Later On

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Archive for March 2017

We’re so unprepared for the robot apocalypse

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Jeff Guo reports in the Washington Post:

Economists have long argued that automation, not trade, is responsible for the bulk of the six million jobs shed by the manufacturing sector over the last 25 years. Now, they have a put a precise figure on some of the losses.

Industrial robots alone have eliminated up to 670,000 American jobs between 1990 and 2007, according to new research from MIT’s Daron Acemoglu and Boston University’s Pascual Restrepo.

The number is stunning on the face of it, and many have interpreted the study as an indictment of technological change — a sign that “robots are winning the race for American jobs.” But the bigger takeaway is that the nation has been ill-equipped to deal with the upheaval caused by automation.

The researchers estimate that half of the job losses resulted from robots directly replacing workers. The rest of the jobs disappeared from elsewhere in the local community. It seems that after a factory sheds workers, that economic pain reverberates, triggering further unemployment at, say, the grocery store or the neighborhood car dealership.

In a way, this is surprising. Economists understand that automation has costs, but they have largely emphasized the benefits: Machines makes things cheaper, and they free up workers to do other jobs. For instance, 41 percent of Americans were farmers a century ago, but thanks to tractors and mechanical harvesters, only 2 percent work in the agriculture today. The rest of us now can now aspire to be programmers or anesthesiologists or DJs or drone pilots.

The latest study reveals that for manufacturing workers, the process of adjusting to technological change has been much slower and more painful than most experts thought. “We were looking at a span of 20 years, so in that timeframe, you would expect that manufacturing workers would be able to find other employment,” Restrepo said. Instead, not only did the factory jobs vanish, but other local jobs disappeared too. Acemoglu and Restrepo say that every industrial robot eliminated about three manufacturing positions, plus three more jobs from around town.

If we are to make it through the next wave of automation, which is predicted to upend even more industries, we may have to rethink our policies about work and education — and learn from the industries that have coped the best.

Their research from Acemoglu and Restrepo joins the work of David Autor, David Dorn and Gordon Hanson, who have shown that the harms of trade with China were similarly concentrated in certain communities. The laid-off manufacturing workers couldn’t quickly find new jobs, so the economic pain lingered in their neighborhoods. Experts still believe that trade and automation can benefit Americans overall, contributing to lower prices and creating new kinds of jobs. But this evidence draws attention to the losers — the dislocated factory workers who just can’t bounce back.

The United States does have a program to retrain workers who lost their jobs to overseas competition, but research shows that most of them turn to other parts of the government safety net, such as Social Security, disability benefits and Medicaid. None of these efforts, though, seem to be doing enough for communities that have lost their manufacturing bases, where people have reduced earnings for the rest of their lives.

Perhaps that much was obvious. After all, anecdotes about the Rust Belt abound. But the new findings bolster the conclusion that these economic dislocations are not brief setbacks, but can hurt areas for an entire generation.

Acemoglu and Restrepo’s paper is also notable for its specificity. It has been difficult to pinpoint the impacts of technology on employment, in part because the effects have been so widespread. “When economists talk about automation, we’re actually talking about a bunch of stuff — we’re talking about capital, software, machinery, robots, artificial intelligence,” Restrepo said.

Many of these changes are invisible, or at least taken for granted, which is why false narratives persist, like the idea that trade with China caused the vast majority of job losses in the past decade. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

31 March 2017 at 8:42 pm

Why Bargain Travel Sites May No Longer Be Bargains

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Doug Garr writes at Backchannel.

Last August, Andrea Giacobbe logged on to Skyscanner, a European metasearch engine like Expedia and Travelocity that scans multiple travel websites and surfaces the cheapest fare. Giacobbe, a 52-year-old management consultant, was looking to book a flight from New York City to Genoa, Italy—a trip he’s made numerous times for family visits. He’d always relied on Skyscanner for a discount.

This time, the cheapest fare wasn’t that cheap: It was for an Alitalia flight that made two stops, through Milan and Rome, for $2,050. Surprised at the high quote, he decided to call Alitalia. Immediately, the airline offered a $1,550 flight with only one stop in Rome. It was cheaper. It would get there faster. They even offered him a discounted car rental.

“It blew my mind,” recalled Giacobbe. He hadn’t called Alitalia directly in years. He was accustomed to almost always relying on Skyscanner for the best deal.

Giacobbe’s experience is becoming more typical. Over the past several years, the conventional wisdom has been that cruising the net would yield the best prices in the travel, hotel, and car rental spaces. There’s been a tidal shift in the travel industry, to a point where most of us use aggregators to book our trips. Who bothers talking to a human being—a travel agent? You’re just going to be stuck in a long option queue.

Most of us rely on metasearch engines, like Priceline, Expedia, or Travelocity, which typically use dozens (sometimes as many as 200) of online travel agents, called OTAs, and aggregators to find the best deals. (A metasearch engine and an aggregator are interchangeable terms — they both scour other sites and compile data under one roof. An OTA is an actual travel agency that actually does the booking and is the lone site responsible for everything you buy through them.) We rely on these sites because we assume they have the secret sauce — the most powerful search engines, tweaked by superstar programmers armed with the most sophisticated algorithms—to guide us to the cheapest options. With a single search, you can feel assured that you are paying a rock bottom price.

Over time, however, the convention has flipped. As competition among the sites heated up, the hard-to-believe cheap fares required some filtering. A too-good-to-be-true fare ($99 to Europe from California) usually came with a catch (the $400, indirect, ticket home). And as the business models that on which these aggregators rely are getting tighter, the deals are getting worse. How can you be certain you’re getting the lowest quote? The short answer is, you can’t.

While reporting this piece I spoke to several software engineers, executives of hotel chains, as well as academics and researchers who have spent a considerable amount of time and effort digging into the issue. Their conclusion is that the industry is in flux, and that really good bargains—for hotels, flights, and car rentals—are often largely illusory. “Hotels are not giving the aggregators as many good deals as they did in the past,” a former software engineer who used to work for Priceline told me. (He didn’t want his name used because he still is seeking work in the industry.) “You might as well call Sheraton’s front desk.”

And good luck finding the delinquent parties: The number of players behind each transaction has ratcheted up. For every potential deal, there are likely to be multiple aggregators in the food chain, with each site taking a cut and ultimately driving up the final cost. My ex-Priceline source told me that aggregators explain away price fluctuations by citing the ebb and flow of supply and demand, which varies greatly in seasonal resort areas. But really, it’s a breakdown in the system. Just as airlines and hotels began trimming travel agent commissions more than 20 years ago, now history is repeating itself. “The airlines don’t want to pay the aggregators anymore,” he told me.

Which means the people who are paying them are us.

As early as the 1990s, before the ubiquity of the internet, you called your travel agent and he or she took care of everything — your flights, the hotel, the rental car. America Airlines, the Hyatt, Hertz and the like paid the travel agents to offer their services. But slowly, the landscape changed. The airlines and hotel chains stopped paying. Travel agents stopped offering their services for “free.” The consumer shouldered their fees, and travel agents became irrelevant players to all but the boutique wealthy travelers who didn’t need to worry about cost.

Technology aided in this inevitable disruption, and ultimately helped create some of the pricing chaos we see today. As the internet became the first stop for travel shopping, we started searching for bargains via keystroke commands. We stopped talking to hotel clerks, rental car agents, and airline reservation agents, and we boasted to our friends about our low-cost vacations to Lake Como.

All of this was made possible by the web aggregators.

Web aggregators work like this: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

31 March 2017 at 6:54 pm

F-35 Continues to Stumble—Badly. $100 billion, 25 years, and it still doesn’t work

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Dan Grazier writes at the Project on Government Oversight:

The F-35 still has a long way to go before it will be ready for combat. That was the parting message of Dr. Michael Gilmore, the now-retired Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, in his last annual report.

The Joint Strike Fighter Program has already consumed more than $100 billion and nearly 25 years. Just to finish the basic development phase will require at least an extra $1 billion and two more years. Even with this massive investment of time and money, Dr. Gilmore told Congress, the Pentagon, and the public, “the operational suitability of all variants continues to be less than desired by the Services.”

Dr. Gilmore detailed a range of remaining and sometimes worsening problems with the program, including hundreds of critical performance deficiencies and maintenance problems. He also raised serious questions about whether the Air Force’s F-35A can succeed in either air-to-air or air-to-ground missions, whether the Marine Corps’ F-35B can conduct even rudimentary close air support, and whether the Navy’s F-35C is suitable to operate from aircraft carriers.

He found, in fact, that “if used in combat, the F-35 aircraft will need support to locate and avoid modern threat ground radars, acquire targets, and engage formations of enemy fighter aircraft due to unresolved performance deficiencies and limited weapons carriage availability.”

In a public statement, the F-35 Joint Program Office attempted to dismiss the Gilmore report by asserting, “All of the issues are well-known to the JPO, the U.S. services, our international partners, and our industry.”

JPO’s acknowledgement of the numerous issues are fine as far as it goes, but there’s no indication that the Office has any plan—including cost and schedule re-estimates—to fix those currently known problems without cutting corners. Nor, apparently, do they have a plan to cope with and fund the fixes for the myriad unknown problems that will be uncovered during the upcoming, much more rigorous, developmental and operational tests of the next four years. Such a plan is essential, and should be driven by the pace at which problems are actually solved rather than by unrealistic pre-existing schedules.

What will it take to fix the numerous problems identified by Dr. Gilmore, and how do we best move forward with the most expensive weapon program in history, a program that has been unable to live up to its own very modest promises? . . .

Continue reading. It’s a very thorough analysis. Here are the sections with links:

Electronics Used to Justify Cost Not Delivering Capabilities

Ineffective as a Fighter

Ineffective as an Interdiction Bomber

Ineffective as a Close Air Support Platform

Navy’s F-35 Unsuitable for Carrier Operations

Price Tag Is the Only Thing Stealthy about the F-35

Combat Effectiveness at Risk

Can the F-35 Be Where It’s Needed, When It’s Needed?

F-35 Reliability Problems

Officials Hiding Truth about F-35’s Problems and Delays from Taxpayers

Moving Forward


Written by Leisureguy

31 March 2017 at 6:40 pm

Posted in Military

The dangers of a single story: Extremely interesting TED talk

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It occurs to me that this is not unrelated to the immediately previous post on Tversky and Kahneman.

Written by Leisureguy

31 March 2017 at 5:07 pm

Posted in Daily life, Video

Invisible Manipulators of Your Mind

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Tamsin Shaw in the NY Review of Books reviews Michael Lewis’s new book about Tversky and Kahneman:

The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds
by Michael Lewis
Norton, 362 pp., $28.95

We are living in an age in which the behavioral sciences have become inescapable. The findings of social psychology and behavioral economics are being employed to determine the news we read, the products we buy, the cultural and intellectual spheres we inhabit, and the human networks, online and in real life, of which we are a part. Aspects of human societies that were formerly guided by habit and tradition, or spontaneity and whim, are now increasingly the intended or unintended consequences of decisions made on the basis of scientific theories of the human mind and human well-being.

The behavioral techniques that are being employed by governments and private corporations do not appeal to our reason; they do not seek to persuade us consciously with information and argument. Rather, these techniques change behavior by appealing to our nonrational motivations, our emotional triggers and unconscious biases. If psychologists could possess a systematic understanding of these nonrational motivations they would have the power to influence the smallest aspects of our lives and the largest aspects of our societies.

Michael Lewis’s The Undoing Project seems destined to be the most popular celebration of this ongoing endeavor to understand and correct human behavior. It recounts the complex friendship and remarkable intellectual partnership of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, the psychologists whose work has provided the foundation for the new behavioral science. It was their findings that first suggested we might understand human irrationality in a systematic way. When our thinking errs, they claimed, it does so predictably. Kahneman tells us that thanks to the various counterintuitive findings—drawn from surveys—that he and Tversky made together, “we now understand the marvels as well as the flaws of intuitive thought.”

Kahneman presented their new model of the mind to the general reader in Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), where he characterized the human mind as the interrelated operation of two systems of thought: System One, which is fast and automatic, including instincts, emotions, innate skills shared with animals, as well as learned associations and skills; and System Two, which is slow and deliberative and allows us to correct for the errors made by System One.

Lewis’s tale of this intellectual revolution begins in 1955 with the twenty-one-year-old Kahneman devising personality tests for the Israeli army and discovering that optimal accuracy could be attained by devising tests that removed, as far as possible, the gut feelings of the tester. The testers were employing “System One” intuitions that skewed their judgment and could be avoided if tests were devised and implemented in ways that disallowed any role for individual judgment and bias. This is an especially captivating episode for Lewis, since his best-selling book, Moneyball (2003), told the analogous tale of Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland Athletics baseball team, who used new forms of data analytics to override the intuitive judgments of baseball scouts in picking players.

The Undoing Project also applauds the story of the psychologist Lewis Goldberg, a colleague of Kahneman and Tversky in their days in Eugene, Oregon, who discovered that a simple algorithm could more accurately diagnose cancer than highly trained experts who were biased by their emotions and faulty intuitions. Algorithms—fixed rules for processing data—unlike the often difficult, emotional human protagonists of the book, are its uncomplicated heroes, quietly correcting for the subtle but consequential flaws in human thought.

The most influential of Kahneman and Tversky’s discoveries, however, is “prospect theory,” since this has provided the most important basis of the “biases and heuristics” approach of the new behavioral sciences. They looked at the way in which people make decisions under conditions of uncertainty and found that their behavior violated expected utility theory—a fundamental assumption of economic theory that holds that decision-makers reason instrumentally about how to maximize their gains. Kahneman and Tversky realized that they were not observing a random series of errors that occur when people attempted to do this. Rather, they identified a dozen “systematic violations of the axioms of rationality in choices between gambles.” These systematic errors make human irrationality predictable.

Lewis describes, with sensitivity to the political turmoil that constantly assailed them in Israel, the realization by Kahneman and Tversky that emotions powerfully influence our intuitive analysis of probability and risk. We particularly aim, on this account, to avoid negative emotions such as regret and loss. . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

31 March 2017 at 4:58 pm

6 Skin-Care Products used in the US that are Banned in Other Countries

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I just posted about the problems Johnson & Johnson is facing for selling a known carcinogen for cosmetic use. They are not alone. The site of Schultz & Myers, a personal-injury law firm, contains this information?

It’s about time you take a look at the label on the back of your beauty products. While drugs in the United States must be approved by the FDA before hitting the market, the U.S. government has no authority over the cosmetic industry.

As long as they don’t contain any ingredients that are classified as drugs, products do not have to be approved by the U.S. As a result, popular cosmetic companies continue to use ingredients that may be considered dangerous. Many of which are banned in other countries.

This is far from a comprehensive list of ingredients that we use in the United States that have been banned in the European Union as well as Canada and Japan.

Baby Powder: Talcum Powder

Talc was a popular mineral used in powdered cosmetics and deodorants until it was discovered that, in its natural state, it could contain asbestos. However, after asbestos was discovered to be a carcinogen, regulation of talc has been strict.

Consumer Talcum products have been asbestos-free since the 1970s, however studies have noted a link between asbestos-free talc and ovarian cancer. While the link has not been proven, the possibility of asbestos-free talc being carcinogenic has prompted the European Union to ban talc-based cosmetics altogether. It is still widely used in the United States.

Acne Medication: Salicylic Acid

Salicylic acid is typically used as an acne treatment, and was banned in the EU in February of 2014 due to its close relation to acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin). Aspirin has been linked to salicylate poisoning and Reye’s syndrome in children and young adults.

While Reye’s syndrome is described as “sudden (acute) brain damage and liver function problems of unknown cause,” it has become a very uncommon occurrence since aspirin is no longer recommended for routine use in children.

Toothpaste: Triclosan

Triclosan keeps gingivitis at bay, but it might lead to weakened immune systems and even birth defects. The European Union has already banned the chemical that is often found in toothpaste and antibacterial soaps.

The United States may not be far behind on this ban. Minnesota Governer, Mark Dayton recently signed a bill that would ban triclosan products in the state effective January of 2017.

Nail Polish: Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde is a preservative—and known carcinogen—often used in nail polish. In addition to cancer, formaldehyde is known to cause severe allergic reactions. Canada has banned the use of Formaldehyde in personal care products, but the chemical may still be lurking in Missouri nail polish aisles.

Skin Lightener: Hydroquinone

Skin lightening product, Hydroquinone is known to be effective in fading liver spots, freckles, and acne scars. However, there has been some recent controversy over the ingredient, as there has been some evidence suggesting that it could be carcinogenic.

Eye Shadow: Butylparaben

Butylparaben is typically used as an antimicrobial preservative used in eye shadow, foundation, facial moisturizer, and anti-aging treatments to prevent decomposition.  Because Butylparaben mimics estrogen, it has been linked to several health problems typically associated with estrogenic substances.

It has been reported that butylparabens can decrease sperm function in men—potentially leading to sterility. Additionally, a study on rats exposed to a high concentration of butylparaben during pregnancy reports a proportionate increase of pups being born with malformed reproductive organs.

Should I Stop Using Beauty Products that Include These Ingredients?

As we’ve said, some of these chemicals are known carcinogens, or known to be bad for your health in other ways, but others have only seen a correlation. In other words, the official stance in the United States is that they “might” be safe. The decision is ultimately up to you, but make sure you’re checking ingredients and that you know what you’re putting on your skin. . .

Johnson & Johnson has now lost three talcum-powder trials in a row.

Written by Leisureguy

31 March 2017 at 4:30 pm

Posted in Business, Daily life, Health, Law

The Pentagon Still Doesn’t Encrypt Its Emails

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Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai reports at Motherboard:

A year and a half ago, a Motherboard investigation revealed that several US government agencies, weren’t using basic, easy-to-implement, encryption technology, failing to protect their employees emails travelling across the internet. At the time, the Army, the Navy, and even the CIA and FBI didn’t use the widespread email encryption technology known as STARTTLS.

Since then, the FBI, NSA, CIA, the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security have all adopted it. But the Defense Information Systems Agency or DISA, the Pentagon’s branch that oversees email through the service, and other technologies, still has not, according to an online testing tool.

And one of the most tech savvy people in Congress is starting to wonder what’s going on. In a letter sent to DISA last week, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) slammed the agency for failing to turn STARTTLS on.

“I am concerned that DISA is not taking advantage of a basic, widely used, easily-enabled cybersecurity technology,” Wyden wrote in the letter, which was obtained by Motherboard. “Indeed, until DISA enables STARTTLS, unclassified email messages sent between the military and other organizations will be needlessly exposed so surveillance and potentially compromise by third parties.”

DISA, which is responsible for providing email services to the Army, the Navy, the Marines and the Coast Guard, declined to comment.

“DISA did receive Senator Wyden’s letter and is in the process of providing a formal response back to the senator,” a DISA spokesperson said in an email. “As such, we will not comment further until Senator Wyden is provided that response.”

Historically, emails used to travel across the internet completely completely exposed. That’s why the famed security expert Bruce Schneier once said that email is nothing more than “a postcard that anyone can read along the way.” That has obviously changed in recent years, thanks to the adoption of an old protocol called STARTTLS, which adds an opportunistic layer of web encryption (TLS) over the email protocol SMTP. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

31 March 2017 at 4:21 pm

Tom Price Intervened on Rule That Would Hurt Drug Profits, the Same Day He Acquired Drug Stock

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Tom Price lacks integrity. Robert Fatureich reports in ProPublica:

On the same day the stockbroker for then-Georgia Congressman Tom Price bought him up to $90,000 of stock in six pharmaceutical companies last year, Price arranged to call a top U.S. health official, seeking to scuttle a controversial rule that could have hurt the firms’ profits and driven down their share prices, records obtained by ProPublica show.

Stock trades made by Price while he served in Congress came under scrutiny at his confirmation hearings to become President Trump’s secretary of health and human services. The lawmaker, a physician, traded hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of shares in health-related companies while he voted on and sponsored legislation affecting the industry, but Price has said his broker acted on his behalf without his involvement or knowledge. ProPublica previously reported that his trading is said to have been under investigationby federal prosecutors.

On March 17, 2016, Price’s broker purchased shares worth between $1,000 and $15,000 each in Eli Lilly, Amgen, Bristol-Meyers Squibb, McKesson, Pfizer and Biogen. Previous reports have noted that, a month later, Price was among lawmakers from both parties who signed onto a bill that would have blocked a rule proposed by the Obama administration, which was intended to remove the incentive for doctors to prescribe expensive drugs that don’t necessarily improve patient outcomes.

What hasn’t been previously known is Price’s personal appeal to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services about the rule, called the Medicare Part B Drug Payment Model.

The same day as the stock trade, Price’s legislative aide, Carla DiBlasio, emailed health officials to follow up on a request she had made to set up a call with Patrick Conway, the agency’s chief medical officer. In her earlier emails, DiBlasio said the call would focus on payments for joint replacement procedures. But that day, she mentioned a new issue.

“Chairman Price may briefly bring up … his concerns about the new Part B drug demo, as well,” she wrote. “Congressman Price really appreciates the opportunity to have an open conversation with Dr. Conway, so we really appreciate you keeping the lines of communication open.”

The call was scheduled for the following week, according to the emails.

An HHS spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment from Price. DiBlasio and Conway didn’t respond to questions about the phone call.

The proposed rule drew wide opposition from members of both parties as well as industry lobbyists and some patient advocacy groups. It was meant to change a system under which the government reimburses doctors the average sales price for drugs administered in their offices or inside clinics, along with a 6 percent bonus. Some health analysts say that bonus encourages doctors to pad their profits by selecting more expensive treatments.

Continue reading.

Later in the article:

. . . The six companies that Price invested in were steadfastly opposed to the rule. McKesson formally warned investors in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing that such a change could hurt share prices. The firms lobbied the government to kill the plan.

And at two of the six companies Price invested in, people who used to work for the congressman were part of the lobbying effort.

Price’s former chief of staff, Matt McGinley, lobbied House members for Amgen, disclosure records show. Another former Price aide, Keagan Lenihan, lobbied on behalf of McKesson, where she was director of government relations at the time. Lenihan has since reunited with Price, returning to government to work as a senior adviser to her old boss at HHS.

Neither McGinley nor Lenihan responded to requests for comment. . .

Written by Leisureguy

31 March 2017 at 3:35 pm

Johnson & Johnson Has a Baby Powder Problem

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Susan Berfield, Jef Feeley, and Margaret Cronin Fisk write for Bloomberg Businessweek in an article published a year ago:

Jacqueline Fox worked in restaurant kitchens and school cafeterias, cleaned people’s houses, watched their kids, raised a son, and took in two foster children. She was careful about her appearance and liked to tend the garden in front of her home in Birmingham, Alabama. She had been treated for high blood pressure, arthritis, and diabetes, but, at 59, she was feeling pretty good. In the spring of 2013, her poodle, Dexter, began acting strangely. He’d jump on her, he’d cry, he’d stay close by all day. Fox happened to watch a television program about a dog that sensed its owner was unwell. When she let Dexter sniff her, he whined even more.

A week later, Fox was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer. She had chemotherapy to shrink the tumors and surgery to remove her uterus, ovaries, fallopian tubes, and part of her spleen and colon. In December of that year, she saw a commercial from an Alabama law firm, Beasley Allen, suggesting a connection between long-term use of Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder and ovarian cancer. Fox had been sprinkling Baby Powder made from talc on her underwear every day since she was a teen. “I was raised up on it,” she later said in a deposition. “They was to help you stay fresh and clean. … We ladies have to take care of ourselves.” It was as normal as using toothpaste or deodorant. “We both were a bit skeptical at first,” says her son, Marvin Salter, a mortgage banker in Jacksonville, Fla. “It has to be safe. It’s put on babies. It’s been around forever. Why haven’t we heard about any ill effects?”

Fox died from the cancer in October 2015. Four months later, a jury in St. Louis concluded that talcum powder contributed to the development of the disease and that Johnson & Johnson was liablefor negligence, conspiracy, and failure to warn women of the potential risk of using Baby Powder in the genital area. The verdict, decided by a 10-2 vote, included $10 million in compensatory damages and $62 million in punitive damages, more than Fox’s lawyers had recommended. Salter bowed his head and wept.

“People were using something they thought was perfectly safe,” he says. “And it isn’t. At least give people the choice. J&J didn’t give people a choice.” Among the most painful revelations, he says, was that in the 1990s, even as the company acknowledged concerns in the health community, it considered increasing its marketing efforts to black and Hispanic women, who were already buying the product in high numbers. Fox was black. The jury foreman, Krista Smith, says internal documents provided the most incriminating evidence: “It was really clear they were hiding something.” She wanted to award the Fox family even more. Imerys Talc America, the biggest talc supplier in the country and the sole source of the powder for J&J, was also named as a defendant. The company wasn’t found liable.

“Jury verdicts should not be confused with regulatory rulings or rigorous scientific findings,” Carol Goodrich, a spokeswoman for Johnson & Johnson Consumer, said in an e-mail. “The overwhelming body of scientific research and clinical evidence supports the safety of cosmetic talc.” The company says it will appeal the verdict. In a statement, Imerys said it’s “confident that its products are safe for use by its customers. Our confidence is supported by the consensus view of qualified scientific experts and regulatory agencies.”

Johnson & Johnson has spent more than $5 billion to resolve legal claims over its drugs and medical devices since 2013. That year, it agreed to pay $2.2 billion to settle criminal and civil probes into claims that it illegally marketed Risperdal, an antipsychotic drug, to children and the elderly; two other medicines were included in the settlement. It was one of the largest health fraud penalties in U.S. history. The company has also agreed to pay some $2.8 billion to resolve lawsuits about its artificial hips and $120 million for faulty vaginal-mesh inserts. In its 2015 annual report, J&J stated that more than 75,000 people had filed product liability claims, and that didn’t include the talc powder cases.

More than 1,000 women and their families are suing J&J and Imerys, claiming the companies have known of the association with ovarian cancer for years and failed to warn them. The next trial is scheduled to begin on April 11 in a St. Louis circuit court. “Whether or not the science indicates that Baby Powder is a cause of ovarian cancer, Johnson & Johnson has a very significant breach of trust,” says Julie Hennessy, a marketing professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. “In trying to protect this one business, they’ve put the whole J&J brand at risk.”

Fox died from the cancer in October 2015. Four months later, a jury in St. Louis concluded that talcum powder contributed to the development of the disease and that Johnson & Johnson was liablefor negligence, conspiracy, and failure to warn women of the potential risk of using Baby Powder in the genital area. The verdict, decided by a 10-2 vote, included $10 million in compensatory damages and $62 million in punitive damages, more than Fox’s lawyers had recommended. Salter bowed his head and wept.

“People were using something they thought was perfectly safe,” he says. “And it isn’t. At least give people the choice. J&J didn’t give people a choice.” Among the most painful revelations, he says, was that in the 1990s, even as the company acknowledged concerns in the health community, it considered increasing its marketing efforts to black and Hispanic women, who were already buying the product in high numbers. Fox was black. The jury foreman, Krista Smith, says internal documents provided the most incriminating evidence: “It was really clear they were hiding something.” She wanted to award the Fox family even more. Imerys Talc America, the biggest talc supplier in the country and the sole source of the powder for J&J, was also named as a defendant. The company wasn’t found liable.

“Jury verdicts should not be confused with regulatory rulings or rigorous scientific findings,” Carol Goodrich, a spokeswoman for Johnson & Johnson Consumer, said in an e-mail. “The overwhelming body of scientific research and clinical evidence supports the safety of cosmetic talc.” The company says it will appeal the verdict. In a statement, Imerys said it’s “confident that its products are safe for use by its customers. Our confidence is supported by the consensus view of qualified scientific experts and regulatory agencies.”

Johnson & Johnson has spent more than $5 billion to resolve legal claims over its drugs and medical devices since 2013. That year, it agreed to pay $2.2 billion to settle criminal and civil probes into claims that it illegally marketed Risperdal, an antipsychotic drug, to children and the elderly; two other medicines were included in the settlement. It was one of the largest health fraud penalties in U.S. history. The company has also agreed to pay some $2.8 billion to resolve lawsuits about its artificial hips and $120 million for faulty vaginal-mesh inserts. In its 2015 annual report, J&J stated that more than 75,000 people had filed product liability claims, and that didn’t include the talc powder cases.

More than 1,000 women and their families are suing J&J and Imerys, claiming the companies have known of the association with ovarian cancer for years and failed to warn them. The next trial is scheduled to begin on April 11 in a St. Louis circuit court. “Whether or not the science indicates that Baby Powder is a cause of ovarian cancer, Johnson & Johnson has a very significant breach of trust,” says Julie Hennessy, a marketing professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. “In trying to protect this one business, they’ve put the whole J&J brand at risk.”

Talc is the softest mineral on earth, able to absorb odors and moisture. It’s composed of magnesium, silicon, and oxygen and is mined, usually from deposits above ground, in more than a dozen countries. It’s used in eye shadow and blush and chewing gum, but mostly it’s used in ceramics, paint, paper, plastic, and rubber. China is the biggest source; Johnson & Johnson’s supply comes from the southern province of Guangxi.

Johnson & Johnson began selling Baby Powder more than 100 years ago, soon after the company was founded in New Brunswick, N.J. Among its first products were adhesives infused with pain relievers such as mustard seed, capsicum, quinine, and opium. When customers complained that removing the plasters left them with skin irritation, J&J’s scientific director sent them small containers of talc to help soothe any rashes. A few reported that the talc also seemed to ease diaper rash. In 1894 the company introduced Baby Powder, made of 99.8 percent talc and sold in a metal tin labeled “for toilet and nursery.” . . .

Continue reading.

It is common that a corporation willingly and knowingly puts their customers at risk—the automotive industry is a great example, from Unsafe at Any Speed to the Ford Pinto (burning its owners alive after a mild rear-end collision) to the defective ignition switches that General Motors put in their cars for years (and refused to warn previous purchasers about) to the Tanaka explosive and deadly airbags. Johnson & Johnson is just the latest example of the results of worshiping profits to the exclusion of all else.

Later in the article:

. . . Forty-five years ago, British researchers analyzed 13 ovarian tumors and found talc particles “deeply embedded” in 10. The study, published in 1971, was the first to raise the possibility that talcum powder could pose a risk. In 1982 a study in the journal Cancer by Daniel Cramer, an epidemiologist at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston, showed the first statistical link between genital talc use and ovarian cancer. Soon after, Cramer received a call from Bruce Semple, an executive at J&J. The two met in Boston. “Dr. Semple spent his time trying to convince me that talc use was a harmless habit, while I spent my time trying to persuade him to consider the possibility that my study could be correct and that women should be advised of this potential risk of talc,” Cramer, a paid expert and witness for the plaintiffs, said in a 2011 court filing. “I don’t think this was a question of money,” he says now. “I think it was pride of ownership. Baby Powder is a signature product for J&J.” [Pride of ownership coupled with a desire to protect profits coupled with a total disregard of the safety of the customers – LG]

Baby Powder is considered a cosmetic, which doesn’t need to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration under the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. The law is laid out in a 345-page document; only two pages are devoted to the safety of cosmetics. Congress is considering updating the law to give the FDA more authority to regulate products. “It shouldn’t be up to consumer groups or jurors to try to make decisions about toxic products,” says Stacy Malkan, co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. J&J and many other big companies support the changes. . .

Johnson & Johnson has now lost three talcum-powder lawsuits in a row.

UPDATE: has a resource page devoted to talcum powder and ovarian cancer.

Written by Leisureguy

31 March 2017 at 2:24 pm

The Virtues of Isolation

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As a person who enjoys solitude (and also enjoys company, let it be noted), I found this Atlantic article by Brent Crane of interest:

In the ’80s, the Italian journalist and author Tiziano Terzani, after many years of reporting across Asia, holed himself up in a cabin in Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan. “For a month I had no one to talk to except my dog Baoli,” he wrote in his travelogue A Fortune Teller Told Me. Terzani passed the time with books, observing nature, “listening to the winds in the trees, watching butterflies, enjoying silence.” For the first time in a long while he felt free from the incessant anxieties of daily life: “At last I had time to have time.”

But Terzani’s embrace of seclusion was relatively unusual: Humans have long stigmatized solitude. It has been considered an inconvenience, something to avoid, a punishment, a realm of loners. Science has often aligned it with negative outcomes. Freud, who linked solitude with anxiety, noted that, “in children the first phobias relating to situations are those of darkness and solitude.” John Cacioppo, a modern social neuroscientist who has extensively studied loneliness—what he calls “chronic perceived isolation”—contends that, beyond damaging our thinking powers, isolation can even harm our physical health. But increasingly scientists are approaching solitude as something that, when pursued by choice, can prove therapeutic.

This is especially true in times of personal turbulence, when the instinct is often for people to reach outside of themselves for support. “When people are experiencing crisis it’s not always just about you: It’s about how you are in society,” explains Jack Fong, a sociologist at California State Polytechnic University who has studied solitude. “When people take these moments to explore their solitude, not only will they be forced to confront who they are, they just might learn a little bit about how to out-maneuver some of the toxicity that surrounds them in a social setting.”In other words, when people remove themselves from the social context of their lives, they are better able to see how they’re shaped by that context. Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and writer who spent years alone, held a similar notion. “We cannot see things in perspective until we cease to hug them to our bosom,” he writes in Thoughts in Solitude.Much of this self-reconfiguring happens through what Fong calls “existentializing moments,” mental flickers of clarity which can occur during inward-focused solitude. Fong developed this idea from the late German-American sociologist Kurt Wolff’s “surrender and catch” theory of personal epiphany. “When you have these moments, don’t fight it. Accept it for what it is. Let it emerge calmly and truthfully and don’t resist it,” Fong says. “Your alone time should not be something that you’re afraid of.”Yet, at the same time, it is not only about being alone. “It’s a deeper internal process,” notes Matthew Bowker, a psychoanalytic political theorist at Medaille College who has researched solitude. Productive solitude requires internal exploration, a kind of labor which can be uncomfortable, even excruciating. “It might take a little bit of work before it turns into a pleasant experience. But once it does it becomes maybe the most important relationship anybody ever has, the relationship you have with yourself.”

Yet today, in our hyper-connected society, Bowker believes that solitude is “more devalued than it has been in a long time.” He points to a recent study at the University of Virginia in which several participants–a quarter of the women and two-thirds of the men–chose to subject themselves to electric shock rather than be alone with their thoughts. Bowker sees this heightened distaste for solitude playing out in pop culture as well. For example, vampires used to be portrayed in stories as secluded hermits, whereas now you’re more likely to see them on camera as sexy socialites, he notes.

And even though many great thinkers have championed the intellectual and spiritual benefits of solitude–Lao Tzu, Moses, Nietzsche, Emerson, Woolf (“How much better is silence; the coffee cup, the table”)– many modern humans seem hell-bent on avoiding it. “Every time we have a chance to go running we plug in our headphones. Every time we sit in the car we listen to NPR,” laments Bowker. “I mean, my students today tell me they can’t go to the bathroom without their phone on.”

This is not to say that true solitude necessarily requires an absence of stimuli. Rather, “the value of solitude depends on whether an individual can find an interior solitude” within themselves, says Bowker. Everyone is different in that regard: “Some people can go for a walk or listen to music and feel that they are deeply in touch with themselves. Others cannot.”

Generally, Bowker contends that our “mistrust of solitude” has consequences. For one, “we’ve become a more groupish society,” he says. In Ideologies of Experience, an upcoming book Bowker co-authored with David Levine, a psychoanalyst at the University of Denver, the authors trace a line between the devaluing of solitude and the ongoing ideological conflicts afflicting college campuses. “We’re drawn to identity-markers and to groups that help us define [ourselves]. In the simplest terms, this means using others to fill out our identities, rather than relying on something internal, something that comes from within,” Bowker says. “Separating from the group, I would argue, is one thing that universities should be facilitating more.”

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

31 March 2017 at 12:37 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life

Curious decisions from the White House

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Josh Marshall of TPM Media has an interesting column:

Mike Flynn’s offer to testify in exchange for immunity and the apparent lack of anyone willing to take him up on his offer raises more questions than it answers. In fact, I’m not sure it answers any questions at all. There are various relatively minor offenses Flynn could plausibly be prosecuted for – failure to file under FARA for his lobbying on behalf of the Turkish government, failure to file proper paperwork with the Pentagon for his paid speech in Russia, possibly untruthful answers to the FBI about his conversations with Russian Ambassador Kislyak. These charges in themselves would be thin gruel in terms of matters of any true public concern. But any competent lawyer would still insist on immunity before letting his client testify on anything related to these possible bad acts. Flynn’s lawyer states rather grandly that his client “has a story to tell and … very much wants to tell it.” But Alex Whiting of Harvard Law School argues pretty convincingly that what we learned last night likely means either that Flynn doesn’t have a story prosecutors are willing to barter for or isn’t yet willing to tell it.

So who knows what the immunity request means? Far more interesting to me is how Flynn ties in to the latest revelation in the unfolding Nunes debacle.

Let’s walk through this.

According to the report in the Times, Rep. Nunes’ secret information was the work of two Trump White House staffers: Ezra Cohen-Watnick (NSC) and Michael Ellis (White House Counsel’s Office). The Washington Post adds a third: John Eisenberg, the top lawyer at the National Security Council.

The information itself, what Nunes trumpeted so wildly broadcast last week, appears to be near meaningless in terms of validating President Trump’s claims of being wiretapped by President Obama. It appears to be highly, highly classified surveillance intelligence which is routinely collected on top foreign diplomats in the US. It doesn’t lend any weight to Trump’s claims about being “wiretapped” by President Obama.

Sean Spicer said the material was uncovered “in the ordinary course of business“. But that sounds improbable unless Cohen-Watnick’s ordinary business was sifting through highly classified material looking for stuff to defend Trump’s inane tweets. In fact, it seems like that’s just what he was doing – and that’s the more innocent explanation. Cohen-Watnick and who else was working with him found this stuff and passed it on to Devin Nunes. Whether Nunes was taken in by the ruse and reported it back to the President or was himself a participant in the ruse isn’t clear. Nunes had claimed he got his information from a “whistleblower type.” Clearly that’s not true, unless we now consider people disseminating information from the White House on the President’s behalf ‘whiteblowers.’

Michael Ellis previously worked for Nunes as a lawyer on the House Intelligence Committee. His role in this caper was apparently to brief Nunes on the information Cohen-Watnick et al. had found. That makes sense since Ellis clearly had a pre-existing relationship with Nunes. Let’s stop right there and note that what these three men did was at least highly improper and quite likely illegal, as Bart Gellman explains here. But even that isn’t where the story really gets interesting.

Here’s where it picks up speed.

Look at Cohen-Watnick’s background. Cohen-Watnick is a 30 year old Mike Flynn protege from the Defense Intelligence Agency who was brought in by Flynn to serve as the NSC’s senior director for intelligence programs. H.R. McMaster tried to remove Cohen-Watnick after McMaster replaced Flynn as National Security Advisor. In that goal, McMaster apparently had the strong support of Mike Pompeo, the Director of Central Intelligence. But Cohen-Watnick appealed his ouster to Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner. Bannon and Kushner went to Trump and Trump decided that Cohen-Watnick should stay in his position, which he did.

White House factional politics are not in themselves necessarily of great interest. But having two aides with no national security experience overrule the National Security Advisor on a key NSC personnel decision is rather remarkable – even more so when the person in question apparently has the job only due to the influence of the former national security advisor who resigned in disgrace and now appears to be the target of multiple criminal and counter-intelligence probes.

That set of facts in itself raises a lot of alarm bells. Did Flynn’s influence still extend into the White House’s inner circle early this month, weeks after he was fired? Is Cohen-Watnick that important a loyalist that Bannon and Kushner would refuse to see him dismissed? What he doing work at their behest? For whatever reason, this Cohen-Watnick is a pretty important guy to the most important players in the Trump world.

Lauren Rozen reports tonight that Cohen-Watnick is apparently a family friend of Frank Gaffney, one of DC’s most prominent and influential Islamophobes as well as someone who is closely tied into the Bannon/Breitbart world. Rozen was also told that Cohen-Watnick was first rejected by the CIA before going to work at the DIA. These are simply shreds of biography. But they add up to a familiar picture, one that makes sense of his apparently close relationship with Flynn.

In this latest turn of events, Cohen-Watnick apparently scanned through highly classified material looking for something to justify Trump’s ridiculous wiretapping tweet. He then found a way to get that material to Devin Nunes when Nunes visited the White House in the middle of the night. Nunes then returned to the White House the next day to present the information to Trump. Again, it’s not altogether clear to me whether Nunes or Trump actually realized that the material was of little real consequence and had no bearing on Trump’s tweets. However that may be, at a minimum Cohen-Watnick was using his access to highly classified information to mount a political pushback campaign against the various Trump/Russia probes and quite likely breaking the law to do so.

But Bart Gellman, who has a very granular understanding of the modalities and rules tied to handling this kind of material, suggests an additional possibility: that Cohen-Watnick et al. had this material because they were using their privileged access to the nation’s top secrets to keep tabs on the FBI’s investigation of Trump and his top associates. Yes, read that last sentence again, I’ll wait.

Got it? Let’s continue.

The mix of events here is so bizarre and convoluted that it’s hard to know what to make of it. To be clear, Gellman isn’t suggesting his latter theory is proven. I think he would call it an informed speculation or logical surmise. But I would argue that the precise ins and outs of the drama are less relevant than this: Cohen-Watnick is a protege of Michael Flynn. He appears to be plugged into the DC Islamophobe network, anti-CIA, etc., as is Flynn. The President took extraordinary steps to protect him as recently as a couple weeks ago. Whether the President did this based on his own knowledge of the situation or simply because Bannon and Kushner asked him to isn’t clear. It also may . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

31 March 2017 at 12:32 pm

Theresa May’s empty Brexit promises

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National leaders seem to tend strongly toward dishonesty. Angela Merkell seems to be a straight-shooter, but we have Donald Trump and the UK has gone through a whole series of disappointing leaders. (Remember Tony Blair?) In the New Yorker John Cassidy comments on May’s blatant dishonesty:

Brexit has begun. On Tuesday evening, Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, signed a letter formally giving notice that the United Kingdom intends to leave the European Union. On Wednesday, Sir Tim Barlow, the U.K.’s Ambassador to the E.U., delivered the letter to Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council. Next up: a long set of talks about the terms of Britain’s exit.

“When I sit around the negotiating table in the months ahead, I will represent every person in the United Kingdom—young and old, rich and poor, city, town, country, and all the villages and hamlets in between,” May told the House of Commons on Wednesday. “It is my fierce determination to get the right deal for every single person in this country. For, as we face the opportunities ahead of us on this momentous journey, our shared values, interests, and ambitions can—and must—bring us together.”
“We all want to see a Britain that is stronger than it is today,” she added. “We all want a country that is fairer so that everyone has the chance to succeed. We all want a nation that is safe and secure for our children and grandchildren. We all want to live in a truly global Britain that gets out and builds relationships with old friends and new allies around the world.”
May’s speech was filled with so many false claims, so much cant, and so many examples of wishful thinking that it is hard to know where to begin. Her vow to represent “every person” in the U.K. is blatantly false. Last year’s referendum, in which 53.4 per cent of the county’s voters signalled a preference to leave the E.U., represented a victory for the old, the less-educated, and the xenophobic. The young, the college-educated, and the outward-looking all rejected, and still reject, Brexit. Many of them regard it as a willful act of self-destruction, and future historians will surely agree with them.
The upcoming exit talks, which are expected to last about two years, will cover a number of areas, including the terms on which British exporters will be allowed access to the European market, the rights of E.U. nationals living in the U.K., and whether Britain will have to pay a big departure fee. Although May is talking a brave game, her negotiating position is weak. Retaining open access to the E.U. for British goods would require the U.K. to keep paying into the E.U.’s budget and allowing labor to move freely across the English Channel. May knows that she can’t sell either of these concessions to the Little Englanders in her own party or to the jingoistic tabloids that have championed a “hard Brexit”—a clean break with the E.U.
In January, May said that Britain wouldn’t try to remain a formal member of the single market and instead would seek a new trade agreement with the E.U. that preserved the “frictionless” movement of goods and services. She also said that she was prepared to walk away from the negotiations if Britain didn’t get what it wanted, in which case the country would crash out of the E.U. with no agreement at all. She said “no deal” was preferable to “a bad deal for Britain.” That language went over well with the Daily Mail and the Sun, but it really amounted to the Prime Minister putting a gun to her head and threatening to shoot. As a negotiating ploy, it failed miserably.
The leaders of the E.U., meanwhile, want to discourage other member countries from following the U.K.’s example, and appear increasingly determined to impose a harsh deal on London. At an E.U. summit over the weekend in Italy, Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, was asked if there was any leeway to reach a friendly arrangement with Britain. “Some things are not for sale,” she said, indicating that the U.K. would not receive any concessions that undermined the free movement of goods and people within the E.U.
Merkel’s tough line echoed the sentiments expressed by Wolfgang Schäuble, the German Finance Minister, in a recent interview with the Financial Times. “We have no interest in punishing the U.K, but we also have no interest in putting European integration in danger over the U.K.,” Schäuble said. “That is why our priority must be, with a heavy heart, to keep the rest of Europe—without the U.K.—as close together as possible.”
Both sides are still staking out their positions, of course, and it will be some time before we know how the negotiations are going. Many European officials believe that May will eventually soften her stance, because leaving the E.U. without a deal would be catastrophic. . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

31 March 2017 at 12:14 pm

Posted in Business, Government

Bernie Sanders Wants to Expand Medicare to Everybody — Exactly What Its Architects Wanted

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Zaid Jilani writes in The Intercept:

Bernie Sanders doesn’t just want to play defense on health care — he’s introducing a bill that would expand the Medicare program to everybody in America, creating a single-payer health care system.

Such a system would wipe out inefficiencies in our current, private insurance-run system, and polls very well — yet it is opposed by the health care industry and the Democratic and Republican establishments that relies on them for campaign cash.

But creating a “Medicare-for-all,” single-payer health insurance system for all Americans would be fulfilling the dream of those who created the Medicare system in the first place in 1965.

Medicare’s architects ended up compromising with Congress and establishing a system that offered public-run health insurance just for the elderly, but they never intended for only retirees to benefit from the program.

Medicare’s Roots and a Vision Unfulfilled

Yale political scientist Theodore Marmore, commenting on Medicare, once wrote that no “other industrial democracy” other than the United States “has compulsory health insurance for its elderly citizens alone, and none started a program with such a beneficiary group.”

The reason Medicare was offered only to senior citizens is a tale of legislative compromise, not intellectual intent.

Since Theodore Roosevelt ran on a platform of health insurance for all industrial workers as a presidential candidate for the Bull Moose Party in 1912, offering government-backed health insurance to workers has been a progressive cause. Franklin Roosevelt proposed guaranteeing a right to health care shortly before his death; his successor Harry Truman worked hard to pass a form of single-payer health insurance, but was defeated in Congress after a smear campaign led by the American Medical Association that associated the president’s plan with the Soviet Union.

Thus reformers decided to focus on the most sympathetic part of the population, which the health insurance industry had the least interest in covering: the elderly.

Robert Ball was the commissioner of Social Security under presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, and one of the officials who was involved in the push to create Medicare. In 1995, he wrote a short history of how the Johnson administration and its allies in civic society passed Medicare for the journal Health Affairs. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

31 March 2017 at 10:57 am

Rooney Style 3, Meißner Tremonia Pink Grapefruit, Rockwell R4, and Floris 89

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My Rockwell Style 3 Size 1 is, like it Rooney Size 1 brothers, a great little brush. I really like the loft of these, which is longer than some of my brushes and thus feels softer (and has greater lather capacity). Meißner Tremonia’s Pink Grapefruit is, as you see on the label, augmented with eucalyptus, which changes the fragrance noticeably, removing any sweetness.

The lather was extremely good today, and MT’s shaving paste formulation works extremely well for me. It’s soft but not goopy, so you can easily load the brush by treating it as a soft soap (which is what it amounts to).

Three passes with the Rockwell R4 gave a totally smooth result with no nicks or problems. I picked Floris 89 as also have a citrus aspect with no sweetness:

Top notes: bergamot, lavender, neroli, nutmeg, orange, petitgrain
Heart notes: geranium, rose, ylang ylang
Base notes: cedarwood, musk, oakmoss, sandalwood, vetiver

I really like this one.

Written by Leisureguy

31 March 2017 at 9:14 am

Posted in Shaving

Cute animated movie on Amazon Prime: “Hoodwinked” (2005)

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Here it is, and it has quite a cast for the voices: Anne Hathaway, Glenn Close, Jim Belushi, Patrick Warburton, Chazz Palminteri, and others.

Written by Leisureguy

30 March 2017 at 7:54 pm

Posted in Movies & TV

Larry Summers Had the Power to Punish Wall Street. Now He’s Slamming Obama’s Gentle Treatment.

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David Dayen reports in The Intercept:

AS HEAD OF BARACK OBAMA’S National Economic Council during 2009 and 2010 at the height of the foreclosure crisis, Larry Summers broke many promises to help homeowners while simultaneously dismissing Wall Street’s criminality. Now, after the Obama administration has left power and Summers has no ability to influence anything, he finds himself “disturbed” that settlements for mortgage misconduct are full of lies. Those of us who screamed exactly this for years, when Summers might have been able to do something about it, are less than amused.

In Wednesday’s Washington Post, Summers writes about a “large systematic overstatement” of the burden actually felt by banks in various mortgage settlements. Typically with these settlements, the Justice Department announces a headline dollar amount that the media uncritically prints in their headlines. But that number bears no relation to reality.

Indeed, large amounts of the settlements are directed for “consumer relief,” which banks have been from the beginning adept at gaming. Financial writer Yves Smith coined the phrase “bullshit to cash ratio” to describe the relationship between actual hard-dollar fines for banks and these noncash consumer relief measures.

Summers highlights an agreement last April, where Goldman Sachs needed to supply $1.8 billion in consumer relief to homeowners to settle claims that they swindled investors with mortgage-backed securities. But Goldman Sachs didn’t own any mortgages. So it bought distressed mortgages in bulk on the open market, for as low as 50 cents on the dollar. Then it modified the balance to, say, 60 cents on the dollar, satisfying the consumer relief while earning profit.

In other words, Obama’s Justice Department sentenced Goldman Sachs to make money. A more recent Deutsche Bank settlement allowed the bank to invest in hedge funds that do the same purchase-and-modify loan scheme, getting credit for $4.1 billion in consumer relief simply from the investment. Deutsche Bank is even looking to earn credit for consumer relief by indirectly funding new subprime loans, also a moneymaking activity. This is like sentencing a bank robber to open a lemonade stand.

“While there may have been some encouragement to principle (sic) reduction through these settlements,” Summers writes, “neither the cost to banks nor the incremental benefit to consumers is remotely comparable to the consumer relief figures advertised by both the DoJ and the banks.”

Larry Summers should be the last person expressing outrage about any of this. It was his indifference to the suffering of homeowners after the financial crash that led to this fake justice-by-settlement scheme.

The week before Obama took office in 2009, when the incoming White House wanted the second half of the TARP bailout money released, Summers wrote a letter to Congress promising that “the Obama administration will commit substantial resources of $50-100B to a sweeping effort to address the foreclosure crisis.” He added that “we will implement smart, aggressive policies to reduce the number of preventable foreclosures by helping to reduce mortgage payments for economically stressed but responsible homeowners, while also reforming our bankruptcy laws.”

None of this happened. The ballyhooed $100 billion investment in mortgage mitigation ended up spending only $21 billion, and worse, was manipulated into a predatory lending program by mortgage servicers who had financial incentives to foreclose. The reform to bankruptcy laws Summers touted in his letter, which would have allowed judges to modify home mortgages, was something he actively opposed after Obama’s inauguration. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., publicly alleged that Summers “was not supportive of this,” and that he expressed doubts in private meetings.

Summers tries to separate himself from the Justice Department’s lies by saying, . . .

Continue reading.

It seems that Larry Summers is quite an unlikable fellow.

Written by Leisureguy

30 March 2017 at 7:50 pm

Inspector General’s The Watch Opinion Report: The DEA has seized billions in cash. Owners rarely get due process.

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Radley Balko in the Washington Post:

A new report from the Justice Department’s inspector general finds that during the past 10 years, the Drug Enforcement Administration has seized more than $4 billion in cash allegedly tied to drug activity. More than 75 percent of that total never resulted in criminal charges, and 80 percent ended up in the federal forfeiture fund through administrative procedures — meaning that the owners never got a day in court.

There’s no uniform standard for what constitutes a connection to drug activity. Cash can be seized if narcotics officers think it was earned from the sale of drugs or will be used to buy drugs. At airports, bus terminals and train stations, agents have seized cash from travelers coming from or going to a city known to be a hub for drug trafficking, for buying a one-way ticket or for acting “suspiciously.” From the report:

We found that different task force officers made different decisions in similar situations when deciding whether to seize all of the cash discovered. These differences demonstrate how seizure decisions can appear arbitrary, which should be a concern for the Department, both because of potentially improper conduct and because even the appearance of arbitrary decision-making in asset seizure can fuel public perception that law enforcement is not using this authority legitimately, thereby undermining public confidence in law enforcement.

In a review of 100 seizures, the report found that 85 occurred while property or the owner of the seized property was in transit (at an airport, during a traffic stop, at a shipping center, etc.), and that 79 of those were initiated based solely on a DEA agent or cooperating drug officer’s suspicions, not on preexisting intelligence.

While civil asset forfeiture is justified on the premise that it prevents criminals from ill-gotten gains, the DEA can’t say what percentage of its seizures resulted in broader investigations, or what percentage of those investigations resulted in criminal charges — because it doesn’t keep track. Given the building momentum against these seizures, one would think that if there were a clear connection between seizures of cash and investigations that nab drug dealers or result in large seizures of illicit substances, the DEA would want to track and promote those figures to tout its success. That they don’t even bother suggests that the connection between seizures and actual criminal activity is minimal.

That lack of data is why the IG’s office selected 100 cases to review itself. Its conclusion? “This review of sampled seizures provided evidence that many of the DEA’s interdiction seizures may not advance or relate to criminal investigations.”

In other words, they’re just stealing from people, albeit under the color of law. The report also found that state and local officers on federal anti-drug task forces aren’t required to get any formal training on forfeiture laws and procedures, which again results in rather arbitrary and inconsistent standards, policies and procedures.

Defenders of forfeiture often argue that . . .

Continue reading.

It’s a criminal enterprise.

Written by Leisureguy

30 March 2017 at 3:18 pm

The human cost of football: Is the game worth the destruction?

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I would say “No,” but then I’m not a sports fan. Apparently quite a few people are content to let players suffer from concussions and indeed do not think about it. Reid Forgrave has a memorable article (with video at the end) about the suicide (at age 24) of Zac Easter, a football player from a football family (Zac’s father was a coach). The article begins:

My Last Wishes

It’s taken me about 5 months to write all of this. Sorry for the bad grammar in a lot of spots.

I WANT MY BRAIN DONATED TO THE BRAIN BANK!! I WANT MY BRAIN DONATED TO THE SPORTS LEGACY INSTITUE A.K.A THE CONCUSSION FOUNDATION. If you go to the concussion foundation website you can see where there is a spot for donatation. I want my brain donated because I don’t know what happened to me and I know the concussions had something to do with it.

Please please please give me the cheapest burial possible. I don’t want anything fancy and I want to be cremated. Once cremated, I want my ashes spread in the timber on the side hill where I shot my 10 point buck. That is where I was happiest and that I where I want to lay. Feel free to spread my ashes around the timber if you’d like, but just remember on the side hill is where I would like most of my remains. I am truly sorry if I put you in a financial burden. I just cant live with this pain any more.

I don’t want anything expensive at my funeral or what ever it is. Please please please I beg you to choose the cheapest route and not even buy me a burial plot at a cemetary…. I also do not want a military funeral. If there are color guardsmen or anyone else at my funerial or whatever you have I will haunt you forever.

I want levi to keep playing clash of clans on my account. I am close to max have spent a lot of time playing that game. Though you think its stupid, I ask you keep playing it for me when you can and let my fellow clan mates know what happened. My phones passcode is 111111, so that’s six 1’s….

Levi gets my car, it will need a oil change and breaks/tires done her shortly. Please take care of old red. It will need cleaned out as well because I am a slob.

Thank you for being the best family in the world. I will watch over you all and please take my last wishes into consideration. Do not do something I do no want. Just remember, I don’t want a military funeral like grandpas. It is my last wishes and last rights.

I am with the lord now.

-Look, Im sorry every one for the choice I made. Its wrong and we all know it.

November 13, 2015

Zac Easter texted his girlfriend shortly before 10 A.M.

“Can you call me when you get out of class? I’m in hot water right now and idk what to do”

He typed as he drove, weaving Old Red, his cherry red 2008 Mazda3, down the wide suburban boulevards of West Des Moines. He’d already been awake for hours, since well before sunrise. At 5:40 A.M., he texted Ali an apology: “Sorry about last night.” Then he started drinking. By now he was shitfaced and driving around the suburbs. She called as soon as she got out of class, and he was slurring his words. Ali was scared. She wanted him off the road. She talked him down and into a gas-station parking lot, and then he hung up.

“Do not leave,” she texted back at 11:27 A.M.

Ali Epperson was nearly 700 miles away, at her contract-law class at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland. In football terms, Zac had outkicked his coverage: Ali was an ex-cheerleader but no vacant princess. She had a diamond stud in her left nostril and a knifing wit. They were a pair of scrappers whose jagged edges fit. Zac loved Trump; he kept a copy of Trump: The Art of the Deal in his bedroom. Ali was a budding progressive: a first-year student at a good law school who’d interned at Senator Tom Harkin’s D.C. office. They were just friends in high school; she used to cut fourth-period music class to hang with Zac. After they graduated, they became more than friends.

Sometimes he called her Winslow, her middle name, and only Winslow knew the full extent of Zac’s struggles in the five and a half years since high school: the brain tremors that felt like thunderclaps inside his skull, the sudden memory lapses in which he’d forget where he was driving or why he was walking around the hardware store, the doctors who told him his mind might be torn to pieces from all the concussions from football. She knew about the drugs and the drinking he was doing to cope. She knew about the mood swings, huge and pulverizing, the slow leaching of his hope.

“I’m not leaving,” he texted back.


He pulled into a Jimmy John’s and ate something to sober up, sending Ali Snapchats every so often to prove he wasn’t driving. Then, a couple of hours later, he texted her again: . . .

Do read the whole thing, and ask whether football is worth the cost. (The NFL clearly believes the answer is “Yes,” since they make a lot of money from it and club owners are not in danger. So the NFL with fight change, just as the auto industry fought safety standards, and for the same reason: it may save lives, but it cuts into profits.)

Written by Leisureguy

30 March 2017 at 9:41 am

Rooney Style 1 Size 1, Meißner Tremonia Woody Almond, Merkur Progress, and Anthony Gold Red Cedar aftershave

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I’m really liking my three Rooney brushes. I think of this Style 1 Size 1 as a “stubby” brush, but in fact it has quite a good loft and feels great on the face. It lathers well, shares the lather generously, and has a flattish fan-shaped top. It’s a great little brush and it seemed to enjoy working with Meißner Tremonia’s wonderful Woody Almond shaving paste: bitter almond and Texas cedar fragrance that is strong in the jar and pleasant in the lather.

The Merkur Progress is an excellent adjustable—heck, it’s an excellent razor, adjustable or not (and I generally don’t do any adjusting: I’ve found the setting I like and I use it). Three passes, not even a thought of a nick, and a perfectly smooth face.

A good splash of Anthony Gold’s Red Cedar aftershave, and the day is launched on a very positive note.

Written by Leisureguy

30 March 2017 at 9:26 am

Posted in Shaving

Roberts, Alito: Cops who illegally entered home without warrant, shot married couple can’t be sued . . . because the cops likely would have shot the couple anyway.

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What’s happened to this country? Cops can bash in the door to your house, break windows, throw in flash-bang grenades (sometimes on top of a baby in a crib), shoot unarmed people, and the cops are never held accountable? It’s now okay to do that?

Radley Balko reports in the Washington Post:

Last week, I wrote about L.A. County v. Mendez, a case currently before the Supreme Court. In the case, the police were looking for a rogue parolee. They got a tip from an informant that the man they were looking for was seen riding a bicycle past a particular house. Based only on that, two deputies searched the house without a warrant. They then saw a small shack in the back yard. They were told that the woman who owns the house had let a down-on-their-luck couple — Angel and Jennifer Mendez — live in the shack until they were back on their feet. The two deputies then searched that residence without a warrant as well. When the deputies opened the door, Angel Mendez reached for a BB gun he kept near the bed. He later said he wasn’t even reaching for the gun to scare away the intruders, only to move it so he could get out of bed. The two deputies opened fire, striking both Angel and Jennifer. Angel Mendez was shot several times and lost part of his leg. Jennifer was shot in the back.

The lower courts determined that the officers violated the Mendezes’ Fourth Amendment rights on two occasions. First, they failed to obtain a warrant before searching the home. And second, they failed to knock and announce before entering the residence. But on the second violation, the failure to knock and announce, the lower courts determined that the officers were protected by qualified immunity. Because the Mendezes did not live on a separate property from the main house, the federal courts found that a reasonable police officer could be confused about whether he or she was required to knock and announce before entering.

At issue before the Supreme Court — or at least so we thought — is the “provocation doctrine,” a bit of case law unique to the 9th Circuit. The doctrine holds that if the police violate someone’s Fourth Amendment rights, and that violation is the proximate cause of an escalation that leads to harm caused to the plaintiffs, then the police officers are liable for that harm. In the Mendez case, the lower courts held that because the police violated the couple’s Fourth Amendment rights by not obtaining a warrant, and because that violation caused Angel Mendez to legally and reasonable reach for his gun, which caused the deputies to open fire, the deputies are liable to the injuries sustained by the Mendezes. In every other federal circuit, the deputies would not be liable, because the courts would look only at the immediate cause of the injuries — the deputies firing their guns. Because their use of force was reasonable — they were reacting to Angel Mendez reaching for what looked like a real gun — they wouldn’t be liable, even though Mendez would have been entirely justified in defending his home. Only the 9th Circuit recognizes that it was the deputies’ initial violation that escalated the situation. The attorneys for the Mendezes were asking the court to apply the provocation doctrine to the entire country. Los Angeles County was asking the court to strike down the doctrine in the only circuit where it exists.

After oral arguments last Wednesday, it seems as if there’s a good chance that the court will do neither. Of course, all the usual caveats about the perils of predicting Supreme Court cases by oral arguments apply here. But the Roberts court has a reputation for punting on cases when it can — for avoiding big issues if it can dispose of cases by looking to smaller ones. In Mendez last week, the court’s conservative justices suggested that the case may not even need to get to the provocation doctrine. Their reasons why tell us a lot about the immense protections police officers enjoy from the federal courts, even when they’ve caused serious harm.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. in particular argued that the proximate cause of the shooting wasn’t the deputies’ failure to obtain a warrant, but their failure to knock and announce before entering the Mendezes’ home. Even if the deputies had obtained a warrant, the justices argued, they’d still likely have entered without knocking or announcing. That is what caused Angel Mendez to reach for his gun, which in turn caused the officers to open fire. And because the officers were given qualified immunity for their failure to knock and announce (this wasn’t at issue for the Supreme Court), they could not be held liable for the injuries they inflicted on the Mendezes.

There are a lot of assumptions built into this line of argument, all of which tend to benefit the deputies. First, it’s just assumed that if they had applied for the warrant, they would have been granted one. Perhaps that’s true. Unfortunately, judges in general aren’t all that skeptical about search warrants, and police tend to avoid the judges who are. But it’s far from clear whether the deputies should have been given a warrant had they gone to the trouble of asking for one. The only cause they had to search either residence was a tip that an anonymous informant had spotted someone who looked like the parolee riding a bicycle in front of a particular house. That’s it. From that tip, the police entered and search not one, but two residences. If the parolee had been seen riding past several houses, would the police have been justified in searching all of those, too? That seems to be inferable from the 9th Circuit opinion:

The officers “developed a plan” in which some officers would proceed to the Hughes house, but because “the officers believed that there was a possibility that Mr. O’Dell already had left the Hughes residence,” others would proceed to a different house on the same street.

Second, several of the justices’ questions appear to just assume that  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

29 March 2017 at 6:34 pm

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