Later On

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

Archive for February 14th, 2011

Interesting: Sounds like you now can buy Supreme Court Justices as well as Representatives and Senators

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In the past, Supreme Court Justices have not been on the market. That seems to be changing, though apparently protocol dictates that normally the money should be funneled to the Justice’s wife (cf. Mrs. Clarence Thomas). But check out this.

Written by Leisureguy

14 February 2011 at 5:35 pm

Posted in Business, Government, Law

Lack of rigor => Education doesn’t occur

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Interesting story from NPR:

As enrollment rates in colleges have continued to increase, a new book questions whether the historic number of young people attending college will actually learn all that much once they get to campus. In Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, two authors present a study that followed 2,300 students at 24 universities over the course of four years. The study measured both the amount that students improved in terms of critical thinking and writing skills, in addition to how much they studied and how many papers they wrote for their courses.

Richard Arum, a co-author of the book and a professor of sociology at New York University, tells NPR’s Steve Inskeep that the fact that more than a third of students showed no improvement in critical thinking skills after four years at a university was cause for concern.

“Our country today is part of a global economic system, where we no longer have the luxury to put large numbers of kids through college and university and not demand of them that they are developing these higher order skills that are necessary not just for them, but for our society as a whole,” Arum says.

There’s a huge incentive set up in the system [for] asking students very little, grading them easily, entertaining them, and your course evaluations will be high. – Richard Arum

Part of the reason for a decline in critical thinking skills could be a decrease in academic rigor; 35 percent of students reported studying five hours per week or less, and 50 percent said they didn’t have a single course that required 20 pages of writing in their previous semester.

According to the study, one possible reason for a decline in academic rigor and, consequentially, in writing and reasoning skills, is that . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

14 February 2011 at 3:58 pm

Posted in Education

Computers and your own job

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The ability of computers to perform tasks now reserved for humans will cause major social dislocations: if people cannot work, they cannot earn money, so that basing our civilization on money may encounter some problems. John Markoff’s article in the NY Times is worth reading:

At the dawn of the modern computer era, two Pentagon-financed laboratories bracketed Stanford University. At one laboratory, a small group of scientists and engineers worked to replace the human mind, while at the other, a similar group worked to augment it.In 1963 the mathematician-turned-computer scientist John McCarthy started the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. The researchers believed that it would take only a decade to create a thinking machine.

Also that year the computer scientist Douglas Engelbart formed what would become the Augmentation Research Center to pursue a radically different goal — designing a computing system that would instead “bootstrap” the human intelligence of small groups of scientists and engineers.

For the past four decades that basic tension between artificial intelligence and intelligence augmentation — A.I. versus I.A. — has been at the heart of progress in computing science as the field has produced a series of ever more powerful technologies that are transforming the world.

Now, as the pace of technological change continues to accelerate, it has become increasingly possible to design computing systems that enhance the human experience, or now — in a growing number of cases — completely dispense with it.

The implications of progress in A.I. are being brought into sharp relief now by the broadcasting of a recorded competition pitting the I.B.M. computing system named Watson against the two best human Jeopardy players, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.

Watson is an effort by I.B.M. researchers to advance a set of techniques used to process human language. It provides striking evidence that computing systems will no longer be limited to responding to simple commands. Machines will increasingly be able to pick apart jargon, nuance and even riddles. In attacking the problem of the ambiguity of human language, computer science is now closing in on what researchers refer to as the “Paris Hilton problem” — the ability, for example, to determine whether a query is being made by someone who is trying to reserve a hotel in France, or simply to pass time surfing the Internet.

If, as many predict, Watson defeats its human opponents on Wednesday, much will be made of the philosophical consequences of the machine’s achievement. Moreover, the I.B.M. demonstration also foretells profound sociological and economic changes.

Traditionally, economists have argued that while new forms of automation may displace jobs in the short run, over longer periods of time economic growth and job creation have continued to outpace any job-killing technologies. For example, over the past century and a half the shift from being a largely agrarian society to one in which less than 1 percent of the United States labor force is in agriculture is frequently cited as evidence of the economy’s ability to reinvent itself.

That, however, was before machines began to “understand” human language. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

14 February 2011 at 3:54 pm

And a glimpse of our own food future in the US

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Using up 50 cubic kilometers of irreplaceable groundwater in 12 years to raise lettuce: Is no one thinking ahead? From New Scientist:

It may be a land of milk and honey, but California’s Central valley – the most productive farmland in the US – is being sucked dry. The culprits? Lettuce and other green vegetables.

James Famiglietti at the University of California, Irvine, used the twin GRACE satellites to find that 20 cubic kilometres of groundwater had disappeared from beneath the valley between October 2003 and March 2010. Between 1998 and 2003, 28.5 km3 were lost, according to the US Geological Survey, meaning that about 50 km3 of groundwater had disappeared in 12 years (Geophysical Research Letters, DOI: 10.1029/2010GL046442).

That’s unsustainable, says Famiglietti, and bad news for local farmers. “There is a foreseeable end to groundwater availability in California,” he says. Estimates of the total reserves are rough, so the end is difficult to predict, but Famiglietti says the valley could run dry by 2100.

Growing green vegetables is profitable, but they need copious water. The problem is that water use is not regulated. “Anyone who wants to can drill a well and pump it up,” says Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute, a think tank based in Oakland, California.

Written by Leisureguy

14 February 2011 at 3:42 pm

Posted in Business, Food

Another report characterizes Egypt and Tunisia as Food Wars

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Interesting report in New Scientist:

Tunisia’s government has fallen and Egypt’s is facing insurrection – and this could be just the start. Food and economic analysts are warning that these governments could be the first victims of the global food crisis, and others are similarly vulnerable.

What seems clear is that surging food prices helped trigger bothuprisings and protests elsewhere in north Africa. The region depends on bread, and imports half of its wheat. So when world wheat prices soared by 50 per cent in 2010, Egypt massively increased spending on the cereal to sell to its poorest citizens as subsidised bread.

Yet on private markets in Cairo, bread prices rose by 25 per cent. This especially affected the lower middle class, which Claire Spencer of the London-based think tank Chatham House says is key to the uprisings. While the poorest must keep working to eat, she says, the slightly better-off have more freedom to stage sit-ins.

If food is far from the only reason for discontent in Egypt, it can nonetheless be a trigger, Spencer says. “People are underemployed, can’t start a business or improve their circumstances, are barely feeding their families, and then food prices go up and literally put them on the breadline. It can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”

What lessons can be learned? Countries that depend upon food imports and whose people spend one-third or more of their income on food are most vulnerable to increased global food prices, according to an analysis by Japanese investment firm Nomura. In its top 10 are Egypt, Algeria and Morocco, but also Hong Kong, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Tunisia, Romania and Ukraine are in the top 20. “High food prices… [are] a potential source of protests, riots and political tension,” Nomura warns.

And these are pricey times: the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) announced last week that food prices have reached an all-time high, exceeding even the big spike of 2008. This new spike is due to weather-related crop losses in Russia, Australia and Pakistan, high oil prices and speculation. Prices will stay high at least until major harvests in six months, says Abdolreza Abbassian of the FAO. Then the weather will have to be very good, or harvests may not be enough to rebuild stocks and reduce prices. If it’s bad, “we’re one major crop failure short of a real crisis”.

Read more: Click here to read the original version of this story

Written by Leisureguy

14 February 2011 at 3:39 pm

Interesting inside report on Egypt

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Hannah Alam has a very interesting report at McClatchy. It begins:

“To the palace!” chanted the thousands of protesters who’d already besieged state television offices in Cairo and were beginning a perilous march on the presidential residence in the final hours of Hosni Mubarak’s regime. Mohammed Abdellah, 64, one of the last living founders of the former president’s National Democratic Party, found himself just yards away from the seething crowds as he returned from an appointment downtown. He rushed home and swallowed a Xanax, terrified at the possibility that Mubarak could order his elite guard force to open fire on the protesters.

“When they moved to the presidential palace, he had two options: leave, or let the Republican Guards clash and have a real massacre. I don’t think he wanted to go down in history as a president with so much blood on his hands,” Abdellah said late Saturday in a three-hour interview that offered one of the first inside looks on the collapse of the regime.

Just after sunset Friday, Mubarak’s resignation was announced and Egyptian streets exploded in scenes of euphoria. Abdellah watched at home in an opulent apartment where a bookshelf is lined with black-and-white photos of himself with Mubarak and his predecessor, Anwar Sadat.

Through the years, Abdellah said, he’d watched with sadness as Mubarak — whom he first knew as an eager, details-oriented party leader — was transformed into a cocooned authoritarian whose reliance on a tiny group of self-serving advisers led to a deeply divided NDP and, ultimately, the regime’s collapse.

At least, Abdellah thought to himself that night, Mubarak didn’t go out with a massacre of his own people.

“For all his mistakes, Mubarak avoided this last catastrophe,” Abdellah said.

The weakened party structure was slow to react when anti-government protesters took to the streets Jan. 25, and Mubarak didn’t appear to have a crisis manager, Abdellah said.

Decisions such as blocking the Internet, cell phone networks and social media were made without thinking through the consequences. His own Interior Ministry kept on feeding him rosy reports and Mubarak offered concessions, but without a strategy.

Abdellah said the rifts in Mubarak’s regime deepened in 2005, when he surrounded himself with yes-men who reassured him the government was stable even as his closest aides dispatched security forces to crush growing signs of rebellion among Egypt’s impoverished population of more than 80 million.

Abdellah shared his account of the regime’s demise with a candor that would’ve been impossible just days ago. Now, with the NDP in shambles and its top leadership under criminal investigation and travel restrictions, Abdellah had little to lose by revealing the inner tumult of a party that kept a 30-year stranglehold on Egyptian political and economic life.

Abdellah was working as a reporter in Paris when he was recruited by Sadat, who wanted to build a Western-allied Egypt after the death of the charismatic, pan-Arab nationalist President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

14 February 2011 at 3:33 pm

Argument that people are helpless

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Interesting post, though the implication is that people are helpless to resist a descent into a mindless mob. I wonder: I think that some people would be less apt to join an unthinking mob, and probably it would be a good idea to find out why, so that more people can gain such an ability. David McRaney writes at You Are Not So Smart:

The Misconception: People who riot and loot are scum who were just looking for an excuse to steal and be violent.

The Truth: You are are prone to losing your individuality and becoming absorbed into a hivemind under the right conditions.

When a crowd gathers near a suicidal jumper something terrible is unleashed.In Seattle in 2001, a 26-year-old woman who had recently ended a relationship held up traffic for a little too long as she considered the implications of leaping to her death. As motorists began to back-up on the bridge and become irate, they started yelling “Jump, bitch, jump!” until she did.

Cases like this aren’t unusual.

In 2008, a 17-year old man jumped from the top of a parking garage in England after 300 or so people chanted for him to go for it. Some took photos and recorded video before, during and after. Afterward, the crowd dispersed, the strange spell broken. The taunters walked away wondering what came over them. The other onlookers vented their disgust into social media.

In San Francisco, in 2010, a man stepped onto the ledge of his apartment window and contemplated dropping from the building. A crowd gathered below and soon started yelling for him to jump. They even tweeted about it. He died on impact fifteen minutes later. . .

Continue reading. The behavior described is (to my mind) very bad behavior, and I have a hard time believing that anyone with a shred of empathy could call for the death of someone simply in order to get to work on time. To reveal my own biases, I believe that people who cheer for someone to kill themselves have revealed something quite ugly about themselves, not about the human race. Assuming free will, of course.

However, it is a long post, and several studies are quoted. The studies on children are interesting, but those are studies of immature individuals who have not yet seriously considered their moral code and thought at length about ethical behavior.

Moreover, Halloween, dressing up, and shedding my identity: very little appeal for me. Mardi Gras? No, thank you. I don’t like crowds in the first place, possibly because I don’t like the possibility of deindividuation. Indeed, the sensible course would seem to me to avoid deindividuation.

Written by Leisureguy

14 February 2011 at 3:28 pm

Posted in Daily life

Chamber of Commerce: Ethical? (Ans: No)

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From The Center for American Progress in an email:

An investigation by ThinkProgress has revealed that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce explored employing three “private security” firms to surreptitiously investigate the Chamber’s political foes (and even their families and children), and to wage an underhanded cyber-campaign against them.

According to emails obtained by ThinkProgress, the Chamber hired the lobbying firm Hunton & Williams, which in turn solicited work from three computer security firms — HBGary Federal, Palantir, and Berico Technologies (collectively dubbed Team Themis, after the Roman goddess of law and order). Hunton asked Team Themis to develop tactics for damaging or discrediting progressive groups and labor unions, in particular ThinkProgress, the labor coalition Change to Win, the SEIU, US Chamber Watch, and

The Chamber’s efforts to target opponents began after a ThinkProgress investigation last year raised questions about whether the business lobby was using money from foreign corporations to fund its political attack ads.

According to one document prepared by Team Themis, the campaign included an entrapment project. The proposal called for first creating a “false document, perhaps highlighting periodical financial information,” to give to a progressive group opposing the Chamber, and then to subsequently expose the document as a fake to undermine the credibility of the Chamber’s opponents.

In addition, the group proposed creating a “fake insider persona” to “generate communications” with Change to Win in an attempt to mislead and undermine them. Even more disturbingly, emails reveal that HBGary, which spearheaded the work for the Chamber, apparently thought families and children were fair game, as an executive with the firm  circulated numerous emails and documents detailing information about political opponents’ children, spouses, and personal lives, such as where they attended religious services.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Leisureguy

14 February 2011 at 3:12 pm

Posted in Business, Government, Law

What a day! First stop right now

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Thank heavens for the time of day stamp, otherwise you’d have no idea. 🙂

To the PO, The Healthy Way, Whole Foods, Safeway for Rx, purchase cat food, quick lunch, Pilates, and Megs to vet for pedicure.

Pilates session was excellent and we worked on some fundamentals that I was flubbing. Breathing (it seems to me, still very much a beginner) is the keystone. If an action—say, doing a jump shot in basketball or making a free throw—is considered to be a sentence, breathing is the verb: the center of the thing on which everything is based. You can see it readily in the free throw: the careful breathing as the shot is prepared and then made, but it applies equally to all action, including the jump shot: it’s all built around the breathing. Or at least it seems that way to me at this point.

I got some fresh sardines, so I’m cleaning those (you buy the whole thing) and using them in a one-pot meal.

I haven’t even got to my day’s Spanish study, so it’s going to be a long evening.

Written by Leisureguy

14 February 2011 at 3:00 pm

Posted in Daily life

Valentine shave

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A compact assemblage in the photo, eh? I always get a terrific lather from a D.R. Harris shave stick (which I use as a shave stick, rubbing it against the grain all over my wet beard and then bringing up the lather with the brush—which I use as a brush 🙂 ), and I should use one more often. The Lucretia Borgia did its usual fine job, and the rhodium-plated Hoffritz slant-bar did a commendably smooth and easy shave with a previously used Swedish Gillette blade. A splash of Marlborough and I’m off to run many errands.

This morning’s weight: 188.7.

Written by Leisureguy

14 February 2011 at 10:12 am

Posted in Video

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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Written by Leisureguy

14 February 2011 at 8:57 am

Posted in Jazz, Video

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