Later On

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

Archive for October 23rd, 2020

A stunning zoom into the Mandelbrot set

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Written by Leisureguy

23 October 2020 at 8:03 pm

Posted in Math, Video

The Google Case: An Explanation and Evaluation for Non-Lawyers

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Tim Wu writes on Medium:

This post is meant to explain the Google lawsuit for non-lawyers (and lawyers too), and then give a rough evaluation of the merits, based only what is known publicly. A basic knowledge of the facts is assumed.

Google is accused of violating Section 2 of the Sherman Act, a law passed in 1890 that makes it illegal to “monopolize, or attempt to monopolize” a market or industry.

That law makes it illegal to either obtain a new monopoly, or maintain an existing monopoly, through “exclusionary” or anticompetitive conduct. The two parts of the case, for the Justice Department will be proving that (1) Google has monopoly power, and (2) that it used that power to exclude competitors.

The Justice Department’s accusation is that Google made exclusionary deals with Apple, among others, to make Google their default search engine. In other words, that Google paid off Apple to favor it over any would-be competitor (say, DuckDuckGo, or Bing).

By (strong) analogy it would be as if, say, Budweiser were the beer monopolist, and they paid off every beer store and bar to stock their beer exclusively. And therefore made it near impossible to buy craft beer.

(But wait — don’t beer brands do that? Or at least soft-drinks makers? For example, isn’t Coca-Cola the exclusive provider of soft drinks to McDonalds? The answer is that, if Coca-Cola were a monopolist (it isn’t), and if it locked up a majority of the outlets, it too would be violating the antitrust laws).

Google will, naturally enough, contest every part of the case, beginning with the claim that it has monopoly power. (Its main law firm will probably be Wilson Sonsini, and its main lawyer Susan Creighton, but I’m not 100% sure about that).

Depending on the measurement, Google has an estimated 88% of general search, as compared with Bing, DuckDuckGo, and Yahoo. That number is a tough one to get around. But by my guess, Google will say that general search is not a “market,” because the users searching aren’t actually buying anything. It is true that “search advertising” (the market wherein advertisers bid to reach Google’s users) involves payment. But Google will say that “search advertising” is too narrow to be a real market, because Google faces vigorous competition in digital advertising from Amazon, Facebook, and everyone else in the universe.

Google will pay an economist, perhaps David Evans, to say that the prices of digital ads reflect competition between Google and others, as opposed to a monopoly power. In other words, Google will admit it is has power in digital advertising, but not monopoly power, so there is no case here.

My instinct is that this part of the case is going to be hard for Google to win. In court it will be a battle of expensive economists, and I’m not sure what evidence they will deploy. But at bottom, the idea that Google is just some kind of small fry, or I guess medium fry, doesn’t strike me as particularly plausible.

The conduct alleged is the “exclusive deal,” which is a classic antitrust offense, and the same one that got Microsoft in so much trouble. Google will, I imagine, say that the deal wasn’t, in fact, exclusive or exclusionary, because you could always install another browser. It wasn’t, therefore, like my example of the bar that only carries Budweiser, but more like a bar with a sign that said, “featuring Budweiser,” but where you could always order something else if you really wanted to.

(Why didn’t anyone then? In other words, why was the default so sticky? Justice will say, because a default is a de facto exclusive. Google will say, they didn’t switch because our search engine is, in fact, the best, so no one wanted to switch.)

In another twist on the argument, maybe . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

23 October 2020 at 7:20 pm

How Ayn Rand Destroyed Sears; or, The Folly of Capitalistic Competition.

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Alfie Kohn wrote a good book worth reading: No Contest: The Case Against Competition. (He wrote a second good book worth reading, Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes, but that’s not the one I’m talking about.) In it, he describes research findings that demonstrate the drastic costs of competition.

Of course, Libertarians will have none of this, and blinded by Ayn Rand they insist that the free market, unhindered by any restrictions save the laws enforcing contracts, will solve any problem efficiently, and commonsense observation and history of what actually happens when corporations and companies operate free of regulation and oversight is something simply must be ignored.

Sometimes, though, the effects of untrammeled competition are not so easily ignored, as when those effects result in the destruction of a once-towering company.

Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski wrote a book, The People’s Republic of Walmart: How the World’s Biggest Corporations are Laying the Foundation for Socialism, that argues that centralized planning on a vast scale can work, an idea that gives Libertarians the heebie-jeebies, they include a description of what happened when free-market forces were released within Sears.

An extract from their book:

While companies like Walmart operate within the market, internally, as in any other firm, everything is planned. There is no internal market. The different departments, stores, trucks and suppliers do not compete against each other in a market; everything is coordinated.

It is no small irony then, that one of Walmart’s main competitors, the venerable, 120-plus-year-old Sears, Roebuck & Company, destroyed itself by embracing the exact opposite of Walmart ’s galloping socialization of production and distribution: by instituting an internal market.

The Sears Holdings Corporation reported losses of some $2 billion in 2016, and some $10.4 billion in total since 2011, the last year that the business turned a profit. In the spring of 2017, it was in the midst of closing another 150 stores, in addition to the 2,125 already shuttered since 2010—more than half its operation—and had publicly acknowledged “substantial doubt” that it would be able to keep any of its doors open for much longer. The stores that remain open, often behind boarded-up windows, have the doleful air of late-Soviet retail desolation: leaking ceilings, inoperative escalators, acres of empty shelves, and aisles shambolically strewn with abandoned cardboard boxes half-filled with merchandise. A solitary brand-new size-9 black sneaker lies lonesome and boxless on the ground, its partner neither on a shelf nor in a storeroom. Such employees as remain have taken to hanging bedsheets as screens to hide derelict sections from customers.

The company has certainly suffered in the way that many other brick-and-mortar outlets have in the face of the challenge from discounters such as Walmart and from online retailers like Amazon. But the consensus among the business press and dozens of very bitter former executives is that the overriding cause of Sears’s malaise is the disastrous decision by the company’s chairman and CEO, Edward Lampert, to disaggregate the company’s different divisions into competing units: to create an internal market.

From a capitalist perspective, the move appears to make sense. As business leaders never tire of telling us, the free market is the fount of all wealth in modern society. Competition between private companies is the primary driver of innovation, productivity and growth. Greed is good, per Gordon Gekko’s oft-quoted imperative from Wall Street. So one can be excused for wondering why it is, if the market is indeed as powerfully efficient and productive as they say, that all companies did not long ago adopt the market as an internal model.

Lampert, libertarian and fan of the laissez-faire egotism of Russian American novelist Ayn Rand, had made his way from working in warehouses as a teenager, via a spell with Goldman Sachs, to managing a $15 billion hedge fund by the age of 41. The wunderkind was hailed as the Steve Jobs of the investment world. In 2003, the fund he managed, ESL Investments, took over the bankrupt discount retail chain Kmart (launched the same year as Walmart). A year later, he parlayed this into a $12 billion buyout of a stagnating (but by no means troubled) Sears.

At first, the familiar strategy of merciless, life-destroying post-acquisition cost cutting and layoffs did manage to turn around the fortunes of the merged Kmart-Sears, now operating as Sears Holdings. But Lampert’s big wheeze went well beyond the usual corporate raider tales of asset stripping, consolidation and chopping-block use of operations as a vehicle to generate cash for investments elsewhere. Lampert intended to use Sears as a grand free market experiment to show that the invisible hand would outperform the central planning typical of any firm.

He radically restructured operations, splitting the company into thirty, and later forty, different units that were to compete against each other. Instead of cooperating, as in a normal firm, divisions such as apparel, tools, appliances, human resources, IT and branding were now in essence to operate as autonomous businesses, each with their own president, board of directors, chief marketing officer and statement of profit or loss. An eye-popping 2013 series of interviews by Bloomberg Businessweek investigative journalist Mina Kimes with some forty former executives described Lampert’s Randian calculus: “If the company’s leaders were told to act selfishly, he argued, they would run their divisions in a rational manner, boosting overall performance.”

He also believed that the new structure, called Sears Holdings Organization, Actions, and Responsibilities, or SOAR, would improve the quality of internal data, and in so doing that it would give the company an edge akin to statisti- cian Paul Podesta’s use of unconventional metrics at the Oakland Athletics baseball team (made famous by the book, and later film starring Brad Pitt, Moneyball). Lampert would go on to place Podesta on Sears’s board of directors and hire Steven Levitt, coauthor of the pop neoliberal economics bestseller Freakonomics, as a consultant. Lampert was a laissez-faire true believer. He never seems to have got the memo that the story about the omnipotence of the free market was only ever supposed to be a tale told to frighten young children, and not to be taken seriously by any corporate executive.

And so if the apparel division wanted to use the services of IT or human resources, they had to sign contracts with them, or alternately to use outside contractors if it would improve the financial performance of the unit—regardless of whether it would improve the performance of the company as a whole. Kimes tells the story of how .  . .

Continue reading.

In my view, Libertarians love logic but fail to recognize its imitations. As Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. observed with respect to the law, “The life of the law has not been logic: it has been experience.” Logic can readily take you to a place or conclusions that experience shows is bad, that doesn’t work. Generally this happens because the logic is using false assumptions, of which Libertarians have an abundant supply — cf. the Sears story above, a tragic clash between logic and experience.

Written by Leisureguy

23 October 2020 at 4:45 pm

When the Worst Man in the World Writes a Masterpiece

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Separating creator from creation — when a bad person creates something wonderful — does present problems. In the world of shaving there are some really superb products produced by — shall we say, difficult personalities. Some refuse therefore to use the products, but to me that seems like cutting off one’s nose to spite his face (a gruesome figure of speech in the context of shaving, particularly for those who favor straight razors).

Henry Ford was a terrible person, but the Ford automobile proved quite popular — but of course most purchasers knew nothing of Ford (the man). Is it incumbent for us to learn the nature and character of the creator for any product we buy? Probably not, but since one almost certainly buys or uses many products made by bad people (:cough: Facebook, Twitter, ….) when we don’t know the creator, why cavil at buying/using excellent products when we do know the creator is personally awful? It’s not as though one plans to befriend them or even trust them — it’s a simple commercial transaction: I give you money, you give me that (artifact (razor, knife, furniture, clothing, and so on), musical performance, software tool, excellent restaurant ambiance and food, and so on).

And if a terrible person has made a magnificent gown or statue or musical instrument, should that gown/knife/instrument be then destroyed? If not, why should it not be acquired? What if the maker has passed away? Is the maker’s work still to be rejected? And sitting in moral judgment on others seems somewhat presumptuous (what do others make of us), though I think it’s an inescapable facet of human life and indeed doubtless of the life of any reasonably intelligent social animal. I recall watching a nature video in which one member of a pride of lions was quite clearly of bad character and chased from the pride (though not after doing considerable damage).

Take James Boswell — please (as Henny Youngman would say). Alvaro de Menard writes at Fantastic Anachronism:

Boswell’s Life of Johnson is not just one of my favorite books, it also engendered some of my favorite book reviews. While praise for the work is universal, the main question commentators try to answer is this: how did the worst man in the world manage to write the best biography?

The Man

Who was James Boswell? He was a perpetual drunk, a degenerate gambler, a sex addict, whoremonger, exhibitionist, and rapist. He gave his wife an STD he caught from a prostitute.

Selfish, servile and self-indulgent, lazy and lecherous, vain, proud, obsessed with his aristocratic status, yet with no sense of propriety whatsoever, he frequently fantasized about the feudal affection of serfs for their lords. He loved to watch executions and was a proud supporter of slavery.

“Where ordinary bad taste leaves off,” John Wain comments, “Boswell began.” The Thrales were long-time friends and patrons of Johnson; a single day after Henry Thrale died, Boswell wrote a poem fantasizing about the elderly Johnson and the just-widowed Hester: “Convuls’d in love’s tumultuous throws, / We feel the aphrodisian spasm”. The rest of his verse is of a similar quality; naturally he considered himself a great poet.

Boswell combined his terrible behavior with a complete lack of shame, faithfully reporting every transgression, every moronic ejaculation, every faux pas. The first time he visited London he went to see a play and, as he happily tells us himself, he “entertained the audience prodigiously by imitating the lowing of a cow.”

By all accounts, including his own, he was an idiot. On a tour of Europe, his tutor said to him: “of young men who have studied I have never found one who had so few ideas as you.”

As a lawyer he was a perpetual failure, especially when he couldn’t get Johnson to write his arguments for him. As a politician he didn’t even get the chance to be a failure despite decades of trying.

His correspondence with Johnson mostly consists of Boswell whining pathetically and Johnson telling him to get his shit together.

He commissioned a portrait from his friend Joshua Reynolds and stiffed him on the payment. His descendants hid the portrait in the attic because they were ashamed of being related to him.

Desperate for fame, he kept trying to attach himself to important people, mostly through sycophancy. In Geneva he pestered Rousseau,1 leading to this conversation:

Rousseau: You are irksome to me. It’s my nature. I cannot help it.
Boswell: Do not stand on ceremony with me.
Rousseau: Go away.

Later, Boswell was given the task of escorting Rousseau’s mistress Thérèse Le Vasseur to England—they had an affair on the way.

When Adam Smith and Edward Gibbon were elected to The Literary Club, Boswell considered leaving because he thought the club had now “lost its select merit”!

On the positive side, his humor and whimsy made for good conversation; he put people at ease; he gave his children all the love his own father had denied him; and, somehow, he wrote one of the great works of English literature.

The Masterpiece

The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. was an instant sensation. While the works of Johnson were quickly forgotten,2 his biography has never been out of print in the 229 years since its initial publication. It went through 41 editions just in the 19th century.

Burke told King George III that he had never read anything more entertaining. Coleridge said “it is impossible not to be amused with such a book.” George Bernard Shaw compared Boswell’s dramatization of Johnson to Plato’s dramatization of Socrates, and placed old Bozzy in the middle of an “apostolic succession of dramatists” from the Greek tragedians through Shakespeare and ending, of course, with Shaw himself.

It is a strange work, an experimental collage of different modes: part traditional biography, part collection of letters, and part direct reports of Johnson’s life as observed by Boswell.3 His inspiration came not from literature, but from . . .

Continue reading. The contrast between Macaulay’s and Carlyle’s views — though both rate the biography a timeless masterpiece — is striking and worth pondering.

Written by Leisureguy

23 October 2020 at 3:24 pm

Posted in Art, Books, Daily life

Mi sukcesis!

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Wow. Finally (or finfine as we say esperante). Still, I’m far enough along now to see how much farther I have to go. But at least I’m free of the course which I admit left me a little burned out toward the end — but close enough to the end, though, that it was pretty easy to suck it up and carry through.

The next step is the start reading things not part of a course. I’ve ordered one of Sten Johansson’s novels (Skabio) and will try that.

I have mentioned how I was from time to time aware of how my adaptive unconscious would come into play. This short video explains it well, I think. The video talks about skills other than learning a language, but any skill — a skill being acquired through practice — draws on the power of one’s adaptive unconscious.

Written by Leisureguy

23 October 2020 at 1:16 pm

The Agony and Ecstasy of an Oboe Reed Maker

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“When I was a student, I heard that the legendary oboist Harold Gomberg had his own cane fields in Italy. It was said that the room where he made his reeds was underground, locked and secured. No one was allowed to go in and steal his techniques. Maybe these were rumors; maybe this was true.”

Jeff Greenwald has a lengthy and fascinating article in Craftsmanship magazine. He introduces it:

The oboe’s a horn made of wood.
I’d play you a tune if I could,
But the reeds are a pain,
And the fingering’s insane.
It’s the ill wind that no one blows good.

– Ogden Nash

About 3,000 years ago, an instrument called the shawm become popular in the Middle East. Tall and sleek, the shawm used a double reed and seven finger holes to produce a captivating tone. During the Crusades, this godmother of woodwinds found its way to Europe, where—during the reign of the Sun King—it joined the court symphony. The sound of the instrument was so clear and distinct that the French called it the hautbois (ou-bwa): “loud wood.” Given the speed of conversational French, it didn’t take long for this to become “oboe.”

My childhood introduction to the oboe was serendipitous. One of my mother’s cousins, Elaine, was a model. Her long-lashed eyes, a faceted gem on her forehead between them, were featured on the slipcover for The New York Philharmonic’s powerful 1959 recording of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, under the direction of Leonard Bernstein. My father played the album incessantly. The second movement features a haunting oboe solo—one of the only oboe solos in classical music. Since then, I’ve recognized the oboe’s voice in a few other random compositions—like the opening credits for Six Feet Under, or the mournful theme called “Gabriel’s Oboe” in Roland Joffé’s 1986 film The Mission.

“There are beautiful things that the oboe plays,” says Josh Kornbluth, the Berkeley-based oboist and performing artist, “like that famous solo in Scheherazade, and the duck in Peter and the Wolf. There’s also a particular solo in Stravinsky’s Firebird. But compared to other instruments, very little is written for the oboe as a solo instrument.”

It was Kornbluth who’d rekindled my childhood interest in the oboe. I’ve long been a fan of his probing and often hilarious autobiographical monologues, two of which—Haiku Tunnel and Love & Taxes—have been adapted into films. Learning that he is also a serious oboist was akin to my discovery that Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman played the bongos. It seemed, at first, a startling non-sequitur.

In 2013, Kornbluth wrote and performed a solo show called Sea of Reeds. Ambitious, if a bit diffuse, the show interwove two aspects of Kornbluth’s life: an exploration of his Jewish heritage, symbolized by the Biblical story of the parting of the Sea of Reeds (often called the Red Sea); and the daunting task faced by every serious oboist: the exacting, time-consuming, and often futile crafting of perfect reeds from a few slivers of cane.

Two things were unusual about Sea of Reeds. The first was that it was Kornbluth’s first multi-player production. He was joined by a female actor (Amy Resnick) and a small Klezmer band, which accompanied Kornbluth during the show’s several oboe recitals. The other was that, as part of his set, Kornbluth had filled a corner of the stage with the odd-looking tools and devices required for the shaping of cane into reeds. Before each show, audience members were invited to see how these arcane machines worked—and to witness for themselves (in a very small dose) what Josh calls “the Sisyphean task of continually trying to make oboe reeds.” . . .

Read the whole thing. Here’s a TOC:

  1. “A Chef’s Knife That Dissolves”
  2. Wood Alchemy
  3. Of Reeds and Comic Monologues
  4. “Pure Masochism”
  5. The Van Gogh Maneuver
  6. Counting ‘Crows’
  7. “Welcome To My World of Pain”

Written by Leisureguy

23 October 2020 at 11:46 am

The absurd difficulties of detecting gravitation waves, topped by the absurd clarity and timing of the first detection

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Here are two videos from the same interview/discussion on the LIGO project that detected the gravitational waves predicted by General Relativity. This is science at an extreme, and both videos amply repay the time spent watching (around 9 minutes each).

Written by Leisureguy

23 October 2020 at 11:37 am

Posted in Daily life, Science, Video

Emily Remler, fine jazz guitarist, plays “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise”

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I constantly learn things of which I had never heard, and Emily Remler is one from just this morning. I wasn’t all familiar with her (impressive) jazz guitar. She died of a heart attack in May of 1990 at the age of 32. Michael West has a good article in JazzTmes on her life and work. Here’s just one of her pieces on YouTube.

Written by Leisureguy

23 October 2020 at 10:48 am

Posted in Jazz, Video

A brush having a different waist treatment with a thicker base, along with Phoenix Solstice and the redoubtable iKon #101

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The Simpson Emperor certain has a waist, and unlike the “flange” base of the G.B. Kent (or WSP Monarch), the Emperor’s based is thicker and comfortably rounded (apologies to Napoleon’s ghost). I really like this handle and asked a custom handle maker to make me one in black palm, but he had just decided to retire from handlemaking and I abandoned the idea.

The knot also is excellent — it’s the old (pre-Vulfix) Simpson Super, and this is size 3. It’s a favorite brush, and it showed its mettle today in making an excellent lather from Phoenix Artisan’s Solstice, a favorite shaving soap.

After a couple of days of playing with a lathering bowl, I now more deliberately load the brush well, brush the soap over the stubble, and then slowly and carefully work in more water, a very little at a time, to get exactly the consistency of lather I want.

The iKon Shavecraft 101 is a wonderful razor — and it’s still available, unlike several of my wonderful razors (such as the Stealth or the Merkur white bakelite slant). The 101 is for me both very comfortable and highly efficient.

Three passes produced perfection, and a splash of Solstice sent me on my way to end the week on an excellent note (not to mentioin that today I complete the Duolingo Esperanto Course, for me a six-month effort).

Written by Leisureguy

23 October 2020 at 10:37 am

Posted in Shaving

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