Later On

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

Archive for October 27th, 2014

Court’s Mistake Helps Draw Back the Curtain on Dark Money

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Sara Azfal writes in ProPublica:

When it comes to politics, the actions of social welfare nonprofits are usually hard to track. And unlike political action committees, these “dark money” groups can channel money to influence elections without naming their donors.

But as ProPublica’s Theo Meyer explains in this week’s podcast, an accidentally released court filing revealed how a mining company known as the Cline Group used dark money groups to help pass a law that would speed up Wisconsin’s mining permit process.

Meyer describes the release as a “fluke” — a federal court in Chicago mistakenly posted the legal document online for a few hours — that provided a rare look behind the scenes: In 2011 and 2012, the mining company had secretly given $700,000 to a conservative nonprofit that worked to pass the bill.

“For once we actually know something about how the money was spent and where it came from,” says ProPublica Editor-in-Chief Stephen Engelberg.

Meyer agrees. “This is really just one of a handful of instances in which donors to groups like this have become public,” Meyer explains. “And unless you have subpoena power and can get bank records from these groups, it’s really impossible to see who is funding the effort.” . . .

Here’s the podcast. And here are some related stories:

Written by LeisureGuy

27 October 2014 at 6:32 pm

Posted in Business, Congress, Election, GOP, Law

Can Video Games Fend Off Mental Decline?

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Basically, no. See this article by Clive Thompson.

Perhaps a better question: Can video games be designed to detect not only mental decline, but mental illness, and even do rough diagnoses based simply on the player’s interactions within the game. (I’m thinking of a game in which the player’s character interacts over time with other characters (controlled by the game AI) within the game.)

For example, after x hours of play (and x can be fairly large if the game is good—look at the number of hours some people spend in playing a game), the game would identify with some degree of certainty a particular personality disorder (in the sense that the program’s diagnosis matches clinician diagnoses to a high degree).

Having that sort of diagnostic ability derived from a game could be useful. But, of course, one acronym: NSA. The government has everything under surveillance these days, or at least everything connected the internet.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 October 2014 at 6:25 pm

Posted in Daily life

On-line prices vary by what computer/mobile device you’re using

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This is something that I believe should be stopped. Elizabeth Dwoskin writes at the Wall Street Journal:

A new study found that e-commerce sites vary online pricing depending on whether customers use mobile or desktop devices, iOS or Android, and other factors.

Travel-booking sites Cheaptickets and Orbitz, for instance, charged some users searching hotel rates an average $12 more per night if they weren’t logged into the sites. Travelocity charged users of Apple’s iOS mobile operating system $15 less for hotels than other users. Users of mobile devices who surfed to Home Depot saw products that were roughly $100 more expensive than those offered to desktop-computer users. Expedia and steered users at random to pricier products, according to researchers at Northeastern University’s College of Information science.

For the study, the Northeastern researchers recruited 300 helpers on the task-outsourcing site Amazon Mechanical Turk and noted their experience on different sites. They created hundreds of fake accounts to evaluate the effect of historical clicks and purchases. Did consumers who spent less money in the past get better deals? Were consumers who bought pricey tickets more likely to be charged higher prices? The researchers didn’t examine the impact of overall Web browsing because they didn’t know whether a particular e-commerce site tracked individual visitors as they browsed other sites.

Discriminatory pricing isn’t illegal. It happens all the time when consumers get loyalty cards, coupons, or promotion codes. But consumers have protested when it’s not transparent. How can you shop for the best deal if you don’t know the rules of the game?

Even in the physical world, though, pricing can be less transparent than it appears. Stores may hold flash sales available only to customers who happen to be shopping at the time. They may mail promotion codes and coupons to some people and not others. Is that really so different from what’s happening online? . . .

Continue reading.

Later in the article:

Expedia and were researching the impact of pricing on sales by showing different prices to different groups of shoppers, a practice known as A/B testing — essentially conducting market research in real time. Without such testing, Expedia and other vendors have argued, it would be harder for them to run their business.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 October 2014 at 6:16 pm

Posted in Business, Technology

Wall Street doesn’t like for companies to pay employees well

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Wall Street is chronically down on Costco, despite its excellent record of profitability and customer (and employee) satisfaction because Costco (in Wall Street’s view) pays its employees too well—not so well, of course, as those on Wall Street, but that’s different, I’m told. At ThinkProgress Bryce Covert describes a container store that pays its employees an average of $50,000/year:

The Container Store pays its 6,000 employees an average of $48,000 a year, according to CEO Kip Tindell’s new book Uncontainable.

As he told Business Insider, “That’s a lot of money for a retail sales clerk.” In fact, median pay for retail sales workers is just $21,410 a year. The company also gives “big” raises each year, he said, from 0 percent for low performers to as much as 8 percent.

The company still performs well while paying more than double what’s typical for the industry. It has annual sales of nearly $800 million. And Tindell credits at least some of that performance with the higher pay. His theory is “one equals three,” he told the Wall Street Journal: “one great person can easily do the business productivity of three good people,” which means a company can pay that one high performer “50% to 100% above industry average.”

And that brings returns back to the company. He told Business Insider that the company gets three times the productivity even while paying two times as much in wages. “[Y]ou save money, the customers win, and all the employees win because they get to work with someone great,” he said. Plus the company has a 10 percent turnover rate, while the rate for the entire industry is about 75 percent, and turnover is very costly. Tindell credits high wages for the low rate, saying, “[P]ay is more important than most people realize, particularly if you’re trying to attract and keep really great people.”

Beyond the business incentives, he believes he has a responsibility to pay more. “If you’re lucky enough to be an employer, you have a moral obligation to create a great work environment,” he said.

To that end, he thinks other companies should compensate their employees the way his does. And he may have the ability to influence them as incoming chairman of the National Retail Federation (NRF), which has opposed a minimum wage increase. . .

Continue reading.

UPDATE: See also this story by Liz Alderman and Steven Greenhouse in the NY Times:

COPENHAGEN — On a recent afternoon, Hampus Elofsson ended his 40-hour workweek at a Burger King and prepared for a movie and beer with friends. He had paid his rent and all his bills, stashed away some savings, yet still had money for nights out.

That is because he earns the equivalent of $20 an hour — the base wage for fast-food workers throughout Denmark and two and a half times what many fast-food workers earn in the United States.

“You can make a decent living here working in fast food,” said Mr. Elofsson, 24. “You don’t have to struggle to get by.”

With an eye to workers like Mr. Elofsson, some American labor activists and liberal scholars are posing a provocative question: If Danish chains can pay $20 an hour, why can’t those in the United States pay the $15 an hour that many fast-food workers have been clamoring for?

“We see from Denmark that it’s possible to run a profitable fast-food business while paying workers these kinds of wages,” said John Schmitt, an economist at the Center for Economic Policy Research, a liberal think tank in Washington. . .

Continue reading.

And the idea that minimum-wage jobs are held only by teenagers is long out of date. From Jordan Weissman’s excellent article in The Atlantic last December, “Should We Raise the Minimum Wage? 11 Questions and Answers”:

Minimum wage jobholders

Written by LeisureGuy

27 October 2014 at 6:12 pm

Posted in Business

We Are All Confident Idiots

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David Dunning, of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, has an interesting article in the Pacific Standard:

Last March, during the enormous South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, the late-night talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live! sent a camera crew out into the streets to catch hipsters bluffing. “People who go to music festivals pride themselves on knowing who the next acts are,” Kimmel said to his studio audience, “even if they don’t actually know who the new acts are.” So the host had his crew ask festival-goers for their thoughts about bands that don’t exist.

“The big buzz on the street,” said one of Kimmel’s interviewers to a man wearing thick-framed glasses and a whimsical T-shirt, “is Contact Dermatitis. Do you think he has what it takes to really make it to the big time?”

“Absolutely,” came the dazed fan’s reply.

The prank was an installment of Kimmel’s recurring “Lie Witness News” feature, which involves asking pedestrians a variety of questions with false premises. In another episode, Kimmel’s crew asked people on Hollywood Boulevard whether they thought the 2014 film Godzilla was insensitive to survivors of the 1954 giant lizard attack on Tokyo; in a third, they asked whether Bill Clinton gets enough credit for ending the Korean War, and whether his appearance as a judge on America’s Got Talent would damage his legacy. “No,” said one woman to this last question. “It will make him even more popular.”

One can’t help but feel for the people who fall into Kimmel’s trap. Some appear willing to say just about anything on camera to hide their cluelessness about the subject at hand (which, of course, has the opposite effect). Others seem eager to please, not wanting to let the interviewer down by giving the most boringly appropriate response: I don’t know. But for some of these interviewees, the trap may be an even deeper one. The most confident-sounding respondents often seem to think they do have some clue—as if there is some fact, some memory, or some intuition that assures them their answer is reasonable.

At one point during South by Southwest, Kimmel’s crew approached a poised young woman with brown hair. “What have you heard about Tonya and the Hardings?” the interviewer asked. “Have you heard they’re kind of hard-hitting?” Failing to pick up on this verbal wink, the woman launched into an elaborate response about the fictitious band. “Yeah, a lot of men have been talking about them, saying they’re really impressed,” she replied. “They’re usually not fans of female groups, but they’re really making a statement.” From some mental gossamer, she was able to spin an authoritative review of Tonya and the Hardings incorporating certain detailed facts: that they’re real; that they’re female (never mind that, say, Marilyn Manson and Alice Cooper aren’t); and that they’re a tough, boundary-breaking group.

To be sure, Kimmel’s producers must cherry-pick the most laughable interviews to put the air. But late-night TV is not the only place where one can catch people extemporizing on topics they know nothing about. In the more solemn confines of a research lab at Cornell University, the psychologists Stav Atir, Emily Rosenzweig, and I carry out ongoing research that amounts to a carefully controlled, less flamboyant version of Jimmy Kimmel’s bit. In our work, we ask survey respondents if they are familiar with certain technical concepts from physics, biology, politics, and geography. A fair number claim familiarity with genuine terms like centripetal force and photon. But interestingly, they also claim some familiarity with concepts that are entirely made up, such as the plates of parallax, ultra-lipid, and cholarine. In one study, roughly 90 percent claimed some knowledge of at least one of the nine fictitious concepts we asked them about. In fact, the more well versed respondents considered themselves in a general topic, the more familiarity they claimed with the meaningless terms associated with it in the survey.

It’s odd to see people who claim political expertise assert their knowledge of both Susan Rice (the national security adviser to President Barack Obama) and Michael Merrington (a pleasant-sounding string of syllables). But it’s not that surprising. For more than 20 years, I have researched people’s understanding of their own expertise—formally known as the study of metacognition, the processes by which human beings evaluate and regulate their knowledge, reasoning, and learning—and the results have been consistently sobering, occasionally comical, and never dull.

The American author and aphorist William Feather once wrote that being educated means “being able to differentiate between what you know and what you don’t.” As it turns out, this simple ideal is extremely hard to achieve. Although what we know is often perceptible to us, even the broad outlines of what we don’t know are all too often completely invisible. To a great degree, we fail to recognize the frequency and scope of our ignorance.

In 1999, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 October 2014 at 6:03 pm

Posted in Daily life, Science

Hillary Clinton’s Continuity Government Versus Elizabeth Warren’s Voice for Change

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Hilllary Clinton is Wall Street’s pick for Democratic candidate for president. They loved Bill, who pretty much gave away the nation to Wall Street, and Hillary is going the same route. Pam Martens and Russ Martens write at Wall Street on Parade:

The contrast between Wall Street’s continuity government in Washington under another Clinton in the White House and the charismatic populist voice of Senator Elizabeth Warren as she stumps for Democrats in the midterms, is awakening millions of Americans to the idea that there may be choices after all in the 2016 presidential election.

Columnist Eugene Robinson said it best last Monday in the Washington Post, writing that Senator Warren’s “swing through Colorado, Minnesota and Iowa to rally the faithful displayed something no other potential contender for the 2016 presidential nomination, including Hillary Clinton, seems able to present: a message.”

What Robinson really means is “a message of hope” – that Wall Street’s wealth transfer system, institutionalized under a protection racket by members of Congress who keep their seats using Wall Street’s campaign dough, could come under serious challenge with Warren in the White House.

In a Wall Street Journal article last Friday, Peter Nicholas reports that Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and a large donor to Democrats, summed up Hillary as follows: “I see Hillary as part of the middle-of-the-road mainstream government that is essentially in bed with these corporations.”

Where would such an idea come from? The Center for Responsive Politics reports that four of the top six donors to Hillary’s failed bid to capture the Democratic nod for the Presidency in 2008 were employees, family members or PACs of major Wall Street firms: JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and Morgan Stanley.

When the Democrats gave the nod to Barack Obama instead, JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs and Citigroup show up among his top seven donors for his 2008 campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. (As indicated above, the corporations do not give directly; it’s their PACS, employees or family members of employees.)

The idea that Wall Street is running a continuity government in Washington stems from the fact that it was President Bill Clinton who repealed the Glass-Steagall Act, a goal Wall Street and its legions of lobbyists had advanced for decades. This breathtaking deregulation of Wall Street did not happen under a Republican presidency but under one styling itself as progressive. The repeal allowed commercial banks holding insured deposits to merge with investment banks, brokerage firms and insurance companies to become vast gambling casinos, looters of the little guy, and to crash the economy in 1929 style fashion just nine years after Clinton signed the repeal legislation in 1999.

The Wall Street sycophants in the Bill Clinton administration who pushed through the repeal of this legislation that had protected the country for seven decades included Treasury Secretary, Robert Rubin, and the man who would step into the Treasury post, Lawrence Summers, after Rubin headed for Citigroup to collect $120 million in compensation over the next eight years. Both men turned up as advisors to Obama once he took his seat in the Oval Office.

Last year, Obama attempted to push through the nomination of Summers, then on the payroll of Citigroup as a consultant, to become the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. It took heavy backlash from members of his own party to advance Janet Yellen’s nomination over Summers.

With the exception of retiring Senator Carl Levin, Senator Warren uniquely demonstrates a comprehensive knowledge of how Wall Street firms like Citigroup maintain their stranglehold on the levers of power in Washington. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 October 2014 at 3:34 pm

20 More Cities Want to Join the Fight Against Big Telecom’s Broadband Monopoly

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It’s good to see local governments actually working to serve the public instead of kowtowing to big business. Jason Koebler writes at Motherboard:

At least 20 additional American cities have expressed a formal interest in joining a coalition that’s dedicated to bringing gigabit internet speeds to their residents by any means necessary—even if it means building the infrastructure themselves.

The Next Centuries Cities coalition launched last week with an impressive list of 32 cities in 19 states who recognize that fast internet speeds unencumbered by fast lanes or other tiered systems are necessary to keep residents and businesses happy.

The group includes cities that have built their own municipal broadband networks, cities that want to build their own, and cities that have worked with companies such as Google to bring fiber, gigabit-speed internet to their residents—the idea being that cities that don’t have ultrafast internet can learn how to jump through legislative and logistical hoops from those who have been there before.

The group’s launch event was so successful that Deb Socia, the group’s executive director, says at least 20 more cities have already asked to join, and that she expects the coalition to grow “substantially” in the next couple months.

“It’s already generated a lot of interest in other cities, so it justifies what we’ve been thinking all along—that people really want this,” she told me in a phone interview. “Over the next month or two we’ll formalize it. I think we’ll increase our numbers pretty substantially.”

Socia wouldn’t tell me what cities have expressed interest, because they haven’t formally joined yet.

These new cities would join others such as Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Wilson, North Carolina—two cities that have built their own broadband networks but are hoping to expand them to neighboring communities despite state laws being on the books that prevent them from legally doing so. To circumvent that problem, both cities have filed petitions with the Federal Communications Commission to override state restrictions.

“One of our principles is that communities must enjoy self determination,” she said. “Even if you’re in a city with an anti [municipal broadband] law, we think that decisions are made best when they’re made close to the people who are impacted.”

Socia said she believes that over the last several years, cities have really begun recognizing that if they are unable to offer their residents fast, reliable internet (or if big telecom is unwilling to), their growth and economic prosperity will stagnate. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 October 2014 at 3:12 pm

Kansas Governor Is Forcing Disabled People Off Medicaid

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Sam Brownback’s experiment—running Kansas strictly on modern conservative principles—is not working out so well for the public. This latest development is tragic, but I get the sense that Gov. Brownback really doesn’t care about the disabled. Carl Gibson reports at ThinkProgress:

The conservative experiment in Gov. Sam Brownback’s Kansas has led to more suffering across the board — not just for the state’s economy, but for people with disabilities who are losing life-sustaining services.

At the time of his inauguration, Brownback was touted by fellow Republicans as a model example of what conservative governance nationwide could look like. While he promised to rejuvenate the state’s economy by slashing the state’s top income tax rate by 26 percent, his fiscal policy has instead blown an $800 million hole in the state budget, downgraded the state’s bond rating, and slowed job growth to a much lower rate than the national average. Brownback, once thought to be a strong contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, now has just a 48 percent chance at being elected to a second term, and his tax cuts are the central issue of the campaign. These tax cuts have been devastating for Kansas’ disabled population.

Since Brownback’s inauguration, 1,414 Kansans with disabilities have been forced off of the Medicaid physical disability (PD) waiver. In January of 2013, Brownback became the first governor to fully privatize Medicaid services, claiming he would save the state $1 billion in 5 years without having to cut services, eligibility, or provider payments. Now, under Brownback’s “KanCare,” PD waiver cases are handled by for-profit, out-of-state, Fortune 500, publicly-traded managed care services. Kansas has contracts with three managed care profiteers — United Healthcare, Sunflower State Health Plan (owned by Centene Corporation), and AmeriGroup. Amerigroup and Centene each gave $2,000, Kansas’ maximum allowed contribution, to Brownback’s re-election campaign.

“They wanted to cut my full-time care hours by 76 percent, which all three of my doctors said was totally unrealistic,” said Finn Bullers, a disability rights advocate who suffers from muscular dystrophy, uses a wheelchair, has type 1 insulin-dependent diabetes, and requires a ventilator in his throat to breathe. “Essentially, they wanted three out of every four hours to go away.”

“Often, these are not optional services,” said Rocky Nichols, executive director of the Kansas Disability Rights Center. “These are life-sustaining services like properly caring for and cleaning out feeding tubes, colostomy bags, and other devices so people don’t die, transferring the person with a mobility impairment from the chair so they can toilet, assisting with the critical and life-sustaining activities of daily living that most of us take for granted. These are basic human needs, not optional wants.”

But Brownback’s claims of savings without risking patient eligibility is mere sleight of hand when taking a closer look at the numbers. When Kansas experienced a $217 million revenue shortfall in April of 2014, Brownback actually broke a promise made to the federal government as to how many people with disabilities would be served. When applying to launch the KanCare program, the Brownback administration originally promised the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services it would accommodate7,874 people on the PD waiver, according to numbers from the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services. After the first revenue shortfall, Brownback changed that number to 5900 – nearly a 25 percent cut in services amounting to $26 million.

Just before Brownback’s inauguration, Kansas served 6,752 people on the PD waiver. More than 2,000 people with disabilities were added just in the last decade as a result of more advanced healthcare and disabled people living longer lives. However, the gradual uptick in new enrollees stopped abruptly once Brownback took over. According to this chart, over 1,400 disabled Kansans were dropped from the waiver between 2010 and 2014, with a sharp decline in 2014, coinciding directly with the revenue shortfalls resulting from the recent tax cuts.

“It is mind-boggling to think that in 2004, just ten years ago, there were 4,527 people on the waiver… It grew to 6,752, and it’s been in a death spiral ever since then,” Nichols said. “That cannot be an accident. There is just no way you can have, year after year, for four years in a row, those types of reductions in the number of people served.”

According to one state elected official, the sudden drop-offs could easily be traced back to . . .

Continue reading.

American government seems to be for sale these days. See next post.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 October 2014 at 1:01 pm

BBS with Plisson Synthetic brush and the white bakelite slant

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SOTD 27 Oct 2014

BBS comes easily when you have a two-day stubble and use a good slant—and the white bakelite vintage Merkur slant is one of the best, though now scarce. Italian Barber had a trove for a while, but it went quickly. (Some cynics thought—and said—that additional troves would turn up repeatedly and the supposed scarcity was merely a marketing move. They were wrong, but the Stealth slant from Italian Barber was modeled on this razor, and the Stealth—though still in short supply—is comparable.)

The brush is the Plisson synthetic now being sold by l’Occitane for $30, which to my mind is a great bargain. There’s a rumor that the pricing is low because the line is discontinued and they’re clearing out stock. I have no idea whether that’s true, but I got one and ordered one for The Son after mine arrived.

The knot is what some call “floppy,” and I have figured out what that means. It does not mean that the knot has a tendency to flop over (I’ve never seen a brush that does that). The term exists because saying a brush is “soft” is somewhat ambiguous: it might mean that the tips of the bristles are quite soft—in that sense, a velvet-covered iron ball is “soft”—or it might mean that the entire knot is soft—like a very fluffy (but resilient) pillow.

Some really like a dense and stiff brush, one that is resilient like a steel spring, but they still want soft tips. Those are probably the originators of the “floppy” nomenclature because they want a brush that is scrubby, and knot that is soft overall is not scrubby.

I like knots that are soft and yielding (though still resilient: the knot deforms under very slight pressure, unlike denser, stiffer brush, but when pressure is released the knot resumes it shape immediately), and this Plisson Synthetic knot fills the bill—and in addition, the tips feel like velvet.

The softness of the knot has no effect on lathering ability, given that the water is reasonably soft: I got a wonderfully thick lather instantly from my (old formulation) Geo. F. Trumper Sandalwood: fragrant, thick, lubricating lather.

Three passes of the redoubtable bakelite slant holding a Personna Lab Blue blade, and BBS emerged—with no nicks at all. In fact the second pass revealed several BBS areas: they had been there all along, under the stubble.

A good splash of TOBS Sandalwood aftershave and the week begins.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 October 2014 at 9:02 am

Posted in Shaving

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