Later On

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

Archive for December 21st, 2018

The corruption is now totally out in the open: Aluminum plunges, Rusal shares soar as U.S. to lift sanctions

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Polina Devitt and Nathan Layne report in Reuters:

The U.S. Treasury said it will lift sanctions on the core empire of Russian businessman Oleg Deripaska, including aluminum giant Rusal and its parent En+, watering down the toughest penalties imposed since Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

London aluminum prices sank to a 16-month low after the U.S. Treasury’s announcement, while shares in Rusal, the world’s largest aluminum producer after China’s Hongqiao, surged to an eight-month high.

In April, the U.S. Treasury imposed sanctions on Deripaska, Rusal, En+ and other companies in which he owns stakes, citing “malign activities” by Russia, prompting turmoil in global aluminum markets.

After lobbying by European governments, Washington postponed enforcement of the sanctions and started talks with Deripaska’s team on removing Rusal and En+ from the blacklist if he ceded control of Rusal.

Deripaska will remain under sanctions, the Treasury said. However, the three Deripaska companies – Rusal, En+ and power firm EuroSibEnergo – have agreed to restructure to reduce Deripaska’s stakes.

Rusal shares soared as much as 26.8 percent on Thursday to their highest since April, the month when the sanctions were announced. . .

Continue reading.

Trump’s going to get that Moscow tower one way or another.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 December 2018 at 7:06 pm

Those with whom President Trump consults before making big decisions: MBS, Putin, Erdoğan, . . .

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News reports are saying that President Trump made the decision to have US troops out of Syria immediately without consulting anyone in Congress, the military, the intelligence agencies, his own aides.

And they’re saying that he didn’t consult anybody, which is obviously flat-out wrong: He consulted with President Erdoğan.

The people to whom Trump looks for guidance and approbation—quite revealing.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 December 2018 at 6:51 pm

There Is No Such Thing as Conscious Thought

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I’ve been gradually coming around to this. We tend to assume that if we have complex thoughts and thought sequences, that is due to our consciousness/free will, but it seems more and more like an internal sort of evolution. Just as the evolution of lifeforms produces extremely complex organisms that have ingenious mechanisms to go about their lives—all created without any consciousness or plan—so also our complex thoughts seem to emerge from a natural and internal evolutionary process, using thoughts and perceptions.

Steve Ayan writes in Scientific American:

Briefly Explained: Consciousness

Consciousness is generally understood to mean that an individual not only has an idea, recollection or perception but also knows that he or she has it. For perception, this knowledge encompasses both the experience of the outer world (“it’s raining”) and one’s internal state (“I’m angry”). Experts do not know how human consciousness arises. Nevertheless, they generally agree on how to define various aspects of it. Thus, they distinguish “phenomenal consciousness” (the distinctive feel when we perceive, for example, that an object is red) and “access consciousness” (when we can report on a mental state and use it in decision-making).

Important characteristics of consciousness include subjectivity (the sense that the mental event belongs to me), continuity (it appears unbroken) and intentionality (it is directed at an object). According to a popular scheme of consciousness known as Global Workspace Theory, a mental state or event is conscious if a person can bring it to mind to carry out such functions as decision-making or remembering, although how such accessing occurs is not precisely understood. Investigators assume that consciousness is not the product of a single region of the brain but of larger neural networks. Some theoreticians go so far as to posit that it is not even the product of an individual brain. For example, philosopher Alva Noë of the University of California, Berkeley, holds that consciousness is not the work of a single organ but is more like a dance: a pattern of meaning that emerges between brains.  –S.A.

That’s the footnote to the interview, but it seemed good as a foundation. The article itself begins:

Peter Carruthers, Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy at the University of Maryland, College Park, is an expert on the philosophy of mind who draws heavily on empirical psychology and cognitive neuroscience. He outlined many of his ideas on conscious thinking in his 2015 book The Centered Mind: What the Science of Working Memory Shows Us about the Nature of Human Thought. More recently, in 2017, he published a paper with the astonishing title of “The Illusion of Conscious Thought.” In the following excerpted conversation, Carruthers explains to editor Steve Ayan the reasons for his provocative proposal.

What makes you think conscious thought is an illusion?

I believe that the whole idea of conscious thought is an error. I came to this conclusion by following out the implications of the two of the main theories of consciousness. The first is what is called the Global Workspace Theory, which is associated with neuroscientists Stanislas Dehaene and Bernard Baars. Their theory states that to be considered conscious a mental state must be among the contents of working memory (the “user interface” of our minds) and thereby be available to other mental functions, such as decision-making and verbalization. Accordingly, conscious states are those that are “globally broadcast,” so to speak. The alternative view, proposed by Michael Graziano, David Rosenthal and others, holds that conscious mental states are simply those that you know of, that you are directly aware of in a way that doesn’t require you to interpret yourself. You do not have to read you own mind to know of them. Now, whichever view you adopt, it turns out that thoughts such as decisions and judgments should not be considered to be conscious. They are not accessible in working memory, nor are we directly aware of them. We merely have what I call “the illusion of immediacy”—the false impression that we know our thoughts directly.

One might easily agree that the sources of one’s thoughts are hidden from view—we just don’t know where our ideas come from. But once we have them and we know it, that’s where consciousness begins. Don’t we have conscious thoughts at least in this sense?

In ordinary life we are quite content to say things like “Oh, I just had a thought” or “I was thinking to myself.” By this we usually mean instances of inner speech or visual imagery, which are at the center of our stream of consciousness—the train of words and visual contents represented in our minds. I think that these trains are indeed conscious. In neurophilosophy, however, we refer to “thought” in a much more specific sense. In this view, thoughts include only nonsensory mental attitudes, such as judgments, decisions, intentions and goals. These are amodal, abstract events, meaning that they are not sensory experiences and are not tied to sensory experiences. Such thoughts never figure in working memory. They never become conscious. And we only ever know of them by interpreting what does become conscious, such as visual imagery and the words we hear ourselves say in our heads.

So consciousness always has a sensory basis?

I claim that consciousness is always bound to a sensory modality, that there is inevitably some auditory, visual or tactile aspect to it. All kinds of mental imagery, such as inner speech or visual memory, can of course be conscious. We see things in our mind’s eye; we hear our inner voice. What we are conscious of are the sensory-based contents present in working memory.

In your view, is consciousness different from awareness?

That’s a difficult question. Some philosophers believe that consciousness can be richer than what we can actually report. For example, our visual field seems to be full of detail—everything is just there, already consciously seen. Yet experiments in visual perception, especially the phenomenon of inattentional blindness, show that in fact we consciously register only a very limited slice of the world. [Editors’ note: A person experiencing inattentional blindness may not notice that a gorilla walked across a basketball court while the individual was focusing on the movement of the ball.] So, what we think we see, our subjective impression, is different from what we are actually aware of. Probably our conscious mind grasps only the gist of much of what is out there in the world, a sort of statistical summary. Of course, for most people consciousness and awareness coincide most of the time. Still, I think, we are not directly aware of our thoughts. Just as we are not directly aware of the thoughts of other people. We interpret our own mental states in much the same way as we interpret the minds of others, except that we can use as data in our own case our own visual imagery and inner speech.

You call the process of how people learn their own thoughts interpretive sensory access, or ISA. Where does the interpretation come into play?

Let’s take our conversation as an example—you are surely aware of what I am saying to you at this very moment. But the interpretative work and inferences on which you base your understanding are not accessible to you. All the highly automatic, quick inferences that form the basis of your understanding of my words remain hidden. You seem to just hearthe meaning of what I say. What rises to the surface of your mind are the results of these mental processes. That is what I mean: The inferences themselves, the actual workings of our mind, remain unconscious. All that we are aware of are their products. And my access to your mind, when I listen to you speak, is not different in any fundamental way from my access to my own mind when I am aware of my own inner speech. The same sorts of interpretive processes still have to take place.

Why, then, do we have the impression of direct access to our mind?

The idea that minds are transparent to themselves (that everyone has direct awareness of their own thoughts) is built into the structure of our “mind reading” or “theory of mind” faculty, I suggest. The assumption is a useful heuristic when interpreting the statements of others. If someone says to me, “I want to help you,” I have to interpret whether the person is sincere, whether he is speaking literally or ironically, and so on; that is hard enough. If I also had to interpret whether he is interpreting his own mental state correctly, then that would make my task impossible. It is far simpler to assume that he knows his own mind (as, generally, he does). The illusion of immediacy has the advantage of enabling us to understand others with much greater speed and probably with little or no loss of reliability. If I had to figure out to what extent others are reliable interpreters of themselves, then that would make things much more complicated and slow. It would take a great deal more energy and interpretive work to understand the intentions and mental states of others. And then it is the same heuristic transparency-of-mind assumption that makes my own thoughts seem transparently available to me.

What is the empirical basis of your hypothesis?

There is a great deal of experimental evidence from normal subjects, especially of their readiness to falsely, but unknowingly, fabricate facts or memories to fill in for lost ones. Moreover, if introspection were fundamentally different from reading the minds of others, one would expect there to be disorders in which only one capacity was damaged but not the other. But that’s not what we find. Autism spectrum disorders, for example, are not only associated with limited access to the thoughts of others but also with a restricted understanding of oneself. In patients with schizophrenia, the insight both into one’s own mind and that of others is distorted. There seems to be only a single mind-reading mechanism on which we depend both internally and in our social relations.

What side effect does the illusion of immediacy have?

The price we pay is that we believe subjectively that we are possessed of far greater certainty about our attitudes than we actually have. We believe that if we are in mental state X, it is the same as being in that state. As soon as I believe I am hungry, I am. Once I believe I am happy, I am. But that is not really the case. It is a trick of the mind that makes us equate the act of thinking one has a thought with the thought itself.

What might be the alternative? What should we do about it, if only we could?

Well, in theory, we would have to distinguish between an experiential state itself on the one hand and our judgment or belief underlying this experience on the other hand. There are rare instances when we succeed in doing so: for example, when I feel nervous or irritated but suddenly realize that I am actually hungry and need to eat.

You mean that a more appropriate way of seeing it would be: “I think I’m angry, but maybe I’m not”?

That would be one way of saying it. It is astonishingly difficult to maintain this kind of distanced view of oneself. Even after many years of consciousness studies, I’m still not all that good at it (laughs).

Brain researchers put a lot of effort into figuring out the neural correlates of consciousness, the NCC. Will this endeavor ever be successful? . . .

Continue reading.

And of course in this context, I must mention one of the books from my “repeatedly recommended” list: The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes. I think it is a crackpot theory, but it is a fascinating crackpot theory.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 December 2018 at 3:10 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life, Science

Remember the Big Story in the Russia Scandal: Donald Trump Betrayed America

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David Corn writes in Mother Jones:

Michael Cohen heading to jail. Michael Flynn narrowly avoiding a prison sentence—for now. Paul Manafort stuck in the hoosegow and still tangling with special counsel Robert Mueller. The news of the Trump-Russia scandal these days has focused on the dramatic developments for several top lieutenants in Donald Trump’s crew. (And don’t forget about Roger Stone!) But whenever there is a rush of new details about one slice or another of this controversy—or the other pending or possible cases involving the Trump Foundation, the Trump Organization, the Trump inauguration, the Trump family’s alleged tax fraud, and more—it’s important for all of us (and the media) to keep the spotlight on a central element that has already been established beyond any doubt: Trump betrayed his fellow Americans.

This Big Story often gets lost in the details and the ever-unfolding developments. Naturally, Trump’s alleged role in the campaign finance crimes committed by Cohen has drawn much coverage. (Federal prosecutors stated that Cohen broke the law “at the direction” of Trump: arranging hush-money payments to a porn star and a Playboy model who each alleged a sexual relationship with the president.) And the allegations of the Trump Foundation’s illegal activities certainly deserve plenty of headlines. But for more than two years, Trump has kept the paramount point of the Trump-Russia controversy—Trump’s own perfidy—from being the main theme of the narrative.

Trump has screamed “No collusion,” shrieked “Witch hunt,” and screeched “Hoax.” He has denied and lied. He has strived to make the public believe that the fundamental question is whether he directly conspired with Vladimir Putin to hack Democratic targets and disseminate the stolen material—contending that anything short of that is no big deal. And he and his minions have cooked up multiple conspiratorial distractions, ridiculously insisting Trump has been the victim of a Deep State plot.

And though recent polling shows most of the public believes the president has been dishonest about the Trump-Russia investigation, he has succeeded to an extent. Given the power of Trump’s ultra-bully pulpit, he has been able to win attention for his diversions, no matter how absurd (“Obama wiretapped me!!!”). His chaff-throwing has prevented core truths of the scandal from shining through, with a big assist from Fox News and “alternative facts” disinformation. Trump and his conservative handmaids in politics and right-wing media have done everything they can to prevent a clear-eyed reckoning with what happened in 2016.

Yet recent events make Trump’s already obvious treachery even more obvious. And it’s necessary for journalists and citizens to make sure this can be discerned through the dust Trump kicks up daily.

Let’s step back for a moment and look at the big picture. In late November, Cohen, Trump’s onetime lawyer and (lousy) fixer, pleaded guilty to lying to Congress. His lie, Cohen admitted, was designed to help Trump cover up what amounts to a tremendous scandal in its own right: the secret business deal in Moscow that Trump tried to pull off while campaigning for president. After word of this deal emerged last year, Cohen told congressional investigators that Trump’s efforts in Moscow had ended in early 2016 (before the bulk of the Republican primaries) and that there had been no contact between Trump’s company and the Russian government regarding the project (though Cohen said he’d tried but failed to reach Putin’s office to discuss the venture).

All this was false. The efforts to cut a deal continued until at least June 2016—all the way through the GOP primaries—and Cohen did speak with an aide in Putin’s office about the project. Cohen’s plea highlighted one of Trump’s grandest deceits of 2016: Throughout the campaign, Trump insisted he had no connections to Russia. And after the election, he said he had “stayed away” from the country.

The exact opposite was true. While Trump had pitched himself to voters as an America First candidate who sincerely held positive sentiments regarding Putin, he had pursued a deal in Russia that could have reaped him hundreds of millions of dollars. And he had not shared this salient fact with the public. Nor had he shared that Cohen, on his behalf, had asked Putin’s office for help. Needless to say, Trump could not have moved ahead with a major endeavor in Moscow if he had been talking tough about the Kremlin. He was thoroughly compromised as a candidate and hid that from the public during the campaign.

In a non-Trumpified world, revelations of this behind-the-scenes scheming for profit would have set off an enormous political earthquake. After all, this was the most significant conflict of interest in modern American campaign history.

But Trump has changed the rules of what counts as a political scandal. And when the Washington Post revealed details of the project in the summer of 2017, no firestorm ensued. After the first splash, most of the media world moved on, and Republicans in Congress barely took notice.

Cohen’s plea last month brought attention back to this secret project—which could well be called an act of collusion between Trump’s company and Putin’s office. Still, the full significance of Trump’s deception of the American public has not sufficiently registered. (Has a single Republican leader said boo about it? None that I have noticed.)

This episode is a reminder that other proven acts of Trump deceitfulness have not become the dominant and widely-accepted storylines of the Russia affair. For example, the infamous Trump Tower meeting in June 2016, when Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner sat down with a Russian emissary to get dirt on Hillary Clinton. The Trumpsters all say that nothing of use came out of this meeting. But its true import was established before it even occurred: Simply by taking the meeting—which had been described to Trump aides as part of a covert Russian effort to help them win—the Trump camp signaled to the Kremlin that it was fine with a clandestine Moscow scheme to assist Trump, and was willing to secretly collaborate with it.

Pause on that for a moment. An American presidential campaign indicated to the Kremlin it would happily conspire with the Russians on secret dirty tricks.

In the weeks after the Trump Tower meeting—as the Russian hack attack became public and the swiped Democratic National Committee emails were dumped to harm Clinton’s campaign—Trump and his team (including senior advisers who had been at that meeting) had the gall to deny Russia was intervening in the election. They lied and lied, amplifying the Russian disinformation that Moscow was not behind the hacks.

For his part, Trump even called on Russian hackers to target Clinton. And after he received a private intelligence briefing in mid-August 2016 that included the intelligence community’s preliminary assessment that Putin was interfering in the election, Trump publicly and continuously claimed that talk of a Russian assault on US democracy was bunk. And he kept on with this after the Obama administration publicly stated Moscow was the culprit. Trump’s remarks could well have been taken by the Kremlin as a sign that the Trump gang was not concerned or upset about Russian intervention in the US election. (Earlier this month, Dan Friedman and I reported in Mother Jonesthat two associates of Michael Flynn, Trump’s top national security campaign aide, say Flynn has said he communicated with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the campaign and discussed how Trump could work productively with Russia if he won—conversations that also would have sent Moscow the message that Trump was willing to do business regardless of Putin’s assault on the election.)

Let’s recap:

  • Trump, while campaigning for president, had a secret deal in Russia for which his attorney sought Putin’s help. Trump lied to the public about this.
  • Trump’s campaign was informed that Moscow intended to intervene to help Trump. It said nothing about this information, essentially encouraged the Kremlin, and denied Moscow’s involvement once the Russian hack-and-dump attack became publicly known.
  • Trump, after being told the Kremlin was attempting to subvert an American election, claimed no such thing was happening. He covered for Putin.

Trump aided and abetted Russia’s secret war on the United States—a war that helped shape the outcome of a narrowly decided presidential election. This is all known, and indisputable—except that these days, anything will be disputed by Trump and his followers. Even if Trump’s disputations are demonstrable lies—“I have nothing to do with Russia”—they still color and cloud the ongoing public discourse about what happened in 2016. They have prompted his supporters and his GOP comrades to reject or ignore the powerful truth of Trump’s profound betrayal, portraying it as just another debatable point in the grand chaos of the Trump years.

This holiday season, though, the truth is crashing down on several of the president’s men (and one female Russian operative). And Trump’s multiple lies about the hush-money payments have been highlighted, with Trump himself practically branded an unindicted co-conspirator.

As the nation heads toward the third year of the Trump-Russia scandal and the investigations get tougher to track, we must . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 December 2018 at 11:58 am

Sandalwood before and after

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Art of Shaving Sandalwood shaving soap is really excellent—at least this puck is. (Mainline shaving soap makers will unpredictably change their formulae.) The fragrance is excellent, and the lather made by my Maggard 22mm synthetic was really superb. Three passes with my RazoRock Game Changer stainless razor left all in order for a splash of Saint Charles Shave’s Sandalwood EDT. I find that an EDT can work well as an aftershave, so that’s what occasionally I’ll use. Actual aftershaves tend to pay a bit more attention to skincare ingredients, but this is fine for a change of pace.

In comments recently the subject of memetic evolution came up wrt DE razors. The Gillette DE razors were the pinnacle of good razors (along with others: the Eclipse Red Ring, for example, and the Wilkinson “Sticky”), but then a new species of razor arose, the cartridge razor, and evolution of the DE species stagnated. Memetic evolution was still active, and in cartridge razors the result was an increasing number of blades.

With the resurgence of interest in traditional shaving, new DE razors began to appear and evolution resumed, exploiting new design tools (CAD), new materials readily available (aircraft-grade aluminum alloy, stainless steel more common), new manufacturing options (CNC machining). And of course new razors were built using knowledge from razors that came before.

The result is that, on the whole, modern DE razors are noticeably better than DE razors from back in the day: a razor that is extremely comfortable and extremely efficient was not that common back then, but as my list of recommended razors in Sharpologist shows, such razors are not uncommon today.

There were some fine cars made prior to 1970, but modern cars (having progressed further in their evolution) are on the whole better: better made, safer, more efficient, and so on. The same sort of thing holds true with DE razors.

For more on the topic of memes and their evolution, I highly (and repeatedly) recommend The Meme Machine, by Susan Blackmore.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 December 2018 at 8:18 am

Posted in Memes, Shaving

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