Later On

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

Archive for May 2021

What Renaissance?

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History as taught uses boundaries and classifications that to a great extent are arbitrary. For example, the date of Rome’s fall is often given as 395 AD, but people in 396 AD didn’t comment, “Wow! Did you notice how Rome fell last year?! That was something!” And there’s the quip about the doctoral student whose thesis was on the first 30 minutes of the Protestant Reformation.

Henrik Lagerlund,, professor of the history of philosophy at Stockholm University and member of the Rotman Institute of Philosophy in Canada, has an interesting article in Aeon, which notes that

He is series editor of Studies in the History of Philosophy of Mind (2002-); editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia of Medieval Philosophy (2010); and co-editor of Causal Powers in Science: Blending Historical and Conceptual Perspectives (2021). He is also the author of Skepticism in Philosophy: A Comprehensive, Historical Introduction (2020).

Lagerlund writes:

Renaissance philosophy started in the mid-14th century and saw the flowering of humanism, the rejection of scholasticism and Aristotelianism, the renewal of interest in the ancients, and created the prerequisites for modern philosophy and science. At least, this is the conventional story. But, in fact, there was no Renaissance. It is an invention by historians, a fiction made in order to tell a story – a compelling story about the development of philosophy, but nevertheless a story. In fact, all periodisation is ‘mere’ interpretation. This view is called historiographical nihilism.

Historiography was for a long time simply the writing of histories. Sweden, for example, had a royal historiographer, which was a formal appointment at the Royal Court. For a period in the late 17th century, the position was held by the philosopher Samuel Pufendorf (1632-94). He wrote several books in Latin on the history of Gustav II Adolf’s war efforts in Europe during the Thirty Years’ War, as well as one about Queen Christina’s abdication. Recently, historiography has become more a study of how history is written. In the second sense, it is the works of the historians and their methods that are the object of study, and not history itself. A historiographer doesn’t write histories, but develops theories about how history is written.

Nihilism, of course, has been given many meanings and has been interpreted in many different ways by philosophers throughout history. In the context of historiography, it means the rejection of, or – in a slightly weaker form – the scepticism towards historiographical concepts such as periodisation, but also other concepts pertaining to the development of a ‘theory’ of history; consequently, it implies that there can’t be only one method of history but many.

Historiographical nihilism has nothing against using periodisation in history and philosophy as a heuristic tool or for pedagogic purposes, but it reminds us that, as such, they’re always false, and when we study the details of history, it will become obvious that such grand statements as the outline of a period such as the Renaissance are futile and empty. The arbitrariness of assigning the term ‘Renaissance philosophy’ to a period in time can be easily seen if we have a look at the historical development of the term itself.

Renaissance philosophy is often presented as a conflict between humanism and scholasticism, or sometimes it’s simply described as the philosophy of humanism. This is a deeply problematic characterisation, partly based on the assumption of a conflict between two philosophical traditions – a conflict that never actually existed, and was in fact constructed by the introduction of two highly controversial terms: ‘humanism’ and ‘scholasticism’. A telling example of how problematic these terms are as a characterisation of philosophy in the 16th century can be found in Michel de Montaigne (1533-92). He was critical of a lot of philosophy that came before him, but he didn’t contrast what he rejected with some kind of humanism, and his sceptical essay An Apology for Raymond Sebond (1580) wasn’t directed at scholastic philosophy. In fact, both these terms were invented much later as a means to write about or introduce Renaissance philosophy. Persisting with this simplistic dichotomy only perverts any attempt at writing the history of 14th- to 16th-century philosophy.

One of the first attempts at writing a history of philosophy in a modern way was Johann Jacob Brucker’s five-volume Historia critica philosophiae (1742-44) published in Leipzig. He didn’t use the terms ‘Renaissance’ or ‘humanism’, but the term ‘scholastic’ was important for him. The narrative we still live with in philosophy, for the most part, was already laid down by him. It’s the familiar narrative that emphasises the ancient beginning of philosophy, followed by a collapse in the Middle Ages, and an eventual recovery of ancient wisdom in what much later became called ‘Renaissance philosophy’.

The US philosopher Brian Copenhaver, one of the foremost scholars of our time, develops this idea in his contribution to The Routledge Companion to Sixteenth-Century Philosophy (2017). In ‘Philosophy as Descartes Found It: Humanists v Scholastics?’, he explains how Brucker’s ideal was developed from Cicero and called by him ‘humanitatis litterae’ or ‘humanitatis studia’. For Brucker, these terms signified the works of the classical authors and the study of them. The Latin he used for the teaching of the classical authors was ‘humanior disciplina’. Brucker sees himself as completing a project he claims was started by Petrarch in the mid-14th century: a cultural renewal that would save philosophy from the darkness of scholasticism.

As we’ve come to know more about the period referred to by Brucker as the Middle Age, it has become clear that it’s simply wrong to call it a decline. It is instead extraordinarily rich philosophically, and should be celebrated as hugely innovative. It’s by no means a ‘dark age’. Quite the contrary. So the view that emerges in Brucker stems from a lack of knowledge and understanding of the philosophy of that time.

The use of the term ‘humanism’ to signify a coherent movement was first introduced in the 19th century, around the same time as the advent of the term ‘Renaissance’. Crucially, neither were initially used in connection with philosophy. Rather, they were used by art historians, especially . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

31 May 2021 at 11:14 am

Wood goes techno

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Sid Perkins writes in Scientific American:

Some varieties of wood, such as oak and maple, are renowned for their strength. But scientists say a simple and inexpensive new process can transform any type of wood into a material stronger than steel, and even some high-tech titanium alloys. Besides taking a star turn in buildings and vehicles, the substance could even be used to make bullet-resistant armor plates.

Wood is abundant and relatively low-cost—it literally grows on trees. And although it has been used for millennia to build everything from furniture to homes and larger structures, untreated wood is rarely as strong as metals used in construction. Researchers have long tried to enhance its strength, especially by compressing and “densifying” it, says Liangbing Hu, a materials scientist at the University of Maryland, College Park. But densified wood tends to weaken and spring back toward its original size and shape, especially in humid conditions.

Now, Hu and his colleagues say they have come up with a better way to densify wood, which they report in Nature. Their simple, two-step process starts with boiling wood in a solution of sodium hydroxide (NaOH) and sodium sulfite (Na2SO3), a chemical treatment similar to the first step in creating the wood pulp used to make paper. This partially removes lignin and hemicellulose (natural polymers that help stiffen a plant’s cell walls)—but it largely leaves the wood’s cellulose (another natural polymer) intact, Hu says.

The second step is almost as simple as the first: Compressing the treated wood until its cell walls collapse, then maintaining that compression as it is gently heated. The pressure and heat encourage the formation of chemical bonds between large numbers of hydrogen atoms and neighboring atoms in adjacent nanofibers of cellulose, greatly strengthening the material.

The results are impressive. The team’s compressed wood is three times as dense as the untreated substance, Hu says, adding that its resistance to being ripped apart is increased more than 10-fold. It also can become about 50 times more resistant to compression and almost 20 times as stiff. The densified wood is also substantially harder, more scratch-resistant and more impact-resistant. It can be molded into almost any shape. Perhaps most importantly, the densified wood is also moisture-resistant: In lab tests, compressed samples exposed to extreme humidity for more than five days swelled less than 10 percent—and in subsequent tests, Hu says, a simple coat of paint eliminated that swelling entirely.

A five-layer, plywoodlike sandwich of densified wood stopped simulated bullets fired into the material—a result Hu and his colleagues suggest could lead to low-cost armor. The material does not protect quite as well as a Kevlar sheet of the same thickness—but it only costs about 5 percent as much, he notes.

The team’s results “appear to  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

31 May 2021 at 11:06 am

The art of balancing stones

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Open Culture has a good post that includes these two brief videos:

Written by Leisureguy

31 May 2021 at 9:44 am

Posted in Art, Daily life, Video

“What I’ve Learned Teaching the Tulsa Race Massacre for Two Decades”

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Some of the ruins from the Tulsa Race Massacre in June 1921, when white vigilantes set the Oklahoma city’s African-American district ablaze.Credit…Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Hannibal B. Johnson writes in the NY Times:

About a decade ago, when a class of third, fourth and fifth grade students at Mayo Demonstration School in Tulsa, Okla., were studying the city’s history, their team of teachers gave them a special assignment: build a scale model of its once segregated Black business district, Greenwood, which was known as Black Wall Street.

The students spent days working on the project. They toured the real Greenwood neighborhood for inspiration, created facades of the businesses, labeled the streets. Once finished, they planned a memorial celebration and invited their parents to attend.

But the night before the celebration, the teachers quietly stayed behind. They doused the model with lighter fluid, set it on fire, and let it burn for a few minutes before putting it back.

The students were dismayed when they returned to school the next day. Who had destroyed their painstaking work, and why?

Their teachers had seized a teachable moment: This was their way of introducing, in an unforgettable way, the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. They asked their distraught pupils to imagine what it must have felt like to lose real homes, real schools — real people.

Years later, many of those former Mayo students say the project stands out as among the best lessons they ever had.

As a Black man who chairs the Education Committee for the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, I believe that all Americans need similarly powerful and profound experiences to stoke compassion and empathy, particularly as we grapple with issues of historical racial trauma.

The white mob that invaded the Greenwood District during the massacre obliterated Tulsa’s Black community: its property, possessions and people. As many as 300 people were killed; hundred more were injured. The losses, in today’s dollars, would run into the tens of millions, if not more.

Like a wound left untreated, years of silence and neglect left the damage of the massacre to fester. Its effects linger. Healing that history — owning and addressing it — is our present imperative. The centennial of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre presents an opportunity.

I moved to Tulsa, Okla., in the summer of 1984, fresh out of Harvard Law School and eager to settle into a law firm career in a midsize, cosmopolitan city close to my hometown.

Early on, when I began writing a guest editorial column for the local Black newspaper, The Oklahoma Eagle, the editor asked that I write a series about the Greenwood District.

I had grown up in Fort Smith, Ark., about 100 miles southeast of Tulsa, but I’d known nothing of Tulsa’s history — nothing about “Black Wall Street”; nothing about the massacre that was one of the worst incidents of racial domestic terrorism in our country’s history. But I soon learned, and though the story was horrifying, it drew me in.

As time passed, this lawyer by profession became a historian by trade. The newspaper series led me to write other articles and books, to teaching, and to lecturing about the events, which are emblematic of American history of that period — and the widespread historical racial trauma that still bedevils us.

When I think about how we can help people better understand the past, I hark back to the commitment and creativity of the Mayo school’s teachers. Their boldness so many years ago still holds a lesson for me, and anyone who is teaching the truth of our country’s history. Honesty and balance are our allies, as is the ability to give people the benefit of the doubt; to recognize that people do not know what they do not know. We must give people the opportunity to learn and grow, just like those teachers did.

It’s not easy. There will be resistance.

Just weeks ago, Gov. Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma signed House Bill 1775 into law, which bans the state’s schools from teaching about notions of racial superiority and racism, and even about concepts that might engender “discomfort, guilt, anguish.” It’s true that the bill does not prohibit the teaching of “concepts that align with the Oklahoma Academic Standards,” and the Tulsa Race Massacre is included in those standards. But having taught this history to both adults and children for more than two decades, I believe a chilling effect is likely. Some teachers may avoid the subject for fear of running afoul of the law; others may soft-pedal it.

Oklahoma is not alone. This bill is part of a national movement aimed at racial retrenchment, a backlash against the embrace of diversity, equity and inclusion. And this state is not alone, either, in the way this backlash threatens to prevent us from confronting and repairing the sins of the past. Though the Tulsa Race Massacre may be distinguished by its scale, American history between the end of Reconstruction and the victories of the civil rights movement is marked by gouts of mass anti-Black violence.

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

31 May 2021 at 9:35 am

Posted in Daily life, Government, History

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After the Rain with the 37G

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This week I’m going to use Grooming Dept Moisturizing Pre-Shave without first washing my face with MR GLO, and this morning I did not notice any difference between with MR GLO and without MR GLO.

The lather was from Declaration Groomings Milksteak formula, specifically After the Rain. The Edwin Jagger Synthetic is excellent and has a feel quite different from a Plissoft synthetic. Three passes of the Merkur 37G — which seemed more comfortable than The Holy Black’s clone, the SR-71 slant, but that may be due to just a variation in my perception. In any event, the shave was quite comfortable and the result totally satisfactory.

A splash of Chiseled Face’s After the Storm continued the theme and concluded the shave.

And for you tempeh fans, I have a batch in now in which I am using a chopped up piece of the old batch as a starter, rather than a packaged culture starter. We’ll know tomorrow how it works. And note the photo in the previous post: the views here are not just of flowers.

Written by Leisureguy

31 May 2021 at 9:09 am

Posted in Shaving

Mount Baker on Saturday

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We went for a drive Saturday because it was such a beautiful day, and I snapped this photo of Mount Baker through the car windshield. Click to enlarge. From Wikipedia:

Mount Baker (LummiQwú’mə KwəlshéːnNooksackKw’eq Smaenit or Kwelshán), also known as Koma Kulshan or simply Kulshan, is a 10,781 ft (3,286 m) active[9] glacier-covered andesitic stratovolcano[4] in the Cascade Volcanic Arc and the North Cascades of Washington in the United States. Mount Baker has the second-most thermally active crater in the Cascade Range after Mount St. Helens.[10] About 30 miles (48 km)[11] due east of the city of BellinghamWhatcom County, Mount Baker is the youngest volcano in the Mount Baker volcanic field.[5] While volcanism has persisted here for some 1.5 million years, the current volcanic cone is likely no more than 140,000 years old, and possibly no older than 80–90,000 years. Older volcanic edifices have mostly eroded away due to glaciation. . .

Written by Leisureguy

31 May 2021 at 6:53 am

Posted in Daily life

Answering the Techno-Pessimists (complete)

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Noah Smith has a long column spelling out reasons for his techno-optimism:

When I started this Substack six months ago, I made it explicitly a techno-optimist blogA number of my earliest posts were gushing with optimism over the magical new technologies of cheap solar, cheap batteries, mRNA vaccines, and so on. But a blogger at a blog called Applied Divinity Studies wrote a post demanding more rigor to accompany my rosy projections, and putting forth a number of arguments in favor of continued stagnation. Heavily paraphrased, these were:

  1. We’ve picked the low-hanging fruit of science
  2. Productivity has been slowing down, why should it accelerate now?
  3. Solar, batteries, and other green energy tech isn’t for real
  4. Life expectancy is stagnating

So I decided to write a series of posts addressing all of these arguments. Here’s the whole series in one post.

Part 1: Life Expectancy

Is life expectancy stagnating?

The blogger at Applied Divinity Studies posted the following graph: . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

30 May 2021 at 6:27 pm

Interesting finding: Voting is now driven by education, not class

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Read this post by Kevin Drum. Right-click image to open in a new tab, then click it to enlarge.

Written by Leisureguy

30 May 2021 at 3:54 pm

Posted in Education, Election

The casual cruelty of abortion bans

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Texas has a law that in effect prohibits a woman getting an abortion once she realizes she’s pregnant. From a report in the Texas Tribune:

Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law Wednesday a measure that would prohibit in Texas abortions as early as six weeks — before some women know they are pregnant — and open the door for almost any private citizen to sue abortion providers and others.

Ashley Smith posts on Facebook:

Let’s get info from the people who do this for a living. Sena Garven, an Ultrasound Technician says:

So here’s the thing:This Alabama-abortion-ban is a big deal, in a very bad way. Ohio, Missouri, Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas, Kentucky… I’m looking at you too, but we’re going to focus on Alabama. If you’ve been living under a rock, let me catch you up. Alabama Governor, Kay Ivey, just signed a total abortion ban into law, the most restrictive law in the United States. The law will ban abortion at every stage of pregnancy for every reason.

This is not okay, not reasonable, and definitely not acceptable.

If you don’t know me well, maybe you don’t know what I do for a living. I’m an ultrasound technologist. My colleagues and I look at babies in every stage of pregnancy every day. I also work in a high risk unit. My unit and I look at babies and mothers in varying states of mental and physical health. If you think an abortion ban sounds good, then I am a good person to ask about why it isn’t.

So let me tell you:

About the woman whose baby developed with no skull, and the brain just floating around. Her baby still had a heartbeat, and she would not be able to access abortion.

About the woman whose baby has a rare chromosomal condition called T13. Her baby’s organs grew outside its body, and had a cleft palate so bad that there was no nose. She would not be able to access abortion.

About the woman whose blood pressure is spiking so high that she passes out and is likely to stroke out before her baby is born. She would not be able to access abortion.

About the woman with such a severe form of hemophilia that giving birth will probably be fatal to both her and the baby. She would not be able to access abortion.

About the 13 year old whose school isn’t allowed to teach her science-based sex-education, so she didn’t know how to prevent pregnancy or STIs, but whose body is not developed enough to carry to term without being damaged. She would not be able to access abortion.

About the woman who was raped by a friend who wanted to “make sure she got home safely”. She would not be able to access abortion.

About the woman who has PCOS so only has periods every 3-4 months and can’t find a birth control that works for her. She would not be able to access abortion.

About the woman whose abusive partner removed the condom without telling her (it’s called stealthing, and it happens more frequently than you’d think). She would not be able to access abortion.

About the woman with the cornual ectopic pregnancy that isn’t reliably in the uterus, and could grow to a size that will kill her. She would not be able to access abortion.

About the woman who has two kids she can barely feed already, and whose birth control just increased in price. She would not be able to access abortion.

About the 18 year old who just started college and is going to be the first graduate of the family if she can just stay in school. She would not be able to access abortion.

About the woman whose IUD slipped slightly and is now endangering both her and the pregnancy it was designed to prevent. She would not be able to access abortion.

About the many, many, many women who just don’t want to be pregnant for reasons that are their own. Health issues, abusive relationships, financial issues, social issues. They would not be able to access abortion.

Some of these might sound like reasonable exceptions to you. And you would be correct. But no one should get to decide what happens with another person’s body, not even to save a life. You need written permission from a corpse before life saving organs can be taken from them. You cannot be forced to donate blood, no matter how dire the situation. And no one else should get to decide what a woman does with her body, end of story.

But it’s not the end of the story, is it? Because here’s the kicker: if you consider abortion to be a murder (and some people genuinely believe that!) then miscarriage can be second degree murder. And this is already happening all over the world – El Salvador, Ecuador, and the US of A. Women are being jailed for miscarriages and stillbirths because they might have done something to cause it. If you start down this path of jailing women and doctors for making healthcare decisions that affect no one but themselves, then you get women who don’t go to a doctor for a safe procedure and instead order pills online or use whatever metal instruments they can find to end their own pregnancies. Women who are honestly experiencing a miscarriage (which is medically called a spontaneous abortion, just fyi) will not go to their doctor for help. They will bleed out on their bathroom floors or die of septic shock. And I haven’t even talked about how this will disproportionately affect women of color, LGBTQA+ women, or trans men. This isn’t about the “sanctity of life” anymore. It’s about controlling women.

Sena Garven

Written by Leisureguy

30 May 2021 at 3:36 pm

What The Rise Of Amazon Has To Do With The Rise Of Trump

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Danielle Kurtzleben reports at NPR:

Amazon was already an economic behemoth before the start of the coronavirus pandemic. But when many Americans ramped up their shopping from home, the company saw explosive growth. In short, ProPublica journalist Alec MacGillis writes in Fulfillment, its fortunes diverged from the nation’s economic fortunes.

The book looks at the American economy through the lens of Amazon — the forces that made it, the trends it accelerated, and the inequality that he argues has resulted from the growth of Big Tech. The NPR Politics Podcast spoke to him about America’s “winning” and “losing” cities, what Amazon has to do with former President Donald Trump’s election, and how much it matters when consumers decide to boycott huge companies like Amazon.

Fulfillment was the latest selection in the NPR Politics Podcast Book Club. Join in the book conversations at the podcast’s Facebook group. The next discussion, in late June, will be about Elizabeth Hinton’s America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s.

The following are excerpts from the full interview with MacGillis, with answers edited for clarity and length. [Audio of the interview here. – LG]

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN: Your book isn’t exactly what I was expecting. I sort of went into it thinking, “this is going to be a book that’s, ‘Amazon [is] bad — it has bad labor practices and it hurts small business, etc.’ ” And while Amazon doesn’t come off as quite a hero, the book is much more about the American economy and American economic history through an Amazon lens. How would you describe what you were trying to do?

ALEC MACGILLIS: Yes, I actually came to Amazon secondarily within the book. I wanted to write a book for years now about regional disparities in America — the sort of growing regional inequality between a small set of what I call sort of winner-take-all cities, cities like Seattle, San Francisco, New York, Boston, D.C., and a much larger set of cities and towns that have that have really been falling behind.

We’ve always had richer and poorer places, but the gap between them has gotten a lot bigger in recent years, and it’s really unhealthy for the country. I especially wanted to write about it after Trump got elected; it was so clear just what a big role these regional disparities had in Trump’s election.

I chose Amazon as the frame for two different reasons. One is that the company is so ubiquitous now in our life, just so omnipresent, that it’s a handy thread to kind of just take you around the country and show what we’re becoming as a country in kind of a metaphorical kind of way. But it’s also a very handy frame for the story of racial inequality, because the company is itself helping drive these disparities. The regional concentration of wealth in our country is very closely tied to the concentration of our economy in certain companies.

DK: I’m not sure what the timeline was of you working on this book, but when you saw the big HQ2 contest happen — it’s like your book’s thesis on steroids. What was your reaction to Amazon holding essentially a Bachelor competition for where its next headquarters would be?

AM: It was quite serendipitous in a way that they embarked on this process while I was working on the book. I actually chose Washington, D.C. as one of the two “winner” cities that I was going to focus on before it got chosen by Amazon to be the second headquarters. [Amazon chose the D.C. suburb of Arlington, Va., as a new headquarters site in 2018.]

I knew that I wanted to focus on Seattle because it already was the Amazon headquarters. And I wanted to focus on Washington because it was so clear that Washington was another winner-take-all city that had been completely transformed by this kind of hyper-prosperity. And then, lo and behold, they go ahead and pick Washington as their second headquarters.

Another reason I wanted to have Washington as a second winner-take-all city is that I found the contrast between Washington and Baltimore so compelling for me.

The sort of spiritual heart of the book is the contrast between Washington [and] Baltimore, these two cities that are just 40 miles apart. I’ve moved between these cities now for the last 20 years, working and living in both places. And it’s just been so striking to watch the gap growing between them, and to me, just really upsetting and disheartening to watch that happening.

You have one city that’s become just incredibly unaffordable for so many people, where it costs, you know, seven, eight, nine hundred thousand dollars to buy a row house, if not more. All these people, longtime residents, mostly longtime black residents, being displaced by the thousands. And then just up the road in Baltimore, you have such deep population decline that you have rowhouses, that are going for seven or eight hundred thousand dollars down the road, being demolished by the hundreds.

That just is not good for people in either sort of city, and Amazon is really at the core of that. They chose Washington as their headquarters. It’s going to get only richer or more expensive.

DK: There’s so much to get at here in terms of the economic forces at work — the way that city government works, NIMBYism in action, de-unionization, companies getting preferential tax treatment, that sort of thing. How did we get here? Is there an original sin that sort of led to where we are, or is it just that we went from a goods-based to a tech-based economy, and this just sort of inevitably happened? . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by Leisureguy

30 May 2021 at 1:32 pm

Biden vs The Deep State: Hearing Aid Edition

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This post by Matt Stoller is of particular interest to me because I wear hearing aids (which cost me CAD 5100 — and have a lifespan of only around 5 years due to corrosion). Stoller writes:

One of the scams in American medicine is hearing aids, which can cost up to $5-10k apiece. That is an insane price, for what is essentially an adjustable microphone. There are roughly 40 million Americans with some form of hearing loss, which can lead to dementia, and many of them can’t afford hearing aids because of the ridiculously high price.

There is no reason for these prices except monopoly power. In this case, the monopoly is government-created through a requirement that hearing aids be accompanied by a prescription offered by an audiologist. Audiologists are necessary specialists in many cases of hearing loss, but not all. The requirement that every hearing aid must be a prescription hearing aid redounded to the benefit of audiologists, as well a small cartel of firms who made approved hearing aid devices that cost huge sums of money. (It’s a similar dynamic in glasses and contact lenses, which is why they are so much cheaper in Asia.)

Back in 2017, Elizabeth Warren and a group of Republican Senators passed a bill forcing the Food and Drug Administration to break this monopoly. The bill mandated the FDA allow over the counter hearing aids, which is to say, hearing aids that do not require a prescription and can be adjusted by the individual user. With smartphone technology, over the counter hearing aids have become far more practical, and so such a regulatory change was long overdue. The day the bill passed, shares of the firms that control the hearing aid market took a 10-20% dive, anticipating lots of competition. And sure enough, Bose announced a cheaper hearing aid in 2018.

But the FDA has been dragging its feet, missing the 2020 deadline in the bill to issue guidance for an over the counter hearing aid market. Bose, with special dispensation from the FDA, finally launched its $850 device, but is not allowed to market it as a hearing aid because regulators haven’t created the category yet.

It’s a frustrating situation. There will be lots of competition in this market, and prices will plummet. Indeed, they are plummeting already, but we should be further along by now.

Under Biden, I suspect it won’t be long before the FDA finally overcomes its inertia and acts. That said, the delay reflects a sloth and soft corruption across the U.S. government, where bureaucrats really dislike having to address market power problems because it conflicts with what they prefer doing, which is keeping things the way they are. You can also see this dynamic at the Federal Trade Commission, where the attitude towards critics is either condescension or ‘how dare they we’ve done great.’ But this bureaucratic sloth is everywhere. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

30 May 2021 at 1:12 pm

Amazon Prime Is an Economy-Distorting Lie

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Matt Stoller writes in BIG:

Last week, the Washington, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine filed an antitrust suit against Amazon. The point of the suit is simple, but not stated explicitly – to unravel Amazon Prime, which at this point has at least 126 million members, roughly the same number of households in America (128.5 million).

I’ve read a bunch of the coverage, but no one has hit that point yet. So that’s what I’m going to write about today.

“Happily and Deeply Intertwined”

It’s a fascinating moment in the political fight over big tech. On the one hand, the four dominant tech firms have never been more powerful or profitable. On the other hand, there is increasingly a consensus that our political leaders have to do *something* about their power. As a result, Google and Facebook are facing government litigation, and Apple has been fighting off legislative attempts to reign in app stores. Nothing has yet breached the castle walls of any of these firms, but we’re getting closer all the time.

This week, it was Amazon’s turn. On Wednesday, Washington, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine alleged that Amazon was using its power to manipulate online retail prices. But there is something a bit different about this case than the ones targeting Google and Facebook. As Shira Ovide put it in the New York Times, Racine is making the claim that Amazon isn’t just crushing competitors, but *raising* consumer prices in the process.

It’s a longstanding claim by some of the independent merchants who sell on Amazon’s digital mall that the company punishes them if they list their products for less on their own websites or other shopping sites like Those sellers are effectively saying that Amazon dictates what happens on shopping sites all over the internet, and in doing so makes products more expensive for all of us.

The reason this case is considered important is because higher consumer prices fit within the orbit of the consensus for antitrust. While there are possible problems with the case, Racine isn’t going outside the orthodoxy of modern antitrust the way enforcers are with the Facebook case. Against Facebook, enforcers are trying to claim that Facebook is engaged in more surveillance than consumers would otherwise prefer, and that this choice is akin to a price hike. That’s true, but it’s a somewhat novel antitrust claim. In this case, Racine is saying Amazon raised consumer prices using monopoly power. This case is not pushing the boundaries of antitrust law, it’s straightforward consumer harm.

That said, I think there’s another important aspect of this case that has gone largely unmentioned, which is that the Amazon Prime program, the keystone that holds Amazon’s dominance over retail together, is effectively being subsidized by the scheme Racine laid out. If you get rid of Amazon’s ability to force sellers to keep their prices high, then Prime, and its promise of free shipping, falls apart, as does much of the Amazon Marketplace business model. Other parts of Prime, such as Amazon’s ventures in Hollywood (like its recently announced purchase of MGM), may also not make sense if Racine wins.

To understand why, we have to start with the idea of free shipping. Free shipping is the God of online retail, so powerful that France actually banned the practice to protect its retail outlets. Free shipping is also the backbone of Prime. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos knew that the number one pain point for online buyers is shipping – one third of shoppers abandon their carts when they see shipping charges. Bezos helped invent Prime for this reason, saying the point of Prime was to use free shipping “to draw a moat around our best customers.” The goal was to get people used to buying from Amazon, knowing they wouldn’t have to worry about shipping charges. Once Amazon had control of a large chunk of online retail customers, it could then begin dictating terms of sellers who needed to reach them.

This became clear as you read Racine’s complaint. One of the most important sentences in the AG’s argument is a quote from Bezos in 2015 where he alludes to this point. In discussing the firm’s logistics service that is the bedrock of its free shipping promise, Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA), he said, “FBA is so important because it is glue that inextricably links Marketplace and Prime. Thanks to FBA, Marketplace and Prime are no longer two things. Their economics . . . are now happily and deeply intertwined.” Amazon wants people to see Prime, FBA, and Marketplace as one integrated mega-product, what Bezos likes to call ‘a flywheel,’ to disguise the actual monopolization at work. (Indeed, any time you hear the word ‘flywheel’ relating to Amazon, replace it with ‘monopoly’ and the sentence will make sense.)

Why would FBA be the glue here between Prime and Marketplace? Shipping and logistics is extremely expensive, far more than the membership fees charged by Prime; Amazon spent $37.9 billion on shipping costs in 2019, and much more in 2020. No matter how amazing your logistics operation, you can’t just offer free shipping to customers without having someone pay for it. Amazon found its solution in the relationship between Prime and Marketplace. It forced third party sellers to de facto pay for its shipping costs, by charging them commissions that reach as high as 45%, according to Racine, merely to access Amazon customers. That’s nearly half the revenue of a seller going to Amazon! And this high fee isn’t just because fulfillment or selling online is expensive; Walmart charges significantly less for its fulfillment services and access charges to its online market, and eBay’s market access fees are also much lower than Amazon’s.

(A brief word on numbers. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance found a slightly different number for Amazon’s seller charges, 30% for FBA plus 5-10% for seller fees, while agreeing with Racine on significant price hikes from 2014-2020, what is known as ‘recoupment’ in predatory pricing cases. Another firm calculated the amount paid to Amazon at 27% for an average seller in 2019, and found that number had jumped 42% over five years. One reason we don’t know the actual number Amazon charges third party sellers is because Amazon is hiding this data from investors and fighting the SEC to do so.)

How does Amazon force sellers to pay such high fees? Monopolization! The scheme itself is subtle, and requires a bit of explanation. Nearly anyone may list their wares on Amazon, but the ability to actually get your wares in front of customers is dependent on being able to ‘win the Buy Box,’ which is that white box on the right-side that you get to after you search for an item on Amazon. Over 80% of Amazon purchases go through the Buy Box. The Buy Box is the lever Amazon uses to control access to customers. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Later in the article:

Amazon has between a half and three quarters of all customers online, so not being able to sell on Amazon is a nonstarter for brands and merchants. As a result, to keep selling on Amazon, merchants are forced to inflate their prices everywhere, with the 35-45% commission baked into the consumer price regardless of whether they are selling through Amazon. When you buy on Walmart, or at some other retail outlet, or even direct from the brand, even if you aren’t paying Amazon directly, the price reflects the high cost of selling on Amazon. As a result, sellers and brands tend to raise their prices across the board so that Amazon users can’t find better deals anywhere else. Prime thus looks like a good deal, but only because sellers are prohibited from offering customers a better one anywhere else.

. . . To most consumers, Prime looks like a lovely convenience offering free shipping, and it’s hard to find better prices elsewhere. But the reason you can’t find better prices isn’t because Amazon sells stuff cheap, but because it forces everyone else to sell stuff at higher prices. All of this is done so Amazon can continue to offer ‘free shipping’ while using access to its hundred million plus Prime members as a cudgel to force third party sellers to pay high fees.

Amazon also uses its bazooka of cash from Prime members paying high consumer prices, laundered through third party sellers, to distort industries across the economy.

Written by Leisureguy

30 May 2021 at 12:11 pm

How to Ask Useful Questions

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Josh Kaufman has a useful post:

Asking useful questions is a skill, and it requires practice.

Inexperienced or naive questions sound like this:

“Hello! [Insert life story.] What should I do?”

Or this:

“I’m thinking about [action]. What do you think?”

Questions like these make a few critical mistakes:

  • They don’t include the context necessary for the recipient to answer the question.
  • They don’t respect the recipient’s time, energy, attention, or competing demands.
  • They implicitly transfer responsibility for the End Result from the questioner to the recipient.

As a result, questions like these go unanswered due to Friction – answering them would take too much effort, so the recipient doesn’t bother.

If you want useful answers, learn to ask better questions. In most cases, you’ll need to tailor the form of the question to the type of information you’re seeking.

Asking for Information

“I’m interested in more information about A, and I found you via B. Are you the best person to ask about this?”

Keys to information-seeking questions:

  • Be specific about the information you’re looking to obtain.
  • Give context by referencing why you’re contacting them and how you found their contact information.
  • Make it easy for the recipient to refer you to the best resource as quickly as possible, which will save you both time.

Asking for Clarification

“Based on our conversation about A, it sounds like B is the case. Is that correct?”

Keys to clarification questions:

  • Include a short summary of the topic for context.
  • “It sounds like…” leaves room for clarification without being confrontational.
  • “Is that correct?” (or a close variant) is clear, concise, direct, and polite.

Asking for Help

“I’m trying to A, and I’m having trouble. So far, I’ve tried B with result C, and D with result E. Now I’m stuck. Any guidance?”

Keys for asking for assistance:

  • Be clear and precise about what you’re trying to do.
  • Give context by including what you’ve tried so far, which makes it clear that you’re doing your own work and not asking the recipient to solve your problems for you.
  • “Any guidance?” or “What should I try next?” sets up the recipient as the expert and doesn’t transfer responsibility for the problem.

Asking for Agreement . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

30 May 2021 at 11:07 am

Dwarf pansy blooms on tiny island after 16-year absence

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Patrick Barkham has a nice short piece in the Guardian on the flower pictured above. I wonder whether establishing a colony of rabbits on the island might work to keep foliage in check.

Written by Leisureguy

30 May 2021 at 9:45 am

Posted in Daily life

When Earth was in beta

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TierZoo is a YouTube series that presents the history of life’s evolution on Earth presented as a giant multiplayer video game. Real lifeforms are presented as “builds” and “upgrades.” Entertaining and will appeal to those who have experience in playing video games. Here’s the intorduction:

And here’s a sample video on the Cat dynasty tier list:

And here’s an investigation of a specific build:

Written by Leisureguy

30 May 2021 at 9:02 am

Posted in Evolution, Games, Science, Video

Text message from The Eldest

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Written by Leisureguy

29 May 2021 at 6:51 pm

Posted in Cats, Daily life

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US Soldiers Expose Nuclear Weapons Secrets Via Flashcard Apps

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It seems as though society has lost control of technology, with technology no longer serving us so much as undermining us. Foeke Postma writes at Bellingcat:

For US soldiers tasked with the custody of nuclear weapons in Europe, the stakes are high. Security protocols are lengthy, detailed and need to be known by heart. To simplify this process, some service members have been using publicly visible flashcard learning apps — inadvertently revealing a multitude of sensitive security protocols about US nuclear weapons and the bases at which they are stored.

While the presence of US nuclear weapons in Europe has long been detailed by various leaked documents, photos and statements by retired officials, their specific locations are officially still a secret with governments neither confirming nor denying their presence.

As many campaigners and parliamentarians in some European nations see it, this ambiguity has often hampered open and democratic debate about the rights and wrongs of hosting nuclear weapons.

However, the flashcards studied by soldiers tasked with guarding these devices reveal not just the bases, but even identify the exact shelters with “hot” vaults that likely contain nuclear weapons.

They also detail intricate security details and protocols such as the positions of cameras, the frequency of patrols around the vaults, secret duress words that signal when a guard is being threatened and the unique identifiers that a restricted area badge needs to have.

Like their analogue namesakes, flashcard learning apps are popular digital learning tools that show questions on one side and answers on the other. By simply searching online for terms publicly known to be associated with nuclear weapons, Bellingcat was able to discover cards used by military personnel serving at all six European military bases reported to store nuclear devices.

Experts approached by Bellingcat said that these findings represented serious breaches of security protocols and raised renewed questions about US nuclear weapons deployment in Europe.

Dr Jeffrey Lewis, founding publisher of Arms Control and Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said that the findings showed a “flagrant breach” in security practices related to US nuclear weapons stationed in NATO countries.

He added that “secrecy about US nuclear weapons deployments in Europe does not exist to protect the weapons from terrorists, but only to protect politicians and military leaders from having to answer tough questions about whether NATO’s nuclear-sharing arrangements still make sense today. This is yet one more warning that these weapons are not secure.”

Hans Kristenssen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, broadly agreed and said that safety is provided by “effective security, not secrecy.”

Some flashcards uncovered during the course of this investigation had been publicly visible online as far back as 2013. Other sets detailed processes that were being learned by users  until at least April 2021. It is not known whether secret phrases, protocols or other security practices have been altered since then.

However, all flashcards described within this article appear to have been taken down from the learning platforms on which they appeared after Bellingcat reached out to NATO and the US Military for comment prior to publication. A spokesperson for the Dutch Ministry of Defence stated that . . .

Continue reading. There’s more

For what it’s worth, my favorite flashcard program is Anki.

Written by Leisureguy

29 May 2021 at 11:43 am

What Ancient Rome Tells Us About Today’s Senate

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James Fallows has a good column in the Atlantic. He writes:

The U.S. Senate’s abdication of duty at the start of this Memorial Day weekend, when 11 Senators (nine of them Republican) did not even show up to vote on authorizing an investigation of the January 6 insurrection, makes the item below particularly timely.

Fifty-four Senators (including six Republicans) voted to approve the investigative commission. Only 35 opposed it.

But in the institutionalized rule-of-the-minority that is the contemporary Senate, the measure “failed.” The 54 who supported the measure represented states totaling more than 190 million people. The 35 who opposed represented fewer than 105 million. (How do I know this? You take the list of states by population; you match them to Senators; you split the apportioned population when a state’s two senators voted in opposite ways; and you don’t count population for the 11 Senators who didn’t show up.)

The Senate was, of course, not designed to operate on a pure head-count basis. But this is a contemporary, permanent imbalance beyond what the practical-minded drafters of the Constitution would have countenanced.

Why “contemporary”? Because the filibuster was not part of the Constitutional balance-of-power scheme. As Adam Jentleson explains in his authoritative book Kill Switch, “real” filibusters, with Senators orating for hours on end, rose to prominence as tools of 20th-century segregationists. Their 21st-century rebirth has been at the hands of Mitch McConnell, who made them routine as soon as the Republicans lost control of the Senate in 2006.

The essay below, by a long-time analyst and practitioner of governance named Eric Schnurer, was written before the Senate’s failure on May 28, 2021. But it could have been written as a breaking-news analysis of the event.

Several days ago I wrote a setup for Schnurer’s essay, which I include in abbreviated form below. Then we come to his argument.

Back in 2019, I did an article for the print magazine on Americans’ long-standing obsession with the decline-and-fall narrative of Rome. Like many good headlines, the one for this story intentionally overstated its argument. The headline was, “The End of the Roman Empire Wasn’t That Bad.” Of course it was bad! But the piece reviewed scholarship about what happened in the former Roman provinces “after the fall,” and how it prepared the way for European progress long after the last rulers of the Western Empire had disappeared.

Many people wrote in to agree and, naturally, to disagree. The online discussion begins here. One long response I quoted was from my friend Eric Schnurer. I had met him in the late 1970s when he was a college intern in the Carter-era White House speechwriting office where I worked. Since then he has written extensively (including for The Atlantic) and consulted on governmental and political affairs.

In his first installment, in the fall of 2019, Schnurer emphasized the parts of the America-and-Rome comparison he thought were most significant—and worrisome. Then last summer, during the election campaign and the pandemic lockdown, he extended the comparison in an even-less-cheering way.

Now he is back, with a third and more cautionary extension of his argument. I think it’s very much worth reading, for its discourses on speechwriting in Latin, among other aspects. I’ve slightly condensed his message and used bold highlighting as a guide to his argument. But I turn the floor over to him. He starts with a precis of his case of two years ago:

I contrasted Donald Trump’s America then—mid-2019—with the Rome of the Gracchus brothers, a pair of liberal social reformers who were both assassinated. Of course, the successive murders of two progressive brothers at the top rung of national power would seem to suggest the Kennedys more than, say, Bernie Sanders and Elisabeth Warren, to whom I compared them. But that’s to say that no historic parallels are perfect: One could just as fruitfully (or not) compare the present moment to America in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a period we managed to make it through without ultimately descending into civil war.

Yet, historical events can be instructive, predictive—even prescriptive—when not fully de-scriptive of current times and customs.

What concerned me about the Roman comparison was, I noted at the time, “the increasing economic inequality, the increasing political polarization, the total eclipse of ‘the greater good’ by what we’d call ‘special interests,’ the turn toward political violence, all of which led eventually to the spiral of destructive civil war, the collapse of democracy (such as it was), and the wholesale replacement of the system with the imperial dictatorship: Looks a lot like the present moment to me.”

In the 1960s, such developments were in the future, although perhaps apparent then to the prescient …

The question that raised was the extent to which the tick-tock of republican decline in Rome could provide a chronometer something like the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ famous “doomsday clock”:

If we could peg late summer 2019 to the Gracchi era—roughly up to 120 B.C.—with the fall of the Republic equated to Julius Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon and subsequent assumption of the dictatorship (roughly speaking, 50 B.C.), we could set our republican sundial at, more-or-less, “seventy years to midnight.” But time under our atomic-era clocks moves more quickly than in ancient Roman sundials, so how could we equate a seventy-year margin on a sundial to our own distance from a possible republican midnight?  We’d need another contemporary comparison to understand not just where we stood, but also how fast we were moving.

A year later I wrote about the developments of 2020 that seemed to move us closer to midnight. I compared last year’s Trump to Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix: Despite common descriptions of Trump as a would-be Caesar, Sulla is, in terms of temperament and background, a closer match to The Donald: “Sulla, a patrician who indulged a fairly libertine, sometimes vulgar, lifestyle even throughout his several marriages, was nonetheless the champion of the economic, social and political conservatives.”

Of perhaps greater similarity—and great concern, in my view—was the increasing hollowing out of the Roman state from a “common good” into simply another form of private corporation benefiting the already-wealthy and powerful who could grab hold of its levers and hive off its components … After a tumultuous reign, Sulla retreated to his villa at Mar-a-Lago, er, Puteoli, and Rome fell into a period of relative quiescence.

That took us from the 120’s B.C. in July 2019 to roughly 80 B.C. by August 2020:  By that measure, our republican doomsday clock had lurched forward about 40 Roman years—a little more than halfway to midnight—in roughly a year …

But as U.S. politics fell into a period of relative quiescence lately, with Trump ensconced quietly at Puteoli—er, Mar-a-Lago—and a relatively calming, moderate and institutionalist Everyman (if no Cicero …) installed in the White House, I didn’t think much further about the Roman comparison.

That is, until last week, when . . .

Continue reading. There much more.

Schnurer concludes:

The conspiracy ultimately collapsed and was defeated, but not without further militant uprisings aided by Rome’s enemies abroad. Catiline, a demagogue but in the end not the best of politicians or insurrectionists, was killed. Democracy, and the old order of things, seemed to have survived, and matters returned to a more-or-less normal state under Cicero’s stable hand.

But it turned out to be a brief reprieve. The rot had already set in. What mattered most in the long-term was not the immediate threat of the insurrectionists, but rather the complacency, if not sympathy, of the other ostensibly-republican leaders. It revealed the hollowness of not just their own souls but also the nation’s.

Another 10 months in America, another 15 years forward on the Roman sundial. At this rate, we’re about a year before midnight.

Written by Leisureguy

29 May 2021 at 10:45 am

A Number Theorist Who Connects Math to Other Creative Pursuits

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In Quanta Steve Nadis interviews Jordan Ellenberg:

here are many different pathways into mathematics,” said Jordan Ellenberg, a mathematician at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “There is the stereotype that interest in math displays itself early. That is definitely not true in general. It’s not the universal story — but it is my story.”

That account was backed up by a biostatistician at the University of Pennsylvania — his mother, Susan Ellenberg. “Jordan recognized numbers before he could walk,” she said. “We’d be going someplace with him, and he’d start to call out numbers, and his father and I would have to figure out where he was seeing them. Each night, he’d ask me to teach him something new about math.” When he was in second grade, a local teacher began taking him through the high school math curriculum. Ever since, he’s been preoccupied with mathematics — though not exclusively so.

After graduating from Harvard University in 1993, Ellenberg completed a one-year master’s program in fiction writing at Johns Hopkins University, where he wrote a novel that was published a decade later, titled The Grasshopper King. But he always felt that he would eventually return to mathematics, and in 1994 he entered a doctoral program back at Harvard, pursuing research under the supervision of Barry Mazur, a number theorist.

“Barry was a great adviser and a very learned guy,” Ellenberg said. “One of the things he showed me is that it’s OK to be interested in things other than math. Through him I saw that being in a university isn’t just about being in the math department, but rather being part of a whole world of scholarship.”

Ellenberg has taken that view to heart, finding mathematics to explore in everything from internet fads to voting rights. He has interacted and even collaborated with colleagues from many different fields and departments, while keeping up his writing — academic papers for math journals, and popular articles for newspapers and magazines. In 2001, he started writing a column for Slate called “Do the Math.” Many entries are not typical mathematician fare, such as “Algebra for Adulterers,” “Cooking the Books on Virginity,” and “What Broadway Musicals Tell Us About Creativity.”

His latest book, Shape, is all about geometry — though, as you might expect, it departs significantly from the traditional geometry of your high school days. Proving the congruence of triangles and the like, he said, bears little resemblance to the work of modern geometry. In the book’s introduction, Ellenberg confesses that it was a curious subject for him to have taken up: “Reader, let me be straight with you about geometry: at first I didn’t care for it.”

Quanta spoke with Ellenberg earlier this month about geometry, electoral math and creativity. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

When did you first realize there was something special about math?

When I was 6 years old, I was in the living room, gazing at the rectangular pattern of holes on a speaker where the sound comes through. I noticed there were 6 rows of 8 holes and, equivalently, 8 columns of 6 holes. I knew that 6 × 8 equals 8 × 6. But at that moment, I grasped that this was a fact about the world, not just a fact from the multiplication tables. Mathematical knowledge, I realized, was something that existed on its own — something you could directly apprehend — and not just something you were taught.

That, for me, offered an early glimmer of the power of mathematical thinking — and the emotional force that comes with it. As teachers, we aspire for every kid to have that kind of experience of mathematical knowledge.

Mathematics is a diverse field. How did you decide to focus on number theory?

I went to graduate school not really knowing what I would work on. It was just after Andrew Wiles proved Fermat’s Last Theorem. There was so much energy and enthusiasm about number theory at that time. It seemed to be the most exciting thing going on.

Students often ask me: “How do I figure out what area of math is right for me?” I tell them that it’s all interesting. Every field of research has deep wonderful ideas. You just have to see what you fall into. And wherever you fall, there is excitement to be found.

Of all the possible subjects in math, why did you write a book on geometry, especially when you admit to having a mental block when it comes to visualizing things?

It’s true, I didn’t really take to high school geometry. There was a certain style — the Euclidean “theorem, statement, proof” approach — that did not vibe with me. That approach is certainly a part of geometry, but it happens to be a tiny part.

It’s also true that I have difficulty with some geometric things. For example, when you have to put a credit card into a machine, I can’t follow the diagram and instead end up trying all four possibilities. If I’m on the first floor of my house and am asked about the layout of things in the room above me, I can’t really picture that. But it turns out that those skills aren’t so important when it comes to doing geometry.

Even though I steered clear of geometry when I was young, I later learned that you can’t maintain a dislike for any part of mathematics because all of its branches touch each other.

You also like to find mathematical connections even among ideas that don’t seem too mathematical, like pondering how many holes a straw has. Why bother answering that?

Well, it’s kind of an internet craze [with more than 60 million hits on Google]. It goes viral all the time, and you may wonder why people are so captivated by such a weird question. I’d say it’s actually a deep mathematical question, not a triviality nor a cut-and-dried matter. You could say one hole or two holes — or zero holes if you think about taking a rectangular piece of paper (with no holes in it) and rolling it up. It’s a way of getting people to understand topology and homology groups, which involves classifying objects based on the number of holes they have.

It turns out there is a mathematical answer to this: Topologists would say the straw has just one hole. But the point is not just to give people an answer, but rather to show them why it’s an interesting problem. Although this question is settled, many of the things that are now settled in mathematics may not have been settled 100 or so years ago. People have fought hard over almost every single conceptual advance.

In 2019, you and 10 other mathematicians signed a brief about gerrymandering that was submitted to the Supreme Court. What does math have to do with that? . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by Leisureguy

29 May 2021 at 9:30 am

Posted in Books, Daily life, Math

‘Centrism’: an insidious bias favoring an unjust status quo

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Rebecca Solnit writes in The Guardian:

The idea that all bias is some deviation from an unbiased center is itself a bias that prevents pundits, journalists, politicians and plenty of others from recognizing some of the most ugly and impactful prejudices and assumptions of our times. I think of this bias, which insists the center is not biased, not afflicted with agendas, prejudices and destructive misperceptions, as status-quo bias. Underlying it is the belief that things are pretty OK now, that the people in charge should be trusted because power confers legitimacy, that those who want sweeping change are too loud or demanding or unreasonable, and that we should just all get along without looking at the skeletons in the closet and the stuff swept under the rug. It’s mostly a prejudice of people for whom the system is working, against those for whom it’s not.

I saw a tweet the other day that said the Secret Service and US Capitol police must have been incompetent or complicit to be blindsided by the 6 January insurrection. The writer didn’t seem to grasp the third option: that the Secret Service was unable to see past the assumptions that middle-aged conservative white men don’t pose a threat to democracy and the rule of law, that elected officials in powerful places weren’t whipping up a riot or worse, that danger meant outsiders and others. A decade ago, when I went to northern Japan for the first anniversary of the Great Tohuko Earthquake and tsunami, I was told that the 100ft-high wave of black water was so inconceivable a sight that some people could not recognize it and the danger it posed. Others assumed this tsunami would be no bigger than those in recent memory and did not flee high enough. A lot of people died of not being able to see the unanticipated.

People fail to recognize things that do not fit into their worldview, which is why those in power have not adequately responded to decades of terrorism by white men – anti-reproductive-rights-driven killings, racial violence in churches, mosques, synagogues and elsewhere, homophobia and transphobia, the pandemic-scale misogynist violence behind a lot of mass shootings, attacks on environmentalists, and white supremacy in the ranks of the police and the military. Finally, this year the US attorney general, Merrick Garland, called this terrorism by its true name and identified it as “the most dangerous threat to our democracy”. The constant assumption has been that crime and trouble comes from outsiders, from “them”, not “us”, which is why last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests were constantly portrayed by conservatives and sometimes the mainstream as far more violent and destructive than they were and the right has had such an easy time demonizing immigrants.

What violence and destruction did take place in or adjacent to Black Lives Matter protests was often the work of the right wing. That includes the murder of a guard at a federal court in Oakland, allegedly by an air force sergeant and Boogaloo Boy, while a BLM protest was going on nearby. It also reportedly includes some of the arson in Minneapolis shortly after George Floyd’s murder, as well as attacks on protesters. USA Today reported 104 such attacks by cars driven into crowds, many of them apparently politically motivated.

No one has ever loved the status quo more than the editorial board at the New York Times, which recently composed an editorial declaring it a misstep for “the city’s Pride organizers … to reduce the presence of law enforcement at the celebration, including a ban on uniformed police and corrections officers marching as groups until at least 2025”. They found a lesbian of color who is also a cop and focused on this individual feeling “devastated”, rather than the logic behind the decision. Pride celebrates the uprising against longtime police violence and criminalization of queerness at the Stonewall Bar in 1969.

Police officers are in no way banned from participating out of uniform, if they so desire, but that’s not enough for these “can’t we all get along” editorialists, who also wrote: “But barring LGBTQ officers from marching is a politicized response and is hardly worthy of the important pursuit of justice for those persecuted by the police.” You want to shout that the whole parade is political, because persecution and inequality have made being LGBTQ political, and the decision to include the police would be no less political than to exclude them. And who decides what’s worthy? The idea that there is some magically apolitical state all should aspire to is key to this bias and to why it refuses to recognize itself as a bias. It believes it speaks from neutral ground, which is why it forever describes a landscape of mountains and chasms as a level playing field.

The status-quo bias is something I’ve encountered over and over again as gender violence, particularly as the refusal or inability to recognize that a high-status man or boy, be he film mogul or high-school football player, can also be a vicious criminal. Those who cannot believe the charges, no matter how credible, often dismiss and blame the victim instead (or worse: reporting a rape too often leads to death threats and other forms of harassment and intimidation intended to make an uncomfortable truth go away). Society has a marked failure of imagination when it comes to grasping that such predators treat their low-status victims in secret differently than their high-status peers in public, and that failure of imagination denies the existence of such inequality even as it perpetrates it.

It’s a failure born out of undue respect for the powerful. (Here I think of all the idiots who kept discovering “the moment Trump became presidential” over and over again, unable to comprehend that his incompetence was as indelible as his corruption and malice, perhaps because their respect for the institution inexorably extended to the grifter who barged into it.) Centrist bias is institutional bias, and all our institutions historically perpetrated inequality. To recognize this is to delegitimize them; to deny it is to have it both ways – think yourself on the side of goodness while insisting no sweeping change is overdue. A far-right person might celebrate and perpetrate racism or police brutality or rape culture; a moderate might just play down its impact, past or present.

To recognize the pervasiveness of sexual abuse is to have to listen to children as well as adults, women as well as men, subordinates as well as bosses: it’s to upend the old hierarchies of who should be heard and trusted, to break the silences that protect the legitimacy of the status quo. More than 95,000 people filed claims in the sexual-abuse lawsuit against the Boy Scouts of America, and what it took to keep all those children quiet while all those hundreds of thousands of assaults took place is a lot of unwillingness to listen and to shatter faith in an institution that was itself so much part of the status quo (and in many ways an indoctrination system for it).

Centrists in the antebellum era were apathetic or outright resistant to ending slavery in the US and then in the decades before 1920 to giving women the vote. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

29 May 2021 at 9:25 am

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