Later On

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Archive for November 2013

Interesting take on what the 2012 election reveals about US government

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Elias Isquith has a very interesting column in Salon. From that column:

. . . While most people at least intuitively understand that big-time political campaigns are financed largely by the very wealthy, Ferguson and his co-authors’ paper reveals the degree to which these national operations are funded by a vanishingly small number of people. “We really are dealing with a system that is of by and for the one percent — or the one-and-a-half percent,” Ferguson told Salon in a recent interview. And the numbers bear him out. Assuming that contributions over $500 come largely from the one percent, the paper finds that no less than 59 percent of Obama’s funding, and 79 percent of Romney’s, emanates from that small sliver of society. This contrasts rather jarringly with the popular image of the 2012 campaign as one pitting Obama’s middle-class constituency against Romney’s plutocratic backers. It was more of a plutocrat vs. plutocrat affair.

Even on that score, however, the lines of demarcation are fuzzy at best. It’s undeniable that Romney was more popular among big business than Obama, but the differences between the two were smaller than you’d imagine. In fact, the authors “suspect” that “the president probably enjoyed substantially higher levels of support within big business than most other modern Democratic presidential candidates, even those running for reelection.” Obama got walloped when it comes to what you could call Koch brother industries — oil, gas, plastics, etc. — but he did OK with Wall Street and, especially, the telecom and tech industries.

It’s that last point — Obama’s popularity among the industries that make up the surveillance state — that forms the most surprising and relevant takeaway of the paper. In the wake of the ongoing revelations from Edward Snowden of a national security state-turned-surveillance behemoth, the level of financial support the president enjoys from the industries working with the government to spy on Americans starts to make sense. But to compare this synchronicity to Obama’s 2008 campaign, and its pledges to rein in and civilize the Bush-Cheney post-9/11 national security leviathan, is to risk vertigo.

The distressing conclusion to be drawn from all this is that those interested in truly curtailing the surveillance state will find few friends within the two-party system. Democrats, after all, were supposed to be the ones who were more cautious, pragmatic, and civil liberties-minded when it came to surveillance. Voicing a sentiment that’s no doubt still held by many, if not most, Ferguson told Salon that, prior to his research, he “thought there was more distance between the Democrats and the Republicans on the National Security State.” That distance, if it ever was significant, is certainly gone now. . .

Read the whole thing.

Written by Leisureguy

30 November 2013 at 1:14 pm

Posted in Business, Election, Politics

More complex than it needs to be: Why?

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I was thinking about the two previous math articles, and the awe-inspiring vistas of mathematics, and realized that I had a kind of math nerd aspect to my personality, which led me to contemplate the complexity of a person’s personality. I know that people have many similarities, and thus we can talk about, e.g., how “psychology” in general works. But still: each person has a complex personality, and each personality (and psychology) is unique—easy to see: how many of you have met the same identical personality in two bodies: the same “person”, just different bodies? No one? Right.

So: why all this complexity? Certainly anything that complex comes with a cost—I suppose the cost of pushing uphill against entropy. To create and maintain such a complexity has to cost something, and evolutionary bookkeeping suggests that there must be a benefit that repays the cost: perhaps all that personal complexity is just the human version of the bowerbird: they build displays, we build personalities, and both activities are to attract mates and reproduce.

I can see that could move toward complexity in Darwin’s algorithm: like the peacock’s tail-feather display, our personalities: both complex, both mainly to attract mates.

So I guess in an evolutionary context, it’s not “more complex than it needs to be”: it has to be that complex to compete.

Written by Leisureguy

30 November 2013 at 12:23 pm

Posted in Daily life

Crowd-sourcing shrinking the prime gap

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I blogged earlier about the initial discovery, but lots has happened since, reported in Quanta magazine by Erica Klarreich:

On May 13, an obscure mathematician — one whose talents had gone so unrecognized that he had worked at a Subway restaurant to make ends meet — garnered worldwide attention and accolades from the mathematics community for settling a long-standing open question about prime numbers, those numbers divisible by only one and themselves. Yitang Zhang, a lecturer at the University of New Hampshire, showed that even though primes get increasingly rare as you go further out along the number line, you will never stop finding pairs of primes separated by at most 70 million. His finding was the first time anyone had managed to put a finite bound on the gaps between prime numbers, representing a major leap toward proving the centuries-old twin primes conjecture, which posits that there are infinitely many pairs of primes separated by only two (such as 11 and 13).

In the months that followed, Zhang found himself caught up in a whirlwind of activity and excitement: He has lectured on his work at many of the nation’s preeminent universities, has received offers of jobs from top institutions in China and Taiwan and a visiting position at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., and has been told that he will be promoted to full professor at the University of New Hampshire.

Related ArticleUnheralded Mathematician Bridges the Prime Gap

Meanwhile, Zhang’s work raised a question: Why 70 million? There is nothing magical about that number — it served Zhang’s purposes and simplified his proof. Other mathematicians quickly realized that it should be possible to push this separation bound quite a bit lower, although not all the way down to two.

By the end of May, mathematicians had uncovered simple tweaks to Zhang’s argument that brought the bound below 60 million. A May 30 blog post by Scott Morrison of the Australian National University in Canberra ignited a firestorm of activity, as mathematicians vied to improve on this number, setting one record after another. By June 4, Terence Tao of the University of California, Los Angeles, a winner of the Fields Medal, mathematics’ highest honor, had created a “Polymath project,” an open, online collaboration to improve the bound that attracted dozens of participants.

For weeks, the project moved forward at a breathless pace. “At times, the bound was going down every thirty minutes,” Tao recalled. By July 27, the team had succeeded in reducing the proven bound on prime gaps from 70 million to 4,680.

Now, a preprint posted to on November 19 by James Maynard, a postdoctoral researcher working on his own at the University of Montreal, has upped the ante. Just months after Zhang announced his result, Maynard has presented an independent proof that pushes the gap down to 600. A new Polymath project is in the planning stages, to try to combine the collaboration’s techniques with Maynard’s approach to push this bound even lower.

“The community is very excited by this new progress,” Tao said.

Maynard’s approach applies not just to pairs of primes, but to triples, quadruples and larger collections of primes. He has shown that you can find bounded clusters of any chosen number of primes infinitely often as you go out along the number line. (Tao said he independently arrived at this result at about the same time as Maynard.)

Zhang’s work and, to a lesser degree, Maynard’s fits the archetype of the solitary mathematical genius, working for years in the proverbial garret until he is ready to dazzle the world with a great discovery. The Polymath project couldn’t be more different — fast and furious, massively collaborative, fueled by the instant gratification of setting a new world record.

For Zhang, working alone and nearly obsessively on a single hard problem brought a huge payoff. Would he recommend that approach to other mathematicians? “It’s hard to say,” he said. “I choose my own way, but it’s only my way.”

Tao actively discourages young mathematicians from heading down such a path, whichhe has called “a particularly dangerous occupational hazard” that has seldom worked well, except for established mathematicians with a secure career and a proven track record. However, he said in an interview, the solitary and collaborative approaches each have something to offer mathematics.

“It’s important to have people who are willing to work in isolation and buck the conventional wisdom,” Tao said. Polymath, by contrast, is “entirely groupthink.” Not every math problem would lend itself to such collaboration, but this one did.

Combing the Number Line

Zhang proved his result by going fishing for prime numbers using a mathematical tool called a k-tuple, which you can visualize as a comb with some of its teeth snapped off. If you position such a comb along the number line starting at any chosen spot, the remaining teeth will point to some collection of numbers.

Zhang focused on snapped combs whose remaining teeth satisfy a divisibility property called “admissibility.” He showed that if you go fishing for primes using any admissible comb with at least 3,500,000 teeth, there are infinitely many positions along the number line where the comb will catch at least two prime numbers. Next, he showed how to make an admissible comb with at least 3,500,000 remaining teeth by starting with a 70-million-tooth comb and snapping off all but its prime teeth. Such a comb must catch two primes again and again, he concluded, and the primes it catches are separated by at most 70 million.

The finding is “a fantastic breakthrough,” said Andrew Granville, of the University of Montreal. “It’s a historic result.”

Zhang’s work involved three separate steps, each of which offered potential room for improvement on his 70 million bound. First, Zhang invoked some very deep mathematics to figure out where prime fish are likely to be hiding. Next, he used this result to figure out how many teeth his comb would need in order to guarantee that it would catch at least two prime fish infinitely often. Finally, he calculated how large a comb he had to start with so that enough teeth would be left after it had been snapped down to admissibility.

The fact that these three steps could be separated made improving Zhang’s bound an ideal project for a crowd-sourced collaboration, Tao said. “His proof is very modular, so we could parallelize the project, and people with different skills squeezed out what improvements they could.”

The Polymath project quickly attracted people with the right skills, perhaps more efficiently than if the project had been organized from the top down. “A Polymath project brings together people who wouldn’t have thought of coming together,” Tao said.

Prime Fishing Grounds

Of Zhang’s three steps, the first to admit improvement was the last one, in which he found an admissible comb with at least 3,500,000 teeth. Zhang had shown that a comb of length 70 million would do the trick, but he hadn’t tried particularly hard to make his comb as small as possible. There was plenty of room for improvement, and researchers who were good at computational mathematics soon started a friendly race to find small admissible combs with a given number of teeth.

Andrew Sutherland, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, quickly became a sort of de facto admissible-comb czar. Sutherland, who focuses on computational number theory, had been traveling during Zhang’s announcement and hadn’t paid particular attention to it. But when he checked in at a Chicago hotel and mentioned to the clerk that he was there for a mathematics conference, the clerk replied, “Wow, 70 million, huh?”

“I was floored that he knew about it,” Sutherland said. He soon discovered that there was plenty of scope for someone with his computational skills to help improve Zhang’s bound. “I had lots of plans for the summer, but they went by the wayside.”

For the mathematicians working on this step, the ground kept shifting underfoot. Their task changed every time the mathematicians working on the other two steps managed to reduce the number of teeth the comb would require. “The rules of the game were changing on a day-to-day basis,” Sutherland said. “While I was sleeping, people in Europe would post new bounds. Sometimes, I would run downstairs at 2 a.m. with an idea to post.”

The team eventually came up with the Polymath project’s record-holder — a 632-tooth comb whose width is 4,680 — using a genetic algorithm that “mates” admissible combs with each other to produce new, potentially better combs.

Maynard’s finding, which involves a 105-tooth comb whose width is 600, renders these giant computations obsolete. But the team’s effort was not a wasted one: . .

Continue reading. And a very important point is made in a sidebar:

Wrong in Public

The entire Polymath project is available onlinefor anyone who wants to see “how the sausage is made,” Tao said. The blog discussion threads offer a unique glimpse into mathematics research, which usually happens behind closed doors.

In particular, Tao said, the online posts and comments make clear how much trial and error goes into developing mathematical ideas. Polished research papers often give the impression that their authors have never made a misstep. But in truth, Tao said, “great mathematicians make stupid mistakes, and this is a process that people often hide, because it is embarrassing.”

One of the bedrock principles of the Polymath approach is that participants should throw any idea out to the crowd immediately, without stopping to ponder whether it is any good. “There’s an explicit license to be wrong in public,” Morrison said. “It goes against a lot of people’s instincts, but it makes the project much more efficient when we’re more relaxed about saying stupid things.”

Written by Leisureguy

30 November 2013 at 10:54 am

Posted in Math

Settling mathematical problems with infinity through a new postulate

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Natalie Wolchover has an article interesting to the mathematically inclined on efforts to shore up problems with infinity (cf. the continuum hypothesis):

In the course of exploring their universe, mathematicians have occasionally stumbled across holes: statements that can be neither proved nor refuted with the nine axioms, collectively called “ZFC,” that serve as the fundamental laws of mathematics. Most mathematicians simply ignore the holes, which lie in abstract realms with few practical or scientific ramifications. But for the stewards of math’s logical underpinnings, their presence raises concerns about the foundations of the entire enterprise.

“How can I stay in any field and continue to prove theorems if the fundamental notions I’m using are problematic?” asks Peter Koellner, a professor of philosophy at Harvard University who specializes in mathematical logic.

Chief among the holes is the continuum hypothesis, a 140-year-old statement about the possible sizes of infinity. As incomprehensible as it may seem, endlessness comes in many measures: For example, there are more points on the number line, collectively called the “continuum,” than there are counting numbers. Beyond the continuum lie larger infinities still — an interminable progression of evermore enormous, yet all endless, entities. The continuum hypothesis asserts that there is no infinity between the smallest kind — the set of counting numbers — and what it asserts is the second-smallest — the continuum. It “must be either true or false,” the mathematical logician Kurt Gödel wrote in 1947, “and its undecidability from the axioms as known today can only mean that these axioms do not contain a complete description of reality.”

The decades-long quest for a more complete axiomatic system, one that could settle the infinity question and plug many of the other holes in mathematics at the same time, has arrived at a crossroads. During a recent meeting at Harvard organized by Koellner, scholars largely agreed upon two main contenders for additions to ZFC: forcing axioms and the inner-model axiom “V=ultimate L.”

“If forcing axioms are right, then the continuum hypothesis is false,” Koellner said. “And if the inner-model axiom is right, then the continuum hypothesis is true. You go through a whole list of issues in other fields, and the forcing axioms will answer those questions one way, and ultimate L will answer them a different way.”

According to the researchers, choosing between the candidates boils down to a question about the purpose of logical axioms and the nature of mathematics itself. Are axioms supposed to be the grains of truth that yield the most pristine mathematical universe? In that case, V=ultimate L may be most promising. Or is the point to find the most fruitful seeds of mathematical discovery, a criterion that seems to favor forcing axioms? “The two sides have a somewhat divergent view of what the goal is,” said Justin Moore, a mathematics professor at Cornell University.

Axiomatic systems like ZFC provide rules governing collections of objects called “sets,” which serve as the building blocks of the mathematical universe. Just as ZFC now arbitrates mathematical truth, adding an extra axiom to the rule book would help shape the future of the field — particularly its take on infinity. But unlike most of the ZFC axioms, the new ones “are not self-evident, or at least not self-evident at this stage of our knowledge, so we have a much more difficult task,” said Stevo Todorcevic, a mathematician at the University of Toronto and the French National Center for Scientific Research in Paris.

Proponents of V=ultimate L say that establishing an absence of infinities between the integers and the continuum promises to bring order to the chaos of infinite sets, of which there are, unfathomably, an infinite variety. But the axiom may have minimal consequences for traditional branches of mathematics.

Hugh Woodin, 58, is the leading proponent of an axiom called V=ultimate L that could help decide the fuller nature of infinity.

“Set theory is in the business of understanding infinity,” said Hugh Woodin, who is a mathematician at the University of California, Berkeley; the architect of V=ultimate L; and one of the most prominent living set theorists. The familiar numbers relevant to most mathematics, Woodin argues, “are an insignificant piece of the universe of sets.”

Meanwhile, forcing axioms, which deem the continuum hypothesis false by adding a new size of infinity, would also extend the frontiers of mathematics in other directions. They are workhorses that regular mathematicians “can actually go out and use in the field, so to speak,” Moore said. “To me, this is ultimately what foundations [of mathematics] should be doing.”

New advances in the study of V=ultimate L and newfound uses of forcing axioms, especially one called “Martin’s maximum” after the mathematician Donald Martin, have energized the debate about which axiom to adopt. And there’s a third point of view that disagrees with the debate’s very premise. According to some theorists, there are myriad mathematical universes, some in which the continuum hypothesis is true and others in which it is false — but all equally worth exploring. Meanwhile, “there are some skeptics,” Koellner said, “people who for philosophical reasons think set theory and the higher infinite doesn’t even make any sense.”

Infinite Paradoxes

Infinity has ruffled feathers in mathematics almost since the field’s beginning. The controversy arises not from the notion of potential infinity —the number line’s promise of continuing forever — but from the concept of infinity as an actual, complete, manipulable object.

“What truly infinite objects exist in the real world?” asks Stephen Simpson, a mathematician and logician at Pennsylvania State University. Taking a view originally espoused by Aristotle, Simpson argues that actual infinity doesn’t really exist and so it should not so readily be assumed to exist in the mathematical universe. He leads an effort to wean mathematics off actual infinity, by showing that the vast majority of theorems can be proved using only the notion of potential infinity. “But potential infinity is almost forgotten now,” Simpson said. “In the ZFC set theory mindset, people tend not to even remember that distinction. They just think infinity means actual infinity and that’s all there is to it.”

Infinity was boxed and sold to the mathematical community in the late 19th century by the German mathematician Georg Cantor. Cantor invented a branch of mathematics dealing with sets — collections of elements that ranged from empty (the equivalent of the number zero) to infinite. His “set theory” was such a useful language for describing mathematical objects that within decades, it became the field’s lingua franca. A nine-item list of rules called Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory with the axiom of choice, or ZFC, was established and widely adopted by the 1920s. Translated into plain English, one of the axioms says two sets are equal if they contain the same elements. Another simply asserts that infinite sets exist.Assuming actual infinity leads to unsettling consequences. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

30 November 2013 at 9:28 am

Posted in Math

Colleges are teaching economics backwards

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Mike Konczal in the Washington Post with an interesting idea:

“The world has changed, the syllabus hasn’t.” That’s the motto of the Post-Crash Economics Society, a group of students at the University of Manchester who demand reforms to the way undergraduate economics is taught in light of the worldwide economic crisis. Similar activism is occurring in other elite undergraduate institutions: There was the well-publicized Open Letter to Greg Mankiw from students in the introductory economics class at Harvard, during the height of the Occupy movement. Meanwhile, institutions like the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET) are getting involved by launching a pilot program to revamp the undergraduate economics curriculum.

Economics professors sometimes respond to these demands for change by arguing that, though the crisis presents unique challenges, there’s still a core set of knowledge that needs to be taught. If students want, they can move on to advanced classes which give a more nuanced view of elements of economics. But in order to critique economics, either inside the discipline or outside of it, they need to know the basics.

These professors have a point. But the stakes of even basic economic education are high. The language of economics is the language of elite discourse, and revamping undergraduate economic curriculum has the potential to profoundly shift the ways the next generation understands economies and crises–for better or for worse.

So here’s one temporary fix for introductory economics: teach it backwards. Reversing the order in which introductory economic classes are taught today might be the easiest way to respond to the crisis in undergraduate education. Plus, the history of how it gets taught now is more interesting and more political than you might think.

Today, first-year undergraduate students typically start with microeconomics, or the study of individuals and individual markets. This begins with the study of abstract, decontextualized, markets, where supply and demand work perfectly, individuals exist in isolation, and they effortlessly trade with others in isolation of society, the law, and politics. Students are often asked to imagine Robinson Crusoe, stranded on his island, making choices about how to work, eat and play. Introductory studies then proceed, at the end, to situations where markets don’t work perfectly–for instance, when environmental pollution imposes costs on others, or when someone has monopoly power to set prices.

In their second class, students begin to learn macroeconomics, or what happens when you add up all those markets. After gathering the basics of the field, they study the concept of long-run growth first. Though hard answers are often unclear to expert economists, this course of study is meant to figure out how things in the long-run change. Then, if there’s time left in the term, the class may turn to short-run issues, particularly the topics of the business cycle, recessions, and involuntary unemployment.

Notice how this orients the casual student, the non-major who will only encounter economics once in this survey course. They start off with an abstract market that always works, versus having to see the messy parts when it doesn’t. They then proceed to the long-run, and only after everything else do they get to something that might help them understand why unemployment is so high for young college graduates. Only then might they be introduced to the institutions that make markets happen, if those are discussed at all.

So, what if we just reversed all that?

What if macroeconomics came first, before the study of individual markets? If were to reverse the typical curriculum, the first thing undergraduates would encounter wouldn’t be abstract theories about people optimizing, but instead the idea of involuntary unemployment and the idea that the economy could operate below its potential. They’d study the economy in the short-run before going to issues of long-term growth, with professors having to explain the theories on how the two are linked, bringing in crucial concepts like hysteresis.

Then, in the second class, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

30 November 2013 at 9:03 am

Posted in Business, Education

Good result from a final Scent-Off shave

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SOTD 30 Nov 2013

A very smooth result today. I used my Whipped Dog 24mm silvertip and will save my lather comments for the summary on Monday. But the final result was BBS: the Sodial really is a good little razor. A good splash of Floïd starts the weekend well.

Written by Leisureguy

30 November 2013 at 8:31 am

Posted in Shaving

Perhaps the idea of police officers in all schools needs rethinking

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Jodie Gummow reports at AlterNet:

An Austin family is suing the Texas sheriff’s deputy and school district in federal court after their 17-year-old son was tasered last week by a police officer in the school hallway, leaving him in a coma and fighting for his life,  Courthouse News  reported.

Noe Nino de Rivera, had successfully stepped in to break up a fight between two girls at Cedar Creek High School when school officials called in Randy McMillan, a Bastrop County sheriff department deputy. McMillan told the boy to step back and the teen obliged, with his hands in the air.

Yet, in a vicious act of police brutality, McMillan tasered the boy anyway, who fell onto his face and was knocked unconscious. Rather than calling for emergency medical assistance, the cop put the comatose boy in handcuffs.

Eventually, school officials contacted emergency services and the boy was airlifted to hospital where he underwent brain surgery and was placed in a medically induced coma where he remains and is still unable to communicate with his family.

Students who saw the incident say McMillan’s response was a gross overreaction, according to  KXAN.

“There was a crowd watching and the kid was just trying to get the officers to listen to him. When he shot the taser, there was a crowd, and others could have been hit,” said one student.

Acosta says the school was negligent in allowing McMillan to work at the school, despite the fact that he had previously tasered another student a year ago.

The incident is under investigation. The family is now seeking damages for the police brutality.

Written by Leisureguy

29 November 2013 at 4:46 pm

Posted in Education, Guns

TWA Flight 800: the documentary

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I just watched TWA: Flight 800 on Netflix Watch Instantly. It’s a recent documentary (this year, in fact) that makes a strong and cogent case that the official explanation is not only incorrect—that is, it does not come close to agreeing with the evidence—but is in fact a heavy-handed cover-up including witness intimidation from the FBI. For that to be credible, of course, you’d have to believe that the FBI is a highly authoritarian organization with people who take orders and act on them, and who believe it is their job to protect the reputation of the country as much as it is to fight crime. (Of course, the scandal of all the tainted convictions from the FBI’s incredibly sloppy forensic work in the FBI lab shows that they are perhaps not so competent as they claim—as does their totally incorrect fingerprint analysis that put an Oregon man’s at the site of the Madrid bombing, a man who’s never been to Spain.)

At any rate, the film is well worth seeing and seems to show pretty conclusively that Flight 800 was brought down by a high-velocity explosion—military ordnance—and 3 missiles were involved, very like the US Navy training exercise described in this post.

Here’s a review of the film.

And take a look at this Democracy Now! story from June 20, 2013 (blogged some time back). I would guess, based on what we know, that the training exercise went awry when the missiles acquired TWA 800 as a target—the fact that the US Navy vessels fled the scene is pretty conclusive, given the normal requirement to assist in an emergency at sea. Then the FBI gets its marching orders, the media shows again that it has become terribly weak, and the half-ass cover-up works. And I doubt that the NTSB will re-open the investigation. I’m sure they have their orders.

See the film, watch the Democracy Now! video, consider the number of lies we’ve been told to date by the government just over the NSA programs, much less the Iraq War, and ask, “Could our government really make such a horrible error (cf. Iran Air Flight 655) and then try to cover it up?” The answer, based on what we’ve seen of government secrecy and misrepresentation over the past decade or so, is obviously, “Yes.”

Written by Leisureguy

29 November 2013 at 4:41 pm

Posted in Government

E-mails show cozy relationship between Obama trade negotiators and industry groups

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Obama clearly knows which side his bread’s buttered on and is undoubtedly looking forward to big payoffs once he leaves office. Turning over the trade negotiations to the companies involved and ignoring the public interest seems quite typical of recent administrations, which operate in service of corporate rather than public interests. Tim Lee notes in the Washington Post:

On Tuesday, I wrote about the close relationship between the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, which negotiates U.S. trade agreements, and industry groups that favor stronger copyright and patent protections. New e-mails released by the advocacy group Knowledge Ecology International shine further light on the close working relationship between Obama trade negotiators and K Street lobbyists.

The e-mails were released in response to a freedom of information request by IP-Watch this year. They don’t provide much information about the substance of USTR’s conversations with industry groups. But there are dozens of e-mails in which lobbyists from the pharmaceutical, medical device, video game, biotechnology and recording industries arranged meetings with senior USTR officials. The close relationship suggested by the e-mails contrasts with the more arms-length relationship public interest groups say they’ve experienced when they try to influence USTR officials.

One name that comes up frequently in the e-mails is Ralph Ives, a lobbyist for AdvaMed, a trade group representing medical device makers. In Tuesday’s story, I quoted an AdvaMed spokeswoman, who said that “neither AdvaMed nor Ives has ever provided USTR comments on a provision of the TPP IP chapter.”

The e-mails, which cover a period from 2009 to 2013, demonstrate regular contact between Ives and Jared Ragland, whose title in 2011 was director, Office of Intellectual Property and Innovation at USTR. On two occasions, on March 16, 2011, and Feb. 14, 2012, Ragland e-mailed Ives seeking advice. On two other occasions, on Sept. 20, 2011, and March 16, 2012, Ives e-mailed Ragland asking for a meeting.

The e-mails also show that Ives participated in a Feb. 1 conference call between USTR officials and industry lobbyists arranged by Medtronic lobbyist Trevor Gunn. On Jan. 22, in an e-mail with the subject line “TPP IP Issues,” Gunn wrote that USTR official Probir Mehta “has confirmed a meeting for the following individuals, representing ITAC3 on TPP IP issues.” ITAC3 is a USTR advisory committee representing pharmaceutical and medical device companies. Ives was one of six individuals listed as participating in the meeting, and subsequent e-mails suggested he joined the meeting by phone.

On Wednesday, an AdvaMed spokeswoman told me that the intellectual property chapter of the TPP was not discussed at any of these meetings. She noted that “Ragland was the lead negotiator for the transparency issues and procedural fairness provision of the TPP.” She says that those issues, not IP issues, were the focus of Ives’s conversations with Ragland.

As for the “TPP IP issues” e-mail, AdvaMed says that Gunn is simply in the habit of using “TPP IP issues” as a shorthand for all of the issues that he works on, which also includes non-IP issues of interest to medical device companies. The AdvaMed spokeswoman, after consulting with Ives, said that despite the meeting’s title, intellectual property issues did not come up during that Feb. 1 conference call.

The documents suggest that USTR interacts differently with industry insiders seeking to influence its policymaking than it does with public interest groups seeking to do the same. The e-mails contain numerous references to “cleared advisors,” individuals to whom USTR has granted access to confidential documents. Numerous companies and industry groups have had their personnel named as cleared advisers, and many of the meetings described in the e-mails were limited to cleared advisers so that confidential matters could be discussed.

In contrast, few public interest groups have been named as cleared advisers. Indeed, a USTR spokeswoman couldn’t name any examples of non-industry public interest advocates who have been cleared to advise USTR on IP issues. That severely limits the ability of public interest groups to have productive conversations with USTR officials, some of those groups say. “I can walk up to the front of the Department of Commerce building and tell them everything I think,” says Sherwin Siy, an attorney at the advocacy group Public Knowledge. “It doesn’t mean a thing unless we know what’s in the text.”

Another difference: the e-mails show that USTR doesn’t just take meetings with industry advocates, the agency also regularly solicits their advice. As we’ve seen, Ragland asked Ives for advice on two occasions. On another occasion, July 24, 2012, USTR’s Stanford McCoy e-mailed Jay Taylor of the pharmaceutical industry group PhRMA: “Can we possibly have a cleared adviser meeting Thursday or Friday of this week? I’d like to get up to speed on your concerns about medpharm and get a fresh start on the way forward.”

Peter Maybarduk, who works on pharmaceutical issues at the advocacy group Public Citizen, says that he never gets e-mails like that from USTR. “We don’t get any request for our take on this or that. If we ask to meet with Probir [Mehta of the USTR’s Office of Intellectual Property and Innovation] for example, he’ll meet with us. We’ll have a conversation. Those conversations have gotten better over time. But it’s a complex diplomatic exercise, it’s not like a frank exchange of information about what is actually happening.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

29 November 2013 at 12:57 pm

Obama’s overhaul of spy programs cloaked in more secrecy

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Obama does love keeping things secret—to a fault, not to put too fine a point on it. Anita Kumar reports for McClatchy:

President Barack Obama has faced withering criticism around the globe for his secret spying programs. How has he responded? With more secrecy.

Obama has been gradually tweaking his vast government surveillance policies. But he is not disclosing those changes to the public. Has he stopped spying on friendly world leaders? He won’t say. Has he stopped eavesdropping on the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund? He won’t say.

Even the report by the group Obama created to review and recommend changes to his surveillance programs has been kept secret.

Critics note that this comes after he famously promised the most open administration in history.

“They seem to have reverted to a much more traditional model of secrecy except when it’s politically advantageous,” said Steven Aftergood, who directs the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy, and is an expert on – and prominent critic of – government secrecy. “That’s normal but not consistent with their pledge.”

For five months, former government contractor Edward Snowden has steadily released classified information to the media that shows the breadth of the federal government programs that have guided intelligence gathering since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Documents show the National Security Agency had been collecting telephone and email records on tens of millions of Americans and foreigners, eavesdropping on allies such as Germany and Brazil, and spying on a host of global institutions.

As criticism swelled at home and abroad, Obama said the nation should examine how the government can strike a balance between national security and privacy concerns. He said at an August news conference that Americans will resolve any disagreements about the NSA programs through “vigorous public debate.”

But what started out as a national examination largely turned into a private review with few public meetings, little document disclosure and next to no public debate, say some lawmakers, technology organizations and civil liberties groups. And now, as those behind-the-scenes reviews begin to wind down, Obama is not providing details of the results.

“As part of the overall review of our intelligence-gathering practices, decisions are being made by the president and implemented by the president, but beyond that, I have to ask you to wait until the reviews, the various reviews have been completed and we have more to say,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

Sherwin Siy, vice president of legal affairs at Public Knowledge, which promotes Internet openness and provided recommendations to the White House on this issue, said administration officials are asking Americans to trust them, but their past actions have provided no reason to do so. “Where are the reserves of trust supposed to come from?” he asked.

On his first day in office, Obama offered a sweeping promise of transparency, issuing a number of executive actions to provide more openness at every level of the federal government and greater disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.

“My administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government,” Obama wrote at the time. “Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in government.”

But over the last five years, watchdog groups say, Obama has relied on state secrets and secret laws to make national security decisions with little congressional or public oversight, much as did his predecessor, President George W. Bush.

In recent months, Obama and James Clapper, the director of the Office of National Intelligence, have made statements that diminished the scope of – or outright denied the existence of – surveillance programs.

Carney and other administration officials say they are prohibited by law from revealing more details because the surveillance programs are classified and revelations could threaten national security.

Sascha Meinrath, director of the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation, which pushes Internet freedom and provided recommendations to the White House on this issue, suggested it declassify more programs in order to talk about them. “The blowback is only going to get worse,” he said.

In the past several months the government has released some documents, primarily about phone and email record collections. Some are heavily redacted, with thick black lines obscuring numerous dates, names and entire paragraphs.

Clapper says that he has released them at Obama’s request to be more transparent, but many were released as a result of court orders as part of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy advocacy group. . .

Continue reading.

James Clapper, chronic liar.

Written by Leisureguy

29 November 2013 at 12:40 pm

Pope Francis and the global economy

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Excellent article from Neil Irwin, combining some statements from Pope Francis and some interesting charts. Take a look at this one, since the US healthcare system (“Best in the world!!” ™) is in the news a lot:


The X axis is the health spending per capita. The US is very far to the right: we spend more per person than any other nation.

The Y axis is the quality of care received, as measured by outcomes. Look at all those nations with better quality of healthcare—i.e., all those higher than the US in the chart.

We have a bad system, but perhaps with the Affordable Care Act it will get better. Who knows, at some point the US might even have healthcare as good as that offered by other nations.

Written by Leisureguy

29 November 2013 at 12:34 pm

Posted in Healthcare

Obamacare’s Secret Success

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Paul Krugman points out the successes the Affordable Care Act has already achieved. He begins:

The law establishing Obamacare was officially titled the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. And the “affordable” bit wasn’t just about subsidizing premiums. It was also supposed to be about “bending the curve” — slowing the seemingly inexorable rise in health costs.

Much of the Beltway establishment scoffed at the promise of cost savings. The prevalent attitude in Washington is that reform isn’t real unless the little people suffer; serious savings are supposed to come from things like raising the Medicare age (which the Congressional Budget Office recently concluded would, in fact, hardly save any money) and throwing millions of Americans off Medicaid. True, a 2011 letter signed by hundreds of health and labor economists pointed out that “the Affordable Care Act contains essentially every cost-containment provision policy analysts have considered effective in reducing the rate of medical spending.” But such expert views were largely ignored.

So, how’s it going? The health exchanges are off to a famously rocky start, but many, though by no means all, of the cost-control measures have already kicked in. Has the curve been bent?

The answer, amazingly, is yes. In fact, the slowdown in health costs has been dramatic.

O.K., the obligatory caveats. First of all, we don’t know how long the good news will last. Health costs in the United States slowed dramatically in the 1990s (although not this dramatically), probably thanks to the rise of health maintenance organizations, but cost growth picked up again after 2000. Second, we don’t know for sure how much of the good news is because of the Affordable Care Act.

Still, the facts are striking. Since 2010, when the act was passed, real health spending per capita — that is, total spending adjusted for overall inflation and population growth — has risen less than a third as rapidly as its long-term average. Real spending per Medicare recipient hasn’t risen at all; real spending per Medicaid beneficiary has actually fallen slightly.

What could account for this good news? One obvious answer is . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

29 November 2013 at 9:26 am

Posted in Government, Healthcare

Watch a television “journalist” try to avoid confronting the truth

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The BBC TV journalist very much reveals the weakness of his position and argument and gets quite flustered in doing it. Well worth watching the full 3 1/2 minutes:

Written by Leisureguy

29 November 2013 at 9:19 am

Posted in Government, Media, NSA

Turkey-fryer-fire collection

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Fortunately, these are good viral candidates (e.g., me passing them along), and thus more and more people see examples of consequences of bad turkey-fryer decisions—like trying it.

Written by Leisureguy

29 November 2013 at 9:12 am

Posted in Daily life

US Army a MAJOR software pirate

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Brian Fung notes the criminal acts of the Army—and the piracy of just the one application amounts to theft of $180 million worth of software.

Q: Will anyone in the Army suffer any punishment at all for the $180 million theft?

A: Are you kidding? Maybe some enlisted man here or there, but certainly no officers.

The cool thing is: the Army stole $180 million, and they’re offering to pay back $50 million and call it even.

This gives me an idea on how to get rich quickly…. (Assuming the same rules apply to individuals as to organizations.)

Written by Leisureguy

29 November 2013 at 9:10 am

Insight regarding rationality/accuracy

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I recently got into a lengthy verbal kerfuffle, one in which I was maintaining a position that turned out to be unpopular. Normally I will take the hint and drop the matter, but this situation was not about a serious issue (merely grammatical, it seemed to me), so I thought I would play it out to see what happened, particularly as I felt I was on solid ground and could readily explain my position (which, to my mind, was clearly correct even if a bit unpopular).

Eventually the thing died down, and the following day when I revisited the thread I was astonished by how mean spirited and obnoxious my comments seemed to me now. I did post an apology, and figuring out what happened and why was a valuable experience for me because I finally understood something, doubtless obvious to most, that I had not previously grasped so clearly.

First, you’ve doubtless noticed that almost everyone places signifcant importance on things at which they excel. Correlation is not causation, as we are repeatedly told (to the extent that I suggest the acronym CINC (pronounced “sink”) to covey the message. That is, it’s unclear whether they decide that something is important after they notice that they have a gift for it, or they may value something and work hard at it because they consider it important, and thus become good at it.

Whatever the cause, I’ve noticed that those who are good at sports believe firmly that sports are quite important. Those gifted in music find music to be a central touchstone. Those who are good at tools of the mind—rational thought, clear reasoning, and logic—often see those as centrally important. All those talents and skills are good, but considered abstractly, each applies to only a portion of the range of human experience, which is enormously rich. Still, when we encounter a situation or problem, we tend to turn first to our particular strengths. Abraham Maslow famously observed that a man with a hammer sees every problem as a nail: we want to use our best skills in tackling a problem, even if the tail wags the dog and the skill we select shapes the direction of effort even when it’s the wrong direction. We find ourselves like the drunk in the joke, searching for his keys not in the dark alley where he dropped them, but out in the street where light is better.

If you’ve seen the (wonderful) movie Up!, you’re familiar with the intelligent talking dogs, formidable opponents except when one glimpses a squirrel, which causes him involuntarily to shout, “Squirrel!” whereupon the entire pack swivels their heads to spot the squirrel, completely losing track of whatever effort is underway.

That is more or less my reaction when I’m working on a problem: I am overwhelmed by my own squirrel: rational, logical argument and accurate statements. (This may be related to something Steve of Kafeneio calls “scientism”: a caricature of science, which holds that only questions amenable to a scientific approach are valid questions and only answers arrived at by science are valid answers. (I don’t think anyone actually holds this position, BTW. Still, the term is often hurled at those who look for scientific answers in novel situations, by people who feel that science is inappropriately applied to such situations.)

<aside> It’s not just science that people feel doesn’t work in certain areas. Plato has Socrates propound the philosophical reality of the Forms. A thing is a horse or an ashtray (to use  canonical seminar examples from my student years) because it “participates” in the Forms of “horse” and “ashtray” respectively. The Big Five Forms were Same, Other, Motion, Rest, and Being, with much discussion of the relationship of the (two?) Forms Being and Good—sort of the Platonic equivalent of the Continuum Hypothesis. But Socrates states states explicitly that the philosophical tool of Forms was not to be used with things like mud, dirt, and hair, just as some feel that science and its methods should not be used in the context of (say) poetry or religion or the like. </aside>

However, I hold the scientific method as a core idea and approach. I use a looser definition of “scientific method” than some, who restrict the term to apply only to experiments performed in a laboratory. For them, astronomers, for example, do not use the scientific method, nor do naturalists making field observations or anthropologists studying cultures. That seems way too restrictive to me, but I can’t think of another term that captures this particular and specific method of resolving problems and answering questions: to look at what actually happens in reality, and use rational thought and logical processes to draw conclusions, always testing those conclusions by looking to reality rather than (say) to divine texts, or to what the law states, or to what “makes sense” (e.g., that heavy objects (obviously) fall faster than light objects: they heavier).

Some go so far as to not look at reality at all: they construct positions that seem quite logical and internally consistent and hold to those, drawing conclusions from them and refusing to check to see whether they are real. Like the dogs of Up!, they are distracted by the logic (“Squirrel!”) and don’t see that the whole thing is absurd and fails to match reality. A good example: Economists, who for years derived conclusions from the premise that individuals make rational choices to maximize returns. From that starting point, and using rational and logical processes such as mathematics, one could work out what people would do in various situations and deduce the reasons for certain trends. But when Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky actually looked at the reality of what individuals do when making decisions, they found that the processes we follow are not at all rational as the term was used, though the processes do make evolutionary sense. And although we are irrational, we are, as Dan Ariely states in the title of his book, Predictably Irrational. (The Wikipedia article at the link explains some of his findings. I highly recommend the book.)

So for me (and, I think, others of my mindset) the gold standard, the highest standard, is rational argument based on statements that accurately reflect reality, testing conclusions against observed reality. What could go wrong with that? The statements are true, the argument is rational, and everything matches reality.

What I learned in reflecting on that little kerfuffle is that rational/logical argument and accurate/true statements are not the highest standard. On the contrary, they are the lowest standard. They are the ante:  you don’t even get into the game without having at least that. But they are simply the first consideration, not the final measure, as a little reflection will show. For example, relevance is more important than rational/logical and accuracy/truth. While it is true that 335/113 is a very good approximation of pi, you can’t throw that into every argument, despite its truth. It is relevant only rarely (but absolute dynamite in those rare situations).

Stated another way, rationality/logic and accuracy/truth are necessary but not sufficient. Also required are (for example) relevance and appropriateness. Example: At Tad’s 8th birthday party, his crazy uncle takes him aside and spends some time explaining carefully how Tad is going to age, grow old, and die. Death is inevitable, and the joy of this moment cannot hide the fact that some Tad will fall down and breath his last, etc. Horrified parents and crying children confront the crazy uncle, who becomes defensive but remains unbowed: “It’s absolutely true,” he retorts. “You’re just ignoring facts and logic: Tad here is indeed going to die.” Crazy uncle is so distracted by the bright and shiny glitter of rational/logical thought and true/accurate statements—“Squirrel!”, in effect—that he cannot grasp that his position is inappropriate. Everyone grants the logic and truth of his position, but those are beside the point: the point is that this argument is inappropriate. (BTW, when people are challenged, I think they immediately seek refuge in where they are right: thus the crazy uncle wants to restrict the discussion to whether Tad is mortal, since that proposition is true, and resists stepping back to consider other issues—i.e., places where he might be wrong.)

Thinking purely of the rational/accurate aspect means that much is ignored, including social reality, something that is always significant to a social animal. Probably most people always have social reality in mind, but some of us are so taken by the bright and shiny character of rational/accurate argument that we see only how bright/shiny it is and don’t see that it ranks quite low in the hierarchy of argument: it’s the bottom level, corresponding to “physiological needs” in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It is indeed important. It’s the first thing you take care of. But it’s just the base level, the starting point. There are higher considerations as well, such as relevance, appropriateness, results, and so on.

I know quite a few reading will long since have rolled their eyes and muttered, “Duh!” Still, I suspect that even they know some for whom the low position of rationality/logic and accuracy/truth in the hierarchy of argument will come as news. It certainly took me some effort to realize what was going on and how I had gone wrong.

Written by Leisureguy

29 November 2013 at 8:52 am

Posted in Daily life

Morning shave pretty good

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SOTD 29 Nov 2013

Today a horsehair brush got a chance at Nick’s Red Jacket. The Wilkinson Sticky with a Feather blade did a fine three-pass shave, and a good splash of Floris No. 89 (the favorite of James Bond) finished the shave in fine style.

Written by Leisureguy

29 November 2013 at 8:27 am

Posted in Shaving

Football Losses Tied to Junk Food

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Written by Leisureguy

28 November 2013 at 1:32 pm

Why One Cream Cake Leads to Another

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Ruth Williams explains the trap in The Scientist.

Written by Leisureguy

28 November 2013 at 11:36 am

Posted in Food, Health, Science

“Revenge porn” personal attacks

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Apparently so-called “revenge porn” often uses images obtained by hacking a stranger’s computer. Read this amazing account by Charlotte Laws at of how one woman took effective action by changing her life to focus on the slimy attacks on her daughter:

I felt like Will Smith in “Enemy of the State.”

I was being hunted, harassed and stalked by criminals with technological expertise. I had been thrust into an unexpected war. I felt exposed, vulnerable and alone on the front line. I had awoken a hideous network of villains and saboteurs, who were in pursuit of me, hoping to ruin my life. I had received creepy emails, backlash on Twitter and three death threats. My computer had been bombarded with viruses, and a technician had advised me to buy all new equipment because the malware was tough to remove.

“Also, be leery of unusual cars or vans in the neighborhood,” the tech added.

“Why?” I asked.

“If someone wants to break into your computer network, he will need to be close to your house. That is, unless he has advanced skills. Then, he could gain access from anywhere.”

I hurried home from the hardware store with my all-important purchase: heavy-duty padlocks. I knew I had to secure the gates at my residence, so that an intruder or a team of intruders could not access my backyard and possibly my home.

I pulled into my driveway and scanned the street, glad that the suspicious white car with the young, male driver was no longer present. It had been there on the previous evening, according to my daughter, Kayla. She’d seen it when she returned from work, and she had monitored it for several hours until it disappeared. She did not report the incident to me until the next day.

“Mom, why was there a guy in a white car, watching our house last night?”

Because she had no knowledge of the “be leery of unusual cars or vans” warning by the computer technician, I could not accuse her of paranoia.

I affixed padlocks to the gates, and the phone rang. It was like a gun. It had become a powerful way to threaten and to terrorize me. It was one of my enemy’s weapons. I reluctantly picked up the receiver.

“We know where you live,” a muffled male voice spoke. “Your life will be ruined.” He hung up.

A caller that morning had told me I would be raped, tortured and killed. I glanced out the front window. The night had once looked innocent and peaceful, but suddenly it seemed ominous and dangerous. Then I logged onto my computer to see whether the Twitter backlash against me had ceased. It had not. But there was an odd message on my feed, which read, “Please follow me. I need to direct message you.”

I did as I was instructed, and the interaction resulted in a bizarre phone call. Just as “Enemy of the State” protagonist Will Smith got aid from Gene Hackman — an off-the-grid, former government agent — I was being offered assistance.

“Don’t worry. We’re going to protect you. We’re computer experts,” were the first words uttered by a man nicknamed “Jack,” who claimed to be an operative with the underground group, Anonymous.

I knew little about the famous, decentralized network of activists and hacktivists, who are sometimes called “freedom fighters” or digital Robin Hoods, so I conducted Google searches during our half-hour phone conversation.

“Jack” instructed me on how to protect my computer network and explained in detail how he and a buddy planned to electronically go after the man who had been threatening me and who had been urging his devotees to follow suit. He then uttered the name of the person who has become the most well-known online face of revenge porn: a man named Hunter Moore. . .

Read the whole thing. It’s fascinating and she does indeed make progress.

And here’s another woman’s story, including her campaign to stop the harassment and change the laws.

Written by Leisureguy

28 November 2013 at 11:01 am

Posted in Daily life, Law, Technology

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