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

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