Later On

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Archive for February 2014

Free market = Bullshit

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Corporations love to rhapsodize about the free market even as they do everything in their power to prevent it. See Silicon Valley’s hiring practices for example. No surprise that the leading libertarian lights of Silicon Valley are unethical as well as greedy. From the article:

Alan Hyde, a Rutgers professor who wrote “Working in Silicon Valley: Economic and Legal Analysis of a High-Velocity Labor Market,” said the no-poaching accusations go contrary to what has made the valley so successful: job-hopping.

“There is a fair amount of research that tech companies, particularly in California, have distinctive personnel practices,” he said. “They hire for short tenures and keep ties with former employees so there can be an exchange of information across company lines. The companies in this suit might have been killing the golden goose.”

They certainly tried to keep their practices quiet. Eric E. Schmidt, then Google’s chief executive, said he preferred that the company’s Do Not Call list be shared orally, according to court papers, “since I don’t want to create a paper trail over which we can be sued later.”

In a similar vein, an Intel recruiter asked Paul S. Otellini, the company’s chief executive, about a hands-off deal with Google.

“We have nothing signed,” Mr. Otellini responded in an email. “We have a handshake ‘no recruit’ between Eric and myself. I would not like this broadly known.” [Of course not: unethical behavior looks so tawdry in the light of day. – LG]

The origins of the conspiracy, according to the lawsuit, date back to the 1980s, when the filmmaker George Lucas sold part of his company to Mr. Jobs.

“We cannot get into a bidding war with other companies because we don’t have the margins for that sort of thing,” Mr. Lucas is quoted as saying in the court papers. So Lucasfilm and what was to become Pixar made a deal that there would be no cold-calling, that they would notify each other when offering a job to an employee and that any offer was final and would not be improved in response to a counteroffer.

What worked for Pixar would work for Apple, Mr. Jobs decided.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 February 2014 at 8:42 pm

Posted in Business

Cute challenge using interactive graphics

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Click until you get enough pixels so you can recognize the image. May take a while to load.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 February 2014 at 6:55 pm

Posted in Government

GOP’s policy of giving corporations whatever they want backfires in North Carolina

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Trip Gabriel reports in the NY Times:

Last June, state employees in charge of stopping water pollution were given updated marching orders on behalf of North Carolina’s new Republican governor and conservative lawmakers.

“The General Assembly doesn’t like you,” an official in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources told supervisors, who had been called from across the state to a drab meeting room here. “They cut your budget, but you didn’t get the message. And they cut your budget again, and you still didn’t get the message.”

From now on, regulators were told, they must focus on customer service, meaning issuing environmental permits for businesses as quickly as possible. Big changes are coming, the official said, according to three people in the meeting, two of whom took notes. “If you don’t like change, you’ll be gone.”

But when the nation’s largest utility, Duke Energy, spilled 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River in early February, those big changes were suddenly playing out in a different light. Federal prosecutors have begun a criminal investigation into the spill and the relations between Duke and regulators at the environmental agency.

The spill, which coated the river bottom 70 miles downstream and threatened drinking water and aquatic life, drew wide attention to a deal that the environmental department’s new leadership reached with Duke last year over pollution from coal ash ponds. It included a minimal fine but no order that Duke remove ash — the waste from burning coal to generate electricity — from its leaky, unlined ponds near drinking water. Environmental groups said the arrangement protected a powerful utility rather than the environment or the public.

Current and former state regulators said the watchdog agency, once among the most aggressive in the Southeast, has been transformed under Gov. Pat McCrory into a weak sentry that plays down science, has abandoned its regulatory role and suffers from politicized decision-making.

The episode is a huge embarrassment for Mr. McCrory, who worked at Duke Energy for 28 years and is a former mayor of Charlotte, where the company is based. And it has become yet another point of contention in North Carolina, where Republicans who took control of the General Assembly in 2011 and the governor’s mansion last year have passed sweeping laws in line with conservative principles. They have affected voting rights and unemployment benefits, as well as what Republicans called “job-killing” environmental regulations, which have received less notice.

Critics say the accident, the third-largest coal ash spill on record, is inextricably linked to the state’s new environmental politics and reflects an enforcement agency led by a secretary who suggested that oil was a renewable resource and an assistant secretary who, as a state lawmaker, drew a bull’s-eye on a window in his office framing the environmental agency’s headquarters.

“They’re terrified,” said John Dorney, a retired supervisor who keeps in touch with many current employees. “Now these people have to take a deep breath and say, ‘I know what the rules require, but what does the political process want me to do?’ ”

Duke has apologized for the Dan River spill and says it is now committed to cleaning up some of its 32 coal ash ponds across the state. The company has also been subpoenaed in the federal investigation.

A spokesman for Governor McCrory said the governor had no role in the state’s proposed settlement with Duke. . .

Continue reading. The story at the link includes a video. And the comments are worth reading. People are becoming increasingly angry at the downfall of the US.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 February 2014 at 1:26 pm

A heartening view of W.H. Auden as a person

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Edward Mendelson writes in the NY Review of Books:

W.H. Auden had a secret life that his closest friends knew little or nothing about. Everything about it was generous and honorable. He kept it secret because he would have been ashamed to have been praised for it.

I learned about it mostly by chance, so it may have been far more extensive than I or anyone ever knew. Once at a party I met a woman who belonged to the same Episcopal church that Auden attended in the 1950s, St. Mark’s in-the-Bowery in New York. She told me that Auden heard that an old woman in the congregation was suffering night terrors, so he took a blanket and slept in the hallway outside her apartment until she felt safe again.

Someone else recalled that Auden had once been told that a friend needed a medical operation that he couldn’t afford. Auden invited the friend to dinner, never mentioned the operation, but as the friend was leaving said, “I want you to have this,” and handed him a large notebook containing the manuscript of The Age of Anxiety. The University of Texas bought the notebook and the friend had the operation.

From some letters I found in Auden’s papers, I learned that a few years after World War II he had arranged through a European relief agency to pay the college costs for two war orphans chosen by the agency, an arrangement that continued, with a new set of orphans every few years, until his death at sixty-six in 1973.

At times, he went out of his way to seem selfish while doing something selfless. When NBC Television was producing a broadcast of The Magic Flute for which Auden, together with Chester Kallman, had translated the libretto, he stormed into the producer’s office demanding to be paid immediately, instead of on the date specified in his contract. He waited there, making himself unpleasant, until a check finally arrived. A few weeks later, when the canceled check came back to NBC, someone noticed that he had endorsed it, “Pay to the order of Dorothy Day.” The New York City Fire Department had recently ordered Day to make costly repairs to the homeless shelter she managed for the Catholic Worker Movement, and the shelter would have been shut down had she failed to come up with the money.

At literary gatherings he made a practice of slipping away from “the gaunt and great, the famed for conversation” (as he called them in a poem) to find the least important person in the room. A letter-writer in the Times of London last year recalled one such incident:

Sixty years ago my English teacher brought me to London from my provincial grammar school for a literary conference. Understandably, she abandoned me for her friends when we arrived, and I was left to flounder. I was gauche and inept and had no idea what to do with myself. Auden must have sensed this because he approached me and said, “Everyone here is just as nervous as you are, but they are bluffing, and you must learn to bluff too.”

Late in life Auden wrote self- revealing poems and essays that portrayed him as insular and nostalgic, still living imaginatively in the Edwardian world of his childhood. His “Doggerel by a Senior Citizen” began, “Our earth in 1969/Is not the planet I call mine,” and continued with disgruntled complaints against the modern age: “I cannot settle which is worse,/The Anti-Novel or Free Verse.” A year after he wrote this, I chanced on a first book by a young poet, N.J. Loftis, Exiles and Voyages. Some of the book was in free verse; much of it alluded to Harlem and Africa; the author’s ethnic loyalties were signaled by the name of the publisher, the Black Market Press. The book was dedicated “To my first friend, W.H. Auden.”

A few years later I got a phone call from a Canadian burglar who told me he had come across Auden’s poems in a prison library and had begun a long correspondence in which Auden gave him an informal course in literature. Auden was especially pleased to get him started on Kafka. He was equally helpful to unknown young poets who sent him their poems, offering detailed help on such technical matters as adjectives and enjambment.

When he felt obliged to stand on principle on some literary or moral issue, he did so without calling attention to himself, and he was impatient with writers like Robert Lowell whose political protests seemed to him more egocentric than effective. When he won the National Medal for Literature in 1967, he was unwilling either to accept it in Lyndon Johnson’s White House during the Vietnam War or “to make a Cal Lowell gesture by a public refusal,” so he arranged for the ceremony to be held at the Smithsonian, where he gave an acceptance speech about the corruption of language by politics and propaganda. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 February 2014 at 1:17 pm

Posted in Daily life

Radley Balko: Yes, the War on Drugs is bad

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Radley Balko writes in the Washington Post:

Last month, I wrote a response to Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson in which I laid out many (but by no means all) of the harms caused by the modern-era war on drugs. Now Charles Lane, a columnist and editorial writer here at the Post, has responded to my post. You can read Lane’s response in full here.

I’ll go ahead and keep the debate alive by now responding to Lane. I’ll first note that Lane didn’t address the majority of the points I made about the harm caused by the drug war. So I’ll obviously only address those that he did. I’d also point out that my post wasn’t meant to be comprehensive. To give just one example, I didn’t address the harm our drug war has inflicted on Latin America (although I did mention the awful carnage in Mexico), Thailand, or Afghanistan, or how it has undermined our efforts to fight terrorism.

But let’s get to the points Lane does make.

According to federally sponsored surveys that track drug usage, the rate of current-month powder and crack cocaine use dropped by half in the past 10 years. Meth use fell by a third; heroin use has remained flat.

True, marijuana use rose slightly overall — but it fell among 12- to 17-year-olds, a result that even legalizers should applaud since they generally don’t favor allowing minors to smoke.

The timeline here is interesting. I understand why Lane chose it—the National Survey on Drug Use and Health changed its methodology in 2002, making statistics after that year incomparable to those in previous years. But the modern drug war began with the Reagan administration, and most of the more pernicious policies—mandatory minimum sentences, civil asset forfeiture, the proliferation of SWAT teams, and police militarization were passed and implemented from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s. The Monitoring the Future surveys, for example, have comparable data going back to 1991. (They start on page 28 of the linked report.) If we look at drug use in the last 30 days among respondents to those surveys, they show the same similar drops since the early 2000s that Lane mentions. But we also see significant increases in the overall rate of illicit drug use among all age groups since 1991, including among 8th (+35 percent), 10th (+60 percent), and 12th (+72 percent) graders.

Interestingly, over the period Lane cites, marijuana has actually become moreavailable (through legalization for medical use), not less. Public attitudes toward pot use have also relaxed over the last decade. As Lane points out later in his piece, albeit it in a different context, crime over the last decade has dropped. In fact, nearly all social indicators have been moving in the right direction since the mid-1990s. (More on that in a moment.)So to summarize: Since the harshest policies of the drug war went into effect in the early 1990s, illicit drug use is up, pretty significantly. But over the last decade, pot has become more available, attitudes toward pot are more relaxed, and more adults are smoking the stuff. Yet over that period of time, violent and property crime have dropped, nearly all other social indicators are improving, and adolescent pot use has dropped. (Incredibly, use of pot among those under 18 began dropping in 1996, the same year California became the first state to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes.) That to me suggests that making pot more available for adults isn’t doing much harm at all.

At the same time, while public attitudes have relaxed, enforcement hasn’t. Arrests for pot have soared, as have the number of highly aggressive, highly volatile police raids on people suspected of breaking the marijuana laws—with predictably tragic consequences. All of which makes a strong argument that the prohibition of pot is doing a lot more damage than ingesting the drug ever could.

It’s true that crack and powder cocaine use has dropped. But cocaine use has fluctuated widely over the last century or so. The same is true of meth. These drugs go in and out of vogue. I suspect that the bad reputations (admittedly aided by government-funded public awareness campaigns) earned by crack and homemade meth have contributed to the decline in use. But the war side of the drug war focuses not on treatment or PR, but on punitive measures aimed at reducing the supply of illicit drugs. Last year, in a study published in the BMJ medical journal, a group of researchers from the U.S. and Canada evaluating government supply-side anti-drug efforts by measuring the purity and cost of heroin, cocaine, and marijuana between 1990 and 2009. Their conclusion:

With few exceptions and despite increasing investments in enforcement-based supply reduction efforts aimed at disrupting global drug supply, illegal drug prices have generally decreased while drug purity has generally increased since 1990. These findings suggest that expanding efforts at controlling the global illegal drug market through law enforcement are failing.

In other words, the drop in use of cocaine in meth has little to do with government efforts to reduce the supply of drugs—also known as the drug war. Those drugs are still as available as ever. It has much more to do with the preferences of people who use illicit drugs. And as Lane himself concedes, there’s ample evidence that people who want to get high have merely turned their attention elsewhere, like prescription drugs.

Back to Lane’s post:

Meanwhile, even as drug prohibition continued, violent crime and property crime fell, dramatically. Not only did the number of murders in the United States decrease from 24,703 in 1991 to 14,612 in 2011 but drug-related murders declined from 1,607 to 505, according to Justice Department statistics. Some 6.5 percent of murders were related to drugs in 1991, but only 3.4 percent were in 2011.

Again, the modern, all-too-literal drug war began in the early 1980s. The homicide rate dipped slightly in the early 1980s, before starting to climb again in 1986 until its peak in 1991. The most likely explanation for this is the crack epidemic. That’s also the likely explanation for the peak in drug-related murders Lane points to in 1991. With a new drug on the market (or at least a new form of an existing drug), dealers fought one another for market share. Yet crack was a product of prohibition, just like bathtub gin or other noxious booze America gulped down in the 1920s. . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 February 2014 at 12:47 pm

Posted in Drug laws

After 50,000 generations, bacteria continue to evolve greater fitness

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Interesting note by Kerry Grens in The Scientist on a long-running experiment in evolution:

In 1988, when evolutionary biologist Richard Lenski was an assistant professor at the University of California, Irvine, he started a simple experiment: toss E. coli into a new environment and watch what happens. He wanted to know how reproducible evolution would be, so he put the same strain of the bacteria into 12 flasks with the same simple medium and waited to see how they would evolve. E. coli normally lives in the guts of animals, so the experiment would allow for a way to observe adaptations to a new environment.

After about a year and 2,000 E. coli generations, Lenski and his colleagues published the first results of what they then considered to be a long-term experiment in evolution. Little did they know that 25 years and 50,000 generations later, the experiment would still be chugging along—those 12 flasks representing alternate universes of bacterial existence. “I guess I didn’t view it as [being as] open-ended as it clearly has become, not only as an experiment but in terms of the ability of the organisms to keep improving,” says Lenski.

In his latest publication on the experiment, Lenski reported that the bacteria continually become more fit. His team pitted bacteria from various evolutionary time points (from each flask, a sample is frozen every 500 generations) against one another to see which would grow better when combined in the same container. “I like to think of this project as time travel because we’re comparing organisms that lived at different points in the past, resurrecting them, and comparing them head to head,” says Lenski.

Lenski and his collaborators can distinguish the competitor populations from different flasks  because of color-coded genetic markers. For instance, they would pit a sample taken from one flask of red bacteria at 50,000 generations against an ancestral sample from another flask housing white bacteria. To make sure the resurrected bacteria weren’t at a dis-advantage, they would give the organisms time to acclimate after being thawed. Lenski’s team found that bacteria that had evolved for a greater length of time—those from later generations—appeared more fit than those resurrected from earlier generations; fitness never peaked (Science, 342:1364-67, 2013). Their data suggest that, at least in this situation, evolutionary fitness is ever increasing.

Rees Kassen of the University of Ottawa says the most interesting finding is that most adaptations happened early on in the experiment. “That means [initially] there are lots of opportunities for [the bacteria] to get better,” he says. “Even though beneficial mutations are still very rare events, there are still different ways they could get better, and they also are likely to improve fitness by a large amount.”

The results came as a surprise to Lenski, who expected fitness to plateau. It’s not the first time his bacterial cells have proven unpredictable, such as when they began to utilize a new food source. In 2008, one of the strains evolved to metabolize citrate, which is ordinarily just a buffer in the medium. “It was a quantum leap in the evolution of this species, and it was totally unexpected,” says Tadeusz Kawecki of the University of Lausanne.

John Thompson, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, says that the results show there are many adaptive solutions, even in a simple environment. “It is, then, no wonder that life has evolved to be so diverse,” Thompson writes in an e-mail. “That does not mean, though, that all populations in nature will always continually evolve increases in adaptation.” In cases where the environment is changing rapidly, for instance, slow increases in fitness will not be able to continue.

The finding contradicts the “naive” view that an organism will cease getting fitter once it’s well adapted to an environment, says Kassen. Without Lenski’s experiment, there wouldn’t be much empirical data to show that. “The fact of the matter is, it’s the only experiment we can test,” he says. “No other experiments have gone on as long.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 February 2014 at 12:40 pm

Posted in Evolution, Science

More on the US Border Patrol

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Aaron Cantú writes at Latino Rebels:

On the eve of World War II, the Nazis began to describe the European Jews as “Untermenschen.” The word literally means “subhumans”—a creature that resembles a person, but is nevertheless a bestial humanoid aberration.

This was a way to dehumanize them in preparation for a statewide programm of mass extermination. Since the Holocaust, scholars have recognized the process of dehumanization as a central part of genocidal campaigns, one that erases the moral dilemmas normally associated with hurting others by sanding down innate empathic capacities.

In any campaign of hatred, dehumanization is not the final endpoint; rather, it is a milestone that must be reached in order to enable a desired degree of violence. Dehumanization doesn’t always end in ethnic cleansing. It can take other forms, which, while they may be less extreme, are equally sordid, like teaching children how to shoot at effigies of people who are different from them.

At a community event to honor fallen agents in San Diego last year, the local Customs and Border Patrol outfit facilitated an activity in which children were given less-than-lethal rifles and shotguns and instructed by agents on how to fire at cut-out targets resembling adolescent migrants. One of the targets is even wearing a “Tapout” t-shirt, a common article of clothing donned by young people on either side of the border. In one of the images, a youth seems to be aiming his gun at the target’s head.

BorderPatrol7-1024x658

For its part, CBP San Diego absurdly justified the event as a part of a community-wide expo meant to “build relationships and increase awareness about law enforcement.” The agency has reportedly claimed that they will continue to host the event in the future, but will use neutral targets to assuage public outrage.

It’s bad enough that the CBP fails to connect the dots between its showy display of mock violence and the renewed controversy in the media over its agents’ slaying of migrants. But even worse, the fact that CBP defended the activity as a community-building event indicates they see an aggressive disdain for migrants as a way to strengthen communal bonds. United in dehumanization we stand.

Activist Pedro Ríos of the American Friends Service Committee said that the incident is indicative of how border communities have become areas of low intensity conflict, where the specter of violence is something expected and even sanctioned. “ . . .

Continue reading.

UPDATE: A follow-up story giving the response from the US Border Patrol.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 February 2014 at 12:27 pm

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