Later On

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

Archive for March 15th, 2021

Watching “Treadstone” and spotted a DE razor

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Season 1 Episode 8 at 34:28. I can’t identify the make and model of the razor, though the handle did seem along the lines of the RazoRock Halo handle —but not quite.

Written by Leisureguy

15 March 2021 at 7:22 pm

17 Reasons to Let the Economic Optimism Begin

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Neil Irwin writes in the NY Times:

The 21st-century economy has been a two-decade series of punches in the gut.

The century began in economic triumphalism in the United States, with a sense that business cycles had been vanquished and prosperity secured for a blindingly bright future. Instead, a mild recession was followed by a weak recovery followed by a financial crisis followed by another weak recovery followed by a pandemic-induced collapse. A couple of good years right before the pandemic aside, it has been two decades of overwhelming inequality and underwhelming growth — an economy in which a persistently weak job market has left vast human potential untapped, helping fuel social and political dysfunction.

Those two decades coincide almost precisely with my career as an economics writer. It is the reason, among my colleagues, I have a reputation for writing stories that run the gamut from ominous to gloomy to terrifying.

But strange as it may seem in this time of pandemic, I’m starting to get optimistic. It’s an odd feeling, because so many people are suffering — and because for so much of my career, a gloomy outlook has been the correct one.

Predictions are a hard business, of course, and much could go wrong that makes the decades ahead as bad as, or worse than, the recent past. But this optimism is not just about the details of the new pandemic relief legislation or the politics of the moment. Rather, it stems from a diagnosis of three problematic mega-trends, all related.

There has been a dearth of economy-altering innovation, the kind that fuels rapid growth in the economy’s productive potential. There has been a global glut of labor because of a period of rapid globalization and technological change that reduced workers’ bargaining power in rich countries. And there has been persistently inadequate demand for goods and services that government policy has been unable to fix.

There is not one reason, however, to think that these negative trends have run their course. There are 17.

1. The ketchup might be ready to flow

In 1987, the economist Robert Solow said, “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.” Companies were making great use of rapid improvements in computing power, but the overall economy wasn’t really becoming more productive.

This analysis was right until it was wrong. Starting around the mid-1990s, technological innovations in supply chain management and factory production enabled companies to squeeze more economic output out of every hour of work and dollar of capital spending. This was an important reason for the economic boom of the late 1990s.

The Solow paradox, as the idea underlying his quote would later be called, reflected an insight: An innovation, no matter how revolutionary, will often have little effect on the larger economy immediately after it is invented. It often takes many years before businesses figure out exactly what they have and how it can be used, and years more to work out kinks and bring costs down.

In the beginning, it may even lower productivity! In the 1980s, companies that tried out new computing technology often needed to employ new armies of programmers as well as others to maintain old, redundant systems.

But once such hurdles are cleared, the innovation can spread with dizzying speed.

It’s like the old ditty: “Shake and shake the ketchup bottle. First none will come and then a lot’ll.”

Or, in a more formal sense, the economists Erik Brynjolfsson, Daniel Rock and Chad Syverson call this the “productivity J-curve,” in which an important new general-purpose technology — they use artificial intelligence as a contemporary example — initially depresses apparent productivity, but over time unleashes much stronger growth in economic potential. It looks as if companies have been putting in a lot of work for no return, but once those returns start to flow, they come faster than once seemed imaginable.

There are several areas where innovation seems to be at just such a point, and not just artificial intelligence.

2. 2020s battery technology looks kind of like 1990s microprocessors

Remember Moore’s Law? It was the idea that the number of transistors that could be put on an integrated circuit would double every two years as manufacturing technology improved. That is the reason you may well be wearing a watch with more computer processing power than the devices that sent people into outer space in the 1960s.

Battery technology isn’t improving at quite that pace, but it’s not far behind it. The price of lithium-ion battery packs has fallen 89 percent in inflation-adjusted terms since 2010, according to BloombergNEF, and is poised for further declines. There have been similar advances in solar cells, raising the prospect of more widespread inexpensive clean energy.

Another similarity: Microprocessors and batteries are not ends unto themselves, but rather technologies that enable lots of other innovation. Fast, cheap computer chips led to software that revolutionized the modern economy; cheap batteries and solar cells could lead to a wave of innovation around how energy is generated and used. We’re only at the early stages of that process.

3. Emerging innovations can combine in unexpected ways

In the early part of the 20th century, indoor plumbing was sweeping the nation. So was home electricity. But the people installing those pipes and those power lines presumably had no idea that by the 1920s, the widespread availability of electricity and free-flowing water in homes would enable the adoption of the home washing machine, a device that saved Americans vast amounts of time and backbreaking labor.

It required not just electricity and running water, but also revolutions in manufacturing techniques, production and distribution. All those innovations combined to make domestic life much easier.

Could a combination of technologies now maturing create more improvement in living standards than any of them could in isolation?

Consider driverless cars and trucks. They will rely on long-building research in artificial intelligence software, sensors and batteries. After years of hype, billions of dollars in investment, and millions of miles of test drives, the possibilities are starting to come into view.

Waymo, a sister company of Google, has opened a driverless taxi service to the public in the Phoenix suburbs. Major . . .

Continue reading. There are 14 more reasons to be optimistic.

I should, however, point out that driverless autos and trucks will eliminate millions of jobs: no more cab, Uber, Lyft, trucking — that is no more jobs — the services will still be available, but using driverless vehicles, so cab companies, Uber, Lyft, and trucking companies might do very well indeed with payroll at zero. Unions might have something to say about that, but with no workers, no unions.

In a way, it’s a perfection of capitalism: the capitalist purchases the means of production — the driverless cars, the energy to run them, pay for maintenance — and other than maintenance expenses s/he has to pay no one else. All the profit can come directly to the capitalist, who no longer must share.

And since capitalists do not need to spend all that much on themselves, not so much money goes back into the economy. Instead of millions of workers getting paid and spending that money on themselves and their families, the money goes instead to a very small group.

So the workers don’t have any money to spend. And the economy goes into a nose-dive.

Written by Leisureguy

15 March 2021 at 5:24 pm

How a Salt Monopoly Could Spike Car Accidents in the Midwest

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The US needs to get its anti-trust act operational and active. Matt Stoller writes in BIG:

I write a lot about big tech, but today’s issue is about something so basic and fundamental we literally don’t think about it. Salt. Salt mining is one of humanities’ oldest industries, with wars fought over this commodity. Cities like Venice monopolized the salt trade in the middle ages for geopolitical reasons, and the British tried to block colonists from access to salt during the American Revolution to prevent their ability to preserve food.

Today salt is still used in everything from chemicals to food preservation. Its main use is deicing our roads, because salt from mines across North America, and shipped in from overseas, makes it possible to drive in all sorts of weather. Salt saves lives, stops car accidents, and makes our economy run.

And in the U.S. and Canada, salt mining is being monopolized, as we speak.

Plus I’ll have short items on a recent remarkable circuit court decision breaking up an industrial conglomerate, a discussion on the conservative legal movement’s relationship to monopoly, and a note on how Republican Marco Rubio endorsed the Amazon unionization drive in Alabama on right-wing cultural terms. And I’ll touch on Lina Khan’s nomination to the Federal Trade Commission, as well as several hearings that took place this week in the House and Senate on antitrust.

Junk Bonds and Car Accidents

I write a lot about big tech, but in the winter, when it’s really cold and snowy, what Americans need is not a competitive semiconductor industry or better app stores. They need salt. And not the kind of salt that flavors our food, but the kind that melts snow and ice. If we don’t have salt, no one can drive, because salt is what keeps our roads manageable. Without salt, trucks can’t deliver supplies, people can’t get to stores or work, and the economy comes to a standstill.

And people die. A lot of them.

Every year, over 1300 people die in car accidents due to snowy, slushy, or icy pavement, with another 117,000 injured. Snowy weather is also a huge waste of time and money, costing roughly $500M a day, and 544 million vehicle-hours a year of delay. Road salt doesn’t eliminate this problem entirely, but it comes close, reducing collisions by up to 88% and injuries by 85%. Studies show that deicing salt pays for itself within the first 25 minutes after it is spread. Roughly 40% of domestic salt, produced largely from mining, is used not for food or chemicals, but for deicing. It’s a major expense for cities and states, and commercial customers like shopping malls. And because weather leads to demand spikes, and America tends to operate in just-in-time style inventory models instead of managing risk by storing surpluses of critical commodities, there are often shortages of road salt precisely when everyone needs it most.

And that’s why I paid attention when ex-convict and junk bond king Michael Milken’s alleged private equity firm, Stone Canyon, bought two major salt producers over the last year. Early in 2020, Stone Canyon acquired Kissner, a producer of deicing salt, private label consumer salt, and salt-related chemicals. Then, nine months later, Stone Canyon bought Morton’s Salt, the largest producer in the world, for $3.2 billion, and it is now awaiting antitrust approval. Kissner is itself a roll-up of the salt industry, having bought Central Salt and Lion Salt and turned itself from a small Ontario-based regional distributor of ice melt into one of the giants of the industry. So Stone Canyon is overseeing a roll-up of roll-ups.

This series of mergers should terrify cities across the upper Midwest, who have to buy salt in unpredictable spot markets and often deal with shortages when the weather gets bad. Minnesota, for instance, bought roughly 1.5 million tons of salt for the 2020 season. Salt is a regional business, it’s just not economical to move extremely bulky road salt over land more than 150 miles, so while port cities can get salt from abroad in ocean vessels, and salt can be barged up the Mississippi river, much of the upper Midwest and Canada has to buy local. (It doesn’t help that America’s rail system is monopolized.)

And Kissner’s mine, called the Detroit Salt Mine, and Morton’s mine, in Windsor Ontario, are within a few thousand meters of each other. “You can literally connect the two salt mines underground,” someone in the industry told me. There are a few other players: Compass Minerals and Cargill also compete for Midwestern markets, but Cargill is a small presence and is essentially shutting down a good chunk of its operations because of problems with its mining capacity. American Rock Salt, another player, exists, but it is located in New York.

The salt industry is an oligopoly, and the number of suppliers to Governments in regions of the Great Lakes markets will shrink from 4 to 3 and in some geographies from 3 suppliers to 2. There are two consequences of this consolidation of salt production. The first is that prices will go up, and municipal budgets will be stretched.

Salt is sold in blind bidding processes. Governments put out tender offers, and then suppliers bid. When bidding, suppliers will set prices by considering the supply levels among competitors. If there are only two competitors in a market and one of them has committed their salt production for the year, then the remaining one is a monopolist who can just set the price. This is particularly true for a bunch of Midwestern states, like Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

But the much more serious problem is that of shortages. The industry manages demand spikes from weather not by having spare production capacity or lots of storage, but by overpromising salt deliveries. The rule of thumb is that one out of every five years will see a mild winter with few sales, three out of five will be snowy but normal, and one out of five will involve extreme weather and much higher demand. Of course, rules of thumb have gone out of the window now that there’s more extreme weather, which means demand drops and spikes will be more common.

One of the best ways of winning market share is to bid low, and then if demand is high, to simply not deliver to Commercial customers (Landscapers that service residential and commercial customers are almost always shafted first, meaning driveways and sidewalks go unsalted.) There are penalties in contracts for doing this to government customers, but when the snow hits, it doesn’t matter and the producers often pay the penalties if they are even enforced by the government entities. All customers need the salt when it snows, and a contract dispute doesn’t get in the way.

It’s quite possible, and indeed likely, that shortages will worsen. Without competition, it will be much harder to go to a different supplier, because there won’t be any other suppliers. And private equity takeovers in general are operational nightmares, which means that it’s likely Kissner and Morton will have problems with production and distribution purely because mergers tend not to work out.

There’s one final piece of the problem. Because . . .

Continue reading. And that final piece of the problem is serious — and shows how the snake of capitalism bites its own tail.

Written by Leisureguy

15 March 2021 at 4:33 pm

Is the AstraZeneca Vaccine Really Dangerous?

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Sometimes it’s difficult to understand public reactions. Kevin Drum notes:

I’m puzzled about something related to the AstraZeneca vaccine. Several European countries have put it on hold due to reports of blood clots in patients who have received it. If I have the numbers right, about 40 cases of blood clots have been reported out of the 17 million people who have gotten the AZ vaccine.

But COVID-19 itself is far more dangerous on the blood clot front. “Blood clots continue to wreak havoc for patients with severe COVID-19 infection,” reported the University of Michigan Health Lab a few months ago, and that hasn’t changed.

So let’s do some arithmetic. The overall hospitalization rate for COVID-19 is about 100 per million per week, which means that of the 17 million who have received the AZ vaccine since January, something on the order of 17,000 would have been hospitalized if they hadn’t been vaccinated. The incidence of blood clots in patients hospitalized for COVID-19, according to a recent study, is about 20%. This means that roughly 3,000 people out of those 17 million would have developed blood clots without the vaccine, simply because they would gotten a serious case of COVID-19.

So . . . 3,000 without the vaccine, 40 with the vaccine.¹ That seems like a no-brainer: keep inoculating people with the AZ vaccine until firm evidence of large-scale harm emerges.²

Unless, of course, I bollixed up my amateur risk assessment arithmetic. If I did, what am I missing?

¹Also, AstraZeneca claims that 40 cases out of 17 million is about the same as it is for other vaccines. I can’t verify that at the moment, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s true.

²The calculus might work out differently if you had plenty of alternate vaccine supplies, but I don’t get the impression that’s the case in Europe.

Written by Leisureguy

15 March 2021 at 4:10 pm

Amazon workers DEFINITELY need a union

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Edward Ongweso Jr. writes in Vice what at first would seem dystopian science-fiction but in fact is modern-day reality:

Amazon’s warehouses are notorious for the company’s exploitative labor practices, which include technological interventions designed to push workers harder. On Monday, The Information reported that Amazon is in the midst of a massive expansion to its FC Games program, which attempts to gamify repetitive tasks and spur competition for digital rewards.

Warehouses in at least 20 states have begun offering the optional games, according to The Information, which workers can “play” by completing work tasks. Completing tasks gives out digital rewards that allows them to “buy virtual narwhals, dinosaurs, and other electronic pets,” the outlet reported.

Six of these games are currently available, The Information reported. They have names “like MissionRacer, PicksInSpace, Dragon Duel and CastleCrafter,” the Washington Post previously reported, and mimic real work tasks with a veneer of simple computer graphics.

Amazon goes to extraordinary lengths to increase productivity—a great deal of why it is such a logistics juggernaut comes down to how far it pushes workers. The company has forced workers into “megacycle shifts” where you are expected to do a 10-hour graveyard shift or lose your job, for example.

Amazon’s demanding productivity quotas have also created safety crises by pushing delivery drivers and warehouse workers to the brink. It has also preserved its unsafe working conditions during the pandemic and often forced workers across its sprawling empire to work without adequate protections. Thanks to its monopoly and monopsony powers, however, the company has largely avoided any consequences for this.

One Amazon worker told The Information that the FC Games program reminded them of an episode in Black Mirror—”Fifteen Million Merits”—where daily life is gamified in a futuristic hell hole: -people live their lives in rooms where every surface is an interactive screen displaying advertisements and entertainment. To go about life each day, they must earn “merits” or digital rewards that let them pay for their needs.

“Employees have told us they enjoy having the option to join in these workstation games, and we’re excited to be taking their feedback and expanding the program to even more buildings throughout our network,” Kent Hollenbeck, an Amazon spokesperson, told The Information. “Even with this expansion, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

15 March 2021 at 3:46 pm

Posted in Business, Daily life, Unions

From buggies to buses, the first Black-owned US automaker did what few others dared

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 Frederick Patterson standing beside a bare Patterson-Greenfield automobile chassis, probably for a larger touring car body.

Larry Printz serves up an interesting slice of history in Ars Technica:

It’s September 1915 in Greenfield, Ohio, a small town located on the Paint Creek between Columbus and Cincinnati. At a time of year when summer’s warmth gives way to autumn’s chill, a change of another sort occurs in a small factory on N. Washington St.: the first Patterson-Greenfield Automobile is completed and readied for sale. It’s a major milestone, not just because this vehicle comes from a first-time automaker.

There have been more than 1,900 automobile manufacturers in the United States since the Duryea Motor Wagon Company sold its first automobile in Springfield, Massachussetts in 1896. Yet in the explosion of entrepreneurship that followed, only one American automaker has been founded and run by a Black individual: C.R. Patterson & Sons of Greenfield, Ohio.

In some ways, Patterson’s fate was typical of many small-town, small-time automotive manufacturers—the business found some modicum of success though never rose to the same heights as the auto brands we still know in 2021. Yet, in retrospect this Black-owned business had quite a run. The team behind C.R. Patterson & Sons worked its way through 74 years, three generations, and multiple changes in business strategy at a time of technological change and extreme prejudice, making the company’s story all the more remarkable.

Life before the wheel

Charles Richard Patterson was born into slavery on a Virginia plantation in 1833, the first of 13 children. Little else is known about his life there, and the same goes for how he and his family gained their freedom.

But eventually, around 1850, the Pattersons came to settle in Greenfield, Ohio. The town was already known for its strong abolitionist sympathies thanks to Rev. Samuel Crothers, the founder of the town’s First Presbyterian Church. With First Presbyterian, Crothers established one of Ohio’s—and the nation’s—earliest abolition societies in 1833. And before long, Greenfield became a stop on the Underground Railroad, and a magnet for Black slaves seeking freedom.

Here, the Pattersons eventually worked as blacksmiths, a common skilled trade for former slaves during a period when occupations commonly held by white individuals were closed off. By 1864, Patterson had become successful enough to woo and eventually marry Josephine Outz of Greenfield. Six children followed.

Like many blacksmiths, Patterson’s career led him to work for local carriage-maker Dines & Simpson, where he became foreman, working side by side with white workers and supervising others. But Patterson wanted to start his own business. Looking back, it’s easy to perceive that as an impossible goal with insurmountable hurdles given the lack of financing available to aspiring Black businessmen and the general prejudice behind many policies of the day.

Nevertheless, Patterson ultimately partnered with J.P. Lowe, a white man, and they established J.P. Lowe and Company in 1873. The company soon earned the same reputation Dines & Simpson had enjoyed for constructing high-quality products. Lowe and Company grew a wholesale business supplying carriages to Cincinnati-area retailers and other regional customers.

As the business grew, so did Patterson’s community involvement. He was a trustee of the Greenfield African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1880, where he also taught Sunday school. Patterson was also active in the Cedar Grove Masonic Lodge No. 17 from 1871 through 1899. Patterson filed suit against the local Board of Education when his son was denied admission to the all-white high school, a case he ultimately won.

Given his high profile locally, it’s no surprise that by 1888, the company employed 10 men, according to Ohio’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Report. It was a successful partnership that lasted until 1893, when faraway events would change Patterson’s life.

A not-great depression

The economy had been improving as 1892 ended, a notion reinforced by myriad economic business indicators. Unfortunately, there were signs the party was ending. Monthly indicators, such as building construction and railroad investment, began to decline. In January, the failure of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, one of America’s largest employers, ignited panic on Wall Street, causing a run on banks. Needing deposits to feed the run, banks called in business and agricultural loans. But both sectors had become wildly overextended, leading to numerous bankruptcies, a drastic reduction in America’s gold supply on which the dollar was based, and a realignment of America’s political priorities.

The result was a four-year depression: the Panic of 1893. It was one of America’s worst depressions, and businesses in Greenfield, Ohio, were not immune.

“The older firm of Lowe and Patterson, once extensive, dwindled through business depression to such proportions that the formation of the present partnership was opportuned and consummated,” Patterson later recalled during a speech at the first meeting of the National Negro Business League in 1900.

Now sole proprietor of the renamed C.R. Patterson & Sons, Patterson would soon bring his sons into the business. According to Christopher Nelson’s history of the family, The C.R. Patterson and Sons Company: Black Pioneers in the Vehicle Building Industry, 1865–1939, Frederick would graduate high school as a valedictorian, entering The Ohio State University in 1889. (He became the first Black player on The Ohio State University football team and served as class president in 1893.) He quickly joined the company beside his brother Samuel and their father before a few years of major family events changed things for Frederick. In 1899, Samuel died unexpectedly. Two years later, the younger Patterson married Betty Estelline Postell, and the couple would have two children who would also become part of the Patterson & Sons company: Frederick Jr. and Postell.

Victorian state-of-the-art

By the turn of the century, Patterson’s integrated workforce averaged some 35- to 50-employees strong. They produced 28 carriage models priced from $120 to $150 and also made specialty vehicles, such as the Mail Delivery Buggy and the School Wagon. However, their most popular offering was the Doctor’s Buggy—hardly surprising given the company’s targeted advertising strategy. Aside from appearing in their local newspaper, ads for Patterson buggies regularly appeared in “The Journal of the National Medical Association,” select Black magazines including “Alexander’s,” and “The Crisis,” and a regional agricultural publication called “The Ohio Farmer.”

Patterson did not consider his shop one that merely assembled parts built by other companies. At the same time, Patterson & Sons was not large enough to mass-produce carriages, like Studebaker had done for most of the 19th century. No, this was a custom shop where craftsmanship was good enough for the company to offer a two-year warranty on its vehicles.

Among some of Patterson & Sons’ details: the wood used was seasoned for three years in the company’s yards, with ash frames and poplar panels. Bodies weighed as little as 30 pounds, yet boasted a 600-pound payload. Shafts were constructed from black hickory, and the wheels came from elm and white hickory. Rubber tires could be ordered to replace the steel rims commonly used.

The quality of the company’s products sustained business even after the initial arrival of the automobile. In fact, . ..

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

15 March 2021 at 12:29 pm

Who Is Making Sure that A.I. Machines Aren’t Racist?

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Cade Metz reports in the NY Times:

Hundreds of people gathered for the first lecture at what had become the world’s most important conference on artificial intelligence — row after row of faces. Some were East Asian, a few were Indian, and a few were women. But the vast majority were white men. More than 5,500 people attended the meeting, five years ago in Barcelona, Spain.

Timnit Gebru, then a graduate student at Stanford University, remembers counting only six Black people other than herself, all of whom she knew, all of whom were men.

The homogeneous crowd crystallized for her a glaring issue. The big thinkers of tech say A.I. is the future. It will underpin everything from search engines and email to the software that drives our cars, directs the policing of our streets and helps create our vaccines.

But it is being built in a way that replicates the biases of the almost entirely male, predominantly white work force making it.

In the nearly 10 years I’ve written about artificial intelligence, two things have remained a constant: The technology relentlessly improves in fits and sudden, great leaps forward. And bias is a thread that subtly weaves through that work in a way that tech companies are reluctant to acknowledge.

On her first night home in Menlo Park, Calif., after the Barcelona conference, sitting cross-​legged on the couch with her laptop, Dr. Gebru described the A.I. work force conundrum in a Facebook post.

“I’m not worried about machines taking over the world. I’m worried about groupthink, insularity and arrogance in the A.I. community — especially with the current hype and demand for people in the field,” she wrote. “The people creating the technology are a big part of the system. If many are actively excluded from its creation, this technology will benefit a few while harming a great many.”

The A.I. community buzzed about the mini-manifesto. Soon after, Dr. Gebru helped create a new organization, Black in A.I. After finishing her Ph.D., she was hired by Google.

She teamed with Margaret Mitchell, who was building a group inside Google dedicated to “ethical A.I.” Dr. Mitchell had previously worked in the research lab at Microsoft. She had grabbed attention when she told Bloomberg News in 2016 that A.I. suffered from a “sea of dudes” problem. She estimated that she had worked with hundreds of men over the previous five years and about 10 women.

Their work was hailed as groundbreaking. The nascent A.I. industry, it had become clear, needed minders and people with different perspectives.

About six years ago, A.I. in a Google online photo service organized photos of Black people into a folder called “gorillas.” Four years ago, a researcher at a New York start-up noticed that the A.I. system she was working on was egregiously biased against Black people. Not long after, a Black researcher in Boston discovered that an A.I. system couldn’t identify her face — until she put on a white mask.

In 2018, when I told Google’s public relations staff that I was working on a book about artificial intelligence, it arranged a long talk with Dr. Mitchell to discuss her work. As she described how she built the company’s Ethical A.I. team — and brought Dr. Gebru into the fold — it was refreshing to hear from someone so closely focused on the bias problem.

But nearly three years later, Dr. Gebru was pushed out of the company without a clear explanation. She said she had been fired after criticizing Google’s approach to minority hiring and, with a research paper, highlighting the harmful biases in the A.I. systems that underpin Google’s search engine and other services.

“Your life starts getting worse when you start advocating for underrepresented people,” Dr. Gebru said in an email before her firing. “You start making the other leaders upset.”

As Dr. Mitchell defended Dr. Gebru, the company removed her, too. She had searched through her own Google email account for material that would support their position and forwarded emails to another account, which somehow got her into trouble. Google declined to comment for this article.

Their departure became a point of contention for A.I. researchers and other tech workers. Some saw a giant company no longer willing to listen, too eager to get technology out the door without considering its implications. I saw an old problem — part technological and part sociological — finally breaking into the open.

It should have been a wake-up call.

In June 2015, a friend sent Jacky Alciné, a 22-year-old software engineer living in Brooklyn, an internet link for snapshots the friend had posted to the new Google Photos service. Google Photos could analyze snapshots and automatically sort them into digital folders based on what was pictured. One folder might be “dogs,” another “birthday party.”

When Mr. Alciné clicked on the link, he noticed one of the folders was labeled “gorillas.” That made no sense to him, so he opened the folder. He found more than 80 photos he had taken nearly a year earlier of a friend during a concert in nearby Prospect Park. That friend was Black.

He might have let it go if Google had mistakenly tagged just one photo. But 80? He posted a screenshot on Twitter. “Google Photos, y’all,” messed up, he wrote, using much saltier language. “My friend is not a gorilla.”

Like facial recognition services, talking digital assistants and conversational “chatbots,” Google Photos relied on an A.I. system that learned its skills by analyzing enormous amounts of digital data.

Called a “neural network,” this mathematical system could learn tasks that engineers could never code into a machine on their own. By analyzing thousands of photos of gorillas, it could learn to recognize a gorilla. It was also capable of egregious mistakes. The onus was on engineers to choose the right data when training these mathematical systems. (In this case, the easiest fix was to eliminate “gorilla” as a photo category.)

As a software engineer, Mr. Alciné understood the problem. He compared it to making lasagna. “If you mess up the lasagna ingredients early, the whole thing is ruined,” he said. “It is the same thing with A.I. You have to be very intentional about what you put into it. Otherwise, it is very difficult to undo.”

In 2017, Deborah Raji, a 21-​year-​old Black woman from Ottawa, sat at a desk inside the New York offices of Clarifai, the start-up where she was working. The company built technology that could automatically recognize objects in digital images and planned to sell it to businesses, police departments and government agencies.

She stared at a screen filled with faces — images the company used to train its facial recognition software.

As she scrolled through page after page of these faces, she realized that most — more than 80 percent — were of white people. More than 70 percent of those white people were male. When Clarifai trained its system on this data, it might do a decent job of recognizing white people, Ms. Raji thought, but it would fail miserably with people of color, and probably women, too.

Clarifai was also building a “content moderation system,” a tool that could automatically identify and remove pornography from images people posted to social networks. The company trained this system on two sets of data: thousands of photos pulled from online pornography sites, and thousands of G‑rated images bought from stock photo services.

The system was supposed to learn the difference between the pornographic and the anodyne. The problem was that the G‑rated images were dominated by white people, and the pornography was not. The system was learning to identify Black people as pornographic.

“The data we use to train these systems matters,” Ms. Raji said. “We can’t just blindly pick our sources.”

This was obvious to her, but to the rest of the company it was not. Because the people choosing the training data were mostly white men, they didn’t realize their data was biased.

“The issue of bias in facial recognition technologies is an evolving and important topic,” Clarifai’s chief executive, Matt Zeiler, said in a statement. Measuring bias, he said, “is an important step.”

Before joining Google, Dr. Gebru collaborated on a study with a young computer scientist, Joy Buolamwini. A graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Ms. Buolamwini, who is Black, came from a family of academics. Her grandfather specialized in medicinal chemistry, and so did her father.

She gravitated toward facial recognition technology. Other researchers believed it was reaching maturity, but when she used it, she knew it wasn’t.

In October 2016, a friend invited her for a night out in Boston with several other women. “We’ll do masks,” the friend said. Her friend meant skin care masks at a spa, but Ms. Buolamwini assumed Halloween masks. So she carried a white plastic Halloween mask to her office that morning.

It was still sitting on her desk a few days later as she struggled to finish a project for one of her classes. She was trying to get a detection system to track her face. No matter what she did, she couldn’t quite get it to work.

In her frustration, she picked up the white mask from her desk and pulled it over her head. Before it was all the way on, the system recognized her face — or, at least, it recognized the mask.

“Black Skin, White Masks,” she said in an interview, nodding to the 1952 critique of historical racism from the psychiatrist Frantz Fanon. “The metaphor becomes the truth. You have to fit a norm, and that norm is not you.”

Ms. Buolamwini started exploring commercial services designed to analyze faces and identify characteristics like age and sex, including tools from Microsoft and IBM.

She found that when . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more. It’s unsettling to see how the world being created is built on unrecognized and unacknowledged biases.

Written by Leisureguy

15 March 2021 at 11:59 am

Literature as a mechanism for neural adjustment

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Angus Fletcher, a professor of story science at Ohio State’s Project Narrative, has an interesting take on literature in the Smithsonian:

Shortly after 335 B.C., within a newly built library tucked just east of Athens’ limestone city walls, a free-thinking Greek polymath by the name of Aristotle gathered up an armful of old theater scripts. As he pored over their delicate papyrus in the amber flicker of a sesame lamp, he was struck by a revolutionary idea: What if literature was an invention for making us happier and healthier? The idea made intuitive sense; when people felt bored, or unhappy, or at a loss for meaning, they frequently turned to plays or poetry. And afterwards, they often reported feeling better. But what could be the secret to literature’s feel-better power? What hidden nuts-and-bolts conveyed its psychological benefits?

After carefully investigating the matter, Aristotle inked a short treatise that became known as the Poetics. In it, he proposed that literature was more than a single invention; it was many inventions, each constructed from an innovative use of story. Story includes the countless varieties of plot and character—and it also includes the equally various narrators that give each literary work its distinct style or voice. Those story elements, Aristotle hypothesized, could plug into our imagination, our emotions, and other parts of our psyche, troubleshooting and even improving our mental function.

Aristotle’s idea was so unusual that, for more than two millennia, his account of literary inventions existed as an intellectual one-off, too intriguing to be forgotten but also too idiosyncratic to be developed further. In the mid-20th century, R. S. Crane and the renegade professors of the Chicago School revived the Poetics’ techno-scientific method, using it to excavate literary inventions from Shakespearean tragedies, 18th-century novels, and other works that Aristotle never knew. Later, in the early 2000s, one of the Chicago School’s students, James Phelan, co-founded Ohio State’s Project Narrative, where I now work as a professor of story science. Project Narrative is the world’s leading academic think tank for the study of stories, and in our research labs, with the help of neuroscientists and psychologists from across the globe, we’ve uncovered dozens more literary inventions in Zhou Dynasty lyrics, Italian operas, West African epics, classic children’s books, great American novels, Agatha Christie crime fictions, Mesoamerican myths, and even Hollywood television scripts.

These literary inventions can alleviate grief, improve your problem-solving skills, dispense the anti-depressant effects of LSD, boost your creativity, provide therapy for trauma (including both kinds of PTSD), spark joy, dole out a better energy kick than caffeine, lower your odds of dying alone, and (as impossible as it sounds) increase the chance that your dreams will come true. They can even make you a more loving spouse and generous friend.

You can find detailed blueprints for 25 literary inventions, including step-by-step instructions on how to use them all, in my new book, Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature. And to give you a taste of the wonders they can work, here are eight basic literary inventions explained, starting with two that Aristotle unearthed.

The Plot Twist

This literary invention is now so well-known that we often learn to identify it as children. But it thrilled Aristotle when he first discovered it, and for two reasons. First, it supported his hunch that literature’s inventions were constructed from story. And second, it confirmed that literary inventions could have potent psychological effects. Who hasn’t felt a burst of wonder—or as Aristotle called it, thaumazein—when a story pivots unexpectedly? And as modern research has revealed, that wonder can be more than a heart-exciting sensation. It can stimulate what psychologists term a self-transcendent experience (or what “father of American psychology” William James more vividly termed a “spiritual” experience), increasing our overall sense of life purpose.

That’s why holy scriptures brim with plot twists: Davids beating Goliaths, the dead returning to life, golden bowls floating upstream. That’s why the oldest complete Greek tragic trilogy—The Oresteia—ends with the goddess Athena performing a deus ex machina to flip violence into reconciliation. And that’s why we can get an emotional uplift from pulp-fiction twists like Obi-Wan Kenobi ghosting back in the original Star Wars to guide Luke Skywalker on his Death Star attack: Use the Force. . .

The Hurt Delay

Recorded by Aristotle in Poeticssection 1449b, this invention’s blueprint is a plot that discloses to the audience that a character is going to get hurt—prior to the hurt actually arriving. The classic example is Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus, where we learn before Oedipus that he’s about to undergo the horror of discovering that he’s killed his father and married his mother. But it occurs in a range of later literature, from Shakespeare’s Macbeth to paperback bestsellers such as John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars.

Aristotle hypothesized that this invention could stimulate catharsis, alleviating the symptoms of post-traumatic fear. And modern research—including Aquila Theatre’s NEH-funded outreach to military veterans, in which I was fortunate to myself participate—has supported Aristotle’s conjecture. That research has revealed that, by stimulating an ironic experience of foreknowledge in our brain’s perspective-taking network, the Hurt Delay can increase our self-efficacy, a kind of mental strength that makes us better able to recover from experiences of trauma.

The Tale Told From Our Future

This invention was created simultaneously by many different global authors, among them the 13th-century West African griot poet who composed the Epic of Sundiata. Basically, a narrator uses a future-tense voice to address us in our present. As it goes in the Epic: . . .

Continue reading. There’s more, and it’s worth thinking about. We as individuals are made of cultural memes (IMO), and by introducing new memes into the mix that makes us up, we naturally are changed in various ways and degrees. Literature provides a focused way of doing that, especially since reading (or listening) engages the mind in ways that viewing does not quite do (since in reading or listening more is demanded of the imagination). Certainly drama can move us — where listen as well as view a sequence of scenes — but the power of books — read silently or listened to — seems more pointed.

Written by Leisureguy

15 March 2021 at 11:47 am

Posted in Daily life

Benefits of millets for diabetes

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I have ordered some millets (intact whole grain) to try (kodo, finger, and barnyard millets) after watching this previous video. I’ll be very interested to see their effect (if any) on my fasting blood glucose readings (see the video below). Note that it is important to order unpolished millet. Many millets sold for food are polished — bran removed and so not whole grain, and not so good for diabetics.

Update: There’s a video on YouTube where a random guy advises not to eat millets because they are goitrogenic and thus may cause thyroid problems in those who have an iodine deficiency. Also goitrogenic: flax, soy, broccoli, cauliflower, and others. That’s totally not a problem if you (say) eat a couple of sheets of nori a day or use iodized salt. See this video and this video.

Written by Leisureguy

15 March 2021 at 10:10 am

Wee Scot and La Toja, with the Merkur 37G

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Since today I used a shave stick, my pre-shave was trusty MR GLO rather than Grooming Dept Moisturizing Pre-Shave. La Toja produces an excellent lather, here ably assisted by Wee Scot, which held ample lather for the three passes I shave and for three passes more had I chose.

I do like to unleash a slant on a two-day stubble, and the 37G did a superb job, effortlessly removing roughness and nary a nick or even a threat of one. After thee passes, a good splash of La Toja’s Hombre aftershave finished the job.

My face feels ultra-smooth and soft. The day is sunny. Hope your day is also fine.

Written by Leisureguy

15 March 2021 at 9:42 am

Posted in Shaving

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