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Archive for January 2018

The GOP is desperate to kill the CFPB: Mulvaney requests zero funding for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

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Why? Because the GOP does not want consumers to be protected against large businesses and their scams. It’s really that simple.

Jim Puzzanghera reports in the LA Times:

In his first quarterly funding request as acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Mick Mulvaney is asking for nothing.

“This letter is to inform you that for the Second Quarter of Fiscal Year 2018, the Bureau is requesting $0,” he wrote Wednesday to Janet L. Yellen, chairwoman of the Federal Reserve, which provides the watchdog agency’s funding.

Mulvaney said that the bureau had enough money on hand to cover its anticipated $145 million in expenses for the quarter, which began Jan. 1, and that he plans to slash the bureau’s reserve fund.

Mulvaney, who also serves as White House budget director, is an outspoken critic of the bureau who was made acting director in November — a controversial move by President Trump that is being challenged in court. In a 2014 interview, Mulvaney called the bureau a ​​​​​”joke … in a sad, sick kind of way” and said that he “would like to get rid of it.”

In his letter to Yellen, he said: “I have been assured that the funds currently in the Bureau Fund are sufficient for the bureau to carry out its statutory mandates for the next fiscal quarter while striving to be efficient, effective and accountable.”

The request for no funding came as Mulvaney announced the first step toward an overhaul of the agency: a review of its entire operation. And on Tuesday, the bureau said it would consider revising or repealing regulations that were designed to protect consumers against harmful payday lenders.

In another sign of the bureau’s shifting priorities, on Thursday it moved to dismiss a suit filed in April under its former director — Richard Cordray, an appointee of President Obama — against four online payday lenders affiliated with a Northern California Native American tribe.

The lenders — Golden Valley Lending, Silver Cloud Financial, Mountain Summit Financial and Majestic Lake Financial — are affiliated with the Habematolel Pomo of Upper Lake tribe. The lawsuit accuses them of violating federal consumer protection laws by making and collecting on loans with annual interest rates starting at 440% in at least 17 states.

In a statement Thursday, the bureau said it would continue to investigate the loans and could not comment further “because it is an open enforcement matter.”

Consumer advocates blasted Mulvaney’s funding request. . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

18 January 2018 at 4:20 pm

Proposed Brexit commemorative stamps

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Take a look.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 January 2018 at 3:27 pm

Posted in Daily life

The NRA Is Part of the Trump–Russia Scandal Now

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Jonathan Chait writes in New York magazine:

Russian intervention in the 2016 campaign has a number of complex threads. But the latest development is simple and old-fashioned. McClatchy reports that the FBI is investigating whether a Kremlin-linked Russian banker funneled money through the National Rifle Association to help elect Donald Trump. American law prohibits foreign campaign donations.

The banker, Alexsandr Torshin, has close ties to Vladimir Putin, and the sort of shady connections one expects from an oligarch in the Putin circle. (He has been charged with money laundering overseas and links to mobsters.) Torshin is also a lifetime member of the NRA, hosted NRA delegations visiting Russia, has attended several NRA conventions, and has spoken with gun enthusiast Donald Trump Jr.

Torshin is not the only link between the NRA and Putin. Last February, Tim Mak profiled Maria Butina, a gun-rights activist who has worked in American right-wing politics. At one Washington party immediately after the election, Butina “brazenly claimed that she had been part of the Trump campaign’s communications with Russia, two individuals who were present said. On other occasions, in one of her graduate classes, she repeated this claim,” Mak reported.

Both Butina and Torshin have also worked with Paul Erickson, a veteran Republican operative and gun rights activist who has cultivated close ties to Russia. Erickson has called the alliance between the NRA and “Right to Bear Arms,” its Russian counterpart, a “moral-support operation both ways.” There is a genuine ideological connection between the right-wing ideology of the NRA and of many Russian nationalists, a strand of violence-obsessed authoritarian pan-European nationalism. Of course, if the support given Trump by Russians was not merely moral but also financial, it would violate the law.

It is also worth contemplating the effect any legal trouble for the NRA would have upon the Republican Congress.  . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

18 January 2018 at 12:20 pm

Republicans haven’t really prepared for a shutdown

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Jennifer Rubin reports in the Washington Post:

As Republicans bungle their way to a government shutdown, it is worth noting that they do not seem to have, to our knowledge, adequately prepared for it. When the clock hits 12:01 Saturday morning, the government must close, employees must cease using government devices (e.g. computers, cellphones) and contractors cannot provide services. The exceptions are twofold — the uniformed military and those designated as essential personnel.

PolitiFact tells us that for the military, the defense of the nation goes on:

Active-duty military personnel have always been required to work through shutdowns. Army troops don’t abandon their posts and naval ships don’t all return to port. In addition, many civilian workers in the Defense Department have been required to work through shutdowns.

Other civilian workers in the Defense Department, however, hold jobs that do not meet the urgency threshold to keep working. In 2013, the government furloughed about half of its civilian workers, or about 400,000 employees, leaving a patchwork of various permissible and impermissible activities, according to Federal News Radio.

The “essential” designation for civilians throughout the government is hardly self-evident. The White House needs to give direction as to how broadly or narrowly to interpret “essential.” The doctors at a Veterans Affairs hospital are almost certainly essential, but what about the clerk who orders medicine or the doctors providing non-emergency services?

The Post reports that even basic decisions have not yet been made. “With government funding set to expire at midnight Friday, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke was still working with White House and National Park Service officials to develop a plan for keeping open parks from the District to Montana without rangers or other staff on site.”

Each government agency and department must go through every category of employee and decide who stays and who goes. Obviously, preparations to shut down the government (everything from warning notices to building security to halting payment of vendors) must be arranged in advance. Then to reopen the government, an orderly process must be adopted as well. Is the federal government ready for all this?

According to Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service (which among other things teams up with The Post to track the status of political appointees), tells me it’s not easy to bring the federal government to a halt — or to restart it. He says that “preparations for a shutdown are arduous and have not been sufficiently undertaken.”

Stier also writes:

One can expect regulatory agencies like the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to curtail enforcement activities, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to cease some of its disease surveillance during one of the worst flu seasons in years. National Parks will close, passport applications will not be processed, small businesses will not receive financing and multiple services for veterans will be curtailed.
In addition, it has been estimated by S&P Global analysts that a shutdown would cost the economy about $6.5 billion a week. If it lasts an extended period of time, a shutdown could even slow the nation’s economic momentum.

Congress’s utter dysfunction is wasting the taxpayers’ money and depriving taxpayers of the functional government their dollars have paid for.
There is a bigger issue at play here, even aside from the possible shutdown. The repeated use of continuing resolutions in lieu of a budget means agencies and departments (including the military) don’t get the full year of funding they were promised. (Try building three-fourths of an airplane.) Rather than budgeting and paying appropriate rates for goods and services to be used over the course of a year, the federal government must do so in increments of a few weeks. In essence, it is buying bread by the slice rather than purchasing loaves of bread at the wholesale rate. Stier explains:

Navy Secretary Richard Spencer was more direct, commenting in December that continued budget ambiguity since 2011 has cost his service a staggering $4 billion due to stalled acquisition programs and deferred maintenance. He said it also has resulted in operational inefficiencies and hurt troop readiness.
“We have put $4 billion in a trash can, poured lighter fluid on it and burned it,” Spencer said. “Four billion is enough to buy a squadron of F-35s, two Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, 3,000 Harpoon missiles. It’s enough money to buy us additional capacity that we need. Instead, it’s lost because of inefficiency in the ways of the continuing resolution.”

All of this is an argument for banishing dysfunctional lawmakers in the majority who with a president of the same party have been given custody over the federal government. If they care so little about its operation and effectiveness, . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

18 January 2018 at 11:43 am

‘Digital Alchemist’ Seeks Rules of Emergence

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I’m fascinated by emergence and if you’re also interested, I recommend the book The Emergence of Everything. writesNatalie Wolchover in Quanta:

Sharon Glotzer has made a number of career-shifting discoveries, each one the kind “that completely changes the way you look at the world,” she said, “and causes you to say, ‘Wow, I need to follow this.’”

A theoretical soft condensed matter physicist by training who now heads a thriving 33-person research group spanning three departments at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Glotzer uses computer simulations to study emergence — the phenomenon whereby simple objects give rise to surprising collective behaviors. “When flocks of starlings make these incredible patterns in the sky that look like they’re not even real, the way they’re changing constantly — people have been seeing those patterns since people were on the planet,” she said. “But only recently have scientists started to ask the question, how do they do that? How are the birds communicating so that it seems like they’re all following a blueprint?”

Glotzer is searching for the fundamental principles that govern how macroscopic properties emerge from microscopic interactions and arrangements. One big breakthrough came in the late 1990s, when she was a young researcher at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland. She and her team developed some of the earliest and best computer simulations of liquids approaching the transition into glass, a common yet mysterious phase of matter in which atoms are stuck in place, but not crystallized. The simulations revealed strings of fast-moving atoms that glide through the otherwise frustrated material like a conga line. Similar flow patterns were later also observed in granular systems, crowds and traffic jams. The findings demonstrated the ability of simulations to illuminate emergent phenomena.

A more recent “wow” moment occurred in 2009, when Glotzer and her group at Michigan discovered that entropy, a concept commonly conflated with disorder, can actually organize things. Their simulations showed that entropy drives simple pyramidal shapes called tetrahedra to spontaneously assemble into a quasicrystal — a spatial pattern so complex that it never exactly repeats. The discovery was the first indication of the powerful, paradoxical role that entropy plays in the emergence of complexity and order.

Lately, Glotzer and company have been engaged in what she calls “digital alchemy.” Let’s say a materials scientist wants to create a specific structure or material. Glotzer’s team can reverse-engineer the shape of the microscopic building blocks that will assemble themselves into the desired form. It’s like whipping up gold from scratch ­­­— only in modern times, the coveted substance might be a colloidal crystal or macromolecular assembly.

Glotzer ultimately seeks the rules that govern emergence in general: a single framework for describing self-assembling quasicrystals, crystallizing proteins, or living cells that spontaneously arise from simple precursors. She discussed her eureka-studded path with Quanta Magazine in February; a condensed and edited version of the interview follows.

QUANTA MAGAZINE: Tell me about your famous 2009 Nature paper that linked self-assembly with entropy.

SHARON GLOTZER: Imagine if you had baseballs in a pool of water, and imagine that they had exactly the same density as the pool, so they didn’t sink, they didn’t float, they were just suspended, jostling about. Then you try to confine them all together. Self-assembly is what happens when the baseballs spontaneously organize themselves into a recognizable pattern. And if the particles are perfectly hard and have no other interactions, they will organize themselves to have the highest entropy possible.

So we were studying these tetrahedra, and it’s the simplest Platonic solid — the simplest three-dimensional shape, right? These Dungeons & Dragons dice. I had an inkling that it would be interesting to look at how they like to arrange with one another based solely on entropy, meaning they had no direct interactions between them — they didn’t want to stick together; there’s no charges; there’s no nothing; there’s just entropy. But I had no idea how interesting. I had no inkling that they would form the kind of structures that they did.

You showed that tetrahedra organize into a quasicrystal — this really complex, ordered structure. People normally understand the law of increasing entropy as the tendency of things to get messier, but you’re saying entropy leads to order. Why is that not a paradox?

You’re absolutely right that it’s completely counterintuitive. We typically think entropy means disorder, and so a disordered structure would have more entropy than an ordered structure. That can be true under certain circumstances, but it’s not always true, and in these cases, it’s not. I prefer to think of entropy as related to options: The more options a system of particles has to arrange itself, the higher the entropy. In certain circumstances, it’s possible for a system to have more options — more possible arrangements — of its building blocks if the system is ordered.

What happens is the particles try to maximize the amount of space that they have to wiggle around in. If you can wiggle, you can rearrange your position and orientation. The more positions, the more options, and thus the more entropy. So you imagine these baseballs in water. They are moving around — translating, rotating. They’re jiggling, because of the thermal motion of the water molecules. And what these systems want to do is space out the particles enough so that it maximizes the amount of wiggle room available to all the particles. Depending on the particle shape, that can lead to extremely complicated arrangements.

So particles like tetrahedra and baseballs evolve to states that allow them to wiggle in more ways and therefore have higher entropy. Did people know before that you could get order from entropy?

It’s been known that entropy alone can cause platelets and rodlike particles and spherical particles to align, but those ordered phases were pretty simple. It wasn’t really thought of as being such an important driving force for organization. When we did this tetrahedra computer experiment and got out what is still today the most complicated entropically stabilized structure that anyone has ever seen, that really changed the way people looked at this.

So then my group started studying every shape under the sun. We just started throwing all kinds of convex shapes onto the computer, and we just kept getting a crystal structure after another after another, some that were very complicated. In 2012 we published a paper in Sciencewhere we studied 145 different shapes and showed that 101 of them self-assembled into some kind of complicated crystal. Since then, my group has done tens of thousands of different shapes. We published one paper with 50,000 shapes in it.

What are some of the things you’re figuring out?

The kinds of questions I’m after now are: There’s this whole database of all the crystal structures that are known. And all these “space groups,” meaning structures that can obey all these different symmetry operations [rotations and translations that leave the structures unchanged]. There’s a couple hundred of those. Can I get every one of them just with entropy? With colloidal particles [like what you find in gels], even without interactions we’ve already been able to get as many as 50 of the known space groups. Are there any that aren’t possible just with entropy? And if so, why? We’ve also started looking at mixtures of shapes. We haven’t even talked about complicated crazy shapes, and concave shapes. So how far can you go with just entropy? And what does it mean that I can form the same structure in a whole bunch of different ways? There’s something much more fundamental to understand about the organization of matter, and by focusing on shape and entropy, we’re getting to the core of that.

One of the things we’ve noticed is that there are some design rules. For example, when your polyhedra have big, flat facets, they want to align so that their facets are facing each other — because this gives more wiggle room, more ways of arranging the particles. But if you have lots of facets that are all differently sized, then it’s harder to predict. You might end up with a glassy system or a jammed system instead of an ordered structure.

In the past couple of years, you’ve started working backward.

We’re basically doing alchemy in the computer. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 January 2018 at 11:01 am

Posted in Science

Law-enforcement links from Radley Balko

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Some of the links Radley Balko posted in the Washington Post:

Written by LeisureGuy

18 January 2018 at 10:45 am

Evolution unleashed (and needing an overhaul?)

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Kevin Laland, professor of behavioural and evolutionary biology at University of St Andrews in Scotland, and project leader of the extended evolutionary synthesis research programme, writes in Aeon:

When researchers at Emory University in Atlanta trained mice to fear the smell of almonds (by pairing it with electric shocks), they found, to their consternation, that both the children and grandchildren of these mice were spontaneously afraid of the same smell. That is not supposed to happen. Generations of schoolchildren have been taught that the inheritance of acquired characteristics is impossible. A mouse should not be born with something its parents have learned during their lifetimes, any more than a mouse that loses its tail in an accident should give birth to tailless mice.

If you are not a biologist, you’d be forgiven for being confused about the state of evolutionary science. Modern evolutionary biology dates back to a synthesis that emerged around the 1940s-60s, which married Charles Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection with Gregor Mendel’s discoveries of how genes are inherited. The traditional, and still dominant, view is that adaptations – from the human brain to the peacock’s tail – are fully and satisfactorily explained by natural selection (and subsequent inheritance). Yet as novel ideas flood in from genomics, epigenetics and developmental biology, most evolutionists agree that their field is in flux. Much of the data implies that evolution is more complex than we once assumed.

Some evolutionary biologists, myself included, are calling for a broader characterisation of evolutionary theory, known as the extended evolutionary synthesis (EES). A central issue is whether what happens to organisms during their lifetime – their development – can play important and previously unanticipated roles in evolution. The orthodox view has been that developmental processes are largely irrelevant to evolution, but the EES views them as pivotal. Protagonists with authoritative credentials square up on both sides of this debate, with big-shot professors at Ivy League universities and members of national academies going head-to-head over the mechanisms of evolution. Some people are even starting to wonder if a revolution is on the cards.

In his book On Human Nature (1978), the evolutionary biologist Edward O Wilson claimed that human culture is held on a genetic leash. The metaphor was contentious for two reasons. First, as we’ll see, it’s no less true that culture holds genes on a leash. Second, while there must be a genetic propensity for cultural learning, few cultural differences can be explained by underlying genetic differences.

Nonetheless, the phrase has explanatory potential. Imagine a dog-walker (the genes) struggling to retain control of a brawny mastiff (human culture). The pair’s trajectory (the pathway of evolution) reflects the outcome of the struggle. Now imagine the same dog-walker struggling with multiple dogs, on leashes of varied lengths, with each dog tugging in different directions. All these tugs represent the influence of developmental factors, including epigenetics, antibodies and hormones passed on by parents, as well as the ecological legacies and culture they bequeath.

The struggling dog-walker is a good metaphor for how EES views the adaptive process. Does this require a revolution in evolution? Before we can answer this question, we need to examine how science works. The best authorities here are not biologists but philosophers and historians of science. Thomas Kuhn’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) popularised the idea that sciences change through revolutions in understanding. These ‘paradigm shifts’ were thought to follow a crisis of confidence in the old theory that arose through the accumulation of conflicting data.

Then there’s Karl Popper, and his conjecture that scientific theories can’t be proven but can be falsified. Consider the hypothesis: ‘All sheep are white.’ Popper maintained that no amount of positive findings consistent with this hypothesis could prove it to be correct, since one could never rule out the chance that a conflicting data-point might arise in the future; conversely, the observation of a single black sheep would decisively prove the hypothesis to be false. He maintained that scientists should strive to carry out critical experiments that could potentially falsify their theories.

While Kuhn and Popper’s ideas are well-known, they remain disputed and contentious in the eyes of philosophers and historians. Contemporary thinking in these fields is better captured by the Hungarian philosopher Imre Lakatos in The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes (1978):

The history of science refutes both Popper and Kuhn: on close inspection both Popperian crucial experiments and Kuhnian revolutions turn out to be myths.

Popper’s arguments might make logical sense, but they don’t quite map on to how science works in the real world. Scientific observations are susceptible to errors of measurement; scientists are human beings and get attached to their theories; and scientific ideas can be fiendishly complex – all of which makes evaluating scientific hypotheses a messy business. Rather than accepting that our hypotheses might be wrong, we challenge the methodology (‘That sheep’s not black – your instruments are faulty’), dispute the interpretation (‘The sheep’s just dirty’), or come up with tweaks to our hypotheses (‘I meant domesticated breeds, not wild mouflon’). Lakatos called such fixes and fudges ‘auxiliary hypotheses’; scientists propose them to ‘protect’ their core ideas, so that they need not be rejected.

This sort of behaviour is clearly manifest in scientific debates over evolution. Take the idea that new features acquired by an organism during its life can be passed on to the next generation. This hypothesis was brought to prominence in the early 1800s by the French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who used it to explain how species evolved. However, it has long been regarded as discredited by experiment – to the point that the term ‘Lamarckian’ has a derogatory connotation in evolutionary circles, and any researchers expressing sympathy for the idea effectively brand themselves ‘eccentric’. The received wisdom is that parental experiences can’t affect the characters of their offspring.

Except they do. The way that genes are expressed to produce an organism’s phenotype – the actual characteristics it ends up with – is affected by chemicals that attach to them. Everything from diet to air pollution to parental behaviour can influence the addition or removal of these chemical marks, which switches genes on or off. Usually these so-called ‘epigenetic’ attachments are removed during the production of sperm and eggs cells, but it turns out that some escape the resetting process and are passed on to the next generation, along with the genes. This is known as ‘epigenetic inheritance’, and more and more studies are confirming that it really happens.

Let’s return to the almond-fearing mice. The inheritance of an epigenetic mark transmitted in the sperm is what led the mice’s offspring to acquire an inherited fear. In 2011, another extraordinary study reported that worms responded to exposure to a nasty virus by producing virus-silencing factors – chemicals that shut down the virus – but, remarkably, subsequent generations epigenetically inherited these chemicals via regulatory molecules (known as ‘small RNAs’). There are now hundreds of such studies, many published in the most prominent and prestigious journals. Biologists dispute whether epigenetic inheritance is truly Lamarckian or onlysuperficially resembles it, but there is no getting away from the fact that the inheritance of acquired characteristics really does happen.

By Popper’s reasoning, a single experimental demonstration of epigenetic inheritance – like a single black sheep – should suffice to convince evolutionary biologists that it’s possible. Yet, by and large, evolutionary biologists have not rushed to change their theories. Rather, as Lakatos anticipated, we have come up with auxiliary hypotheses that allow us to retain our long-held beliefs (ie, that inheritance is pretty much explained by the transmission of genes across generations). These include the ideas that epigenetic inheritance is rare, that it does not affect functionally important traits, that it is under genetic control, and that it is too unstable to underpin the spread of traits through selection.

Unfortunately for the traditionalists, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 January 2018 at 10:37 am

Posted in Evolution, Science

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