only person who has started four billion-dollar companies – PayPal, Tesla, SpaceX and Solar City. But at his core, Musk is not a businessman or entrepreneur. He’s an engineer, inventor and, as he puts it, “technologist.” And as a naturally gifted engineer, he’s able to find the design inefficiencies, flaws and complete oversights in the tools that power our civilization.

“He’s able to see things more clearly in a way that no one else I know of can understand,” says his brother, Kimbal. He discusses his brother’s love of chess in their earlier years, and adds, “There’s a thing in chess where you can see 12 moves ahead if you’re a grandmaster. And in any particular situation, Elon can see things 12 moves ahead.”

His children soon leave for the home of their mother, Musk’s ex-wife Justine. “I wish we could be private with Tesla,” Musk murmurs as they exit. “It actually makes us less efficient to be a public company.”

What follows is … silence. Musk sits at his desk, looking at his phone, but not typing or reading anything. He then lowers himself to the floor, and stretches his back on a foam roller. When he finishes, I attempt to start the interview by asking about the Tesla Model 3 launch a week earlier, and what it felt like to stand onstage and tell the world he’d just pulled off a plan 14 years in the making: to bootstrap, with luxury electric cars, a mass-market electric car.

The accomplishment, for Musk, is not just in making a $35,000 electric car; it’s in making a $35,000 electric car that’s so good, and so in-demand, that it forces other car manufacturers to phase out gas cars to compete. And sure enough, within two months of the launch, both GM and Jaguar Land Rover announced they were planning to eliminate gas cars and go all-electric.

Musk thinks for a while, begins to answer, then pauses. “Uh, actually, let me go to the restroom. Then I’ll ask you to repeat that question.” A longer pause. “I also have to unload other things from my mind.”

Five minutes later, Musk still hasn’t returned. Sam Teller, his chief of staff, says, “I’ll be right back.”

Several minutes after that, they both reappear and huddle nearby, whispering to each other. Then Musk returns to his desk.

“We can reschedule for another day if this is a bad time,” I offer.

Musk clasps his hands on the surface of the desk, composes himself, and declines.

“It might take me a little while to get into the rhythm of things.”

Then he heaves a sigh and ends his effort at composure. “I just broke up with my girlfriend,” he says hesitantly. “I was really in love, and it hurt bad.”

He pauses and corrects himself: “Well, she broke up with me more than I broke up with her, I think.”

Thus, the answer to the question posed earlier: It felt unexpectedly, disappointingly, uncontrollably horrible to launch the Model 3. “I’ve been in severe emotional pain for the last few weeks,” Musk elaborates. “Severe. It took every ounce of will to be able to do the Model 3 event and not look like the most depressed guy around. For most of that day, I was morbid. And then I had to psych myself up: drink a couple of Red Bulls, hang out with positive people and then, like, tell myself: ‘I have all these people depending on me. All right, do it!'”

Minutes before the event, after meditating for pretty much the first time in his life to get centered, Musk chose a very telling song to drive onstage to: “R U Mine?” by the Arctic Monkeys.

Musk discusses the breakup for a few more minutes, then asks, earnestly, deadpan, “Is there anybody you think I should date? It’s so hard for me to even meet people.” He swallows and clarifies, stammering softly, “I’m looking for a long-term relationship. I’m not looking for a one-night stand. I’m looking for a serious companion or soulmate, that kind of thing.”

I eventually tell him that it may not be a good idea to jump right into another relationship. He may want to take some time to himself and figure out why his previous relationships haven’t worked in the long run: his marriage to writer Justine Musk, his marriage to actress Talulah Riley, and this new breakup with actress Amber Heard.

Musk shakes his head and grimaces: “If I’m not in love, if I’m not with a long-term companion, I cannot be happy.”

I explain that needing someone so badly that you feel like nothing without them is textbook codependence.

Musk disagrees. Strongly. “It’s not true,” he replies petulantly. “I will never be happy without having someone. Going to sleep alone kills me.” He hesitates, shakes his head, falters, continues. “It’s not like I don’t know what that feels like: Being in a big empty house, and the footsteps echoing through the hallway, no one there – and no one on the pillow next to you. Fuck. How do you make yourself happy in a situation like that?”

There’s truth to what Musk is saying. It is lonely at the top. But not for everyone. It’s lonely at the top for those who were lonely at the bottom.

“When I was a child, there’s one thing I said,” Musk continues. His demeanor is stiff, yet in the sheen of his eyes and the trembling of his lips, a high tide of emotion is visible, pushing against the retaining walls. “‘I never want to be alone.’ That’s what I would say.” His voice drops to a whisper. “I don’t want to be alone.”

A ring of red forms around his eyes as he stares forward and sits frozen in silence. Musk is a titan, a visionary, a human-size lever pushing forward massive historical inevitabilities – the kind of person who comes around only a few times in a century – but in this moment, he seems like a child who is afraid of abandonment. And that may be the origin story of Musk’s superambitions, but more on that later. In the meantime, Musk has something he’d like to show me.

“If you say anything about what you’re about to see, it would cost us billions,” he says, rising from his desk. “And you would be put in jail.”

The most interesting tourist attraction in Los Angeles County is one that’s not in many guidebooks: It’s in the otherwise-untouristed southwestern city of Hawthorne, around SpaceX. If you walk along Crenshaw Boulevard from Jack Northrop Boulevard to 120th Street, what you will see is a city of the future that’s under construction. This is Musk city, an alternate reality, a triumph of futuristic imagination more thrilling than anything at a Disney park. On the west side of the street, a 156-foot-tall rocket towers above SpaceX headquarters, symbolizing Musk’s dream of relatively low-cost interplanetary travel. This particular rocket booster was the first in human history to be launched into space, then recovered intact on Earth after separating, and then fired back into space. On the east side of the street, an employee parking lot has been dug up and turned into the first-ever tunnel for the Boring Company, Musk’s underground-honeycomb solution to traffic jams and the future home of all his terrestrial transportation projects. Then, running for a mile beside Jack Northrop Boulevard, there’s a white vacuum tube along the shoulder of the road. This is the test track for the Hyperloop, Musk’s high-speed form of city-to-city travel. Taken together, the dreams of Musk city promise to connect the planet and the solar system in ways that will fundamentally change humanity’s relationship to two of the most important facets of its reality: distance and time.

But there is a particular building in Musk city that few have visited, and this is where Musk takes me. It is the . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 November 2017 at 9:49 am

No Protection for Protectors: The GOP effort to kill the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

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Gary Rivlin and Susan Antilla report in The Intercept:

Shortly after 10:00 p.m. on a Tuesday in late October, Vice President Mike Pence was summoned to the Senate floor. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau had finalized a landmark new rule in July banning the forced arbitration provisions that banks and credit card companies commonly tuck into the fine print of agreements, barring their customers from joining class-action suits. House Republicans quickly voted to nullify the new rule, but weeks later, with a deadline looming, it was still unclear if the Senate would act in time. After intense pressure from industry and the Trump administration, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was finally able to muster 50 votes, and Pence was parachuted in to break a 50-50 tie. Politico called the vote “a blow to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau” and “Republicans’ most far-reaching victory yet this year in their effort to roll back financial regulations.” CFPB Director Richard Cordray was even more blunt: “Wall Street won and ordinary people lost.”

The rule’s spectacular defeat marked a rare Wall Street victory over an agency created by Dodd-Frank, the sweeping financial reform law Barack Obama signed in 2010. The CFPB was barely five years old when Donald Trump was elected, promising to “do a number” on financial regulations. Just weeks into the new presidency, Sen. Ted Cruz declared the CFPB “an out-of-control bureaucracy” and introduced a one-page bill to abolish it outright. McConnell, then minority leader, had told a gathering of bankers in 2013, “If I had my way, we wouldn’t have the agency at all.” A dead or severely injured CFPB seemed a certainty in those early days. If nothing else, surely Cordray would get pink-slipped. “It’s time to fire King Richard,” exclaimed Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., shortly before Trump’s inauguration.

Yet Cordray is departing on his own terms, amid speculation that he will run for governor of Ohio. He announced on Wednesday that he expects to step down before the end of the month, and when he does, he’ll leave behind a vibrant, if profoundly embattled, agency.

His departure will be “a huge loss,” said Lisa Donner, executive director of Americans for Financial Reform. If Trump appoints a new director who is indifferent, or even hostile, to consumer issues, she said, “It will be incredibly costly to the American public.”

This past summer, Cheklist, a trade magazine for check cashers and payday lenders, published a cover story about the frustration roiling fringe financial players. The CFPB was still a “nettlesome bureau,” its editor wrote, and not a single bill aimed at weakening the bureau had reached the president’s desk. Meanwhile, its aggressive enforcement actions against debt collectorscredit repair companies, and online payday lenders were continuing unabated. Just three weeks before Congress reversed the arbitration rule, the CFPB finalized another new rule that tightened restrictions around high-interest, small-dollar loans to stop what Cordray called “payday debt traps.”

Yet it’s not just smaller financial players who have felt cheated over the past year. Richard Hunt, who has been paid more than $1 million a year  by the Consumer Bankers Association, a trade group representing the country’s largest banks, including Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and JPMorgan Chase, expressed delight after the Senate killed the “ill-conceived” ban on mandatory arbitration clauses. But mostly, his organization has been left expressing disappointment. Thoughts of halting the CFPB have been replaced by angry pronouncements about its unregulated powers. “It’s a fact,” Hunt said in an interview. “It’s the most unaccountable agency in our government, period.”

In fact, the CFPB has emerged as that rare beast — a fast-moving agency that actually chalks up wins for average Americans. By the end of 2016, shortly before Trump took office, the 5 1/2 -year-old bureau’s enforcement actions against everyone from the country’s biggest banks to small-time debt collectors had already returned $11.9 billion to 29 million consumers. The CFPB had created a public database of consumer complaints against banks and other lenders, and had issued new rules governing everything from mortgages to student loans to the prepaid cards that millions of “unbanked” Americans carry in their wallets. A year ago, the bureau finalized new rules giving prepaid customers some of the same protections enjoyed by those who use credit cards. Pressure from the bureau also resulted in the end of several onerous practices by lenders, such as demanding full repayment on student loans if the parent who co-signed the loan died.

Through its complaint database, the CFPB has secured redress for more than 160,000 individual complainants, such as Gene DeSantis, a former TD Bank customer near Albany, New York. DeSantis, a consumer lawyer himself, nevertheless registered one of the 800,000-plus complaints the CFPB has received. While he was away for the winter, DeSantis had mail forwarded to his Utah home. But TD, he found, does not forward its bills unless a customer contacts the bank directly, even when a customer like DeSantis has arranged for the post office to do so, and so he missed a payment. After a surprise call from a debt collector, DeSantis said he called customer service but “never got anywhere.” Meanwhile, his late charges ballooned to $235 on his $136 missed payment. “If a person like me is rendered helpless, God forbid what the average person faces,” DeSantis said. Within a week of filing his CFPB complaint, TD dropped interest and penalties. (A TD spokesperson declined to comment on the bank’s refusal to waive the fees until the CFPB got involved.)

“Because of the bureau,” said Mike Calhoun, president of the Center for Responsible Lending, “we’ve gone from, ‘Where does it say I can’t do that?’ to ‘You have a duty to treat customers fairly.’”

Even without Cordray at the helm, the problem that confronts Hunt and his frenemies running other financial industry trade associations is that the CFPB is simply too popular to eliminate. A 2017 poll by Americans for Financial Reform and the Center for Responsible Lending showed that 78 percent of likely voters believe we need tough rules and enforcement to prevent another financial crisis. Even among Republicans the ratio was 2-to-1. A poll conducted at the end of 2016 showed that, by that same 2-to-1 margin, Trump voters want the bureau left alone or strengthened. Its popularity seems to be one reason the White House has not waged the frontal war on the CFPB that its allies so sorely wanted. With Wells Fargo and Equifax exploding in scandal and their CEOs marched before Congress, anger toward Wall Street is almost as strong on the right as it is on the left. How, in that context, do you shut down an agency called the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau?

Industry’s answer has been a multimillion dollar, multi-front battle to discredit and defang the bureau, a war declared even before the enemy officially existed. Almost immediately after Dodd-Frank became law, a  . . .

Continue reading. There’s a lot more. It’s a lengthy and well-written article giving a history of the effort, strongly resisted by the GOP, to protect consumers.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 November 2017 at 8:51 am

When Women Fail, They Pay a Much Bigger Price Than Men

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Kevin Drum posts at Mother Jones:

Via Harold Pollack, here’s a new study that will probably not surprise you—but should incense you. Heather Sarsons, a graduate student at Harvard, examined Medicare data to determine how doctors referred patients to specialists for surgery. In particular, did they treat male and female surgeons differently?

The answer is pretty simple: oh my, yes. Sarsons used matched panels of surgeons who were equally qualified and had similar records of surgical outcomes. But primary care doctors didn’t treat them the same. If a patient unexpectedly died after surgery, most doctors continued referring patients to male surgeons at about the same rate. But referrals to female surgeons plummeted: . . .

Continue reading.

There’s more, including 3 charts. Depressing, but not surprising.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 November 2017 at 8:47 am

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