Later On

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

Archive for April 11th, 2012

That danged old evolutionary process: it crops up all over the place

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Like in the Apple Apps store, as reported at New Scientist by Paul Marks:

Modelling Apple’s App Store marketplace as an ecosystem reveals what makes it thrive and which apps are likely to sell

IT IS easy to get rich as a developer on Apple’s App Store – just build an app that mimics a bestseller. So why doesn’t everyone get in on the act? Because the ploy ends up killing interest in the store entirely, according to researchers who built a simulation of the store to see what makes it tick.

Apple’s thriving marketplace of well over 500,000 apps for the iPad, iPhone and iPod touch is a self-regulating ecosystem that doesn’t tolerate copycats, say Soo Ling Lim and Peter Bentley at University College London, who modelled activity on the App Store.

Since Apple releases very little data associated with App Store interactions, Lim and Bentley built the next best thing – an “artificial life” simulation of the store. Named AppEco, it uses bits of software that obey unique behavioural rules to mimic apps, developers and consumers.

The simulation mimics four types of developer the team labelled innovators, optimisers, milkers and copycats. The copycats found it easy to make money – they simply built knock-offs of top-selling apps and confused users ended up buying the facsimiles.

But any developer who does this risks legal action and being banned from the App Store. That’s one reason Lim and Bentley chose to build a simulation of the store, rather than run a real-life experiment that would involve them releasing their own apps. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 April 2012 at 7:12 pm

Trying to formulate a rational defense for bigotry

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Bigots seldom believe that they are bigots. They see their positions as perfectly reasonable, but when they attempt to explain, “reason” breaks down rather quickly, as Bill Keller points out in this long and intriguing article in the NY Times:

At the end of January, New York’s Conservative Party, the most influential of the minor parties that complicate the state’s politics, celebrated its 50th anniversary at a Holiday Inn near the Albany airport, a vast and dingy venue that reminded me of athlete housing left over from the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Politicians like former Gov. George Pataki, who owed his election to the Conservatives, came to pay homage to the party for its record of steering the state’s politics to the right.

But one calamity darkened the mood of nostalgia and self-congratulation: the passage last summer of a law legalizing same-sex marriage. For many New Yorkers, the June 24 marriage vote was a rare moment of goosebump drama from a capital better known for tedious dysfunction. For the Conservatives, and in particular for Mike Long, the ex-marine who has been the party’s chairman for nearly half of its history, the vote was a triple humiliation.

It was, first, a defining triumph for the state’s ambitious new Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo. Second, it was an abandonment by Republican leaders, who had invoked party discipline to kill similar legislation in 2009. This time the Republican leaders publicly opposed gay marriage, but knowing that both public opinion and lobbying muscle were coalescing on the other side, they freed their members to vote as they wished. And that led to what was, for Mike Long, an unforgivable betrayal. All four of the Republican senators who voted for the bill and provided the necessary margin for it to pass had been elected with the Conservative endorsement, a prize for which opposition to gay marriage was an essential litmus test. Two of those wayward senators would not have won their seats without the Conservative boost.

Try as they might to explain away the defections — perhaps it was the lure of money from gay hedge-fund billionaires, or some devilish deal with Cuomo — the Conservatives feared that this defeat, if not punished, could mean an ominous loss of influence.

The four Republican apostates now had targets on their backs.

It is difficult to construct an argument against marriage rights for gay people that doesn’t sound like an argument against gay people. Mike Long and his fellow partisans, like many conservatives nationwide, build their case on what they call “the defense of traditional marriage.” No society in history, they told me repeatedly, has extended marriage rights to homosexuals, and so we shouldn’t risk the unraveling of civilization by starting now. (Apparently they don’t count the 10 countries, from Canada to South Africa, where gays may legally marry and civilization endures.) I’ve had a few conversations with Long, trying to understand what harm they think they are defending marriage from. In one conversation I recounted my own classic wedding at the Holy Name of Jesus church, and wondered how somebody else’s less conventional marriage could diminish the joy of it.

“Well, I don’t think it hurts anybody,” Long replied, “but I think a society has to have certain standards, and since the beginning of time, marriage has been between a man and a woman.” Marriage, he elaborated, is about children. “You’re not going to procreate children with same-sex couples.”

I told him that would be news to my daughters’ school classmates, the ones with two moms or two dads. And by the way, we don’t prohibit elderly, infertile or just plain procreation-averse couples from marrying.

“I know plenty of gay couples, O.K.?” he snapped back. “Some of them, if not all of them, are very good people, O.K.? I just don’t believe that society needs to change what the definition of marriage is to accommodate their lifestyle. That’s all. You know, that may be old-school. But I think Western civilization has done pretty good old-school.”

The quartet of dissident Republicans are themselves fairly old-school, at least when it comes to the rest of their conservative credentials. They come not from liberal Manhattan or the upscale suburbs of Westchester County. They are upstate guys, from struggling former mill towns and diminished Rust Belt cities. So while the senators’ political calculus differs from district to district, their experiences give us a glimpse into how this issue is likely to play out in “real America,” as conservatives are fond of calling it, and not just in the coastal metropolises. Which is why the fates of these four are being watched intently by national lobbies and wavering politicians across the country. . .

Continue reading. Note how the guy’s arguments all fail immediately. The reason: There is no argument, he just wants to prevent gays from having things that he has and enjoys. It’s bigotry, pure and simple.

UPDATE: The NY Times has recently restricted the number of articles one can read. The above article is definitely worth one of those reads. It’s really good.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 April 2012 at 2:17 pm

The mortgage scandal that’s still on-going

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Paul Kiel has an interesting article at ProPublica:

Yesterday, we published “The Great American Foreclosure Story,” our latest Kindle Single. The narrative gives readers a comprehensive look at the foreclosure crisis. Part of that story is the government’s inadequate response, particularly its Home Affordable Modification Program, HAMP. In the excerpt below, Chris Wyatt, a former employee of Litton Loan Servicing, then a Goldman Sachs subsidiary, tells what it was like at the company during the program’s first, crucial years.

In 2009, during the first few months of its participation in the program, Litton put tens of thousands of homeowners into trial modifications. That was easy, because nothing had to be documented. Under the agreements, if the borrower made the lowered payments for the three-month trial period, they’d receive permanent modifications.

The hard part was for Litton to collect the borrowers’ papers and crunch the numbers to verify the terms of the permanent modifications. That, he says, “turned out to be a total disaster.”

Wyatt led Litton’s “Executive Response Team,” which was charged with handling customer complaints. Litton employees, overwhelmed and undertrained, frequently made basic errors when calculating a homeowner’s income, he says. HAMP guidelines often weren’t followed, because Litton was “way understaffed” and couldn’t keep up, he recalls. But the worst part was the way Litton dealt with homeowners’ documents, he says.

When homeowners faxed their documents, they didn’t go to Litton, Wyatt says. They went to India, where a low-cost company scanned and filed the documents — but often misfiled or lost them. Wyatt says Litton routinely denied modifications because homeowners had not sent their documents when, in fact, they had.

In a process internally referred to as a “denial sweep,” Litton’s computers would automatically generate denial letters for every homeowner who, according to Litton’s records, hadn’t sent their documents. But untold numbers of those documents had been lost on another continent. Wyatt complained about the practice in multiple meetings with senior management, he says, but managers were chiefly worried about reducing the overwhelming backlog.

In general, Wyatt recalls, Litton was much more careful about granting modifications than denying them. Yes, HAMP gave financial incentives for each modification Litton and other servicers made, but modifications also meant closer scrutiny from the program’s auditors.

As of the end of 2010, fewer than 12 percent of the borrowers . . .

Continue reading. There are many good links and references on the page at the link.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 April 2012 at 1:52 pm

What the US lost, 2009-2012

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From Huffington Post, which notes:

Peter Van Buren, a 24-year veteran Foreign Service Officer at the State Department, spent a year in Iraq as team leader for two State Department Provincial Reconstruction Teams. Now in Washington and a TomDispatch regular, he writes about Iraq and the Middle East at his blog, We Meant Well. His book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People(The American Empire Project, Metropolitan Books), has recently been published. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Van Buren discusses the present plight of the whistleblower, click here, or download it to your iPod here.

Here’s the article in Huffington Post:

People ask the question in various ways, sometimes hesitantly, often via a long digression, but my answer is always the same: no regrets.

In some 24 years of government service, I experienced my share of dissonance when it came to what was said in public and what the government did behind the public’s back. In most cases, the gap was filled with scared little men and women, and what was left unsaid just hid the mistakes and flaws of those anonymous functionaries.

What I saw while serving the State Department at a forward operating base in Iraq was, however, different. There, the space between what we were doing (the eye-watering waste and mismanagement), and what we were saying (the endless claims of success and progress), was filled with numb soldiers and devastated Iraqis, not scaredy-cat bureaucrats.

That was too much for even a well-seasoned cubicle warrior like me to ignore and so I wrote a book about it, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the War for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. I was on the spot to see it all happen, leading two Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in rural Iraq while taking part up close and personal in what the U.S. government was doing to, not for, Iraqis. Originally, I imagined that my book’s subtitle would be “Lessons for Afghanistan,” since I was hoping the same mistakes would not be endlessly repeated there. Sometimes being right doesn’t solve a damn thing.

By the time I arrived in Iraq in 2009, I hardly expected to be welcomed as a liberator or greeted — as the officials who launched the invasion of that country expected back in 2003 — with a parade and flowers. But I never imagined Iraq for quite the American disaster it was either. Nor did I expect to be welcomed back by my employer, the State Department, as a hero in return for my book of loony stories and poignant moments that summed up how the United States wasted more than $44 billion in the reconstruction/deconstruction of Iraq. But I never imagined that State would retaliate against me.

In return for my book, a truthful account of my year in Iraq, my security clearance was taken away, I was sent home to sit on my hands for months, then temporarily allowed to return only as a disenfranchised teleworker and, as I write this, am drifting through the final steps toward termination.

What We Left Behind in Iraq

Sadly enough, in the almost two years since I left Iraq, little has happened that challenges my belief that we failed in the reconstruction and, through that failure, lost the war.

The Iraq of today is an extension of the Iraq I saw and described. The recent . . .

Continue reading. Bureaucrats tend to be authoritarian in outlook, and authoritarians are extremely fearful of criticism (probably because of their deepest feelings about their own actions), so the response to speaking out is not unprecedented: you see it in all authoritarian governments, in which direction we are now moving.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 April 2012 at 1:14 pm

Impossible demands for profit growth

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When I worked in business, corporate routinely demanded profits in the double-digit range, which one can quickly see that (in any rational model) is unsustainable. Nevertheless, corporate demanded, and budgets were tweaked (working backwards from desired outcomes, not forward from reality) to show the numbers corporate demanded.

Then the year started and it all went to hell, of course. But by various dodges (e.g., continuing to fill orders and thus recognize revenue long after midnight of 12/31—we were on calendar year) and accounting tricks, the numbers would, on paper, be achieved, thus resulting in a shower of bonuses for top management, which is why they pushed so hard.

After a few years, of course, the fiction was untenable, and a routine dance developed: the president of the company would leave, a new president would come in and ask for an audit, the CFO would be fired, all the garbage in the balance sheet would be cleansed, and the Etch-a-Sketch would be shaken—and the same cycle would be repeated: fictional results, building up until the collapse, change of management, reset, proceed. No one ever learned. (It was not a learning organization.) Indeed, so far as I can tell, no one ever noticed. It was just how things worked (or, rather, “worked”).

Here’s an interesting conversation on that very subject:

Some while back, I found myself sitting next to an accomplished economics professor at a dinner event. Shortly after pleasantries, I said to him, “economic growth cannot continue indefinitely,” just to see where things would go. It was a lively and informative conversation. I was somewhat alarmed by the disconnect between economic theory and physical constraints—not for the first time, but here it was up-close and personal. Though my memory is not keen enough to recount our conversation verbatim, I thought I would at least try to capture the key points and convey the essence of the tennis match—with some entertainment value thrown in.

Cast of characters: Physicist, played by me; Economist, played by an established economics professor from a prestigious institution. Scene: banquet dinner, played in four acts (courses).

Note: because I have a better retention of my own thoughts than those of my conversational companion, this recreation is lopsided to represent my own points/words. So while it may look like a physicist-dominated conversation, this is more an artifact of my own recall capabilities. I also should say that the other people at our table were not paying attention to our conversation, so I don’t know what makes me think this will be interesting to readers if it wasn’t even interesting enough to others at the table! But here goes…

Act One: Bread and Butter

Physicist: Hi, I’m Tom. I’m a physicist.

Economist: Hi Tom, I’m [ahem..cough]. I’m an economist.

Physicist: Hey, that’s great. I’ve been thinking a bit about growth and want to run an idea by you. I claim that economic growth cannot continue indefinitely.

Economist: [chokes on bread crumb] Did I hear you right? Did you say that growth cannot continue forever?

Physicist: That’s right. I think physical limits assert themselves.

Economist: Well sure, nothing truly lasts forever. The sun, for instance, will not burn forever. On the billions-of-years timescale, things come to an end.

Physicist: Granted, but I’m talking about a more immediate timescale, here on Earth. Earth’s physical resources—particularly energy—are limited and may prohibit continued growth within centuries, or possibly much shorter depending on the choices we make. There are thermodynamic issues as well.

Economist: I don’t think energy will ever be a limiting factor to economic growth. Sure, conventional fossil fuels are finite. But we can substitute non-conventional resources like tar sands, oil shale, shale gas, etc. By the time these run out, we’ll likely have built up a renewable infrastructure of wind, solar, and geothermal energy—plus next-generation nuclear fission and potentially nuclear fusion. And there are likely energy technologies we cannot yet fathom in the farther future.

Physicist: Sure, those things could happen, and I hope they do at some non-trivial scale. But let’s look at the physical implications of the energy scale expanding into the future. So what’s a typical rate of annual energy growth over the last few centuries?

Economist: I would guess a few percent. Less than 5%, but at least 2%, I should think. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 April 2012 at 11:40 am

The sexual revolution of the ’60s (the 1760’s)

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Interesting interview in The Browser with Faramerz Dabhoiwala (including book recommendations) on an earlier sexual revolution:

The roots of our (generally) open attitude to sex lie not in the sixties but the 1760s, says the historian and author of The Origins of Sex, who explores this earlier sexual revolution through its literature. . . .

Tell us about your book The Origins of Sex

I was very lucky as a historian – irrespective of what effect my work might have on people’s private lives. As a historian you always dream of stumbling across a subject that is important and unexplained, and that’s what I was lucky enough to do. There were all these things that happened in and around the 18th century – the age of the Enlightenment – that are both extraordinary in themselves and collectively add up to a sexual revolution. None of them have been really explained or put together, and so I tried to write a total history.

Let me give you an example of the kind of shift that my book charts. Until the 17th century, sex outside marriage was illegal and people were punished for it with increasing severity. The last person to be executed for adultery in England was hanged in 1654. If you fast-forward a hundred years to 1754, people have started to think and behave differently. There was a huge explosion in the amount of sex outside marriage, which was no longer punished. In 1754, [English radical] John Wilkes writes this great line in his Essay on Woman: “Life can little more supply, than just a few good fucks and then we die.” I think this is a wonderful encapsulation of a completely new way of thinking about the purpose of life, the greatness of sexual pleasure and the role of sex in life on earth. That’s just one of the huge shifts that take place, and that’s why I call it the “first sexual revolution”.

Why did this shift in attitudes take place?

There were important social transformations, one of the most important being urbanisation. Until the 17th century, only a tiny minority of people in England lived in towns. Most lived in tiny villages and communities of no more than a few hundred people at most. It was easy to enforce religious, sexual and political conformity in places like that. But then there was an explosion of urbanisation which started in the late 17th century. At the end of the middle ages, 40,000 people lived in London. By 1800, London was the biggest city in the world and more than a million people lived there.

London is a major focus of my work, because new ways of living in these cities created all sorts of opportunities for sex and the communication of ideas. The mass media was also born at this time in London. Intellectually, this is a point at which people in western societies move from a fundamentalist belief in the validity of the Bible and external authority to belief that individual conscience and reason is the only real foundation for ascertaining what’s true and what’s false. That, again, is a seismic shift and undermines the old way of thinking about ethics and sex.

You talk about a seismic shift in attitudes towards sex, but prostitutes have always been around and sexual shenanigans were hardly something new.

It’s a very pleasing idea that nothing ever changes and human nature remains the same. But I would push back against that a bit. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 April 2012 at 11:21 am

Posted in Books, Daily life, Science

Letters to oneself: Older to Younger division, Prostitute department

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Fascinating post of a retired prostitute to her younger self. It got me to thinking about what I would put in a letter I would write to myself to be read (say) in April of my senior year of high school. The warnings are obvious, but the positive advice—what to do more of, what to go for—is more intriguing.

At any rate, I thought the post was interesting. Take a look.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 April 2012 at 10:57 am

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