Later On

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

Archive for September 5th, 2016

Researchers Confront an Epidemic of Loneliness

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Katie Hafner has a very interesting report in the NY Times:

The woman on the other end of the phone spoke lightheartedly of spring and of her 81st birthday the previous week.

“Who did you celebrate with, Beryl?” asked Alison, whose job was to offer a kind ear.

“No one, I…”

And with that, Beryl’s cheer turned to despair.

Her voice began to quaver as she acknowledged that she had been alone at home not just on her birthday, but for days and days. The telephone conversation was the first time she had spoken in more than a week.

About 10,000 similar calls come in weekly to an unassuming office building in this seaside town at the northwest reaches of England, which houses TheSilver Line Helpline, a 24-hour call center for older adults seeking to fill a basic need: contact with other people.

Loneliness, which Emily Dickinson described as “the Horror not to be surveyed,” is a quiet devastation. But in Britain, it is increasingly being viewed as something more: a serious public health issue deserving of public funds and national attention.

Working with local governments and the National Health Service, programs aimed at mitigating loneliness have sprung up in dozens of cities and towns. Even fire brigades have been trained to inspect homes not just for fire safetybut for signs of social isolation.

“There’s been an explosion of public awareness here, from local authorities to the Department of Health to the media,” said Paul Cann, chief executive of Age UK Oxfordshire and a founder of The Campaign to End Loneliness, a five-year-old group based in London. “Loneliness has to be everybody’s business.”

Researchers have found mounting evidence linking loneliness to physical illness and to functional and cognitive decline. As a predictor of early death, loneliness eclipses obesity.

“The profound effects of loneliness on health and independence are a critical public health problem,” said Dr. Carla M. Perissinotto, a geriatrician at the University of California, San Francisco. “It is no longer medically or ethically acceptable to ignore older adults who feel lonely and marginalized.”

In Britain and the United States, roughly one in three people older than 65 live alone, and in the United States, half of those older than 85 live alone. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 September 2016 at 8:11 pm

Happy Labor Day! There Has Never Been a Middle Class Without Strong Unions

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Jon Schwarz reports in The Intercept:

The entire Republican party and the ruling heights of the Democratic Party loathe unions. Yet they also claim they want to build a strong U.S. middle class.

This makes no sense. Wanting to build a middle class while hating unions is like wanting to build a house while hating hammers.

Sure, maybe hammers — like every tool humans have ever invented — aren’t 100 percent perfect. Maybe when you use a hammer you sometimes hit your thumb. But if you hate hammers and spend most of your time trying to destroy them, you’re never, ever going to build a house.

Likewise, no country on earth has ever created a strong middle class without strong unions. If you genuinely want the U.S. to have a strong middle class again, that means you want lots of people in lots of unions.

The bad news, of course, is that the U.S. is going in exactly the opposite direction. Union membership has collapsed in the past 40 years, falling from 24 percent to 11 percent. And even those numbers conceal the uglier reality that union membership is now 35 percent in the public sector but just 6.7 percent in the private sector. That private sector percentage is now lower than it’s been in over 100 years.

Not coincidentally, wealth inequality – which fell tremendously during the decades after World War II when the U.S. was most heavily unionized – has soared back to the levels seen 100 years ago.

The reason for this is straightforward. During the decades after World War II, wages went up hand in hand with productivity. Since the mid-1970s, as union membership has declined, that’s largely stopped happening. Instead, most of the increased wealth from productivity gains has been seized by the people at the top.

Even conservative calculations show that if wages had gone up in step with productivity, families with the median household income of around $52,000 per year would now be making about 25 percent more, or $65,000. Alternately, if we could take the increased productivity in time off, regular families could keep making $52,000 per year but only work four-fifths as much – e.g., people working 40 hours a week could work just 32 hours for the same pay.

So more and better unions would almost certainly translate directly into higher pay and better benefits for everyone, including people not in unions.

However, the effects of unions in building a middle class go far beyond that, in a myriad of ways.

For instance, the degree to which a country has created high-quality, universal health care is generally correlated with the strength of organized labor in that country. Canada’s single payer system was born in one province, Saskatchewan, and survived to spread to the rest of the countrythanks to Saskatchewan’s unions. Now Canadians live longer than Americans even as their health care system is far cheaper than ours.

U.S. unions were also key allies for other social movements, such as . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 September 2016 at 5:38 pm

Posted in Business, Daily life, Unions

Why does the Democratic Party want the Cadillac tax abolished?

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That’s a damn good question and I would say that as the Democratic Party becomes increasingly dependent on the economic elites, the economic elites have an ever stronger voice in setting policy. In other words, Bernie Sanders really was an anomaly and Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Establishment are Republican Lite.

That was my initial take, but it turns out that I was completely wrong in this case. Read Edwar Zelinsky’s explanation in the OUP Blog:

The Democratic Party platform for 2016 repudiates a major provision of Obamacare – but no one has said this out loud. In particular, the Democratic Party has now officially called for abolition of the “Cadillac tax,” the Obamacare levy designed to control health care costs by taxing expensive employer health plans.

Tucked away on page 35 of the Democratic platform is this enigmatic sentence: “We will repeal the excise tax on high-cost health insurance and find revenue to offset it because we need to contain the long-term growth of health care costs, but should not risk passing on too much of the burden to workers.”

Even by the problematic standards of current political rhetoric, this statement is equivocal. This sentence avoids the popular term for the levy imposed by Internal Revenue Code 4980I, the excise tax on “Cadillac” health plans. This sentence does not disclose that President Obama advocated the Cadillac tax “on high-cost health insurance” as an important provision to control health care costs. This sentence promises to replace the revenue to be raised by repeal of the tax without specifying how that replacement will happen. This sentence pays nominal obeisance to the need to control health care costs even as it calls for repeal of the provision of Obamacare most directly designed to control such costs.

The only unambiguous thought expressed in this sentence is that the Cadillac tax on high cost health plans must go.

Since the Republican Party opposed the tax all along (and managed to delay implementation of the tax until 2020), the Democratic platform makes clear that there is now a bi-partisan consensus to abolish the Cadillac tax.

What neither party wants to admit is the larger implication of their opposition to the Cadillac tax: Neither party is willing to adopt serious, practical measures to confront the problem of our nation’s continually rising health care costs.

The background to the Cadillac tax is now well-known. Section 106 of the Internal Revenue Code excludes from employees’ gross incomes the value of their employer-provided health care insurance. Section 106 was adopted in an earlier age, before health care costs became a major national problem.

Conservative and liberal commentators alike agree that Section 106 stimulates health care outlays by sheltering employees from the costs of their employer-provided health care coverage. These commentators generally acknowledge that the correct solution is to repeal Section 106, so that employees will report as income the health care premiums paid by their respective employers. This would sensitize employees to the costs of employer-provided health care coverage and thus force employees and employers to confront and control those costs.

Repealing or limiting Section 106 is a political nonstarter, the classic case of good policy which no elected official is willing to embrace. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 September 2016 at 12:33 pm

Is it suspicious that essentially every climatologist believes that anthrogenic global warming is real?

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Isn’t such unanimity suspicious in itself, evidence of a conspiracy. No, not if what they believe is true, in which case it’s what actually is happening (for everyone—that would be why they would agree). And once conspiracies get very large at all, weak links give way and all—or a lot— is revealed.

Notice that you find a similar level of consensus among astronomers on the idea that the Sun is much larger than the Earth, which seems odd, given that any dern fool can clearly see every day that the Sun is quite small: just look at it! Duh. “I don’t pretend to know a lot of fancy science, but by God I know what I [choose to] see!”

But still scientists agree that the Sun is larger; it must be a hoax doubtless aimed at getting enormous grants of taxpayer money for…  for… something!

Step 1: Fool people into thinking sun is larger (or globe is warming due to human activity).
Step 2: ??
Step 3: Profit!!

In fact, I think we all agree on that. But for some reason, a great number of Americans will not accept the science, despite having no facts with which to argue. (Easy refutations of denialist arguments are numerous (since each argument must be repeatedly refuted) and easy to find on the Web, along with much evidence: e.g., GooGle “maximum global temperature by year.” Notice a pattern?

All this was brought to mind when I updated this post, which for some reason is perennially popular. I added a link to the NY Times feature article on how coastal flooding is rapidly (rapidly: just over the space of a decade, maybe less) increasing. Note the new roadside rulers to show water depth: never needed those before. And indeed, did not need them until quite recently: they’re new.

But nothing dents the convictions of the denialist. I, personally, think it’s due to lack of training in critical thinking skills, and indeed in some states where denialism runs high (Texas), the state board of education specifically forbids the teaching of critical thinking skills, since such skills are (rightly, I admit) viewed as a liberal thing. Liberal, but also liberating.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 September 2016 at 12:16 pm

A Email Account Is Not a Secure Account

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Interesting note from Kevin Drum: even if Hillary Clinton would have used a email account, it is not a secure account and should not include classified information. Worth reading to understand more whether there is anything more to the Hillary Clinton email “scandal” than there was to the Benghazi “scandal” (which was zero).

Written by LeisureGuy

5 September 2016 at 11:25 am

A Labor Day Special: How Companies Are Using Technology to Make Workers ‘Happy’ in Their Crappy Jobs

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Mark Mann writes in Motherboard:

If there was ever a real-life workplace dystopia, it is the modern call center. Employees spend their shifts interrupting strangers with surveys and sales pitches, or fielding calls from irate customers who’ve just spent fruitless hours troubleshooting on Google and are now ready to yell at the first real human they encounter. As each tense or abusive conversation comes to an end, the employee must immediately launch into the next one, because every second at work is quantified and analyzed. Even though they talk to people all day long, call center employees often report feeling lonely and isolated in their tiny cubicles.

With a job this bad, there are only two attractive options: call in sick, or quit. And that’s what many people do. Annual turnover rates fall between 30-to-45 percent. Absenteeism is also high. Since recruiting, hiring, and training a call center employee can cost companies in the thousands per worker, their bosses want to lessen the misery, if only to raise the bottom line.

But even though call centers have a strong financial incentive to improve the workplace, they aren’t necessarily successful. Taco Tuesdays, anyone?

Instead of handing out gift cards and hanging employee-of-the-month plaques on the wall, a new breed of companies wants to make workers more productive (and ideally happier) by managing their social interactions with each other. These companies are harnessing every conceivable data stream and deploying the results to shape how employees relate to each other. For call center agents, the future is friendlier, and maybe a lot more creepy.

Ron Davis is CEO of Tenacity, a “retention-as-a-service” company based in Seattle that proposes to use “social physics” to make people actually squeeze some enjoyment out of their call center jobs—and ideally not to quit so much. The techniques for making people happier are well established, he pointed out: We know that mindfulness and deep breathing, physical exercise, and connecting with peers all contribute to a sense of well-being. “The problem is nobody does that stuff,” he said. Through the emerging field of “social physics,” Tenacity subtly manipulates workers to build more well-being into their days.

Social physics applies Big Data to the social sciences. The discipline’s godfather is Alex “Sandy” Pentland, who runs the MIT Connection Science and Human Dynamics labs. Pentland has said, “In the area of psychology and management, we’re back in the days of alchemy… There aren’t any scientific bones there.”

Now that qualitative research is becoming increasingly quantitative, Pentland argues, social physicists are able to apply hard science to pernicious problems, like how to create sustained behavior change among a company’s employees.

One motivation hack derived from social physics is rewarding others—not you—for your successes, Davis told me. Under Tenacity, employees choose two buddies to be their accountability partners. Instead of rewarding workers directly for desired behaviors, such as performing a meditation exercise or doing some moderate physical activity, the program rewards those partners. “It turns that’s seven times more effective,” Davis explained. What we won’t do to make ourselves happy, we will do to please our friends.

Social physics also suggests that people are more productive when they get to spend unstructured time with each other. Since call centers can be such lonely places, Tenacity offers to foster friendships outside of work. Participants perform “quests” together, such as taking a new employee out for drinks, and snapping a silly selfie. Such contrived outings will sound more like a torment than an adventure to many, but then again, maybe they seem more fun when considered against the hellscape backdrop of a call center job.

“We can see what’s wrong with the social network, and start tailoring our quests to address those problems,” Davis said. “We create the right offline relationships with the right people, via technology.” If this takes off, perhaps soon we can all have our workplace relationships customized to suit the needs of our employers.

Humanyze, another company seeking to commercialize the principles of social physics, accesses those offline relationships using a smart ID badge. “Face-to-face is much more predictive of the things we care about than digital data,” said Ben Waber, the company’s CEO, speaking over the phone from Boston, where the company is based.

Humanyze’s digital badge is worn around the neck on a lanyard and packs a Bluetooth sensor that checks proximity to other people, an infrared sensor that shows who you’re facing, an accelerometer for your activity level, and a microphone that performs voice analysis. The microphone doesn’t record what people are saying, Waber told me, but rather it tracks the percentage of time you spend talking and analyzes your volume and tone of voice.

Basically, employees get to wear the Panopticon on their chests all the time. It’s like your all-knowing boss just arrived from the future and he wants you to feel better.

From a privacy perspective, . . .

Continue reading. There’s quite a bit more.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 September 2016 at 11:21 am

A day for slants: Tcheon Fung Sing and the Phoenix slant, with others released

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SOTD 2016-09-05

Two new slants went up for sale this morning, both at $20: the Maggard Razors slant and the Phoenix Artisan slant (in black or white). The Maggard slant is sold unbundled, so the $20 is only for the head—if you don’t have a handle, that would be an additional $14-$19. The Phoenix slant comes with a handle—and since it is a three-piece razor, you can use a different handle if you wish.

I’ve ordered the Maggard slant (and I have plenty of handles) and also a black Phoenix slant. (The Phoenix slant in the photo is a prototype.)

There are a few themes in today’s shave: a Phoenix Artisan theme (razor and aftershave), an Italian theme (the RazoRock brush and Tcheon Fung Sing, an Italian artisanal soap), and a tobacco theme (the soap and the aftershave, though the soap’s fragrance is of the flower and the aftershave’s is of the cured leaf).

I have developed a habit of palm-lathering Tcheon Fung Sing soap. Face-lathering works, but I seem to get a creamier result in palm lathering, probably because I work more water into the lather.

The Phoenix slant prototype is quite good: based on a Fasan design, it’s both very comfortable and very efficient. I got a BBS result without even trying, and then a good splash of Cavendish aftershave made a great finish. This aftershave endures better through the day than many: not strong, but present.

Exciting times for slant lovers.


Written by LeisureGuy

5 September 2016 at 10:46 am

Posted in Shaving

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