Later On

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

Archive for October 7th, 2020

An editorial from the New England Journal of Medicine: Dying in a Leadership Vacuum

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The editors of the New England Journal of Medicine write:

Covid-19 has created a crisis throughout the world. This crisis has produced a test of leadership. With no good options to combat a novel pathogen, countries were forced to make hard choices about how to respond. Here in the United States, our leaders have failed that test. They have taken a crisis and turned it into a tragedy.

The magnitude of this failure is astonishing. According to the Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering,1 the United States leads the world in Covid-19 cases and in deaths due to the disease, far exceeding the numbers in much larger countries, such as China. The death rate in this country is more than double that of Canada, exceeds that of Japan, a country with a vulnerable and elderly population, by a factor of almost 50, and even dwarfs the rates in lower-middle-income countries, such as Vietnam, by a factor of almost 2000. Covid-19 is an overwhelming challenge, and many factors contribute to its severity. But the one we can control is how we behave. And in the United States we have consistently behaved poorly.

We know that we could have done better. China, faced with the first outbreak, chose strict quarantine and isolation after an initial delay. These measures were severe but effective, essentially eliminating transmission at the point where the outbreak began and reducing the death rate to a reported 3 per million, as compared with more than 500 per million in the United States. Countries that had far more exchange with China, such as Singapore and South Korea, began intensive testing early, along with aggressive contact tracing and appropriate isolation, and have had relatively small outbreaks. And New Zealand has used these same measures, together with its geographic advantages, to come close to eliminating the disease, something that has allowed that country to limit the time of closure and to largely reopen society to a prepandemic level. In general, not only have many democracies done better than the United States, but they have also outperformed us by orders of magnitude.

Why has the United States handled this pandemic so badly? We have failed at almost every step. We had ample warning, but when the disease first arrived, we were incapable of testing effectively and couldn’t provide even the most basic personal protective equipment to health care workers and the general public. And we continue to be way behind the curve in testing. While the absolute numbers of tests have increased substantially, the more useful metric is the number of tests performed per infected person, a rate that puts us far down the international list, below such places as Kazakhstan, Zimbabwe, and Ethiopia, countries that cannot boast the biomedical infrastructure or the manufacturing capacity that we have.2 Moreover, a lack of emphasis on developing capacity has meant that U.S. test results are often long delayed, rendering the results useless for disease control.

Although we tend to focus on technology, most of the interventions that have large effects are not complicated. The United States instituted quarantine and isolation measures late and inconsistently, often without any effort to enforce them, after the disease had spread substantially in many communities. Our rules on social distancing have in many places been lackadaisical at best, with loosening of restrictions long before adequate disease control had been achieved. And in much of the country, people simply don’t wear masks, largely because our leaders have stated outright that masks are political tools rather than effective infection control measures. The government has appropriately invested heavily in vaccine development, but its rhetoric has politicized the development process and led to growing public distrust.

The United States came into this crisis with enormous advantages. Along with tremendous manufacturing capacity, we have a biomedical research system that is the envy of the world. We have enormous expertise in public health, health policy, and basic biology and have consistently been able to turn that expertise into new therapies and preventive measures. And much of that national expertise resides in government institutions. Yet our leaders have largely chosen to ignore and even denigrate experts.

The response of our nation’s leaders has been consistently inadequate. The federal government has largely abandoned disease control to the states. Governors have varied in their responses, not so much by party as by competence. But whatever their competence, governors do not have the tools that Washington controls. Instead of using those tools, the federal government has undermined them. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which was the world’s leading disease response organization, has been eviscerated and has suffered dramatic testing and policy failures. The National Institutes of Health have played a key role in vaccine development but have been excluded from much crucial government decision making. And the Food and Drug Administration has been shamefully politicized,3 appearing to respond to pressure from the administration rather than scientific evidence. Our current leaders have undercut trust in science and in government,4 causing damage that will certainly outlast them. Instead of relying on expertise, the administration has turned to uninformed “opinion leaders” and charlatans who obscure the truth and facilitate the promulgation of outright lies.

Let’s be clear about the cost of not taking even simple measures. An outbreak that has . . .

Continue reading. The costs they cite are real — and were to a great extent avoidable.

Written by Leisureguy

7 October 2020 at 5:32 pm

When you absorb without listening: Esperanto progress

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Part of what I enjoy about learning Esperanto, beyond the language itself, is observing the changes in me as I learn. I blogged earlier about a two-week sinking spell at around four months in, and how as that passed I realized that I “suddenly” could much more easily understand the spoken Esperanto phrases that Duolingo presents.

Today I experienced another change. I wasn’t really paying (conscious) attention as a sentence was spoken, but when I went to type what I heared, it played back in mind effortlessly.

Formerly I had to pay careful conscious attention, and make an effort to remember each word. This time I didn’t pay much attention at all, but the words were absorbed. The adaptive unconscious has been learning and is now pitching in to relieve my conscious mind of some of the burden.

It feels odd — along the lines having lifted a weight repeatedly and then finding that someone has substituted a styrofoam replica.

This doesn’t mean that every sentence is so easily absorbed, but this was the first and the experience is already becoming more common.

Note, however, that this is my 172nd consecutive day of doing lessons daily:  the skill is acquired at the speed of growth, not the speed of insight. Training a neural net takes time and many examples — but once it’s trained, it is surprisingly effective.

This is probably a good time to mention again Timothy Wilson’s book Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious.

Written by Leisureguy

7 October 2020 at 4:26 pm

Posted in Education, Esperanto

Congress Gets Ready to Smash Big Tech Monopolies

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Matt Stoller writes in Big:

Today I’m going to write about the remarkable and historic report from the House Antitrust Subcommittee, the culmination of a sixteen-month investigation into Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon.

First, some house-keeping. My organization is hosting a Zoom event today at noon, “Protecting Restaurants & Communities: The Case Against Dominant Food Delivery Apps.” You can RSVP here. Also, I wrote a paper a year ago titled “Ad Tech and the News” on how invasive models of surveillance mesh with monopoly power to undermine the free press. There’s a history of Google and Facebook in there, as well as the rise of surveillance based advertising inventory traded on stock market-like exchanges.

Finally, Axios reported on the enveloping scandal around cheerleading, “Bain Capital’s Cheerleading Investment Gets Ugly,” citing reporting from this newsletter. It’s increasingly difficult to be a monopolist who engages in abusive and predatory activity.

And now…

The Cicilline Report Lands

Yesterday, the House Antitrust Subcommittee chaired by Congressman David Cicilline came out with its report on large technology platforms, the culmination of a 16 month investigation into Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple. Like Pujo hearings of (1912-1913), the Pecora Commission (1933-1934), the Temporary National Economic Committee (1938-1941), and Emanuel Celler’s Anti-Monopoly Subcommittee hearings in the 1950s, this investigation and report is a prelude to major policy action reorganizing the economy and corporate America.

The report itself is over 400 page long; I’ve read a bunch of these reports from enforcers all over the world, this one is by far the clearest and most aggressive. The subcommittee staff went through 1.287 million documents and significant quantities of enforcement agency records, did hundreds of hours of interviews with “more than 240 market participants, former employees of the investigated platforms, and other individuals totaling thousands of hours,” and had seven hearings, including questioning the richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos.

It’s an extraordinary document, and it’s worth noting that the investigation was set up to succeed. Cicilline fought tooth and nail to make sure the investigations were serious, and that the CEOs of the four companies at hand testified. The key staffer on the subcommittee, Lina Khan, is an experienced journalist, as well as the preeminent scholar of modern antitrust thinking; before coming to the investigation, she had published a legendary law review article, Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox, which single-handedly undermined the intellectual structure of the current way lawyers and judges handle corporate power.

I spent much of yesterday reading the report. I’m going to explain what’s in it, why it matters, and why the cynics about the possibility of progress are wrong.

Monopolies, Lies and Fear

The basic thesis of this report isn’t a surprise, and consists of two basic elements. The subcommittee found that Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon are abusive monopolies. The report also noted that Obama and Trump era enforcers failed to uphold anti-monopoly laws, which allowed these corporations to amass their dominance.

What makes these platforms unusually dangerous is that . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more and it’s important.

Matt Stoller’s column and (free) newsletter are always worth reading.

Written by Leisureguy

7 October 2020 at 1:40 pm

Congress releases blockbuster tech antitrust report

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It’s about time Congress took antitrust seriously. Adi Robertson and Russell Brandom report in The Verge:

The House Judiciary Committee has released its conclusions on whether Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Google are violating antitrust law. Its 449-page report criticizes these companies for buying competitors, preferencing their own services, and holding outsized power over smaller businesses that use their platforms. “Our investigation revealed an alarming pattern of business practices that degrade competition and stifle innovation,” said committee member Val Demings (D-FL). “Competition must reward the best idea, not the biggest corporate account. We will take steps necessary to hold rulebreakers accountable.”

The majority’s report lays out a number of concrete policy recommendations, which, taken together, would drastically change how the tech industry operates. It urges Congress to consider passing commercial nondiscrimination rules that would make large companies offer equal terms to companies selling products and services on their platforms. It recommends barring certain dominant platforms from competing in “adjacent lines of business” where they’d have a huge advantage.

“To put it simply, companies that once were scrappy, underdog startups that challenged the status quo have become the kinds of monopolies we last saw in the era of oil barons and railroad tycoons,” the report says. “By controlling access to markets, these giants can pick winners and losers throughout our economy. They not only wield tremendous power, but they also abuse it by charging exorbitant fees, imposing oppressive contract terms, and extracting valuable data from the people and businesses that rely on them.”

Most broadly, it suggests that Congress define a new standard for antitrust violations, declaring that the laws should be “designed to protect not just consumers, but also workers, entrepreneurs, independent businesses, open markets, a fair economy, and democratic ideals.”

The report was delayed amid political disagreements in Congress. The New York Times reported that Republicans split with the Democratic majority over proposed solutions to monopolistic behavior and that they were upset the report didn’t discuss claims that tech companies discriminate against conservative users. Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO) circulated an alternative report that described some Democratic proposals as “non-starters for conservatives.” Although there’s bipartisan demand for reducing the power of the biggest tech companies, the committee failed to settle on a single vision of how to move forward.

Buck’s report, titled “The Third Way,” comes to some of the same conclusions. It praises the majority for proposing “additional resources and tools” for antitrust regulatory agencies, including changes to the standard for anticompetitive effects, but it breaks with the primary report on a number of issues, like the nondiscrimination rules. “I agree with about 330 pages of the majority report, that these tech companies have been acting anti-competitively,” Buck told Axios. “It’s very common for Republicans and Democrats to agree on a problem and offer different solutions to solve a problem.”

The majority recommendations could have sweeping consequences for the biggest tech companies. They would restrict which . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

7 October 2020 at 12:54 pm

Science Might Have Identified the Optimal Human Diet

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It’s not the diet I follow, though similar. The core of my diet is Dr. Michael Greger’s Daily Dozen, but I do wander from it occasionally. (Examples: I had a piece of steelhead trout last night, something I enjoy every couple of weeks; I’ll have an occasional drink of spirits, and now and then eat an egg with some butter.) But day-in, day-out I stick to the Daily Dozen as described at the link. (I do avoid beef and pork, which increase my blood glucose reading substantially.)

Still, different strokes for different folks, and people vary in their tastes and metabolism. Markham Heid writes in Medium:

If this story has a silver lining, it’s that the dreadful state of the average American’s diet has helped clarify the central role of nutrition in human health. A poor diet like the one popular in the West is strongly associated with an elevated risk for conditions of the gut, organs, joints, brain, and mind — everything from Type 2 diabetes and cancer to rheumatoid arthritis and depression.

“We’ve realized that diet is arguably the most important predictor of long-term health and well-being,” says James O’Keefe, MD, a cardiologist and medical director of the Duboc Cardio Health and Wellness Center at Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute. “Most of the major health problems we deal with in America are connected to the ways we eat.”

If eating the wrong way can contribute to such a diverse range of illnesses, it stands to reason that eating the right way could offer people a measure of protection from most ailments. But what’s the right way? That question lies at the heart of countless studies stretching back several decades. By panning the newest and best of those studies for gold, some experts say we may be closing in on the optimal approach to eating.

An ‘ideal’ diet?

In September, O’Keefe and colleagues published a paper in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology that sought to identify the “ideal” diet for human cardiovascular health. Based on the most comprehensive research to date, his paper makes the case that a pesco-Mediterranean approach paired with elements of intermittent fasting is a strong contender for the healthiest diet science has yet identified.

The diet is essentially a modified Mediterranean plan, which makes sense; O’Keefe and his co-authors highlight research that has found consistent associations between a Mediterranean diet and lower risk for death, coronary heart disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, cognitive decline, depression, cancer, and neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease.

Plant-based foods — vegetables, fruit, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains — form the foundation of the diet. Fatty fish and other types of seafood, along with “unrestricted” helpings of extra-virgin olive oil, round out the plan’s major components. Modest helpings of dairy products, poultry, and eggs are allowed, while red meat should be eaten sparingly or avoided. Low or moderate amounts of alcohol — preferably red wine — are acceptable, but water, coffee, and tea are preferred.

The diet isn’t overly prescriptive when it comes to portion sizes or calorie counts. But it does advocate for a form of intermittent fasting known as time-restricted eating, which calls for all the day’s calories to be consumed within an eight-to-12-hour window. This is a practice that multiple studies have linked to lower food intakes and beneficial metabolic adaptations. “Time-restricted eating is a great way to reduce total calories and also get inflammation and hormones back into healthy ranges,” O’Keefe says.

“Virtually everybody’s health and well-being will improve if they follow a good diet,” he adds. “This diet seems to have the most cumulative scientific evidence supporting it.”

The pitfalls of restrictive diets

For those who follow a low-fat diet, a ketogenic diet, or any other diet that rigidly defines what a person can or can’t eat, the approaches highlighted in O’Keefe’s paper may seem unhelpfully general or far too agnostic toward macronutrients. But he and other nutrition researchers say that fewer restrictions are a feature, not a bug, of most healthy diets.

“Highly restrictive diets are usually not advised unless . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

7 October 2020 at 11:24 am

Which classic character are you?

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Here’s a little (free) quiz to see which classic character most resembles you. I took it twice and both times found Jane Eyre to be my alter-ego:

Your self-possession is worthy of envy: very few people have such a well-balanced commitment to cultivating both their intellectual and emotional lives. This justified sense of self-worth isn’t egotism because, through it, you see the dignity and worth of others. Your method of making a social impact is like your approach to self-improvement, in that you find realistic ways to create lasting change.  While you may loathe the idea of idle fancy, make sure you find the time to indulge in frivolous fun every now and then.

Now of course I have to read the novel. I downloaded a free (and well-edited) copy from StandardEbooks.org in Kindle format (using Calibre to hold the title and transfer it to my device — see the first two posts on this page).

Written by Leisureguy

7 October 2020 at 10:52 am

Posted in Books, Daily life

Facebook caves quickly

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Yesterday I blogged a column from Popular Information about how Facebook gave carte blanche to Breitbart to post propaganda. This morning I read in my Popular Information newsletter:

Tuesday’s newsletter detailed how Facebook gave Breitbart, a far-right outlet, a pass for publishing dangerous misinformation on COVID-19. Prior to publication, Facebook declined to comment on the record. But after the piece published — and was shared by thousands of people online — a Facebook spokesperson suddenly had plenty to say.

Facebook attacked Popular Information’s reporting as “a conspiracy in search of facts.” Pressed on what facts were inaccurate, the spokesperson was unable to cite an example.

Corporate accountability journalism matters because corporations behave better when they know people are paying attention. And Facebook, a $700 billion corporation, is paying attention to this newsletter.

I’m now a subscriber. You can check out the newsletter here.

Written by Leisureguy

7 October 2020 at 9:58 am

The essence of a shaving brush is the knot — the handle has but a supporting role

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I used my small Omega badger brush: a knot with less loft than the Omega Mixed Midget, and with a very small (but quite grippable) handle. As I used it, I realized the mission of the brush is filled by the knot, and the handle is secondary (though of course the handle can stretch its role, much as a supporting actor can steal the scene from the lead — see tomorrow’s shave for an example).

I used Dr. Jon’s handcrafted Defiance shaving soap, which has a kind of spicy fragrance that is quite pleasing. Guido’s notes:

Defiance is the second of three fragrances in Dr. Jon’s Cold War inspired “Revolution” series, each is a different take on a sandalwood and mandarin base. Defiance combines the sweet notes of mandarin and sandalwood with the spicy, sharp notes of allspice and black pepper making this the ultimate cool weather fragrance.

That’s a good description, based on this morning’s shave.

Well lathered, I set to work with Above the Tie’s S1 slant, always a pleasure, and three passes later my face was totally smooth. A tiny dab of Esbjerg Sensitive Aftershave Gel (which has a very fresh and clean light fragrance — at the link they write, “Although no essential oils are contained, the products seem to have the light fragrance of rose.”

It has a lot of aloe vera (see description at the link), and it can be used as a pre-shave gel as well as aftershave. I do like it — no oily feel, and quickly evaporates (and/or is absorbed) leaving skin refresshed and smooth.

Written by Leisureguy

7 October 2020 at 9:40 am

Posted in Shaving

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