Later On

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

Archive for February 26th, 2021

A 1,000,000-lb weight, accurate to within 5 lbs.

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Written by LeisureGuy

26 February 2021 at 6:01 pm

Posted in Daily life, Technology

Why “No Problem” Can Seem Rude: Phatic Expressions

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Written by LeisureGuy

26 February 2021 at 5:46 pm

Posted in Daily life, Science, Video

Incompetence and Doomsday

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A reader pointed out this piece by Claire Berlinski in a comment (thanks, Damon), and I’m glad he did. It begins:

That was an edifying spectacle in Iowa, wasn’t it. David French wrote something I’ve been meaning to write for quite some time. There has been a broad breakdown in competence in the United States. No one quite understands why. But as he points out, American history, roughly since the turn of the century, has been a history of staggering incompetence, as an exercise in counterfactual imagination suggests:

What are the ripple effects if Palm Beach County election officials designed a less-confusing ballot for the 2000 election? How does America change if our intelligence agencies were more accurate in their assessment of Saddam Hussein’s chemical and nuclear weapons programs? Or, if we still failed on that front, how is our nation different if military and civilian leaders had not made profound mistakes at the start of the Iraq occupation?

We can do this all day. Let’s suppose for a moment that industry experts were better able to gauge the risks of an expanding number of subprime mortgage loans. . Would we be more trusting of government if it could properly launch a health care website, the most public-facing aspect of the most significant social reform in a generation? How can we accurately judge foreign threats if ISIS is dubbed a “jayvee team” the very year that it explodes upon the world stage and creates the largest jihadist state in modern history?

The United States was once known for extraordinary competence. Consider the D-Day invasion, the Manhattan Project, the Berlin Airlift, the moon landing: In example after example, the United States government—not the private sector, note—mobilized vast talent to overcome historically unprecedented military, economic, technological, and governance challenges. So widely-known was our government for competence that to this day, we’re the object of conspiracy theories worldwide. Whatever we do, however dumb and cack-handed, is presumed to be deliberate, because so mighty a superpower as the United States could not possibly be capable of screwing up in such stupid ways. Just yesterday I was assured that the CIA had unleashed the Wuhan coronavirus—cui bono, after all? How could I be so naive as to think it a mere coincidence that the virus just spontaneously emerged near a virus research facility?

This kind of thinking owes much to the belief that the United States’ government is greatly more competent than it is. That belief, in turn, is a function of our competence of yore. Nothing we’ve done in this century would warrant it.

The loss of competence is bipartisan. The GOP is gloating over the Iowa meltdown. They would, but they shouldn’t. The worst American mistakes of this century were made under the GOP’s watch. I don’t think this is significant, though. They could just as easily have been made with Democrats in power. As usual, partisanship is preventing us from thinking about problems that are bipartisan, national, and systemic.

What exactly has gone wrong?

The Software of American Public Problem Solving

The historian Philip Zelikow wrote one of the best analyses of this problem I’ve read—the best, in fact—in a little-remarked essay for the Texas National Security Review. “The “hardware” of policymaking,” he writes, “—the tools and structures of government that frame the possibilities for useful work”—are obviously important:

Less obvious is that policy performance in practice often rests more on the “software” of public problem-solving: the way people size up problems, design actions, and implement policy. In other words, the quality of the policymaking.

“Software,” he argues, includes organizational cultures for obtaining and evaluating information, doing analysis, and recording what has been done. It includes commonly understood habits that routinely highlight gaps in information or analysis.

These are the qualities, he argues, that made for competent policy in the mid-twentieth century—and they neither came out of the academy nor did they return to the academy. Rather, they came from the strong, decentralized problem-solving culture of American business, and from the military—in turn influenced by British staffing systems, which Americans envied and imitated.

the wartime and immediate postwar experience profoundly influenced organizational culture for another generation or so. A great many Americans had been drawn into the work of higher-level policy design on numerous topics. “One analyst referred to [the war] as the largest program in postdoctoral education for faculty in the nation’s history.”

The military and business cultures of the United States in this period, he notes, “were intensely oriented toward practical problem-solving.”

They emphasized meticulous written staff work: unending flows of information and estimates, habitual preparation of meeting records or minutes, constant and focused debates about priorities and tradeoffs, and guidance directives drafted with concise precision that a lawyer would envy.

The result, especially by 1943 and afterward, was marked in dozens of projects from the atom bomb to the Marshall Plan to the Berlin Airlift. Any close study of such efforts reveals superior construction of large-scale, complex multi-instrument policy packages, including frequent adjustments.

The point about constant adjustment and iteration is notable. Even in military technology, most of the key Allied innovations turned out to be second-generation innovations. In other words, they were not the airplanes or ships that were available or in production at the start of the war. Instead, they were new or improved models of every kind, several of which had not even been imagined before the war. They were developed with agility and on a massive scale by a number of agencies and scores of companies in response to ongoing lessons learned, lessons that were constantly, consciously being extracted and studied.

It is difficult for those who have not pored through the archives to appreciate the scale and scope of this work, ranging from economic statecraft to amphibious operations to science policy. The extraordinary sets of official history volumes from World War II, familiar to historians of the period, give a sense for the work. They are also a striking illustration of the organizational culture that would produce such meticulous and admirable historical analyses.

The organizational culture that accomplished so much during the war was passed along mainly through imitation and apprenticeship. But the best practices did not migrate into standardized training or academic degree programs. [my emphasis]

Naturally, as that generation aged and died, these skills atrophied. That generation knew a great deal about making effective policy. They could not figure out how to teach it to the next generation. They failed to put into place an appropriate educational system for training an equally competent policy-making class.

This is a powerful explanation. It fits the facts. It makes intuitive sense.

It explains, too, something else that has always puzzled me. Whenever  . . .

Continue reading. Damon provided a separate link to the piece from which Berlinski quotes extensively: “To Regain Policy Competence: The Software of American Public Problem-Solving,” by Philip Zelikow in the Texas National Security Review. (One hopes that a number of people in Texas will pay attention to his article following the catastrophic failure of the Texas power grid from problems repeatedly pointed out to the utility companies, the Texas government, and ERCOT (Electric “Reliability” Council of Texas).

The piece is about incompetence in government, but the private sector has proved equally if not more incompetent and with less reason: the mania for cutting taxes (the government’s only source of operating funds) have left the government grievously underfunded to carry out its tasks and responsibilities, to the point where the USDA has asked meat producers to take over the inspection of meat (can anyone detect the conflict of interest there), the FAA had Boeing do its own inspections and review in aircraft construction (do you recall the 737 MAX disasters (plural)?), the FDA is having pharmaceutical companies inspect their own products, and the IRS is too short-staffed to do any complex audits, so tax cheating is probably endemic now among those whose returns are complex. (Simple tax returns, like those filed by the lower middle class, are easy to audit, so they continue to be audited.) Worse, because the IRS is short-staffed and underfunded, it no longer does random audits, which provide statistical knowledge of how much tax cheating is being done and by what means.

In private industry, we have seen General Motors fail at building and selling cars, Wall Street fail spectacularly, bringing down the national economy through subprime mortgages and credit default swaps (and suddenly seeing that government assistance is a good thing), Purdue Pharma wrecking lives across the country.

In the private sector the root cause seems to me to be hypercapitalism, in which the sole goal is to increase profits, which leads to cutting costs and cutting corners. The shoddy results inevitably inch toward failure. That is the attitude that destroyed the Texas power grid, and that is the attitude that slashes taxes to underfund government so government services suffer.

And the root of that is manic individualism, the idea that a person is independent of community and so long as s/he gets what s/he wants, the rest can go to hell. Until individuals regain a sense of being a part of a community — not just an interest group — I doubt the situation will improve.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 February 2021 at 12:34 pm

How a ‘beginners’ mindset’ can help you learn anything

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David Robson writes for BBC:

Tom Vanderbilt’s fascination with the process of life-long learning began with his daughter’s hobbies: piano, soccer, Tae Kwon Do. He wanted to encourage her new pursuits, and accompanied her to the lessons or tournaments. As she exercised her mind, he would answer emails, play with his phone or stare into space until his daughter had finished.

He soon recognised the hypocrisy of the situation. “I was impressing upon her the importance of having a broad education in all these different skills,” he says. “But she might have easily asked me, ‘Well, why don’t you do all these things then?’”

Starting with chess lessons, he decided to spend a year pursuing a range of new skills himself. He learnt to sing, draw, juggle and surf. At no point did he hope to fully master the abilities or to show off his prowess with an extraordinary feat, such as winning American Idol.

“As adults, we instantly put pressure on ourselves with goals,” he says. “We feel like we don’t have the luxury to engage in learning for learning’s sake.” Instead, he wanted to revel in the pleasure of the process.  [I generally do have a modest goal — e.g.,  to be the best on the block at doing x. – LG]

Vanderbilt details his journey in his January 2021 book Beginners, which combines his own personal revelations with the cutting-edge science of skill acquisition. Keen to find out more, we discussed the myths of adult learning, and the substantial benefits that the “beginner’s mindset” can bring to our lives.

How to learn well

Beginning the project in his late 40s, Vanderbilt knew that he would struggle to match the learning abilities of children like his daughter. Children are especially good at picking up patterns implicitly – understanding that certain actions will lead to certain kinds of events, without any explanation or description of what they are doing. After the age of 12, however, we lose some of that capacity to absorb new information.

We shouldn’t be too pessimistic about our own abilities, though. While adults may not absorb new skills as readily as a child, we still have “neuroplasticity” – the ability for the brain to rewire itself in response to new challenges. In his year of learning, Vanderbilt met many people, long past middle age, who were still exercising that “superpower”.

What’s more, Vanderbilt’s research revealed some basic principles of good learning that anyone can use to make our learning more effective. The first may seem obvious but is easily forgotten: we need to learn from our mistakes. So, rather than just mindlessly repeating the same actions over and over, we need to be more focused and analytical, thinking about what we did right and what we did wrong. (Psychologists call this “deliberate practice”.) Vanderbilt noted this with chess playing. You could put in the hours with hundreds of online games, but that was not going to be as effective as studying the strategies of professionals or discussing the reasons for your losses with a chess teacher.

A second principle is more counter-intuitive: we need to make sure that our practice is varied. When juggling, for example, it helped to switch the objects, or to change how high you throw them; he tried it sitting down, and while walking. As one scientist told Vanderbilt, this is “repetition without repetition” and it forces the brain’s learned patterns to become more flexible, allowing you to cope with the unpredictable difficulties – such as a mistake in one of your earlier movements that could lead you to lose control.

Even more intriguingly, Vanderbilt discovered that we often learn best when we know that we will have to teach others the same skill. It’s not clear why this is, but that expectation seems to increase people’s interest and curiosity, which primes the brain’s attention and helps ensure that it lays down stronger memory traces. (Vanderbilt had lots of opportunities to teach what he had learnt, since he often included his daughter in his projects.) So, whatever you are personally trying to master, consider sharing that skill with someone you know. And while you may find it helpful to observe true experts executing a skill, Vanderbilt found that it can also be useful to watch other novices, since you can more easily analyse what they are doing right and what they are doing wrong.

With this knowledge, Vanderbilt made good progress with each of the skills that he set out to learn. Singing, he says,

Continue reading. There’s quite a bit more.

At the end are the credits:

Tom Vanderbilt’s book Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning (Atlantic Books/Knopf) was published in January. 

David Robson is the is author of The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Do Dumb Things (Hodder & Stoughton/WW Norton) – out now in paperback. He is @d_a_robson on Twitter.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 February 2021 at 11:57 am

Mennen and Southern Witchcrafts, with that wonderful Fendrihan Mk II razor

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A highly satisfactory shave is for me the best way to start the day, and today’s shave delivered, without a doubt. After washing my stubble with MR GLO, I rubbed the Mennen shave stick against the grain over my beard. As you can see in the photo, it is somewhat dried, but I encountered no problems at all. I easily transferred an ample amount of soap from stick to stubble, and then with the WSP Prince, created a very nice lather, working in small amounts of water to get the consistency I wanted. This stick has a very mild fragrance — clean, but barely present.

Fendrihan’s Mk II is a first rate stainless-steel razor. The one I have is the limited addition in bronze, available now again. (It’s also available in plain stainless steel, but that one’s currently sold out.) I like this razor a lot.

Three passes and I applied Southern Witchcrafts Valley of Ashes aftershave, a limited edition made for r/wetshaving. It’s an aftershave milk rather than a splash. It’s interesting in part because the ingredients listed on the label don’t match the ingredients in the catalog description. My guess is that the catalog description is the right one, based on the white color and feel of the milk:

Scent notes: Coal, Tar, Bourbon, Tobacco, Bitter Citrus, Smoke, Leather, Motor Oil, Burning Rubber, Diesel, Clove, Birch Tar, Bergamot

Ingredients: Water, stearic acid, shea butter, castor oil, potassium hydroxide, glycerine, coconut oil, sodium lactate, sodium hydroxide, jojoba oil, aloe powder, liquid aloe, isopropyl myristate, kaolin clay, fragrance

The fragrance is unusual and much more pleasant than the scent notes suggest.

And now it’s Friday and sunny and altogether a pleasant day. I liked this ratatouille variant so much I’m making it again today. It will serve as Other Vegetable. For Greens I currently have some gai pan mue, but I’m cooking a batch of tung ho today as well. This time I have black quinoa for Grain and black beans for Beans/Lentils. I got more walnuts for Nuts/Seeds (along with flaxseed daily, of course). Lately I’ve been eating the 3 pieces of fruit as breakfast — a tangerine, an apple, and a pear — and then have lunch (around 1:00) and dinner (around 5:00).

 

Written by LeisureGuy

26 February 2021 at 10:19 am

Posted in Daily life, Shaving

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