Later On

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

Archive for May 1st, 2020

Death of the office

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Catherine Nixey writes in The Economist 1843:

In the spring of 1822 an employee in one of the world’s first offices – that of the East India Company in London – sat down to write a letter to a friend. If the man was excited to be working in a building that was revolutionary, or thrilled to be part of a novel institution which would transform the world in the centuries that followed, he showed little sign of it. “You don’t know how wearisome it is”, wrote Charles Lamb, “to breathe the air of four pent walls, without relief, day after day, all the golden hours of the day between ten and four.” His letter grew ever-less enthusiastic, as he wished for “a few years between the grave and the desk”. No matter, he concluded, “they are the same.”

The world that Lamb wrote from is now long gone. The infamous East India Company collapsed in ignominy in the 1850s. Its most famous legacy, British colonial rule in India, disintegrated a century later. But his letter resonates today, because, while other empires have fallen, the empire of the office has triumphed over modern professional life.

The dimensions of this empire are awesome. Its population runs into hundreds of millions, drawn from every nation on Earth. It dominates the skylines of our cities – their tallest buildings are no longer cathedrals or temples but multi-storey vats filled with workers. It delineates much of our lives. If you are a hardworking citizen of this empire you will spend more waking hours with the irritating colleague to your left whose spare shoes invade your footwell than with your husband or wife, lover or children.

Or rather you used to. This spring, almost overnight, the world’s offices emptied. In New York and Paris, in Madrid and Milan, they ready themselves for commuters who never come. Empty lifts slide up and down announcing floor numbers to empty vestibules; water coolers hum and gurgle, cooling water that no one will drink. For the moment, office life is over.

Even before coronavirus struck, the reign of the office had started to look a little shaky. A combination of rising rents, the digital revolution and increased demands for flexible working meant its population was slowly emigrating to different milieux. More than half of the Ameri­can workforce already worked remotely, at least some of the time. Across the world, home working had been rising steadily for a decade. Pundits predicted that it would increase further. No one imagined that a dramatic spike would come so soon.

It’s too early to say whether the office is done for. As with any sudden loss, many of us find our judgment blurred by conflicting emotions. Relief at freedom from the daily commute and pleasure at turning one’s back on what Philip Larkin called “the toad work” are tinged with regret and nostalgia, as we prepare for another shapeless day of WFH in jogging bottoms.

But we shouldn’t let sentimentality cloud us. Offices have always been profoundly flawed spaces. Those of the East India Company, among the world’s first, were built more for bombast than bureaucracy. They were sermons in stone, and the solidity of every marble step, the elegance of every Palladian pillar, were intended to speak volumes about the profitability and smooth functioning within. This was nonsense, of course. Created to ensure efficiency, offices immediately institutionalised idleness. . .

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Written by Leisureguy

1 May 2020 at 8:14 pm

Posted in Business, Daily life

The Federal Reserve Bails Out Boeing, Gives a $3 Billion Subsidy to Carnival Cruise Lines

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Matt Stoller writes at BIG:

Today I’m going to discuss the why the small business lending program is undergoing intense scrutiny, and why the much larger Federal Reserve programs are not. To be put it differently, Boeing just got a $25 billion bailout from the Federal Reserve, but politicians are mad at Shake Shack.

First some housekeeping. I was on The Realignment podcast with Saagar Enjeti & Marshall Kosloff. I also joined Francesca Rheannon for her podcast titled a Writer’s Voice.

And now…

Complexity as Cover

There’s been a feeding frenzy among reporters about the small business lending program. Money is going to recognized brand names like Shake Shack and Ruth Chris who don’t seem to need it, with a fair amount of self-congratulatory rhetoric when these corporations return their loans. But I think this anger, while not exactly wrong, is misplaced. People know *something* is wrong with the Coronavirus rescue, and the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program gives them an easy set of targets they can relate to. So that’s what gets criticized.

But the right place to focus is not on the SBA, but on the Federal Reserve, which is where the action is. That’s where lending programs are in the trillions, not billions or millions. Yesterday, for instance, the Fed decided to bail out highly indebted drilling companies and their lenders at the behest of Texas politicians, without much notice. Boeing also announced with a splash that it will be turning down an official government bailout, while borrowing a whopping $25 billion from the Federal Reserve-supported corporate bond market.

One reason for the comparatively limited criticism of the central bank’s actions is that the Federal Reserve programs are weird and complicated, involving strange words like liquidity and high yield debt ETFs.

But I don’t think the asymmetry in criticism is purely a result of difficult-to-parse jargon or capital markets complexity. It’s just easier to see what the small business lending program is doing. There’s a legal process that connects the borrower to a bank and to the government. The Fed bailouts by contrast are indirect; technically the Fed hasn’t started allocating much, if any, money yet. It’s hard to point fingers at the Fed for doing something wrong when its programs haven’t even gotten off the ground.

And yet that’s a problematic way of seeing the Fed. Unlike with the small business lending program, the Fed announcement, not the initial program implementation, is what matters; just the prospect of the Fed intervening has huge impacts on borrowing costs for corporations, as well as on the prices of stocks and bonds. I’ve spoken to several people in the credit markets who tell me there is no real credit analysis anymore, traders buy what they think the Fed will backstop, meaning the Fed is giving massive implicit subsidies anywhere Jay Powell even day-dreams about intervening. In other words, many large financial actors – like Boeing – are getting billions of dollars from the Fed without any direct line to the Fed at all.

To cut through the noise, I want to try and quantify the subsidy the Fed is offering with a single case study. The ultimate numbers I’ll arrive at are a guess, but going through the exercise will help people understand that the Fed is just giving money to preserve the value of bonds and stocks. The best example is not Boeing, because there’s no easy way to calculate the implicit subsidy, even though we can assume it is very large. Carnival Cruise Lines serves the purpose better, because they were about to borrow on excruciatingly painful terms, but were saved in the nick of time by a Fed announcement. This situation gives us a nice natural experiment through we can see the implicit subsidy at work.

Carnival’s Subsidy

Four days ago, Matt Wirz at the Wall Street Journal reported a story on how the Federal Reserve saved Carnival Cruise lines. It’s told with drama, but essentially is about how Carnival was desperate to get any loan on any terms, until the Fed stepped in.

With financial markets frozen, executives were forced to consider a high-interest loan from a band of hedge funds who called themselves “the consortium.” The group included Apollo Management Group, Elliott Management Corp. and other distressed-debt investors that sometimes take over the companies they lend to, people familiar with the matter said.

Apollo Management Group and Elliott Management are cut-throat lenders. Here’s what happened next.

That all changed on March 23 when the Federal Reserve defibrillated bond markets with an unprecedented lending program. Within days, Carnival’s investment bankers at JPMorgan Chase & Co. were talking to conventional investors such as AllianceBernstein Holding and Vanguard Group about a deal. By April 1, the company had raised almost $6 billion in bond markets, paying rates far below those executives had discussed just days earlier.

There are a couple of other reporters who covered what happened, including Lawrence Strauss at Barron’s and Robert Smith at the Financial Times, and while the amounts are unknowable, it’s evident the Federal Reserve gave a large implicit subsidy to the corporation.

I’ll walk you through how we can tell. The original loan offer from . . .

Read the whole thing.

Written by Leisureguy

1 May 2020 at 8:10 pm

Kent State and the War That Never Ended

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Jill LePore writes in the New Yorker:

Phillip Lafayette Gibbs met Dale Adams when they were in high school, in Ripley, Mississippi, a town best known as the home of William Faulkner’s great-grandfather, who ran a slave plantation, fought in the Mexican-American War, raised troops that joined the Confederate Army, wrote a best-selling mystery about a murder on a steamboat, shot a man to death and got away with it, and was elected to the Mississippi legislature. He was killed before he could take his seat, but that seat would have been two hundred miles away in the state capitol, in Jackson, a city named for Andrew Jackson, who ran a slave plantation, fought in the War of 1812, was famous for killing Indians, shot a man to death and got away with it, and was elected President of the United States. Phillip Gibbs’s father and Dale Adams’s father had both been sharecroppers: they came from families who had been held as slaves by families like the Jacksons and the Faulkners, by force of arms.

In 1967, after Gibbs and Adams started dating, he’d take her out to the movies in a car that he borrowed from his uncle, a car with no key; he had to jam a screwdriver into the ignition to start it up. After Dale got pregnant, they were married, at his sister’s house. They named the baby Phillip, Jr.; Gibbs called him his little man. Gibbs went to Jackson State, a historically black college, and majored in political science. In 1970, his junior year, Gibbs decided that he’d like to study law at Howard when he graduated. He was opposed to the war in Vietnam, but he was also giving some thought to joining the Air Force, because that way, at least, he could provide his family with a decent apartment. “I really don’t want to go to the air force but I want you and my man to be staying with me,” he wrote to Dale, after she and the baby had moved back home to Ripley to save money.

The Jackson State campus was divided by a four-lane road called Lynch Street, named for Mississippi’s first black congressman, John Roy Lynch, who was elected during Reconstruction, in 1872, though a lot of people thought that the street honored another Lynch, the slaveholding judge whose name became a verb. It was on Lynch Street, just after midnight, on May 15, 1970, that policemen in riot gear shot and killed Phillip Gibbs. He was twenty-one. In a barrage—they fired more than a hundred and fifty rounds in twenty-eight seconds—they also fatally shot a seventeen-year-old high-school student named James Earl Green, who was walking down the street on his way home from work. Buckshot and broken glass wounded a dozen more students, including women watching from the windows of their dormitory, Alexander Hall. Phillip Gibbs’s sister lived in that dormitory.

That night, as the historian Nancy K. Bristow recounts in “Steeped in the Blood of Racism: Black Power, Law and Order, and the 1970 Shootings at Jackson State College” (Oxford), students at Jackson State had been out on Lynch Street protesting, and young men from the neighborhood had been throwing rocks and setting a truck on fire, partly because of something that had happened ten days before and more than nine hundred miles away: at Kent State University, the Ohio National Guard had shot and killed four students and wounded nine more. They fired as many as sixty-seven shots in thirteen seconds. “Four dead in Ohio,” Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young would sing, in a ballad that became an anthem. “Shot some more in Jackson,” the Steve Miller Band sang, in 1970, in the “Jackson-Kent Blues.” In the days between the shootings at Kent State and Jackson State, police in Augusta, Georgia, killed six unarmed black men, shot in the back, during riots triggered by the death of a teen-ager who had been tortured while in police custody. At a march, on May 19th, protesters decorated coffins with signs: 2 Killed in Jackson, 4 Killed in Kent, 6 Killed in Augusta.

Two, plus four, plus six, plus more. In 1967, near Jackson State, police killed a twenty-two-year-old civil-rights activist—shot him in the back and in the back of the head—after the Mississippi National Guard had been called in to quell student demonstrations over concerns that ranged from police brutality to the Vietnam War. And, in 1968, at South Carolina State, police fatally shot three students and wounded dozens more, in the first mass police shooting to take place on an American college campus. Four dead in Ohio? It’s time for a new tally.

This spring marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Kent State shootings, an occasion explored in Derf Backderf’s deeply researched and gut-wrenching graphic nonfiction novel, “Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio” (forthcoming from Abrams ComicArts). Backderf was ten years old in 1970, growing up outside Kent; the book opens with him riding in the passenger seat of his mother’s car, reading Mad, and then watching Richard Nixon on television. “Kent State” reads, in the beginning, like a very clever college-newspaper comic strip—not unlike early “Doonesbury,” which débuted that same year—featuring the ordinary lives of four undergraduates, Allison Krause, Jeff Miller, Sandy Scheuer, and Bill Schroeder, their roommate problems, their love lives, their stressy phone calls with their parents, and their fury about the war. As the violence intensifies, Backderf’s drawings grow darker and more cinematic: the intimate, moody panels of smart, young, good people, muddling through the inanity and ferocity of American politics yield to black-backed panels of institutional buildings, with the people around them saying completely crazy things, then to explosive splash pages of soldiers, their guns locked and loaded, and, finally, to a two-page spread of those fateful thirteen seconds: “boom!” “bang!” “bangbangpow!”

Backderf’s publisher has billed his book as telling “the untold story of the Kent State shootings,” but the terrible story of what happened at Kent State on May 4, 1970, has been told many times before, including by an extraordinary fleet of reporters and writers who turned up on campus while the blood was still wet on the pavement. Joe Eszterhas and Michael Roberts, staff writers for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, both of whom had reported from Vietnam, reached campus within forty-five minutes of the first shot—they rushed in to cover the growing campus unrest—and stayed for three months to report “Thirteen Seconds: Confrontation at Kent State,” their swiftly published book. Eszterhas went on to become a prominent screenwriter. Philip Caputo, a twenty-eight-year-old Chicago Tribune reporter who later won a Pulitzer Prize and wrote a best-selling memoir about his service in Vietnam, was driving to Kent State, from the Cleveland airport, when the news about the shots came over the radio. “I remember stepping on the gas,” he writes, in the introduction to “13 Seconds: A Look Back at the Kent State Shootings,” a series of reflections on his earlier reporting. “I entered the picture late,” the best-selling novelist James A. Michener wrote. “I arrived by car in early August.” He stayed for months. The Reader’s Digest had hired him to write “Kent State: What Happened and Why,” providing him with reams of research from on-the-spot reporters. The political commentator I. F. Stone cranked out a short book—really, a long essay—titled “The Killings at Kent State: How Murder Went Unpunished.” So many books were published about the shooting, so fast, that when NBC’s “Today” show featured their authors the result was a screaming match. Before introducing them, the host, Hugh Downs, gave a grave, concise, newsman’s account of the sequence of events:

On Thursday, April 30th, 1970, President Richard Nixon announced that American forces were moving into Cambodia. On Friday, May 1st, students at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, expressed their displeasure at the President’s announcement. That night, there was violence in the streets of Kent. On Saturday, May 2nd, the R.O.T.C. building was burned, National Guardsmen moved onto the campus. On Sunday, May 3rd, students and Guardsmen traded insults, rocks, and tear gas. On Monday, May 4th, the confrontations continued. There was marching and counter-marching. Students hurled rocks and Guardsmen chased students, firing tear gas. The Guardsmen pursued the students up an area called Blanket Hill. Some Guardsmen pointed their rifles menacingly. And suddenly, it happened.

Nearly all accounts of what happened at Kent State begin the way the “Today” show did, on April 30, 1970, when, in a televised address, Nixon announced that the United States had sent troops into Cambodia, even though, only ten days earlier, he had announced the withdrawal of a hundred and fifty thousand troops from Vietnam. Students on college campuses had been protesting the war since 1965, beginning with teach-ins at the University of Michigan. By 1970, it had seemed as though U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam was finally winding down; now, with the news of the invasion of Cambodia, it was winding back up. Nixon, who had campaigned on a promise to restore law and order, warned Americans to brace for protest. “My fellow Americans, we live in an age of anarchy, both abroad and at home,” he said. “Even here in the United States, great universities are being systematically destroyed.”

Nixon’s Cambodia speech led to antiwar protests at hundreds of colleges across the country. Campus leaders called for a National Student Strike. Borrowing from the Black Power movement, they used a black fist as its symbol. The number of campuses involved grew by twenty a day. Most demonstrations were peaceful, but others were violent, even terrifying. In some places, including Kent, students rioted, smashing shop windows, pelting cars, setting fires, and throwing firebombs. In Ohio, the mayor of Kent asked the governor to send in the National Guard.

Nixon hated the student protesters as much in private as he did in public. “You see these bums, you know, blowing up the campuses,” he said the day after the Cambodia speech. He had long urged a hard line on student protesters: antiwar protesters, civil-rights activists, all of them. So had Ronald Reagan, who ran for governor of California in 1966 on a promise to bring law and order to Berkeley, a campus he described as “a rallying point for communists and a center for sexual misconduct.” In 1969, he ordered the California Highway Patrol to clear out a vacant lot near the Berkeley campus which student and local volunteers had turned into a park. Patrolmen fired shots, killing one student, and injuring more than a hundred. Reagan called in the National Guard. Weeks before Nixon’s Cambodia speech stirred up still more protest, Reagan, running for reëlection, said that he was ready for a fight. “If it takes a bloodbath,” he said, “let’s get it over with.”

May 4, 1970, the day of that bloodbath, fell on a Monday. The Guardsmen at Kent State started firing not long after noon, while students were crossing campus; there seems to be some chance that they mistook the students spilling out of buildings for an act of aggression, when, actually, they were leaving classes. Bill Schroeder, a sophomore, was an R.O.T.C. student. “He didn’t like Vietnam and Cambodia but if he had to go to Vietnam,” his roommate said later, “he would have gone.” Schroeder was walking to class when he was shot in the back. . .

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Written by Leisureguy

1 May 2020 at 6:40 pm

The Best Books on the Politics of Information

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Henry Farrell is interviewed by Sophie Roell at Five Books. The blurb:

Our political systems evolved in an era when information was much harder to come by. What challenges does our current reality of information overload pose for democracy? How do we even start thinking about these questions? Political scientist Henry Farrell proposes key books for building a curriculum on ‘the politics of information,’ starting with a beautifully written novel.

The interview begins:

When I first got in touch, I asked you to choose books about your field, political science, but you felt that was too broad. Instead, we’re focusing on information systems. Before we get to the books, could you explain how this topic fits into political science and why you chose it? I get the sense that you feel it’s particularly important right now.

I should make it clear that information systems are not a standard political science topic. They’re something that I study as a political scientist, but as you can see from the list of books, there are a wide variety of different ways that you can approach them: from the point of view of novels, memoirs, or by thinking about them in a more abstract way.

The idea behind my choice is as follows: If we are to understand how politics and markets work at the moment, we need to pay attention to how algorithms work, and how the economy is being remade from the ground up by these new forms of information processing. We don’t know nearly as much as we ought to about the workings of these processes of information gathering, of information analysis, of information use, which leads to a very important new set of questions.

My starting point is an article by Ludwig Siegele, who is the Economist’s information technology editor. In the last Christmas issue of the Economist, he looked at various debates around these questions and asked a version of the following question: ‘We’ve got a bunch of people thinking about this in economics, in political science, in computational sciences, in statistical physics: how do we pull this together?’

What I have tried to do in pulling together this list is to provide a practical follow up to Ludwig’s essay. My starting point was ‘Okay, if we started thinking about the core of a curriculum for a course on this topic, what could we include?’ These would be the core books you would want as part of the discussion.

So are you teaching this course? Or is it all too new?

I’m planning it out, in part as a product of having been asked to do this interview. When I was prepping to speak with you, I had to start thinking about which five books I would choose and then of course I had to read them again. Once I read them through, the ideas started buzzing around my head about how I might want to put them together. What are the other texts that I want to draw on? So this is a course that, in a certain sense, you have helped midwife into being.

Wow. That is a huge compliment. Is it common for political scientists to decide what to study by looking at what seems relevant and in the news?

To some extent. If you think about international relations, it does a wonderful job at anticipating future trends, provided they’ve happened five years in the past. The logic behind that is that five years is about as much time as is needed for a PhD student to gear up a dissertation project explaining why his or her elders are completely wrong and why there is something new in the world that we need to study.

Political science, because it is interested in politics, has to be concerned with what is happening in the broader world. However, I’m afraid to say that, by and large, it tends to be a lagging rather than a leading indicator. It aspires towards being a science—in the sense of having some predictive capacities—but in practice, we political scientists tend to be much better at explaining what has happened than at predicting what is likely to happen in the future. Hence we are always trying to catch up with what is happening in the world at the moment.

But with this topic, you’re thinking it could make an important contribution to safeguarding democracy?

Very much so. If you were to think about the specific, underlying questions that have brought this into being, this is about the intersection between what you might call algorithmic capital or informational capital—Shoshana Zuboff calls it ‘surveillance capitalism’—and the kinds of political systems that we have.

The political systems that we have were built in a different era. They were built for an era where information was extraordinarily important, but where the capacities to process and disseminate information were very, very limited. We used to live in a world where if you wanted to get information out to a large number people you effectively had to buy a printing press, or own a newspaper or television station.

Now we find ourselves in a different world, in which the scarce resource is not the capacity to publish, but the capacity to pay attention. One of the crucial questions we need to understand is how this world of information surfeit, of information overload, is stressing and straining our political system. There are many other questions. When the information economy is dominated by large platform companies, do they have new forms of power that haven’t been seen hitherto? How do these platform companies process information—through algorithms, through machine learning, through all these other different methodologies—and what are the political consequences?

So what I’m doing here in these five books and in the imaginary course is really asking, ‘How do we start to think more systematically about this?’ And the first book that really pulled this together for me is a novel by Francis Spufford. Francis’s novel looks at a very different era of information processing and asks how it worked and didn’t work. That, I think, gives us some useful lessons to understand what’s happening right now.

It’s a wonderful, gorgeous novel. It has endnotes, which is decidedly odd in a novel. It’s about the ‘socialist calculation debate’, which he says he chose deliberately as the most unpromising topic he could possibly write a novel about. The book lays out the debate over whether it was possible to replicate, using planning mechanisms, the benefits of a market, and describes the Soviet Union’s efforts to realise this in the post-war period, reaching a peak during the Khrushchev years. After that, economic planning underwent a gradual and then rapidly accelerating decline.

The book has a couple of characters who pop up here and again, but the narrative structure is really the story of a system. So it begins with a mathematician, Leonid Kantorovich, who has this wonderful insight when he’s sitting in a tram. It’s a beautifully designed scene describing how Kantorovich is stuffed into a tram with all these smelly, sweaty human beings.

He thinks about the ways these human beings can somehow magically coordinate themselves so that they all get on and off the tram at the same time; he’s also thinking about the hole that he has in his shoe, which is letting in water, and this extraordinary mathematical idea he has just had. This is the beginning of the notion of linear programming: of how you can take a complex system of variables that looks like it doesn’t have any obvious solution and figure out ways to optimise it. It’s this blending of on the one hand the sweaty reality of human beings, and on the other hand this beautiful, beautiful mathematical idea which seems to have profound consequences.

The rest of the novel is really working that through, weaving back and forth between the efforts to plan and implement the economy and the systems that this gives rise to, and then the consequences of that for the lives of ordinary people: for a young woman academician, for a woman giving birth, for protesters who are shot because they are demonstrating against the rise in the price of meat which has been planned by these economists.

It’s looking at how an abstract system like that works out in reality, and how that reality feeds back into the system. It’s about how it is that the beautiful mathematical insights seem to recede further and further into the distance as the system trundles along and becomes its own thing—its own messy, unpleasant and inefficient human thing.

According to the Economist article you mentioned, Leonid Kantorovich was the only Soviet to win the Nobel prize in economics.

That’s absolutely correct.

So did this happen in real life?

It all happened, more or less. Spufford is quite clear in the footnotes about what he’s doing. Part of the reason he added them is to say, ‘With this incident here, I telescoped this and that thing together’ or ‘This person is not a real person but has something in common with Raissa Berg, who was a famous geneticist.’ He’s using the tools of a novel to try and probe a social logic, which is an odd, contrary, wonderful thing to do. It’s the kind of thing that shouldn’t work, but does—gloriously.

Red Plenty has acquired kind of a cult following among social scientists. It really helps to set the scene for the debates that are happening at the moment. The ways in which information might or might not be used are in many ways recapitulating those that happened 60 or 70 years back, albeit with a different set of technologies and a different set of ways of applying them.

On the one hand, we have people in Communist China, like Jack Ma, suggesting that we may not need markets anymore; we may be at the point where planning is actually going to work because we’ve got machine learning. Machine learning is going to provide us with the sophisticated means to achieve what the planners were trying to achieve and where they failed. On the other hand, we’ve got the Silicon Valley model, which is trying to figure out ways to use machine learning techniques to turn raw information into patterned data that can then be turned towards a variety of commercial purposes, with the same kind of enthusiasm that the people like Kantorovich had. This sudden, ‘Oh my God, we have the mathematics to turn all of these complicated miseries of human life into a set of engineering problems that can be optimised, isn’t that wonderful?’ sounds very familiar if you’ve read Spufford’s book.

There’s no way central planning could work, however fast technologies are coming along. Or is there?

I don’t think we live in a world where it will ever work. One of the off-shoots of Red Plenty is a wonderful piece by a co-author of mine, Cosma Shalizi. He’s a statistical physicist and he goes into the math of Red Plenty and explains why it is, given what we understand about computational complexity, that this stuff simply doesn’t work. Another friend who’s an economist at Columbia, Suresh Naidu, is more optimistic, but hasn’t yet written up the reasons for his optimism.

Cosma also talks about how, even if you could somehow get the math to work, the ways in which human beings are likely to respond to these systems invariably mean that they’re going to screw up. There’s this wonderful bit in Red Plenty where there’s a discussion between an economist—who’s really disappointed that they’re not going to apply his beautiful new math—and a somewhat cynical party apparatchik who says, ‘All of this math relies upon the assumption that the producers in the factories are going to give you the information and tell you the truth. We know that’s not going to work. We know that’s not the way people are going to behave. Therefore, we need to have some scope in the system for human beings to respond and figure out ways around it.’

We still have the same thing today. There was a piece by Yuval Harari in the Atlantic about a year-and-a-half ago, saying that authoritarian capitalism is going to beat democracy because authoritarian countries like China are able to use all of these new technologies to run the economy far more efficiently and keep an eye on everyone.

What commentators like Harari don’t get is the ways in which these systems are not only incapable of grasping the messiness of actual human social systems, but also able to actually exacerbate the flaws of central planning. For authoritarian countries, China in particular, you have these feedback loops between the categories that people are using to try and understand the world in the central committees, and the actual world they are trying to explain. We know how politics work in these systems. Very often, if you’re not implementing the thought of the beloved chairman, your superiors will decide that there’s something wrong with you and you’re obviously a problematic political element who needs to be eliminated. So the categories you use are likely to reflect the ideas of your superiors, even if you know that they’re wrong.

The technologist Maciej Ceglowski describes machine learning as “money laundering for bias.” That can have terrible consequences if machine learning reflects the categories of official thought, and then interprets the policy consequences in terms of these categories too, so that bias compounds bias. This then creates incentives for ever more distorted ways of understanding the world which are implemented through these algorithms and which then create these feedback loops which get worse and worse, and lead, perhaps, to human tragedy, but also to these authoritarian systems not working in the cool, clean, beautiful and efficient way that pundits like Harari expect.

There is a wonderful essay by Kieran Healy, a sociologist at Duke University. He notes that when we think about these vast systems of machine learning, we assume that they work as advertised, whether we evaluate them positively because of the wonderful things that they can do, or negatively because they’re creating new forms of authoritarianism and surveillance and control. In practice, we know they sort of work and also sort of don’t. We tend to overestimate the extent to which there’s a single overwhelming logic of efficiency that’s associated with them.

So basically, Xi Jinping should read Red Plenty?

Yes. I would also love Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to read Red Plenty en masse and to think to themselves, ‘Which aspects of this apply to how I think about the world, and what aspects of it do not?’ There are important and crucial differences, but there’s also a fundamental similarity between the optimism expressed by these young, excitable Soviet economists and central planners back in the 1950s and the optimism of Silicon Valley people today: that software is going to eat the world, and that this is a really good thing. I think it would be really useful for them to start wondering, ‘Okay, are there aspects of this which simply don’t work in the way we expect?’ And I think that Red Plenty really pokes at these questions in a very, very useful way.

Let’s move on to the next book on your list, which gives a very clear-eyed analysis of the market system we currently live in but don’t tend to think about that much. It’s called The Market System (2001).

This is by Charles Lindblom, who is the only political scientist on my list. He taught for decades at Yale. This book, The Market System, also has an invisible twin that I’d have loved to have talked about too, a book called The Intelligence of Democracy. What he’s thinking about in these two books is how markets and democracies . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

1 May 2020 at 5:36 pm

How Profit and Incompetence Delayed N95 Masks While People Died at the VA

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J. David McSwane has an article that demonstrates how the untrammeled free market doesn’t really solve problems all that well without oversight and regulation (and enforcement). He writes in ProPublica:

Before embarking on a 36-hour tour through an underground of contractors and middlemen trying to make a buck on the nation’s desperate need for masks, entrepreneur Robert Stewart Jr. offered an unusual caveat.

“I’m talking with you against the advice of my attorney,” the man in the shiny gray suit, an American Flag button with the word “VETERAN” pinned to his blazer, said as we boarded a private jet Saturday from the executive wing at Dulles International Airport.

It remains a mystery why the CEO of Federal Government Experts LLC let me observe his frantic effort to find 6 million N95 respirators and the ultimate unraveling of his $34.5 million deal to supply them to the Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals, where 20 VA staff have died of COVID-19 while the agency waits for masks.

It’s also unclear why the VA gave Stewart’s fledgling business — which had no experience selling medical equipment, no supply chain expertise and very little credit — an important contract. Or why the VA agreed to pay nearly $5.75 per mask, a 350% markup from the manufacturer’s list price. In the end, after ProPublica asked questions about the deal this week, the VA quickly terminated it and referred the case to its inspector general for investigation.

Stewart maintained he was trying to do a public service and plans to tell investigators how he was taken for a ride by “buccaneers and pirates,” the multiple layers of intermediaries, fixers and lawyers standing between respirator mask producers and front-line workers who are dying without them.

I had first contacted Stewart last Friday after a ProPublica analysis of federal contracting data showed this sizable deal was his company’s first — and had been awarded without the usual bidding meant to weed out companies that can’t deliver.

Stewart wasn’t alone. The coronavirus pandemic had unleashed a bonanza for untested contractors riding a wave of unprecedented demand and scarcity of everything from hand sanitizer to ICU beds. So far, the administration of President Donald Trump has handed out at least $5.1 billion in no-bid contracts to address the pandemic, federal purchasing data shows. The VA, far more than any other agency, appeared to be awarding large contracts to little-known vendors in search of the personal protective equipment that’s pitted local, state and federal agencies against one another.

I wanted to know how a company the 34-year-old Stewart had formed two years earlier had gotten one of the largest no-bid contracts. And, more importantly, could it fulfill it?

There was reason to wonder. A quick Google search showed large portions of the text on FGE’s company website had been lifted verbatim from a 1982 Harvard Business Review article. The company primarily advertised IT consulting and advertised a “block chain” A.I. solution to government procurement, whatever that means. But I found nothing suggesting the company could buy and ship life-saving medical equipment — and fast.

In a phone call, Stewart was defensive about an article on federal contracts in The Wall Street Journal that he believed unfairly painted him as a crook. His mother was so upset she wrote a letter to the editor. “My mom and dad raised me to be a man of integrity,” he said.

That’s when the first inconsistency arose. The Journal quoted Stewart as saying he was at the Port of Los Angeles “looking at a few million masks” and “getting ready to step on a Boeing 737 to bring the masks to the VA.”

He told me, however, that he had been in self-quarantine and hadn’t traveled anywhere since Christmas.

But he said he did have 6 million N95 respirators masks lined up in Los Angeles and would be getting a “proof of life video,” in the form of cellphone footage of scores of boxes with 3M labels, sent from an unidentified sender. The next day, he planned to take a private plane to the VA distribution center outside of Chicago to witness the delivery. I asked to tag along.

So here we were, aboard a whirring Legacy 450 Flexjet replete with leather captains’ chairs, dozens of liquor shooters, snacks and two pilots curious as to why we were stopping in Columbus, Georgia, en route to Chicago. It was a pit stop to pick up Stewart’s parents to bring them along for what was supposed to be a proud moment.

“This is about helping folks, about being able to say to my mom and dad, ‘Thank you,’” he said. “All the work you did, now we are about to help 6 million people — well, 6 million masks.”

“Kind of a Faith Thing”

For a man who said he had spent weeks of sleepless nights in search of masks and learning shipping logistics, Stewart exuded the confidence of a magician about to perform his career-defining trick. But his next act was already falling apart.

We were midair when Stewart revealed that the 6 million masks that were supposedly in LA had slipped from his grasp and been sold to another buyer when he didn’t produce the money fast enough. So, he had no masks.

This was the second time Stewart said he had lost a mask supply before he could get his hands on it. He had tried earlier in April to procure masks from China, but that failed when the Chinese government took control of its mask-producing companies and limited exports. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

1 May 2020 at 5:16 pm

68 Bits of Unsolicited Advice from Kevin Kelly

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Kevin Kelly is one of the founders of Wired, and he offers advice in a column The Technium, which is a part of The advice begins:

t’s my birthday. I’m 68. I feel like pulling up a rocking chair and dispensing advice to the young ‘uns. Here are 68 pithy bits of unsolicited advice which I offer as my birthday present to all of you.

• Learn how to learn from those you disagree with, or even offend you. See if you can find the truth in what they believe.

• Being enthusiastic is worth 25 IQ points.

• Always demand a deadline. A deadline weeds out the extraneous and the ordinary. It prevents you from trying to make it perfect, so you have to make it different. Different is better.

• Don’t be afraid to ask a question that may sound stupid because 99% of the time everyone else is thinking of the same question and is too embarrassed to ask it.

• Being able to listen well is a superpower. While listening to someone you love keep asking them “Is there more?”, until there is no more.

• A worthy goal for a year is to learn enough about a subject so that you can’t believe how ignorant you were a year earlier.

• Gratitude will unlock all other virtues and is something you can get better at.

• Treating a person to a meal never fails, and is so easy to do. It’s powerful with old friends and a great way to make new friends.

• Don’t trust all-purpose glue.

• Reading to your children regularly will bond you together and kickstart their imaginations.

• Never use a credit card for credit. The only kind of credit, or debt, that is acceptable is debt to acquire something whose exchange value is extremely likely to increase, like in a home. The exchange value of most things diminishes or vanishes the moment you purchase them. Don’t be in debt to losers.

• Pros are just amateurs who know how to gracefully recover from their mistakes.

• Extraordinary claims should require extraordinary evidence to be believed.

• Don’t be the smartest person in the room. Hangout with, and learn from, people smarter than yourself. Even better, find smart people who will disagree with you.

• Rule of 3 in conversation. To get to the real reason, ask a person to go deeper than what they just said. Then again, and once more. The third time’s answer is close to the truth.

• Don’t be the best. Be the only.

• Everyone is shy. Other people are waiting for you to introduce yourself to them, they are waiting for you to send them an email, they are waiting for you to ask them on a date. Go ahead.

• Don’t take it personally when someone turns you down. Assume they are like you: busy, occupied, distracted. Try again later. It’s amazing how often a second try works.

• The purpose of a habit is to remove that action from self-negotiation. You no longer expend energy deciding whether to do it. You just do it. Good habits can range from telling the truth, to flossing.

• Promptness is a sign of respect.

• When you are young spend at least 6 months to one year living as poor as you can, owning as little as you possibly can, eating beans and rice in a tiny room or tent, to experience what your “worst” lifestyle might be. That way any time you have to risk something in the future you won’t be afraid of the worst case scenario.

• Trust me: There is no “them”.

• The more you are interested in others, the more interesting they find you. To be interesting, be interested.

• Optimize your generosity…

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

1 May 2020 at 8:56 am

Posted in Daily life

Pumpkin pie fragrance: novelty? or not?

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This soap from Seifenglatt (now known as Smooth Shave, I believe) certainly has aspects of a novelty fragrance, but OTOH it is a reasonably complex fragrance — and spice fragrances are a traditional “standard” fragrance (cf. the bottle of Old Spice aftershave, Old Spice being the mainstay of shaving in our household when I was in high school.

The lather was certainly excellent, though the Plisson HMW 12 with horn handle must be credited with an assist. The Gillette Heritage head is, so far as I can tell, a stock Mühle 89/Edwin Jagger head, noting Gilletre about it. The “heritage” part seems to be the handle design. It did deliver an excellent shave, of course: the Mühle/Edwin Jagger head is excellent, which is why it’s so often copied.

A splash of Old Spice, and I was ready for my shopping trip — well, after getting dressed, of course. I’m happy to report that the vast emptiness of my fruit bowl (see left) has been remedied with the fruit bowl replenished with a 6-day supply: 6 apples, 6 d’Anjou pears, and 6 tangerines. I also have a bowl of mixed berries (frozen mix, which I thaw) each day. I have to say that I think Dr. Gredg’s diet guidelines, well-based on nutritional research, do provide structure and direction to my diet, and I enjoy the food. However, when I went shopping this morning, I did recognize that whole plant foods tend to be bulky.

Besides the fruit in the bowl, I have several lemons in the kitchen, since I use lemons a lot i cooking. Don’t you?

Written by Leisureguy

1 May 2020 at 8:39 am

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