Later On

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Archive for February 20th, 2021

What Are Sperm Telling Us? Not Good News.

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Nicholas Kristof’s column in the NY Times points out that trashing the environment brings unexpected payback:

Something alarming is happening between our legs.

Sperm counts have been dropping; infant boys are developing more genital abnormalities; more girls are experiencing early puberty; and adult women appear to be suffering declining egg quality and more miscarriages.

It’s not just humans. Scientists report genital anomalies in a range of species, including unusually small penises in alligatorsotters and minks. In some areas, significant numbers of fishfrogs and turtles have exhibited both male and female organs.

Four years ago, a leading scholar of reproductive health, Shanna H. Swan, calculated that from 1973 to 2011, the sperm count of average men in Western countries had fallen by 59 percent. Inevitably, there were headlines about “Spermageddon” and the risk that humans would disappear, but then we moved on to chase other shiny objects.

Now Swan, an epidemiologist at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, has written a book, “Count Down,” that will be published on Tuesday and sounds a warning bell. Her subtitle is blunt: “How our modern world is threatening sperm counts, altering male and female reproductive development, and imperiling the future of the human race.”

Swan and other experts say the problem is a class of chemicals called endocrine disruptors, which mimic the body’s hormones and thus fool our cells. This is a particular problem for fetuses as they sexually differentiate early in pregnancy. Endocrine disruptors can wreak reproductive havoc.

These endocrine disruptors are everywhere: plastics, shampoos, cosmetics, cushions, pesticides, canned foods and A.T.M. receipts. They often aren’t on labels and can be difficult to avoid.

“In some ways, the sperm-count decline is akin to where global warming was 40 years ago,” Swan writes. “The climate crisis has been accepted — at least by most people — as a real threat. My hope is that the same will happen with the reproductive turmoil that’s upon us.”

Chemical companies are as reckless as tobacco companies were a generation ago, or as opioid manufacturers were a decade ago. They lobby against even safety testing of endocrine disruptors, so that we have little idea if products we use each day are damaging our bodies or our children. We’re all guinea pigs.

Aside from the decline in sperm counts, growing numbers of sperm appear defective — there’s a boom in two-headed sperm — while others loll aimlessly in circles, rather than furiously swimming in pursuit of an egg. And infants who have had greater exposures to a kind of endocrine disruptor called phthalates have smaller penises, Swan found.

Uncertainty remains, research sometimes conflicts and biological pathways aren’t always clear. There are competing theories about whether the sperm count decline is real and what might cause it and about why girls appear to be reaching puberty earlier, and it’s sometimes unclear whether an increase in male genital abnormalities reflects actual rising numbers or just better reporting.

Still, the Endocrine Society, the Pediatric Endocrine Society, the President’s Cancer Panel and the World Health Organization have all warned about endocrine disruptors, and Europe and Canada have moved to regulate them. But in the United States, Congress and the Trump administration seemed to listen more to industry lobbyists than to independent scientists.

Patricia Ann Hunt, a reproductive geneticist at Washington State University, has conducted experiments on mice showing that the impact of endocrine disruptors is cumulative, generation after generation. When infant mice were exposed for just a few days to endocrine disrupting chemicals, their testes as adults produced fewer sperm, and this incapacity was transmitted to their offspring. While findings  . . .

Continue reading. There’s more, and it looks bad.

Seafood is now contaminated with microplastics, which are endocrine disruptors, because humans use the oceans as a big garbage dump. Take a look at some of these brief videos’

How Much Microplastic Is Found in Fish Fillets?
Are Microplastics in Seafood a Cancer Risk?
Microplastic Contamination & Seafood Safety
BPA on Receipts: Getting Under Our Skin
Why BPA Hasn’t Been Banned

Written by LeisureGuy

20 February 2021 at 8:58 pm

An instance of the problem of generalizing from a small sample: Beyond the !Kung

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Manvir Singh, an anthropologist and postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse who studies the origins of universal or near-universal cultural practices, including music, marriage, shamanism, and witchcraft, writes in Aeon:

When the anthropologist Irven DeVore suggested in 1962 to then-graduate student Richard Lee that they study hunter-gatherers, neither expected to transform the modern understanding of human nature. A baboon expert, DeVore mostly wanted to expand his research to human groups. Lee was searching for a dissertation project. Being interested in human evolution, they decided not to study peoples in the Americas or Australia, as was the norm in hunter-gatherer studies. Instead, they looked for a site that was, in Lee’s words, ‘close to the actual faunal and floral environment occupied by early man’. So, they headed to Africa – specifically, to the Kalahari.

Twice as big as California and, in places, three times as dry, the Kalahari is a red, scorched scar that yawns across Botswana and Namibia. It’s a brutal place. For nine months a year, the sun tortures the earth. There are no clouds and, with the exception of great scraggly baobabs, no tall trees that provide shade. When in 2013 the travel writer Andrew Evans visited Tau Pan, a settlement in the eastern Kalahari, he said it looked like ‘the deadest part of our planet’.

But appearances can be deceiving. Despite its harshness, the Kalahari still hosts a surprising clamour of life. There are cacti and acacia trees, hyenas and secretary birds, wildebeests and ostriches. There are antelopes that feed on roots and leopards that stalk them. And there are lions: hungry ones and scrawny ones and ones with black manes. According to local hunter-gatherers, some even float through the air. These, they said, were not true lions but shape-shifting sorcerers: former shamans who traded good medicine for evil poison.

The hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari are known collectively by many names – San, Bushmen, Baroa, Basarwa. The people whom DeVore and Lee studied – and who have since been visited by countless anthropologists – are known as the !Kung. (Like other Kalahari hunter-gatherers, the !Kung speak languages with clicks, represented with symbols such as ‘!’ and ‘ǂ’.)

The !Kung astounded DeVore and Lee. They had trance healing. They had an elaborate cosmology. They had a puzzling kinship system and deep ethnobotanical knowledge. ‘The Bushmen were so rich,’ DeVore later said in a video interview. ‘And we saw these poor people had not been well represented.’ Excited by their initial findings, the duo launched the Harvard Kalahari Project. An ambitiously multidisciplinary study aimed at documenting as much as possible about the !Kung, the project drew together ethnographers, demographers, archaeologists and psychologists.

‘We were able to sell it,’ DeVore said, ‘because we had this mantra almost, which is: for 100,000 years, or certainly more, we were hunter-gatherers. And we’ve only been something else in the last 10,000 years. And as late as time of Christ, 2,000 years ago, half the world was still hunter-gatherers. So, we’re really hunter-gatherers – never mind some of us wear Brooks Brothers suits – and we don’t know that life.’

The Harvard Kalahari Project propelled the !Kung into anthropological stardom. By 1976, researchers on the team had published more than 100 academic articles, on topics as varied as infant care, trance healing, and blood pressure. The research sparked more interest, which drew in more anthropologists, which produced more research. In a video for the Annual Review of Anthropology in 2012, DeVore speculated that there was no culture ‘outside the West that has as much fine-grained data on it’. In the same video, his Harvard colleague Peter Ellison said:

It’s not hard to appreciate why the !Kung San became such a paradigm within anthropology. They were hunter-gatherers for so many people and for so many generations. There was no other study that came close to that richness of detail.

Through research on the !Kung and similar hunter-gatherers, anthropologists now have a clear picture of what society looked like for most of our species’ history. We were mobile. We were egalitarian. We shared. We lived in small bands composed mostly of kin. We had few possessions and weak notions of property. Slavery was unknown. Then, 10,000 years ago: a rupture. The world warmed. Sea levels rose. We started to settle. We domesticated plants and animals. We invented inequality and slavery. Property intensified. War intensified. Societies became larger and more complex. Strangers became neighbours. We built courts. We built governments. We built monuments and bureaucracies and moralistic gods and every other instrument of power exercised in service of order and oppression. Prehistory ended. History began.

This is more than just a theory of prehistory. It’s the modern, scientific origin myth. Yes, we live in mega-societies with property and slavery and inequality but, at heart, we are mobile, egalitarian hunter-gatherers, wired for small groups and sharing. According to the evolutionary social scientist Peter Turchin, this view is ‘so standard that it is rarely formulated in explicit terms’. The archaeologist David Wengrow and the late anthropologist David Graeber described it as ‘the foundation of all contemporary debate on inequality’. This view serves as a narrative of human nature, a symbol of our capacity to establish good societies, and a reminder of just how far we have strayed in the past 10,000 years.

It’s also probably wrong.

n 1549, a vessel sailing from modern-day Colombia to Spain was shipwrecked on the south Florida coast. The survivors were taken captive by local peoples who, in turn, handed them over as tribute to the local king. One of the captives was Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda, the 13-year-old son of a conquistador. Not much is known about Fontaneda, but something about him must have appealed to his captors. Perhaps it was his youth. Perhaps he was linguistically gifted. Whatever the reason, the Indigenous peoples killed most of their captives, including Fontaneda’s older brother, yet decided to keep him alive. For 17 years, he lived, learned and travelled among the peoples of south Florida until a Spanish expedition rescued him in 1566.

No one today would know (or care) about Fontaneda were it not for his memoirs. These memoirs offer a rare glimpse into cultures whose histories were later erased by disease and colonialism. They describe people’s diets (‘in those freshwater rivers there are infinite eels, and very delicious’). They describe geography and place names (‘it is called the lake of Mayaimi because it is very large, and around it there are many small towns’). They even describe the mortuary practices of local nobility (‘they take the bones and attach one bone with another until they reassemble the man as he was, and they place him in a house that they have as a temple’). Most importantly for us, they describe the Calusa.

The Calusa ruled southern Florida. At the time of Spanish contact, they comprised 50 to 60 politically united villages along Florida’s southwest coast, although their domain extended far beyond that, from Tampa to Cape Canaveral and down to the Florida Keys: an area twice as large as modern-day Belgium. They collected tribute from client villages in the form of mats, hides, captives, feathers and breads made of roots. In return, they offered protection.

Both a kingdom and a state, the Calusa concentrated power in a hereditary sovereign who had life-and-death control over his subjects, a fact he demonstrated with regular human sacrifice. He ruled from the island of Mound Key – specifically, from a massive house perched atop a 32-foot-high mound and spacious enough to fit 2,000 people. He oversaw full-time military and priestly classes and funnelled surplus production into lavish celebrations. After one Calusa king met with the conquistador Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, an observer marvelled at the extravagance of the festivities, which included a choir of 500 adolescent Calusa girls who sang as long as Menéndez was in attendance. ‘This,’ the observer wrote, ‘was the greatest celebration, respect, and obedience that that chief, or any other in the land, could offer.’

The Calusa mobilised people for more than just singing. On Pine Island, they dug a 4 km-long canal, likely for fishing, exchange, transportation and tribute payments. Construction was a grand, collaborative project, involving the movement of 30,000 cubic metres of earth. They dug another canal through Mound Key, bisecting the island into mirrored halves. At the canal’s mouth, they built what archaeologists called ‘watercourts’ – inundated, rectangular structures, each thousands of square metres in area. A cross between enormous nets and living refrigerators, the watercourts ensured a reliable supply of live fish.

How did the Calusa build such a large, stratified society? A reasonable guess would be through agriculture. Perhaps they harvested maize, that mother of bounty and civilisation. Perhaps some lucky farmers ended up with more of it and converted that difference into power. Perhaps that power spiralled: inequities expanded, nobilities appeared and soon great farmer-kings collected maize by the boatload, storing it in granaries before paying military personnel to terrorise rural vassal-farmers into handing over more maize. Perhaps that maize supported priests and infrastructure and pubertal court singers.

Turns out, that’s not what happened. The Calusa built a state not through agriculture but through wild game – in particular, fish.

The Calusa are exceptional. They developed, as far as anthropologists know, the largest and most politically complex society of any non-agricultural people. But they’re not that exceptional. For more than a century, anthropologists have known of another set of foragers who developed sedentary and politically stratified societies: the peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Inhabitants of temperate rainforests at the nexus of river and sea, these peoples harvested and stored salmon. They warred and took slaves. They lived in towns, some of which exceeded 1,000 people. Rather than suppressing inequality, they institutionalised it through potlatches – ceremonies in which hosts gained status through distributions of food, furs, slaves and houses.

If hunter-gatherers can build large, sedentary societies, why do we assume that they lived in small bands for most of our species’ history? Surely our ancestors preferred lush spots over the dead-looking Kalahari. And, once in those spots, surely they had the same political savvy to engineer semi-fixed, stratified societies. Yet many leading anthropologists still imagine the 100,000 years preceding agriculture to resemble, with slight variations, the lives of the mid-20th-century !Kung. Why?

One reason is that stratified foragers are unusual. Look at recent hunter-gatherers, and what do you see? You see dispersed clusters of Inuit families in the Arctic. You see Hadza bands sharing honey in eastern Tanzania. You see the Sirionó traipsing through the Amazon and Mbuti camps assembling for a nighttime dance in the Congo. You see, in short, small, mobile, egalitarian bands.

But looking at modern hunter-gatherers is misleading. For one, the more we dig through history, the more we encounter foragers who were sedentary and hierarchical. They covered Japan before agriculture. They dotted the South China coast before agriculture. They inhabited the Levant, tracts of the Nile, the beaches of southern Scandinavia, the central plains of Russia, the coasts of the Atacama Desert, and the grasslands of the high-altitude Andes – all before agricultural peoples dominated those regions. Even today, sedentary foragers live in riverine and coastal regions of New Guinea.

Sedentary and hierarchical hunter-gatherers are not unusual. If anything, it’s the profusion of mobile, egalitarian bands that might be the historical outlier. Rather than reflecting ancient ways, these small-scale societies are often products of modern forces. Rather than being untouched, many have been bullied, pacified, employed, enslaved and marginalised by colonial powers and agricultural neighbours.

Take the Sirionó of Bolivia, who were studied by the anthropologist Allan Holmberg in 1940-42.  . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 February 2021 at 4:57 pm

Is the World’s Best Butter Worth 50 Dollars a Pound?

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We’ve been having a butter discussion here because of the relatively low quality of Canadian butter, something that is possible (and possibly encouraged) by a lack of competition due to Canada’s stringent import controls on dairy. Those import controls do some good (for example, keep out cheap plentiful boving-growth-hormone-saturated daily from the US that would decimate Canadian dairy industry), but also some bad (for example, keep out really superior butter from France, Ireland, and England so that poor-quality butter can thrive in the market). See this article for a discussion of some of the issues. (For example, Canadian dairy farmers feed hydrogenated palm oil to their dairy cows to increase the fat content of the milk.)

But what about really great butter? Alex Halberstadt wrote a good article about it in Saveur in 2017. The article begins:

If you’ve never been in the presence of a day-old calf, they happen to be disconcertingly large. Recently I followed one—the color and size of a golden retriever—as it stumbled around Diane St. Clair’s barn, bleating loudly. Rain pounded on the roof, my boots were spattered with mud, and my neck ached after a five-hour drive. But it hardly mattered. I’d come to this sparsely populated corner of western Vermont to taste the country’s most sought-after butter.

In a tiny creamery just off the barn, St. Clair reached into a refrigerator and took out a pound of her product—four dandelion-yellow balls in a large Ziploc bag. A former New Yorker with no experience in food production, she began making butter almost by accident, after buying a pair of Jersey cows. Wanting an expert opinion, she mailed unsolicited samples to Thomas Keller; he called back to say he wanted to buy all of it, and eventually asked her to acquire more Jerseys. These days, outside several fine-dining restaurants, St. Clair’s Animal Farm butter is only available once a year at the Middlebury Natural Food Co-op and at Saxelby Cheesemongers in New York. The butter comes in the same Ziploc bag, costs $50 a pound, and sells out within hours.

For most of my life I’ve been preoccupied with butter. Of course there are those culinary Bartlebys who believe it to be nothing more than a baking ingredient or, worse, a condiment. Nutritionists continue to dispute its merits. Oh, I could tell you that Tibetans make it into sacred sculptures and the ancient Finns were buried alongside barrels of it, but I won’t. I will tell you, though, that for diehards like me, butter is the purpose of mashed potatoes, scones, and summer corn, the reason that bread exists, the very fulcrum of eating. What moves me about butter is that unlike cheese or pastry, its essence isn’t confected but comes directly from the land. Elaine Khosrova, the author of Butter: A Rich History, described it to me as “a pure presentation of man, land, and beast.” Like oysters and wine, it’s one of the perks of being born on this planet.

My obsession with butter began among identical rows of tenements on the outskirts of Moscow where I grew up in the late 1970s. The groceries in our sparsely populated supermarket aisles ranged from unexciting to barely edible; one of the few exceptions was the fresh rye bread sold every morning in bakeries across the city, especially the dense, chocolate-hued loaves topped with coriander called Borodinsky. Naturally, they required butter. This became the best part of my midday meals, eaten in the school cafeteria under portraits of jowly Politburo chiefs. The slightly sour bread was the foil for the Platonic butter of my memories that opened with bright, creamy sweetness and, after a tangy sour note, faded in a long, lightly nutty finish. The mouthfeel was firm and unctuous but never greasy.

Somehow, as an adult, I began to forget butter. I ate supermarket brands and assumed that my longing was a figment of childhood nostalgia. Then, several years ago, while in Reims, I tasted a butter that obliterated the memory of the very worthwhile Champagnes on the table. It was made by Jean-Yves Bordier in Brittany, and was not imported to the United States. But the experience of Bordier stayed with me. In time, it ignited a determination to recapture the taste I remembered.

Finding a stand-in for the bread of my childhood took no time at all. The crusty miche from Bien Cuit, a bakery near my home in Brooklyn, was a delicious substitute for the Borodinsky. But replicating the butter proved slippery and enigmatic. First, I visited New York’s Russian-Jewish enclave, Brighton Beach, for several specimens made in the land of my birth. I found them in a store with smooth jazz on the speakers and the delightful name of Gourmanoff. Unfortunately, these items turned out to be mixtures of butter and vegetable oil with the texture of margarine. Premium and imported brands from the grocery store didn’t approach the experience I remembered either. Most tasted waxy, grainy, or dull, with no discernible finish.

I knew it was time to get serious. So, several months ago, I delved into the surprisingly contentious thickets of butter connoisseurship. I wanted to understand what drove the most obsessed of its producers, and which criteria they prized. I ate more of it than might be medically advisable. I’d assumed I knew my butter, but here’s what I learned: Sometimes the thing we love is the one we know least of all.

The further I waded into what makes for great butter, the less tractable my search became. Many aficionados insist that culturing—the extra step of allowing the cream to ferment before it’s churned—is the key to deep flavor. Certainly the best cultured butters (sometimes labeled “European-style”) possess a subtle tangy note that can add complexity, but the process does not assure a superior product. Some of the butters I enjoyed most happened to be of the uncultured, or the “sweet cream,” variety.

Some brands tout fat content as the key to quality and print it prominently on their labels. In the U.S., federal regulations require butter to be at least 80 percent fat, a level some insist is too low. But to my surprise, several expensive high-fat butters tasted bland and oily. “As you ramp up fat content, you squeeze out more milk solids,” explained Aaron Foster, owner of the Brooklyn specialty food shop Foster Sundry. “The fat itself is relatively mild, so you get richness at the expense of flavor.”

Then there is the dilemma of salting.  . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

I should note that this is a PSP (public-service post), since I personally am not eating butter these days. But I know that many readers do, so I thought this would be of interest. (If you also eat ham, check out this video.)

Update: Continuing the butter exploration, read Kristy Mucci’s Saveur article from May 2018:

I’ve been doing personal butter research for years: Several years ago I had butter in Paris (of course) that stopped me in my tracks, and since then I’ve been trying to find anything else to measure up to it. I’ve done several taste tests, I’ve made butter (cultured and not) from every good local cream I could get my hands on, I pick up any new-to-me butter I see, and after all that, I am convinced that there is no better butter in the world than Le Beurre Bordier. Maybe I’m extra sensitive to good butter because I grew up with those spray bottles of the I Can’t Believe It’s Not stuff, but I know I’m not alone in my aggressive enthusiasm. Once you experience the Bordier jolt, you’re changed. You’re hooked.

I know plenty of people who’ve smuggled it back from trips to France, who ask people to smuggle it back for them, and who try to stretch out their contraband butter bricks for as long as possible (and I’ve done all of those things, too). I’ve even gone so far as having it overnighted from a friend in Paris. It’s that good. Bordier recently started popping up in a few restaurants in New York, and it’s now being sold at Le District in New York City’s Financial District, which means you no longer have to stress out about getting it through TSA.

What makes it so special? If you ask the man behind the butter, Jean-Yves Bordier, he’ll say something modest like, “I haven’t invented anything new, I use old methods that respect the land, the animals, and tradition.” Actually, he’s said exactly that—isn’t it delightful and vague and French-artisan-sounding? But the thing Mr. Bordier doesn’t seem to be aware of is that his product makes you look at butter in a completely new way. It’s not just a mildly flavored fat that’s fine on bread, or good to bake with, or extra tasty when it’s browned; it’s a completely special ingredient in it’s own right, this butter can be appreciated the way a good cheese is. It’s got so much character, the texture is noticeably elegant, and once you get some of his flavored butters, you realize this guy is like Willy Wonka for adults who like good food.

The importer who is bringing Bordier to New York sent me some up-close-and-personal intel from a recent visit to the Bordier workshop. Here’s what I’ve learned about how the best butter in the world is made.

It starts with the milk: Bordier only sources milk from local small farmers who use the best farming practices. The cows responsible for Bordier live lovely lives grazing on grass and flowers, and enjoying their environment (no overcrowded and unpleasant factory farms for these guys).

They take their time: A typical brick of butter is made 6 hours after the cow is milked. It takes Bordier three days. For a lot of that time, the cream is culturing and developing flavor.

They knead differently: Regular butter is made on a large scale, in a factory setting that produces a lot of product at high speed. Bordier has a special wooden machine (only one!) called a Malaxeur that the butter is kneaded through, at a slow speed, for a specific amount of time—kneading time depends on the season, but it can be as long as 30 minutes. They say it helps develop . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 February 2021 at 4:51 pm

Facecrook: Dealing with a Global Menace

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Matt Stoller has a very interesting post in BIG. The blurb:

Facebook is engaged in a giant crime spree to steal ad money. A battle over speech in Australia shows what top executives really think of the rule of law.

The post begins:

On Wednesday of this week, Facebook blocked the nation of Australia from sharing news on its dominant platform, censoring an entire content. The corporation is reacting to a law mandating dominant digital platforms negotiate terms with publishers over news distribution. On Thursday, unsealed court California documents revealing that the firm has been defrauding advertisers, with the knowledge and participation of Sheryl Sandberg.

Today I’ll explain how these events are connected. I’ll describe what’s in the controversial Australian law and how it works, and why Biden’s Department of Justice should probably be investigating Sheryl Sandberg for fraud.

In other words, what happens when Facebook’s crime spree meets the rule of law?

Also…

  • A reader shares a story of how Logitech monopolized universal remotes with its Harmony line, and is now going to shut down the entire industry because it doesn’t feel like competing with voice assistants.
  • Another reader who does live jazz music recordings got blocked from sharing them on Spotify’s podcast service with the note from the audio giant: “Our podcast service is not intended to be a music distribution tool.” Hmmm…
  • What does hyper-aggressive semiconductor monopolist Nvidia want?
  • Odds and ends on private equity, supermarket consolidation, and airline regulation.

The Latest Facebook Crime

On Thursday night, a judge allowed the unsealing of legal documents showing that Facebook has been engaged in fraud against advertisers. The firm told advertisers that its ads reach many more people than they actually do, inducing ad buyers to spend more money on the platform than they otherwise would have. The documents revealed that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg directly oversaw the alleged fraud for years.

The scheme was simple. Facebook deceived advertisers by pretending that fake accounts represented real people, because ad buyers choose to spend on ad campaigns based on where they think their customers are. Former employees noted, that the corporation didn’t care about the accuracy of numbers as long as the ad money was coming in. Facebook, they said, “did not give a shit.”

The inflated statistics sometimes led to outlandish results. For instance, Facebook told advertisers that its services had a potential reach of 100 million 18 to 34-year-olds in the United States, even though there are only 76 million people in that demographic. After employees proposed a fix to make the numbers honest, the corporation rejected the idea, noting that “the “revenue impact” for Facebook would be “significant.” One Facebook employee wrote, “My question lately is: how long can we get away with the reach overestimation?”

According to these documents, Sandberg aggressively managed public communications over how to talk to advertisers about the inflated statistics, and Facebook is now fighting against her being interviewed by lawyers in a class action lawsuit alleging fraud.

Facebook’s Decade of Crime

Antitrust law can be complex, but these actions aren’t. It’s just stealing. Facebook wants people to see this suit as just some disgruntled media outlets or advertisers, and some frustrated ex-employees angry at a successful business. The problem, for Facebook, is that this isn’t a one-off. It is the THIRD time Facebook has been caught for lying to advertisers in order to steal their money.

The first time was the famous ‘pivot to video’ moment when Facebook lied to advertisers and media outlets about video metrics, causing media outlets to rearrange their business models and then lay off journalists. Facebook eventually paid off some advertiser to go away after they sued, but the scandal also came up in the House Antitrust Subcommittee hearing, when Congressman Jerry Nadler confronted Mark Zuckerberg with it. Then, late last year, Facebook told advertisers in November it had been over-estimating the performance of their ad campaigns. It had known about the lie for two months before telling the defrauded parties, and, chalking it up to a technical glitch, gave advertisers not money back but coupons for Facebook services.

There’s more bad behavior. In 2018, there was the Cambridge Analytica Federal Trade Commission settlement where Facebook paid a $5 billion fine for mishandling customer data, which was itself a response to a 2011 consent decree over Facebook mishandling customer data. And guess what? Facebook has likely violated the 2018 decree already! The New York Department of Financial Services just criticized the firm for “collecting unauthorized data about people’s medical conditions, religious practices and finances” and then using this data to engage in targeted advertising. So that’s a violation of a consent decree over data fraud that was reached as a result of an earlier consent decree reached over data fraud.

I’ve been saying for awhile that big tech executives need to face handcuffs, not just civil penalties. And this attitude is becoming mainstream. After the lax response to the financial crisis under Obama, anger over corporate repeat criminality has become increasingly widespread among Democrats. For example, FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra in 2018 noted in an internal memo to the enforcement agency that corporations who repeatedly break the law should be restructured and their executives held personally accountable, with the famous line “FTC orders are not suggestions.”

This latest fraud is a good example. Facebook commits crime after crime after crime, often overseen by top officials concerned about revenue impacts. After the first couple of times, it’s reasonable to criticize Facebook. But now, the question is simply, where are the cops? If no one will stop firms from committing crimes, then the result is the rise of corporate warlords like Facebook, who just bludgeon and steal without consequence. These firms will in turn finance public relations specialists who make arguments about how all of this theft is the result of technology, that the ‘internet killed media,’ as if lying to advertisers so you can steal their money is magic sorcery.

There’s one other dynamic here in the public debate. The reason Facebook’s arguments have currency is because its victims – seeing no action from law enforcers against this crime spree – are afraid of fighting back. Facebook and Google are dominant providers of services, revenue, and ad inventory to publishers, ad buyers, and advertising agencies. Their power is immense; Facebook uses 400 law firms, simply to ensure that every firm is conflicted out of representing any opponents who might sue them. Google and Facebook can withhold services or revenue and pretty much destroy anyone in publishing or ad buying at this point, and then hire corrupt economists to explain to credulous enforcers that blackmail is efficient.

Digiday reported on fear in the publishing industry over the behavior of Google and Facebook, reporting that few will go on the record critical of the monopolists for fear they will be downgraded in search results or lose ad deals. “Google and Facebook have such power that I’m afraid of repercussions, so we play nice with them,” said one anonymous publishing executive. As a result, the armies of Facebook PR people, often laundered through fancy schools and prestigious media outlets, have little public opposition from those industries most immediately affected by the firm.

The rising anti-monopoly movement, inchoate but increasingly influential, is a cultural response to this lawlessness. And this movement isn’t just U.S. based, it is global. And it is getting results. Finally, this week, a big tech oligarch finally met the rule of law.

Which brings me to Australia.

An Unstoppable Force Meets an Australian Object

Facebook stopped allowing the sharing of news in Australia, after the government put forward a law requiring the firm to negotiate with news publishers over the terms of content distribution. The firm also stopped letting Australian publishers be shared anywhere in the world on Facebook. Facebook also did their usual ‘move fast and break things,’ accidentally censoring much of the South Pacific, but the result is that when you try to post Australian news, this is the message you get.

There’s much more. Read the whole thing.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 February 2021 at 2:40 pm

Study finds cognitive bias in how medical examiners evaluate child deaths

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For someone who watches many police procedurals (e.g., Spiral), this article by Radley Balko in the Washington Post is of considerable interest. It begins:

new study in the Journal of Forensic Sciences suggests the role medical examiners play in the criminal justice system is far more subjective than commonly thought. It also suggests their analysis might be tainted by racial bias.

Medical examiners (also known as forensic pathologists) make two determinations after conducting an autopsy: the cause of death and the manner. The cause of death, though sometimes ambiguous, is usually a fairly objective finding based on tests and observations well-grounded in medicine. But determining the manner of death can be much more subjective. In most jurisdictions, there are five possibilities for manner of death: undetermined, natural causes, suicide, accident or homicide. The evidentiary gap separating an accidental death from a homicide can be significant (the body was riddled with bullets) or razor-thin (whether the victim drowned or was drowned). Yet it’s enormously consequential, because a homicide designation usually means someone will be charged with a serious crime.

The new study was led by Itiel Dror, a cognitive neuroscience researcher at University College London who specializes in cognitive perception, judgment and decision-making. (His research team also included four forensic pathologists.) There are two parts to the study. In the first, the researchers looked at 10 years of Nevada death certificates for children younger than 6 and found that medical examiners were about twice as likely to rule a Black child’s death to be a homicide as a White child. The researchers then asked 133 board-certified medical examiners to read a vignette about a 3-year-old who was taken to an emergency room with a skull fracture, brain hemorrhaging and other injuries, and later died. All the participants received the same fact pattern, with one important exception: About half were told that the child was Black and had been left in the care of the mother’s boyfriend. The others were told the child was White and had been left in the care of a grandmother.

Of the 133 medical examiners who participated in the study, 78 said they could not determine a manner of death from the information available. Among the 55 who could, 23 concluded the child’s death was an accident, and 32 determined it was a homicide.

This is already a problem. Reliability is one of the key criteria the Supreme Court has said judges should consider in deciding whether to allow expert testimony. The same facts applied to different people should produce the same outcome. That clearly wasn’t the case in this study.

Worse, the medical examiners who were given the fact pattern with a Black child were five times more likely to rule the death a homicide than an accident. Meanwhile, those given the scenario with a White child were twice as likely to rule the death an accident instead of a homicide. These results raise questions not just about how medical examiners look at child deaths, but also autopsy results in other cases, including racially loaded ones such as fatal police encounters.

The Dror study is the first to provide stark evidence of cognitive bias among medical examiners in a controlled experiment. But it also confirms some well-known problems. We know, for example, that there’s too much variability when it comes to whether child deaths are treated as criminal acts or as accidents. The controversial shaken baby syndrome diagnosis, for example, is prosecuted far more often in some states than in others.

We also know that children in low-income families are more likely to be maltreated, to suffer neglect, and to die of accidents and abuse — and that poorer people also tend to be suspected of child abuse at rates well beyond their incidence. Poorer people also are less likely to have child care and more likely to work multiple jobs, meaning children spend more time unattended. (Many cases have shown that “neglect” can mean “impoverished single mom who couldn’t afford child care.”) And when a child has ambiguous injuries, police, prosecutors, social workers and hospital staff are more likely to report Black parents for abuse than White parents (though some studies have found that those figures even out when adjusted for poverty rates).

Often, the medical examiner’s determination of manner of death is the only evidence the death was a crime and not an accident. And though it’s subjective, it’s also incredibly persuasive, not just for juries but also for defendants themselves. Innocent people have confessed to crimes they didn’t commit after being told, sometimes falsely, that autopsy results had incriminated them. “The conclusions of forensics examiners typically lead to . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Later in the article:

That medical examiners are subject to cognitive bias shouldn’t be controversial. Good scientists know cognitive bias is inescapable and use measures such as double-blind studies and peer review to counteract it. Yet studies have shown forensic examiners tend to believe cognitive bias is a problem for other fields but not their own (or for other analysts, but not for them). Some disciplines — especially among the most subjective fields — have been reluctant to submit to blind proficiency testing (or they create their own internal tests that are meaningless), likely because of the unsettling results among the few who have.

Dror and his colleagues suggest several procedures to minimize cognitive bias. They include appointing case managers to control the flow of evidence, so forensic specialists receive only the information they need to conduct their analysis. This process, called sequential unmasking, has been shown to substantially reduce cognitive bias. Studies have also shown that analysts given incriminating but nonessential information are more likely to implicate innocent suspects.

And later:

In much of the country, medical examiners are considered part of the prosecution’s team, not independent analysts. So they’re privy to information that can corrupt their analysis. “I’ve seen cases where a detective was present during the autopsy itself,” Dror says. “There is no acceptable reason for that.”

To that end, we could reduce cognitive bias by ensuring that medical examiners’ offices are independent of police and prosecutors, and that law enforcement officials don’t have a say in an analyst’s raises, promotions or performance reviews. That the very notion of a state ME testifying for the defense seems to offend some prosecutors demonstrates that in many jurisdictions, an ME isn’t expected to be independent.

At the very least, jurors should be instructed about the subjectivity of death determinations, any extraneous information an ME was given and whether the ME consulted with police or prosecutors. More radical reforms might include leaving the determination of manner of death to a jury, holding a separate trial or hearing to determine whether a crime has even been committed, and scrapping the adversarial system entirely when it comes to forensics, opting instead for court-appointed experts.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 February 2021 at 2:23 pm

Republicans believe too many are voting, and they’re going to fix that by preventing people from voting

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Heather Cox Richardson has an interesting passage in her current column/newsletter:

. . . Republican state legislatures across the country are using the former president’s big lie to insist that they must change voting laws to stop voter fraud. The idea behind the attack on the Capitol on January 6 was that Democrats had stolen the election from the Republican incumbent. This was a lie, disproven in courts, recounts, and state legislatures, but it is now the excuse for suppressing the popular vote. This week, the Republican State Leadership Committee announced it was creating a commission to examine election laws “to restore the American people’s confidence in the integrity of their free and fair elections” by “making it easier to vote and harder to cheat.”

Republican state lawmakers are attacking the expanded access to voting put in place in 2020, especially mail-in voting. Although there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud in 2020, and repeated studies have shown voter fraud is vanishingly rare, 33 states are considering more than 165 bills to restrict voting, more than four times the number from last year. These bills are intended to stop mail-in voting, increase voter ID requirements, make it harder to register to vote, and expand purges of voter rolls.

But, even as Republicans are trying to curtail voting, Democrats are trying to expand it. Lawmakers in 37 states have introduced 541 bills to expand mail-in voting, expand early voting, promote voter registration, and restore the right to vote for those who have lost it. At the national level, the first measure Democrats introduced into Congress this year was the “For the People Act,” which embraces the policies in the state bills and also reforms campaign financing, requires candidates to disclose the previous ten years of their tax returns, and ends gerrymandering.

The current struggle over our government and our democracy is in the news in . . .

Written by LeisureGuy

20 February 2021 at 12:15 pm

A former Border Patrol agent is now one of its loudest critics — and has years of first-hand knowledge of the Border Patrol and how it works

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Kristina Davis reports in the San Diego Union-Tribune:

The migrant girl was around 6 years old, dehydrated, fluish and despondent. Her head looked too big for her body — a sign of malnutrition — and she had lice in her hair.

The girl had spent two weeks outdoors held at the sunbaked Border Patrol detention center in El Paso with her asylum-seeking family before being brought to a migrant shelter in San Diego. That’s where Jenn Budd found her in the summer of 2018, and she needed serious medical intervention.

It was Budd’s first time as a volunteer at the shelter. Still, another volunteer commented, “You’re probably used to seeing this.”

As a former Border Patrol agent, Budd had witnessed first-hand the cruelties of both the border and the agency. She says she was also a victim of them, raped in the academy, harassed on the job, and in fear for her safety when she quit after six years in 2001.

Even then, she was astonished by the girl’s condition — and that it occurred under the Border Patrol’s watch.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Budd responded before rushing the girl to the hospital in the back of her car.

There would be more trips to local hospitals over the next several months, as Budd slowly shed everything she’d been taught as an agent and embraced a new role as an immigrant activist.

Since then, Budd, 49, has become one of Border Patrol’s sharpest public critics, using her personal experience and insider expertise to call out an agency plagued by allegations of misogyny, xenophobia, corruption and human rights abuses.

Her acerbic commentary has generated a Twitter following of more than 27,000, and she is frequently quoted in national media as an expert on Border Patrol’s culture problem — a problem that persisted long before it was reinvigorated under the Trump administration.

The Border Patrol disputes her characterizations of unaddressed corruption and abuse.

“As public servants, the Border Patrol holds itself to the highest ethical standards,” a spokesperson for Customs and Border Protection, the umbrella agency over Border Patrol, said in a statement. “Allegations of abuse and corruption are taken very seriously as the slightest hint erodes public confidence and subverts the Border Patrol’s ability to effectively accomplish its mission.”

Some of Budd’s critics dismiss her as a disgruntled former agent living in the past. But her commitment to activism, vulnerability and candid acknowledgement of her own complicity in a broken immigration system have set her apart.

After four years of former President Donald Trump unshackling the Border Patrol, her outspokenness is likely to resonate with a new administration that is under pressure to rein in the agency and root out any indications of a toxic culture.

“The story of Jenn Budd is the story of redemption,” said Hiram Soto, who took Budd under his wing as the then-communications director at Alliance San Diego, a nonprofit that advocates for immigrant rights.

“It’s really the story of the United States in the moment we are going through now,” he said, “recognizing the cruelty and racism and violence that Border Patrol has inflicted on so many people, and how you can come to turn the page on that and actually find other ways to manage immigration and treat people.”

Escape to the unknown

The border was never something Budd thought about growing up White in Alabama.

But by the time she’d graduated from Auburn University with a pre-law degree, the thought of going to law school was unbearable. It would mean racking up more debt, and the lawyers she knew didn’t make much money. She’d also have to stick close to home, within the grasp of her abusive, alcoholic mother.

The Border Patrol — what little she knew of it — offered an escape.

“They told me people were bringing drugs across the border, that it was about protecting America,” she recalled. “The idea of riding ATVs and horses — I pictured in my mind kind of like a cowboy thing.”

Budd signed her employment papers two days before her 24th birthday and headed to the academy in Georgia for four months.

She was already expecting a hyper-masculine environment. She says what she found was worse: a program hostile to women recruits.

Male classmates were told by instructors to view their female counterparts as not up to the job physically or mentally, Budd said. They were told that the few women who managed to graduate did so by exchanging sexual favors — or by accusing instructors or fellow trainees of rape, she said.

Budd’s narrative would be no exception.

Budd had tried to come out as gay when she was 19, but her mother told her it would embarrass the family. She continued to hide that part of herself in the academy.

One night, a classmate insisted on walking Budd home to her townhouse. There, he raped her and punched her in the face as she tried to fight back, she said.

Budd was scared to report the attack, but she told her instructors about it a few days later when she was forced to spar in training with the classmate who’d assaulted her. They told her to file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission if she had a problem, she said.

She had heard what happened to women who had filed similar complaints — they were failed out of the academy, she said. Budd did not file the complaint.

Weeks later she failed her physical training run by one second, she said. The rules allowed for one more try. “I made sure I smoked the hell out of it,” she said of her second attempt.

She said she later learned from her Spanish instructor that the academy leadership had ordered him to fail her; he’d refused.

She was one of two women to graduate in her class.

It will be different in the field, she told herself.

On the line

Operation Gatekeeper was in full swing by the end of 1995, when Budd arrived as a rookie agent at the Campo station.

Launched a year earlier, the strategy poured resources and manpower into the San Diego Sector, the nation’s hotspot for illegal border crossings at the time.

The initial focus was on controlling the urban San Diego-Tijuana corridor, which in turn drove many migrants east, into the mountains of Campo.

“Working any shift in Campo was constant hiking, running, tracking all night,” she said.

Budd — at one point the only woman working patrol at the station — carried the extra pressure of proving herself to her male colleagues as she learned how to apprehend migrants and seize drug loads making their way through one of the state’s most rugged border corridors. She faced harassment instead, she said.

She’d find used condoms in her mail drawer, panties hanging from video cameras in the processing area, and even a live rattlesnake placed in the cab of her patrol truck, she said.

But mostly, she was ignored.

“I just wouldn’t get any backup,” she said.

She filed an EEOC complaint against two fellow agents, alleging they had spread rumors that she was sexually involved with a male supervisor. Others corroborated the claim, and the investigation concluded that it appeared one of the agents may have engaged in an effort to damage Budd’s professional reputation. But the actions weren’t found to be discriminatory, according to the records.

Other women have complained about sexual harassment in the agency, including a trainee in the academy class after Budd’s who said she was pushed down on a bed and groped by a male classmate. The alleged attacker, who denied the incident, said the woman brought the complaint because she was having problems with physical training, while an instructor blamed the complaint on the woman’s “immaturity” in relating to men in her class, according to EEOC records.

The EEOC complaint was ultimately sustained on appeal, with the agency found liable for harassment.

Another woman reported being raped by an instructor and male peers at a graduation party, according to a report by Newsweek.

When asked about Budd’s assertions of widespread of abuse and corruption, a CBP spokesperson described a multilayered approach to rooting out such issues.

The agency said all reports of misconduct are coordinated with . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, and it makes you think about how the US has not addressed some of its own serious problems.

Biden has his job cut out for him, and the Border Patrol culture has proved to be strongly resistant to change, though to start over with all new personnel would be difficult — but it might be the only way.

Later in the article:

James Wong, a retired deputy assistant commissioner for CBP’s Office of Internal Affairs, said the Border Patrol’s culture problem was evident when he was overseeing investigations and vetting new applicants. The agency was plagued by cronyism, which often didn’t bode well for women deemed outsiders, he said.

“It is a male-dominated organization. They call themselves the Mean Green Machine,” Wong, who spent part of his career in San Diego and retired in 2001, said from his home in Louisiana.

“They didn’t welcome new ideas,” he added. “You were either a reflection of the group of people who hired you, or you didn’t get hired, or you didn’t get promoted.”

Written by LeisureGuy

20 February 2021 at 11:56 am

Mystic Waters Oatmeal Stout and some observations on buying soap as refill pucks instead of in tubs

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I used Grooming Dept Moisturizing Pre-Shave again this morning, and this time I remembered not to fully rinse my face following the first and second pass, but rather wet it lightly before lathering for the next pass. I did this by lightly tapping the shave area with my wet hands, then lathering. It worked fine.

This morning’s soap I purchased as a refill puck (see photo at right for an example), not in a tub. The refill puck is is $11.32, the puck with a tub is $14.15. So I bought the container separately ($1.75) from Maggard Razors — the black plastic containers from this page.

It turns out that the label on the puck is easily peeling from the plastic wrap and retains it stickiness, so I peeled the label off and stuck it to the lid of the container. I then made a label for the side of the container and stuck that on as well, as shown in the photo below.

The soap puck is smaller in diameter than the container, so I cut a thin slab off the puck and cut it into strips. I put the puck in the tub and then mashed the strips into the space around the puck, filling it completely. The soap yields enough to pressure that it’s easy to mash into place. The result is a container solidly filled with shaving soap.

As for the shave itself, it went very well indeed. My technique in applying the pre-shave is now polished, and the Maggard 22mm synthetic worked up quite a nice lather. Using a damp brush, I began loading, in the process adding one small driblet of water. I thought the puck’s fragrance was very like Mickey Lee Soapworks Drunken Goat (made using, among other things, Guinness Stout and goat milk), so I decided to use that aftershave.

The razor is the original RazoRock Game Changer, the .68-P, and it does a marvelous job, today made easier by the pre-shave. Three passes left my face completely smooth, and The Drunken Goat aftershave was a perfect ending — a wonderful start to the weekend.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 February 2021 at 10:11 am

Posted in Shaving

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