Later On

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Archive for September 28th, 2017

James Fallows updates his reading list on presidential campaigns

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In the Atlantic James Fallows has a very interesting column on campaign memoirs, and from it let me quote just this one (but do read the entire column):

Unbelievable, by Katy Tur

I watched the campaign through its ups and downs over the past two years; I often saw Katy Tur on her MSBNC and NBC broadcasts; I thought I’d heard, or could guess, pretty much what she would have to say.

In fact, this is also a quite revealing and powerful book, in addition to being very entertaining. Its details of Tur’s experience with the Trump campaign, from the start when she following what was assumed to be a brief novelty/vanity effort, to the fateful conclusion last November 8, amplify the strangeness of what we have been through—and its darkness.

Two themes are worth noting. One is the genuinely ugly menace of Donald Trump’s in-person dealings, especially with a young, attractive female reporter in whom he displayed an unsettlingly personal and intense interest during the campaign. (“There’s little Katy back there!” he would say randomly at rallies.) I won’t quote her whole description of an early interview with him, but it is disturbing, as are several of her other accounts. (She also talks about it, and the overall tone of menace, both from the candidate and from his supporters, in a Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross.) Sample:

His face is tight. He spits out answers. He glares at me during the questions. He never smiles. Now I see [watching a replay of the interview on-screen] what my producer saw. Trump is angry….

“It’s a wrong statistic” he spits back [after a question]. “Go check your numbers! It’s totally wrong.”

He’s trying to steamroll. Intimidate. Talk down.

“It’s Pew Research,” I say.

Now he’s fuming.


His rage didn’t register in the moment. I thought it was all part of his schtick. The reality show star. But watching his face on-screen, it’s clear Trump isn’t playing.

The other theme that impressed me was Tur’s explanation of why she decided that she would be leaving the world of Trump coverage when the campaign was over, no matter how it turned out. If he won, it would have been natural to follow him to the White House press pool, but she decided that she would rather not:

That’s a reality of beat reporting. When the people, places, and businesses you know well do well themselves, you’re in demand. If they’re a big deal, your work is a big deal. If they take off, you career can take off, too. This is especially true if you not only have access but knowledge.

I’ve been thinking a lot about access lately. Access is seductive. Access means good nuggets from the campaign … And somewhere along the way, out here on the trail, wherever it is I am right now, I decided that access journalism isn’t worth it.

Tur doesn’t pretend this is some heroic sacrifice—she’s now a TV anchor—but she is thoughtful about the tradeoffs involved in “access” reporting.

She also makes a point of saying that she doesn’t vote, “because I think it’s fairer that way.” I think that’s crazy, for reasons I laid out in Breaking the News (when Len Downie of the Washington Post announced a similar policy back in the 1990s). But that’s an argument for another time. You’ll enjoy and learn from this book.

Written by Leisureguy

28 September 2017 at 9:27 pm

Genetic Struggles Within Cells May Create New Species

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Carrie Arnold writes in Quanta magazine:

In the complex cells of humans and other organisms, two different genomes collaborate to sustain life. The larger genome, with DNA encoding thousands of genes, resides in the cell nucleus, while copies of the much smaller one sit in all the energy-producing organelles called mitochondria. Normally, they work in quiet alliance.

Over the past five years, however, scientists have begun focusing on the consequences of mismatches between the two. Emerging evidence shows that this “mitonuclear conflict” can drive a wedge between organisms, possibly turning one species into two. It’s too soon to say how frequently mitonuclear conflict acts as a force in speciation, but researchers agree that better understanding of that tension may help to solve mysteries about what barricade separates some apparently similar populations into distinct species.

More than 1.5 billion years ago, an ancient bacterium snuggled inside a fellow simple cell. Instead of digesting the interloper, the larger cell let it stick around for the valuable energy that it produced. In exchange, the invader got refuge and protection from predators, and over thousands of generations evolved into the mitochondrion, which produces energy in the form of a molecule called ATP. Thus began the complex eukaryotic cell, a primordial partnership that has evolved into one of life’s most successful endeavors.

Proof of the mitochondrion’s origins survives in the remnant genome that mitochondria still carry — a small ring of DNA very much like that in bacteria. Over hundreds of millions of years, some of the mitochondrial genes moved into the long, linear genome in the eukaryotic cell’s nucleus, but the mitochondrion hung on to a handful of genes that remained essential for the organelle’s functioning. (Human mitochondria carry just 37 genes.) The cell assembles the protein complexes that help mitochondria produce ATP with building blocks from both mitochondrial and nuclear genes. This requires the nuclear and mitochondrial genomes to cooperate and adapt in tandem.

More and more studies are pointing to that co-adaptation as an essential but mostly overlooked factor in the health and survival of organisms. “And that has big implications for our concept of species and natural selection,” said Geoffrey Hill, an ornithologist and evolutionary biologist at Auburn University.

Incompatible Cousins

For the past 40 years, the marine evolutionary geneticist Ron Burtonhas stalked tide pools along the Pacific Coast, armed with an aquarium fish net in his search for a tiny crustacean named Tigriopus californicus. Populations of this orange copepod live from the Baja California peninsula to Alaska, and Burton has spent his entire career looking at genetic differences among these groups. Not surprisingly, the copepods Burton found outside his lab at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego were more closely related to the specimens he scooped out of tide pools in Baja California than those more than 2,000 miles north on the coast of Alaska. Burton wondered what the significance of their genetic differences might be.

To find out, he and his colleagues bred copepods from populations sampled all along the coast. They didn’t just breed copepods from the same population; they also put together males and females of different groups. The first generation of these hybrid offspring — the F1 — appeared normal and healthy when the lab began these experiments in the late 1980s. When Burton then bred the F1 generation with itself, however, problems appeared.

That second generation, the F2, had fewer young and didn’t survive some environmental stresses as well as non-hybrids did. Those results meant that although interbreeding between the geographically separated copepod populations was technically possible, the evolutionary cards were stacked against the long-term survival of hybrid offspring in the wild.

The researchers wanted to know why the second generation did so poorly. For Burton, only mitochondrial problems could possibly explain these difficulties. His previous work had shown that not only did the nuclear genomes of T. californicus vary among populations, so did their mitochondrial genomes. Since proper mitochondrial functioning required the interaction of proteins made by both genomes, Burton hypothesized that a mismatch between mitochondrial and nuclear DNA sat at the heart of the F2’s problems.

“The people thinking about mitochondrial function were not evolutionary biologists, and evolutionary biologists weren’t thinking about mitochondria, so no one was really putting these two ideas together,” Burton said. His copepods and his guess revealed how the forces of natural selection could act on one of life’s central processes.

Evolution by natural selection hinges on the mutability of the genome. If DNA is writ in stone, natural selection has no variation on which to act. Not long after the discovery of the mitochondrial genome in the 1960s, scientists hypothesized that the genes encoded by this DNA were so central to cellular function that they had to resist further shaping by natural selection. The forces of nature had no room to experiment. Or so the theory went.

“I always thought this was a bad idea,” Burton admitted. Instead, evidence is emerging that mitochondrial DNA is far more mutable than researchers thought. Because mitochondrial DNA lacks capabilities for checking DNA for errors and repairing it, in animals it mutates on average 10 times as frequently as its nuclear counterpart does. (The difference varies considerably: In copepods, the mitochondrial DNA mutates 50 times as frequently.) That mutability doesn’t mean anything goes. The conservative evolutionary forces acting on mitochondria are so strong that the wrong changes to their DNA sequence can create problems. Witness the severity of mitochondrial disease, caused by defects in mitochondria, which in humans can cause seizure, stroke, developmental delays or even death.

To evolutionary biologists, this high mutation rate posed an interesting question: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

28 September 2017 at 9:04 pm

Posted in Evolution, Science

Americans Eat 6 Hamburgers a Day, and It’s Making All of Us Sicker

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Maddie Oatman writes in Mother Jones:

Loading up cows, pigs, and chickens with antibiotics to speed growth is a major cause of increasing antibiotic resistance and the emergence of terrifying drug-resistant bacteria that can jump from livestock to humans. If current growth continues, we’ll be using 53 percent more antibiotics on animals by 2030. With all those antibiotics out and about, we can only expect more drug resistance to follow.

new paper published today in Science explores ways to pull back. Conducted by members of the public health research organization the Center for for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy, along with researchers from Princeton University, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and others, the report outlines pathways to reduce antibiotic use in livestock by up to 80 percent by 2030, by:

  • Regulating antibiotic use: If the world’s heaviest users (like China and the US) can refrain from increasing their use at projected rates and cap usage at the current global average, the researchers estimate we’d consume 64 percent less antibiotics. Many European countries already have regulations mandating they use less than half the global average. But as the researchers point out, wider regulations would need strong enforcement, which could be cost prohibitive.
  • Charging more for antibiotics: The World Bank has endorsed a 50 percent surcharge on antibiotics used on animals. The extra billions in revenue could go into a global research fund targeting antimicrobial resistance and new antibiotics. (Though I wonder what steps could be taken to ensure human drugs weren’t diverted into a black market?)
  • Eating less meat: The study posits that “Limiting meat intake worldwide to 40 g/day—the equivalent of one standard fast-food burger per person—could reduce global consumption of antimicrobials in food animals by 66 percent.” This one caught my eye: do we really on average eat more than a burger a day? Turns out, according to the FAO, the global average of meat available per person per day in 2013 was around 42 grams, or about one fast-food burger patty. In the United States, the average is 260 grams a day—or six burgers. Given developing economies’ growing appetite for meat, it may be a stretch to believe that the globe could hold its meat consumption steady for the next 13 years. On the other hand, does a ration of one McDonald’s hamburger-worth of meat every day really sound so hard?

Written by Leisureguy

28 September 2017 at 9:00 pm

A school librarian responds to Mrs. Trump’s gift of Dr. Seuss books

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Liz Phipps Soeiro pens a thoughtful letter to Melania Trump:

Dear Mrs. Trump,

Thank you for the ten Dr. Seuss titles that you sent my school library in recognition of this year’s National Read a Book Day. (Sent second-day air, no less! That must have been expensive.) I’m proud that you recognized my school as something special. It truly is. Our beautiful and diverse student body is made up of children from all over the world; from different socioeconomic statuses; with a spectrum of gender expressions and identities; with a range of abilities; and of varied racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds.

According to the White House website, you selected one school per state by “working with the Department of Education to identify schools with programs that have achieved high standards of excellence, recognized by State and National awards and Blue Ribbon Awards…” Each of those carefully vetted schools received ten books: Seuss-isms!Because a Little Bug Went KaChoo; What Pet Should I Get?The Cat in the HatI Can Read with My Eyes Shut!; One FishTwo Fish, Red Fish, Blue FishThe Foot BookWacky WednesdayGreen Eggs and Ham; and Oh, the Places You’ll Go!.

My students were interested in reading your enclosed letter and impressed with the beautiful bookplates with your name and the indelible White House stamp, however, we will not be keeping the titles for our collection. I’d like to respectfully offer my explanation.

* * * * *

My school and my library are indeed award-winning. I work in a district that has plenty of resources, which contributes directly to “excellence.” Cambridge, Massachusetts, is an amazing city with robust social programming, a responsive city government, free all-day kindergarten, and well-paid teachers (relatively speaking — many of us can’t afford to live in the city in which we teach). My students have access to a school library with over nine thousand volumes and a librarian with a graduate degree in library science. Multiple studies show that schools with professionally staffed libraries improve student performance. The American Association of School Librarians has a great infographic on these findings. Many schools around the state and country can’t compete.

Yearly per-pupil spending in Cambridge is well over $20,000; our city’s values are such that given a HUGE range in the socioeconomic status of our residents, we believe that each and every child deserves the best free education possible and are working hard to make that a reality (most classrooms maintain a 60/40 split between free/reduced lunch and paid lunch). This offers our Title I school and the district a lot of privilege and room for programming and pedagogy to foster “high standards of excellence.” Even so, we still struggle to close the achievement gap, retain teachers of color, and dismantle the systemic white supremacy in our institution. But hell, we test well! And in the end, it appears that data — and not children — are what matters.

Meanwhile, school libraries around the country are being shuttered. Cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit are suffering through expansion, privatization, and school “choice” with no interest in outcomes of children, their families, their teachers, and their schools. Are those kids any less deserving of books simply because of circumstances beyond their control? Why not go out of your way to gift books to underfunded and underprivileged communities that continue to be marginalized and maligned by policies put in place by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos? Why not reflect on those “high standards of excellence” beyond only what the numbers suggest? Secretary DeVos would do well to scaffold and lift schools instead of punishing them with closures and slashed budgets.

* * * * *

So, my school doesn’t have a NEED for these books. And then there’s the matter of the books themselves. You may not be aware of this, but Dr. Seuss is a bit of a cliché, a tired and worn ambassador for children’s literature. As First Lady of the United States, you have an incredible platform with world-class resources at your fingertips. Just down the street you have access to a phenomenal children’s librarian: Dr. Carla Hayden, the current Librarian of Congress. I have no doubt Dr. Hayden would have given you some stellar recommendations.

Another fact that many people are unaware of is that Dr. Seuss’s illustrations are steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures, and harmful stereotypes. Open one of his books (If I Ran a Zoo or And to Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, for example), and you’ll see the racist mockery in his art. Grace Hwang Lynch’s School Library Journal article, “Is the Cat in the Hat Racist? Read Across America Shifts Away from Dr. Seuss and Toward Diverse Books,” reports on Katie Ishizuka’s work analyzing the minstrel characteristics and trope nature of Seuss’s characters. Scholar Philip Nel’s new book, Was the Cat in the Hat Black? The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books, further explores and shines a spotlight on the systemic racism and oppression in education and literature.

I am honored that you recognized my students and our school. I can think of no better gift for children than books; it was a wonderful gesture, if one that could have been better thought out. Books can be a powerful way to learn about and experience the world around us; they help build empathy and understanding. In return, I’m attaching a list of ten books (it’s the librarian in me) that I hope will offer you a window into the lives of the many children affected by the policies of your husband’s administration. You and your husband have a direct impact on these children’s lives. Please make time to learn about and value them. . .

Continue reading.

And do click the link to see the list of 10 books—extremely interesting selections.

See also Isabel Fattal’s article in the AtlanticReading Racism in Dr. Seuss.” It begins:

Reminiscing about the Dr. Seuss books we loved as children is usually a happy time for adults. We might remember first learning about equality in Horton Hears a Who! or getting starry-eyed about our futures reading Oh, the Places You’ll Go! (of course, for some of us there’s also a bit of residual terror about that green-food-obsessed apparition in Green Eggs and Ham).

But Philip Nel, a scholar and professor of children’s literature whose specialties include Dr. Seuss and Harry Potter, is pushing readers to grapple with the political and social implications of the stories that inspire such warm, fuzzy memories. In his new book, Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books, Nel argues that, yes, the Cat in the Hat was black—or, more precisely, that Seuss’s depiction of the character was based on racial stereotypes and inspired by traditions of blackface minstrel entertainment—and that dozens more children’s books of decades past are brimming with insidious, racist themes.

I spoke with Nel about how teachers and parents should discuss these books with children, how one’s nostalgia for children’s books can coexist with an understanding of their not-so-innocent makings, and why he’s dedicated his adult life to thinking about children’s literature. Below is a lightly edited version of our conversation.

Fattal: You say that your book is “about how race is present especially when it seems to be absent.” Can you give an example of a character or a scene in a children’s book that seems to be “race-free” but actually isn’t when you take a second look?

Nel: One obvious example would be the Oompa Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, who are these orange people who are enslaved happily by Mr. Wonka. The book presents slavery as happy and fun, and the kind of thing that others would enjoy, and I’m not sure that everyone thinks of the book in those terms. In the original version, the Oompa Loompas are not white people from Loompaland—they are in fact black pygmies from Africa. And though [Roald] Dahl changed that, he didn’t change the broader themes of racism and colonialism when he did that.

Fattal: In your book you talk about nostalgia and how parents are reluctant to acknowledge racism in the books they loved growing up and want to read to their kids. Can parents share these books with their kids while also acknowledging their troubling elements?

Nel: I think that what we have to do is admit that our relationships with these books can be complicated. It’s okay to think fondly of a beautiful story, but you need to also think about the way in which that beautiful story may also be racist. We can talk about what is masterful about it or what is artistic about it, but we also need to talk about some of the things in the book which are not, and if presented uncritically are simply transmitting these ideas to a new generation. I think adults need to recognize that their fondness for a book or a movie is not a defense of that. I think you would actually have a richer and more profound relationship with a work if you do think about it critically, and if we do acknowledge those mixed feelings.

Fattal: You argue that there is an imperative to keep reading these problematic children’s books. What would you say to those who ask why we wouldn’t just stop reading them? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

28 September 2017 at 8:32 pm

Heterosexuals Deserve Our Support

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Lisa Pryor writes in the NY Times:

Australians are currently deciding whether our laws should be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry, and the debate is proving to be only one degree more civilized than a cage fight. Surveys have been mailed to voters all over the country by the government, asking them to tick yes or no to this proposal.

Understandably some people are nervous, given that same-sex marriage has been introduced only in Belgium, Canada, Argentina, France, Denmark, Ireland, Malta, New Zealand, South Africa, Spain, Britain and a bunch of other countries. We do not yet have long-term data on whether same-sex marriage will cause these societies to collapse, or the gates of hell to open.

Australia’s same-sex marriage survey is not compulsory and the result is not binding on the government. And yet it is having a profound effect on the national mood and conversation, as the kind of ideas that might usually be voiced only by a racist old uncle after a few too many Scotches have become legitimate topics of public policy debate.

Last week on a national current-affairs program, a business leader put the argument for the “no” case using race as an analogy, saying, “A black man and a white man are equal, but they’re clearly different. A black man will never be a white man, and vice versa.” Airtime has been handed over to plaintive warnings that same-sex marriage will usher in a gender-fluid fascist state, in which boys can wear dresses to school and homophobic bakeries are forced to produce lesbian wedding cakes. Nice work, Australia.

As the conversation ranges — hurtfully for so many same-sex couples — over gender, marriage and parenting, let’s imagine for a moment that there is value in examining such issues unflinchingly, free from the yoke of political correctness, no matter how hurtful it might be to the sensibilities of some. In this spirit I would like to consider frankly an aspect of the debate not adequately covered so far: heterosexuality.

Difficult as it might be to admit, there is some evidence that in an ideal world, and with all things being equal, one particular family arrangement does appear to have a slight advantage when it comes to raising children. Of course I am speaking about lesbian parenting, which multiple studies have shown confers certain advantages on children.

For example, in the United States National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study, teenagers of lesbian mothers were reported to do better socially and academically than other teenagers, and had fewer problems with rule-breaking and aggression.

Other research suggests such advantages may apply to same-sex parents generally. Results of an Australian Study of Child Health in Same-Sex families, published in 2014, show that children raised by same-sex partners score higher than the general population on measures of general health and family cohesion.

We do not live in a perfect world in which every child has access to this ideal. Regardless of what laws we have in place, the reality of contemporary society is that it includes a wide variety of family types, including families headed by heterosexual couples.

We know that many of these children have not had the good fortune of being the result of the careful planning and commitment that naturally flows from methods of conception used by same-sex couples.

Though you will rarely read about it in literature promoting the heterosexual lifestyle, in many heterosexual families children are conceived as an accident, euphemistically known in the heterosexual community as a “surprise.”

Worse still, heterosexual pregnancies typically come about as a direct result of a particular sex act heterosexual adults engage in for the purpose of their own pleasure. Despite years of warnings, public-education campaigns and public-health expenditure, heterosexual couples continue to indulge in this practice knowing full well the consequences and without apparent regard for the cost to society.

Putting aside the public’s understandable frustration with this behavior, we must acknowledge that many heterosexual parents prove themselves to be very much focused on the job of raising healthy children and put in a tremendous effort to achieve this. A majority of heterosexuals live purposeful and upstanding lives, working hard in a range of professions and paying taxes. Many things about heterosexuality may not be ideal, but these are on the whole good people who deserve our support.

Of course good will alone cannot overcome some of the challenges that the children of these people will face. And just think of how awkward it can become for heterosexual parents, as their children grow, develop ideas of their own, and start to ask difficult questions.

When children of gay couples ask where they came from, an accurate and age-appropriate answer can readily be provided, a story as clean as the tale of the stork, involving love, commitment, medicine and science.

Not so for children with heterosexual parents. In most cases, innocent young children have to be exposed to the concept of sexual intercourse to understand how they came to be, in the primitive manner of animals. Even worse, they are exposed to the concept that this sexual intercourse occurred between their parents. This is something no child wants to hear, and many children find it utterly disgusting.

The presence of heterosexual families in schools also exposes gay families to these unpleasant concepts. Gay families may be forced through exposure to straight families in the schoolyard to explain sexual intercourse at a time before any of them feel ready, especially as some parents flaunt their heterosexuality for all to see.

Despite all the hurdles that heterosexual families face, it is my strong belief that they should be allowed to continue to exist. I am myself married to the father of my children. Some of my best friends are heterosexual, and I can tell you they are great people, raising their children as best they can. They should be allowed to continue to marry and continue to raise children on one strict proviso — that they do not prevent those who are not heterosexual from doing the same. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

28 September 2017 at 7:55 pm

A day of unpacking and Canada discoveries

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We’re slowly unpacking and, of course, discovering things and thinking, “Why on earth did we move this?” Arranging things conveniently takes thought and then must be revised by experience, but I am making some progress on the kitchen, where an Italian sort of sausage dish is cooking.

Some Canada discoveries: a relatively small priority mail shipping box, free in the US, costs $5 in Canada. And the postal service seems to be somewhat a mom-and-pop operation. I was not home for a package delivery, so a notice was left with the address of a postal station (in a drugstore) where I could pick up the package the next day after 13:00. I could not get there the next day or the day after, but went to pick it up. It wasn’t there. The postal clerk explained that this often happens, the package being taken to a different postal station than the one on the notice, and it can take a few days for them to notice that the package is in the wrong place. I asked whether I should just come back in a couple of weeks in the hope that it would be there then. She took my phone number and said she would call me.

UPDATE: The following crossed-out information is false. The Bank of America employee who gave me the information was just making it up, probably because he didn’t want to say “I don’t know.” Wire transfers are NOT charged fees by the banks along the way.

What actually happened is this: I have a US-dollar account at my Canadian bank. I had Bank of America do a wire transfer to that account. I assumed that, it being a US-dollar account, BofA would transfer US dollars, but they did not. They converted the US dollars to Canadian dollars before the transfer, and my Canadian bank then converted the Canadian dollars back to US dollars for that account. The double conversion worked like using Google translate to translate an English passage to (say) Chinese, and then using Google translate to translate the Chinese version back into English: you do not end up with the original passage. And the double conversion of the money resulted in noticeable shrinkage. It had nothing at all to do with fees charged by banks along the way.

When I finally was able to talk to the person directly responsible for wire transfers, I learned the truth.

Wire transfers, it turns out, are very insecure in terms of protecting the money you’re transferring. I did a wire transfer from BofA to my Canadian bank, with no currency conversion (the money going into a US dollar account at the Canadian in). BofA charged me $35 to make the transfer and my Canadian bank charged me $15 to accept the transfer, but the amount that landed in my account was short by $300, even taking the $50 in fees into account.

I called BofA and they explained as the money moves through the wire transfer through various banks, the banks just help themselves to as much of the money as they can (through fees), and that’s just the way it is. I pointed out that, depending on the transfer route, it seem theoretically possible that all the money being transferred could be siphoned off through such fees.

I asked whether I could instead do a Billpay check, sent to me. No, BofA said, because they use the US Postal Service to send those checks and the USPS cannot send mail to Canada. This is plainly false—I regularly have sent mail to Canada via the USPS—so they changed the story and said that they could not because it would be against regulations.

As a workaround, I can PayPal the money to my daughter, have her write the check and send it to me (via USPS), and then deposit the check (for which my Canadian bank charges no fee). So that may be the answer. I also have looked at, and that might also serve, but that involves a fee.

I’ve applied for a credit card here, and due to the limited number of banks and their cooperative arrangements (i.e., little or no competition), the interest rate on charges if not paid within 21 days of billing is 19.99%. That’s common across all banks. (The interest rate at BofA is 9.9%, at least for the card I have.)

Gasoline prices are given in cents rather than dollars and cents, and of course the price is per liter. Weights at the supermarket are mostly metric, but some things are measured in pounds (bacon, at one store). The oven is in ºF rather than ºC, thank god, but weather is all Celsius.

People in general do seem more polite and pleasant, and to some extent that seems to be a matter of self-image: e.g., a current commercial plays on the fact that Canadians are polite to each other, so they seem to live up to that image. I’m sure that there are sullen, angry people, but so far I’ve not run into any.

I continue to follow US politics, which continues to be amazing.

Written by Leisureguy

28 September 2017 at 7:36 pm

Posted in Daily life

Fake News on Twitter Flooded Swing States That Helped Trump Win

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Denise Clifton writes in Mother Jones:

Millions of tweets were flying furiously in the final days leading up to the 2016 US presidential election. And in closely fought battleground states that would prove key to Donald Trump’s victory, they were more likely than elsewhere in America to be spreading links to fake news and hyper-politicized content from Russian sources and WikiLeaks, according to new research published Thursday by Oxford University.

Nationwide during this period, one polarizing story was typically shared on average for every one story produced by a professional news organization. However, fake news from Twitter reached higher concentrations than the national average in 27 states, 12 of which were swing states—including Pennsylvania, Florida and Michigan, where Trump won by slim margins.

While it’s unclear what effect such content ultimately had on voters, the new study only deepens concerns about how the 2016 election may have been tweaked by nefarious forces on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. “Many people use these platforms to find news and information that shapes their political identities and voting behavior,” says Samantha Bradshaw, a lead researcher for Oxford’s Computational Propaganda Project, which has been tracking disinformation strategies around the world since 2014. “If bad actors can lower the quality of information, they are diminishing the quality of democracy.”

Efforts by Vladimir Putin’s regime were among the polarizing content captured in the new Oxford study. “We know the Russians have literally invested in social media,” Bradshaw told Mother Jones, referring to reports of Russian-bought Facebook ads as well as sophisticated training of Russian disinformation workers detailed in another recent study by the team. “Swing states would be the ones you would want to target.”

The dubious Twitter content in the new study also contained polarizing YouTube videos–including some produced by the Kremlin-controlled RT network, which were uploaded without any information identifying them as Russian-produced. All the YouTube videos have since been taken down, according to Bradshaw; it’s unclear whether the accounts were deleted by the users, or if YouTube removed the content.

The Oxford researchers captured 22 million tweets from Nov. 1-11, 2016, and have been scrutinizing the dataset to better understand the impact of disinformation on the US election. The team also has analyzed propaganda operations in more than two dozen countries, using a combination of reports from trusted media sources and think tanks, and cross-checking that information with experts on the ground. Their recent research has additional revelations about how disinformation works in the social-media age, including from Moscow:

Putin’s big investment in information warfare

In studying Russia’s propaganda efforts targeting both domestic and international populations, the Oxford researchers found evidence of increasing military expenditures on social media operations since 2014. They also learned of a sophisticated training system for workers employed by Putin’s disinformation apparatus: “They have invested millions of dollars into training staff and setting targets for them,” Bradshaw says. She described a working environment where English training is provided to improve messaging for Western audiences: Supervisors hand out topical talking points to include in coordinated messaging, workers’ content is edited, and output is audited, with rewards given to more productive workers.

The battle to identify bots

One telltale sign of bots stems from a group of accounts that tweet much more frequently than typical humans—or accounts that tweet on exact intervals, say, every five minutes. The bot-driven accounts may lack typical profile elements such as profile pictures (see also: the generic Twitter egg) and often don’t engage in replies with other social-media accounts. In addition to spreading fake news, “they can also amplify marginal voices and ideas by inflating the number of likes, shares and retweets they receive, creating an artificial sense of popularity, momentum or relevance,” the Oxford team reported recently.

While it’s difficult for researchers to untangle how many Twitter bots are Russian-controlled, they regularly see Russian accounts in the mix: For example, on Twitter, they found accounts following Donald Trump that tweeted most frequently during Russian business hours and switched regularly between English and Cyrillic.

On Facebook, it’s much more challenging to sort out which content is bot-driven, says Bradshaw. That’s in part because on Facebook, bots typically operate pages or groups, which can be even more opaque than individual accounts.

The presence of bots during the election homestretch

The Oxford researchers also found that bots infiltrated the core conversations among their Twitter data during the election period—and several of their analyses revealed that bots supported Trump much more than Hillary Clinton. A separate research effort by Emilio Ferrara at University of Southern California, cited in Oxford’s report, determined that about one fifth of campaign-related tweets during the month before the election likely was generated by bots. Ferrara’s team recorded 4 million tweets in that time period posted by about 400,000 bots.

How Germany fought off the Fake News scourge

In the days before the Sept. 24 parliamentary election, the Oxford researchers foundthat political bots were minimally active on Twitter in Germany. The most tweets tracked were in support of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party, which won 13 percent of the vote and became the first far-right party to earn a presence in Parliament in 60-plus years. The research also found that Germans were much less likely to share fake news stories than their American counterparts, sharing links from professional news organizations four times as often as links from sites pushing fake news. Researchers theorize that voters in Germany and other parts of Europe may have been inoculated to the effects of bot-driven fake news, thanks to the ongoing fallout from 2016. “I would speculate the Russians overplayed their hand in the US elections,” Bradshaw says. “Voters in the US weren’t really prepared, but that was part of the discourse in other countries like Germany.”

But the battle is only beginning. In the hands of bad operators “the bots get a bit smarter,” Bradshaw says. When those controlling them realize that the bots are being tracked, for example, they may . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

28 September 2017 at 3:01 pm

The Trump Administration Just Confirmed That It Is Sabotaging Obamacare

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Eric Levitz reports in New York magazine:

The Trump administration has spent much of its first year in office trying to sabotage America’s health-care system. In interviews with major publications, Donald Trump repeatedly threatened to destabilize the Affordable Care Act marketplaces — by abruptly halting subsidies to insurers — as a means of eroding popular support for the law. Meanwhile, his Health Department spread doubt about whether it would enforce the tax penalty for refusing to sign up for insurance; cut funding for the law’s outreach groups; slashed Obamacare’s advertising budget by 90 percent; spent a portion of the remaining ad budget on propaganda calling for the law’s repeal; cut the open-enrollment period by 45 days; and announced that it would be taking (where people can enroll in Obamacare online) offline for nearly every Sunday during that time period, for “maintenance” purposes.

These acts of sabotage were never subtle. But until this week, Health and Human Services employees at least tried to maintain a veneer of (implausible) deniability. Sure, Tom Price’s department would evince contempt for the ACA — and all Americans who rely on it for basic medical needs — with virtually everything it did. But the agency’s civil servants wouldn’t actually say, explicitly, “My colleagues and I are working to undermine a program that we are legally bound to administer to the best of our abilities.”

That changed Wednesday night. Earlier in the day, BuzzFeed News revealed that the Trump administration had instructed the Health Department’s ten regional directors not to participate in state-based events promoting ACA enrollment, as they had for each of the past three years. After multiple outlets asked the agency for a comment on the move, HHS press secretary Caitlin Oakley offered the following:

Marketplace enrollment events are organized and implemented by outside groups with their own agendas, not HHS. These events may continue regardless of HHS participation.

Obamacare has never lived up to enrollment expectations despite the previous administration’s best efforts. The American people know a bad deal when they see one and many won’t be convinced to sign up for ‘Washington-knows-best’ health coverage that they can’t afford. For the upcoming enrollment period, Americans are being hit with another round of double-digit premium hikes and nearly half of our nation’s counties are facing Obamacare monopolies. As Obamacare continues to collapse, HHS is carefully evaluating how we can best serve the American people who continue to be harmed by Obamacare’s failures. [Emphasis mine.]

So: Asked to respond to the allegation that it is deliberately undermining ACA-enrollment efforts — in defiance of its legal responsibilities — the Trump administration released a written statement explicitly discouraging Americans from enrolling in the program.

This is an expression of proud disdain for the president’s constituents, the most basic norms of good governance, and factual reality, all in one. Oakley is correct that Americans looking for coverage on the individual market will likely see double-digit premium hikes next year. But she neglects to mention that insurers — and the Congressional Budget Office — have said, repeatedly, that the primary cause of said hikes is the uncertainty generated by acts of sabotage like the one she is ostensibly defending.

If the Trump administration was worried about Obamacare’s rising premiums, it would be increasing investments in enrollment promotion, not slashing them. Sick people will tend to seek out health insurance, whether or not they’re exposed to advertising and events encouraging them to do so. But many healthy people will not. And the fewer healthy people who participate in the exchanges, the more expensive it will be for insurers to provide coverage for them — and, thus, the higher they will raise their premiums.

The administration’s handling of open enrollment is nearly as strategically incoherent as it is morally odious. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

28 September 2017 at 12:12 pm

Great shave with the Maggard synthetic, Colonial + Asylum Brush Works shaving soap, Fatip Testina Gentile, and Esbjerg aftershave gel

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Those who have been following the move saga can tell (a) we’ve started unpacking, and (b) the aftershaves haven’t yet been unpacked.

It was a great pleasure to get some variety, and the Colonial + Asylum Brush Works shaving soap makes a really excellent lather of muted fragrance. The Testina Gentile, for all its gentleness, is ruthlessly efficient at removing stubble, so I applied a small dab of Esbjerg to an unharmed face.

A great shave starts the day right.

In the Guide I comment on a variety of things, and one comment is on Fisher and Ury’s Getting to Yes, and their injunction “If you want a horse to jump a fence, make the fence as low as possible.” That is, if you want people to take some action, you work to remove all possible impediments to taking that action (and this leads to the “yessable proposition,” a proposition so well thought through and worked out that the person whose approval must be obtained has only to say “Yes,” there being no other work involved for her or him.

In our new apartment building, I saw a fine example of not understanding this principle. The room holding the dumpster for household garbage has several signs making severe threats of what will happen if anyone disposes of household items (e.g., a broken lamp) in the dumpster: lease will be revoked and tenant doing it will be evicted, with warnings that surveillance cameras are recording your every move.

All that, without a single word about where you can get rid of broken household items, the key bit of information that would help tenants do a proper disposal. You’d think that, if the building management doesn’t want people putting household items in the garbage dumpster, they would go to some lengths to make it easy for the tenants to dispose of household items properly. But nothing on that, just threats of eviction. :sigh:

Written by Leisureguy

28 September 2017 at 10:10 am

Posted in Shaving

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