Later On

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

Archive for March 4th, 2017

Interesting comment on Trump’s “Obama’s wiretapping me” tweets

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This is a comment on the NY Times story:

The idea that Obama somehow extorted some person to set up an illegal wiretap on trump is absurd. But I can guess who was bugging him–the Russians of course. Especially given that trump tower is well populated by obscenely wealthy, I.e., Putin friendly Russians with physical access to the building’s infrastructure.

A comment from another reader: “Trump has jumped the shark.”

Another comment from AndyBrown:

Once again, Trump craziness peaks when Ivanka and Jared are observing the Sabbath.

Written by Leisureguy

4 March 2017 at 9:08 pm

Holding Trump accountable

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George Packer is a conservative commentator, IMO. For one thing, he strongly supported George W. Bush’s invastion of Iraq. He writes here in the New Yorker:

Section 4 of the Twenty-fifth Amendment to the Constitution allows for the removal of a President who can no longer discharge his duties but is unable or unwilling to say so. It empowers the Vice-President, along with “a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide,” to declare the President unfit and to install the Vice-President as Acting President. Section 4 has never been invoked. In 1987, when Ronald Reagan appointed Howard Baker to be his new chief of staff, the members of the outgoing chief’s team warned their replacements that Reagan’s mental ineptitude might require them to attempt the removal of the President under Section 4. Baker and his staff, at their first official meeting with Reagan, watched him carefully for signs of incapacity—but the President, apparently cheered by the arrival of newcomers, was alert and lively, and he served out the rest of his second term.

After a month in office, Donald Trump has already proved himself unable to discharge his duties. The disability isn’t laziness or inattention. It expresses itself in paranoid rants, non-stop feuds carried out in public, and impulsive acts that can only damage his government and himself. Last week, at a White House press conference, the President behaved like the unhinged leader of an unstable and barely democratic republic. He rambled for nearly an hour and a half, on script and off; he flung insults at reporters; he announced that he was having fun; and he congratulated himself so many times and in such preposterous terms (“this Administration is running like a fine-tuned machine”) that the White House press corps could only stare in amazement. The gaudy gold drapery of the East Room contributed to the impression that at any moment Trump might declare himself President for Life, and a flunky would appear from behind the curtain to pin the Medal of National Greatness on his suit jacket, while, backstage, officials and generals discussed his overthrow. Trump experienced such a deep need to get back on top by lashing out that he apparently overrode the objections of his advisers, felt much better afterward, then prepared to go to Florida to sustain his high at the first rally of his reëlection campaign.

While the White House isolates itself in power struggles, the Administration is in nearly open revolt. Career diplomats are signing statements of dissent or leaving the State Department, while key posts remain unfilled. Officials at the Environmental Protection Agency fought to stop Scott Pruitt, Trump’s pro-industry nominee, from taking over as their new boss. And other government officials, after weeks of hearing Trump belittle their agencies, are feeding the press information about Russian involvement with his campaign.
Foreign leaders, depending on their orientation, are watching this spectacle with disbelieving alarm or with calculating interest. Allies such as Prime Ministers Justin Trudeau, of Canada, and Shinzo Abe, of Japan, flatter the President in order to avoid the fate of Australia’s Malcolm Turnbull, whom Trump first berated and then hung up on during their get-to-know-you phone call. Vladimir Putin is already testing Trump, by sending Russian fighter jets to buzz a U.S. Navy ship. Xi Jinping is positioning China to fill the void in the Pacific Rim which will be left by Trump’s policy of America First. Pragmatists in Iran are trying to judge whether the new American government can be counted on to act rationally—exactly what U.S. officials always wondered about the fractured leadership of the Islamic Republic.
It won’t get better. The notion that, at some point, Trump would start behaving “Presidential” was always a fantasy that has the truth backward: the pressure of the Presidency is making him worse. He’s insulated by sycophants and by family members, and he can still ride a long way on his popular following. Though the surge of civic opposition, the independence of the courts, and the reinvigoration of the press are heartening, the only real leverage over Trump lies in the hands of Republicans. But Section 4 won’t be invoked. Vice-President Mike Pence is not going to face the truth in the private back room of a Washington restaurant with Secretaries Betsy DeVos, Ben Carson, and Wilbur Ross, or in the offices of Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Republican leaders have opted instead for unconstrained power.
They need Trump to pass their agenda of rewriting the tax code in favor of the rich and of gutting regulations that protect the public and the planet—an agenda that a majority of Americans never supported—so they are looking the other way. Even the prospect of Russian influence over our elections and our government leaves these American patriots unmoved. Senator John Cornyn, of Texas, the Republican whip, made it plain: Trump can go on being Trump “as long as we’re able to get things done.” Senator Rand Paul, of Kentucky, explained, “We’ll never even get started with doing the things we need to do, like repealing Obamacare, if we’re spending our whole time having Republicans investigate Republicans.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

4 March 2017 at 3:00 pm

Everything you need to know about Trump and Russia

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Dana Milbank summarizes it nicely in the Washington Post:

Having trouble following the fast-moving developments about the Trump team’s ties to Russia? Here’s a primer to get you up to speed:

President Trump got to know Russian President Vladimir Putin “very well,” but he doesn’t “know Putin.”

Putin sent Trump “a present” and they spoke, but Trump has “no relationship with him.”

Trump has “nothing to do with Russia,” but his son has said “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets” and “we see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”

Russia definitely hacked the Democratic National Committee, unless it was a 400-pound man in his bedroom or a guy in a van down by the river.

U.S. intelligence agencies allege that Putin meddled in the election to try to get Trump elected, but this was all a “ruse” and a “fake news fabricated deal to try and make up for the loss of the Democrats.”

There was “no communication” between Trump’s team and Russia during the campaign and transition, except for communication with Russia by Trump’s future national security adviser, his future attorney general and his son-in-law and two others.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions “did not have communications with the Russians,” except for the two meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak he neglected to mention under oath.

Sessions then said he never discussed the campaign with Russians, which is not what was alleged.

Sessions had “no idea what this allegation is about” regarding his Russian contacts but had enough of an idea what it was about to declare “it is false.”

Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation, but this decision is unrelated to the discovery that he spoke twice with the Russian ambassador despite his claims that he had no such meetings.

Sessions cannot confirm the investigation he recused himself from exists or will exist in the future.

Sessions believes that perjury is one of the constitutional “high crimes and misdemeanors” and “goes to the heart of the judicial system,” except his false testimony under oath to Congress was not a false statement but a case of speaking too quickly.

Sessions met with the Russian ambassador during the time Sessions was serving as a surrogate for the Trump campaign, but not in his capacity as a surrogate for the Trump campaign.

Sessions remembers nothing of his meetings with the Russian ambassador, except that he remembers clearly talking about terrorism and religion and Ukraine and he’s sure they didn’t talk about the campaign.

It was a total coincidence that . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

4 March 2017 at 1:59 pm

Benjamin Wittes has 10 questions for President Trump re: the “wiretapping”

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Bejamin Wittes writes at Lawfare:

This morning, the country awoke to a bizarre tweetstorm from the President of the United States, about which I have ten questions.

First off, here’s what Trump tweeted.

Here are my questions, about all of which I am, I want to stress, entirely serious:

  1. Are you making the allegation that President Obama conducted electronic surveillance of Trump Tower in your capacity as President of the United States based on intelligence or law enforcement information available to you in that capacity?
  2. If so—that is, if you have executive branch information validating that either a FISA wiretap or a Title III wiretap took place—have you reviewed the applications for the surveillance and have you or your lawyers concluded that they lack merit?
  3. If you know that a FISA wiretap took place, are you or were you at the time of the application, an agent of a foreign power within the meaning of FISA?
  4. Was anyone else working in Trump Tower an agent of a foreign power within the meaning of FISA?
  5. If you know that a Title III wiretap took place, are you or were you at the time of the application engaged in criminal activity that would support a Title III wiretap or might you have previously engaged in criminal activity that might legitimately be the subject of a Title III wiretap?
  6. Was anyone else working in Trump Tower engaged in criminal activity that would support a Title III wiretap or might another person have previously engaged in criminal activity that might legitimately be the subject of a Title III wiretap?
  7. If you were tweeting not based on knowledge received as chief executive of the United States, were you tweeting in your capacity as a reader of Breitbart or a listener of Mark Levin’s radio show?
  8. If so, on what basis are you confident the stories and allegations in these august outlets are true and accurate vis a vis the activity of the government you, in fact, now head?
  9. If you l

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

4 March 2017 at 1:42 pm

What is Trump complaining about when he accuses Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower?

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That was the question asked on Quora, and this answer is excellent and told me quite a bit I didn’t know.

Written by Leisureguy

4 March 2017 at 1:06 pm

Why facts don’t change our minds

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Elizabeth Kolbert has an intriguing article in the New Yorker:

In 1975, researchers at Stanford invited a group of undergraduates to take part in a study about suicide. They were presented with pairs of suicide notes. In each pair, one note had been composed by a random individual, the other by a person who had subsequently taken his own life. The students were then asked to distinguish between the genuine notes and the fake ones.

Some students discovered that they had a genius for the task. Out of twenty-five pairs of notes, they correctly identified the real one twenty-four times. Others discovered that they were hopeless. They identified the real note in only ten instances.

As is often the case with psychological studies, the whole setup was a put-on. Though half the notes were indeed genuine—they’d been obtained from the Los Angeles County coroner’s office—the scores were fictitious. The students who’d been told they were almost always right were, on average, no more discerning than those who had been told they were mostly wrong.

In the second phase of the study, the deception was revealed. The students were told that the real point of the experiment was to gauge their responses to thinking they were right or wrong. (This, it turned out, was also a deception.) Finally, the students were asked to estimate how many suicide notes they had actually categorized correctly, and how many they thought an average student would get right. At this point, something curious happened. The students in the high-score group said that they thought they had, in fact, done quite well—significantly better than the average student—even though, as they’d just been told, they had zero grounds for believing this. Conversely, those who’d been assigned to the low-score group said that they thought they had done significantly worse than the average student—a conclusion that was equally unfounded.

“Once formed,” the researchers observed dryly, “impressions are remarkably perseverant.”

A few years later, a new set of Stanford students was recruited for a related study. The students were handed packets of information about a pair of firefighters, Frank K. and George H. Frank’s bio noted that, among other things, he had a baby daughter and he liked to scuba dive. George had a small son and played golf. The packets also included the men’s responses on what the researchers called the Risky-Conservative Choice Test. According to one version of the packet, Frank was a successful firefighter who, on the test, almost always went with the safest option. In the other version, Frank also chose the safest option, but he was a lousy firefighter who’d been put “on report” by his supervisors several times. Once again, midway through the study, the students were informed that they’d been misled, and that the information they’d received was entirely fictitious. The students were then asked to describe their own beliefs. What sort of attitude toward risk did they think a successful firefighter would have? The students who’d received the first packet thought that he would avoid it. The students in the second group thought he’d embrace it.

Even after the evidence “for their beliefs has been totally refuted, people fail to make appropriate revisions in those beliefs,” the researchers noted. In this case, the failure was “particularly impressive,” since two data points would never have been enough information to generalize from.

The Stanford studies became famous. Coming from a group of academics in the nineteen-seventies, the contention that people can’t think straight was shocking. It isn’t any longer. Thousands of subsequent experiments have confirmed (and elaborated on) this finding. As everyone who’s followed the research—or even occasionally picked up a copy of Psychology Today—knows, any graduate student with a clipboard can demonstrate that reasonable-seeming people are often totally irrational. Rarely has this insight seemed more relevant than it does right now. Still, an essential puzzle remains: How did we come to be this way?

In a new book, “The Enigma of Reason” (Harvard), the cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber take a stab at answering this question. Mercier, who works at a French research institute in Lyon, and Sperber, now based at the Central European University, in Budapest, point out that reason is an evolved trait, like bipedalism or three-color vision. It emerged on the savannas of Africa, and has to be understood in that context.

Stripped of a lot of what might be called cognitive-science-ese, Mercier and Sperber’s argument runs, more or less, as follows: Humans’ biggest advantage over other species is our ability to coöperate. Coöperation is difficult to establish and almost as difficult to sustain. For any individual, freeloading is always the best course of action. Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups.

“Reason is an adaptation to the hypersocial niche humans have evolved for themselves,” Mercier and Sperber write. Habits of mind that seem weird or goofy or just plain dumb from an “intellectualist” point of view prove shrewd when seen from a social “interactionist” perspective.

Consider what’s become known as “confirmation bias,” the tendency people have to embrace information that supports their beliefs and reject information that contradicts them. Of the many forms of faulty thinking that have been identified, confirmation bias is among the best catalogued; it’s the subject of entire textbooks’ worth of experiments. One of the most famous of these was conducted, again, at Stanford. For this experiment, researchers rounded up a group of students who had opposing opinions about capital punishment. Half the students were in favor of it and thought that it deterred crime; the other half were against it and thought that it had no effect on crime.

The students were asked to respond to two studies. One provided data in support of the deterrence argument, and the other provided data that called it into question. Both studies—you guessed it—were made up, and had been designed to present what were, objectively speaking, equally compelling statistics. The students who had originally supported capital punishment rated the pro-deterrence data highly credible and the anti-deterrence data unconvincing; the students who’d originally opposed capital punishment did the reverse. At the end of the experiment, the students were asked once again about their views. Those who’d started out pro-capital punishment were now even more in favor of it; those who’d opposed it were even more hostile.

If reason is designed to generate sound judgments, then it’s hard to conceive of a more serious design flaw than confirmation bias. Imagine, Mercier and Sperber suggest, a mouse that thinks the way we do. Such a mouse, “bent on confirming its belief that there are no cats around,” would soon be dinner. To the extent that confirmation bias leads people to dismiss evidence of new or underappreciated threats—the human equivalent of the cat around the corner—it’s a trait that should have been selected against. The fact that both we and it survive, Mercier and Sperber argue, proves that it must have some adaptive function, and that function, they maintain, is related to our “hypersociability.”

Mercier and Sperber prefer the term “myside bias.” Humans, they point out, aren’t randomly credulous. . .

Continue reading.

Do keep reading. Lots more. Later in the article:

In a study conducted in 2012, they asked people for their stance on questions like: Should there be a single-payer health-care system? Or merit-based pay for teachers? Participants were asked to rate their positions depending on how strongly they agreed or disagreed with the proposals. Next, they were instructed to explain, in as much detail as they could, the impacts of implementing each one. Most people at this point ran into trouble. Asked once again to rate their views, they ratcheted down the intensity, so that they either agreed or disagreed less vehemently.
Sloman and Fernbach see in this result a little candle for a dark world. If we—or our friends or the pundits on CNN—spent less time pontificating and more trying to work through the implications of policy proposals, we’d realize how clueless we are and moderate our views. This, they write, “may be the only form of thinking that will shatter the illusion of explanatory depth and change people’s attitudes.”

Written by Leisureguy

4 March 2017 at 12:46 pm

Prostitutes, False Billing, a $3 Billion Lawsuit: Oscar Mixup is the Least of Pricewaterhouse Cooper’s Problems

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Pam Martens and Russ Martens report in Wall Street on Parade:

PwC, formerly known as PricewaterhouseCoopers, is one of the Big Four accounting firms created in 1998 from the merger of Price Waterhouse and Coopers & Lybrand. Its namesakes are more than a century old. Unfortunately, PwC will henceforth be known as the accounting firm that provided presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway with the wrong red envelope at Sunday night’s Oscars. That mistake created a chaotic scene where two producers of the film “La La Land” were initially allowed to give speeches on stage for Best Film, then stunned with the news that “Moonlight” had actually won the award. At one point, producers and casts of both films stood in dazed confusion on the stage.

According to the official report thus far, a PwC partner, Brian Cullinan, mistakenly handed the Best Actress award envelope (Emma Stone for “La La Land”) to Beatty, instead of the envelope for Best Film, leading to Dunaway announcing it as Best Film.

In a YouTube video (see below) made by PwC to celebrate its long history of tabulating votes for the Oscars, the words “Integrity” and “Accuracy” flash upon the screen. But in multiple current court actions, PwC’s integrity and accuracy are being challenged in very serious ways.

One court action is close to the home of the Oscars. The Los Angeles City Attorney, Michael N. Feuer, brought an action against PwC in 2015 on behalf of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP). It initially alleged that when PwC submitted a bid proposal to update the forty year old billing and customer care system for the LADWP it “marked the beginning of a pattern of intentional deception, breach of commitments, and an almost endless litany of attempts to deny or cover up those acts or omissions by PwC that is virtually breathtaking in both its scope and its audacity.”

Because of PwC’s intentional misrepresentations and breaches of contract, according to the lawsuit, a chaotic disaster fell upon the public utility: “…the Department was not able to bill some of its customers for more than 17 months, including more than 40,000 of its 400,000 commercial customers, resulting in an $11 million loss in revenue for each month during this period. Moreover, for weeks, LADWP couldn’t bill any of its 1.2 million residential customers at all.” In addition, the complaint goes on, countless LADWP customers were overbilled while others were underbilled, “resulting in an exponential surge in ratepayer complaints, non-payment of bills, and an enormous spike in the aging of accounts receivable.”

And, that wasn’t the worst part of this lawsuit. In June of last year, the Los Angeles City Attorney filed a motion to amend the complaint to include charges that “several senior-ranking PwC Managers” had engaged “in a three-year long conspiracy to defraud the City of Los Angeles and the LADWP by repeatedly submitting intentionally falsified PwC time records in a manner not able to be detected by LADWP to obtain payments for work that PwC never performed from 2011 through at least 2013.” Payments for the overbilling were then used, according to the City Attorney, “to reimburse their subcontractor for payments made for the services of escorts and prostitutes, lavish hotel stays, two bachelor parties and thousands of dollars for ‘bottle service’ liquor at Las Vegas hotels and clubs in July 2011 and May 2013.”

This is not the first time that PwC has been charged with overbilling. In 2005, PwC paid $41.9 million to settle charges by the U.S. government that it had overbilled it for its travel expenses.

Then there is the titillating, multi-billion-dollar accounting malpractice case against PwC set to go to trial next Monday. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

4 March 2017 at 11:47 am

Posted in Business, Movies & TV

Is Consciousness an Illusion?

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It seems clear that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon from chemical, biological, and electrical processes in the brain, much as language (for example) is an emergent phenomenon from the activities of certain lifeforms. My own view is that consciousness is a construction of, and interaction among, memes, but let’s see what Daniel Dennett this, as discussed in Thomas Nagel’s review of his recent book in the NY Review of Books:

From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds
by Daniel C. Dennett
Norton, 476 pp., $28.95

For fifty years the philosopher Daniel Dennett has been engaged in a grand project of disenchantment of the human world, using science to free us from what he deems illusions—illusions that are difficult to dislodge because they are so natural. In From Bacteria to Bach and Back, his eighteenth book (thirteenth as sole author), Dennett presents a valuable and typically lucid synthesis of his worldview. Though it is supported by reams of scientific data, he acknowledges that much of what he says is conjectural rather than proven, either empirically or philosophically.

Dennett is always good company. He has a gargantuan appetite for scientific knowledge, and is one of the best people I know at transmitting it and explaining its significance, clearly and without superficiality. He writes with wit and elegance; and in this book especially, though it is frankly partisan, he tries hard to grasp and defuse the sources of resistance to his point of view. He recognizes that some of what he asks us to believe is strongly counterintuitive. I shall explain eventually why I think the overall project cannot succeed, but first let me set out the argument, which contains much that is true and insightful.

The book has a historical structure, taking us from the prebiotic world to human minds and human civilization. It relies on different forms of evolution by natural selection, both biological and cultural, as its most important method of explanation. Dennett holds fast to the assumption that we are just physical objects and that any appearance to the contrary must be accounted for in a way that is consistent with this truth. Bach’s or Picasso’s creative genius, and our conscious experience of hearing Bach’s Fourth Brandenburg Concerto or seeing Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror, all arose by a sequence of physical events beginning with the chemical composition of the earth’s surface before the appearance of unicellular organisms. Dennett identifies two unsolved problems along this path: the origin of life at its beginning and the origin of human culture much more recently. But that is no reason not to speculate.

The task Dennett sets himself is framed by a famous distinction drawn by the philosopher Wilfrid Sellars between the “manifest image” and the “scientific image”—two ways of seeing the world we live in. According to the manifest image, Dennett writes, the world is

full of other people, plants, and animals, furniture and houses and cars…and colors and rainbows and sunsets, and voices and haircuts, and home runs and dollars, and problems and opportunities and mistakes, among many other such things. These are the myriad “things” that are easy for us to recognize, point to, love or hate, and, in many cases, manipulate or even create…. It’s the world according to us.

According to the scientific image, on the other hand, the world

is populated with molecules, atoms, electrons, gravity, quarks, and who knows what else (dark energy, strings? branes?).

This, according to Dennett, is the world as it is in itself, not just for us, and the task is to explain scientifically how the world of molecules has come to include creatures like us, complex physical objects to whom everything, including they themselves, appears so different.

He greatly extends Sellars’s point by observing that the concept of the manifest image can be generalized to apply not only to humans but to all other living beings, all the way down to bacteria. All organisms have biological sensors and physical reactions that allow them to detect and respond appropriately only to certain features of their environment—“affordances,” Dennett calls them—that are nourishing, noxious, safe, dangerous, sources of energy or reproductive possibility, potential predators or prey.

For each type of organism, whether plant or animal, these are the things that define their world, that are salient and important for them; they can ignore the rest. Whatever the underlying physiological mechanisms, the content of the manifest image reveals itself in what the organisms do and how they react to their environment; it need not imply that the organisms are consciously aware of their surroundings. But in its earliest forms, it is the first step on the route to awareness.

The lengthy process of evolution that generates these results is first biological and then, in our case, cultural [i.e., meme evolution – LG], and only at the very end is it guided partly by intelligent design, made possible by the unique capacities of the human mind and human civilization. But as Dennett says, the biosphere is saturated with design from the beginning—everything from the genetic code embodied in DNA to the metabolism of unicellular organisms to the operation of the human visual system—design that is not the product of intention and that does not depend on understanding.

One of Dennett’s most important claims is that most of what we and our fellow organisms do to stay alive, cope with the world and one another, and reproduce is not understood by us or them. It is competence without comprehension. This is obviously true of organisms like bacteria and trees that have no comprehension at all, but it is equally true of creatures like us who comprehend a good deal. Most of what we do, and what our bodies do—digest a meal, move certain muscles to grasp a doorknob, or convert the impact of sound waves on our eardrums into meaningful sentences—is done for reasons that are not our reasons. Rather, they are what Dennett calls free-floating reasons, grounded in the pressures of natural selection that caused these behaviors and processes to become part of our repertoire. There are reasons why these patterns have emerged and survived, but we don’t know those reasons, and we don’t have to know them to display the competencies that allow us to function.

Nor do we have to understand the mechanisms that underlie those competencies. In an illuminating metaphor, Dennett asserts that the manifest image that depicts the world in which we live our everyday lives is composed of a set of user-illusions,

like the ingenious user-illusion of click-and-drag icons, little tan folders into which files may be dropped, and the rest of the ever more familiar items on your computer’s desktop. What is actually going on behind the desktop is mind-numbingly complicated, but users don’t need to know about it, so intelligent interface designers have simplified the affordances, making them particularly salient for human eyes, and adding sound effects to help direct attention. Nothing compact and salient inside the computer corresponds to that little tan file-folder on the desktop screen.

He says that the manifest image of each species is “a user-illusion brilliantly designed by evolution to fit the needs of its users.” In spite of the word “illusion” he doesn’t wish simply to deny the reality of the things that compose the manifest image; the things we see and hear and interact with are “not mere fictions but different versions of what actually exists: real patterns.” The underlying reality, however, what exists in itself and not just for us or for other creatures, is accurately represented only by the scientific image—ultimately in the language of physics, chemistry, molecular biology, and neurophysiology.

Our user-illusions were not, like the little icons on the desktop screen, created by an intelligent interface designer. Nearly all of them—such as our images of people, their faces, voices, and actions, the perception of some things as delicious or comfortable and others as disgusting or dangerous—are the products of “bottom-up” design, understandable through the theory of evolution by natural selection, rather than “top-down” design by an intelligent being. Darwin, in what Dennett calls a “strange inversion of reasoning,” showed us how to resist the intuitive tendency always to explain competence and design by intelligence, and how to replace it with explanation by natural selection, a mindless process of accidental variation, replication, and differential survival.

As for the underlying mechanisms, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

4 March 2017 at 11:44 am

Posted in Books, Evolution, Memes, Science

Mr. President, This Is What You Should Know About Public-Private Partnerships

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Public-private partnerships seem mainly a mechanism to funnel public money to private hands. Pam Martens and Russ Martens report in Wall Street on Parade:

In President Trump’s speech last evening to a joint session of Congress, he described his plan to rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure as follows:

To launch our national rebuilding, I will be asking the Congress to approve legislation that produces a $1 trillion investment in the infrastructure of the United States — financed through both public and private capital — creating millions of new jobs.

Financed through “both public and private capital” sounds a lot like a public-private partnership.  Here’s how those hybrid creatures have worked out so far for the American people.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were, effectively, public-private partnerships. (The government preferred to call them “Government Sponsored Enterprises” or GSEs.) Each company traded on the New York Stock Exchange and each company had private shareholders. Because Fannie and Freddie had a line of credit from the U.S. Treasury and the market’s perception that the U.S. government would never allow them to default, their bonds carried a triple-A rating. Wall Street played that public-private partnership for all it was worth. The big Wall Street banks sold Fannie and Freddie hundreds of billions of dollars of junk residential mortgages, which they knew from internal reviews were likely to default, while representing to Fannie and Freddie that these were good mortgages. Then Wall Street, with inside knowledge of the house of cards it had built, sold the debt issued by Fannie and Freddie to public pensions and university endowments as triple-A investments.

On September 9, 2008, one week before the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the U.S. government took over Fannie and Freddie as it became clear to the markets that the assets backing their bonds were a pile of toxic sludge.

This is how the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission report (the official report on the 2008 financial collapse) summed up the situation at Fannie and Freddie:

The GSEs were highly leveraged—owning and guaranteeing $5.3 trillion of mortgages with capital of less than 2%…

The value of risky loans and securities was swamping their reported capital. By the end of 2007, guaranteed and portfolio mortgages with FICO scores less than 660 exceeded reported capital at Fannie Mae by more than seven to one; Alt-A loans and securities, by more than six to one. Loans for which borrowers did not provide full documentation amounted to more than ten times reported capital…

At the end of December 2007, Fannie reported that it had $44 billion of capital to absorb potential losses on $879 billion of assets and $2.2 trillion of guarantees on mortgage-backed securities; if losses exceeded 1.45%, it would be insolvent. Freddie would be insolvent if losses exceeded 1.7%. Moreover, there were serious questions about the validity of their ‘reported’ capital.

Today, Fannie and Freddie remain under the government’s conservatorship but unknown to most Americans, the government’s bailout of Freddie and Fannie was a well-disguised bailout of Wall Street’s biggest banks – just as the bailout of AIG was a backdoor bailout of Wall Street’s banks. Last May, Wall Street On Parade reported that

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

4 March 2017 at 10:49 am

Pro-life, my ass: Decades-old mass grave of children of unwed mothers confirmed in Ireland

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So contraception is bad, but mistreating and killing babies and young children is okay? Actually, I think contraception is a much better choice, but the Catholic church clearly does not agree. I do not see how the Catholic church can presume to lecture us on moral conduct given its own terrible track record over the centuries.

In the Washington Post Fred Barbash reports on the latest atrocity unearthed:

Between 1925 and the 1960s, in a tiny town called Tuam in western Ireland’s County Galway, thousands of “fallen women” and their “illegitimate” children passed through the Mother and Baby Home operated by the Congregation of the Sisters of Bon Secours. After a period of involuntary service and penance, many of the women who came to the home left to resume their lives, as The Post’s Terrence McCoy reported in 2014.

But some of the children did not leave. And what became of them remained a mystery into which few cared to inquire.

But after painstaking research, a local historian named Catherine Corless became convinced in 2014 that the infants and small children — perhaps 700 to 800 of them — died in the home and were buried without markers in mass graves beneath the property, perhaps in an underground structure such as a septic tank.

The story, which attracted worldwide publicity, was met with skepticism and even suggestions that it was a hoax. It wasn’t.

A commission established by the Irish government in response to her research and the ensuing controversy has reported finding “significant quantities of human remains” in 17 “underground chambers” inside a buried structure.

That structure, the commission said Friday, “appears to be related” to the treatment and containment of sewage and/or wastewater, though it was uncertain whether the structure was ever used for that purpose.

There is no uncertainty about the remains.

A small number of them were recovered for analysis, the commission reported. “These remains,” it said, “involved a number of individuals with age-at-death ranges” from approximately 35 fetal weeks to 2-to-3 years.

“Radiocarbon dating of the samples recovered suggest that the remains date from the time frame relevant to the operation of the Mother and Baby Home,” the commission said. “A number of the samples are likely to date from the 1950s.”

Further tests are being conducted.

The commission said it was “shocked” by the discovery and “is continuing its investigation into who was responsible for the disposal of human remains in this way.”

The testing and excavation found another structure as well, which the commission said appeared to be “a large sewage containment system or septic tank that had been decommissioned and filled with rubble and debris and then covered with top soil.” The report did not say whether researchers had yet looked for remains in that structure.

“This is very sad and disturbing news,” Katherine Zappone, Ireland’s minister for children and youth affairs, said in a statement. “It was not unexpected, as there were claims about human remains on the site over the last number of years.”

But previously the claims amounted to mere rumors, Zappone said. “Now we have confirmation that the remains are there, and that they date back to the time of the Mother and Baby Home,” she said.

“Today is about remembering and respecting the dignity of the children who lived their short lives in this Home,” Zappone added. “We will honour their memory and make sure that we take the right actions now to treat their remains appropriately.” . . .

Continue reading.

“Sad and disturbing news.” Where is the outrage?

Later in the report (and read the whole thing):

Records for that home show that babies died at the rate of two per week from malnutrition and neglect, and from diseases such as measles and gastroenteritis, Corless told the Post in 2014.

Pro-life, they call it.

Written by Leisureguy

4 March 2017 at 10:38 am

Posted in Daily life, Religion

SEC Nominee Has Represented 8 of the 10 Largest Wall Street Banks in Past Three Years

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There’s an obvious problem when you put an advocate for an industry in charge of a program to regulate the industry. You get things like this: “Why Did SEC Acting Chair Take an Ax to Enforcement Unit’s Subpoena Power?” Why on earth would an enforcement agency abandon its subpoena powers? The obvious answer: it is not interested in enforcement but in protecting the industry from oversight. See also

Pam Martens and Russ Martens report in Wall Street on Parade:

President Trump’s nominee to head the Securities and Exchange Commission, Walter J. (Jay) Clayton, a law partner at Sullivan & Cromwell, has represented 8 of the 10 largest Wall Street banks as recently as within the last three years.

Clayton’s current resume at his law firm is somewhat misleading. It lists under “Representative Engagements” in “Capital Markets/Leveraged Finance” the following:

Initial public offering of $25 billion by Alibaba Group Holding Limited;

Initial public offering of $190 million by Moelis & Company;

Initial public offering of $2.375 billion by Ally Financial.

All three of the above IPOs occurred in 2014 – less than three years ago. A quick check of the prospectuses for the IPOs that were filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission shows that Clayton, as a law partner at Sullivan & Cromwell, was representing the underwriters in the offering, which include the largest Wall Street banks. Put the three deals together and you have 8 of the 10 largest banks on Wall Street being represented by the SEC nominee within the past three years. These are the same banks that are serially charged by the SEC for increasingly creative means of fleecing the public.

If that’s not enough to conflict Clayton out of consideration to Chair the SEC post, then conflicts of interest have lost all meaning within the legal lexicon of the United States.

According to the IPO for Alibaba, the underwriters were Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs Group Inc., JPMorgan Chase & Co., Morgan Stanley and Citigroup. The prospectus from Alibaba reads as follows:

We are being represented by Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP with respect to certain legal matters of United States federal securities and New York State law. The underwriters are being represented as to United States federal securities and New York State law matters by Sullivan & Cromwell LLP.

Lead underwriters in the Moelis IPO were Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. The prospectus reads: “Sullivan & Cromwell LLP, New York, New York, is representing the underwriters in this offering.” . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

4 March 2017 at 10:27 am

Two interesting sites on modern Stoicism

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Stoicism is like a religion in that it offers moral precepts and guidance for our daily lives, but it does not involve a God. The emotional motivation in Stoicism is not fear of God but rather self-respect.

Take a look at The Daily Stoic and 21st Century Stoic. The Daily Stoic has a free packet of information and provides daily quotations. In addition “Daily Stoic Quotes” and “Daily Stoic Inspiration” are two groups on Facebook with daily messages—e.g.,

Remember:

“Thou sufferest justly: for thou choosest rather to become good tomorrow than to be good today.”

You have always got to take advantage of today. Marcus Aurelius knew this thousands of years ago, and it is just as true today.

Hustle hard. The best version of you is waiting to arrive. But you’ve got to work for it.

There are modern books on Stoicism (e.g., William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, but the mother lode is in the writings of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca.

This post on Boing Boing has a good take on Stoicism.

 

Written by Leisureguy

4 March 2017 at 10:18 am

Posted in Books, Daily life, Religion

Bad news for Betsy DeVos: School vouchers and charter schools do not work

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Michael Hiltzik reports in the LA Times:

aft of recent studies about school vouchers couldn’t have come at a worse time for our new Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

That’s because the studies report devastatingly bad results for students in those voucher programs. And they’ve been flowing into public forums just as DeVos, a leading advocate of school vouchers, takes charge of federal education policy. DeVos’s patron, President Trump, proposed during his campaign to shovel $20 billion to the states to support magnet and charter schools in voucher programs.

Voucher programs give parents public funds to spend on approved private schools for their kids. The idea is to give children in underperforming schools an escape route to a better education, while providing competition that hopefully will goad those poorer schools into improving themselves.

Conservatives like the idea, which dates back to a 1955 essay by Milton Friedman, because it means reducing government’s role in education and subjecting schools to market discipline. Give parents a set sum to spend on any school that meets minimum standards, Friedman wrote, and “a wide variety of schools will spring up to meet the demand.”

But the economist’s nirvana hasn’t materialized as expected. Studies of a few early voucher experiments in Milwaukee, New York and Washington, D.C., were equivocal at best, showing some modest improvement in test scores for some students and none for others.

That’s why the latest findings, which emerge from studies of statewide programs in Louisiana, Ohio and Indiana, have left education experts stunned. In a nutshell, they find huge declines of academic achievement among students in voucher programs in those three states.

“These results are without precedent in the educational literature,” says Kevin Carey, director of the education policy program at the think tank New America. “Among the past results, none were as positive as these are negative.”

A study released last February by a team of researchers led by Jonathan Mills of Tulane University found that students in Louisiana’s expanded program lost ground in their first two years in the program. Those performing at average levels in math and reading — that is, at about the 50th percentile — fell 24 percentile points in math and eight points in reading after their first year in the program. In the second year, they improved slightly in math, though they still scored well below non-voucher students, and barely improved at all in reading.

Those results resembled December 2015 findings by Christopher Walters of UC Berkeley, Atila Abdulkadiroglu of Duke and Parag Pathak of MIT covering the Louisiana program’s first year, which found that participation in the program “substantially reduces academic achievement.” . . .

Continue reading. The rest of the column has more studies, more examples, and more findings, all of which show that the school voucher/charter school approach does not work. The column concludes:

New America’s Carey says the statewide studies carry a warning for DeVos not merely because they undermine the case for choice-driven academic improvement.

“In DeVos’s advocacy, she seems to favor the least restrictive and most market-oriented policies” about which schools can participate in voucher programs. “In her rhetoric, it’s the creation of market mechanisms that are the important thing to promote. This research does not support that view. In fact, it may support the idea that that approach is harmful to student learning.”

Secretary DeVos apparently plans to extend the use of school vouchers and charter schools in an effort to undermine and degrade American education. Why? Perhaps because an educated citizenry asks questions and sees through false answers.

Written by Leisureguy

4 March 2017 at 10:03 am

Warren Buffett Pens a Dangerously Misleading Letter to Americans

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Pam Martens and Russ Martens report in Wall Street on Parade:

Warren Buffett, the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, authors an annual letter to shareholders that receives wide media coverage for the nuggets of wisdom dispersed to the masses. His latest letter, released on Saturday, trumpets American exceptionalism, the miraculous market system Americans have created, while it blithely dismisses the greatest wealth and income inequality in America since the 1920s. Buffett preposterously observes that “Babies born in America today are the luckiest crop in history.”

Let’s start with that last statement. According to our own Central Intelligence Agency, there are 55 countries that have a lower infant mortality rate than the United States. Even debt-strapped Greece beats the United States.

Much of what Buffett has to say in this letter sounds like unadulterated propaganda to reassure the 99 percent that his amassing of a net worth of $76.3 billion was a result of America’s great economic system which is percolating along just fine. Buffett writes:

Americans have combined human ingenuity, a market system, a tide of talented and ambitious immigrants, and the rule of law to deliver abundance beyond any dreams of our forefathers…You need not be an economist to understand how well our system has worked. Just look around you. See the 75 million owner-occupied homes, the bountiful farmland, the 260 million vehicles, the hyper-productive factories, the great medical centers, the talent-filled universities, you name it – they all represent a net gain for Americans from the barren lands, primitive structures and meager output of 1776. Starting from scratch, America has amassed wealth totaling $90 trillion…

Mentioning the rule of law in the same breath with our market system shows Buffett’s hypocrisy in the worst light. Millions of Americans are still seething over the fact that not one top executive on Wall Street has gone to jail for their role in issuing fraudulent securities with triple-A ratings that brought on the greatest financial collapse since the Great Depression. Millions of Americans are still waiting for the U.S. Justice Department or the Securities and Exchange Commission to address the well documented market rigging charges that Michael Lewis made in his book, Flash Boys and on 60 Minutes. Millions of Americans have lost trust in their Congress, now with an approval rating of just 19 percent, to impose legislation to stop the serial crimes that continue to spew from Wall Street. Tens of millions of Americans believe that Wall Street’s financing of political campaigns has so completely corrupted the U.S. market system that it has become an institutionalized wealth transfer system from the pockets of the 99 percent to the 1 percent. As the ever-expanding raps sheets of JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup make clear, there is strong evidentiary support for this view.

Buffett’s reference to America’s “bountiful farmland” fails to mention the gut-wrenching poverty of migrant farmworkers that Jim Hightower captured just last week at Truthout, writing: “Allowing such abject poverty in our fields of abundance is more than shameful — it’s an oozing sore on our national soul, made even more immoral by the fact that our society throws 40 percent of our food into the garbage.”

After Buffett lauds that “America has amassed wealth totaling $90 trillion” he breezes past one of the most important debates of this century — the . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

4 March 2017 at 9:59 am

Posted in Business, Daily life

Klar Seifen and the Wee Scot, with the Gillette 1940s Aristocrat

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SOTD 2017-03-04

Klar Seifen shaving soap is excellent and comes in a compact package, so I thought I’d use the Wee Scot, also excellent and compact. Easily loaded, the brush, despite its diminutive size, holds a lot of lather. After I finished my usual three passes, I continued to lather my face and rinse it. A total of five passes is pretty easy, but I think the sixth is perhaps stretching it—at any rate, I stopped after five.

And shaving for just three of those passes produced a totally smooth result with no nicks. This really is an excellent razor.

A good splash of the Klar Seifen aftershave, whatever it is: the label has, as you see, given up the ghost. Still, the aftershave is pleasant, and now I shall enjoy the weekend.

Written by Leisureguy

4 March 2017 at 9:54 am

Posted in Shaving

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