Later On

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Archive for March 21st, 2018

At long last: Republicans agree to clarify that CDC can research gun violence

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The GOP initiative to be ignorant about gun violence was always revealing, I think: the GOP is indeed the party that embraces ignorance (climate change, sex education, and on and on). But now at least we can start to understand what is effective and what is not in dealing with gun violence, of which the US has plenty. Nathaniel Weixel reports in The Hill:

Republican leaders have agreed to include a provision in the government funding package clarifying that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is not barred from conducting gun violence research under a 1996 amendment.

The omnibus will not repeal the so-called Dickey Amendment altogether, as Democrats had pushed for, according to a senior GOP source.

Republicans say the Dickey Amendment has never prohibited gun research in the first place.

A mass shooting at a Florida high school that left 17 people dead reopened the debate in Congress about loosening the long-standing restrictions on the CDC.

The amendment was inserted into a 1996 government funding bill by the late Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Ark.) and has been renewed annually.

The provision states that “None of the funds made available in this title may be used, in whole or in part, to advocate or promote gun control.”

Although the provision doesn’t explicitly ban research into gun violence, public health advocates and Democrats say there’s been a chilling effect for more than 20 years.

Many Republicans argue the CDC has essentially engaged in self-censorship, but advocates say the agency can’t do research when there hasn’t been any money appropriated for it.

When the Dickey Amendment was first passed, CDC researchers stopped working on gun-related projects, and federal funding disappeared. Congress shifted the $2.6 million CDC had earmarked for studying gun violence and prevention into a fund for studying traumatic brain injuries.

The agency has lacked dedicated funding for firearms research ever since. Instead, the research has been concentrated at a handful of private foundations and universities such as Johns Hopkins University, the University of Washington and the University of California, Davis.

In fiscal 2014 through 2017, former President Obama requested $10 million each year for CDC to use to study gun violence and prevention. The GOP-controlled House denied the request each time.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 March 2018 at 3:14 pm

Posted in Congress, Guns, Law, Science

Alan Dershowitz’s Audition to Be Trump’s Lawyer Is Not Going Well

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Jonathan Chait has a good column calling out the errors in Alan Dershowitz’s legal “reasoning”:

Alan Dershowitz has carved out a role as Donald Trump’s favorite legal mind, a position he has previously held for such figures as Claus von Bülow and O.J. Simpson. (The common thread among all these figures is not that they know they are completely innocent.) Last night, Dershowitz appeared on Lou Dobbs’s program to express his belief that the Mueller investigation should be dissolved. (Dobbs agreed, and proceeded to argue that Trump is entitled to subject the Department of Justice to his complete personal control, a point Dershowitz did not contest.) This morning, Trump, likely DVRing through last night’s Fox News highlights, excitedly tweeted out paraphrased, poorly spelled excerpts of Dershowitz’s commentary:

Dershowitz was using his appearance with Dobbs to tease an argument he spells out at greater length in an op-ed in the Hill. The argument is worth analyzing in more detail for what it reveals about Trump’s defense. You might think a lawyer as experienced and well-credentialed as Dershowitz could manage to put together a halfway plausible argument. Instead he has produced one that would not maintain enough superficial plausibility to sustain an episode of Matlock.

What follows is the entire op-ed, interspersed with commentary.

President Trump is right in saying that a special counsel should never have been appointed to investigate the so-called Russian connection. There was no evidence of any crime committed by the Trump administration.

First of all, the special counsel is not investigating “the Trump administration.” He is investigating actions by Russia, the Trump campaign, and, secondarily, efforts by the Trump administration to obstruct the investigation into the latter two.

Even though we don’t yet have all the facts, there is already ample evidence of crimes committed by the Trump campaign. Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, has been indicted for money laundering in relation to his long-standing business dealings with Russia, which included running a campaign to elect a pro-Russian president in another country. Manafort’s partner, Rick Gates, has already pleaded guilty. Two other campaign aides, Michael Flynn and George Papadopoulos, have pleaded guilty to lying about their contacts with Russia.

And that’s just the evidence presented so far in the form of indictments. There is already a lot of additional public information — the Trump Tower meeting, Roger Stone’s pattern of statements — suggesting Trump’s campaign was receptive to Russian efforts on its behalf, which included illegal theft of Democratic emails.

The remainder of Dershowitz’s argument rests on the premise that Trump’s campaign did nothing illegal. It is an extremely shaky foundation, to say the least.

But there was plenty of evidence that Russian operatives had tried to interfere with the 2016 presidential election, and perhaps other elections, in the hope of destabilizing democracy.

Dershowitz is defining the Russian goal as “destabilizing democracy,” which is what Trump also claims. But American intelligence has concluded its goal was not only to destabilize democracy but to help Trump win.

Yet, appointing a special counsel to look for crimes, behind the closed doors of a grand jury, was precisely the wrong way to address this ongoing challenge to our democracy.

The right way would have been (and still is) to appoint a nonpartisan investigative commission, such as the one appointed following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, to conduct a broad and open investigation of the Russian involvement in our elections. This is what other democracies, such as Great Britain and Israel, do in response to systemic problems. The virtue of such a commission is precisely the nonpartisan credibility of its objective experts, who have no political stake in the outcome.

Mueller’s investigation is nonpartisan, but Trump and his allies have relentlessly sought to smear it as partisan.

Such a commission could have informed the American public of what Russia did and how to prevent it from doing it again. It would not seek partisan benefit from its findings, the way congressional committees invariably do. Nor would it be searching for crimes in an effort to criminalize political sins, the way special counsels do to justify their existence and budget. Its only job would be to gather information and make recommendations.

Note what Dershowitz is saying here: Nobody should be investigating any crimes that Trump’s campaign may have committed, nor any obstruction of justice Trump’s administration may have committed to to prevent that investigation. Russians should be the only target.

The vice of a special counsel is that he is supposed to find crimes, and if he comes up empty-handed, after spending lots of taxpayer money, then he is deemed a failure.

It is true that a special counsel could be swayed by an incentive to find a crime even if one does not exist. That would seem to be less of a concern given that Mueller has already found actual crimes.

If he can’t charge the designated target — in this case, the president — he must at least charge some of those close to the target, even if it is for crimes unrelated to the special counsel’s core mandate. By indicting these low-hanging fruits, he shows that he is trying. Maybe those lesser defendants will flip and sing against higher-ups, but the problem is that the pressure to sing may cause certain defendants to “compose,” meaning make up or enhance evidence in order to get a better deal for themselves.

It’s also true that a special counsel could pressure lesser defendants into making up crimes by higher-ups. But any prosecutor can do this. Dershowitz is making a case against the way prosecutors charge terrorist cells or Mafia families or two guys who knock over a liquor store. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 March 2018 at 3:10 pm

What Facebook Did to American Democracy—and why it was so hard to see it coming

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Alexis Madrigal writes in the Atlantic:

In the media world, as in so many other realms, there is a sharp discontinuity in the timeline: before the 2016 election, and after.

Things we thought we understood—narratives, data, software, news events—have had to be reinterpreted in light of Donald Trump’s surprising win as well as the continuing questions about the role that misinformation and disinformation played in his election.

Tech journalists covering Facebook had a duty to cover what was happening before, during, and after the election. Reporters tried to see past their often liberal political orientations and the unprecedented actions of Donald Trump to see how 2016 was playing out on the internet. Every component of the chaotic digital campaign has been reported on, here at The Atlantic, and elsewhere: Facebook’s enormous distribution power for political information, rapacious partisanship reinforced by distinct media information spheres, the increasing scourge of “viral” hoaxes and other kinds of misinformation that could propagate through those networks, and the Russian information ops agency.

But no one delivered the synthesis that could have tied together all these disparate threads. It’s not that this hypothetical perfect story would have changed the outcome of the election. The real problem—for all political stripes—is understanding the set of conditions that led to Trump’s victory. The informational underpinnings of democracy have eroded, and no one has explained precisely how.

* * *

We’ve known since at least 2012 that Facebook was a powerful, non-neutral force in electoral politics. In that year, a combined University of California, San Diego and Facebook research team led by James Fowler published a study in Nature, which argued that Facebook’s “I Voted” button had driven a small but measurable increase in turnout, primarily among young people.

Rebecca Rosen’s 2012 story, “Did Facebook Give Democrats the Upper Hand?” relied on new research from Fowler, et al., about the presidential election that year. Again, the conclusion of their work was that Facebook’s get-out-the-vote message could have driven a substantial chunk of the increase in youth voter participation in the 2012 general election. Fowler told Rosen that it was “even possible that Facebook is completely responsible” for the youth voter increase. And because a higher proportion of young people vote Democratic than the general population, the net effect of Facebook’s GOTV effort would have been to help the Dems.

The research showed that a small design change by Facebook could have electoral repercussions, especially with America’s electoral-college format in which a few hotly contested states have a disproportionate impact on the national outcome. And the pro-liberal effect it implied became enshrined as an axiom of how campaign staffers, reporters, and academics viewed social media.In June 2014, Harvard Law scholar Jonathan Zittrain wrote an essay in New Republic called, “Facebook Could Decide an Election Without Anyone Ever Finding Out,” in which he called attention to the possibility of Facebook selectively depressing voter turnout. (He also suggested that Facebook be seen as an “information fiduciary,” charged with certain special roles and responsibilities because it controls so much personal data.)

In late 2014, The Daily Dot called attention to an obscure Facebook-produced case study on how strategists defeated a statewide measure in Florida by relentlessly focusing Facebook ads on Broward and Dade counties, Democratic strongholds. Working with a tiny budget that would have allowed them to send a single mailer to just 150,000 households, the digital-advertising firm Chong and Koster was able to obtain remarkable results. “Where the Facebook ads appeared, we did almost 20 percentage points better than where they didn’t,” testified a leader of the firm. “Within that area, the people who saw the ads were 17 percent more likely to vote our way than the people who didn’t. Within that group, the people who voted the way we wanted them to, when asked why, often cited the messages they learned from the Facebook ads.”

In April 2016, Rob Meyer published “How Facebook Could Tilt the 2016 Election” after a company meeting in which some employees apparently put the stopping-Trump question to Mark Zuckerberg. Based on Fowler’s research, Meyer reimagined Zittrain’s hypothetical as a direct Facebook intervention to depress turnout among non-college graduates, who leaned Trump as a whole.

Facebook, of course, said it would never do such a thing. “Voting is a core value of democracy and we believe that supporting civic participation is an important contribution we can make to the community,” a spokesperson said. “We as a company are neutral—we have not and will not use our products in a way that attempts to influence how people vote.”

They wouldn’t do it intentionally, at least.

As all these examples show, though, the potential for Facebook to have an impact on an election was clear for at least half a decade before Donald Trump was elected. But rather than focusing specifically on the integrity of elections, most writers—myself included, some observers like Sasha IssenbergZeynep Tufekci, and Daniel Kreiss excepted—bundled electoral problems inside other, broader concerns like privacysurveillancetech ideologymedia-industry competition, or the psychological effects of social media.

The same was true even of people inside Facebook. “If you’d come to me in 2012, when the last presidential election was raging and we were cooking up ever more complicated ways to monetize Facebook data, and told me that Russian agents in the Kremlin’s employ would be buying Facebook ads to subvert American democracy, I’d have asked where your tin-foil hat was,” wrote Antonio García Martínez, who managed ad targeting for Facebook back then. “And yet, now we live in that otherworldly political reality.”

Not to excuse us, but this was back on the Old Earth, too, when electoral politics was not the thing that every single person talked about all the time. There were other important dynamics to Facebook’s growing power that needed to be covered.

* * *

Facebook’s draw is its ability to give you what you want. Like a page, get more of that page’s posts; like a story, get more stories like that; interact with a person, get more of their updates. The way Facebook determines the ranking of the News Feed is the probability that you’ll like, comment on, or share a story. Shares are worth more than comments, which are both worth more than likes, but in all cases, the more likely you are to interact with a post, the higher up it will show in your News Feed. Two thousand kinds of data (or “features” in the industry parlance) get smelted in Facebook’s machine-learning system to make those predictions.

What’s crucial to understand is that, from the system’s perspective, success is correctly predicting what you’ll like, comment on, or share. That’s what matters. People call this “engagement.” There are other factors, as Slate’s Will Oremus noted in this rare story about the News Feed ranking team. But who knows how much weight they actually receive and for how long as the system evolves. For example, one change that Facebook highlighted to Oremus in early 2016—taking into account how long people look at a story, even if they don’t click it—was subsequently dismissed by Lars Backstrom, the VP of engineering in charge of News Feed ranking, as a “noisy” signal that’s also “biased in a few ways” making it “hard to use” in a May 2017 technical talk.

Facebook’s engineers do not want to introduce noise into the system. Because the News Feed, this machine for generating engagement, is Facebook’s most important technical system. Their success predicting what you’ll like is why users spend an average of more than 50 minutes a day on the site, and why even the former creator of the “like” button worries about how well the site captures attention. News Feed works really well.

But as far as “personalized newspapers” go, this one’s editorial sensibilities are limited. Most people are far less likely to engage with viewpoints that they find confusing, annoying, incorrect, or abhorrent. And this is true not just in politics, but the broader culture.

That this could be a problem was apparent to many. Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble, which came out in the summer of 2011, became the most widely cited distillation of the effects Facebook and other internet platforms could have on public discourse.

Pariser began the book research when he noticed conservative people, whom he’d befriended on the platform despite his left-leaning politics, had disappeared from his News Feed. “I was still clicking my progressive friends’ links more than my conservative friends’— and links to the latest Lady Gaga videos more than either,” he wrote. “So no conservative links for me.”

Through the book, he traces the many potential problems that the “personalization” of media might bring. Most germane to this discussion, he raised the point that if every one of the billion News Feeds is different, how can anyone understand what other people are seeing and responding to?

“The most serious political problem posed by filter bubbles is that they make it increasingly difficult to have a public argument. As the number of different segments and messages increases, it becomes harder and harder for the campaigns to track who’s saying what to whom,” Pariser wrote. “How does a [political] campaign know what its opponent is saying if ads are only targeted to white Jewish men between 28 and 34 who have expressed a fondness for U2 on Facebook and who donated to Barack Obama’s campaign?”

This did, indeed, become an enormous problem. When I was editor in chief of Fusion, we set about trying to track the “digital campaign” with several dedicated people. What we quickly realized was that there was both too much data—the noisiness of all the different posts by the various candidates and their associates—as well as too little. Targeting made tracking the actual messaging that the campaigns were paying for impossible to track. On Facebook, the campaigns could show ads only to the people they targeted. We couldn’t actually see the messages that were actually reaching people in battleground areas. From the outside, it was a technical impossibility to know what ads were running on Facebook, one that the company had fought to keep intact.

Pariser suggests in his book, “one simple solution to this problem would simply be to require campaigns to immediately disclose all of their online advertising materials and to whom each ad is targeted.” Which could happen in future campaigns.

Imagine if this had happened in 2016. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 March 2018 at 11:36 am

Evolve or die: Why our human ancestors learned to be social more than 320,000 years ago

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Deborah Netburn reports in the LA Times:

New discoveries in eastern Africa suggest that human behaviors like symbolic thought and the creation of extended social networks were established at least 320,000 years ago — tens of thousands of years earlier than previously thought.
The work, published as a trio of papers Thursday in Science, sheds new light on the often murky story of when our ancestors first started acting like humans, and why, experts said.

“What we are seeing is a complex set of developments that may represent new ways of surviving in an unpredictable environment,” said Rick Potts, a paleoanthropologist and director of the Smithsonian’s Human Origins program. “It is a package we didn’t know occurred so early, and right at the root of our species.”

For more than 30 years, Potts has led excavations in southern Kenya at a site known as the Olorgesailie Basin, which was occupied by hominids for more than 1 million years.

The 50-square-mile area has yielded a sequence of stone tools that date back as far as 1.2 million years, allowing researchers to see how human technology and behavior has changed over time.

The authors found that for roughly 700,000 years, from 1.2 million to 499,000 years ago, the hominids who populated this basin relied almost entirely on one simple, all-purpose stone tool known as a hand ax. It was generally between 4 and 10 inches long, shaped like a teardrop and chipped all the way around.

Anthropologists believe this basic hand ax was used for a variety of purposes, including cutting through joints of large animals, chopping down trees and digging in the ground for roots, tubers or water.

“It was very successful for a long period of time when fluctuations in the environment were somewhat modest,” Potts said. “Then all hell broke loose.”

Geological evidence from the site indicates that around 499,000 years ago, the region experienced tremendous upheaval. Volcanic activity increased, and new faults developed in Earth’s crust. This led to earthquakes that destroyed the ancient lake basin and pushed it up out of the ground. Because of this, there is a gap in the archaeological record of about 180,000 years when no new sediments were laid down at the site.

Over time, however, wind and rain caused river channels to form in what once was the lake basin, and eventually new sediment layers began to form. These processes led to a more recent set of archaeological data that starts about 320,000 years ago and continues until 3,000 years ago.

When Potts and his colleagues began excavating the newer material from the river channels, they found that hominid behavior at the Olorgesailie Basin had changed completely between the time the lake sedimentation ended and the river sedimentation began.

For example, the hand axes had been replaced by smaller, more sophisticated tools that could be attached to sticks and hurled through the air. In addition, the team found that some of the obsidian rock used to make the new tools came from 25 to 30 miles away. In the older sediments, nearly all the material used to create tools originated within 5 miles of the site.

Alison Brooks, a paleoanthropologist and Paleolithic archaeologist at George Washington University who contributed to the new work, said it is unlikely that hunter and gatherer societies of that time period would have been able to travel such great distances to procure materials for their weapons.

Instead, the discovery of the transported obsidian suggests that as early as 320,000 years ago, hominids had established social networks that allowed them to exchange gifts with groups from more distant lands, she said. In addition, these relationships could have been strong enough for individuals to turn to their neighbors in times of need.

“Social networks are an extremely important part of early human societies,” Brooks said. “Pastoralists can store food or add cattle to their herds, but for hunter-gatherers, the only way to save for a rainy day is to have friends in distant places.”

The researchers also found evidence that these socially connected hominids were making pigments from rocks, which implies they were sophisticated enough to be capable of symbolic thought. This might have made communication between disparate groups easier.

The authors suggest these new behaviors were not the inevitable result of evolution, but rather a response to massive geological and climate changes that began about 500,000 years ago. Indeed, the fossil record from the site indicates that between 499,000 and 320,000 years ago, 85% of the region’s animals became extinct and were replaced by new lineages and entirely new species.

“That may seem peripheral, but to us, it was pretty central,” Potts said. “It meant that it wasn’t just the humans changing — there was a very big evolutionary picture going on.”

Potts believes that the new suite of human behaviors observed after the 320,000-year mark emerged as a way to cope in an environment that had become less predictable.

Perhaps the only way to make a successful living in this more challenging landscape was for our ancestors to learn to make better tools, create extended networks of friends and learn to communicate with them, he said.

In other words: Evolve or die.

“There are those who rose to the challenge, but there were likely many more who didn’t,” Potts said. “Our family tree is littered with dead branches and ways of life that no longer exist.” . . .

Continue reading.

Evolution is uncaring because it has no mind and no foresight: it is simply a process.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 March 2018 at 10:12 am

Posted in Evolution, Science

Lt Col Ralph Peters’ resignation letter

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Here it is in full:

On March 1st, I informed Fox that I would not renew my contract. The purpose of this message to all of you is twofold:

First, I must thank each of you for the cooperation and support you’ve shown me over the years. Those working off-camera, the bookers and producers, don’t often get the recognition you deserve, but I want you to know that I have always appreciated the challenges you face and the skill with which you master them.

Second, I feel compelled to explain why I have to leave. Four decades ago, I took an oath as a newly commissioned officer. I swore to “support and defend the Constitution,” and that oath did not expire when I took off my uniform. Today, I feel that Fox News is assaulting our constitutional order and the rule of law, while fostering corrosive and unjustified paranoia among viewers. Over my decade with Fox, I long was proud of the association. Now I am ashamed.

In my view, Fox has degenerated from providing a legitimate and much-needed outlet for conservative voices to a mere propaganda machine for a destructive and ethically ruinous administration. When prime-time hosts–who have never served our country in any capacity–dismiss facts and empirical reality to launch profoundly dishonest assaults on the FBI, the Justice Department, the courts, the intelligence community (in which I served) and, not least, a model public servant and genuine war hero such as Robert Mueller–all the while scaremongering with lurid warnings of “deep-state” machinations– I cannot be part of the same organization, even at a remove. To me, Fox News is now wittingly harming our system of government for profit.

As a Russia analyst for many years, it also has appalled me that hosts who made their reputations as super-patriots and who, justifiably, savaged President Obama for his duplicitous folly with Putin, now advance Putin’s agenda by making light of Russian penetration of our elections and the Trump campaign. Despite increasingly pathetic denials, it turns out that the “nothing-burger” has been covered with Russian dressing all along. And by the way: As an intelligence professional, I can tell you that the Steele dossier rings true–that’s how the Russians do things.. The result is that we have an American president who is terrified of his counterpart in Moscow.

I do not apply the above criticisms in full to Fox Business, where numerous hosts retain a respect for facts and maintain a measure of integrity (nor is every host at Fox News a propaganda mouthpiece–some have shown courage). I have enjoyed and valued my relationship with Fox Business, and I will miss a number of hosts and staff members. You’re the grown-ups.

Also, I deeply respect the hard-news reporters at Fox, who continue to do their best as talented professionals in a poisoned environment. These are some of the best men and women in the business..

So, to all of you: Thanks, and, as our president’s favorite world leader would say, “Das vidanya.”

Kevin Drum comments:

Note that Peters didn’t quit when Tucker Carlson gave a platform to a congressman who thought ISIS was behind the Las Vegas shooting. He didn’t quit when Fox was reporting sympathetically about Trump’s response to white supremacists in Charlottesville. He didn’t quit over Benghazi. He didn’t quit over the birther conspiracty theories. He didn’t quit when Sean Hannity was peddling lies about the DNC murdering Seth Rich. He didn’t quit when Megyn Kelly and other were pushing racial hysteria over the New Black Panthers. He didn’t quit over the Shirley Sherrod affair.

I could go on, but that would be boring. The point is this: He didn’t care about all that other stuff. After all, lying about liberals is fine. It’s only when Fox started lying about the FBI and Vladimir Putin that he got upset.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 March 2018 at 9:38 am

Posted in Media

Shave for the vernal equinox: Phoenix Artisan Solstice and the Rockwell R3

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The equinox, of course, is as far removed as one can get from the solstice: each equinox is midway between the two solstices. So that is enough of a connection to provide an excuse for a shave with Phoenix Artisans Solstice shaving soap, a favorite. (Have you tried it? If so, what did you think?)

The lather was excellent using the Rooney Style 3 Size 1, and I miss the Rooney brand: they were good brushes.

Three easy, comfortable passes with the Rockwell 6S using the R3 baseplate did the job, and I celebrated with a splash of Solstice aftershave. What a great way to start the day. And The Wife will be home this evening—yay!

Written by LeisureGuy

21 March 2018 at 9:09 am

Posted in Shaving

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