Later On

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Archive for February 1st, 2019

Ian’s fast shoelace knot

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Worth trying.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 February 2019 at 4:30 pm

Posted in Daily life

A Onetime Rising Democratic Star Faces Questions About Voter Privacy

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Democrats have their own bad actors, but I think Democrats tend to expose (and in this case possibly prosecute) them. Jessica Huseman, ProPublica, and Daniel Desrochers, Lexington Herald-Leader, report:

This story, the first of a three-part series, was co-published with the Lexington Herald-Leader.

In an appearance on MSNBC in July 2017, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes expressed her vehement opposition to giving voter data to President Donald Trump’s voter fraud commission, which had requested it from election officials in all 50 states. The privacy risks were simply too high, she said.

“There is not enough bourbon here in Kentucky to make this request seem sensible,” Grimes said. “Not on my watch are we going to be releasing sensitive information that relates to the privacy of individuals.”

But beginning months before she made that statement, Grimes’ own staff had been looking up hundreds of voters in the very same registration system. One of her former staffers first revealed the practice last summer but provided little detail.

Now, an investigation by ProPublica and the Lexington Herald-Leader shows that the searches were extensive and targeted prominent state politicians, including gubernatorial candidate Rocky Adkins, who could have been Grimes’ opponent in the Democratic primary. Grimes, who had been considering a bid, announced last week that she has decided not to run for the governorship.

Grimes’ luster has dimmed of late. She was seen as a rising Democratic star when, at age 35, she ran a doomed race against Sen. Mitch McConnell in 2014. Now, three state agencies are pursuing investigations against her office — a result of complaints filed by numerous state employees and officials. At least four have quietly filed complaints with the Executive Branch Ethics Commission; two others have complained publicly. (In addition, Grimes’ father was indicted on federal charges for allegedly making illegal campaign contributions to her 2014 Senate campaign; he has pleaded not guilty.) Grimes has defended her conduct.

Grimes’ staff made questionable use of its unprecedented access to the voter registration system, or VRS. They looked up applicants for non-political positions with the seeming purpose of discovering their party affiliation. State law prohibits inquiring as to whether such applicants are Republicans or Democrats.

Her staff searched for hundreds of voters, mostly state employees outside the secretary of state’s office, for no discernible reason. Documents show they looked up current and former employees, a federal judge, the Kentucky education commissioner and every member of the Kentucky Board of Education.

They even searched for members of the ethics commission who are investigating Grimes herself.

Presented with questions from ProPublica and the Herald-Leader, Grimes took a two-pronged stance: She cast doubt on the accuracy of the logs that revealed the searches while defending her right to engage in such searches.

Grimes asserted that the search logs had “not been verified” despite the fact that similar logs were provided last August to the agencies investigating Grimes’ conduct, including the ethics commission, the state personnel board and a special prosecutor appointed by the Kentucky attorney general. She also said it “boggles my mind” that anyone would criticize her access to the system given that she is the state’s “chief elections official.”

On Jan. 24, six nights after ProPublica and the Herald-Leader posed questions about the VRS searches, Grimes went to Franklin Circuit Court in Frankfort. She filed a pre-emptive action requesting that a judge declare her right to gain access to the VRS. The suit names as defendants the executive director and assistant executive director of the Kentucky State Board of Elections or SBE, which is charged with overseeing the state’s elections and maintaining the voter rolls. (The executive director has filed an ethics complaint against Grimes.)

The filing asserts that Grimes’ office is “legally entitled to access the VRS pursuant to federal and Kentucky law. Indeed, access is necessary to perform the duties imposed on the Secretary of State by federal and Kentucky law.” The filing describes assertions that Grimes’ staff used the VRS to uncover party affiliations as “inaccurate” but goes on to assert that the office has the right to that information because Kentucky law requires the SBE staff to be bipartisan.

At least one Democratic election official in Kentucky takes a different view. “It’s inappropriate for the secretary of state’s office to have access at all,” said Don Blevins Jr., the clerk for Fayette County. “The fact that they’re abusing that privilege is no surprise.”

Grimes runs the first secretary of state’s office in Kentucky history to have such access. Trey Grayson, who held the position from 2004-11, said he could not think of a reason he or his staff would have needed it. Any need to access the system, he said, could have been accomplished by consulting the SBE. (The SBE is separate from the secretary of state’s office but closely linked to it; it’s chaired by the secretary of state.)

In fact, when Grayson served as secretary of state, Kentucky’s ethics commission ruled he could run for a Senate seat without recusing himself as chief elections officer expressly because he had no access to the rolls, which could have given him an advantage. The ethics commission has since said that opinion no longer stands in light of Grimes’ access.

Grayson said such separation “provided comfort for Kentuckians that no one person — specifically, the secretary of state — had too much authority over elections,” he said, adding that he and his predecessors “had the good sense to maintain that setup.”

State Sen. Damon Thayer introduced a bill several weeks ago that would block the secretary of state’s office and the board members of the SBE from accessing the VRS. The searches “make you pause,” Thayer said. “You wonder, is she conducting some sort of witch hunt?”

Grimes’ use of the VRS first raised questions in early 2017 when Matt Selph, then assistant executive director of the SBE, noticed that a voting precinct had been deleted from the system. He found that Grimes and seven of her staff members had administrative access to it.

It allowed her staff to see, and change, extensive personal data, though there’s no indication that they did so. One state official called the information “a starter kit for identity theft.” That access was then reduced to “read-only” in February 2017.

Pieces of the voter roll contained in Kentucky’s VRS have always been accessible. The public has the ability to search for a person’s party affiliation and voting precinct if they can supply a first name, last name and year of birth. Anyone can also buy a more extensive version of the voter roll for a fee. That version includes each voter’s full name, birth year, party affiliation, address, precinct and whether the voter has cast a ballot (but not for whom) in the past five years.

Internal access to the system reveals far more. Administrators can view voters’ drivers license numbers, every address ever linked to a voter, full birth dates, phone numbers, email addresses, Social Security numbers for some voters, disability status, military status and the addresses of voters — like domestic violence survivors — who have petitioned to have their address kept off the public roll.

Relatively few people have full access. County clerks and their deputies  . . .

Continue reading.  There’s more. Later in the article:

. . . Grimes says she no longer has access to the system, but her assistant secretary of state and elections director have maintained read-only privileges. Months after his discovery, Selph submitted a detailed 12-page complaint to the ethics commission and the board of the SBE, explaining his objections to her staff’s access to the VRS, among other things. The board voted to fire him shortly thereafter. (Selph has since filed a whistleblower suit against the state.)

Selph’s concerns have been echoed by current SBE Executive Director, Jared Dearing, and multiple county clerks, who say there is no legitimate reason for Grimes to have access to the database.

In August 2018, as part of his own complaint letter, Dearing first publicly accused Grimes and her staff of not only having inappropriate access, but also of searching for employees as well as job applicants in order to identify their political affiliation. . .

See also the second of the three-part series, co-published with the Lexington Herald-Leader. It begins:

The September 2018 meeting of the Kentucky State Board of Elections was strikingly contentious. There was shouting, cross-talk and threats to eject staff — all playing out in a public forum in front of TV cameras.

But the most unusual moment, perhaps, was this: Two board members moved to rescind the votes they had cast at the previous meeting, only three weeks before. They claimed that Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, whose position also makes her chairwoman of the State Board of Elections, or SBE, had essentially misled them into granting her unprecedented day-to-day power over the SBE. The board members’ efforts to void the resolution failed. Grimes cast the deciding vote.

Today, Grimes wields that new power over the SBE — and she’s facing a revolt by some staff as well as a loss of trust from many of the county clerks who administer elections, according to interviews with more than 30 people involved in the election-administration process, as well as documents and emails. “Alison has just got so much more access to things than any other secretary of state I’ve known,” said Julie Griggs, the clerk of McCracken County, who has worked in that office for 30 years. (Like Grimes, Griggs is a Democrat.) “It’s too much control for one person to have.”

Tension between Grimes’ office and the SBE has “turned our office upside down,” longtime SBE employee Sheila Walker wrote in an email to the board in August, adding that the agency had “never experienced anything like this in past years.”

Meanwhile, Grimes has slowed the process of cleaning the state’s voter rolls. That could put Kentucky out of compliance with an agreement it signed with the U.S. Department of Justice to improve the accuracy of its rolls. In an interview, Grimes denied the state was out of compliance.

Grimes asserts that as the state’s chief elections officer, it’s only natural that she exercises close control of both the secretary of state’s office and the SBE. She has cited the SBE’s resolution granting her day-to-day control of the agency as an endorsement of the breadth of her power. Consistent with the resolution and Kentucky law, Grimes has “taken an active role in the operations of the SBE,” according to a statementprovided by her legal team. The statement denied that she has introduced partisanship into the SBE.

Kentucky has long split election oversight between two agencies to reduce the possibility of partisan control, according to experts. The secretary of state manages the candidate nomination process, while the SBE handles almost all other state election functions, such as maintaining voter rolls and coordinating with the 120 county clerks in the state who oversee polling sites.

In keeping with the goal of nonpartisanship, past secretaries have presided over the board meetings of the SBE but allowed its staff to run day-to-day operations unfettered. “It appears that Grimes views the SBE as an arm of her office,” said Trey Grayson, who served as secretary of state from 2004-11. “I certainly didn’t.”

Three state agencies are now investigating what multiple SBE staff members have called a “power grab” by Grimes. The investigations largely originated with complaints by those staffers, who charged that Grimes was encroaching on the SBE’s responsibilities.

One aspect of the secretary of state’s response to the investigations suggests how closely the agency oversees the SBE: An assistant secretary of state, Erica Galyon, requested the right to sit in when investigators question SBE staffers, as did Luke Morgan, a lawyer that Grimes retained to represent the SBE.

That proposal did not go over well with the Kentucky Personnel Board, one of the agencies investigating Grimes. A lawyer for the Personnel Board emailed Galyon and Morgan, rejecting their request to be present. The email quoted messages from unnamed SBE staffers. One noted, “Our staff has been intimidated enough…is it possible to request that they not be there?” Another employee wrote, “We all just want to do our job and not be in constant fear of SOS staff retaliation.” (Grimes’ statement defended Morgan’s right to be present for the investigative interviews but did not address Galyon’s role.)

The power struggles have led to a stalemate. SBE staff is unwilling to trust the secretary of state’s office, which they’ve been told to report to, and Grimes has been stymied in her attempts to remove the SBE’s two top executives.

SBE employees say Grimes’ team is controlling even basic tasks. For example, they say they’ve been barred from meeting with third parties — including the Department of Homeland Security, which regularly assists states with cybersecurity services — without consulting the secretary’s office.

The SBE has been barred from having staff meetings without someone present from the secretary’s office. The SBE is also no longer allowed to handle its own public records requests. Document requests made to the SBE for this article were decided by the office of the secretary of state.

Asked what’s driving Grimes’ efforts to expand the scope of her role, her communications director, Lillie Ruschell, said, “I think  . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more. I sincerely hope Grimes is finished politically and professionally.

Update: Here’s the third report in the series: “The Curious Case of a Kentucky Cybersecurity Contract.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 February 2019 at 2:38 pm

An ode to knots

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Today’s Quartz obsession:

Take a moment and consider the woefully underappreciated knot. They keep shoes tight, pajamas up, and neckties sharp. Look close enough, and you’ll realize that most of your clothing is just a tightly woven skein of very fine knots.

But the glory of the humble knot goes far beyond fashion. Knots have pushed human civilization forward, entering history at most major moments. What technology led fisherman to the invention of nets? Knots. Rope suspension bridges, mountain climbing gear, life-saving tourniquets, life-taking nooses, pretzels? All pivotal inventions made possible by the knot.

“Knots are an ancient technology,” Jody Rosen writes in the New York Times. “They predate the axe and the wheel, quite possibly the use of fire, and maybe even man himself: Some scientists have speculated that the first knotters were animals, gorillas who tied simple ‘granny knots,’ interlacing branches to construct nests.”

Knots, in other words, are so ubiquitous that most of the time we fail to notice how important they are to being human.


300,000 BC: The first evidence of knots in the archaeological record.

3,400 BC: The Ice Man dies on a mountain pass in what is now Italy; found in 1991, his clothing and items contain approximately 11 kinds of knots.

333 BC: Alexander the Great encounters the Gordian Knot, a specimen so jumbled it’s impossible to untangle. (He solves the problem by slicing it with a sword.)

1718: The phrase “tie the knot” appears for the first time to denote a marriage.

1748: An 18-headed rat king—a tangle of rats knotted together by their tails—appears in the appropriately named town of Gross-Baulhhausen, Germany.

1871: An edict in Japan forces the Samurai to cut their top knot hairstyle.

1973: Garlic knots are reportedly invented in Queens, New York.

1982: The International Guild of Knot Tyers is founded.

1989: Scientists create the first molecular knot, a trefoil.

“There are still old knots that are unrecorded, and so long as there are new purposes for rope, there will always be new knots to discover.”

—“master knot tyer, maritime artist, historian, and author” Clifford W. Ashley

The world’s tightest knot

In January 2017, scientists at the University of Manchester announced in the journal Science that they had tied one of the world’s smallest and tightest knots. Boasting eight crossing strands—three more than previously achieved—the molecular knot was 20 nanometers long and contained just 192 atoms.

The extra layer of knotting could someday help researchers create a material so light, flexible, and strong that it could make Kevlar look like cardboard. “Knots may ultimately prove just as versatile and useful at the nanoscale as at the macroscale,” the authors wrote. Researchers are now working on a “periodic table of knots” or “knot zoo” to determine what further knots are possible.

Knots to know

Monkey’s fist: A heaving or decorative knot

Half-blood knot: Fishing knot for attaching a hook to a line

San Diego Jam: “popularized in San Diego particularly with long-range tuna fisherman”

Ian knot: “The World’s Fastest Shoelace Knot”

Pratt knot: A necktie knot “of medium size, versatile and elegant”

Trucker’s hitch: “Through the loop / make a stitch / now you’ve got your trucker’s hitch”

Muscle knot: The ones you get in your neck and shoulders? They might be “small bits of hyper-tensed muscle”… or they might not exist at all.

Why do headphones (and Christmas lights… and phone chargers…) tangle? . . .

Continue reading. There’s more. Later in the article:

The college kid who decrypted Incan census knots

In the 16th century, the Inca controlled the most advanced civilization in all of the Americas—and yet they kept no written records. Rather, they maintained a tactile system of records called khipus, encoding information on a group of knotted strings resembling friendship bracelets.

For hundreds of years, the meaning behind these knotted strings has baffled experts. Anthropologists speculated that they functioned as a census or register of goods—with 14 colors that allow 95 different patterns, “that number is within the range of symbols in logosyllabic writing systems,” anthropologist Sabine Hyland told National Geographic.

But no one had actually decoded one until a Harvard student used his spring break to do it. Manny Medrano began studying a set of khipus for his professor Gary Urton, proprietor of the Khipu Database Project. As Medrano compared the strings to a Spanish colonial-era census document, he noticed that “the way each cord was tied onto the khipu seemed to correspond to the social status of the 132 people recorded in the census document,” Katherine Davis-Young writes in Atlas Obscura. “The colors of the strings also appeared to be related to the people’s first names.”

Written by LeisureGuy

1 February 2019 at 1:24 pm

The Fetid, Right-Wing Origins of “Learn to Code”

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Talia Lavin has an interesting article in the New Republic. The blurb for the article: “How an online swarm has developed a sophisticated mechanism to harass and gaslight journalists—and to get mainstream media outlets to join in.”

The article begins:

Last Thursday, I received the news that the HuffPost Opinion section—where I’d been opining on a weekly basis for a few months—had been axed in its entirety. The same opinion column had had a home at The Village Voice for some 21 weeks before that entire publication shuttered as well. “This business sucks,” I tweeted, chagrined at the simple fact that I kept losing my column because of the cruel, ongoing shrinkage of independent journalism in the United States. Dozens of jobs were slashed at HuffPost that day, following a round of layoffs at Gannet Media; further jobs were about to be disappeared at BuzzFeed. It was a grim day for the media, and I just wanted to channel my tiny part of the prevailing gloom.

Then the responses started rolling in—some sympathy from fellow journalists and readers, then an irritating gush of near-identical responses: “Learn to code.” “Maybe learn to code?” “BETTER LEARN TO CODE THEN.” “Learn to code you useless bitch.” Alongside these tweets were others: “Stop writing fake news and crap.” “MAGA.” “Your opinions suck and no one wants to read them.” “Lmao journalists are evil wicked cretins. I wish you were all jail [sic] and afraid.”

I looked at the mentions of my editors, who had been laid off after years at HuffPost, and of other journalists who had lost their jobs. There they were, the swarm of commentators, with their same little carbuncular message: “Learn to code.”

On its own, telling a laid-off journalist to “learn to code” is a profoundly annoying bit of “advice,” a nugget of condescension and antipathy. It’s also a line many of us may have already heard from relatives who pretend to be well-meaning, and who question an idealistic, unstable, and impecunious career choice. But it was clear from the outset that this “advice” was larded through with real hostility—and the timing and ubiquity of the same phrase made me immediately suspect a brigade attack. My suspicions were confirmed when conservative figures like Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump Jr. joined the pile-on, revealing the ways in which right-wing hordes have harnessed social media to discredit and harass their opponents.

What’s a brigade attack, you may ask? It’s a rather dramatic name for coordinated harassment, usually migrating from one social media site to another. Often hatched in the internet’s right-wing cesspools, these campaigns unleash a mass of harassment on unsuspecting targets. 4chan’s /pol/ board—a gathering-place for people who want to say the n-word freely, vilify feminists, and opine on nefarious Jewish influence—has an oversize role in organizing brigade attacks, in part due to the fact that all its users are anonymous.

While it’s difficult to trace the origins of brigading—like most of internet history, its beginnings are ephemeral—the term, and its tactics, came to new prominence during the loosely organized and militantly misogynist harassment campaign known now as GamerGate, which unfolded over the course of 2014 and 2015.

“I think brigading has always been around,” said Caroline Sinders, a design and research fellow with the digital program at Harvard’s Kennedy School, who received enormous volumes of harassment during GamerGate. “I think of it like ‘campaigning’—it’s coordinated, it’s planned, it’s designed. Brigading is like targeting a victim and planning a course of attack—from overwhelming their mentions, flooding a hashtag, to SEO bombing.”

After Sinders wrote about GamerGate harassment online, a SWAT team was called to her mother’s house—a malevolent kind of “prank” that has resulted in at least one death.

Shireen Mitchell, founder of the project Stop Online Violence Against Women, had a similar experience during GamerGate. A campaign originating on Reddit targeted a South by Southwest panel on online harassment at which Mitchell was scheduled to speak. It received thousands of “down-votes” when audiences were encouraged to vote on proposed panels at the festival. Mitchell and others involved with the panel were bombarded with abuse and threats, accused of being biased against GamerGate.

“I was overwhelmed,” Mitchell told me. “They collected our information, created lists of our names, then made up accounts to pretend to be in a rational debate while attacking us on the back end.”

In the end, South By Southwest convened a separate Online Harassment Summit, at which security was so tight due to threats of violence that, Mitchell told me, she “had a security detail the whole time.”

The attacks on Mitchell and other panelists were vicious, while wrapped in a thin guise of concern about “ethics in games journalism.” This was the rationale for the entire GamerGate harassment campaign, an ugly welter of death threats, stalking, SWATting, and precision targeting of women, particularly women of color, for abuse. But that rationale was taken seriously by both media outlets, which wrote up the controversy as if it were a genuine conflict between two sides of equal legitimacy, and by advertisers, which pulled support for media organizations targeted by “Operation Disrespectful Nod”—the name for GamerGate’s brigading campaign.

GamerGate was essentially a public test of weapons online trolls would use to inflict hell on anyone who they perceived as enemies, with a central focus on journalists. Its tactics have only grown in sophistication in the intervening years. In particular, it was notable for the way it used a consistent, specious narrative—ethics in games journalism—to cover for its ugliest actions.

“The basis was that only white male gamers are actually good at games. So everyone else needs to go through some ‘ethics’ screening,” Mitchell explained. “That women sleep around and minorities are only given jobs because of their skin not because they are qualified. So that became the ruse. The narratives are used as cover.”

GamerGate used sympathetic journalists to add a patina of legitimacy to its cover narrative—a tactic that has been repeated with the ongoing harassment campaign called “Learn to Code.”

When I smelled the putrid odor of a brigade attack, I decided to do a little research into the origins of this sudden, and plainly coordinated, bombardment of “learn to code” tweets. (There were also death threats and a flood of anti-Semitic Instagram comments.) It was a fairly simple operation: I clicked over to 4chan’s /pol/ board and searched for the phrase.

In a thread entitled “HAPPENING – Huffpo / Buzzfeed / other MSM garbage (((journalists))) FIRED,” which discussed the extant and impending layoffs, there were dozens of responses laying out the “learn to code” plan.

“Learn to code is what should be spammed over and over. Fuck these elitist cunts,” wrote one user.

“Reminder to tell all the fired fucks to learn to code,” wrote another.

“I’m not ready to declare victory until these maggots are killing themselves with a live stream,” wrote a third.

An odd little narrative sprung up around this malevolence, postulating that journalists had condescendingly told coal miners who had lost their jobs to “learn to code.” The scant evidence for this quickly debunked narrative was a collage of several articles covering programs to retrain jobless former coal miners in the rudiments of coding, and bipartisan job-training efforts.

But as with “ethics in games journalism,” the narrative was just a means to deflect attention from the ultimate goal of adding distress to a terrible week for journalists.

Multiple right-wing media figures consciously took the bait. After the Wrap’s Jon Levine misleadingly tweeted that simply typing “learn to code” might get Twitter users suspended, conservative figureheads leaped in, leveraging conservative paranoia about social-media censorship. “Our nation’s bravest firefighters must be protected from microaggressions like ‘learn to code’ jokes on Twitter. Pathetic,” wrote Daily Wire pundit Ben Shapiro. Donald Trump, Jr. weighed in: “Could someone explain to me why if I tell my kids to ‘learn to code’ it’s likely sound parenting, but if I told a journalist the same it’s grounds for a @twitter suspension?”

Tucker Carlson, Fox News’s most openly white-supremacist host and a frequent amplifier of far-right meme warfare, ran a segment about the trolling campaign for his roughly three million viewers.

“Someone on Twitter came up with a pretty brilliant piece of advice for all those laid-off journalists trying to figure out what to do with their lives: Learn to code. Perfect. Suddenly ‘learn to code’ was everywhere on Twitter,” Carlson said. “But journalists didn’t see the humor in this at all. A former New Yorker employee called Talia Lavin called the phrase, quote, ‘far right hate’ … so they complained to the censorship authorities at Twitter.”

For me, the open hostility of “learn to code” was, from the first moment, compounded by escalating misogyny and anti-Semitism. One Twitter user posing as a Jew named “Moshey Goldberg” sent me a photo of a pizza with a crude caricature of a Jew on it. It said “Oven-Ready.” Others utilized a photoshopped meme of Tucker Carlson in a skull bandana of the type favored by certain fascist groups. “Day of the Rope,” it read, a reference to a scene in The Turner Diaries, a novel that remains the ur-text of the American far right and was an inspiration for Timothy McVeigh, where political enemies are hanged en masse.

The experience of the “learn to code” campaign was being bombarded with harassment that others stridently claimed wasn’t harassment; being told death threats were a joke; having my name broadcast mockingly on Fox News—all for the temerity of tweeting about losing a column. It was an experience of being mugged by gaslight. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 February 2019 at 12:04 pm

Posted in Daily life, GOP, Technology

What can we learn from the great economists?

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James Pethokoukis interviews Linda Yueh, an adjunct professor of economics at the London Business School, for the American Enterprise Institute:

Should we worry about the size of the trade deficit? How do we bring back American manufacturing? Why aren’t wages growing more quickly? On this episode, economics professor and BBC presenter Linda Yueh discusses how 12 of the world’s greatest economists might respond to these questions and more.

Linda Yueh is an adjunct professor of economics at the London Business School, an associate fellow at Chatham House, and a TV and radio presenter for the BBC. Her latest book is “What Would the Great Economists Do?: How Twelve Brilliant Minds Would Solve Today’s Biggest Problems.”  What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation. You can download the episode by clicking the link above, and don’t forget to subscribe to my podcast on iTunes or Stitcher. . .

PETHOKOUKIS: I want to start out with a question about the premise of the book, which looks at the great economists throughout history and what they would say about today’s problems. This book comes out at a time when it seems like we are rejecting expertise. We are rejecting what great economists of the past would have said. You see this in the rise of populism when there’s the idea of, ‘we’ve had enough of experts.’ And you have just written a book about experts. How is the book being received and did the rejection of expertise at all drive your thinking about why to write this book?

YUEH: Yes, it was exactly that thought. I thought we’re facing so many big challenges, whether it’s how do you increase wages, do we face a slow-growth future, or what drives innovation. And it occurred to me that obviously looking at these issues for some time that there’s a lot we can learn from history. It’s like that Mark Twain saying, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” So, the first-time secular stagnation, this concept that we may be facing a stagnant future, was coined was in the 1930s when Alvin Hansen was worried about an aging population. So that was really the motivation for the book. We’ve got some really deep-seeded problems and I wanted to see if we can learn from some of the greatest thinkers in economics and more importantly, how they engaged with similar, but not identical, issues during their day and brought us to this period of relative prosperity despite our economic problems. So I certainly thought that was worth looking at; looking at their wisdom, looking at their failures, looking at their disagreements, but most importantly seeing how economists can engage with the big questions of the day, because that’s the other thing the great economists shared in common. None of these economists were literally sitting in a room writing a book. They were debating the big issues of the day. For David Ricardo it was defeating mercantilism in the 19th century ­­— this idea that you need to have trade surplus. He said no, you need to improve the competitiveness, the efficiency of your own economy. Similarly, Joseph Schumpeter is best known for the concept of creative destruction, but actually his best-known book is called “Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy.” In other words, these economists were really engaging in the big issues of the day, which is probably what made them great.

I want to pick through some of the economists and what they would say about today’s problems. Before I do, as you went through these dozen economists, who do you feel like you learned something about that surprised you?

Probably what surprised me the most was how hard they were on themselves personally. We think of Adam Smith, the father of economics, Robert Solow, creator of the growth model, and as you mentioned, part of the book consists of their biographies, which are just fascinating. These thinkers have changed the world. And yet Adam Smith was so disappointed that he didn’t produce more in his lifetime, and he was so unhappy with what he wrote later in his life, that he wanted everything he wrote burned after his death. Joseph Schumpeter, creative destruction creator, you know really a transformative person, he gave himself 50 percent on his productivity every week. That’s probably what surprised me the most. Successful people are really hard on themselves.

You just mentioned Adam Smith. It’s interesting that he wrote “The Wealth of Nations” just as the world was moving into the first stage of the Industrial Revolution, something that he didn’t really recognize at the time and yet his book was extremely popular and relevant throughout the Industrial Revolution until today. And now we’re sort of moving into a post-Industrial Revolution to a digital economy. What did you find in Smith that you think is particularly applicable for today?

Really thinking about how governments can intervene and set up policies and institutions that are not distortionary because of the premise of his invisible hand, so that’s very familiar to a lot of people, this idea that supply and demand will determine prices and quantities. But Adam Smith wasn’t actually a laissez-faire economist like those that came after him. In fact, he was very focused on the ways in which government should provide some things, and that they needed to, for instance, to tax. But that they needed to do it in a non-distortionary away. So in his words, and he effectuated this policy when he was the customs official for Scotland — he was a Scottish economist — he said you have to tax the tipple of the rich the same as the poor. So in other words, in a non-distortionary fashion. If you think about today when we do live in a post-industrial, predominantly services-based economy, his chapter becomes about whether governments should rebalance the economy, and we hear a lot about should governments be going in to promote some sectors versus others.

Right, there seems to be a new interest in the idea of industrial policy. I imagine partially it’s because of the Great Recession and financial crisis led people to think more generally about how we are growing economies and if we are growing them in sustainable ways. And I would think also sort of the success of China, you know year after year with very high growth rates, that at least maybe opened up some people’s perceptions that maybe the government can pick winners and losers and maybe it can choose which sectors to boost.

Yeah, I think industrial policy — or the new term you hear a lot now, industrial strategy — in the last 10 years, for especially America and the UK where services are very dominant, has been revisited. Because for instance, Germany and France have bigger manufacturing sectors as a share of their economy. So, I think that’s where the policy focus certainly comes in. And interestingly, I think for Adam Smith, he would argue that if you wanted to do that, you should look at the policies and see whether or not it’s promoting fair competition. So in other words, look at your tax policy, look at your strategy, and if it is an efficiently operating market, and we know lots of markets don’t actually operate that efficiently, then should governments intervene? Because there’s lots of examples of where governments haven’t done so well, and yet the countries that I mentioned, Germany and France, have put a lot more support behind high-end manufacturing. So if there are ways in which the tax system isn’t quite as efficient as it needs to be vis-a-vis different sectors then you should look at that. But Jim, I would just add that Adam Smith, as you said, he very much began to witness the Industrial Revolution. He had a real affinity for manufacturing. He described services, which is of course the biggest part of all advanced economies, as full of buffoons and opera singers. But I just wonder if he might change his mind if he could see that services could be commoditized today.

Let’s stick with Adam Smith for just another moment. What would he think of the idea — and you certainly hear this a lot in the United States from people concerned about manufacturing — that maybe we need the government to create new manufacturing hubs or high technology hubs that we can give a certain tax structure or a regulatory structure and we can work with universities or government-funded centers for manufacturing. So this idea that if policymakers view it as a failure, ‘oh, there’s not enough manufacturing or not enough manufacturing in a particular sector,’ we can insert it by government intervention. What do you think of these sorts of ideas?

Yes, so I write about advanced manufacturing, which is something that the US has seen a huge burst of and it is in part due to government policy. If you look at a state like Tennessee, it’s got the biggest car factory in North America. And of course that area has a history of having government support, like Oak Ridge National Lab, which is a very well-known high-tech R&D center. I think Adam Smith is not against government intervening. He’s against government intervening inefficiently or in a distortionary kind of way. So for instance, we know that markets are not free and the playing field is not level, and I’m not just talking about within the US, because all of this is in a globalized world. So would promoting advanced manufacturing, which is actually pretty consistent with the United States’s strengths in innovation, high-skill labor, and high productivity workers — is that something that is providing just a boost and then you can see the sector take off? And of course, you judge it, and it’s too early to judge perhaps, but you’ll judge it later on as to whether or not these policies disadvantage other sectors. But one thing I will add about advanced manufacturing, it looks like manufacturing has been reshored, as in came back to the United States over the past few years, and it’s mostly in advanced manufacturing. But Adam Smith I think would certainly point out that that wasn’t due to explicit government policy. That had to do with rising wages in places like China, the Shale Revolution that reduced energy costs, high productivity, and automative manufacturing. In other words, automation means that as factories come back, it doesn’t mean that the jobs are going to come back. So what you see is that manufacturing jobs in the US are still below the level in 1950, even though manufacturing output has picked up. In my book, I relate one example where I spoke to the CEO of Stanley Black & Decker. He made his first power tool in the United States for decades. He said that wage costs, and the reason he did it was because wage costs, once you take into account productivity and unit labor costs and things like energy and transport, it costs the same to produce a power tool in the United States as it does in China and he gets the added boost of a ‘Made in America’ sign on his box. And finally, I think the other thing to stress is when we’re talking about automation and a lot of these big companies, advanced manufacturing means they invest a lot in R&D. So there’s also a heavy component of services right in a lot of high-end manufacturing. So, some companies, Rolls-Royce for instance, you know them for their cars, but they make more money servicing their engines than actually selling the engines. That’s called the servicification of manufacturing. So once you take that into account, then isn’t what the United States is actually promoting is a highly productive, high end technological services economy with high manufacturing?

You’re mentioning sort of the reshoring of jobs, which is a great lead-in to get into David Ricardo. I think if you would listen to politics in the United States over the past two years, you would think that Dave Ricardo got it all wrong. If you look at the current US trade policy, at least the president’s view of trade, there is a belief that the last 200 years of thinking about trade and free trade is wrong, we got it all wrong, and the United States needs to go in a different direction. So what would Ricardo make of the current trade debate? . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, and it’s interesting.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 February 2019 at 11:56 am

Mitch McConnell Admits That Republicans Lose When More People Vote

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Ari Berman writes in Mother Jones:

Democrats have long accused Republicans of restricting access to the ballot because Republicans are likelier to win when fewer people vote. On Wednesday, the GOP leader in the Senate appeared to admit that they’re right.

On the Senate floor, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced his opposition to a relatively uncontroversial measure that would make Election Day a federal holiday in order to make it easier for people to get to the polls. He called it a “power grab” that would help Democrats win elections.

“Just what America needs, another paid holiday and a bunch of government workers being paid to go out and work for, I assume, our folks—our colleagues on the other side, on their campaigns,” McConnell said. “This is the Democrat plan to restore democracy? A brand-new week of paid vacation for every federal employee who would like to hover around while you cast your ballot?”

The measure is part of a sweeping democracy reform bill introduced this month by House Democrats, which also includes reforms like automatic and Election Day registration, nationwide early voting, independent redistricting commissions, and public financing of congressional campaigns. McConnell has led the Republican opposition to the legislation, calling it “the Democrat Politician Protection Act.”

Critics pounced on McConnell’s statement, seeing it as confirmation that Republicans are trying to retain their political power by preventing people from voting.

Continue reading. There’s more, and it shows the degree to which the GOP dislikes democracy.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 February 2019 at 10:26 am

Annual reminder of timed shave, plus more lather exploration

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Skill and efficiency come through experience, but the growth is sometimes imperceptible day to day (though in the early stages, when one is still struggling, day to day progress can be much more impressive than the result, so novices are advised to derive motivation from progress and realize that in time results will also be pleasing).

In shaving in particular, a novice who takes (as I did) 25 minutes for a shave may find it hard to believe that over time his efficiency will increase so that he completes a really good shave in 5 minutes. So I have suggested that, once a year, you time your shave—not to set some sort of speed record, since shaving in a rush is never a good idea, but rather just do your regular shave and see how long it takes.

I set on the counter what I’ll need (pre-shave soap (MR GLO), brush, shaving soap, razor, and aftershave), remove the lids, and turn on the hot-water tap and run it until the water’s hot. Then I start the time and do my regular shave, not rushing. After I splash on the aftershave, I turn off the timer.

I picked Groundhog Day for this annual test (though I’ve skipped the test in recent years since my time seems to have stabilized, but I’ll try it again tomorrow). So tomorrow’s the day. Join me in timing your shave—just to see.

Today I skipped the glycerin-based soap to do a check with a good tallow-based soap, and Darkfall is certainly that—and more:

Stearic Acid, Water, Castor Oil, Avocado Oil, Vegetable Glycerin, Mango Seed Butter, Potassium Hydroxide, Sodium Hydroxide, Fragrance, Bison Tallow, Lamb Tallow, Colloidal Oatmeal, Goat’s Milk, Lanolin, Bentonite Clay, Tocopheryl Acetate, Hippophae Rhamnoides (Sea Buckthorn) Fruit Extract, Salix Alba L. (White Willow) Bark Extract, Vitis Vinifera (Grape) Seed Extract, Tetrasodium EDTA, Tussah Silk

I put in boldface ingredients that struck me as being very nice for your skin. Yesterday’s Mama Bear glycerin soap has these ingredients:

Coconut Oil, Palm Oil, Castor Oil, Safflower Oil, Glycerine (kosher, of vegetable origin), Purified Water, Sodium Hydroxide (saponifying agent), Sorbitol (moisturizer), Sorbitan oleate (emulsifier), Soybean protein (conditioner), Wheat protein, and fragrance (either natural or synthetic)

Note that both soaps contain glycerin(e) and at about the same spot in the list of ingredients, and that Mama Bear’s “glycerin-based” shaving soap does indeed contain various oils (saponified in the making, I presume).

But what about the lather? I used a barely damp brush with the tub of Darkfall, much as I use a barely damp brush to bring up the lather from the soap scraped from the shave stick as I rubbed it against the grain over my beard. In fact, I did have to add just a tiny bit of water (I imagine because of Darkfall’s clay content), but I still got a nicely dense lather.

And yet… there was a difference. The lather from the Mama Bear and QED glycerin-based soaps seemed… slicker? more compact? I don’t quite know how to describe it, but it struck me as different and also as very nice.

I’ll use a different shave stick tomorrow: Kell’s Original Energy fragrance (a frangrance Mama Bear offers as well).

The shaving itself was very nice. My Charcoal razor, apparently an Edwin Jagger knockoff, did a fine job, and a good splash of Hâttric finished the shave nicely.

Remember: tomorrow, time your shave.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 February 2019 at 7:36 am

Posted in Shaving

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