Later On

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Archive for November 23rd, 2016

How to Force Machines to Play Fair

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In Quanta Kevin Hartnett has an interesting article about Cynthia Dwork and her work:

Theoretical computer science can be as remote and abstract as pure mathematics, but new research often begins in response to concrete, real-world problems. Such is the case with the work of Cynthia Dwork.

Over the course of a distinguished career, Dwork has crafted rigorous solutions to dilemmas that crop up at the messy interface between computing power and human activity. She is most famous for her invention in the early to mid-2000s of “differential privacy,” a set of techniques that safeguard the privacy of individuals in a large database. Differential privacy ensures, for example, that a person can contribute their genetic information to a medical database without fear that anyone analyzing the database will be able to figure out which genetic information is hers — or even whether she has participated in the database at all. And it achieves this security guarantee in a way that allows researchers to use the database to make new discoveries.

Dwork’s latest work has a similar flavor to it. In 2011 she became interested in the question of fairness in algorithm design. As she observes, algorithms increasingly control the kinds of experiences we have: They determine the advertisements we see online, the loans we qualify for, the colleges that students get into. Given this influence, it’s important that algorithms classify people in ways that are consistent with commonsense notions of fairness. We wouldn’t think it’s ethical for a bank to offer one set of lending terms to minority applicants and another to white applicants. But as recent work has shown — most notably in the book “Weapons of Math Destruction,” by the mathematician Cathy O’Neil — discrimination that we reject in normal life can creep into algorithms.

Privacy and ethics are two questions with their roots in philosophy. These days, they require a solution in computer science. Over the past five years, Dwork, who is currently at Microsoft Research but will be joining the faculty at Harvard University in January, has been working to create a new field of research on algorithmic fairness. Earlier this month she helped organize a workshop at Harvard that brought together computer scientists, law professors and philosophers.

Quanta Magazine spoke with Dwork about algorithmic fairness, her interest in working on problems with big social implications, and how a childhood experience with music shaped the way she thinks about algorithm design today. An edited and condensed version of the interview follows.

QUANTA MAGAZINE: When did it become obvious to you that computer science was where you wanted to spend your time thinking?

CYNTHIA DWORK: I always enjoyed all of my subjects, including science and math. I also really loved English and foreign languages and, well, just about everything. I think that I applied to the engineering school at Princeton a little on a lark. My recollection is that my mother said, you know, this might be a nice combination of interests for you, and I thought, she’s right.

It was a little bit of a lark, but on the other hand it seemed as good a place to start as any. It was only in my junior year of college when I first encountered automata theory that I realized that I might be headed not for a programming job in industry but instead toward a Ph.D. There was a definite exposure I had to certain material that I thought was beautiful. I just really enjoyed the theory.

You’re best known for your work on differential privacy. What drew you to your present work on “fairness” in algorithms?

I wanted to find another problem. I just wanted something else to think about, for variety. And I had enjoyed the sort of social mission of the privacy work — the idea that we were addressing or attempting to address a very real problem. So I wanted to find a new problem and I wanted one that would have some social implications.

So why fairness?

I could see that it was going to be a major concern in real life.

How so?

I think it was pretty clear that algorithms were going to be used in a way that could affect individuals’ options in life. We knew they were being used to determine what kind of advertisements to show people. We may not be used to thinking of ads as great determiners of our options in life. But what people get exposed to has an impact on them. I also expected that algorithms would be used for at least some kind of screening in college admissions, as well as in determining who would be given loans.

I didn’t foresee the extent to which they’d be used to screen candidates for jobs and other important roles. So these things — what kinds of credit options are available to you, what sort of job you might get, what sort of schools you might get into, what things are shown to you in your everyday life as you wander around on the internet — these aren’t trivial concerns.

Your 2012 paper that launched this line of your research hinges on the concept of “awareness.” Why is this important?

One of the examples in the paper is: Suppose you had a minority group in which the smart students were steered toward math and science, and a dominant group in which the smart students were steered toward finance. Now if someone wanted to write a quick-and-dirty classifier to find smart students, maybe they should just look for students who study finance because, after all, the majority is much bigger than the minority, and so the classifier will be pretty accurate overall. The problem is that not only is this unfair to the minority, but it also has reduced utility compared to a classifier that understands that if you’re a member of the minority and you study math, you should be viewed as similar to a member of the majority who studies finance. That gave rise to the title of the paper, “Fairness Through Awareness,” meaning cross-cultural awareness.

In that same paper you also draw a distinction between treating individuals fairly and treating groups fairly. You conclude that sometimes it’s not enough just to treat individuals fairly — there’s also a need to be aware of group differences and to make sure groups of people with similar characteristics are treated fairly.

What we do in the paper is, we start with individual fairness and we discuss what the connection is between individual fairness and group fairness, and we mathematically investigate the question of when individual fairness ensures group fairness and what you can do to ensure group fairness if individual fairness doesn’t do the trick.

What’s a situation where individual fairness wouldn’t be enough to ensure group fairness? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

23 November 2016 at 6:37 pm

Two-minute PSA video: The dangers of a turkey fryer

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Take a look:

That could ruin the holiday.

Written by Leisureguy

23 November 2016 at 6:29 pm

Trump Team Thinks NASA Should Study Planets, Just Not the One We Live On

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It’s worse than stupidity, it’s willful ignorance (aka “choosing to be stupid”). Becky Ferreira reports in Motherboard:

Earth: It’s the planet we live on. Understanding its complex dynamics is essential to the continuation of human civilization on our home world, and beyond it. That’s why NASA has spent the last decade heavily investing in its Earth Science Division, with the support of the Obama administration. The agency’s growing fleet of sophisticated Earth observation satellites has distinguished it as the world’s leading player in studying climate change, natural disasters, rising oceans, and other major issues that impact people who happen to reside on Earth.

President-elect Donald Trump, however, is beginning to shape a different vision for NASA, particularly with regards to Earth science. According to former congressman Robert Walker, Trump’s senior space policy advisor, NASA’s Earth observation programs are too “politicized” and must be scaled back.

“We see NASA in an exploration role, in deep space research,” Walker told the Guardian. “Earth-centric science is better placed at other agencies where it is their prime mission […] I believe that climate research is necessary but it has been heavily politicized, which has undermined a lot of the work that researchers have been doing. Mr. Trump’s decisions will be based upon solid science, not politicized science.”

There’s a lot to unpack there, but let’s start with clarifying what Walker means by “other agencies.” In the lead-up to the election, Walker hinted that a Trump administration would redistrict NASA’s Earth observation efforts to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is the government arm responsible for monitoring sea and air conditions. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has also been floated as a federal agency that could help pick up the slack on Earth science.

NOAA and NSF fund important work, but they receive a fraction of NASA’s annual budget for their research. Plus, both agencies already depend on partnerships with NASA to study Earth from space, as they lack the money and the spaceflight facilities to continue those projects without NASA’s support. Unless the Trump administration clearly outlines how non-NASA agencies will be compensated for taking over NASA’s leadership in this field, this idea seems like a rather blatant attempt to sweep Earth science under an administrative rug. So far, Walker has not elaborated on this strategy beyond affirming that “there would have to be some budget adjustments” in terms of retooling Earth science under other agencies.

For reference, Earth science has been on the margins of NASA’s interests since the agency’s inception under President Dwight Eisenhower. But it wasn’t until the NASA Authorization Act of 1985, during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, that the agency became focused on Earth science as a dedicated goal. In 1986, NASA’s advisory council published a detailed roadmap for its new Earth observation division that called for collaboration with NOAA and NSF. NASA took the lead in providing the spaceflight infrastructure for satellite observations of Earth, while NOAA and the NSF have provided support on selected projects.

But as Earth science became more controversial over the subsequent decades—particularly climate change research—conflict has erupted over whether NASA’s prime directives should be constrained to ”deep space activities rather than Earth-centric work,” as Walker wrote in an October 19 op-ed for SpaceNews. It is not a new angle for the GOP. In early 2015, for instance, Republican senator Ted Cruz, Trump’s former presidential rival, lamented that President Obama “shifted [NASA’s] funding to global warming pursuits rather than carry out NASA’s core mission.”

READ MORE: Scientists’ Top Concerns in Trump’s America

At the heart of this argument is a denial of Earth science’s relevance to space science. As NASA administrator Charles Bolden pointed out to Cruz last year, Earth is, in fact, located in space. Even setting aside the urgent need to monitor global effects of human activity on our environment, our planet provides a veritable Rosetta Stone for identifying and deciphering patterns on countless other alien worlds. It is our most valuable planetary research sample. In fact, even the mere act of observing Earth from space has long been acknowledged to be profoundly revelatory and meaningful, because it exposes the harrowing fragility of our planet and its inhabitants.

NASA’s Earth observation missions not only keep tabs on dangerous environmental problems that will impact people regardless of political leanings, these efforts represent cutting-edge technological platforms that have encouraged innovations in many emerging fields.

Take the GOES-R spacecraft, launched on Saturday, which is the most advanced weather satellite ever built, offering the most precise meteorological forecasting system in space. From . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

23 November 2016 at 6:13 pm

How Idaho’s Drug Warriors Crushed Hope in Epileptic Kids

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Eric Boehm reports in Reason:

In December 2014, Josh Phillips’ mother answered the phone to news no parent wants to hear. Her son, an epileptic high school senior and champion wrestler, was in the hospital.

The whole Salmon High School wrestling team was waiting at Steele Memorial Medical Center when Jeanette and Gary Phillips got there. The team had been on its way home from a match at West Jefferson High, more than an hour away and out of cellphone range in the rugged backcountry of northeastern Idaho, when Josh Phillips suffered the worst seizure of his life.

As the bus raced back to Salmon, Josh went in and out of consciousness. He stopped breathing at least once.

“We thought we were going to lose him,” recalls Jason Bruce, the team’s coach.

Josh had been diagnosed with epilepsy when he was 10 years old, but he’d been wrestling since he was much younger, following in the footsteps of his father and older brother. Josh was the best of the bunch. He’d never been pinned during his four years at Salmon High, and Bruce says Josh was a clear favorite to win the state championship at the end of his senior season.

He never got the chance.

After a frantic drive through the mountains, Bruce was finally able to call an ambulance to meet the bus and Josh made it to the hospital where he was stabilized. But the incident on the bus forced the school’s hand, and the decision was made that Josh would no longer be allowed to travel with the team. It was too dangerous.

Now, instead of dreaming of a championship, Josh is just hoping for a normal life. He’s tried more than a dozen different medications and even underwent brain surgery. But the seizures that denied him a shot at a state title now prevent him from pursuing even the most mundane goals of the average 19-year-old. He can’t go to college and probably won’t be able to move out of his parents’ house. He’s not allowed to drive a car, and won’t get permission until he can show doctors that he’s having less than one seizure per month.

With pharmaceutical and surgical treatments unsuccessful, the Phillips family and others in Idaho placed their hopes in the legalization of cannabidiol oil, or CBD, a form of medical marijuana. Though not guaranteed to work for everyone, CBD has been shown to be effective in controlling seizures in some epileptic patients. For that reason, it’s been legalized in dozens of states as a medical treatment, including many states where more widespread uses of medical marijuana remain banned.

In Idaho, a bill to allow people like Josh Phillips to access CBD oil was passed by the state legislature in 2015, only to be defeated by a group of powerful special interests—including cops, prosecutors, and pharmaceutical companies—with direct access to policy makers in Boise. Emails obtained by Reason reveal a behind-the-scenes effort organized by the state’s Office of Drug Policy to derail the CBD legislation and, after it passed against the wishes of Gov. Butch Otter and his administration, to use executive authority to replace the bill with an alternative treatment program that has done nothing to help Josh Phillips or many other Idahoans suffering from seizures.

In the middle of it all was a governor who had for years professed support for ending drug prohibition, only to turn his back when the opportunity came.

Nearly 20 years before Josh Phillips was born, Clement Leroy “Butch” Otter was already pushing for marijuana to be legalized in Idaho.

In 1978, the future governor was a 35-year-old two-term state lawmaker who was running as something of a radical upstart in the state’s gubernatorial election.

“If a person, of his own free will, wants to use marijuana, I question whether the government has any propriety in telling him he can’t,” Otter told Reason that year. “The government, in effect, is taking away the only real gift the Lord gave us.”

Intentionally or not, Otter was suggesting that socially permissive policy choices were compatible with—and perhaps even logically following from—a worldview informed by Christian religious tradition. Free will demands that people be allowed to go their own way, take their own risks and make their own mistakes. That’s a perspective that fits with Idaho’s religious conservative culture—and one that runs directly against any notion of government-enforced prohibition.

Otter lost his first gubernatorial race in 1978, finishing third in a seven-way GOP primary. But he won his next race, for lieutenant governor in 1986. He would win re-election to that post three times before earning a seat in Congress in 2001.

As lieutenant governor and during three terms as the representative from Idaho’s First Congressional District, Otter developed a reputation for being a free thinker with a high degree of skepticism toward government power.

In 1987, Democratic Gov. Cecil Andrus left the state to attend a conference, leaving Otter to serve as acting governor. While in that role, Otter vetoed a bill that would have raised the legal drinking age in Idaho from 19 to 21 in order to allow the state to access federal highway funds. He said the bill was tantamount to giving into federal blackmail.

Starting in 1999, Otter fought a two-year personal battle with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) after being cited for building an illegal pond in his backyard. The EPA said he was disturbing a protected wetland, but Otter maintained that he was allowed to do as he pleased on his own property.

In Congress, he gained notoriety for being one of three Republicans—along with Ron Paul of Texas and Robert Ney of Ohio—to vote against the PATRIOT Act in 2001.

In 2006, after three decades in politics, Otter found himself back where he started: campaigning for governor and talking to Reason magazine about why Idaho should legalize marijuana, at least for medical purposes.

“I still support medical marijuana,” Otter said in 2006, just weeks before he was elected governor. “Some of these people, the only way they can get relief is by smoking marijuana.”

Nine years later, after winning a third consecutive term as the state’s chief executive, Otter finally had a chance to put his name on a law that would legalize, for the first time in the state’s history, a form of marijuana to treat medical issues like seizures. The bill was SB1146.

He vetoed it. . .

Continue reading.

Do click the link and read the rest. It’s a sorry story, but it’s part of the US today. Later in the article:

. . . Unlike Rice, Otter wasn’t convinced. Ten days after the CBD bill passed in the House, the governor issued his veto with a message scolding the legislature for passing the bill against the wishes of the state’s law enforcement special interests.

“I don’t know what more I or senior members of my administration could have done to help legislators understand our strong opposition to this legislation,” he wrote in his veto message. “Both the House and Senate were told by the Office of Drug Policy, the Department of Public Welfare, and the Idaho State Police—as well as prosecutors and local law enforcement officers throughout Idaho—that there were too many questions and problems and too few answers and solutions in this bill to let it become law.”

Forced to choose between the families and children who wanted CBD oil legalized and the opposition from law enforcement, Otter chose the latter—though he said he “sympathized with the heartbreaking dilemma” facing Idahoans dealing with debilitating diseases that could potentially be treated with CBD.

Jon Hanian, Otter’s spokesman, says the governor stands by the veto. Asked how that decision squares with decades of professed support for marijuana legalization, Hanian said Otter admits to changing his position. . .

No kidding. What’s the word for when you support something so long as it can’t happen, but when it can happen you oppose it? Opportunism? Hypocrisy? Dishonesty?

Do read the whole thing. It provides quite a bit to ponder. Later, for example:

. . . In his veto message, Otter explained his decision by warning of “the potential for misuse and abuse with criminal intent.” He cited the lack of support from Idaho’s law enforcement groups, and said that legalizing CBD oil could “decrease public safety,” without explaining how.

The law enforcement community’s own explanation for its opposition wasn’t any better.

“It basically opens the door, carte blanche, to make it almost unenforceable for us to be able to stop marijuana or illegal drugs in our communities,” said Shane Turman, president of the Idaho Chiefs of Police Association, at a hearing of the state Senate State Affairs Committee concerning the CBD oil bill in March 2015.

“The bill is the most liberal CBD bill in the country,” declared Bryan Taylor, president of the Idaho Prosecuting Attorneys Association, at the same hearing. “There are no regulations or safeguards.”

Rice, the Republican legislator who sponsored the CBD legislation, sees things differently. He says the state legislature worked with law enforcement to rewrite parts of the bill in an attempt to address those concerns. The final version of the bill would have required written permission from a doctor before a patient could obtain CBD oil and allowed doctors to prescribe CBD oil only for the treatment of intractable seizures after other medical options had been tried. There was nothing in the CBD bill that would have prevented police from arresting anyone for illegally obtaining or using marijuana or marijuana-derived products. . .

And this is Idaho, which presents itself as supporting the individual, etc. What a bunch of hypocrites.

Later we start to see the real reasons for Otter’s about face:

. . . If we take Otter at his word—and the word of his spokesman—then it was law enforcement’s opposition to the CBD oil bill that convinced the governor to veto it, and general concern about the public safety consequences of legalizing marijuana that convinced him to change his long-held views on the topic.

There may have also been a second factor pushing Otter’s administration to oppose the bill and favor a clinical trial of a particular drug instead.

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association, or PhRMA, represents drug companies and lobbies on their behalf. According to federal lobbying data aggregated by Maplight, PhRMA has spent more than $150 million on lobbying since 2008—a total that only includes federal advocacy efforts, not similar work done in state capitals.

But Big Pharma is active in the states too, and drug companies have been particularly keen on fighting efforts to legalize medical marijuana in all its various forms, including CBD oil.

That’s because states with legal medical marijuana have lower rates of drug prescriptions. In a study published earlier this year, Ashley and W. David Bradford, a daughter-father pair of researchers at the University of Georgia, analyzed state-level prescription drug databases from 2010 through 2013 and found that doctors prescribed significantly fewer pharmaceutical drugs in states with legal medical weed. The largest drop-off was for prescription painkillers, with 1,800 fewer doses prescribed annually in states with medical marijuana laws. They found a significant decline—486 fewer doses annually—in prescriptions for anti-seizure drugs as well.

In Idaho, PhRMA employs two full-time lobbyists to influence public policy. It also spends lots of money helping to elect state lawmakers from both sides of the aisle—including Otter. . .

Written by Leisureguy

23 November 2016 at 5:26 pm

Maggie Haberman is the Judith Miller of the left

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Just read this article in The Intercept by Zaid Jilani. The Democratic establishment does not want actual Democrats running the party—that is, those who express traditional progressive Democratic values. They want the Clintons and the Wall Street Democrats. (I wonder whether Haberman has apologized to Ellison for laughing at him. I would bet she never does. The arrogance of NY Times reporters and editors means that they never admit error, and thus they seldom learn from their mistakes: they ignore, minimize, downplay, and conceal mistakes.)

The report begins:

The NY Times on Tuesday published an article portraying the Obama White House as skeptical of Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison’s ability to lead the Democratic National Committee. Ellison, who endorsed Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primary and is viewed by many as a sort of Sanders proxy, declared his candidacy earlier this month, emphasizing a need to prioritize grassroots organizing.

The Times article signaled that the establishment of the Democratic Party is opposed to Ellison’s bid for DNC chair, and laid out an argument questioning the congressman’s ability to lead the party.

One of the article’s two authors, Maggie Haberman, was on an ABC News panel with Ellison in July 2015 when he suggested that Donald Trump might end up “leading the Republican ticket” and that there was a real possibility of his capturing the presidency. Haberman burst out laughing: . . .

Read the whole thing. And watch the 30-second video.

Of course the NY Times repeatedly says that it will avoid using anonymous sources—the exception seems to be for anonymous sources who say things the NY Times wants to print.

Written by Leisureguy

23 November 2016 at 5:22 pm

Mushrooms blooming, as it were (no actual blooms: mushrooms are not plants, flowering or otherwise)

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The narration is helpful. It’s quite amazing. Watch it here.

Written by Leisureguy

23 November 2016 at 4:24 pm

Posted in Science, Video

A wonderful interactive look at Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights”

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Take a look at this. It’s nice being able to zoom into see the details of what’s going on, and the narration is also informative.

Written by Leisureguy

23 November 2016 at 4:02 pm

Posted in Art, Technology

Ringo Starr’s drummermanship

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Interesting video via Open Culture:

Written by Leisureguy

23 November 2016 at 3:06 pm

Posted in Music, Video

How to Know Whether Your Country Is Heading Toward Despotism: An Educational Film from 1946

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Colin Marshall has a couple of excellent videos at Open Culture:

He writes:

Nobody likes a despot — even despots know it. But actually identifying despotism can pose a certain difficulty — which despots also know, and they’d surely like to keep it that way. Hence Encyclopedia Britannica’s Despotism, a ten-minute Erpi Classroom Film on how a country slides into that eponymous state. It uses the example of Nazi Germany (which might strike us today as the most obvious one but back in 1946 must have felt almost too fresh), but generalizes the concept by looking back into more distant history, as far as Louis XIV’s immortal remark, “L’état, c’est moi.”

“You can roughly locate any community in the world somewhere along a scale running all the way from democracy to despotism,” says Despotism‘s standard-issue mannered narrator before turning it over to a standard-issue sack-suited and Brylcreemed expert. And how can we know where our own society places on that scale? “Well, for one,” says the expert, “avoid the comfortable idea that the mere form of government can of itself safeguard a nation against despotism.” The film introduces a series of sub-scales usable to gauge a community’s despotic potential: the respect scale, the power scale, the economic distribution scale, and the information scale.

The respect scale measures “how many citizens get an even break,” and on the despotic end, “common courtesy is withheld from large groups of people on account of their political attitudes; if people are rude to others because they think their wealth and position gives them that right, or because they don’t like a man’s race or his religion.” The power scale  “gauges the citizen’s share in making the community’s decisions. Communities which concentrate decision making in a few hands rate low on a power scale and are moving towards despotism,” and even “today democracy can ebb away in communities whose citizens allow power to become concentrated in the hands of bosses.”

The economic distribution scale turns into a warning sign when a society’s “economic distribution becomes slanted, its middle income groups grow smaller and despotism stands a better chance to gain a foothold.” If “the concentration of land ownership in the hands of a very small number of people” and “control of jobs and business opportunities is in a few hands, despotism stands a good chance.” So it also does in a society which rates low on the information scale, where “the press, radio, and other channels of communication are controlled by only a few people and when citizens have to accept what they are told,” a process that renders its citizens ultimately unable to evaluate claims and ideas for themselves.

The opposite of despotism, so Despotism proposes, is democracy, a type of government explained in the previous year’s Erpi Classroom Film of that name. Germany, a republic where once “an aggressive despotism took root and flourished under Adolf Hitler,” now performs admirably on the respect, power, economic distribution, and information scales — not perfectly, of course, but no country can ever completely escape the threat of despotism. Much about the economy and the nature of information may have changed over the past 70 years, but nothing about respect and power have. Whichever society we live in, and wherever on the spectrum between democracy and despotism it now stands, we’ll do well to keep an eye on the scales. Both films were made by Encyclopedia Britannica, in conjunction with Yale University‘s then prominent political scientist Harold Lasswell.

Here’s the companion short video on Democracy:

Marshall includes a good list of related content.

Written by Leisureguy

23 November 2016 at 2:25 pm

16 year old beats Carlsen in 22 moves

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Pretty cool game and well explained in this 9-minute video:

Written by Leisureguy

23 November 2016 at 1:42 pm

Posted in Games, Video

The police crackdown on pipeline protesters in North Dakota

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Steve Haley reports in the Washington Post:

It may seem, from a certain vantage point, as though the formation of Donald Trump’s administration is the only thing going on in the world right now, but the protests over the Dakota Access oil pipeline and the police crackdowns on them are still ongoing in North Dakota.

This week, police defended their use of water cannons aimed at unarmed protesters in freezing temperatures. Protest organizers said at least 17 protesters were taken to the hospital and that some were treated for hypothermia.

This statement, by a sheriff’s department spokeswoman conceding the target of the water cannons as an afterthought, is almost art:

“There are multiple fires being set by protesters on the bridge and in the area of the bridge,” department spokeswoman Donnell Hushka told CNN. “We have firetrucks on the scene. They are using their fire hoses to put out the fires, wet the land around so fires don’t spread, and they are also using water as crowd control.”

Protesters say they were starting small fires to keep people warm — after they had been sprayed by the water cannons.

Perhaps the most alarming story to come out of the weekend clashes, though, was that of 21-year-old Sophia Wilansky, who is at risk of losing her arm after protester organizers say she was struck by a concussion grenade. From the Intercept:

In a statement on Tuesday, her father, Wayne Wilansky, said she would need multiple surgeries to regain functional use of her arm and hand. “All of the muscle and soft tissue between her elbow and wrist were blown away,” he said. “She will be, every day for the foreseeable future, fearful of losing her arm and hand.”

In a statement to the Los Angeles Times, the sheriff’s department denied using concussion grenades and suggested the injury was caused by explosives allegedly used by protesters. The Medic and Healer Council responded, “These statements are refuted by Sophia’s testimony, by several eyewitnesses who watched police intentionally throw concussion grenades at unarmed people, by the lack of charring of flesh at the wound site, and by the grenade pieces that have been removed from her arm in surgery and will be saved for legal proceedings.”

In the pipeline standoff, we have all the hallmarks of a militarized police force, with images and events that remind one of the police crackdowns in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014.

At least two journalists, including “Democracy Now!” host Amy Goodman, were arrested last month while covering the demonstrations. Police confronting the Native American protesters, and others who have come to join them, have used dogs, tear gas, rubber bullets, the aforementioned water cannons and, allegedly, concussion grenades. The tactics have been denounced by the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the rights of freedom of association and peaceful assembly, who released a statement last week calling out the violence against protesters and the “inhuman and degrading conditions” they face when detained. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

23 November 2016 at 1:15 pm

Extinction of unions?

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Harold Meyerson has an interesting column in the Washington Post, which concludes:

. . . But the growing appreciation by progressives, centrists and millennials of the indispensability of unions won’t deter an all-Republican government from seeking to destroy them; to the contrary, it will only encourage them to slash more deeply. Unions were already facing existential challenges from worker-replacing technology and the increasing number of nonstandard (temp, part-time, subcontracted, independent contractor and gig) jobs. That Republicans now have the power to further decimate them only makes their challenges more daunting. While struggling to maintain their power, unions must simultaneously seek to address changes in the broader economy by incubating new forms of worker representation in terrains – chiefly, cities – where they retain political support.

One thing is certain: If Trump’s victory does indeed become “an extinction-level event for the labor movement,” it would also extinguish any prospect that America could ever become “great again.” No country in history has ever achieved decent working-class living standards (and the social and political stability they engender) absent a vibrant labor movement. Anyone who hopes for American greatness must also hope that labor has the strength and smarts to survive what’s coming in the Trump years.

Written by Leisureguy

23 November 2016 at 1:12 pm

How long before the white working class realizes Trump was just scamming them?

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I would guess it will take a few years: people are very reluctant to admit error, which is why learning occurs relatively rarely. Paul Waldman writes in the Washington Post:

While we’re still analyzing the election results and debating the importance of different factors to the final outcome, everyone agrees that white working class voters played a key part in Donald Trump’s victory, in some cases by switching their votes and in some cases by turning out when they had been nonvoters before.

And now that he’s about to take office, he’s ready to deliver on what he promised them, right? Well, maybe not so much:

President-elect Donald Trump abruptly abandoned some of his most tendentious campaign promises Tuesday, saying he does not plan to prosecute Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email system or the dealings of her family foundation, has an “open mind” about a climate-change accord from which he vowed to withdraw the United States and is no longer certain that torturing terrorism suspects is a good idea.

The billionaire real estate developer also dismissed any need to disentangle himself from his financial holdings, despite rising questions about how his global business dealings might affect his decision-making as the nation’s chief executive.

And it’s not just that; at the same time, the Trump administration and congressional Republicans are getting ready to move on their highest priorities, cutting taxes for the wealthy, scrapping oversight on Wall Street, and lightening regulations on big corporations.

Imagine you’re one of those folks who went to Trump rallies and thrilled to his promises to take America back from the establishment, who felt your heart stir as he promised to torture prisoners, who got your “Trump That Bitch” T-shirt, who was overjoyed to finally have a candidate who tells it like it is. What are you thinking as you watch this?

If you have any sense, you’re coming to the realization that it was all a scam. You got played. While you were chanting “Lock her up!” he was laughing at you for being so gullible. While you were dreaming about how you’d have an advocate in the Oval Office, he was dreaming about how he could use it to make himself richer. He hasn’t even taken office yet and everything he told you is already being revealed as a lie.

During the campaign, Trump made two kinds of promises to those white working class voters. One was very practical, focused on economics. In coal country, he said he’d bring back all the coal jobs that have been lost to cheap natural gas (even as he promotes more fracking of natural gas; figure that one out). In the industrial Midwest, he said he’d bring back all the labor-intensive factory jobs that were mostly lost to automation, not trade deals. These promises were utterly ludicrous, but most of the target voters seemed not to care.

The second kind of promise was emotional and expressive. It was about turning back the clock to a time when immigrants hadn’t come to your town, when women weren’t so uppity, when you could say whatever you wanted and you didn’t feel like the culture and the economy were leaving you behind. So Trump said he’d toss Hillary Clinton in jail, force everyone to say “Merry Christmas” again, and sue those dastardly liberal news organizations into submission.

And of course, there were promises — like building a wall on the southern border and making Mexico pay for it just so they know who’s boss — that claimed to serve a practical purpose but also had an important expressive purpose. And now one by one Trump is casting them all off.

So what are we left with? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

23 November 2016 at 1:04 pm

Billionaires vs. the Press in the Era of Trump

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Emily Bazelon reports in the NY Times:

In 2005, Tim O’Brien, then a financial reporter at The New York Times, published the book “TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald.” O’Brien talked to sources with an up-close view of Donald J. Trump’s finances, who concluded that the real-estate developer’s net worth was $150 million to $250 million, rather than the $2 billion to $5 billion Trump had variously claimed. Trump, who had courted O’Brien by taking him for rides in his Ferrari and private jet, sued O’Brien for libel in New Jersey in 2006. Trump called O’Brien a “wack job” on the “Today” show — while, O’Brien says, continuing to curry favor with him privately. O’Brien’s publisher, Warner Books, was also named in the suit and hired top lawyers who put Trump through an unsparing two-day deposition. Asked about his finances, Trump was caught lying or exaggerating 30 times. “He thought he’d get a friendly judge, and we would roll over,” says O’Brien, who is now the executive editor of Bloomberg View. “We didn’t.” The case went through four judges and was dismissed in 2009.

Trump’s suit against O’Brien is one of seven forays President-elect Trump and his companies have made as libel plaintiffs. He won only once, when a defendant failed to appear. But the standard measure — defending his reputation and achieving victory in court — isn’t how Trump says he thinks about his investment. “I spent a couple of bucks on legal fees, and they spent a whole lot more,” he told The Washington Post in March about the hefty sum he spent on the case against O’Brien. “I did it to make his life miserable, which I’m happy about.”

Trump was wrong: Warner Books spent less than he did, and O’Brien paid nothing. But that doesn’t make Trump’s central idea any less jarring: that libel law can be a tool of revenge. It’s disconcerting for a superrich (if maybe not as rich as he says) plaintiff to treat the legal system as a weapon to be deployed against critics. Once installed in the White House, Trump will have a wider array of tools at his disposal, and his record suggests that, more than his predecessors, he will try to use the press — and also control and subdue it.

This kind of manipulation of the law is unfolding at a keen moment of weakness for the press, which has already been buffeted by falling revenue and mounting public disaffection. Only 40 percent of the public — the lowest rate since at least the 1990s — trusts the media “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly,” according to a Gallup survey conducted in September 2015. This mistrust has been growing for a long time, but it was stoked by Trump during the campaign. He called the reporters who covered him “scum” and whipped up yelling and booing crowds. There is no consensus among his supporters that the press should hold those in power accountable. A recent Pew survey found that only half of Trump backers agreed that it was important in a strong democracy that “news organizations are free to criticize political leaders.”

Media outlets have won many cases by persuading a judge to dismiss them. But since 2010, they have succeeded in only 39 percent of the libel and privacy suits that have gone to trial, a dip from 52 percent in the previous decade, according to the Media Law Resource Center. The median damage award has increased fivefold since the 1980s, to $1.1 million. The figure includes three big verdicts over the last eight months, against Gawker, Rolling Stone and The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. These include run-of-the-mill libel suits, and it’s too early to say that the sky is falling on the press. But it’s darkening.

The high bar for winning a libel case in the United States was set in 1964, when the Supreme Court decided New York Times v. Sullivan. In that case, widely hailed as one of the court’s strongest stands for free speech, L.B. Sullivan, a city commissioner who supervised the police in Montgomery, Ala., sued The Times over an ad in the newspaper signed by 100 civil rights supporters. The ad turned out to include minor factual errors. Sullivan said its depiction of how the Montgomery police responded to civil rights protests made him look bad. Under the rules at the time, a libel plaintiff was entitled to victory if he could show that the content that harmed his reputation was false. The Alabama jury agreed with Sullivan on that point and awarded him $500,000 in damages (the equivalent of about $4 million today). With similar cases pending, The Times pulled its reporters out of Alabama.

But when the newspaper appealed to the Supreme Court, the justices threw out the Sullivan verdict and set a far stiffer standard for proving libel. The court wrote that a public figure has to prove that a false and damaging statement about him was published with “actual malice,” translated as “knowing or reckless disregard for the truth.” By the 1980s, the number of libel suits decreased, and if suits did go to trial, they frequently ended in defeat for the plaintiff. In two examples from that era, Gen. William Westmoreland sued CBS, and Ariel Sharon, the Israeli defense minister, sued Time magazine. Neither man won damages. Those outcomes, as well as losses in other high-profile cases, “were a major deterrent for plaintiffs and their lawyers,” says George Freeman, executive director of the Media Resource Law Center (and formerly a lawyer for The New York Times).

Superrich plaintiffs, however, aren’t subject to the same market forces. They can treat suing the press as an investment, with the payoff being, at a minimum, the expense and time required for the other side to produce documents and sit for depositions. In February 2012, the magazine Mother Jones published a story about the Idaho billionaire Frank VanderSloot, a major donor to a “super PAC” that supported the Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney. In 1999, in response to a documentary, he sponsored billboards that asked, “Should public television promote the homosexual lifestyle to your children?” The magazine wrote that VanderSloot “outed” a gay reporter, Peter Zuckerman, and “bashed” Zuckerman and his reporting after he helped break a story in 2005 about a history of pedophilia by a Boy Scouts camp counselor in Idaho Falls. The portrayal of VanderSloot was based partly on several ads that he placed in The Idaho Falls Post Register. VanderSloot was upset at the story’s implications for the Boy Scouts, and the ads called Zuckerman a “homosexual” and attacked him for having “a personal ax to grind.”

VanderSloot sued Mother Jones for libel over the article. “They wanted to give me a public beating because I made a sizable donation to Mitt Romney,” he told me. VanderSloot, who owns an online health-shopping club, also said the Mother Jones article cost him customers.

Over three years of proceedings, which included turning over internal emails, Mother Jones racked up about $2.5 million in legal fees. Insurance didn’t cover the whole cost. “The suit was a huge drain on us,” Clara Jeffery, co-editor of the magazine, told me. “We’re still digging our way out.”

Judge Darla Williamson finally threw out VanderSloot’s suit in October 2015, finding that Mother Jones’s statements about him were either substantially true or opinions protected by the First Amendment. But Williamson took the unusual step of including a section in her opinion partially supporting his underlying complaint, accusing the magazine of “mudslinging” rather than recognizing its approach as squarely within the tradition of investigative journalism. Despite his defeat, VanderSloot declared himself “absolutely vindicated” and announced that he was creating a “Guardian of True Liberty Fund” to aid other people who want to sue the “liberal press.” The fund has grown to between $1 million and $2 million, he told me, with five times that amount pledged, so that “as soon as something hits we think is worth it, we can go after it.”

It was another billionaire, Peter Thiel, who realized the full potential of bankrolling other people’s lawsuits. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

23 November 2016 at 12:47 pm

Five Steps to Tyranny

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Jason Kottke blogs about how tyranny is introduced:

In 2000, the BBC broadcast an hour-long documentary called Five Steps to Tyranny, a look at how ordinary people can do monstrous things in the presence of authority.

Horrific things happen in the world we live in. We would like to believe only evil people carry out atrocities. But tyrannies are created by ordinary people, like you and me.

[Colonel Bob Stewart:] “I’d never been to the former Yugoslavia before in my life, so what actually struck me about the country was how beautiful it was, how nice people were, and yet how ghastly they could behave.”

The five steps are:

  1. “us” and “them” (prejudice and the formation of a dominant group)
  2. obey orders (the tendency to follow orders, especially from those with authority)
  3. do “them” harm (obeying an authority who commands actions against our conscience)
  4. “stand up” or “stand by” (standing by as harm occurs)
  5. exterminate (the elimination of the “other”)

To illustrate each step, the program uses social psychology experiments and explorations like Jane Elliott’s blue eyes/brown eyes exercise on discrimination, the Stanford prison experiment conducted by Philip Zimbardo (who offers commentary throughout the program), and experiments by Stanley Milgram on obedience, including his famous shock experiment, in which a participant (the “teacher”) is directed to shock a “learner” for giving incorrect answers.

The teacher is told to administer an electric shock every time the learner makes a mistake, increasing the level of shock each time. There were 30 switches on the shock generator marked from 15 volts (slight shock) to 450 (danger — severe shock).

The “learners” were in on the experiment and weren’t actually shocked but were told to react as if they were. The results?

65% (two-thirds) of participants (i.e. teachers) continued to the highest level of 450 volts. All the participants continued to 300 volts.

The program also shows how real-life tyrannies have developed in places like Rwanda, Burma, and Bosnia. From a review of the show in The Guardian: . . .

Continue reading.

Here’s the full hour-long show:

Written by Leisureguy

23 November 2016 at 9:29 am

The Trump approach to charities

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Many think that something must be amiss at the Clinton Foundation, although nothing has been found. The Trump Foundation, in contrast, has routinely engaged in illegal activities, but that’s OK if you’re a Republican, apparently.

Kevin Drum provides a rundown of the tip of the iceberg in this post. In it, he notes:

. . . Shorter Washington Post: Trump advisor and alt-right superstar Steve Bannon set up a charity in 2012 which was then used to pay nearly $2 million in salaries to himself and two other Breitbart writers over the next four years. Bannon supposedly worked 30 hours a week for the charity while also working full-time for Breitbart. The other two worked 40 hours a week for the charity. How did they manage that? “They all work long hours,” the charity’s spokesperson said.

Well OK then! In other news, Donald Trump’s foundation admitted to the IRS in 2015 that it had engaged in illegal self-dealing. It also admitted that it had done this in previous years.1 Trump denied this all through the campaign, but it was probably an oversight. . .

An image of the admission of illegal acts in the Drum post. I wonder whether Trump will be held to account for his lawbreaking.

Written by Leisureguy

23 November 2016 at 8:53 am

Dapper Dragon Cucumber Melon and the Black Mamba

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SOTD 2016-11-23

I do like this snakewood-handled brush I bought from Strop Shoppe back some years. It has a very soft and luxurious knot, and it lathers like a champ. Today I used Cucumber Melon from Dapper Dragon, a nice fragrance for winter to remind one of summer.

The Black Mamba is an extraordinarily comfortable and also quite efficient razor, no longer made, and with it I easily achieved a BBS result, to which I applied a splash of Barrister & Mann’s Reserve Spice.

A good start to the day already.

Written by Leisureguy

23 November 2016 at 8:21 am

Posted in Shaving

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