Later On

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Archive for June 29th, 2020

Read this, and think about the future of the US

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Heather Cox Richardson:

If you feel overwhelmed, there is good reason. We are currently in the midst of a number of storylines, any one of which would define any other administration. And the news comes so fast you can barely figure out who the players are before there’s another twist.

Friday’s news that Russia offered—and paid—bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing American soldiers, and that Trump chose to make friendly overtures to Russia President Vladimir Putin rather than retaliating, is huge. People trying to downplay it are saying that of course other countries want to kill American soldiers, and yes, that seems rather a given. But in this case, the president was informed of a direct plot on the part of a country not officially involved in a hostile situation to pay militants to kill our soldiers, and rather than retaliate for that engagement, the president has extended friendly overtures to that country. This behavior is both unprecedented and unfathomable.

After the story broke, the White House stayed quiet for almost 24 hours, then White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said that the president and Vice President Mike Pence had not been briefed on the issue. First thing Sunday morning, Trump tweeted: “Nobody briefed or told me, [Vice President] Pence, or Chief of Staff [Mark Meadows] about the so-called attacks on our troops in Afghanistan by Russians, as reported through an ‘anonymous source’ by the Fake News [New York Times]….”

But news broke yesterday that US intelligence officers had, in fact, notified their superiors back in January about the Russian plot, which they believed resulted in at least one U.S. death. Two intelligence officials told reporters that the information had been delivered to the president and that last week, American officials shared the information with the British government. Today, it was confirmed that the president had gotten a written briefing on the issue in February.

Today, Trump and White House officials tried to argue that the intelligence was not credible, and the newly confirmed Director of National Intelligence, John Ratcliffe, warned that any leaks about the issue are a crime.

But in response to congressional outcry, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, DNI Ratcliffe, and National Security Advisor Robert C. O’Brien briefed seven House Republicans from the Armed Service and Foreign Affairs committee: Liz Cheney (R-WY), “Mac” Thornberry (R-TX), Michael McCaul (R-TX), Jim Banks (R-IN), Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), and Elise Stefanik (R-NY). Also present was Andy Biggs (R-AZ), who is chair of the far-right Freedom Caucus.

A few Democrats will be briefed tomorrow, and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) has demanded a briefing for the whole House. This procedure is irregular: there is a process for informing Congress of military threats that involves leaders of both parties equally, not by party in different groups.

More news broke at 11:30 tonight, when the Associated Press published a story saying that “top officials in the White House were aware in early 2019 of classified intelligence indicating Russia was secretly offering bounties to the Taliban for the deaths of Americans, a full year earlier than has been previously reported, according to U.S. officials with direct knowledge of the intelligence.”

That story alone should define a presidency, but the upcoming election is also huge. Yesterday, the Washington Post reported that Trump’s advisors are worried about his falling poll numbers and have urged him to try to appeal to a wider group of voters than the base to which he continues to cater.

But the story appeared shortly after the president retweeted a video of a man in the Florida retirement community The Villages shouting “white power” at protesters. Trump wrote: “Thank you to the great people of The Villages. The Radical Left Do Nothing Democrats will Fall in the Fall. Corrupt Joe is shot. See you soon!!!”

White House aides immediately recognized they had a problem, but it took them three hours to delete the tweet, and even then, no one in the White House denounced it. White House Deputy Press Secretary Judd Deere simply said that the president did not hear the “white power” slogan on the video. Today, McEnany said that Trump had retweeted the video “to stand with his supporters, who are oftentimes demonized.”

As Trump focuses on his base, he is losing important support.

At the Supreme Court today, Chief Justice Roberts joined the majority to strike down a Louisiana law that put restrictions on abortion providers disproportionate to those put on other procedures with similar risks. The Supreme Court decided a Texas case much like this one four years ago, and while Roberts wrote that he thought the previous case was wrongly decided, he deferred to that legal precedent, sending a strong signal that he wants his court to defend the rule of law.

Republican leaders are also changing their tune on the pandemic, as we now have more than 2.5 million confirmed cases, and southern and western states have severe new spikes. Many have refused to wear masks as they tried to downplay the virus and urge people to jump start the economy. But today, Pence urged Americans to wear masks and keep distance from each other, and on the Senate floor, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said “We must have no stigma — none — about wearing masks when we leave our homes and come near other people. Wearing simple face coverings is not about protecting ourselves. It is about protecting everyone we encounter.”

Finally, Carl Bernstein tonight published a deeply researched piece in CNN about Trump’s phone calls with world leaders. Trump is unprepared, boastful, and deferential to Putin and Turkey’s autocratic ruler Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with whom he talks frequently. When he picks up the phone, he is unable to distinguish between his own interests in revenge and reelection and the interests of the nation. According to Bernstein, U.S. withdrawal from northeastern Syria and abandonment of our Kurdish allies to a Turkish invasion last fall was at Erdogan’s urging.

Trump caves to autocrats but bullies allies, including Germany’s Angela Merkel and former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Theresa May. He also denigrates former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush to foreign leaders.

According to the piece, Trump’s senior officials, “including his former secretaries of state and defense, two national security advisers and his longest-serving chief of staff,” have concluded “that the President himself” is “a danger to the national security of the United States.”

Aside from the content in this piece, this level of leaking suggests that Trump has lost his grip on the White House. Bernstein’s sources told him—and through him, Congress—that almost all of Trump’s phone chats with foreign leaders were caught on dictation programs, supplemented by extensive note taking.

They suggested that a reexamination of Russia expert Fiona Hill’s testimony might provide a road map to the calls, and that if revealed, the contents of the calls would “be devastating to the President’s standing” with members of both parties as well as with the public. Recognizing that Trump would try to stop investigations with claims of executive privilege, some former officials suggested they would be willing to testify to what they had heard.

Tomorrow will likely be wild….

——

Notes: . . .

Continue reading. Click for links to substantiation.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 June 2020 at 11:01 pm

Buddy Hackett — two brief videos

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And this:

Written by LeisureGuy

29 June 2020 at 7:18 pm

Posted in Comedy, Video

Donald Trump, President of the United States, provides words to Sarah Cooper

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Some you’ve seen, some are new, all are Donald Trump.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 June 2020 at 6:40 pm

The 3 Weeks That Changed Everything; or, Botched Opportunities

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James Fallows writes in the Atlantic:

Coping with a pandemic is one of the most complex challenges a society can face. To minimize death and damage, leaders and citizens must orchestrate a huge array of different resources and tools. Scientists must explore the most advanced frontiers of research while citizens attend to the least glamorous tasks of personal hygiene. Physical supplies matter—test kits, protective gear—but so do intangibles, such as “flattening the curve” and public trust in official statements. The response must be global, because the virus can spread anywhere, but an effective response also depends heavily on national policies, plus implementation at the state and community level. Businesses must work with governments, and epidemiologists with economists and educators. Saving lives demands minute-by-minute attention from health-care workers and emergency crews, but it also depends on advance preparation for threats that might not reveal themselves for many years. I have heard military and intelligence officials describe some threats as requiring a “whole of nation” response, rather than being manageable with any one element of “hard” or “soft” power or even a “whole of government” approach. Saving lives during a pandemic is a challenge of this nature and magnitude.

It is a challenge that the United States did not meet. During the past two months, I have had lengthy conversations with some 30 scientists, health experts, and past and current government officials—all of them people with firsthand knowledge of what our response to the coronavirus pandemic should have been, could have been, and actually was. The government officials had served or are still serving in the uniformed military, on the White House staff, or in other executive departments, and in various intelligence agencies. Some spoke on condition of anonymity, given their official roles. As I continued these conversations, the people I talked with had noticeably different moods. First, in March and April, they were astonished and puzzled about what had happened. Eventually, in May and June, they were enraged. “The president kept a cruise ship from landing in California, because he didn’t want ‘his numbers’ to go up,” a former senior government official told me. He was referring to Donald Trump’s comment, in early March, that he didn’t want infected passengers on the cruise ship Grand Princess to come ashore, because “I like the numbers being where they are.” Trump didn’t try to write this comment off as a “joke,” his go-to defense when his remarks cause outrage, including his June 20 comment in Tulsa that he’d told medical officials to “slow the testing down, please” in order to keep the reported-case level low. But the evidence shows that he has been deadly earnest about denying the threat of COVID-19, and delaying action against it.

“Look at what the numbers are now,” this same official said, in late April, at a moment when the U.S. death toll had just climbed above 60,000, exceeding the number of Americans killed in the Vietnam War. By late June, the total would surpass 120,000—more than all American military deaths during World War I. “If he had just been paying attention, he would have asked, ‘What do I do first?’ We wouldn’t have passed the threshold of casualties in previous wars. It is a catastrophic failure.”

As an amateur pilot, I can’t help associating the words catastrophic failure with an accident report. The fact is, confronting a pandemic has surprising parallels with the careful coordination and organization that has saved large numbers of lives in air travel. Aviation is safe in large part because it learns from its disasters. Investigators from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board go immediately to accident sites to begin assessing evidence. After months or even years of research, their detailed reports try to lay out the “accident chain” and explain what went wrong. In deciding whether to fly if I’m tired or if the weather is marginal, I rely on a tie-breaking question: How would this look in an NTSB report?

Controlling the risks of flight may not be as complex as fighting a pandemic, but it’s in the ballpark. Aviation is fundamentally a very dangerous activity. People are moving at high altitudes, at high speed, and in high volume, with a guarantee of mass casualties if things go wrong. Managing the aviation system involves hardware—airframes, engines, flight control systems—and “software,” in the form of training, routing, and coordinated protocols. It requires recognition of hazards that are certain—bad weather, inevitable mechanical breakdowns—and those that cannot be specifically foreseen, from terrorist episodes to obscure but consequential computer bugs. It involves businesses and also governments; it is nation-specific and also worldwide; it demands second-by-second attention and also awareness of trends that will take years to develop.

The modern aviation system works. From the dawn of commercial aviation through the 1990s, 1,000 to 2,000 people would typically die each year in airline crashes. Today, the worldwide total is usually about one-10th that level. Last year, before the pandemic began, more than 25,000 commercial-airline flights took off each day from airports in the United States. Every one of them landed safely.

In these two fundamentally similar undertakings—managing the skies, containing disease outbreaks—the United States has set a global example of success in one and of failure in the other. It has among the fewest aviation-related fatalities in the world, despite having the largest number of flights. But with respect to the coronavirus pandemic, it has suffered by far the largest number of fatalities, about one-quarter of the global total, despite having less than one-20th of the world’s population.

Consider a thought experiment: What if the NTSB were brought in to look at the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic? What would its investigation conclude? I’ll jump to the answer before laying out the background: This was a journey straight into a mountainside, with countless missed opportunities to turn away. A system was in place to save lives and contain disaster. The people in charge of the system could not be bothered to avoid the doomed course.

The organization below differs from that of a standard NTSB report, but it covers the key points. Timelines of aviation disasters typically start long before the passengers or even the flight crew knew anything was wrong, with problems in the design of the airplane, the procedures of the maintenance crew, the route, or the conditions into which the captain decided to fly. In the worst cases, those decisions doomed the flight even before it took off. My focus here is similarly on conditions and decisions that may have doomed the country even before the first COVID-19 death had been recorded on U.S. soil.

What happened once the disease began spreading in this country was a federal disaster in its own right: Katrina on a national scale, Chernobyl minus the radiation. It involved the failure to test; the failure to trace; the shortage of equipment; the dismissal of masks; the silencing or sidelining of professional scientists; the stream of conflicting, misleading, callous, and recklessly ignorant statements by those who did speak on the national government’s behalf. As late as February 26, Donald Trump notoriously said of the infection rate, “You have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down close to zero.” What happened after that—when those 15 cases became 15,000, and then more than 2 million, en route to a total no one can foretell—will be a central part of the history of our times.

But what happened in the two months before Trump’s statement, when the United States still had a chance of containing the disease where it started or at least buffering its effects, is if anything worse.

1. The Flight Plan

The first thing an airplane crew needs to know is what it will be flying through. Thunderstorms? Turbulence? Dangerous or restricted airspace? The path of another airplane? And because takeoffs are optional but landings are mandatory, what can it expect at the end of the flight? Wind shear? An icy runway? The biggest single reason flying is so much safer now than it was even a quarter century ago is that flight crews, air traffic controllers, and the airline “dispatchers” who coordinate with pilots have so many precise tools with which to anticipate conditions and hazards, hours or days in advance.

And for the pandemic? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 June 2020 at 6:13 pm

Why does DARPA work?

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Ben Reinhardt has an interesting post:

How can we enable more science fiction to become reality?

If you want to do something, it usually pays to study those who have done that thing successfully in the past. Asking ‘what is this outlier’s production function?’ can provide a starting point.

DARPA is an outlier organization in the world of turning science fiction into reality. Since 1958, it has been a driving force in the creation of weather satellites, GPS, personal computers, modern robotics, the Internet, autonomous cars, and voice interfaces, to name a few. However, it is primarily limited to the domain of defense technology – there are DARPA-style ideas that are out of its scope.  Which emulatable attributes contributed to DARPA’s outlier results? What does a domain-independent “ARPA Model” look like? Is it possible to build other organizations that generate equally huge results in other domains by riffing on that model?

Gallons of ink have been spilled describing how DARPA works1, but in a nutshell here is how DARPA works. Around 100 program managers (PMs) with ~5 year appointments create and run programs to pursue high-level visions like “actualize the idea of man-computer symbiosis.” In these programs they fund researchers at universities and both big and small companies to do research projects of different sizes. Collectively, groups working on projects are called performers. Top-level authority lies with a Director who ultimately reports to the Secretary of Defense.

DARPA has an incredibly powerful model for innovation in defense research, and I believe an abstract ‘ARPA Model’ could yield similar results in other domains. In this piece I’ll explain in detail why DARPA works. I’ll use that description to feel out and describe to the best of my ability a platonic ARPA Model.  I’ll also distill some of the model’s implications for potential riffs on the model. Incidentally, I’m working on just such an imitator, and in future essays, I’ll explain why this model could be incredibly powerful when executed in a privately-funded context.

How to use this document

This document acts more like a collection of atomic notes than a tight essay – a DARPA-themed tapas if you will. The order of the sections is more of a guideline than a law so feel free to skip around. Throughout you will come across internal links that look like this. These links are an attempt to illustrate the interconnectedness of the ARPA Model.

There are two stand-alone pieces to accomodate your time and interest: a distillation, and the full work. The distillation is meant to capture and compress the main points of the full work. Each section of the distillation internally links to the corresponding section one level deeper so if you want more info and nuance you can get it.

I would rather this be read by a few people motivated to take action than by a broad audience who will find it merely interesting. In that vein, if you find yourself wanting to share this on Twitter or Hacker News, consider instead sharing it with one or two friends who will take action on it. Thank you for indulging me!

Distillation

Program Managers

At the end of the day the ARPA Model depends on badass program managers. Why is this the case? PMs need to think for themselves and go up and down the ladder of abstraction in an unstructured environment. On top of that they need to be effective communicators and coordinators because so much of their jobs is building networks. There’s a pattern that the abstract qualities that make “great talent” in different high-variance industries boils down to the ability to successfully make things happen under a lot of uncertainty. Given that pattern, the people who would make good DARPA PMs would also make good hedge fund analysts, first employees at startups, etc. so digging into people’s motivations for becoming a PM is important. More precise details about what makes a PM good prevent you from going after the exact same people as every other high-variance industry. When ‘talent’ isn’t code for ‘specialized training’ it means the role or industry has not been systematized. Therefore, despite all the talk here and elsewhere about ‘the ARPA Model’ we must keep in mind that we may be attributing more structure to the process than actually exists.

DARPA program managers pull control and risk away from both researchers and directors. PMs pull control away from directors by having only one official checkpoint before launching programs and pull control away from performers through their ability to move money around quickly. PMs design programs to be high-risk aggregations of lower-risk projects. Only 5–10 out of every 100 programs successfully produce transformative research, while only 10% of projects are terminated early. Shifting the risk from the performers to the program managers enables DARPA to tackle systemic problems where other models cannot.

The best program managers notice systemic biases and attack them. For example, noticing that all of the finite element modeling literature assumes a locally static situation and asking ‘what if it was dynamic?’ “The best program managers can get into the trees and still see the forest.” Obviously, this quality is rather fuzzy but leads to two precise questions:

  1. How do you find people who can uncover systemic biases in a discipline?
  2. How could you systematize finding systemic biases in a discipline?

The first question suggests that you should seek out heretics and people with expertise who are not experts. The second question suggests building structured frameworks for mapping a discipline and its assumptions.

A large part of a DARPA program manager’s job is focused network building. DARPA PMs network in the literal sense of creating networks, not just plugging into them. PMs meet disparate people working on ideas adjacent to the area in which they want to have an impact and bring them together in small workshops to dig into which possibilities are not impossible and what it would take to make them possible. The PMs host performer days — small private conferences for all the people working on different pieces of the program where performers can exchange ideas on what is working, what isn’t working, and build connections that don’t depend on the PM. J.C.R. Licklider2 is a paragon here. He brought together all the crazy people interested in human-focused computing. On top of that,  he also helped create the first computer science lab groups. PMs also build networks of people in different classes of organizations – government, academia, startups, and large companies. These connections smooth the path for technologies to go from the lab to the shelf.

DARPA PMs need to think for themselves, be curious, and have low ego. Why does this matter? When you are surrounded by smart, opinionated people the easy option is to either 100% accept what they’re saying because it’s eloquent and well-thought through or reject it outright because it sounds crazy or goes against your priors. Thinking for yourself allows you to avoid these traps. PMs need to be curious because building a complete picture of a discipline requires genuine curiosity to ask questions nobody else is asking. A large ego would lead to a program manager imposing their will on every piece of the program, killing curiosity and the benefits of top down problems and bottom up solutions.

DARPA is incredibly flexible with who it hires to be program managers. There are legal provisions in place that let DARPA bypass normal government hiring rules and procedures. Hiring flexibility is important because PMs are the sort of people who are in high demand, so they may be unwilling to jump through hoops. Bureaucracies ensure consistency through rules – minimal bureaucracy means there are no safeguards against hiring a terrible program manager so the principle that ‘A players hire A players and B players hire C players’ is incredibly important.

DARPA Program managers have a tenure of four to five years. This transience is important for many reasons. Transience can inculcate PMs against the temptation to play it safe or play power games because there’s only one clear objective – make the program work. You’re out regardless of success or failure. Explicitly temporary roles can incentivize people with many options to join because they can have a huge impact, and then do something else. There’s no implicit tension between the knowledge that most people will leave eventually and the uncertainty about when that will be. Regular program manager turnover means that there is also turnover in ideas.

Why do people become DARPA Program managers? From a career and money standpoint, being a program manager seems pretty rough. There are unique benefits though. It offers an outlet for people frustrated with the conservative nature of academia. The prospect of getting to control a lot of money without a ton of oversight appeals to some people. Patriotism is definitely a factor, and hard to replicate outside of a government. Being a PM can gain you the respect of a small, elite group of peers who will know what you did. Finally, there may be a particular technological vision they want to see out in the world and DARPA gives them the agency to make it happen in unique ways.

Incentives and Structure

Opacity is important to DARPA’s outlier success. Congress and the DoD have little default oversight into how a PM is spending money and running a program. Opacity removes incentives to go for easy wins or to avoid being criticized by external forces. Of course, opacity can also be abused in too many ways to list, so it’s important to ask: How does DARPA incentivize people not to abuse opacity? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 June 2020 at 4:17 pm

What Next for Democracy?: Defining America’s place in the world

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David Warsh writes at Economic Principals:

The Decline and Rise of Democracy: A Global History from Antiquity to Today (Princeton, 2020), by David Stasavage, of New York University, gives the impression of being an easy read. Three hundred pages of text present a powerful narrative delivered with disarming clarity, with no showier claim to authority than the precision of its arguments.

But then come 37 pages of notes and a bibliography of 850 items, adding another hundred pages to the book. Stasavage has mastered so much history, and located it so deftly in recent controversies of social science, that he covers nearly everything that I have so much as glimpsed going on as an economic journalist these past fifty years, and a great deal more that I hadn’t. No wonder I missed on the couple of previous swings I took at it. I’ve got a bead on it now.

We won’t know for a while, but my hunch is that Decline and Rise will turn out to be the most compelling work on grand strategy since The End of History, by Francis Fukuyama, and The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, by Samuel Huntington, in the euphoria of the early ’90s. Since then there’s been Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap? (2017), by Graham Allison, but that was somehow less helpful than the much earlier The Weary Titan: Britain and the Experience of Relative Decline 1895-1905 (1988), by Aaron Friedberg. Meanwhile, Decline and Rise is differently grounded from the agendas of realists such as John Mearsheimer (The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities, 2018) and Stephen Walt (The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of US Primacy, 2018). The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty (2019), by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, is somewhat similar to Decline and Rise.

Stasavage begins by rehearsing the narrative familiar to anyone who has taken a course in world history:  how democracy was invented in Greece, and how it died out after a very short time – “about as much time as the American republic has existed.” Resurrected in Italian city republics like Venice and Genoa, after more than a thousand years, thanks to the rediscovery of Aristotle; and in the England of  Magna Carta, democracy then resumed its long slow evolution to the present day.

That takes no more than a paragraph.  The “problem with this story,” Stasavage writes (a phrase that occurs many times in the book) is that it is highly misleading.  When Europeans in the sixteenth century began fanning out across the world they often found themselves dealing with systems of government in which consent of the governed played a greater role  than the ones that prevailed at home. These included tribes like the Huron people of southwest Ontario, whom Jesuit missionaries studied intently; and the Tlaxcala people of Mesoamerica, whose government Hernan Cortez described as resembling that of Genoa or Pisa, because there was no king.

These early democracies, as Stasavage calls them, flourished wherever states were weak, which as recently as five hundred years ago, was most of the Earth.   They involved tribal chiefs who ruled collectively with the aid of assemblies and councils that constrained their power. These bodies were in turn responsive to the ordinary people whom they led, at least a subset of them, and they were to be found all over the world in communities that shared three characteristics:  small scale; leaders who lacked knowledge of what their subjects were producing; and an option for the disaffected to flee into the forest or otherwise “light out for the territory.” Fans of the saga of King John and Robin Hood will recognize the situation. Leaders who lacked dependable tax systems were more likely to govern consensually.

Early democracies existed in contradistinction to autocracies, which prevailed wherever a state could get a leg up on the citizenry, chiefly by knowing whom to tax and how much, in settlements  from which there  was no easy exit. China, with its fertile plateau of loess soil, was the first state.  From at least the beginning of the second millennium BCE,  dynasties in northwest China were able to support armies and build proto-bureaucracies by levying taxes on farmers whose productivity was more or less visible.  Rulers were hereditary. Councils had no say in the matter.  Other autocracies emerged out of similar geography:  the Third Sumerian Dynasty of Ur, the Aztec Triple Alliance, the Incas, the Mississippian chiefdoms, the Azande kingdom in central Africa. Islam inherited a state when it burst out of Arabia to conquer the Sasanian Empire in the Fertile Crescent.  Islam retained the local bureaucracy and converted it to its use.

Then came “the great divergence.” Everyone seems to agree that the different economic trajectory that Europe pursued began with representative government. But if the economic divergence has political origins, where did the politics come from? Representative government in Europe stemmed from the backwardness of its state bureaucracies, Stavasage argues. Rulers had no alternative but to seek consent from Europe’s growing towns. China and the Islamic world were far better off than Europe for five centuries or more; autocracy served development well. But at a certain point the Renaissance commenced, followed by the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.

Modern democracies had their beginnings in England, not the Dutch Republic, as has often been argued, England borrowed many Dutch institutions, so what made England  different? A new kind of parliamentary government, in which representatives could be bound by voter mandates, nor were they required to report back to their constituencies before making decisions. The Dutch retained institutions that permitted vested interests to forestall technological innovations; England sprinted ahead economically.

If the English went halfway to modern democracy, building a centralized state in which kings had powers as well as the newly-animated parliament, American colonists took the process to the next level, creating the broad suffrage for white males as a means of maintaining the consent of the governed necessary to the existence of a strong executive state. But the same conditions that produced democracy for European immigrants produced slavery for Africans and disaster for native American peoples. Stasavage is especially acute on the forces binding today’s Americans together – and those driving them apart.

The picture that emerges is of a world divided into two deep traditions, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 June 2020 at 3:27 pm

Responding to Crises

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Some advice that President Trump would have been wise to heed, from UKCivilServant.com:

Responding to Crises

by ukcivilservant

I have been waiting for a quiet period in which to publish the advice which experienced officials will bear in mind, and share with Ministers, when they face a new crisis or emergency. However … as the Government appears to have ignored pretty much all this advice when responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, and as there is no quiet period on the horizon, I am publishing it now, annotated with examples of the errors that seem to have been made over recent months.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

This note summarises best government practice when responding to serious crises.

The Initial Response

It can be difficult to know how to react to a rapidly growing threat.

There should be well-practised plans to help you cope with predictable emergencies, together with appropriate resources.  Even so – and more likely if not so – you may need to take strong action early in the crisis, when the threat appears small.  But you should nevertheless take the time – maybe just a few hours or a couple of days – to listen to experts, to discover, to organise, and to absorb what information and knowledge is available.  Then act decisively.

Ignore those that tell you not to ‘over-react’.  A significant proportion of the population and the media will continue to deny reality, even as things fall apart.  Others accept the new reality too easily.

  • Example:-  Well over 1,000 were dying each day at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak, and yet this horrendous total seemed to be accepted with a shrug by large sections of the population.

Then Organise …

One person should be given clear, full-time cross-Whitehall responsibility for leading the response to the crisis.   That person should confine him/herself to taking strategic decisions.  Tactical decision making should be left to those on the ground.

  • Example:  It was never clear who was responsible for leading the response to COVID-19.

… and Consult

Continue consulting, intensively, as you develop your strategies in response to the crisis.  Again, consultation need not be time consuming, but it should include all those who might wish to be consulted.  This will greatly increase the chances that your strategies will be effective – and accepted by consultees, even if they had argued against them.  Modern communications, including social media, will allow you to summarise issues, suggest ways forward, and seek comments, against very tight timetables.

  • Example: The teachers unions were not properly consulted before the initial announcement that schools were to be reopened for certain age groups.

Try to identify and allow for unintended consequences.

Measures that might be seem attractive so as to ensure public safety/security do not necessarily have priority over consequences including damage to human rights …  nor do they always trump economic damage.  Ministers – and if necessary Parliament – need to make these judgments and agree the necessary compromises.

  • Non-COVID example:   The US emergency response to 9/11 led to all borders being closed.  This severely damaged companies operating supply chains over the Canadian border.

Don’t promise, unless you are near certain to be able to deliver.  Try to avoid announcing ‘targets’.  Targets are, by definition, often missed.  And they rarely yield the most effective use of resource within government.

  • They initially reassure the public that concrete steps are being taken.  But they focus media attention and destroy confidence if they are not met.
  • They can also galvanise officials.  But they can lead to excessive resource being needed at the expense of other important areas.

Instead, explain what you are doing, and the extent to which you depend on others, and on technology being made to work.

Examples:  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 June 2020 at 3:21 pm

Posted in Daily life, Government

The US healthcare system and its inequities

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People seem to be willing to put up with it, and the GOP is determined to destroy the reforms that came with the Affordable Care Act, with Trump’s Department of Justice even now arguing that the ACA is unconstitutional and should be struck down in its entirety. And, oddly, many Americans like the current state of healthcare in the US and indeed many support abolishing the Affordable Care Act.

Sarah Kliff reports in the NY Times:

Before a camping and kayaking trip along the Texas Coast, Pam LeBlanc and Jimmy Harvey decided to get coronavirus tests. They wanted a bit more peace of mind before spending 13 days in close quarters along with three friends.

The two got drive-through tests at Austin Emergency Center in Austin. The center advertises a “minimally invasive” testing experience in a state now battling one of the country’s worst coronavirus outbreaks. Texas recorded 5,799 new cases Sunday, and recently reversed some if its reopening policies.

They both recalled how uncomfortable it was to have the long nasal swab pushed up their noses. Ms. LeBlanc’s eyes started to tear up; Mr. Harvey felt as if the swab “was in my brain.”

Their tests came back with the same result — negative, allowing the trip to go ahead — but the accompanying bills were quite different.

The emergency room charged Mr. Harvey $199 in cash. Ms. LeBlanc, who paid with insurance, was charged $6,408.

“I assumed, like an idiot, it would be cheaper to use my insurance than pay cash right there,” Ms. LeBlanc said. “This is 32 times the cost of what my friend paid for the exact same thing.”

Ms. LeBlanc’s health insurer negotiated the total bill down to $1,128. The plan said she was responsible for $928 of that.

During the pandemic, there has been wide variation between what providers bill for the same basic diagnostic test, with some charging $27, others $2,315. It turns out there is also significant variation in how much a test can cost two patients at the same location.

Mr. Harvey and Ms. LeBlanc were among four New York Times readers who shared bills they received from the same chain of emergency rooms in Austin. Their experiences offer a rare window into the unpredictable way health prices vary for patients who receive seemingly identical care.

Three paid with insurance, and one with cash. Even after negotiations between insurers and the emergency room, the total that patients and their insurers ended up paying varied by 2,700 percent.

Such discrepancies arise from a fundamental fact about the American health care system: The government does not regulate health care prices.

Some academic research confirms that prices can vary within the same hospital. One 2015 paper found substantial within-hospital price differences for basic procedures, such as M.R.I. scans, depending on the health insurer.

The researchers say these differences aren’t about quality. In all likelihood, the expensive M.R.I.s and the cheap M.R.I.s are done on the same machine. Instead, they reflect different insurers’ market clout. A large insurer with many members can demand lower prices, while small insurers have less negotiating leverage.

Because health prices in the United States are so opaque, some researchers have turned to their own medical bills to understand this type of price variation. Two health researchers who gave birth at the same hospital with the same insurance compared notes afterward. They found that one received a surprise $1,600 bill while the other one didn’t.

The difference? One woman happened to give birth while an out-of-network anesthesiologist was staffing the maternity ward; the other received her epidural from an in-network provider.

“The additional out-of-pocket charge on top of the other labor and delivery expenses was left entirely up to chance,” the co-authors Erin Taylor and Layla Parast wrote in a blog post summarizing the experience. Ms. Parast, who received the surprise bill, ultimately got it reversed but not until her baby was nearly a year old. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 June 2020 at 12:41 pm

TYD: “All the Breads I’ve Loved Before”

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The Younger Daughter launched a little blog. She loves baking, and you can see some of her favorites here.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 June 2020 at 11:33 am

Posted in Daily life, Food, Recipes

What’s up with my blogging

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A reader wrote inquiring about the change in pattern of my blogging (less frequent) and about the spareribs recipe I posted (do I still follow a whole-food plant-based diet?). I thought others might be wondering about that, so here’s what’s up with me on those accounts.

Blogging and its interruptions

My decision to acquire fluency in Esperanto has required a fair amount of time — here’s my current regimen. That post includes some detail on the reasons for the regimen.

The time spent in study means fewer blog posts. However, I now have the bit in my teeth and am determined to achieve fluency.

Whole-food plant-based diet

I still follow this diet, but my family and (I suspect) many of my readers do not, though certainly my family and I hope my readers do emphasize the consumption of fresh vegetables (including leafy greens), dried beans, intact whole grains, fresh fruit, berries, and nuts and seeds, and minimize the consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs — and try to avoid refined and “product” foods.

Still, I like food, and when I see a recipe like the St.-Louis-style spareribs (riparaĵo laŭ la stilo “St. Louis”), a recipe that is interesting, sounds tasty, and is easy, I post it for my meat-eating readers. Indeed, I might eat a rib or two on a special occasion, but certainly I continue now to follow a diet that is almost exclusively whole-food and plant-based. If I don’t, my blood glucose goes up (since I no longer take any medication for that — or for high blood pressure, since I also have cut out added salt).

I do think it’s a good idea to cut out refined food (e.g., refined sugar and foods that contain it, ultra-processed foods, fruit juice) and move toward whole foods, and to minimize one’s consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs, for the reasons explained in Dr. Michael Greger’s book How Not to Die and his more recent book How Not to Diet. But I figure you can read those and decide for yourself based on the research findings he points out.

 

Written by LeisureGuy

29 June 2020 at 10:25 am

Milestones of a child’s life

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I have a new grand-nephew and I was thinking about some important post-birth milestones. These are from the parents’ point of view, since the first two are not milestones the child recognizes in any conscious way:

  1. Starts sleeping through the night
  2. Able to feed self
  3. Potty trained, diapers discontinued
  4. Able to dress self
  5. Able to pick out clothes to wear
  6. Starts school
  7. Able to read books for own entertainment
  8. Able to write for own entertainment (e.g., diary)
  9. Able to cook and prepare meals
  10. Able to select good food at the market (e.g., produce, fruit)
  11. Puberty
  12. Gets driver’s license (optional in some locales)
  13. Starts voting (in locales that allow it, assuming vote not suppressed)
  14. Self-supporting
  15. Has children, repeating cycle (optional)

Obviously this sort of list varies by culture and often by sex (cf. touch typing, smartphone acquisition and skills, bar/bat mitzvah, christening, first communion, quinceañera, first recital, first speaking part on-stage, various graduations, et al.).

What would you add?

Written by LeisureGuy

29 June 2020 at 10:22 am

Posted in Daily life

Algorithm-governed interactions are often convenient, sometimes enraging, and occasionally dangerous

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Here’s an example of the enraging sort. The comments on YouTube for this video are interesting:

Written by LeisureGuy

29 June 2020 at 9:33 am

iKon DLC slant and Stubble Trubble Up & Adam

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The Omega 20102 boar-bristle brush is quite nice, and I love Stubble Trubble’s Up & Adam: espresso and vanilla — what’s not to like.

Although the Diamond-Like-Carbon coating makes the head almost invisible against the black background — I should have placed the razor atop the tub — it did a super-nice job this morning: a lovely, smooth result. I’ve learned the best angle (handle far from face) and preessure (extremely light) for this razor and it now works extremely well for me. The current coating iKon uses, the B6 coating, is even better than the DLC coating.

A splash of Spring-Heeled Jack — another coffee fragrance, with a wonderful dry-down — and here we are teetering on the brink of July.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 June 2020 at 9:27 am

Posted in Shaving

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