Later On

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

Archive for August 2018

Why Trump Should Have Read “Ask ProPublica Illinois” Before He Tweeted

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I’m getting awfully tired of Trump. This ProPublica report gives one reason.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 August 2018 at 12:37 pm

Simplicity or style: what makes a sentence a masterpiece?

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Jenny Davidson, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, where she specialises in 18th-century literature and culture, intellectual history and the contemporary novel in English, writes in Aeon:

great sentence makes you want to chew it over slowly in your mouth the first time you read it. A great sentence compels you to rehearse it again in your mind’s ear, and then again later on. A sentence must have a certain distinction of style – the words come in an order that couldn’t have been assembled by any other writer. Here’s an elaborate, Latinate favourite, from Samuel Johnson’s preface to his Dictionary of the English Language (1755). We have to train ourselves to read complex sentences like this one, but if it’s read properly out loud by an actor or someone else who understands the way the subordination of clauses works, it may well be taken in more easily through the ear:

When we see men grow old and die at a certain time one after another, from century to century, we laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay, that it is in his power to change sublunary nature, and clear the world at once from folly, vanity, and affectation.

The sentence is elevated in its diction, but it is also motivated by an ironic sense of the vanity of human wishes. It is propelled forward by the momentum of clauses piling on top of one another.

Edward Gibbon is one of 18th century Britain’s other great prose stylists. The sentences of Gibbon that I love most come from his memoirs, which exist in a host of drafts braided together for publication after his death. As a young man, Gibbon fell in love and asked permission of his father to marry. But his spendthrift father had depleted the family’s resources so much that he told Gibbon not to. ‘I sighed as a lover, I obeyed as a son,’ Gibbon wrote. The aphoristic parallelism in that lovely sentence does some work of emotional self-protection. Also from Gibbon’s memoirs: ‘It was at Rome, on the fifteenth of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the City first started to my mind.’ The precision of the place and time setting, the startling contrast effected by the juxtaposition of barefooted friars and the pagan temple, the fact that there is an exterior soundscape as well as an internal thoughtscape, the way the sentence builds to the magnitude of the project to come – all work to make the sentence great.

The first sentence of any novel works as an invitation into a new world. Sometimes that invitation is so powerful that the sentence itself takes on a life of its own. One example: the opening sentence of Orwell’s 1984: ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ The sentence is initially unassuming, simply descriptive, but in the startling final detail Orwell achieves estrangement, establishing the alternate nature of the novel’s historical reality with economy and force. Another opening line from near-future speculative fiction is that of William Gibson’s debut novel Neuromancer: ‘The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.’ The startling metaphor seemed to speak with remarkable directness to a world in which new forms of media and mediation had come to define human consciousness. The passage of time has raised questions, however. Today, to a generation of readers who barely watch TV on ‘channels’ and don’t really know what a ‘dead’ one would look like, the metaphor will be nearly inscrutable.

Hasn’t the sentence become dated? Gibson himself commented on Twitter recently, about his 2003 novel Pattern Recognition, that it ‘was written with the assumption that the reader could and *would* Google unfamiliar terms and references’. It matters to Gibson that his fiction should be highly topical in ways that can also be inscrutable or dated, and that will provoke in the reader not simple incomprehension but rather an awareness of the layering of past and present in palimpsests of language and literature.

Some literary stylists bestow greatness on every sentence without tiring their readers. Many readers feel this way about Joyce, but I have always preferred the subtler beauty of the sentences in Dubliners to the obtrusive, slightly show-offy ingenuity that afflicts every sentence in Ulysses: individually each of those sentences may be small masterpieces, but an unrelenting sequence of such sentences is wearisome. Great minimalist sentences – those of the short-story writer Lydia Davis, for instance – may have a longer shelf life.

Over a lifetime of reading, people form their own individual canon of great sentences. My canon is full of Jane Austen, whose balance of aphoristic wit, psychological insight and narrative pacing is unique. The first sentence of Pride and Prejudice (1813) is probably her best-known line: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’ However, I have always preferred the opening line of Emma written two years later: ‘Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.’ It has the cadence almost of a fairytale, only the verb ‘seemed’ and the ostentatiously positive sequence of traits (‘handsome, clever, and rich’) hint that the novel will go on to undermine its opening assertion.

If we think of a library as a city and a book as an individual house in that city, each sentence becomes  . . .

Continue reading.

I’ve always been struck by the style of Edward Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Consider his opening paragraph:

IN the second century of the Christian Era, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valor. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. The image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence: the Roman senate appeared to possess the sovereign authority, and devolved on the emperors all the executive powers of government. During a happy period of more than fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines. It is the design of this, and of the two succeeding chapters, to describe the prosperous condition of their empire j and afterwards, from the death of Marcus Antoninus, to deduce the most important circumstances of its decline and fall; a revolution which will ever be remem­bered, and is still felt by the nations of the earth.

I can see the opening scenes of a Cinemascope movie with this as the voiceover.

And, of course, I just purchased a novel based on its opening paragraph.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 August 2018 at 12:01 pm

Posted in Books, Writing

More good news: Artificial Intelligence Nails Predictions of Earthquake Aftershocks

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Alexandra Witze reports in Scientific American:

A machine-learning study that analysed hundreds of thousands of earthquakes beat the standard method at predicting the location of aftershocks.

Scientists say that the work provides a fresh way of exploring how changes in ground stress, such as those that occur during a big earthquake, trigger the quakes that follow. It could also help researchers to develop new methods for assessing seismic risk.

“We’ve really just scratched the surface of what machine learning may be able to do for aftershock forecasting,” says Phoebe DeVries, a seismologist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She and her colleagues report their findings on 29 August in Nature.

Aftershocks occur after the main earthquake, and they can be just as damaging—or more so—than the initial shock. A magnitude-7.1 earthquake near Christchurch, New Zealand, in September 2010 didn’t kill anyone: but a magnitude-6.3 aftershock, which followed more than 5 months later and hit closer to the city centre, resulted in 185 deaths.

Seismologists can generally predict how large aftershocks will be, but they struggle to forecast where the quakes will happen. Until now, most scientists used a technique that calculates how an earthquake changes the stress in nearby rocks and then predicts how likely that change would result in an aftershock in a particular location. This stress-failure method can explain aftershock patterns successfully for many large earthquakes, but it doesn’t always work.

There are large amounts of data available on past earthquakes, and DeVries and her colleagues decided to harness them to come up with a better prediction method. “Machine learning is such a powerful tool in that kind of scenario,” DeVries says.

NEURAL NETWORKING

The scientists looked at more than 131,000 mainshock and aftershock earthquakes, including some of the most powerful tremors in recent history, such as the devastating magnitude-9.1 event that hit Japan in March 2011. The researchers used these data to train a neural network that modelled a grid of cells, 5 kilometres to a side, surrounding each main shock. They told the network that an earthquake had occurred, and fed it data on how the stress changed at the centre of each grid cell. Then the scientists asked it to provide the probability that each grid cell would generate one or more aftershocks. The network treated each cell as its own little isolated problem to solve, rather than calculating how stress rippled sequentially through the rocks.

When the researchers tested their system on 30,000 mainshock-aftershock events, the neural-network forecast predicted aftershock locations more accurately than did the usual stress-failure method. Perhaps more importantly, DeVries says, the neural network also hinted at some of the physical changes that might have been happening in the ground after the main shock. It pointed to certain parameters as potentially important—ones that describe stress changes in materials such as metals, but that researchers don’t often use to study earthquakes.

The findings are a good step towards examining aftershocks with fresh eyes, says Daniel Trugman, a seismologist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. “The machine-learning algorithm is telling us something fundamental about the complex processes underlying the earthquake triggering,” he says. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 August 2018 at 11:09 am

Some good news: Obamacare Still Working, Uninsured Rate Drops Again

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Kevin Drum notes at Mother Jones:

According to the latest CDC survey, the uninsured rate declined during the first quarter of 2018:

This may seem puzzling since enrollment rates for Obamacare went down during signups for this year. But if fewer people signed up for Obamacare, how did the uninsured rate go down?

The answer is pretty simple: the economy continues to be strong and more people are getting jobs—which means that a lot of people are probably dropping Obamacare and signing up for employer insurance. This demonstrates something important: Obamacare isn’t everything. For one thing, it’s a pretty small part of the overall health insurance market. It’s even a pretty small part of the public health insurance market. For another, Obamacare is meant to be part of the social safety net, something that’s available to people if they need it. But like food stamps and unemployment insurance, we’d all prefer that the number of people who need it goes down. Over the past year or so, as the unemployment rate has dropped below 4 percent, the number of people who need Obamacare has almost certainly declined, and this accounts for some of the decline in enrollments.

Personally, I don’t think it accounts for the entire decline. Trump’s attempted sabotage probably had an effect too, though it turns out that he screwed up and did a poor job of sabotage. Generally speaking, however, it looks like there’s a pretty steady share of low-income workers who are willing to pay for Obamacare, and that doesn’t change a lot even when states and the federal government actively try to screw things up. Enrollments go down a little bit if people switch to employer insurance and go up a little bit when competition makes coverage more affordable. Overall, though, these are pretty small effects. Obamacare has done what it can, and that’s not likely to change much until we either improve it or Trump succeeds in destroying it.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 August 2018 at 9:47 am

15 reasons why Donald Trump’s supporters will never abandon him

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Chauncey DeVega writes in Salon:

Donald Trump is a dangerous, authoritarian leader who was elected by appealing to racism and is overtly trying to undermine democracy. He is an embarrassment to the American people and the United States. Despite these facts, or perhaps because of them, Trump remains remarkably popular among Republicans and his other diehard supporters. This is a cause of constant handwringing, confusion and consternation among many American journalists and other members of the chattering class. As former Salon editor Joan Walsh recently wrote in the Nation, this is a “distracting journalistic exception.” But it does no good waiting for Trump’s flock to abandon him, and the frustration only grows.

Ultimately, Donald Trump is a riddle that the fourth estate has intentionally chosen not to decipher. His enduring popularity is not that complicated — for those who choose to see the depth of the political, cultural and social crisis that goes back decades and spawned Trump’s presidency.

Here are 15 reasons why Donald Trump’s loyalists have not abandoned him and likely never will.

  1. Most Americans are politically disengaged and therefore do not follow current events closely. Except for moments of crisis or national elections, little time is spent thinking about political matters or public policy in a sophisticated or consistent way.
  2. Donald Trump has control over a vast propaganda machine. Anchored by Fox News, Trump has leveraged a fact-free alternative reality, created over several decades by the right-wing echo chamber. Richard Nixon may have resigned from the presidency with a 24 percent approval rating, but he did not have Fox News to artificially buoy him.
  3. Republicans and other “conservatives” largely approve of Donald Trump’s policies. While there may be disagreement about his style of governance and behavior, he is doing their bidding.
  4. White Christian evangelicals overwhelmingly support Donald Trump. To them, he is God’s tool for creating a semi-theocratic Christian state. Trump understands the power and influence of evangelical leaders over their gullible public. On Monday, he hosted a meeting for a group of 100 or so evangelical pastors in the State Dining Room of the White House where he told the attendees that the Democrats and “antifa” “will overturn everything that we’ve done and they’ll do it quickly and violently. And violently. There’s violence.”
  5. Authoritarianism and other anti-democratic attitudes and values have increased in America over the last two decades. Trump is the logical result of those trends.
  6. Donald Trump is a political cult leader. Consequently, his supporters will not abandon himbecause to do so would cause great emotional and spiritual harm to themselves.
  7. Trump has repeatedly shown that he is a racist who harbors deep animus and hostility towards nonwhites and Muslims. These values and attitudes are shared by his voters and other supporters. As recent research demonstrates, at least 11 million white Americans possess “white nationalist” beliefs, while many millions more are sympathetic to such politics. Other research suggests that the more Trump’s racist behavior is criticized, the more his supporters are likely to defend him.
  8. Political parties are now extensions of personal identities. As a result, in America, and other failing democracies, politics is treated as a team-sports event. This is especially true for Republicans and other conservatives who now view those groups most associated with the Democratic Party (women, nonwhites, “liberals,” immigrants, gays and lesbians and others) as being their personal enemies. Democrats do not feel the same animus towards those people (whites, especially white men and evangelical Christians) most associated with the Republican Party. Political compromise in the interest of the common good is made nearly impossible.
  9. Racism and authoritarianism (and sexism) are closely related values and behaviors. In combination with a fear that white people are somehow losing power as a group in America — a claim not supported by any substantive and correct evidence — a state of collective narcissism exists for Trump’s voters and other supporters.
  10. Donald Trump and other right-wing political elites have expertly manipulated the death anxieties of white conservatives. In combination with a political sadism that makes the lives of Trump’s and other Republican voters materially, spiritually and emotionally worse, these fears of death (and/or group obsolescence through the “browning of America”) cannot be countered by rational, factually grounded arguments.
  11. The image of responsible, managerial governance offered by the Democratic Party, and exemplified by Hillary Clinton, is undeniably boring. In a society where loneliness, existential despair and a culture of distraction have fully taken hold over the vast majority of the public, Donald Trump — a debased product of a debased culture — is a source of constant entertainment for his human deplorables and other lost souls. Donald Trump is an example of cultural critic Neil Postman’s famous warning more than 30 years ago that the American people were “amusing themselves to death.”
  12. Trump’s apparent incompetence as evaluated by traditional measures of governance such as respect for democracy and the rule of law are viewed as positives by his supporters. Criticism of Trump’s leadership style and other behavior are viewed as the complaints of “elites” who look down on “real Americans.” The anti-intellectualism that has long been a core tenet of American conservatism has fully bloomed, first with Sarah Palin and then with Donald Trump.
  13. The Republican Party and the conservative media offer an example of what social psychologists have described as the “Dunning-Kruger effect.” Here, those steeped in ignorance imagine themselves to be much more competent and expert than they really are. Alternatively stated, the Dunning-Kruger effect rests on the premise that stupid people don’t know they are stupid. Donald Trump and his movement are a textbook example of that psychological phenomenon.
  14. For those Trump voters and other supporters who may be persuadable, the Democratic Party has provided few reasons to leave Trump’s camp. Democratic messaging failed in 2016. It continues to fail in 2018. “We are not Donald Trump” will not be sufficient to secure political victory in 2020.
  15. While the influence of the economy on voters’ decision-making (what is known as “pocketbook voting”) is highly debated by political scientists and others, Donald Trump has benefited from Barack Obama’s economic turnaround. As Larry Bartels demonstrates in his landmark book “Unequal Democracy,” this is part of a long pattern in which Republican presidents benefit from the economic growth created by their Democratic predecessors and then, of course, take credit for it.

As they erred in their assumptions about Donald Trump’s chances of victory in the 2016 presidential election, traditional journalists and other pundits are making many of the same errors again. As a class, journalists and other supposed political experts still cling to the belief that the American people are good, decent and “moderate” — despite all the evidence, including Trump’s victory, suggesting the opposite. There is also a misplaced faith in the enduring health and power of the country’s democracy and the role of citizens in it. Political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels intervene against this worship of “folk democracy” in the concluding paragraphs of their book “Democracy for Realists“: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 August 2018 at 9:31 am

The smell of a summer thunderstorm in my bathroom

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A friend mentioned the fragrance of petrichor following a storm in Seattle, and so I decided that I also would enjoy the fragrance, which is prominent in Chiseled Face’s Summer Storm shaving soap and aftershave.

The lather’s excellence went well beyond the fragrance, and then my iKon Shavecraft 101 smoothed away all traces of stubble, comfortably and efficiently. A rinse, dry, and splash of the aftershave (after shaking it well), and I’m ready to (Nordic) walk.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 August 2018 at 7:35 am

Posted in Shaving

The Incredible, Rage-Inducing Inside Story of America’s Student Debt Machine

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Ryann Liebenthal writes in Mother Jones:

When Leigh McIlvaine first learned that her student loan debt could be forgiven, she was thrilled. In 2008, at age 27, she’d earned a master’s degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Minnesota. She’d accrued just under $70,000 in debt, though she wasn’t too worried—that’s what it took to invest in her future. But graduating at the height of the recession, she found that the kind of decent-paying public-sector job she’d anticipated pursuing was suddenly closed off by budget and hiring freezes. She landed a gig at a nonprofit in Washington, DC, earning a $46,000 salary. Still, she was happy to live on that amount if it was the cost of doing the work she believed in.

At the time, she paid about $350 each month to stay in a decrepit house with several roommates, more than $100 for utilities, and $60 for her cellphone bill. On top of that, her loan bill averaged about $850 per month. “Rent was hard enough to come up with,” she recalled. Then one day while researching her options, she read about something called the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) plan. At the time, Congress had just come up with a couple of options for borrowers with federal loans. They could get on an income-based repayment plan and have their student loans expunged after 25 years. Or, for borrowers working public service jobs—as social workers, nurses, nonprofit employees—there was another possibility: They could have their debt forgiven after making 10 years’ worth of on-time payments.

The PSLF program, backed in the Senate by Ted Kennedy and signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2007, was the first of its kind, and when people talk about “student loan forgiveness,” they’re usually talking about PSLF. It was implemented to address low salaries in public service jobs, where costly degrees are the price of entry but wages often aren’t high enough to pay down debts. A Congressional Budget Office report last year found that public-sector workers with a professional degree or doctorate earn 24 percent less than they would in the private sector. In Massachusetts, a public defender in 2014 made just $40,000, only about $1,000 more than the court’s janitor. Meanwhile, 85 percent of public-interest attorneys in 2015 owed at least $50,000 in federal student loans, according to one study. More than half owed at least $100,000. According to a 2012 study, 65 percent of newly hired nonprofit workers had student debt, and 30 percent owed more than $50,000. In order to keep people working as public defenders, or rural doctors or human rights activists, something had to be done. PSLF was an attempt at a fix.

The program was by no means a handout. Successful PSLF participants, according to one estimate, pay back as much as 91 percent of their original loan amount, so enrollees primarily save on interest. The program’s appeal was that it offered a clear path for people who struggled to pay back loans, or struggled to envision how they would ever pay them off without abandoning public service jobs for higher-paid positions elsewhere. For McIlvaine, who dreamed of working to make cities more livable, PSLF was the only way she could imagine paying off her debt. When she sent in her first payment in the fall of 2009, she felt like she’d put herself on track to get to “a place where the debt would eventually be lifted.”

Several companies, including one called FedLoan Servicing, contracted with the Education Department to handle loan repayment, and until 2012, when the government assigned all PSLF accounts to FedLoan, borrowers had to keep track of their progress toward forgiveness. At the time she began paying into the program, McIlvaine wasn’t too perturbed that there was no official way to confirm her enrollment, no email or letter that said she had been “accepted.” She trusted the Education Department to run the program effectively and followed its parameters, taking care to send in the yearly tax forms that proved her eligibility and always submitting her payments on time.

Everything seemed fine for the first few years—McIlvaine initially made payments through an Education Department website, and then, as the department increasingly outsourced its loans, hers were transferred to a company called MOHELA. But once FedLoan took over, things quickly started to go awry. While FedLoan was sorting out the transfer, her loans were put into forbearance, an option usually reserved for people having difficulty making payments; during a forbearance, any progress toward forgiveness stalls, and loans balloon with interest. Then the company failed to put several of her loans on an income-based plan—so her payments briefly shot up, she says. And when McIlvaine submitted her tax information, she says FedLoan took months to process the paperwork—while she waited, the company again put her into what it called “administrative forbearance,” so none of the payments she made during this period counted either. (McIlvaine requested a forbearance at least once, after turning in late renewal paperwork.)

McIlvaine initially hoped these problems were just “hiccups,” but they kept piling up. And when she tried to figure out what was going on, she says, FedLoan’s call center “loan counselors” brushed the whole thing off as an inconsequential administrative oversight. Astonishingly, the cycle would repeat over the next four years.

Despite these frustrations, McIlvaine kept diligently sending in her checks. In January 2016, she took advantage of a new program introduced by President Barack Obama that helped lower her monthly bill, and when she did, her loans were again inexplicably put into forbearance. On top of that, four months later, as she was trying to save for her wedding, FedLoan sent her a bill for $1,600, more than $1,300 above her monthly payment amount. When she phoned the company in a panic, they told her the bill was an administrative glitch and said not to worry about it; they’d sort it out. Warily, she accepted—after all, there wasn’t much else she could do.

In August 2016, McIlvaine was offered a job at Mercy Corps, a nonprofit in Portland, Oregon, which came with a $10,000 raise and great benefits—the extra security she believed would allow her to start a family. But Mercy Corps required a credit check, and McIlvaine discovered that FedLoan had never actually dealt with that $1,600 bill, instead reporting it as 90 days past due and plunging her previously excellent credit score to an abysmal 550. When she called FedLoan in tears, she recalls, she was treated dismissively and told to “pay more attention” to her loans—and again the only option offered to her was to take an administrative forbearance while the company sorted out the issue. Ultimately she got the job, but only after she lodged a formal complaintwith the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the watchdog agency created during the Obama era, which prompted FedLoan to send her a letter in October 2016 claiming the company had fixed the issue and that her credit had been restored. “But in true FedLoan Servicing style,” she told me, “they only contacted two of the three credit bureaus.” It took several more months to fix her score with the third bureau, Equifax.

If not for FedLoan’s errors and delays, McIlvaine estimates, her loans would be eligible for forgiveness as soon as 2020. But instead, in the nine years she’s been participating in PSLF, months of payments haven’t been counted toward her 10-year requirement, ultimately delaying the date of her forgiveness by at least a year. All the while, although she’s been making payments of between $300 and $450 a month, her total debt has not gone down. After nearly 100 payments, she still owes the entire amount she initially borrowed.

FedLoan declined to comment on McIlvaine’s tribulations. But as complaints to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and lawsuits against the Education Department and FedLoan pile up, she’s hardly alone. In 2017, the bureau issued a report excoriating FedLoan for mismanaging PSLF, misleading borrowers, and losing track of payments. The previous year, the American Bar Association had filed suit against the Education Department for reneging on its own rules about how the program was supposed to work and who was eligible for forgiveness. Then, in August 2017, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 August 2018 at 9:08 pm

Two excellent movies on Netflix

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First, The Surrounding Game, which explores the appeal of Go (aka Baduk (Korea) and Weichi (China)).

Second, The Accountant, a good action movie.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 August 2018 at 4:24 pm

Posted in Games, Go, Movies & TV

All hail the flying taxi

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Tom Vanderbilt writes in The Economist’s 1843:

On January 31st, on an overcast day at a runway in eastern Oregon, a vehicle called Vahana, which at first glance resembled a helicopter, climbed with a wobble to a height of five metres and managed to remain aloft for a whole 53 seconds. “While it was in the air, my heartbeat must have been twice what it was normally,” says Zach Lovering, the engineer who oversees the project at A3, a division of Airbus, an aviation manufacturer. “At some point I had to remind myself to breathe.”

Such palpitations may seem unwarranted for a trip that, in raw numbers, was considerably less impressive than the first flight in 1903 by the Wright brothers. Their plane travelled 852ft in 59 seconds along a freezing beach in North Carolina. But the Vahana, whose name derives from a Hindu spirit animal that ferries deities on its back, is a different sort of beast. It’s an electrically powered, vertical-take-off-and-landing craft – a flying taxi, in other words.

After take off, the eight sets of blades rotate 90 degrees from the horizontal to the vertical, turning something that works like a helicopter into something that works like a plane. The technology is in its infancy, but if the machines don’t crash and burn, urban skylines could one day be humming with pilotless craft, flying around cities safely and cheaply.

Personal air transport has been one of society’s fever dreams since the early days of flight itself. Norman Bel Geddes, a visionary industrial designer, stoked imaginations in the 1940s with his book “Magic Motorways”, which anticipated autonomous vehicles with designs for flying cars that he called “roadable” aeroplanes.

Science fiction could soon become reality. A seductive vision of the future has been depicted in a video from Uber Elevate, the ride-sharing company’s aerial division. A woman is shown opening the Uber app on her smartphone as she walks out of a meeting. She selects “Uber Air”, then enters a tall building, pressing an elevator button marked “Uber Port”. We next see her walking out onto a rooftop arrayed with sleek taxis ready to take off. She grabs a seat in one and is whisked away over the city. As she flies, she casts a glance that is hard to read – is it pity or derision? – at the cars hopelessly locked in traffic below. Dara Khosrowshahi, the company’s CEO, says he hopes Uber’s service will be up and running within five years.

Over a dozen companies are working on similar projects. Kitty Hawk, which is backed by Larry Page, co-founder of Google, will shortly begin testing its autonomous vehicle in New Zealand, where the technology can be tried out away from prying eyes. Others looking to open up the skies include Boeing’s Aurora, German startups Volocopter and Lilium, and Ehang, a Chinese drone manufacturer. In September 2017, Volocopter began to test its taxis over Dubai. The GoFly prize, sponsored by Boeing, offers $2m to anyone who can “design and build a safe, quiet, ultra-compact…personal flying device capable of flying 20 miles while carrying a single person”. It has received thousands of entrants, from university research labs to garage experimentalists.

Gwen Lighter, CEO of the prize, suggests the competition has stirred such interest because a convergence of several technologies make this “a moment of achievable innovation”. The energy density of batteries is increasing by between 5% and 8% each year, enabling longer flights. 3D printing allows improved models to be rapidly mocked up. “What you have is this golden moment,” she says. The dream of an aircraft of one’s own is becoming a reality.

Of course personal air mobility already exists for those rich enough to hire helicopters or private jets. In 1942, Igor Sikorsky, a Russian-American aeronautical engineer, predicted in an article in the Atlantic that in just over a decade commuters would be carried across New York in helicopters. A limited service did operate in the city in the 1960s and 1970s, but it was scuppered by a fatal crash in 1977.

These days, apps such as Voom allow well-heeled customers to summon helicopters to whisk them over traffic in sprawling cities such as São Paolo. Just a few years ago Uber toyed with the idea of “Uber chopper”. But Justin Erlich, the company’s policy head for advanced mobility initiatives, said that it soon became clear this wouldn’t work. They are too noisy for cities to welcome by the hundreds. And vehicles that can plummet from the sky if a single rotor fails make urbanites twitchy.

The question is no longer whether flying cars are possible, but whether they can become a form of mass transit. Though a taxi such as Vahana looks like a helicopter, it is fundamentally a different form of transport. “We’re talking about a new way to move people,” Lovering says. The craft’s electric propulsion makes it far cheaper than gas-powered helicopters, allowing much lower prices for passengers and lower emissions. Multiple rotors increase safety and reduce noise. Upon landing and take-off, Vahana is currently 20 decibels quieter than a helicopter. At 250 feet in the air, the craft is no louder than a Prius 100 feet away. Most importantly, Vahana does not need a trained pilot.

The sky remains a distant frontier. Ehrlich says that Uber aims to “leverage height in the way that skyscrapers and elevators together totally changed cities”. But there are good reasons why it will be hard to accommodate flying taxis, says Parimal Kopardekar, who leads NASA’s experiments on air transportation. You may be able to solve the noise and safety issues – the tall buildings, the cranes, the low-visibility conditions that ground helicopters. But in a city like New York the existing airports already struggle with capacity, and the airspace is buzzing with growing numbers of unpiloted commercial drones. Those drones – and the expectation that unmanned flying taxis will travel beyond the line of sight of operators on the ground – have compelled NASA to start work on an automated air-traffic control system. This will allow vehicles to communicate directly with one another rather than wait for instructions from a human controller. The skies will soon be filled with machines talking to machines.

Yet flying taxis will face the same challenges as earth-bound vehicles. Transportation systems rapidly become clogged: expanding road space tends to increase congestion because it encourages more people to drive. The same is likely to be true in the sky, even though it is more expansive than roads (aircraft can manoeuvre in three dimensions, unlike automobiles). . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 August 2018 at 4:03 pm

Did Trump Break His Promise to Kim to Sign a Permanent Peace Treaty?

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Very interesting post, and it makes sense to me. Kevin Drum writes:

This story hasn’t been retracted since it ran yesterday, so….

President Donald Trump told North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during their Singapore summit in June that he’d sign a declaration to end the Korean War soon after their meeting, according to multiple sources familiar with the negotiations. But since then, the Trump administration has repeatedly asked Pyongyang to dismantle most of its nuclear arsenal first, before signing such a document.

….Here’s the background: North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, which started the war….Fighting ceased in 1953, but the warring parties only signed an armistice — a truce — which means the war technically continues to this day….This is one major reason North Korea has oriented its foreign policy around how to deter a future attack by the United States and South Korea, mostly by developing a strong nuclear program that includes around 65 nuclear warheads and missiles that can reach all parts of the US mainland.

But during a New Year’s Day address, Kim noted that he wanted to focus more on improving his country’s economy, which is one of the world’s poorest. To do so, experts tell me, Kim needs a peace declaration to end the Korean War. This would provide political cover for him to denuclearize part — or, less likely, all — of his arsenal.

….It seems like Kim took Trump at his word in Singapore. And in the agreement Kim and Trump signed after their summit, two items about establishing peace between the two countries came before a denuclearization commitment, which helps explain why North Korea thinks a peace declaration should come before nuclear concessions. But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has repeatedly asked Pyongyang to hand over 60 to 70 percent of its nuclear warheads within six to eight months. That pressure angered Kim, a source told me, since the North Korean leader believes he was promised that a signed declaration would come before any nuclear concessions — which may be the reason statements from Pyongyang about nuclear talks have turned increasingly antagonistic.

It’s easy to believe this is true, and it’s pretty nuts. There’s nothing wrong with signing a formal end to the Korean War, of course, but this is something Kim wants. Just like a formal meeting with the American president was something Kim wanted. The idea that the US should give Kim a couple of freebies before he does anything of substance is monumentally naive considering North Korea’s past behavior.

Then again, if Trump really did promise this and then reneged, it would appear to Kim that the United States was once again reverting to its past behavior: making promises and then breaking them at the slightest justification. For example, after the 1994 Agreed Framework was signed, the US routinely missed shipments of heavy oil; failed to build the two light-water reactors it had promised; and refused to remove North Korea from its list of state-sponsored terrorism.

This history convinced Kim that the United States was not a trustworthy negotiating partner. So if it’s happened again, it’s small wonder that Kim is acting badly. It all depends on what Trump really promised Kim, and there’s no formal or informal record of that since Trump doesn’t believe in such things. But it certainly wouldn’t surprise me if Trump cavalierly offered a final peace treaty—which Kim took very seriously—and then got talked out of it by his advisers when he got home. If that’s the case, it explains a lot.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 August 2018 at 12:21 pm

Shave Soap Chemistry & the Unnecessary Lubricating Razor Head

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Joshua Chou has an interesting post at Sharpologist:

Understanding why quality wet shave soap and cream provide more protection than their out-of-the-can counterparts requires scratching the surface at the molecular level. Furthermore, the emergence of over-engineered technology in multi-blade cartridge heads was likely a direct contributor to a generation losing the best component of the daily shave: a good lather.

THE SHAVE SOAP BACKGROUND

Admittedly, my first safety razor shave was performed with a $20 razor and a cheap can of Barbasol. I was impatient to try out my new toy and had failed to simultaneously order a proper shave soap or cream with my new razor. Introducing a wet shaving neophyte to the “art” with a cheap can of cream was not only underwhelming, it was downright painful.

Needless to say, my first wet shaving experience elicited nicks, cuts and under-the-chin weepers. It was truly a classic example of what not to do. Luckily, I remained undeterred in my quest for a quality single-blade shave and subsequent shaves performed with the right product have improved drastically over my initial foray into the wonderful world of wet shaving. No more canned cream meant no more weepers.

In reality, canned shaving cream is a misnomer. It’s not cream at all. It’s foam. The chemical properties of canned foam “creams” (and I use the term very loosely) vary widely from the high-quality shave soap typically used by wet shaving enthusiasts.

Shave Soap And The Micelle

Soaps are made from a process called saponification wherein a salt (typically a sodium or potassium) is mixed with a fatty acid and reacted along with an alkali like potassium hydroxide or sodium. The resulting molecule includes a longer hydrophobic (water-fearing) fatty acid chain with a hydrophilic (water-loving) head. The longer fatty chain’s hydrophobic and non-polar properties causes adherence to fats. Conversely, the ionic and hydrophilic salt is more prone to adhere to water in mixture.

Because soap includes both unique properties it acts as an emulsification bridge between oil and water, separating them in either bilayer sheets, liposomes or spherical structures called micelles. These bilayer sheets or micelles tend to trap the oils that are attached to dirt, making it a great cleansing agent.

However, when it comes to shaving, a quality soap acts as a great emulsification buffer layer between the blade and the skin. The longer the fatty tail, the thicker the lather.

And, based on the chemistry above, that layer operates best under conditions that include water and oil. That means the complete buffered layer would not be wholly efficacious without your pre-shave oil. You’re already activating the soap with water but skipping the oil step may cause you to be missing some of the emulsifying benefits of the soap.

Lube Over-Engineering

But why on earth did manufacturers opt for canned creams over quality soaps at the same time multi-blade cartridge razors first made their debut? The answer is likely more complex than we might expect.

Believe it or not, the lubrication strip on cartridge razors actually fills at least some of the same face-protection need as a quality shave soap, albeit limited to the real deal. The other half of lubrication need with the multi-blade cartridge shave can typically be completed with some hand soap in the shower or canned cream. However, we can easily surmise several economic incentives at play here.

First, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 August 2018 at 12:05 pm

Posted in Science, Shaving

The power of voting: Oklahoma Teachers Just Purged the Statehouse of Their Enemies

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Eric Levitz writes in New York:

For nearly a decade, Republican officials have been treating ordinary Oklahomans like the colonial subjects of an extractive empire. On Governor Mary Fallin’s watch, fracking companies have turned the Sooner State into the earthquake capital of the world(literally) dictated policy to her attorney general; and strong-armed legislators into giving them a $470 million tax break — in a year when Oklahoma faced a $1.3 billion budget shortfall.

To protect Harold Hamm’s god-given right to pay infinitesimal tax rates on his gas profits (while externalizing the environmental costs of fracking onto Oklahoma taxpayers), tea party Republicans raided the state’s rainy-day funds, and strip-mined its public-school system.

Between 2008 and 2015, Oklahoma’s slashed its per-student education spending by 23.6 percent, more than any other state in the country. Some rural school districts were forced to adopt four-day weeks; others struggled to find competent teachers, as the GOP’s refusal to pay competitive salaries chased talented educators across the border into Texas. Students who were lucky enough to have both five-day weeks and qualified instructors still had to tolerate decaying textbooks. Polls showed overwhelming public supportfor raising taxes on the wealthy and oil companies to increase investment in education. GOP lawmakers showed no interest in those polls.

And, for a while there, it really looked like they didn’t have to.

Mary Fallin rode a wave of fracking dollars to reelection in 2014, while her GOP allies retained large majorities in both chambers of the legislature. With no organized opposition to counter the deep pockets of extractive industry, Republican officials could reasonably conclude that working-class Sooners had no material interests that their party was bound to respect.

But then, Oklahoma teachers decided to give their state a civics lesson. Inspired by their counterparts in West Virginia, Oklahoma teachers went on strike to demand long-overdue raises for themselves, more education funding for their students, and much higher taxes on the wealthy and energy companies — to ensure that those first two demands would be honored indefinitely.

They won one out of three. Despite the fact the teachers had no legal right to strike — and that the Oklahoma state legislature requires a three-fourths majority to pass tax increases of any kind — the teachers galvanized enough public support to force Fallin to give an inch. As energy billionaire (and GOP mega-donor) Harold Hamm glowered from the gallery, Oklahoma state lawmakers passed a tiny increase in the tax on fracking production (one small enough to leave Oklahoma with the lowest such tax rate in the nation), so as to fund $6,100 raises for the state’s teachers.

The strikers were pleased, but unappeased. They promised to make lawmakers pay for refusing to finance broader investments in education with larger tax hikes. “We got here by electing the wrong people to office,” Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, told the New York Times in April. “We have the opportunity to make our voices heard at the ballot box.” Hamm and his fellow gas giants (almost certainly) made an equal and opposite vow — that those few Republicans who held the line against tax hikes of any kind would not regret their bravery.

Last night, Oklahoma’s GOP primary season came to an end — and the teachers beat the billionaires in a rout. Nineteen Republicans voted against raising taxes to increase teacher pay last spring; only four will be on the ballot this November. As Tulsa World reports: . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 August 2018 at 8:57 am

US continues to attack its own citizens: U.S. is denying passports to Americans along the border, throwing their citizenship into question

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Kevin Sieff reports in the Washington Post:

On paper, he’s a devoted U.S. citizen.

His official American birth certificate shows he was delivered by a midwife in Brownsville, at the southern tip of Texas. He spent his life wearing American uniforms: three years as a private in the Army, then as a cadet in the Border Patrol and now as a state prison guard.

But when Juan, 40, applied to renew his U.S. passport this year, the government’s response floored him. In a letter, the State Department said it didn’t believe he was an American citizen.

As he would later learn, Juan is one of a growing number of people whose official birth records show they were born in the United States but who are now being denied passports — their citizenship suddenly thrown into question. The Trump administration is accusing hundreds, and possibly thousands, of Hispanics along the border of using fraudulent birth certificates since they were babies, and it is undertaking a widespread crackdown.

In a statement, the State Department said that it “has not changed policy or practice regarding the adjudication of passport applications,” adding that “the U.S.-Mexico border region happens to be an area of the country where there has been a significant incidence of citizenship fraud.”

But cases identified by The Washington Post and interviews with immigration attorneys suggest a dramatic shift in both passport issuance and immigration enforcement.

In some cases, passport applicants with official U.S. birth certificates are being jailed in immigration detention centers and entered into deportation proceedings. In others, they are stuck in Mexico, their passports suddenly revoked when they tried to reenter the United States. As the Trump administration attempts to reduce both legal and illegal immigration, the government’s treatment of passport applicants in South Texas shows how U.S. citizens are increasingly being swept up by immigration enforcement agencies.

Juan said he was infuriated by the government’s response. “I served my country. I fought for my country,” he said, speaking on the condition that his last name not be used so that he wouldn’t be targeted by immigration enforcement.

The government alleges that from the 1950s through the 1990s, some midwives and physicians along the Texas-Mexico border provided U.S. birth certificates to babies who were actually born in Mexico. In a series of federal court cases in the 1990s, several birth attendants admitted to providing fraudulent documents.

Based on those suspicions, the State Department during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations denied passports to people who were delivered by midwives in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley. The use of midwives is a long-standing tradition in the region, in part because of the cost of hospital care.

The same midwives who provided fraudulent birth certificates also delivered thousands of babies legally in the United States. It has proved nearly impossible to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate documents, all of them officially issued by the state of Texas decades ago.

A 2009 government settlement in a case litigated by the American Civil Liberties Union seemed to have mostly put an end to the passport denials. Attorneys reported that the number of denials declined during the rest of the Obama administration, and the government settled promptly when people filed complaints after being denied passports.

But under President Trump, the passport denials and revocations appear to be surging, becoming part of a broader interrogation into the citizenship of people who have lived, voted and worked in the United States for their entire lives.

“We’re seeing these kind of cases skyrocketing,” said Jennifer Correro, an attorney in Houston who is defending dozens of people who have been denied passports.

In its statement, the State Department said that applicants “who have birth certificates filed by a midwife or other birth attendant suspected of having engaged in fraudulent activities, as well as applicants who have both a U.S. and foreign birth certificate, are asked to provide additional documentation establishing they were born in the United States.”

“Individuals who are unable to demonstrate that they were born in the United States are denied issuance of a passport,” the statement said.

When Juan, the former soldier, received a letter from the State Department telling him it wasn’t convinced that he was a U.S. citizen, it requested a range of obscure documents — evidence of his mother’s prenatal care, his baptismal certificate, rental agreements from when he was a baby.

He managed to find some of those documents but weeks later received another denial. In a letter, the government said the information “did not establish your birth in the United States.”

“I thought to myself, you know, I’m going to have to seek legal help,” said Juan, who earns $13 an hour as a prison guard and expects to pay several thousand dollars in legal fees.

In a case last August, a 35-year-old Texas man with a U.S. passport was interrogated while crossing back into Texas from Mexico with his son at the ­McAllen-Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge, connecting Reynosa, Mexico, to McAllen, Tex.

His passport was taken from him, and Customs and Border Protection agents told him to admit that he was born in Mexico, according to documents later filed in federal court. He refused and was sent to the Los Fresnos Detention Center and entered into deportation proceedings.

He was released three days later, but the government scheduled a deportation hearing for him in 2019. His passport, which had been issued in 2008, was revoked.

Attorneys say these cases, where the government’s doubts about an official birth certificate lead to immigration detention, are increasingly common. “I’ve had probably 20 people who have been sent to the detention center — U.S. citizens,” said Jaime Diez, an attorney in Brownsville.

Diez represents dozens of U.S. citizens who were denied their passports or had their passports suddenly revoked. Among them are soldiers and Border Patrol agents. In some cases, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents have arrived at his clients’ homes without notice and taken passports away.

The State Department says that even though it may deny someone a passport, that does not necessarily mean that the individual will be deported. But it leaves them in a legal limbo, with one arm of the U.S. government claiming they are not an American and the prospect that immigration agents could follow up on their case. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 August 2018 at 8:47 am

Rooney butterscotch Emilion, Lenthéric shaving soap, Baili BR171, and Peary & Henson aftershave

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The Rooney did its job efficiently, and again I was greatly taken by the fragrance of the vintage Lenthéric shaving soap. The Baili 171 continues to be great; the fact that it cost $6 is a bonus pleasure. A splash of Peary & Henson from Prospector Co. finished the job:

This aftershave splash takes its roots from old maritime travels. The arctic blue color and the chilling smell of bay leaf and coriander brings to mind the voyage of Robert E. Peary and Matthew Henson who were the first explorers to reach the North Pole. Peary and Henson were the most determined and steadfast explorers having made several record-breaking attempts. In April of 1909, along with 4 Eskimos, reached the highest [northernmost – LG] point on earth.

Witch hazel, cedar water and aloe bring the bay to life and fresh coriander [? – don’t see it in the ingredients – LG] adds a sharp bite. The smells and properties of this aftershave will invigorate, refresh and tighten your skin and prepare you for another day of endless nautical miles.

Hamamelis Virginiana (Witch Hazel) Distillate, Organic Aloe (Barbadensis), Distilled Water, PolySorbate 20, Vegetable Glycerin, Pimenta Racemosa (Bay), Commiphora Myrrha (Myrrh), Rosmarinus Officinalis (Rosemary), Eucalyptus Globules (Eucalyptus), Pinus sylvestris (Pine), Lavandula Angustifolia (Lavendar), Melaleuca Alternifolia (Tea Tree), Phenoxyethanol.

 

Written by LeisureGuy

30 August 2018 at 8:43 am

Posted in Shaving

The decline of a certain type of white privilege: Harley-Davidson Needs a New Generation of Riders

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Claire Suddath reports in Bloomberg Businessweek:

The first thing you should do when you meet a Harley-Davidson rider is check the back of his—or her, but let’s be honest, it’s probably his—jacket. The patches tell you who you’re dealing with. First, there’s the insignia. It might be a bald eagle atop the company’s logo to let everyone know this is a Harley guy—not a Honda guy, not a BMW guy, but a red-blooded, flag-waving American patriot. If this particular Harley guy belongs to one of 1,400 company-sponsored Harley Owners Group (H.O.G.) chapters around the world, the insignia will be coupled with a second patch that specifies which H.O.G. he belongs to: the Duluth H.O.G.s, the Waco H.O.G.s., or, today, the H.O.G.s of Long Island.

Sometimes there’s a third patch, for bikers who belong to an independent club—the Blue Knights are cops, the Hells Angels hate cops—but two-patch groups tend not to associate with them. “It’s a different mindset,” says Frank Pellegrino, who on weekdays is a vice president for a plastics outsourcing company and on weekends a Long Island H.O.G.

Pellegrino, who got his first Harley for his 65th birthday last year, is about to spend this cloudless summer Sunday exploring 100 miles along the back roads of New York and Connecticut with about 25 other Harley guys.

With him today are Joe, Marty, Dennis, Grover, Richie, Bob and his girlfriend, Dawn, and two Mikes, one with an American flag bandanna tied around his head. No one is younger than 45; many are well past 60. They’ve gathered behind a BP station at 8 a.m. in mid-July, sipping coffee and admiring one another’s bikes. At one point, Dennis talks politics with Joe and one of the Mikes.

“What’s the deal with all this fake news about a Europe plant?” Mike without a bandanna asks. “Harley was already going to build overseas, and now they’re just blaming it on the president.”

In June the European Union slapped what’s effectively a 31 percent retaliatory tariff on Harley in response to President Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs. To avoid them, Joe says, Harley will stop making the bikes it sells to Europe in the U.S. The company already has plants in Brazil and India and is in the process of opening one in Thailand.

“Oh, is that the case?” Mike asks. He swears he read something different on the internet.

“I see where they’re coming from,” Dennis says, crossing his arms over his We Stand For The Flag T-shirt. “How are they going to sell over there with millions in tariffs placed on them?”

“I still don’t like it,” Mike says. “Harley ought to be focused on us.”

Three weeks later, and about 1,000 miles away at its headquarters in Milwaukee, Harley-Davidson Inc. announced what executives called the most ambitious overhaul in its 115-year history with a plan that, for the first time in decades, wasn’t focused on riders like Frank or Dennis or the Mikes.

In the next few years, Harley will release more than a dozen motorcycles, many of them small, lightweight, even electric. The new Harleys are intended to reverse years of declining sales and appeal to a new rider: young, urban, and not necessarily American. Harley wants international riders to be half its business in the next 10 years. “We are turning a page in the history of the company,” says Matthew Levatich, chief executive officer. “We’re opening our arms to the next generation.”

The two-patch H.O.G. clubs and three-patch biker gangs that made the brand famous have saddled the company with an uninviting reputation that Harleys are only for older white men who roam the highways on rumbling, two-wheeled beasts. Young riders, women, people of color, or anyone who lives in a city and wants a motorcycle for commuting rather than joyrides—the bikers send the message that Harley isn’t for them.

And without new customers, the company can’t grow. Nor can it fully recover from the Great Recession. It’s shipping almost a third fewer motorcycles to its dealers than at its prerecession peak in 2006. After rebounding slightly, retail sales have steadily declined again since 2014, tumbling almost 14 percent in the U.S. The average Harley rider’s age has inched up to almost 50. “It’s not just the brand, but the people associated with the brand,” says Heather Malenshek, Harley’s vice president for global marketing. “We’ve made a tonal shift to think about ourselves as being more inclusive.”

Among motorcycle fans, Harley’s new image met with astonished enthusiasm. “We looked at pictures of the new bikes and were like, Harley did this? That’s pretty wild,” says Zack Courts, features editor of Motorcyclist magazine. Riders who generally preferred Honda or Yamaha said maybe they’d try a Harley. It should have been a marketing coup.

Then the president of the United States called on motorcyclists to boycott the company.

Since 1903, when a Milwaukee engineer, William Harley, and his friend, Arthur Davidson, designed a motorized bicycle in Davidson’s backyard shed, the company has been continuously manufacturing motorcycles in Wisconsin. Throughout the years, Harley-Davidson has been acquired, sold, spun off, and taken public, but it’s the only American motorcycle company that’s never gone out of business. The one with the second-longest streak, Indian Motorcycle, shut down in 1953. Harley has largely thrived. It added a Pennsylvania plant in the 1970s; Missouri and Brazil came online in the 1990s; its newest addition, in Thailand, will open this fall. Last year, the company made $4.9 billion in revenue from motorcycles. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 August 2018 at 6:11 pm

Perfect as a physical metaphor for the times

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From this collection.

Great way to start a novel

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Good novels are good all the way through, including the opening paragraph:

The Whistling Season (Doig, Ivan)

When I visit the back corners of my life again after so long a time, littlest things jump out first. The oilcloth, tiny blue windmills on white squares, worn to colorless smears at our four places at the kitchen table. Our father’s pungent coffee, so strong it was almost ambulatory, which he gulped down from suppertime until bedtime and then slept serenely as a sphinx. The pesky wind, the one element we could count on at Marias Coulee, whistling into some weather-cracked cranny of this house as if invited in. . .

The Kindle format is designed to support/encourage impulse purchases. (“If you want a horse to jump a fence, make the fence as low as possible” — from Getting to Yes — and I’ll add “and it helps even more if you make jumping the fence look inviting in prospect and enjoyable in the experience.”) Read a review, bought the book: elapsed time < 1 minute. But still, I think it’s going to be good. Do you get that from the opening paragraph? (I’m sure that statistically it is the most-labored-upon paragraph in the book, with second place going to the last paragraph (for those who read the ending in deciding whether to buy the book—I know you’re out there. So the residue of all that work is revealing, but I never read the ending at any place than that which the author (strongly) indicated: at the end )

Written by LeisureGuy

29 August 2018 at 5:46 pm

Posted in Books, Memes, Writing

Fat desensitizes the brain to a hormone that diminishes appetite

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Bret Stetka reports in Scientific American:

Obesity rates in the U.S. and abroad have soared: The world now has more overweight people than those who weigh too little. One reason relates to the way the body reacts to its own fat stores by setting in motion a set of molecular events that impede the metabolic process that normally puts a damper on hunger.

A new study published August 22 in Science Translational Medicineprovides details of how this process occurs, giving new insight into why obese individuals have trouble shedding pounds. It also suggests a possible treatment approach that targets obesity in the brain, not in the belly.

Scientists have long known that a hormone called leptin is instrumental in regulating the human diet. Produced by fat cells, the molecule communicates with a brain region called the hypothalamus, which reins in hunger cravings when our energy stores are full.

Yet as we gain weight our bodies become less sensitive to leptin, and it becomes harder and harder to slim down. In other words, weight gain begets more weight gain. In an experiment using mice that became obese on a high-fat diet, an international team found obesity increases the activity of an enzyme called matrix metalloproteinase-2, or MMP-2. By using a technique called western blot analysis—separating and identifying all the proteins in a tissue sample—the authors found MMP-2 cleaves off a portion of the leptin receptor in the hypothalamus, impairing the hormone’s signaling and its ability to suppress appetite.

The study also revealed that disabling MMP-2 with a gene-silencing technique—one in which a stretch of RNA was injected directly into the hypothalamus—had the effect of reducing weight gain in obese mice and preventing leptin receptor cleavage. Conversely, viral delivery of MMP-2 to the same brain region promoted subsequent weight gain and the snipping off of receptors. “The concept of ‘leptin resistance’ was already known in the field,” says paper co-author Dinorah Friedmann-Morvinski, a cell biologist at Tel Aviv University in Israel. “Our contribution to the field is (revealing) this mechanism by which obesity induces the activation of MMP-2 in the hypothalamus, which impairs the subsequent leptin-signaling cascade.”

Friedmann-Morvinski and her colleagues—including lead author Rafi Mazor, a biologist at the University of California, San Diego—also found treating hypothalamic cells in a lab dish with inflammatory compounds increases the expression of the MMP-2 gene, suggesting the initial “cause” of obesity results from inflammation. Previous research supports the idea high-fat, high-calorie diets can induce chronic low-grade inflammation of the hypothalamus, which over time may escalate MMP-2 production.

Martin Myers, a diabetes researcher and professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan (U.M.) who was not involved with the work, agrees MMP-2 is probably playing a role in energy balance. He points out, however, the new study is not enough to demonstrate that it interferes with leptin signaling in living animals. “I think their finding about a role for MMP-2 in the [hypothalamus] is potentially important. But I don’t think they have identified the mechanism,” he says. “I think the most important problem here is that they have not shown any alteration of [leptin] signaling in vivo.”— a contention disputed by the study’s authors.

If the new findings do pan out, they could open the door to possible therapies aimed at damping down inflammation in the brain, decreasing MMP-2 activity and boosting the brain’s responsiveness to leptin. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 August 2018 at 4:26 pm

A New Book Details the Damage Done by the Right-Wing Media in 2016

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Jeffrey Toobin reviews a book in the New Yorker:

The Washington conventional wisdom presupposes a kind of symmetry between our polarized political parties. Liberals and conservatives, it is said, live in separate bubbles, where they watch different television networks, frequent different Web sites, and absorb different realities. The implication of this view is that both sides resemble each other in their twisted views of reality. Rachel Maddow and Sean Hannity, in other words, represent two sides of the same coin.

This view is precisely wrong, according to a provocative new book by Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts that will be published next month by Oxford University Press. The book’s title, “Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics,” is a mouthful, but the book’s message is almost simple. The two sides are not, in fact, equal when it comes to evaluating “news” stories, or even in how they view reality. Liberals want facts; conservatives want their biases reinforced. Liberals embrace journalism; conservatives believe propaganda. In the more measured but still emphatic words of the authors, “the right-wing media ecosystem differs categorically from the rest of the media environment,” and has been much more susceptible to “disinformation, lies and half-truths.”

“Network Propaganda” is an academic work at the crossroads of law, sociology, and media studies. Benkler is a law professor at Harvard and a co-director of the university’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, where Faris and Roberts both conduct research. The book is not a work of media criticism but, rather, of data analysis—a study of millions of online stories, tweets, and Facebook-sharing data points. The authors’ conclusion is that “something very different was happening in right-wing media than in centrist, center-left and left-wing media.” Accordingly, they wrote the book “to shine a light on the right-wing media ecosystem itself as the primary culprit in sowing confusion and distrust in the broader American ecosystem.”

The core of the book is the study of how that right-wing ecosystem works. According to the authors, false stories are launched on a series of extreme Web sites, such as InfoWars (the home of Alex Jones), “none of which claim to follow the norms or processes of professional journalistic objectivity.” Those stories are then transmitted to outlets such as Fox News and the Daily Caller, which, according to the authors, “do claim to follow journalistic norms,” but often fail in that function when it comes to tales from the Web sites. Notably, the authors write, “this pattern is not mirrored on the left wing.” There are no significant Web sites on the left that parallel the chronic falsity of those on the right, and the upstream sources do follow traditional journalistic standards, and serve “as a consistent check on the dissemination and validation of the most extreme stories when they do emerge on the left, and have no parallels in the levels of visibility or trust that can perform the same function on the right.”

How do the authors prove their case? The most persuasive sections of the book concern case studies of stories that did, or did not, go viral in these politically disconnected universes. Consider two stories that emerged over the course of the 2016 Presidential campaign: in one, Bill and Hillary Clinton were involved in acts of pedophilia, which included the abuse of Haitian refugee children and visits to an orgy island—preposterous claims for which there was no shred of evidence. In the other, Donald Trump supposedly raped a thirteen-year-old girl, in 1994—something that he was accused of in a lawsuit filed in 2016. At first, there was great interest on the left in the Trump story. There were five times as many Facebook shares of the most widely shared article about it (1.25 million) as of the most widely shared story about the imagined Clinton pedophilia. But all that chatter was followed by near silence in the liberal and mainstream media, as the story failed to survive the most basic fact-checking scrutiny. (Trump denied the allegations; the lawsuit was subsequently dropped, refiled, and dropped again.) As the authors write, “the presence and attention of both journalists and readers to diverse sites was enough to enforce a hard constraint on the ability to disseminate politically affirming falsehoods.”

The Clinton orgy-island story met a very different fate in the right-wing media, which pushed versions of it over the course of the campaign. (Fox News initially ran several segments that raised the topic of the “Lolita Express.”) The dynamic on the right, the authors found, “rewards the most popular and widely viewed channels at the very top of the media ecosystem for delivering stories, whether true or false, that protect the team, reinforce its beliefs, attack opponents, and refute any claims that might threaten ‘our’ team from outsiders.” Referring to the orgy-island story, the authors note that “not one right-wing outlet came out to criticize and expose this blatant lie for what it was. In the grip of the propaganda feedback loop, the right-wing media ecosystem had no mechanism for self-correction, and instead exhibited dynamics of self-reinforcement, confirmation, and repetition so that readers, viewers and listeners encountered multiple versions of the same story, over months, to the point that both recall and credibility were enhanced.”

“Network Propaganda” does refute some favorite liberal explanations for the results of the 2016 election.  . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

29 August 2018 at 4:10 pm

Nuclear Safety Board Slams Energy Department Plan to Weaken Oversight

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Rebecca Moss reports for the Santa Fe Mexican in ProPublica:

A new Department of Energy order that could be used to withhold information from a federal nuclear safety board and prevent the board from overseeing worker safety at nuclear facilities appears to violate longstanding provisions in the U.S. Atomic Energy Act, the board’s members said Tuesday.

Members of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, both Democrats and Republicans, were united in their criticism of the Energy Department’s order, published in mid-May. It prevents the board from accessing sensitive information, imposes additional legal hurdles on board staff, and mandates that Energy Department officials speak “with one voice” when communicating with the board.

The Santa Fe New Mexican and ProPublica first reported on the order’s existence in July but the board called for a special hearing, saying its members had no formal input before the document was finalized.

At that hearing in Washington, D.C., Tuesday morning, the first of three on the topic, officials from the Energy Department and its National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the nation’s nuclear stockpile, said the changes were largely innocuous and were necessary to update a 17-year-old guidance manual.

“It certainly is not intended to harm” the relationship between the department and the board, said William (Ike) White, chief of staff and associate principal deputy administrator for the nuclear security administration. He said the changes are designed to ensure agency leaders “have ownership and accountability for the decisions they make.”

But board members said such statements were at odds with the language of the order, which outlines broad restrictions and could exclude thousands of Department of Energy workers from the board’s safety oversight.

“To me the primary question is, is [the order] consistent with the Atomic Energy Act?” asked acting board chairman Bruce Hamilton. “In my view, it is not.”

Board members also questioned whether the department was systematically changing its approach to nuclear safety, which agency officials denied.

Already, the order has been cited in denying the board access to information about safety studies related to explosives at the Pantex Plant in Texas, and about a worker’s complaint and the reclassification of explosive reactions at Los Alamos National Laboratory, a technical expert for the board said.

The five-member board, which currently has one vacancy, was formed in 1988 near the close of the Cold War, as the public and Congress began to question the lack of accountability at the Department of Energy and its predecessor agencies. Since the end of the Manhattan Project, the agencies had made their own rules and been largely self-regulating. Negligent safety practices contributed to cancer and other illnesses in nuclear workers exposed to radiation and toxic chemicals without proper protections, studies have shown.

Under the law, the board was granted wide access to information in order to make nuclear safety recommendations and add a layer of accountability and transparency to the Energy Department.

The Department of Energy has attempted to limit the safety board’s oversight function for more than a decade, but pressure has increased within the past year, advocates of the board say. Last summer, for example, the board’s then-chairman, who had been elevated into that role by the Trump administration, proposed dissolving the board entirely. A few months later, the National Nuclear Security Administration said the board should stop publishing weekly reports on issues at national laboratories because they were unflattering, citing media articles that referenced the reports. Neither one of those steps was implemented.

The Energy Department did not consult with the board, workers’ unions or residents who live near nuclear facilities before issuing the order, board members said. However, several private contractors who run national laboratories, including Los Alamos National Laboratory, were consulted, according to a memo referenced at the hearing.

Board member Joyce Connery said nuclear facilities are under stress because of aging buildings and staff turnover, even as they are called upon to greatly expand the production of nuclear weapons. This work is largely planned for New Mexico and South Carolina. . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

29 August 2018 at 3:35 pm

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