Later On

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

Archive for September 14th, 2017

The restricted conditions under which free-market efficiency works

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I thought Glyn Williams gave a pretty good explanation via an answer to a Quora question. He wrote:

There is a persistent right-wing myth that free markets magically create greater efficiency, bring improvement to both quality and availability and push down prices.

There are thousands of examples where this is demonstrably false.

The reality is that these benefits are real, but require perfect markets. The idea of a perfect market is that the vendor and the buyer each have the right amount of knowledge and power. The vendor cannot rip off the buyer. The buyer is free to move to a different vendor if the quality is not good enough.

These perfect markets sometimes happen all by themselves. But that does not mean that zero regulation will make the market work.

Some markets can never be perfect. Because the buyer has too little power, too few opportunities to switch and the deck is stacked in favour of the seller.

So wherever you go, you see pretty healthy markets in consumer electronics, and restaurants.

And you see perfectly shitty markets in healthcare, power utilities and broadband and public transport.

The privatisation of the UK railways was promised to…

  • Reduce the burden on the taxpayer,
  • Improve the quality and choice of service.
  • Create more capacity
  • Bring down fares.
  • Improve national productivity.

Because the magic of free markets would, solve all the problems overnight.

None of that happened. The railways are over-crowded, prices are spiralling upwards. And there’s the mess of ticketing option caused by incompatible systems used by different vendors on different franchises. Not so much choice, more a set of local monopolies. A bit like Boardwalk Empire with competing crime syndicates operating in different districts, with the occasional turf war.

So, yes, public ownership makes a huge amount of sense. It would allow a single national rail system which would be run with the strategic intention of improving performance and safety instead of maximising profits.

It’s fun to compare European rail networks with our own.

Can anyone guess which countries have magic “free market” systems, and which have grossly inefficient socialist style publicly owned networks?

Written by LeisureGuy

14 September 2017 at 5:13 pm

Aftershaves packed…

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I left out three: the TOBS Sandalwood, which I’ll finish, and Alt-Innsbruck and Alpa 378, both in smallish bottles. I discovered some aftershaves I forgot I had, so once I’m settled, those will come out.

Tomorrow I’ll pack all the kitchen bottles for the move (sauces, oils, vinegars, etc.), using the same technique: line a plastic storage tub with a large trash bag, seal in ziploc baggie any that don’t have a secure lid, then wrap all in bubble wrap and layer them in the lined storage bin. If there’s any leakage, which seems unlikely minimal damage will be done.

Starting Sunday, blogging will minimal for a week. That’s the day we move into a motel, and from then on we are living out of suitcases, at least until the household goods arrive at our apartment in BC.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 September 2017 at 5:01 pm

Posted in Shaving

Facebook Enabled Advertisers to Reach ‘Jew Haters’

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Julia Angwin, Madeleine Varner, and Ariana Tobin report in ProPublica:

Want to market Nazi memorabilia, or recruit marchers for a far-right rally? Facebook’s self-service ad-buying platform had the right audience for you.

Until this week, when we asked Facebook about it, the world’s largest social network enabled advertisers to direct their pitches to the news feeds of almost 2,300 people who expressed interest in the topics of “Jew hater,” “How to burn jews,” or, “History of ‘why jews ruin the world.’”

To test if these ad categories were real, we paid $30 to target those groups with three “promoted posts” — in which a ProPublica article or post was displayed in their news feeds. Facebook approved all three ads within 15 minutes.

After we contacted Facebook, it removed the anti-Semitic categories — which were created by an algorithm rather than by people — and said it would explore ways to fix the problem, such as limiting the number of categories available or scrutinizing them before they are displayed to buyers.

“There are times where content is surfaced on our platform that violates our standards,” said Rob Leathern, product management director at Facebook. “In this case, we’ve removed the associated targeting fields in question. We know we have more work to do, so we’re also building new guardrails in our product and review processes to prevent other issues like this from happening in the future.”

Facebook’s advertising has become a focus of national attention since it disclosed last week that it had discovered $100,000 worth of ads placed during the 2016 presidential election season by “inauthentic” accounts that appeared to be affiliated with Russia.

Like many tech companies, Facebook has long taken a hands off approach to its advertising business. Unlike traditional media companies that select the audiences they offer advertisers, Facebook generates its ad categories automatically based both on what users explicitly share with Facebook and what they implicitly convey through their online activity.

Traditionally, tech companies have contended that it’s not their role to censor the Internet or to discourage legitimate political expression. In the wake of the violent protests in Charlottesville by right-wing groups that included self-described Nazis, Facebook and other tech companies vowed to strengthen their monitoring of hate speech.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote at the time that “there is no place for hate in our community,” and pledged to keep a closer eye on hateful posts and threats of violence on Facebook. “It’s a disgrace that we still need to say that neo-Nazis and white supremacists are wrong — as if this is somehow not obvious,” he wrote.

But Facebook apparently did not intensify its scrutiny of its ad buying platform. In all likelihood, the ad categories that we spotted were automatically generated because people had listed those anti-Semitic themes on their Facebook profiles as an interest, an employer or a “field of study.” Facebook’s algorithm automatically transforms people’s declared interests into advertising categories.

Here is a screenshot of our ad buying process on the company’s advertising portal: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 September 2017 at 2:40 pm

Can American soil be brought back to life?

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Jenny Hopkinson writes in Politico:

Four generations of Jonathan Cobb’s family tended the same farm in Rogers, Texas, growing row upon row of corn and cotton on 3,000 acres. But by 2011, Cobb wasn’t feeling nostalgic. Farming was becoming rote and joyless; the main change from one year to the next was intensively planting more and more acres of corn and soy, churning up the soil and using ever more chemical fertilizers and herbicides to try and turn a profit.

“I’d already had the difficult conversation with my dad that he would be the last generation on the farm,” Cobb said.

While looking for a new job, Cobb stopped into a local office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to pick up some paperwork. That day, the staff was doing a training session on soil health. He stayed to watch and was struck by a demonstration showing a side-by-side comparison of healthy and unhealthy soils.

A clump of soil from a heavily tilled and cropped field was dropped into a wire mesh basket at the top of a glass cylinder filled with water. At the same time, a clump of soil from a pasture that grew a variety of plants and grasses and hadn’t been disturbed for years was dropped into another wire mesh basket in an identical glass cylinder. The tilled soil–similar to the dry, brown soil on Cobb’s farm—dissolved in water like dust. The soil from the pasture stayed together in a clump, keeping its structure and soaking up the water like a sponge. Cobb realized he wasn’t just seeing an agricultural scientist show off a chunk of soil: He was seeing a potential new philosophy of farming.

“By the end of that day I knew that I was supposed to stay on the farm and be part of that paradigm shift,” Cobb said. “It was that quick.”

The shift he’s talking about is a new trend in agriculture, one with implications from farm productivity to the environment to human health. For generations, soil has been treated almost as a backdrop — not much more than a medium for holding plants while fertilizer and herbicides help them grow. The result, over the years, has been poorer and drier topsoil that doesn’t hold on to nutrients or water. The impact of this degradation isn’t just on farmers, but extends to Americans’ health. Dust blowing off degraded fields leads to respiratory illness in rural areas; thousands of people are exposed to drinking water with levels of pesticides at levels that the Environmental Protection Agency has deemed to be of concern. The drinking water of more than 210 million Americans is polluted with nitrate, a key fertilizer chemical that has been linked to developmental problems in children and poses cancer risks in adults. And thanks to some modern farming techniques, soil degradation is releasing carbon—which becomes carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas—instead of holding on to it. In fact, the United Nations considers soil degradation one of the central threats to human health in the coming decades for those very reasons.

Now, some farmers and soil scientists are realizing that for the health of both people and farms, the most important thing you can do is look at soil differently—seeing topsoil as a living thing itself, which can be tended and even improved. Good soil is alive with a host of delicate organisms, many of them microscopic, producing structure and nutrients. As long as they’re thriving, soil can better absorb and retain water and feed plants and control pests. But when they die off, because they’ve been churned up and exposed to the sun and air or smothered with chemicals, the soil gradually becomes little more than powdered minerals.

Science and farming techniques have been evolving—in part thanks to the Agriculture Department’s Natural Resource Conservation Service, where Cobb saw that demonstration in 2011 that changed his worldview. But the change isn’t coming easily. Even as some farmers move toward more holistic soil management, they’re running into friction–from the culture of farming, from the business of agriculture and—ironically—from some federal policies that encourage them to stick to the same old farming approach that got them here.

AMERICA USED TO be famed for its rich and fertile topsoil. Prairie and forests were virtually untouched when settlers first started dividing land into fields across the Southeast and Midwest, making for rich dark soil in which to grow food and fiber.

Since the invention of the plow, farming has focused on disrupting the soil to make it productive. Most farming methods, whether conventional or organic, are based on “tillage” – the premise that to plant crops and control weeds and other pests, the soil must be broken up and turned over, then amended with chemical fertilizers or organic compost to boost fertility. And it worked for a long time.

But tilling, it turns out, kills off many of the microorganisms that build the soil. It churns up their habitat and exposes them to air; it also makes it easier for soil to be washed off the land by rain and wind. Over time, the damage has built up: More than 50 percent America’s topsoil has eroded away. In areas of the Southeast, the country’s original breadbasket, it’s almost all gone.

Soil, at its base, is 50 percent gas and water, and roughly 45 percent minerals such as sand, silt and clay. The remainder is organic matter—decomposing plants and animals. For being such a small portion of dirt, organic matter plays a huge role. It serves as food for microorganisms that do everything from store water to provide nutrients for plants and control pests. Researchers are learning more and more about the exchange between plants and fungi, bacteria and other organisms in the soil, said Robert Myers, a professor of soil sciences at the University of Missouri. . .

Continue reading.

Do read the article. Some fascinating photos included with it.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 September 2017 at 10:51 am

When Junk Science About Sex Offenders Infects the Supreme Court

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Via one of Radley Balko’s links: David Feige reports in the NY Times:

This month the Supreme Court will have a rare opportunity to correct a flawed doctrine that for the past two decades has relied on junk social science to justify punishing more than 800,000 Americans. Two cases that the court could review concern people on the sex offender registry and the kinds of government control that can constitutionally be imposed upon them.

In Snyder v. Doe, the court could consider whether Michigan’s broad scheme of regulating sex offenders constitutes “punishment.” The other case, Karsjens v. Piper, examines the constitutionality of Minnesota’s policy of detaining sex offenders forever — not for what they’ve done, but for what they might do.

And while the idea of indefinite preventive detention might sound un-American or something out of the film “Minority Report,” the larger problem is that “civil commitment,” like hundreds of other regulations imposed on those required to register, has been justified by assertions about the recidivism of sex offenders. But those assertions turn out to be entirely belied by science.

For the past 24 years, Minnesota has detained sex offenders released from prison in a “therapeutic program” conveniently located on the grounds of a maximum-security prison in Moose Lake. The “patients” are kept in locked cells, transported outside the facility in handcuffs and leg irons, and subjected to a regimen that looks, sounds and smells just like that of the prison it is adjacent to.

But unlike prison, this “therapeutic” program, which aims to teach the patients to control their sexual impulses and was initially designed to last from two to four years, has no fixed end date. Rather, program administrators decide which patients are safe enough to release. In the 24 years it has existed, not a single “patient” has ever been fully released. There are now about 850 people in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, some with no adult criminal record, and others who, despite having completed every single program ever offered at the facility, have remained civilly committed for over 20 years.

While civil commitment is perhaps the most extreme example of punishments imposed on people convicted of sex crimes, it is by no means the only one. Driven by a pervasive fear of sexual predators, and facing no discernible opposition, politicians have become evermore inventive in dreaming up ways to corral and marginalize those forced to register — a category which itself has expanded radically and come to include those convicted of “sexting,” having consensual sex with non-minor teenagers or even urinating in public.

These sanctions include being forced to wear (and pay for) GPS monitoring and being banned from parks, and draconian residency restrictions that sometimes lead to homelessness. In addition, punishments can include, on pain of re-incarceration, undergoing interrogations using a penile plethysmograph, a device used to measure sexual arousal. They have also included requirements that those on the registry refrain from being alone with children (often including their own) and barred from holding certain jobs, like being a volunteer firefighter or driving an ice cream truck.

And when these restrictions have been challenged in court, judge after judge has justified them based on a Supreme Court doctrine that allows such restrictions, thanks to the “frightening and high” recidivism rate ascribed to sex offenders — a rate the court has pegged “as high as 80 percent.” The problem is this: The 80 percent recidivism rate is an entirely invented number.

A few years ago, Ira Ellman, a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley, and Tara Ellman set out to find the source of that 80 percent figure, and what he found shocked him. As it turns out, the court found that number in a brief signed by Solicitor General Ted Olson. The brief cited a Department of Justice manual, which in turn offered only one source for the 80 percent assertion: a Psychology Today article published in 1986.

That article was written not by a scientist but by a treatment provider who claimed to be able to essentially cure sex offenders though innovative “aversive therapies” including electric shocks and pumping ammonia into offenders’ noses via nasal cannulas. The article offered no backup data, no scientific control group and no real way to fact-check any of the assertions made to promote the author’s program.

Nonetheless, because that 80 percent figure suited the government lawyers’ aim of cracking down on sex offenders, Solicitor General Olson cited it, and Justice Anthony Kennedy, seemingly without fact-checking it, adopted the figure in a 2002 opinion that Justices William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas joined. (Justice Sandra Day O’Connor concurred.) Their decision blew open the doors to the glut of sex offender restrictions that followed.

But in the 30 years since that Psychology Today article was published, there have been hundreds of evidence-based, scientific studies on the question of the recidivism rate for sex offenders. The results of those studies are astonishingly consistent: Convicted sex offenders have among the lowest rates of same-crime recidivism of any category of offender.

Nearly every study — including those by states as diverse as Alaska, Nebraska, Maine, New York and California — as well as an extremely broad one by the federal government that followed every offender released in the United States for three years, has put the three-year recidivism rate for convicted sex offenders in the low single digits, with the bulk of the results clustering around 3.5 percent. Needless to say, there is a tremendous difference between claiming that 80 percent of offenders will re-offend and that more than 95 percent of them won’t. And it is in that basic difference that the Supreme Court’s doctrine has done its most lasting damage.

This profound misrepresentation of social science has led to extraordinary real-world harms. For example, while the public almost universally embraces the strict residency restrictions the Supreme Court and lower courts have ratified, study after study has shown that rather than reduce sexual violence, these residency restrictions actually increase recidivism.

The merciless enforcement of the conditions routinely placed on those on the registry has resulted in the constant re-incarceration of offenders — not because they have committed new crimes but for technical violations of the conditions themselves, like failure to maintain a driving log, being late for curfew or failing to pay polygraph fees. . .

Continue reading.

There’s an 8-minute video at the link that’s worth watching.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 September 2017 at 10:40 am

Systemic problems with prosecutors and other law-enforcement injustices

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First, via Radley Balko, a short video on the prosecutor problem:

Second, a few of Balko’s morning links:

Written by LeisureGuy

14 September 2017 at 10:26 am

Fine Classic brush with Mama Spellbound Woods (a fave), the Stealth, and TOBS Sandalwood

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Spellbound Woods has a great fragrance, IMO, and the shave stick worked like a charm, with my Fine Classic making a really excellent lather. Glycerine-based shaving soaps can be excellent (and of course can also be horrible, just like other types of shaving soap).

RazoRock’s Stealth is an excellent slant (for me), and I easily got a very smooth shave. A splash of TOBS Sandalwood, and perhaps I’ll stick with that aftershave until the move: bottle is almost empty, and then I don’t have to move it.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 September 2017 at 10:14 am

Posted in Shaving

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