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Archive for October 24th, 2019

How Autocracy Comes to America: Big Tech and National Security

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Matt Stoller writes in Big:

Today I’m going to write about a very dangerous theme floating around in military and big tech circles, which is that big American tech monopolies are good for national security and should be weaponized and controlled explicitly by the American national security apparatus.

The relationship between corporate power and global geopolitics frames the historical debate over antitrust, as I discuss in Goliath: The Hundred Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy. (Buy it. Yeah, I’m not going to be subtle.) The argument has been with us since before World War One, and is with us today. Last week, for instance, Mark Zuckerberg gave a speech on free expression, and yesterday he testified to the House Financial Services Committee on the need for Libra. Both times he implied that Facebook was essential to protect us from China.

What is interesting is how certain parts of the national security world may not be so averse to how Zuckerberg thinks, even if they don’t trust him specifically.

And so it is back to that debate we must go.

Incidentally, I was on CNBC yesterday to talk about Zuckerberg, and explain why I think Libra isn’t going to happen and is a “crazy idea.”

And now…

National Security Is the Last Resort of Monopoly Scoundrels

In his speech last week and in his testimony yesterday, Mark Zuckerberg put a choice to policymakers. Pick between Facebook’s domination, or China’s. “While we debate these issues,” he said, “the rest of the world isn’t waiting.” He explained this was particularly the case with his new currency Libra. “China is moving quickly” on its digital currency, and while Libra could “extend America’s financial leadership as well as our democratic values and oversight around the world,” that would only be the case if regulators allowed such innovation. The threat of Chinese dominance was implied.

As part of his narrative, Zuckerberg emphasized the importance of democratic values embedded in the American platform of Facebook. It’s easy to be skeptical of his framework, considering that Zuckerberg was so eager to get into China that he apparently asked Xi Jinping to name his child, blurbed a book of Xi Jinping’s speeches, and made his employees read Chinese propaganda. In June, when Facebook announced Libra, political leaders and regulators gave it a giant thumbs down. In July, during the first set of hearings, Facebook was embarrassed. Zuckerberg wasn’t persuasive yesterday either; political leaders were deeply skeptical, because Zuckerberg has been deceptive about his view of China as late as last week.

Less important than Libra is the overall “national champion” argument that Zuckerberg is making. Proponents of national champions believe big is powerful, and that national power is a function of the scale that a nation’s corporations can bring to bear on world markets and security regimes. In many ways, Zuckerberg is the worst possible messenger for this theory. There are in fact much better proponents, like former intelligence and DOD official Jon Bateman of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Yesterday, Bateman penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on the strategic importance of big tech. “Despite their faults, tech companies contribute directly to American military and intelligence operations,” he wrote. “Their titanic scale can itself be an asset.” I’ve spoken with multiple important political leaders who believe this. It’s a seductive view, one based on the idea that wise technocrats need large amounts of centralized power to keep our systems stable and our society under control. Bateman also argued, interestingly, that big tech, by working with China and enabling bad behavior domestically, also weakens national security. He tries to thread a path, by essentially proposing a national security veto over antitrust cases against national champion-style big tech companies.

We’ve seen this argument before.

The idea of what is called a ‘national champion’ was and is a foundational element of big business conservatism and state socialism, and has been for over a hundred years. Teddy Roosevelt, who is mistakenly understood as a great trustbuster instead of the supporter of monopolies he was, used this quote in 1912 in his call to repeal the antitrust laws, that if we “do not allow cooperation, we shall be defeated in the world’s markets.”

It is what the monopolists at Alcoa (and their allies in the military) thought before World War II when they argued their engineering system of aluminum fabrication was a marvel of ingenuity that could not and should not have competition. It is what Secretary of War Henry Stimson believed during that war when he managed to tamp down antitrust cases against domestic monopolists.

And the frame, though discredited, continued after the war. In the late 1960s, U.S. large banks like National City (Citibank) argued that they needed to get our from under regulatory restrictions so they could promote American values globally. In the 1970s national security officials freaked out about Japan’s state sponsored planning for its technology giants, and hated that antitrust enforcers sued AT&T and IBM. How dare we go after the metaphorical Yankees of technology?!?

Under Reagan, the Pentagon tried to stop Bill Baxter from breaking up AT&T.

And yet there aren’t cases when antitrust action undermined collective security. The antitrust suit against Alcoa helped build a massive aluminum industry and the “arsenal of democracy” against the Axis. And the suits against IBM and AT&T resulted in the explosion of innovation in the 1980s and 1990s which happened in the U.S. and not Japan.

But since we decided to forego our heritage, it’s time to rebut this veneration of bigness, yet again.

The Case Against Antitrust

Bateman makes two basic arguments against antitrust action. First, economies of scale are necessary for modern technology. Cloud computing for instance requires large amounts of investment, and breaking up the cloud giants like Microsoft or Amazon would jeopardize this technology. Second, economies of scale preserve American market share and thus national security reach; smaller companies are just less competitive. It would undermine the ‘network effects” so critical to big tech success.

Bateman’s arguments are basically what big tech leaders think as well. Zuckerberg talks about the resources he has to fund national priorities, and Brad Smith of Microsoft in his book Tools and Weapons basically proposed a fusion of big tech and the state for the same reasons.

So let’s take them on.

Economies of Scale

Here’s Bateman:

Consider cloud computing. The Defense Department is planning a massive global cloud called JEDI. Unlike corporate clouds, the “war cloud” must support life-or-death missions on austere battlefields despite virtual or physical onslaughts…

Vast resources were needed to fund global networks of hardened data centers linked by undersea cables. The U.S. military’s unique demands required companies of unique scale. Yet one JEDI bidder faces a concerted breakup campaign (Amazon), and the other was nearly dissolved in 2001 (Microsoft).

There are many problems with this argument, the main one being that it doesn’t reflect the real experience of actual operations. The National Security Agency has its own government cloud. Years ago, the CIA went to Amazon for its cloud computing needs; reading between the lines, this article suggests the experience of being forced into dependency on AWS was problematic. The CIA is now trying to move to a multi-provider cloud. In general, while it’s true that economies of scale exist, they are almost always overrated.

More fundamentally, Bateman conflates technical economies of scale with financial conglomeration. There’s no reason AWS has to be part of Amazon or Azure part of Microsoft. What does book selling have to do with cloud computing? Nothing. In fact, there’s a fairly good argument AWS is less successful than it otherwise would be because it’s part of Amazon instead of an independent business. There’s also the very obvious problem of dependencies; Bezos is highly dependent on China through his retail arm, which gives China leverage over his cloud business.

There are some elements of Amazon or Microsoft that should technically stay together, but these companies are largely giant conglomerates whose divisions have no actual relationship with one another beyond a common hierarchy, legal status, and branding. Financial links are not technical links, but Bateman doesn’t distinguish between easily severable legal relationships and cemented together software-linked data centers.

Global Competitiveness and Big Tech

Bateman also offers this argument.

Splitting up Big Tech would reduce its intelligence value. First, smaller companies would lose global market share to foreign rivals such as Alibaba or Baidu, which can ignore FISA. Small U.S. sites can’t leverage the “network effect,” a gravitational force that helps large sites stay dominant. Intelligence collected from small sites would also be less useful. They see only narrow slices of online activity, whereas tech giants track users across sprawling internet ecosystems. Dismantling these ecosystems would put greater burden on intelligence agencies to “connect the dots” of potential threats.

This argument that big tech would lose market share if it were split up is 100% backwards. We venerate engineers in garages because that’s where good ideas come from, not from entrenched interests. Google and Facebook are less competitive because they are big, not more competitive. That’s why TikTok is gaining, because Facebook hasn’t improved its product in five years and it has killed all attempts at investment in social media.

Bateman also mischaracterizes network effects. A network effect is what happens when an additional user of a network adds value to a network in a geometric curve. A phone network with only one user has no value (no connections), with two users it has value because those two can call each other (one connection), three users can call each other (six connections), and so on and so forth.

But Bateman gets the dynamics of network effects and big tech wrong. There is a network effect for Instagram and one for Facebook, but there isn’t one for the Facebook-Instagram financial conglomerate. And again, network effects are also a result of political choices, not just physical ones; we’ve allowed Facebook to keep its network closed, but force AT&T to let Verizon phones connect in. Even the individual network effects are a function of a failure to organize interoperability mandates.

Bateman thinks that because Google and Facebook are big and powerful now, they will be innovative going forward. The opposite is likely true. They are like GM and Ford in the 1960s, doing extremely well because of market power and scoffing at foreign competition that destroyed them just a few years later. Or perhaps they are like Boeing in 2018, a company that passed $100B in revenue for the first time ever. It was on top of the world. Today, it is… not.

(And that’s just the commercial side of the argument. Without going into too much detail, let’s just say I’m deeply skeptical that more surveillance capacity means better intelligence. I suspect that more intelligent intelligence means better intelligence.)

A National Security Veto for Antitrust Over Big Tech?

Bateman isn’t just boosting big tech, he also brings some skepticism to the table. He writes, for instance, that big tech has “given terrorist groups a new way to radicalize recruits and enabled foreign governments to covertly influence the general public. These actors exploit algorithms that make sensational content go viral—a result of decisions by Facebook and YouTube to maximize user engagement.”

These companies have also subverted American interests vis-a-vis China. As Bateman writes, “‘AI and its benefits have no borders,’ as one Google executive put it—do not justify Google’s establishment of a Chinese research center. Dubious assertions and discredited theories can’t excuse Apple’s censorship of Chinese apps.” This presents a dilemma, in Bateman’s view. Bigness is good but big tech has misused their power. So what is the remedy?

His proposal is to incorporate national security officials to advise antitrust enforcers and Congress, especially where break-ups are concerned, as well as to reduce authority for state-level antitrust enforcers. Bateman, in other words, seeks to fuse the power of big tech with the national security apparatus, with the threat of antitrust as a stick for the intelligence world to force Google/Apple/Facebook/Amazon to do what they want. I’ve never liked the outrageous amounts of secrecy in our government, but an explicit veto over how we the people get to structure our markets should terrify all of us. This would engender a murky world of secretive government officials walling off political debate over fundamental questions about technology, commerce, communications and politics behind classified barriers. This framework seems to be, to protect us from China, we must become China.

Bateman’s piece is useful because it . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 October 2019 at 7:47 pm

U.S. Military Could Collapse Within 20 Years Due to Climate Change, Report Commissioned By Pentagon Says

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Apparently simply denying that climate change is happening (as is required by law in some Republican states (like North Carolina and Florida, for example)) is not expected to actually work. Nafeez Ahmed reports in Motherboard:

According to a new U.S. Army report, Americans could face a horrifically grim future from climate change involving blackouts, disease, thirst, starvation and war. The study found that the US military itself might also collapse. This could all happen over the next two decades, the report notes.

The senior US government officials who wrote the report are from several key agencies including the Army, Defense Intelligence Agency, and NASA. The study called on the Pentagon to urgently prepare for the possibility that domestic power, water, and food systems might collapse due to the impacts of climate change as we near mid-century.

The report was commissioned by General Mark Milley, Trump’s new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, making him the highest-ranking military officer in the country (the report also puts him at odds with Trump, who does not take climate change seriously.)

The report, titled Implications of Climate Change for the U.S. Army, was launched by the U.S. Army War College in partnership with NASA in May at the Wilson Center in Washington DC. The report was commissioned by Gen. Milley during his previous role as the Army’s Chief of Staff. It was made publicly available in August via the Center for Climate and Security, but didn’t get a lot of attention at the time.

The two most prominent scenarios in the report focus on the risk of a collapse of the power grid within “the next 20 years,” and the danger of disease epidemics. Both could be triggered by climate change in the near-term, it notes.

The report also warns that the US military should prepare for new foreign interventions in Syria-style conflicts, triggered due to climate-related impacts. Bangladesh in particular is highlighted as the most vulnerable country to climate collapse in the world.

“The permanent displacement of a large portion of the population of Bangladesh would be a regional catastrophe with the potential to increase global instability,” the report warns. “This is a potential result of climate change complications in just one country. Globally, over 600 million people live at sea level.”

Sea level rise, which could go higher than 2 meters by 2100 according to one recent study, “will displace tens (if not hundreds) of millions of people, creating massive, enduring instability,” the report adds.

The US should therefore be ready to act not only in Bangladesh, but in many other regions, like the rapidly melting Arctic—where the report recommends the US military should take advantage of its hydrocarbon resources and new transit routes to repel Russian encroachment.

But without urgent reforms, the report warns that the US military itself could end up effectively collapsing as it tries to respond to climate collapse. It could lose capacity to contain threats in the US and could wilt into “mission failure” abroad due to inadequate water supplies.

Total collapse of the power grid

The report paints a frightening portrait of a country falling apart over the next 20 years due to the impacts of climate change on “natural systems such as oceans, lakes, rivers, ground water, reefs, and forests.”

Current infrastructure in the US, the report says, is woefully underprepared: “Most of the critical infrastructures identified by the Department of Homeland Security are not built to withstand these altered conditions.”

Some 80 percent of US agricultural exports and 78 percent of imports are water-borne. This means that episodes of flooding due to climate change could leave lasting damage to shipping infrastructure, posing “a major threat to US lives and communities, the US economy and global food security,” the report notes.

At particular risk is the US national power grid, which could shut down due to “the stressors of a changing climate,” especially changing rainfall levels:

“The power grid that serves the United States is aging and continues to operate without a coordinated and significant infrastructure investment. Vulnerabilities exist to electricity-generating power plants, electric transmission infrastructure and distribution system components,” it states.

As a result, the “increased energy requirements” triggered by new weather patterns like extended periods of heat, drought, and cold could eventually overwhelm “an already fragile system.”

The report’s grim prediction has already started playing out, with utility PG&E cutting power to more than a million people across California to avoid power lines sparking another catastrophic wildfire. While climate change is intensifying the dry season and increasing fire risks, PG&E has come under fire for failing to fix the state’s ailing power grid.

The US Army report shows that California’s power outage could be a taste of things to come, laying out a truly dystopian scenario of what would happen if the national power grid was brought down by climate change. One particularly harrowing paragraph lists off the consequences bluntly:

“If the power grid infrastructure were to collapse, the United States would experience significant:

  • Loss of perishable foods and medications
  • Loss of water and wastewater distribution systems
  • Loss of heating/air conditioning and electrical lighting systems
  • Loss of computer, telephone, and communications systems (including airline flights, satellite networks and GPS services)
  • Loss of public transportation systems
  • Loss of fuel distribution systems and fuel pipelines
  • Loss of all electrical systems that do not have back-up power”

Although the report does not dwell on the implications, it acknowledges that a national power grid failure would lead to a perfect storm requiring emergency military responses that might eventually weaken the ability of the US Army to continue functioning at all: “Relief efforts aggravated by seasonal climatological effects would potentially accelerate the criticality of the developing situation. The cascading effects of power loss… would rapidly challenge the military’s ability to continue operations.”

Also at “high risk of temporary or permanent closure due to climate threats” are US nuclear power facilities.

There are currently 99 nuclear reactors operating in the US, supplying nearly 20 percent of the country’s utility-scale energy. But the majority of these, some 60 percent, are located in vulnerable regions which face “major risks” including sea level rise, severe storms, and water shortages.

Containment

The report’s authors believe that domestic military operations will be necessary to contain future disease outbreaks. There is no clear timeline for this, except the notion of being prepared for imminent surprises: “Climate change is introducing an increased risk of infectious disease to the US population. It is increasingly not a matter of ‘if’ but of when there will be a large outbreak.”

Areas in the south of the US will see an increase in precipitation of between .5 and .8 mm a day, along with an increase in average annual temperatures of 1 to 3 degrees Celsius (C) by 2050.

Along with warmer winters, these new conditions will drive the proliferation of mosquitos and ticks. This in turn will spur the spread of diseases “which may be previously unseen in the US”, and accelerate the reach of diseases currently found in very small numbers such as Zika, West Nile Virus, Lyme disease, and many others:

“The US Army will be called upon to assist in much the same way it was called upon in other disasters. Detailed coordination with local, state and federal agencies in the most high risk regions will hasten response time and minimize risk to mission.”

A new era of endless war

The new report is especially significant given the Trump administration’s climate science denial. Commissioned by General Mark Milley, now the highest ranking military officer in the United States, the report not only concludes that climate change is real, but that it is on track to create an unprecedented catastrophe that could lead to the total collapse of US society without serious investments in new technology and infrastructure. However, while focusing on projected climate impacts, the report does not discuss the causes of climate change in human fossil fuel emissions.

The report was written by an interdisciplinary team active across several US government agencies, including the White House’s Office of American Innovation, the Secretary of Defense’s Protecting Critical Technology Task Force, NASA’s Harvest Consortium, the US Air Force Headquarters’ Directorate of Weather, the US Army’s National Guard, and the US State Department. The US Army War College did not respond to a request for comment.

Their report not only describes the need for massive permanent military infrastructure on US soil to stave off climate collapse, but portends

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 October 2019 at 4:10 pm

How steak became manly and salads became feminine

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Again I will recommend watching The Game Changers. (It’s on Netflix and other streaming services.) Paul Freedman, Chester D. Tripp Professor of History at Yale University, writes in The Conversation:

When was it decided that women prefer some types of food – yogurt with fruit, salads and white wine – while men are supposed to gravitate to chili, steak and bacon?

In my new book, “American Cuisine: And How It Got This Way,” I show how the idea that women don’t want red meat and prefer salads and sweets didn’t just spring up spontaneously.

Beginning in the late 19th century, a steady stream of dietary advice, corporate advertising and magazine articles created a division between male and female tastes that, for more than a century, has shaped everything from dinner plans to menu designs.

A separate market for women surfaces

Before the Civil War, the whole family ate the same things together. The era’s best-selling household manuals and cookbooks never indicated that husbands had special tastes that women should indulge.

Even though “women’s restaurants” – spaces set apart for ladies to dine unaccompanied by men – were commonplace, they nonetheless served the same dishes as the men’s dining room: offal, calf’s heads, turtles and roast meat.

Beginning in the 1870s, shifting social norms – like the entry of women into the workplace – gave women more opportunities to dine without men and in the company of female friends or co-workers.

As more women spent time outside of the home, however, they were still expected to congregate in gender-specific places.

Chain restaurants geared toward women, such as Schrafft’s, proliferated. They created alcohol-free safe spaces for women to lunch without experiencing the rowdiness of workingmen’s cafés or free-lunch bars, where patrons could get a free midday meal as long as they bought a beer (or two or three).

It was during this period that the notion that some foods were more appropriate for women started to emerge. Magazines and newspaper advice columns identified fish and white meat with minimal sauce, as well as new products like packaged cottage cheese, as “female foods.” And of course, there were desserts and sweets, which women, supposedly, couldn’t resist.

You could see this shift reflected in old Schrafft’s menus: a list of light main courses, accompanied by elaborate desserts with ice cream, cake or whipped cream. Many menus featured more desserts than entrees.

By the early 20th century, women’s food was commonly described as “dainty,” meaning fanciful but not filling. Women’s magazines included advertisements for typical female foodstuffs: salads, colorful and shimmering Jell-O mold creations, or fruit salads decorated with marshmallows, shredded coconut and maraschino cherries.

At the same time, self-appointed men’s advocates complained that women were inordinately fond of the very types of decorative foods being marketed to them. In 1934, for example, a male writer named Leone B. Moates wrote an article in House and Garden scolding wives for serving their husbands “a bit of fluff like marshmallow-date whip.”

Save these “dainties” for ladies’ lunches, he implored, and serve your husbands the hearty food they crave: goulash, chili or corned beef hash with poached eggs.

Pleasing the tastes of men

Writers like Moates weren’t the only ones exhorting women to prioritize their husbands.

The 20th century saw a proliferation of cookbooks telling women to give up their favorite foods and instead focus on pleasing their boyfriends or husbands. The central thread running through these titles was that if women failed to satisfy their husbands’ appetites, their men would stray.

You could see this in midcentury ads, like the one showing an irritated husband saying “Mother never ran out of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes.”

But this fear was exploited as far back as 1872, which saw the publication of a cookbook titled “How to Keep a Husband, or Culinary Tactics.” One of the most successful cookbooks, “‘The Settlement’ Cook Book,” first published in 1903, was subtitled “The Way to a Man’s Heart.”

It was joined by recipe collections like 1917’s “A Thousand Ways to Please a Husband” and 1925’s “Feed the Brute!

This sort of marketing clearly had an effect. In the 1920s, one woman wrote to General Mills’ fictional spokeswoman, “Betty Crocker,” expressing fear that her neighbor was going to “capture” her husband with her fudge cake.

Just as women were being told they needed to focus on their husbands’ taste buds over their own – and be excellent cooks, to boot – men were also saying that they didn’t want their wives to be single-mindedly devoted to the kitchen.

As Frank Shattuck, the founder of Schrafft’s, observed in the 1920s, a young man contemplating marriage is looking for a girl who is . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 October 2019 at 3:04 pm

Posted in Business, Daily life, Food, Memes

Republicans don’t like it when people vote, so they work to suppress it

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It’s been obvious for a long time: Republicans dislike democracy. Michael Wines reports in the NY Times:

AUSTIN, Texas — At Austin Community College, civics is an unwritten part of the curriculum — so much so that for years the school has tapped its own funds to set up temporary early-voting sites on nine of its 11 campuses.

No more, however. This spring, the Texas Legislature outlawed polling places that did not stay open for the entire 12-day early-voting period. When the state’s elections take place in three weeks, those nine sites — which logged many of the nearly 14,000 ballots that full-time students cast last year — will be shuttered. So will six campus polling places at colleges in Fort Worth, two in Brownsville, on the Mexico border, and other polling places at schools statewide.

“It was a beautiful thing, a lot of people out there in those long lines,” said Grant Loveless, a 20-year-old majoring in psychology and political science who voted last November at a campus in central Austin. “It would hurt a lot of students if you take those polling places away.”

The story at Austin Community College is but one example of a political drama playing out nationwide: After decades of treating elections as an afterthought, college students have begun voting in force.

Their turnout in the 2018 midterms — 40.3 percent of 10 million students tracked by Tufts University’s Institute for Democracy & Higher Education — was more than double the rate in the 2014 midterms, easily exceeding an already robust increase in national turnout. Energized by issues like climate change and the Trump presidency, students have suddenly emerged as a potentially crucial voting bloc in the 2020 general election.

And almost as suddenly, Republican politicians around the country are throwing up roadblocks between students and voting booths.

Not coincidentally, the barriers are rising fastest in political battlegrounds and places like Texas where one-party control is eroding. Students lean strongly DemocraticIn a March poll by the Institute of Politics at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, 45 percent of college students ages 18-24 identified as Democrats, compared to 29 percent who called themselves independents and 24 percent Republicans.

Some states have wrestled with voting eligibility for out-of-state students in the past. And the politicians enacting the roadblocks often say they are raising barriers to election fraud, not ballots. “The threat to election integrity in Texas is real, and the need to provide additional safeguards is increasing,” the state’s attorney general, Ken Paxton, said last year in announcing one of his office’s periodic crackdowns on illegal voting. But evidence of widespread fraud is nonexistent, and the restrictions fit an increasingly unabashed pattern of Republican politicians’ efforts to discourage voters likely to oppose them.

“Efforts to deprive any American of a convenient way to vote will have a chilling effect on voting,” Nancy Thomas, the director of the Tufts institute, said. “And efforts to chill college students’ voting are despicable — and very frustrating.”

The headline example is in New Hampshire. There, a Republican-backed law took effect this fall requiring newly registered voters who drive to establish “domicile” in the state by securing New Hampshire driver’s licenses and auto registrations, which can cost hundreds of dollars annually.

The dots are not hard to connect: According to the Tufts study, six in 10 New Hampshire college students come from outside the state, a rate among the nation’s highest. As early as 2011, the state’s Republican House speaker at the time, William O’Brien, promised to clamp down on unrestricted voting by students, calling them “kids voting liberal, voting their feelings, with no life experience.”

Florida’s Republican secretary of state outlawed early-voting sites at state universities in 2014, only to see 60,000 voters cast on-campus ballots in 2018 after a federal court overturned the ban. This year, the State Legislature effectively reinstated it, slipping a clause into a new elections law that requires all early-voting sites to offer “sufficient non-permitted parking” — an amenity in short supply on densely packed campuses.

North Carolina Republicans enacted a voter ID law last year that recognized student identification cards as valid — but its requirements proved so cumbersome that major state universities were unable to comply. A later revision relaxed the rules, but much confusion remains, and fewer than half the state’s 180-plus accredited schools have sought to certify their IDs for voting.

Wisconsin Republicans also have imposed tough restrictions on using student IDs for voting purposes. The state requires poll workers to check signatures only on student IDs, although some schools issuing modern IDs that serve as debit cards and dorm room keys have removed signatures, which they consider a security risk.

The law also requires that IDs used for voting expire within two years, while most college ID cards have four-year expiration dates. And even students with acceptable IDs must show proof of enrollment before being allowed to vote.

“Universities have had to decide one by one whether they want to modify their IDs to make them acceptable, issue a second ID for voting purposes or do nothing,” said Barry Burden, the director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “And they’ve all gone in different directions.”

While legislators call the rules anti-fraud measures, Wisconsin has not recorded a case of intentional student voter fraud in memory, Mr. Burden said. But a healthy turnout of legitimate student voters could easily tip the political balance in many closely divided states.

Senator Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, a Democrat, won election in 2016 by 1,017 votes over her Republican rival, Kelly Ayotte. Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina, a Democrat, won that year by about 10,000 votes in a state with nearly 500,000 undergraduates. And Donald J. Trump carried Wisconsin by fewer than 23,000 votes; the University of Wisconsin system alone enrolls more than 170,000 students.

Some critics suggest that opposition to campus-voting restrictions is overblown — that students can find other IDs to establish their identities, that campus polling sites are a luxury not afforded other voters.

But local election officials generally put polls where they are needed most, in packed places like universities and apartment complexes or locations like nursing homes where access is difficult.

Repeated studies have shown that making voting convenient improves turnout. And while it is difficult to say with certainty what causes turnout to decline, anecdotal evidence suggests that barriers to student voting have done just that. Nationwide, student turnout in the 2016 presidential election exceeded that of the 2012 presidential vote — but according to the Tufts institute, it fell sharply in Wisconsin, where the state’s voter ID law first applied to students that year.

Hurdles to student voting are hardly limited to politically competitive states. Most notably, the voter ID law in deeply Republican Tennessee does not recognize student ID cards as valid for voting, and legislators have removed out-of-state driver’s licenses from the list of valid identifications.

A Tennessee law requiring election officials to help register high school students is commonly skirted via a loophole, said Lisa Quigley, the top aide to Representative Jim Cooper, a Tennessee Democrat and voting rights advocate. And cities like Nashville and Knoxville, with large concentrations of college students, have no campus polling places, she said.

Tennessee ranks 50th in voter turnout among the states and the District of Columbia. “We’re terrible at voting,” Ms. Quigley said. “And it’s intentional.”

Only Texas’ turnout is worse. And as in Tennessee, voting is particularly difficult for the young.

Texas law requires educators to distribute voter registration forms to high school students, but the requirement appears to be ignored by most of the state’s 3,700 secondary schools. And while many states allow students to preregister at 16 or 17, and even vote in primaries if they turn 18 by Election Day in November, Texas bars students from registering until two months before their 18th birthday, the nation’s most restrictive rule.

The state’s voter ID law — among the most onerous, though softened by court rulings — still excludes college and university ID cards and only allows the use of out-of-state driver’s licenses that many students carry if voters sign a form swearing that they couldn’t reasonably acquire an accepted ID and explaining why.

Some Texas schools have sought for years to lower those barriers. At the University of Texas at Austin, a group called TX Votes has greatly increased turnout by rallying students against voting restrictions and enlisting scores of campus groups in voting and registration campaigns.

Austin Community College, whose 39,000 full-time and 33,000 part-time students sprawl over campuses in four Texas counties, pursues a similar strategy. The system’s student body is drawn largely from working-class and minority families.

In addition to sponsoring the campus voting, it gives its employees two hours off during every election to cast ballots.

It is not the only Texas college to set up campus voting. North of Austin, Southwestern University collected ballots from more than half of its 1,500 students last November in a one-day visit by a mobile polling place. Tarrant County, whose largest city is Fort Worth, racked up 11,000 votes at mobile campus sites; Cameron County, in southern Texas, opened three campus sites and reaped nearly 2,800 votes.

Dollar for dollar, mobile voting sites were “the most effective program we had,” Dana DeBeauvoir, the Travis County clerk and chief elections official, said.

State legislators took a dimmer view. Last spring, State Representative Greg Bonnen, a Republican from suburban Houston, filed legislation to require that all polling places remain open during the whole early-voting period, eliminating pop-up polls. He argued that local politicians were using the sites to attract supportive voters for pet projects like school bond issues.

The Texas Association of Election Administrators opposed the change, and Democratic legislators proposed to exclude college campuses, nursing homes and other sites from the requirement. But Republicans rejected the changes and passed the bill on largely party-line votes.

There are efforts to push back at the restrictions on student voting. The elections administrator in Dallas County, Toni Pippins-Poole, decided after the Legislature outlawed temporary polls to spend the money needed to make pop-up voting sites on eight college campuses permanent.

In New Hampshire, the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is suing to undo the State Legislature’s domicile law. The League of Women Voters and the Andrew Goodman Foundation, a Mahwah, N.J., nonprofit group focused on protecting voting rights for young people, are contesting Florida’s parking requirements for polls in federal court.

Purdue University said last month that . . .

Continue reading.

The US is pretty badly broken, and it certainly looks as though the GOP did it. The actions reported are a direct attack on American democracy.

It’s also clear that the GOP has no integrity and no principles, just the naked determination to win no matter what the cost—the same philosophy that drives criminal behanvior, which IMO this is.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 October 2019 at 2:48 pm

The 42 Biggest Questions About Life, the Universe, and Everything

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We have much still to learn. Daniel Oberhaus reports in Motherboard:

In Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams’ classic irreverent tour through the universe, a supercomputer named Deep Thought discovers the answer to “Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything” after thinking about the question for 7 million years. The answer, it turns out, is “42,” but Adams never reveals what the “ultimate question” is in the first place.

In a recent paper published to arXiv, the physicists Roland Allen and Suzy Lidstrom, of Texas A&M and Uppsala University, respectively, tackled the question about the Question by describing what they believe to be the 42 ultimate questions of life, the universe, and everything.

Regarding Deep Thought’s mysterious answer, Allen and Lidstrom write that they “take it to mean that there are 42 fundamental questions which must be answered on the road to full enlightenment.” The resulting article is over 50 pages long, but is a great introduction to some of science’s biggest questions—at least according to these two physicists.

Even though its a subjective list, the paper is well worth reading in its entirety. For the sake of time, however, I’ve outlined Allen and Lidstrom’s 42 questions below as a ‘tweet storm,’ limiting the explanations to 280 characters or less.

1. Why Does Conventional Physics Predict a Cosmological Constant That is Vastly Too Large?

The cosmological constant was first theorized by Einstein and describes the energy density of the universe. The problem is that astronomical observations suggest the cosmological constant is far smaller than is predicted by physics.

2. What Is Dark Energy?

In 1998, cosmologists were astounded to find the expansion of the universe was accelerating. This astounding observation was chalked up to “dark energy,” a mysterious force that appears to make up over two thirds of the universe, but has yet to be convincingly explained.

3. How Can Einstein Gravity Be Reconciled with Quantum Mechanics?

Einstein realized that gravity, like everything else in nature, should be able to be described in terms of quantum mechanics. Yet attempts to reconcile QM and gravity fall apart when there is extremely strong gravity, like around black holes.

4. What is the Origin of the Entropy and Temperature of Black Holes?

Despite Stephen Hawking’s groundbreaking work on black hole radiation, Allen and Lidstrom note a “fundamental mystery is why the entropy should be proportional to the area rather than the volume, as is the case for other physical systems” when it comes to black holes.

5. Is Information Lost in a Black Hole?

Info is thought to be coded on the surface of its event horizon and emitted back as radiation. Yet all black holes of a particular mass radiate exactly the same, regardless of the info on the event horizon. This suggests black holes destroy info, which violates thermodynamics.

6. Did the Universe Pass Through a Period of Inflation?

It’s thought the universe expanded exponentially in the first second of its existence. The two big questions are: What is the origin of inflation and is there direct evidence of inflation?

7. Why Does Matter Still Exist?

Based on the Standard Model of particle physics, matter and antimatter should have been completely annihilated in the early universe, leaving only photons left over. Instead, there’s a relative abundance of matter and a lack of antimatter. What gives?

8. What is Dark Matter?

Observations of galaxies suggest that about a quarter of the universe is made up of dark matter, but so far physicists haven’t been able to detect a particle that can account for the observed effects. Will it be an axion, a WIMP, or something else entirely?

9. Why Are the Particles of Ordinary Matter Copied Twice at Higher Energies?

In the Standard Model, there are four main elementary matter particles—the up quark, down quark, electron, and electron neutrino. Yet there are second and third ‘generations’ (read: copies) of each of these particles such as charm quarks, strange quarks, & muons. Why tho?

10. What Is the Origin of Particle Masses, and What Kinds of Masses Do Neutrinos Have?

Where do the 4 aforementioned elementary particles get their masses? It is thought the masses are related to the strength of their interaction with their associated fields (e.g., Higgs field), but anomalies make this simple explanation in adequate.

11. Does Supersymmetry Exist, and Why Are the Energies of Observed Particles So Small Compared to the Most Fundamental (Planck) Energy Scale?

The Standard Model can’t explain why the weak nuclear force is so much stronger ( 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times) than gravity.

12. What Is the Fundamental Grand Unified Theory of Forces?

Continue reading. There are 30 more questions whose answers still elude us.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 October 2019 at 1:20 pm

Posted in Science

How a Tax Break to Help the Poor Went to NBA Owner Dan Gilbert

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Jeff Ernsthausen and Justin Elliott report in ProPublica:

Billionaire Dan Gilbert has spent the last decade buying up buildings in downtown Detroit, amassing nearly 100 properties and so completely dominating the area, it’s known as Gilbertville. In the last few years, Gilbert, the 57-year-old founder of Quicken Loans and owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, has also grown close to the Trump family.

Quicken gave $750,000 to Trump’s inaugural fund. Gilbert has built a relationship with Ivanka Trump, who appeared at one of his Detroit buildings in 2017 for a panel discussion with him. And, last year, he watched the midterm election returns at the White House with President Donald Trump himself, who has called Gilbert “a great friend.”

Gilbert’s cultivation of the Trump family appears to have paid off: Three swaths of downtown Detroit were selected as opportunity zones under the Trump tax law, extending a valuable tax break to Gilbert’s real estate empire.

Gilbert’s relationship with the White House helped him win his desired tax break, an email obtained by ProPublica suggests. In February 2018, as the selection process was underway, a top Michigan economic development official asked her colleague to call Quicken’s executive vice president for government affairs about opportunity zones.

“They worked with the White House on it and want to be sure we are coordinated,” wrote the official, Christine Roeder, in an email with the subject line “Quicken.”

The exact role of the White House is not clear. But less than two weeks after the email was written, the Trump administration revised its list of census tracts that were eligible for the tax break. New to the list? One of the downtown Detroit tracts dominated by Gilbert that had not previously been included. And the area made the cut even though it did not meet the poverty requirements of the program. The Gilbert opportunity zone is one of a handful around the country that were included despite not meeting the eligibility criteria, according to an analysis by ProPublica.

Several weeks later, the Michigan governor selected all three of the downtown Gilbert tracts for the program.

Gilbert influenced the local selection process, as well, other emails obtained by ProPublica show: Quicken’s top lobbyist was so enmeshed in the process, his name appears on an opportunity zone map made by the city economic development organization, recommending part of downtown be included in the tax break. No other non-city officials are named on the document.

The result has likely already been a boon to Gilbert: Multiple studies have found that property values in opportunity zones increased because of the tax break. Gilbert has put an estimated $3 billion into buying and renovating properties in Detroit, the vast majority now in opportunity zones.

In addition, even though the law was designed to incentivize new investment, Gilbert has several already-planned developments in the area that could benefit from the tax break, experts said.

The upside for an investor such as Gilbert “could be huge,” said Steve Wamhoff, director of federal tax policy at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a liberal-leaning think tank. “This seems to be a situation where someone is going to get tax breaks for something they were going to do anyway.”

The White House, Treasury Department and Quicken Loans all declined to answer repeated questions about Gilbert’s interactions with the Trump administration regarding opportunity zones. Roeder didn’t respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for the Michigan Economic Development Corporation declined to elaborate on the email mentioning Quicken’s work with the White House.

In a statement, Jared Fleisher, Quicken Loans vice president of government affairs, acknowledged Gilbert’s companies gave input to the state but said they “did not exercise any inappropriate influence.” The companies “joined a wide range of stakeholders in providing feedback into the Opportunity Zone selection process,” he said. “The State of Michigan engaged interested parties, asked for their input, and encouraged participants to share the State of Michigan’s request for input with other potentially interested groups.”

Opportunity zones were created by the 2017 Trump tax code overhaul. The idea, touted by members of both parties, is to grant lucrative tax breaks to encourage new investment in poor areas around the country. The Treasury Department determined which census tracts were eligible for the special status, based on poverty and income levels, and then each state’s governor picked 25% of them as zones.

But the program has been widely criticized as a giveaway to the rich that will not bring the promised revitalization in needy areas. There is no mechanism to track the program’s results, from how much new investment comes to the zones to how many jobs it creates.

Here’s how the tax break works. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 October 2019 at 12:35 pm

Mark Zuckerberg struggles to defend Facebook’s civil rights record

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Cat Zakrzewski reports in the Washington Post:

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg floundered as Democratic lawmakers grilled him on the company’s checkered track record on civil rights during a tense, six-hour-long Capitol Hill hearing yesterday. 

The tech titan was visibly flustered during a blistering line of questioning from Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), who pressed him on Facebook’s ongoing civil rights audit that aims to take stock of the company’s policies, content and internal operations. Facebook has touted the audit as a signal of its commitment to diversity as it fights allegations its biased against minorities. But Zuckerberg stumbled as Beatty asked him to name the recommendations from the audit’s recent editionHe couldn’t name the law firm that is conducting it. 

“It’s almost like you think this is a joke,” Beatty slammed. “When you have ruined the lives of many people, discriminated against them.” 

Zuckerberg also said he didn’t know what percentage of Facebook users are African American, even though the congresswoman said he was recently sent a report from Pew Research that included that data.

“Maybe you just don’t read a lot of things that deal with civil rights and African Americans,” Beatty added, calling his responses “appalling and disgusting.” 

Zuckerberg’s strained responses will only provide more ammunition to critics who say the social network isn’t doing enough to keep minorities safe online. Facebook could also see its political headaches intensify amid broad concerns about hate speech on the platform and evidence that African Americans were disproportionately targeted by Russian actors interfering on the company’s platforms in the 2016 election. 

Zuckerberg also couldn’t answer questions about diversity among Facebook’s partners. Beatty cut him off as the Facebook CEO struggled to answer whether any of Facebook’s cash is managed by diverse-owned companies. He said he didn’t know how many of the law firms with which the company works are minority-owned, or how many women and minorities work on Facebook’s legal cases.

Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) pressed Zuckerberg on the lack of civil rights experience among the company’s senior leadership. Zuckerberg said there are employees with that experience. Zuckerberg admitted, however, that he was unaware of whether any of the companies Facebook is partnering with to launch its digital currency through the Libra Association are led by people of color, women or people who identify as LGBT.

“Facebook’s diversity failures include an abysmal record of hiring and promoting people of color and women, contracting with diverse suppliers and investing in a diverse asset managers,” Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and chair of the House Financial Services Committee said at the conclusion of the hearing.

Zuckerberg’s lack of preparation on diversity issues was especially striking because lawmakers announced the hearing would be focused on discrimination in housing advertising. As my colleague Tony Romm noted, lawmakers handed Zuckerberg a beating on a broad range of issues outside of the hearing’s topics — but it’s fair to say Facebook and Zuckerberg should have known these kinds of questions were coming.

The tech titan couldn’t have picked a worse time to be caught off guard. There’s a growing rift between Facebook and civil rights groups over Zuckerberg’s recent remarks on free speech. The groups say Facebook is abdicating its responsibility to protect people of color by not subjecting political posts to its community standards in many cases or fact-check political ads.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) raised those concerns during yesterday’s hearing, saying Facebook permits a “lower standard for truthfulness and decency” for politicians, saying: “It is hate speech, it’s hate, and it’s leading to violence and death threats in my office.”

Muslim Advocates, a civil rights group that has been critical of Facebook, said Zuckerberg’s responses at yesterday’s hearing showed he “abdicated his responsibility.”

“Facebook needs to immediately end its policy allowing false ads and must enforce its community standards robustly and consistently before more people are put in harm’s way,” the group said in a statement.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) also pressed Zuckerberg on Facebook’s fact-checking policy in a fiery exchange, pressing him to answer in simple yes or no form whether Facebook intended to allow false content to remain on its platform.

“Well Congresswoman, I think lying is bad and I think if you were to run an ad that had a lie, that would be bad. That’s different from it being — from it — in our position the right thing to do to prevent your constituents or people in an election from seeing that you have lied,” Zuckerberg said.

Lawmakers also pressed Zuckerberg on Facebook’s handling of hate speech, which has long been a concern among civil rights leaders. Tlaib asked Zuckerberg to explain whether a photo of a man holding a rifle outside a mosque is permitted on the social-networking site.

“I’m not sure I’m in a position right now to evaluate any given post against all the different standards right now,” Zuckerberg replied.

Rep. Sean Casten (D-Ill.) called Zuckerberg’s response “rather shocking” when he pressed him on whether Facebook would allow a member of the American Nazi Party running for office to purchase an ad that included hate speech otherwise prohibited.

“Congressman, I think that depends on a bunch of specifics that I’m not familiar with this case and can’t answer to,” Zuckerberg said. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 October 2019 at 11:26 am

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