Later On

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

Archive for May 2021

Conservative critics of the CIA think that “excellence” and “diversity” are opposites

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As Susan M. Gordon, deputy director of national intelligence from 2017 to 2019, points out, we see a lot of blatant bias from conservatives. She writes in the Washington Post:

A recent installment of the CIA’s social media series, “Humans of CIA”, depicted a young (to me, at least) Latina telling her story as she walked the sacred halls of Langley. It is part of the Agency’s effort to share real stories and show the many faces, perspectives, and experiences of today’s intelligence officers. Their aim is to connect to America, and if they’re lucky, attract new talent.

Well, you would have thought the free world had come to an end.

And not because trolls on Twitter had lots of inane comments about the officer herself or the sad decline of the Agency because it aspired to be an inclusive, diverse organization. (Without trolls and inane comments, there would be no Twitter.)

What was shocking — more exhausting than shocking, really — was the number of notable leaders who decided to weigh in with similar commentary.

Mike Pompeo — a former CIA director, no less — tweeted this spectacular non sequitur: “The collection of incredibly talented patriots serving at the CIA is what makes it the best spy agency in the world — and we must continue to recruit the best and brightest. We can’t afford to risk our national security to appease some liberal, woke agenda.”

His implication, of course was that women such as the one in the video do not represent the best and brightest — even though she is definitionally one of the “talented patriots” he longs for. Not to be outdone, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) tweeted: “If you’re a Chinese communist, or an Iranian Mullah, or Kim Jong Un . . . would this scare you? We’ve come a long way from Jason Bourne.”

When reminded that Bourne was, um, fictional, Cruz clarified: “My point is that CIA agents should be bad-asses — not woke, fragile flowers.”

This is what systemic bias sounds like, for all those who don’t know or question its existence. It is the suggestion that there is only one look to excellence, only one kind of experience of value, and that any change of the status quo — or the Hollywood-fed stereotype — must mean a reduction in standards. It is also how power keeps power.

And it’s not just in intelligence that the battle is still being fought. In March, when the Air Force and the Army made long overdue changes in uniforms and personal (hair) standards, Fox News personality Tucker Carlson used his on-air time to opine, “So we’ve got new hairstyles and maternity flight suits. Pregnant women are going to fight our wars. It’s a mockery of the U.S. military.” He does know that women have served in the military since its inception and in combat for decades, right? Our military’s record of achievement is their record of achievement.

As a woman, I am plenty familiar with the false choice between diversity or excellence; the seemingly legitimate argument of “merit-based” selection that advances the notion that if organizations increase diversity and expand inclusion, they sacrifice mission or quality. Nothing could be further from my experience during my more than 30 years in the intelligence community, no matter how many times it is stated or implied. In reality, the smart move is to choose both. Inclusion and excellence. Diversity and mission. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 May 2021 at 4:11 pm

Safety of Probiotics

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Dr. Michael Greger has an interesting post on probiotics:

In certain medical conditions, probiotic supplements may actually make things worse.

If you’ve ever made sauerkraut at home, you know you don’t have to add any kind of starter bacteria to get it to ferment, because the lactic acid-producing bacteria are already present on the cabbage leaves themselves out in the field. This suggests that raw fruits and vegetables may not only be a source of prebiotics—that is, fiber—but also a source of “novel” probiotics. 

As I discuss in my video Culture Shock: Questioning the Efficacy and Safety of Probiotics, researchers have since worked on characterizing these bacterial communities and found two interesting results. First, “the communities on each produce type were significantly distinct from one another.” Indeed, the tree fruits harbor different bacteria than veggies on the ground, and grapes and mushrooms seem to be off in their own little world. So, if these bugs do indeed turn out to be good for us, this would underscore the importance of eating not just a greater quantity but also a greater variety of fruits and veggies every day. And, second, the researchers found that there were “significant differences in [microbial] community composition between conventional and organic” produce. “This highlights the potential for differences in the microbiota [or bacteria] between conventionally and organically farmed produce items to impact human health”—but we don’t know in what direction. They certainly found different bacteria on organic versus conventional produce, but we don’t know enough about fruit and veggie bugs to make a determination as to which bacterial communities are healthier.

What about probiotic supplements? I’ve talked before about their potential benefits in my videos Preventing and Treating Diarrhea with Probiotics and Gut Feelings: Probiotics and Mental Health, but there appears to be publication bias in the scientific literature about probiotics. This is something we see a lot with drug companies, where the sponsor, such as the supplement company paying for its own probiotic research, may not report negative results. It won’t publish it, as if the study never happened. In that case then, doctors just see the positive studies.  

As you can see at 2:00 in my Culture Shock: Questioning the Efficacy and Safety of Probiotics video, using fancy statistical techniques, researchers estimated that as many as 20 unflattering studies “with smaller or deleterious results” were simply MIA. They just weren’t published. What’s more, even in the studies that were published, even when the authors were directly sponsored by a yogurt company, for example, “very commonly conflicts of interest are not reported…”

There’s also been concerns about safety. A review for the government’s Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality concluded that there’s “a lack of assessment and systematic reporting of adverse events in probiotic intervention studies,” so while “the available evidence in RCTs [randomized controlled trials] does not indicate an increased risk [for the general public]…the current literature is not well equipped to answer questions on the safety of probiotic interventions with confidence.”

Let’s talk about the study that freaked people out a bit. Acute pancreatitis, sudden inflammation of the pancreas, is on the rise and can become life-threatening in some cases, as bacteria break through our gut barrier and infect our internal organs. Antibiotics don’t seem to work, so how about probiotics? They seemed to work on rats. If you cause inflammation by cutting the rats open and “mechanically damaging” their pancreas, not only do probiotics show “strong evidence for efficacy,” but there were “no indications for harmful effects…” So, half the people with pancreatitis got probiotics, and the other half got sugar pills. As you can see at 3:37 in my video, the mortality rates shot up in the probiotics group compared to placebo within ten days. More than twice as many people died on the probiotics. Thus, probiotics for acute pancreatitis probably aren’t a good idea, and, even further, probiotics “can no longer be considered to be harmless”…

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 May 2021 at 8:46 am

The marvelous iKon 102 with Cuppa Joe

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The iKon Shavecraft 102 remains one of my all-time favorite razors. It is a slant that I believe would be safe for a novice, but despite its great comfort and reluctance to nick, it is nevertheless extremely efficient, and this morning I noted how the head mass assists in the smooth cutting action it delivers.

Of course, good prep helps as well. The lather from Mystic Water Cuppa Joe was bountiful and fragrant, and after 3 passes my face felt fine.

A splash of Master Bay Rum, and I’m ready for another sunny day.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 May 2021 at 8:25 am

Posted in Shaving

And now for something somewhat different

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Written by LeisureGuy

10 May 2021 at 6:18 pm

Posted in Daily life, Video

America’s broadband problem

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Ensuring that all citizens have access to good broadband is, to my mind, a government responsibility, much like mail, roadways, safe drinking water, law enforcement, and the like. The illustration is from an article by Russell Brandom and William Joel in Vox, and at the link the map is interactive.

If broadband access was a problem before 2020, the pandemic turned it into a crisis. As everyday businesses moved online, city council meetings or court proceedings became near-inaccessible to anyone whose connection couldn’t support a Zoom call. Some school districts started providing Wi-Fi hotspots to students without a reliable home connection. In other districts, kids set up in McDonald’s parking lots just to get a reliable enough signal to do their homework. After years of slowly widening, the broadband gap became impossible to ignore.

So as we kick off our Infrastructure Week series, we wanted to show the scope of the problem ourselves. This map shows where the broadband problem is worst — the areas where the difficulty of reliably connecting to the internet has gotten bad enough to become a drag on everyday life. Specifically, the colored-in areas show US counties where less than 15 percent of households are using the internet at broadband speed, defined as 25Mbps download speed. (That’s already a pretty low threshold for calling something “high-speed internet,” but since it’s the Federal Communications Commission’s standard, we’ll stick with it.)

Maps like this are important because, for much of the past decade, the scale of the problem has been maddeningly difficult to pin down. Most large-scale assessments of American broadband access rely on FCC data, a notoriously inaccurate survey drawn from ISPs’ own descriptions of the areas they serve. Even as the commission tries to close the broadband gap, its maps have been misleading policymakers about how wide the gap really is.

Instead of the FCC’s data, we drew on an anonymized dataset collected by Microsoft through its cloud services network, published in increments by the company over the past 18 months. If the FCC monitors the connections that providers say they’re offering, this measures what they’re actually getting. You can roll over specific counties to see the exact percentage of households connected at broadband speed, and the data is publicly available on GitHub if you want to check our work or drill down further.

The disparity between FCC reports and the Microsoft data can be shocking. In Lincoln County, Washington, an area west of Spokane with a population just a hair over 10,000, the FCC lists 100 percent broadband availability. But according to Microsoft’s data, only 5 percent of households are actually connecting at broadband speeds.

Other areas stand out for the sheer scale of the problem. Nine counties in Nevada fall under the 10 percent threshold, covering more than 100,000 people and the bulk of the area of the state. Most of Alaska is a similar dead zone — understandably, given how rugged the state’s interior is — but similar gaps pop up in southwest New Mexico or central Texas.

Because it’s measuring usage, this data doesn’t distinguish between people who can’t buy a fast connection and people who simply can’t afford one, and in other places, you can see the connectivity problem as one more consequence of accumulated neglect. In Arizona, Apache County stands out as a long thin stripe in the northeast corner of the state, showing just 5 percent broadband usage. More than 70,000 people live there, most of them members of the Navajo, Apache, or Zuni tribes. According to the census, more than 23,000 of them are living in poverty, by far the highest poverty rate in the state. Across the border, San Juan County, New Mexico, shows 29 percent broadband usage, so the problem isn’t that the county is too remote or that the terrain is too difficult to manage. Apache County is simply poor, and the slow progress of the broadband buildout seems like a promise it will stay that way.

With the right eyes, you can even see the broadband gap as a dividing line for the US at large. Counties on the wrong side of the line are poorer and more remote, losing population even as the country grows. This is why there’s no broadband, of course: from a business perspective, building out fiber in Apache County is a losing bet. But the lack of fiber also stifles economic activity and makes young people more likely to leave, creating a cycle of disinvestment and decay that has swallowed large portions of our country.

In theory, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 May 2021 at 2:27 pm

Inside an International Tech-Support Scam

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Cybercrime operates large-scale (for example, the current takedown of the oil pipeline that serves the East Coast of the US, which is going to hit hard as fuel supplies run low) and small-scale (individuals). Doug Shadel and Neil Wertheimer write for AARP:

A light rain fell and a cold gray mist hung over the street as Jim Browning arrived home from work. A middle-aged Irishman with a strong brogue, Jim is a software engineer at a midsize consulting firm, and on this workday, like most, there were few surprises. He shared a pleasant dinner with his wife, and when the dishes were cleared, he retreated to his office, shut the door, opened his computer and went undercover.

Jim Browning is not his real name. The alias is necessary to protect him and his family from criminals and law enforcement, as what he does in the privacy of his office may be morally upright but technically illegal. It’s a classic gray area in the netherworld of computer hacking, as we will explain. What is important to know is that back in 2014, it was the same annoying robocalls that you and I get most days that set Jim on his journey to become a vigilante.

A relative of Jim’s had told him about warnings popping up on his computer, and Jim, too, was besieged with recorded calls saying his computer was on the verge of meltdown, and that to prevent it he should call immediately. As a software expert, Jim knew there was nothing wrong with his system, but the automated calls from “certified technicians” didn’t stop. One night that spring, his curiosity got the better of him. “It was part nosiness and part intellectual curiosity,” Jim said. “I’m a problem solver and I wanted to get to the bottom of what these people wanted.” So he returned one of the calls.

The person who answered asked if he could access Jim’s computer to diagnose the problem. Jim granted access, but he was ready; he had created a “virtual computer” within his computer, a walled-off digital domain that kept Jim’s personal information and key operations safe and secure. As he played along with the caller, Jim recorded the conversation and activity on his Trojan horse setup to find out what he was up to. It took mere moments to confirm his hunch: It was a scam.

Intrigued by the experience, Jim started spending his evenings getting telephone scammers online, playing the dupe, recording the interactions and then posting videos of the encounters on YouTube. It became, if not a second career, an avocation—after-dinner entertainment exposing “tech support” scammers who try to scare us into paying for unnecessary repairs.

“Listening to them at first, honestly, made me sick, because I realized right away all they wanted to do was steal money,” Jim would later tell me. “It doesn’t matter if you are 95 or 15, they will say whatever they need to say to get as much money out of you as possible.” Jim saw, for example, how the callers used psychology to put targets at ease. “They say reassuring phrases like ‘Take your time, sir,’ or ‘Do you want to get a glass of water?’ And they will also try to endear themselves to older people, saying things like ‘You sound like my grandmother,’ or ‘You don’t sound your age—you sound 20 years younger.’ “

Jim’s YouTube videos garnered mild interest — a couple thousand views at best. For Jim, this didn’t matter. The engineer in him enjoyed solving the maze. At the least, he was wasting the scammers’ time. At best, his videos maybe helped prevent some cases of fraud.

Then one day in 2018, Jim’s evening forays took an unexpected turn. A tech support scammer called from India and went through the normal spiel, but then he asked Jim to do something unusual: to log in to the scammer’s computer using a remote-access software program called TeamViewer. Later on, Jim found out why: The developers of TeamViewer had discovered that criminals in India were abusing their software, so they temporarily banned its use from computers initiating connections from India. But there was a loophole: It didn’t stop scammers from asking U.S. and U.K. consumers like Jim to initiate access into computers in India.

Hence, the scammer’s request. The voice on the phone talked Jim through the connection process, then told him to initiate a “switch sides” function so the caller could “be in charge” and look through Jim’s computer.

Presented with this opportunity, Jim acted quickly. Instead of “switching sides,” he took control of the criminal’s computer and locked the scammer out of his own computer. Lo and behold, mild-mannered programmer Jim Browning had complete access to all of the scammer’s files and software. And he was able to see everything the scammer was frantically trying to do to regain control.

This bit of digital jujitsu changed everything. Over the next few months, Jim figured out ways to infiltrate the computers of almost every scammer who tried to victimize him. “My process worked on almost every remote access program out there, certainly the ones most popular with scammers, like TeamViewer, AnyDesk or FastSupport.” He also figured out how to secretly install software that recorded what the scammers were doing — without them even knowing it.

Suddenly, Jim was sitting on some powerful knowledge. But as Spider-Man was told, with great power comes great responsibility. Jim wondered, What should I do with what I’ve learned?

Scammers mock and make fun of victims

By now Jim had reverse engineered his way into dozens of scammers’ computers, sometimes four or five at a time. He would set his software to record, then leave for work as his computers did their thing. When he came home at night, he reviewed the footage. Often, he couldn’t believe what he saw: call after call of boiler room scammers — mostly in India — contacting older people — mostly in the U.S. and U.K. — and scaring them into spending money to fix a fake computer problem, or sending money based on other deceptions.

Jim posted these new videos, which gave an authentic, bird’s-eye view of how scammers operate. As a result, his YouTube channel jumped to tens of thousands of subscribers.

One night in May 2019, Jim found his way into the computer network of a large New Delhi boiler room. While lurking in their network, he noticed the company had installed closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras so the bosses could monitor their employees. So Jim hacked his way into that network and was able to turn the cameras this way and that, capturing the facial expressions and attitudes of dozens of scammers in action.

In one remarkable scene, he . . .

Continue reading. There’s a lot more, including some actual examples.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 May 2021 at 11:46 am

Airfish-8: It would make a great passenger-only ferry

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More information on their website’s About page.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 May 2021 at 11:36 am

An old but excellent shave stick by Valobra and for aftershave Clubman by another name

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The Valobra shave stick show is substantially older than the Razor Emporium I used earlier, but (unlike the RE stick) the Valobra — though with no more cover than shown in the photo — has endured in first-rate condition: still smooth and workable. It’s a fairly firm stick — my guess is that it’s made from triple-milled soap — and the lavender is fragrant and abundant.

It should be noted, in fairness, that Valobra’s been making shaving soap and shaving sticks for a long time — almost 120 years, since it was founded in 1903 — and not only is Razor Emporium much younger, the shave stick I had was the very first they made, and we know that version 1.0 of anything generally needs some improvement, in specific ways that experience reveals.

This shave stick is a true pleasure, and the Vie-Long horsehair brush easily created a very nice lather and held plenty in reserve for the entire shave. Because I used a shave stick, my preshave was MR GLO rather than Grooming Dept Moisturizing Pre-Shave.

Three passes with RazoRock’s German 37 slant left my face perfectly smooth and undamaged, and then a splash of Geo, an aftershave by A.I.I. Clubman (see this post for more info) finished the job. Like many of the tall-bottle aftershaves, the fragrance was that of an old-time barbershop — pleasant but (to my nose) undefinable.

Altogether, a great way to launch the week.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 May 2021 at 9:04 am

Posted in Shaving

Why Joe Biden Punched Big Pharma in the Nose Over Covid Vaccines

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Matt Stoller has a very interesting column today:

Today I’m writing about Joe Biden’s attack on vaccine monopolists. What happened is a bit technical and involves a bunch of weird international agreements on patents and IP, but the short story is that what Biden just did could be as significant as Reagan firing the air traffic controllers in 1981, or Teddy Roosevelt taking on JP Morgan in 1904 over a giant railroad combination. It’s a signal that the American order is changing.

Plus, beef prices are at record highs, so why are cattle producers going bankrupt? And why did we face meat shortages during the pandemic? I talked to South Dakota ranching advocate Bill Bullard about why our national food systems are collapsing.

Biden: We Must Vaccinate Everyone in the World

Three days ago, United States Trade Representative Katherine Tai announced that the United States supports a global waiver on intellectual property protections for Covid vaccines. There are two excellent vaccines. The first is produced by a partnership between industry giant Pfizer and the German company BioNTech, the second by multi-billion dollar start-up success story Moderna in a partnership with the National Institute of Health. Biden took the first step in a legal process to force these firms, among others, to share their technology.

The announcement sent shock waves throughout the world. French President Emanuel Macron jumped on board, director of the World Health Organization Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called it a “monumental moment in the fight against Covid,” the FT’s Edward Luce said Biden had made “a brilliant move,” and political leaders globally began putting pressure on their own governments to follow suit. “Thank you, President Biden and USTR Katherine Tai,” said Lori Wallach of Global Trade Watch, a key leader in the campaign.

The pharmaceutical industry reacted with shock and anger. “In the midst of a deadly pandemic, the Biden Administration has taken an unprecedented step that will undermine our global response to the pandemic and compromise safety,” read a statement from the trade association group PhRMA. The US Biotechnology Innovation Organization pronounced “extreme disappointment” and the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations warned this move will lead to counterfeit vaccines.

What just happened? And what does it actually mean?

There are multiple layers to this story. I’m going to offer an explanation of how this waiver affects the global attempt to address the pandemic, the politics behind the decision, and what it means going forward. The short story is that this is an unexpected and major defeat for the pharmaceutical industry, all the more bizarre that it comes from Joe Biden, who in his career generally deferred to big business. As one Washington lobbyist told the Financial Times, “Nobody really thought Biden was going to take on the pharmaceutical lobby, [they thought] that he would be too scared. But before the financial crisis, everybody thought the financial services industry was untouchable, then that changed. This week showed that pharma companies are the new banks.”

To understand what happened, we have to start with the development of the vaccines themselves.

The Vaccine Success Story

The development of Covid vaccines is the single most successful U.S. government program since the elimination of polio. Vaccines have traditionally taken more than a decade to develop. Yet, in this case, less than a year after the virus was first genetically sequenced by Chinese scientists and posted to the web, trucks began rolling out of factories with safe and effective vaccines ready for deployment. Today, more than a billion doses have been injected into arms, and wealthier countries are seeing the pandemic recede.

In part, the global spread of pharmaceutical technology is one reason for this success. China, Russia, Europe, and the U.S. all have put out vaccines that work. Yet the best new vaccines come from the U.S. or Europe, and use a new technology called mRNA. The old way of making vaccines consisted of growing a weakened or deactivated germ, which would create an immune response by getting your body to respond to something that looked like a deadly virus. But making these kinds of viruses was cumbersome because they have to be grown, and they don’t always work well. Flu vaccines are grown in chicken eggs, for instance, and that takes a long time.

The mRNA vaccine by contrast is not a weakened germ, it is a set of instructions to your body to produce a custom-designed protein shaped like a part of the Covid virus, which your immune system then responds to. In doing so, you acquire immunity. The mRNA vaccine is programmable, meaning that it’s easy to update the vaccine to address new diseases or new variants, and because it is chemical, production scales quickly. Think of the difference between the old way of doing vaccines and mRNA as similar to printing books by woodblocks, each of which has to be carved by hand, versus using moveable type printing presses.

The mRNA technology comes from Katalin Kariko, a Hungarian immigrant who perfected the technology with fellow scientist Drew Weissman at the University of Pennsylvania. The two licensed mRNA to two small firms, BioNTech in Germany and Moderna in the United States. BioNTech spent years perfecting the technology and eventually got German government support. Meanwhile, Moderna received U.S. government funding in the 2010s from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the same unit that helped create packet-switching technology in the 1970s.

When the pandemic hit, three things happened. First, Pfizer and BioNTech quickly agreed to work together to scale and develop their mRNA vaccine. Second, government scientists at the National Institute of Health designed a spike protein molecule and sent it to Moderna, which used it as the basis for its mRNA vaccine. Third, the U.S. government, through what was called Operation Warp Speed, created a market for vaccines, signing guaranteed-purchase agreements with a number of firms, including Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, to secure hundreds of millions of vaccine doses for the U.S. population.

This process worked remarkably well. The first country to have more than 50% of its population vaccinated, Israel, basically has no Covid anymore, and Covid is dropping rapidly everywhere these vaccines have been widely deployed. If we could deploy vaccines worldwide, we could effectively eradicate Covid, or at the very least, make the outbreak of new variants that can evade vaccines much less likely.

Where there’s great success, there’s great money. Pfizer is projecting it will make $26 billion in 2021 from its vaccine, and Moderna will make $18.4 billion. That’s a good thing. These firms should make large sums of money from a fantastically useful vaccine, even though the technology was publicly financed.

Still, despite this success, there’s a significant vaccine shortage. The world will need 10-12 billion to be fully vaccinated, and Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech won’t produce that much. Pfizer/BioNTech, for instance, forecast production of 2 billion doses in 2021, and Moderna will make something on the order of a billion doses. That’s a lot, it’s just not nearly enough. Indeed, at this rate, some countries aren’t going to start significant vaccination campaigns until 2023. That’s quite dangerous, because if the pandemic keeps raging, it’s more likely that a vaccine-resistant Covid variant emerges. If that happens, such a variant will spread across the already vaccinated areas of the world.

So making sure we have a global vaccination campaign looks like a logistical challenge, but also a necessary one. That said, there’s a fly in the ointment, a ghoulish incentive at work for Pfizer, BioNTech, and Moderna.

Pfizer and the “Durability of the Franchise”

On an investor call last month, the CEO of Pfizer, Frank D’Amelio, discussed what would happen to revenue from his vaccine product as the Covid pandemic ends, what he called the “durability of the franchise.” He told analysts not to worry. People in rich countries will need annual booster shots, and that is where Pfizer will make real money.

For these annual treatments, Pfizer will be able to charge much more than it does now. The current price for a covid vaccine, D’Amelio noted, is $19.50 per dose. He told analysts of his hope Pfizer could get to a more normal price, “$150, $175 per dose,” instead of what he called “pandemic pricing.”

The ghoulish part, however, is why there will need to be annual boosters. It’s not because the vaccine strength wanes over time, though that might happen. It’s because, as D’Amelio told Wall Street, there will be new variants emerging from abroad that can evade the vaccine. And how will variants emerge abroad? Well as outbreaks occur in non-vaccinated parts of the world, new strains will naturally occur as the virus mutates. If the rest of the world gets vaccinated, however, new variants won’t arise.

What D’Amelia really wants is to be able to charge $150 for a vaccine he is now charging $19.50 for. But D’Amelio is also assuming that there won’t be a global effective vaccination campaign. And, in a narrow sense, while Pfizer’s main goal is to keep prices high, it is actually against Pfizer’s financial interest to have the rest of the world vaccinated. If the world gets vaccinated, Pfizer won’t necessarily be able to sell expensive booster shots in rich countries who can afford them. Yikes.

The corporate world, sans Pfizer, has a very strong reason not to want a vaccine-resistant variant. A new variant of Covid could force the world back into lockdown, which is expensive. The International Chamber of Commerce, hardly a bastion of lefties, put out a study asserting that not sufficiently vaccinating poor countries will cost $9.2 trillion (with wealthy countries like the U.S. bearing half the cost). Covid isn’t good business for most firms, but it’s great for Pfizer and Moderna.

So what is the holdup for global vaccination? One argument is that there isn’t . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Later in the column, he discusses why beef prices are rising as cattle prices are dropping. That begins:

Beef Is Expensive. So Why Are Cattle Ranchers Going Bankrupt?During the Covid pandemic, Americans went to the supermarket and found something that hadn’t happened for decades – a meat shortage. There was plenty of cattle, but the beef wasn’t getting to the supermarket shelves.

What happened and why?

To answer this question, I asked Bill Bullard, a former cattle rancher and the current CEO of R-CALF, a cattle producer-only membership organization focused on the viability of the U.S. cattle ranching industry. “We have so skeletonized the entire live cattle and beef supply chains that it is no longer capable of withstanding a shock,” he said, “whether it be the covid pandemic or a climatic circumstance.” This shortage was a wake-up call. “The industry is incapable of meeting our national food security needs.”

Bullard is an ardent anti-monopolist, a viewpoint developed through hard-won experience dealing with a consolidated meatpacking industry. He noticed problems with our cattle markets becoming more severe in 2014. That’s when beef prices and cattle prices started to diverge. . .

Read the whole thing.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 May 2021 at 5:19 pm

Why Trump Still Has Millions of Americans in His Grip

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Thomas Edsall’s column in the NY Times today makes good points, some of which relate to the previous post on the coming automation of trucking:

Beginning in the mid-1960s, the priorities of the Democratic Party began to shift away from white working- and middle-class voters — many of them socially conservative, Christian and religiously observant — to a set of emerging constituencies seeking rights and privileges previously reserved for white men: African-Americans; women’s rights activists; proponents of ethnic diversity, sexual freedom and self-expressive individualism.

By the 1970s, many white Americans — who had taken their own centrality for granted — felt that they were being shouldered aside, left to face alone the brunt of the long process of deindustrialization: a cluster of adverse economic trends including the decline in manufacturing employment, the erosion of wages by foreign competition and the implosion of trade unionism.

These voters became the shock troops of the Reagan Revolution; they now dominate Trump’s Republican Party.

Liberal onlookers exploring the rise of right-wing populism accuse their adversaries of racism and sexism. There is plenty of truth to this view, but it’s not the whole story.

In “The Bitter Heartland,” an essay in American PurposeWilliam Galston, a veteran of the Clinton White House and a senior fellow at Brookings, captures the forces at work in the lives of many of Trump’s most loyal backers:

Resentment is one of the most powerful forces in human life. Unleashing it is like splitting the atom; it creates enormous energy, which can lead to more honest discussions and long-delayed redress of grievances. It can also undermine personal relationships — and political regimes. Because its destructive potential is so great, it must be faced.

Recent decades, Galston continues, “have witnessed the growth of a potent new locus of right-wing resentment at the intersection of race, culture, class, and geography” — difficult for “those outside its orbit to understand.”

They — “social conservatives and white Christians” — have what Galston calls a “bill of particulars” against political and cultural liberalism. I am going to quote from it at length because Galston’s rendering of this bill of particulars is on target.

  • “They have a sense of displacement in a country they once dominated. Immigrants, minorities, non-Christians, even atheists have taken center stage, forcing them to the margins of American life.”

  • “They believe we have a powerful desire for moral coercion. We tell them how to behave — and, worse, how to think. When they complain, we accuse them of racism and xenophobia. How, they ask, did standing up for the traditional family become racism? When did transgender bathrooms become a civil right?”

  • “They believe we hold them in contempt.”

  • “Finally, they think we are hypocrites. We claim to support free speech — until someone says something we don’t like. We claim to oppose violence — unless it serves a cause we approve of. We claim to defend the Constitution — except for the Second Amendment. We support tolerance, inclusion, and social justice — except for people like them.”

Galston has grasped a genuine phenomenon. But white men are not the only victims of deindustrialization. We are now entering upon an era in which vast swaths of the population are potentially vulnerable to the threat — or promise — of a Fourth Industrial Revolution.

This revolution is driven by unprecedented levels of technological innovation as artificial intelligence joins forces with automation and takes aim not only at employment in what remains of the nation’s manufacturing heartland, but also increasingly at the white-collar managerial and professional occupational structure.

Daron Acemoglu, an economist at M.I.T., described in an email the most likely trends as companies increasingly adopt A.I. technologies.

A.I. is in its infancy. It can be used for many things, some of them very complementary to humans. But right now it is going more and more in the direction of displacing humans, like a classic automation technology. Put differently, the current business model of leading tech companies is pushing A.I. in a predominantly automation direction.

As a result, Acemoglu continued, “we are at a tipping point, and we are likely to see much more of the same types of disruptions we have seen over the last decades.”

In an essay published in Boston Review last month, Acemoglu looked at the issue over a longer period. Initially, in the first four decades after World War II, advances in automation complemented labor, expanding the job market and improving productivity.

But, he continued, “a very different technological tableau began in the 1980s — a lot more automation and a lot less of everything else.” In the process, “automation acted as the handmaiden of inequality.”

Automation has pushed the job market in two opposing directions. Trends can be adverse for those (of all races and ethnicities) without higher education, but trends can also be positive for those with more education:

New technologies primarily automated the more routine tasks in clerical occupations and on factory floors. This meant the demand and wages of workers specializing in blue-collar jobs and some clerical functions declined. Meanwhile professionals in managerial, engineering, finance, consulting, and design occupations flourished — both because they were essential to the success of new technologies and because they benefited from the automation of tasks that complemented their own work. As automation gathered pace, wage gaps between the top and the bottom of the income distribution magnified.

Technological advancement has been one of the key factors in the growth of inequality based on levels of educational attainment, as the accompanying graphic shows:

Acemoglu warns:

If artificial intelligence technology continues to develop along its current path, it is likely to create social upheaval for at least two reasons. For one, A.I. will affect the future of jobs. Our current trajectory automates work to an excessive degree while refusing to invest in human productivity; further advances will displace workers and fail to create new opportunities. For another, A.I. may undermine democracy and individual freedoms.

Mark Muro, a senior fellow at Brookings, contends that it is essential to look at the specific types of technological innovation when determining impact on the job market.

“Two things are happing at once, when you look at traditional ‘automation’ on the one hand and ‘artificial intelligence’ on the other,” Muro wrote in an email. “The more widespread, established technologies usually branded ‘automation’ very much do tend to disrupt repetitive, lower-skill jobs, including in factories, especially in regions that have been wrestling with deindustrialization and shifts into low-pay service employment.”

In contrast, Muro continued, “Artificial intelligence really is a very different set of technologies than those we label as ‘automation, and it will for a while mostly affect college educated workers.” But, and it’s a big but,

there is a greater chance that such white collar workers, with their B.A.s, will be better equipped to coexist with A.I. or even benefit from it than will non-B.A. workers impacted by other forms of automation. And yet, there’s no doubt A.I. will now be introducing new levels of anxiety into the professional class

In a November 2019 paper, “What jobs are affected by A.I.? Better-paid, better-educated workers face the most exposure,” Muro and two colleagues found that exposure to A.I. is significantly higher for jobs held by men, by people with college degrees or higher, by people in the middle and upper pay ranks and by whites and Asian-Americans generally.

In contrast, in a March 2019 paper, “Automation perpetuates the red-blue divide,” Muro and his colleagues found that automation, as opposed to A.I., hurts those who hold jobs that do not require college degrees the most, and that exposure to automation correlates with support for Trump:

The strong association of 2016 Electoral College outcomes and state automation exposure very much suggests that the spread of workplace automation and associated worker anxiety about the future may have played some role in the Trump backlash and Republican appeals.

More specifically, Muro and his colleagues found:

Heartland states like Indiana and Kentucky, with heavy manufacturing histories and low educational attainment, contain not only the nation’s highest employment-weighted automation risks, but also registered some of the widest Trump victory margins. By contrast, all but one of the states with the least exposure to automation, and possessing the highest levels of educational attainment, voted for Hillary Clinton.

How do the risks of automation, foreign-trade-induced job loss and other adverse consequences of technological change influence politics? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 May 2021 at 12:32 pm

Liz Cheney and Big Lies (including lies of omission)

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Maureen Dowd has a good column in the NY Times:

I miss torturing Liz Cheney.

But it must be said that the petite blonde from Wyoming suddenly seems like a Valkyrie amid halflings.

She is willing to sacrifice her leadership post — and risk her political career — to continue calling out Donald Trump’s Big Lie. She has decided that, if the price of her job is being as unctuous to Trump as Kevin McCarthy is, it isn’t worth it, because McCarthy is totally disgracing himself.

It has been a dizzying fall for the scion of one of the most powerful political families in the land, a conservative chip off the old block who was once talked about as a comer, someone who could be the first woman president.

How naïve I was to think that Republicans would be eager to change the channel after Trump cost them the Senate and the White House and unleashed a mob on them.

I thought the Donald would evaporate in a poof of orange smoke, ending a supremely screwed-up period of history. But the loudest mouth is not shutting up. And Republicans continue to listen, clinging to the idea that the dinosaur is the future. “We can’t grow without him,” Lindsey Graham said.

Denied Twitter, Trump is focusing on his other favorite blood sport: hunting down dynasties. “Whether it’s the Cheneys, the Bushes or the lesser bloodlines — such as the Romneys or the Murkowskis — Trump has been relentless in his efforts to force them to bend the knee,” David Siders wrote in Politico.

Yet an unbowed Liz Cheney didn’t mince words when, in a Washington Post op-ed a few days ago, she implored the stooges in her caucus to “steer away from the dangerous and anti-democratic Trump cult of personality.”

That trademark Cheney bluntness made Liz the toast of MSNBC and CNN, where chatterers praised her as an avatar of the venerable “fact-based” Republican Party decimated by Trump.

But if Liz Cheney wants to be in the business of speaking truth to power, she’s going to have to dig a little deeper.

Let’s acknowledge who created the template for Trump’s Big Lie.

It was her father, Dick Cheney, whose Big Lie about the Iraq war led to the worst mistake in the history of American foreign policy. Liz, who was the captain of her high school cheerleading team and titled her college thesis “The Evolution of Presidential War Powers,” cheered on her dad as he spread fear, propaganda and warped intelligence.

From her patronage perch in the State Department during the Bush-Cheney years, she bolstered her father’s trumped-up case for an invasion of Iraq. Even after no W.M.D.s were found, she continued to believe the invasion was the right thing to do.

“She almost thrives in an atmosphere where the overall philosophy is discredited and she is a lonely voice,” a State Department official who worked with Liz told Joe Hagan for a 2010 New York magazine profile of the younger Cheney on her way up.

She was a staunch defender of the torture program. “Well, it wasn’t torture, Norah, so that’s not the right way to lay out the argument,” she instructed Norah O’Donnell in 2009, looking on the bright side of waterboarding.

She backed the futile, 20-year occupation of the feudal Afghanistan. (Even Bob Gates thinks we should have left in 2002.) Last month, when President Biden announced plans to pull out, Liz Cheney — who wrote a book with her father that accused Barack Obama of abandoning Iraq and making America weaker — slapped back: “We know that this kind of pullback is reckless. It’s dangerous.”

For many years, she had no trouble swimming in Fox News bile. Given the chance to denounce the Obama birther conspiracy, she demurred, interpreting it live on air as people being “uncomfortable with having for the first time ever, I think, a president who seems so reluctant to defend the nation overseas.”

Thanks to that kind of reasoning, we ended up with a president who fomented an attack on the nation at home.

In her Post piece, Cheney wrote that her party is at a “turning point” and that Republicans “must decide whether we are going to choose truth and fidelity to the Constitution.”

Sage prose from someone who was a lieutenant to her father when he assaulted checks and balances, shredding America’s Constitution even as he imposed one on Iraq.

Because of 9/11, Dick Cheney thought he could suspend the Constitution, attack nations preemptively and trample civil liberties in the name of the war on terror. (And for his own political survival.)

Keeping Americans afraid was a small price to pay for engorging executive power, which the former Nixon and Ford aide thought had been watered down too much after Watergate.

By his second term,

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 May 2021 at 11:24 am

Long-haul trucking

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In the coming decade one or two million jobs will be lost as autonomous trucks become practical. Obviously, some trucking jobs will remain, but serious thought and effort is going into eliminating as many of the 3.5 million trucking jobs as possible. This brief video provides a good overview of the industry:

And here’s a little more detail from the trucker’s own point of view:

Written by LeisureGuy

9 May 2021 at 10:42 am

The Republican party has actively turned against American democracy

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It’s telling that Mitch McConnell stated explicitly that he is 100% focused on stopping the Biden administration. Mitch is not interested in helping the country or its citizens. He simply wants to stop the Biden administration from accomplishing anything — despite the fact that a large majority of Americans approve of Biden’s programs.

The thing about autocrats is that they really don’t can what people want, but instead are focused on what they (the autocrats) want. That’s the current Republican party. For example, the Republican party is busy enacting state laws to prevent people from voting.

Heather Cox Richardson writes:

Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo articulated today what many have been reluctant to say: What is at stake in the Big Lie and all the Republican efforts to keep it in play—the shenanigans in the secret Maricopa County, Arizona, recount; the censuring of Republicans who voted to impeach the former president; the expected removal of Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney from a leadership role in the party; and so on—is not the past election of 2020, but the upcoming election of 2024.

The Republican Party has demonstrated that it intends to control the government in the future, no matter what most Americans want. Iowa, Georgia, Montana, and Florida have already passed voter suppression laws, while other states are considering them. (Governor Ron DeSantis signed Florida’s bill yesterday live on the Fox News Channel.)

As Marshall points out, though, making sure that states return only Republicans to Congress is also about controlling the White House. Republican lawmakers are purging from state election machinery members of their own party who refused to change the outcome of the 2020 election and give a victory to Trump. The former president has fed speculation that he still hopes to overturn the 2020 election, but Marshall looks forward: Is it really possible to think that in 2024, members of the new Trump party will protect the sanctity of any election that gives a victory to a Democratic candidate? If Republicans capture the House in 2022, will they agree to certify electoral votes for a Democrat? In 2020, even before the current remaking of the party in Trump’s image, 139 House Republicans contested them.

Trump is systematically going after leading members of the Republican Party, determined to remake it into his own organization. Several former senior White House officials told Ashley Parker and Josh Dawsey of the Washington Post that “[t]he defeated ex-president is propelled primarily by a thirst for retribution, an insatiable quest for the spotlight and a desire to establish and maintain total dominance and control over the Republican base.” Republican strategist Brendan Buck noted that Trump seems to relish fighting, rather than victory to achieve an end. “Usually,” Buck said, “a fight is the means to an end, but in this case fighting is the end.”

The Republicans are consolidating their control over the machinery of government in a way that indicates they intend to control the country regardless of what Americans actually want, putting Trump and his organization back in charge. Democrats have proposed the For the People Act (H.R. 1 and S. 1), which would start to restore a level playing field between the parties. The For the People Act would sideline the new voter suppression bills and make it easier to vote. It would end partisan gerrymandering and stop the flow of big money into elections permitted after the 2010 Citizens United decision.

But Republicans are determined to stop this measure. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is especially engaged in its obstruction. He has called it a “partisan takeover” that would “give Washington Democrats unprecedented control over 50 states’ election laws.” He recognizes that restoring a level electoral playing field would hamstring the Republicans’ ability to win elections. Defeating the act is McConnell’s top priority.

The story of how Republican leaders embraced voter suppression and gerrymandering starts back in the 1980s, though the mechanics of overturning a presidential election are new to 2020. Still, their undermining of our democratic system begs the question: Why are leading Republicans surrendering their party, and our nation, to a budding autocrat?

Two days ago, when asked if he is concerned about the direction of his party,  McConnell told reporters that he is not paying attention to it because the Democrats are trying “to turn American into a socialist country,” and that “[o]ne-hundred percent of our focus is on stopping this new administration.”

In his April 28 address before a joint session of Congress, President Biden indicated he intended to reverse the course the government has been on since the Reagan years. “My fellow Americans,” Biden said, “trickle-down… economics has never worked, and it’s time to grow the economy from the bottom up and the middle out.”

Republicans have tied themselves to the idea that, as Reagan said, “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem” (although in 1981 he prefaced that statement with the words: “In this present crisis”). Since the 1990s, they have focused on tax cuts and deregulation as the key to building a strong economy, even though that program has moved wealth dramatically upward.

Today, Republicans interpreted a jobs report that showed job growth slowing in April as a sign that Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which pumped $1.9 trillion into the country to help it heal from the coronavirus recession, has failed. Rather than speeding up growth, they say, it is slowing it down. Biden pointed out that the nation has added 1.5 million jobs since he took office and that the recession will not end overnight, but Republicans insist that the federal $300 weekly unemployment checks included in the law are keeping people from going back to work.

The top Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, Representative Kevin Brady of Texas, issued a statement saying: “This is a stunning economic setback, and unequivocal proof that President Biden is sabotaging our jobs recovery with promises of higher taxes and regulation on local businesses that discourage hiring and drive jobs overseas.”

Citing help wanted ads, Republican governors in South Carolina, Montana, and Arkansas are ending the unemployment benefit in their own states to get people back to work. Other Republican-led states are suing the administration to force it to let them use the money provided in the American Rescue Plan not to offer help to workers, but to subsidize tax cuts. Meanwhile, still others . . .

Continue reading. Emphasis added. There’s more. And the comments are interesting.

Written by LeisureGuy

8 May 2021 at 12:27 pm

Suzanne Simard Changed How the World Sees Trees

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Robert Moor writes in New York:

Suzanne Simard has given her life to the study of trees. She sweated for them. Bled for them. Damn near died for them — once at the claws of a grizzly, and once from the invisible clutch of cancer. (Working with toxic herbicides and radioactive isotopes in the course of her research likely contributed to her breast cancer, which resulted in a double mastectomy.) But Simard’s sacrifices as a forest ecologist have paid off. Her work with herbicides uncovered the fact that denuding tree farms doesn’t help them grow faster — a finding that overturned the forestry industry’s prevailing logic for half a century. Later, upending basic Darwinian logic, she showed conclusively that different trees — and even different tree species — are involved in a constant exchange of resources and information via underground fungal networks, known technically as mycorrhizae and popularly as the Wood Wide Web.

Her long fight against the twin patriarchies of the logging industry and the scientific Establishment has yielded startling discoveries about tree sociality — and even, some believe, about tree sentience. Now Simard, a professor at the University of British Columbia, has published a memoir, Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest — which is being adapted into a film, with Amy Adams set to star. We spoke recently about what studying trees has taught her about how to live in our increasingly tenuous world, and how forests can help fix our compounding problems.

Do you feel that being a woman in a male-dominated field has given you any special insights into the workings of the plant world?
For sure. I was always on the outside, because it was a man’s world. Women weren’t allowed into forestry until my generation. The whole perspective on forests was all from this one-gendered perspective. It very much focused on competition and dominance. When I came in, saying, “What about the collaborative things going on?” — I don’t think that my male colleagues would have asked those questions. I did learn from them, of course, and they started looking at collaboration too, well before me. But I was the one who took it further and fought the industry.

Your book is full of harrowing stories about your adventures working in the forestry industry, deep in the mountains, being chased by grizzlies and scrambling up trees. But to me, perhaps the scariest thing was the state of forestry back then. What kinds of practices were you witnessing?
I would say that the state of forestry is even worse now. But back then, for me, it was a shock, because I came from a family where we were horse-logging and selective logging, and suddenly I’m working in an industry where it was all clear-cutting and replanting monocultures. I really loved the work, and I try to convey that in the book. I loved being in the old-growth forest, even though I was laying out clear-cuts and roads, because I was so free, and I was doing this dangerous work among grizzlies. But at the same time that I had this love affair with the job, I also saw the devastation that it was wreaking.

You describe how logging companies will fly around in helicopters and spray their clearcuts with Roundup to kill off undergrowth, believing that this will get rid of “competition” and make their tree farms grow faster. But you started to discover that it doesn’t really have the intended effect.
I got a position with Canada’s minister of forests as a research silviculturist, and my job was to research how to regrow these plantations. They had adopted these policies and practices from the U.S., where it was a war on the forest, clear-cutting like crazy and applying multiple layers of herbicides. I did all this research on what the impact of that practice was on different kinds of plant communities. In almost all cases, it made no difference in how fast the trees grew. They grew the same, but the biodiversity was lower. Now, there were some forest types where it did improve growth. But it also caused survival rates to go down, because the trees were getting infected with pathogens and insect infestations. I did this work for like 11 or 12 years, and I published it all, and I’m just going, “The evidence is not there for what we’re doing!” It was making the forest worse. And yet they’ve actually hung onto those policies.

How does it feel, to have your work ignored?
I’m not the only scientist who gets ignored, so that’s okay. These policies get entrenched, and people feel like that policy is their life’s work, so as long as those people are in place, they will protect it to their death. Then, as the policy is in place for longer and longer, there’s a whole industry that evolves around supporting that work — the herbicide industry and the brush-clearing industry and the growing-fast-trees industry. The momentum starts, and once that whole thing gets going, it’s really hard to change.

In the book you describe standing in tree plantations, looking at rows of trees, and a lot of them don’t look healthy. And then you look just off to the side, where there’s a wild forest with a mix of species, and they seem to be doing quite well. It seems like the whole of your career is an investigation of that mystery: Why is it that those trees over there are doing better than the trees on the plantation?
When I started my Ph.D., I learned about this work in the U.K. by David Read, where he had grown pines in root boxes in the lab, and found they connected together; he labeled one pine with carbon-14 and saw it move into another pine. I wanted to find out if that was partly what was going on in my forest. I ended up discovering that the mycorrhizae are really what links the plant with the soil. They were the conduit from the photosynthetic machinery into the soil, which drove everything, all the cycles.

At first people were resistant to the idea that one tree species would be helping another. But that’s precisely what you found.

Yeah, in fact, in that little system that I was working in, with birch, fir, and cedar, the more the birch shaded the fir, the more the birch shared its resources with the fir. That upended our notion that birch was just this competitor; it was actually collaborating. And the system was fluid, so later, when the birch needed resources, the fir would provide it. The upshot of this was that  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

8 May 2021 at 10:52 am

He Bought Health Insurance for Emergencies. Then He Fell Into a $33,601 Trap Created by the Trump Administration.

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Jenny Deam reports in ProPublica:

In the spring of 2019, Cory Dowd suddenly found himself without health insurance for the first time. A self-employed event planner, he had just finished a Peace Corps stint that provided health benefits, but he was still more than a year away from starting a graduate program that would provide coverage through his university.

So, like countless others in an online world, he went insurance shopping on the internet.

But the individual insurance market he was about to enter was one dramatically changed under President Donald Trump’s push to dismantle Obamacare, offering more choices at cheaper prices.

Dowd is well-educated and knew more than most about how traditional health insurance works. But even he did not understand the extent to which insurers could offer plans that looked like a great deal but were stuffed with fine print that allowed companies to deny payment for routine medical events.

Not bound by the strict coverage rules of the Affordable Care Act, the short-term plans that Dowd signed up for have been dubbed “junk insurance” by consumer advocates and health policy experts. The plans can deny coverage for people with preexisting conditions, exclude payments for common treatments and impose limits on how much is paid for care.

Dowd, like millions of other Americans who have flocked to such plans in the past three years, only saw what looked like a great deal: six-month coverage offered through an agency called Pivot Health, whose website touts the company as a “fast-growing team obsessed with helping you find the right insurance for your needs.”

Monthly premiums for the two short-term plans he bought were surprisingly cheap at around $100 a month each, with reasonable co-pays for routine doctor visits and treatments. Best of all, the first plan he bought promised to cover up to $1 million in claims, the second up to $750,000. That should more than do it, he thought. Dowd was 31 and healthy but wanted protection in case of a medical emergency. He signed up and began paying his premiums without closely reading the details.

Then he was hit with the very kind of emergency he had feared. And he wasn’t protected after all.

Short-term plans have been around for decades, and are meant to temporarily bridge coverage gaps. Under the Affordable Care Act they were limited to three months. But when the Trump administration allowed them to be extended to nearly a year, they became a fast-growing and lucrative slice of the insurance industry.

Because these plans are not legally bound by the strict rules of the ACA, not only do they come with hefty restrictions and coverage limitations, but insurers can search through patients’ past medical histories to find preexisting conditions.

All companies selling short-term plans have to do is acknowledge that they are not ACA-compliant and may not cover everything — a disclosure the insurers insist they do.

Still, the Biden administration faces a challenge on what to do about the proliferation of such plans.

Once in office, President Joe Biden quickly moved to make enrolling in comprehensive ACA coverage easier and make plans more affordable. On Thursday, the Department of Health and Human Services announced 940,000 people had signed up for ACA plans this spring after enrollment was reopened in February. In many states, enrollment will run through the summer.

Yet, while health policy experts say ACA expansion is important, it does not specifically address those who remain in plans outside the health care law and could be at risk for financial ruin.

“The Biden administration is going to have to find a way to put the genie back in the bottle,” said Stacey Pogue, a health policy analyst for Every Texan, an Austin-based advocacy group.

True numbers of how many people have noncompliant plans remain elusive, as such plans often fly under regulatory radar and industry tracking. Still, an investigation last year by the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce concluded that at least 3 million consumers had short-term limited duration plans in 2019, the last year for which information was available. That was a 27% jump from the previous year, when deregulation began in earnest, the investigation found.

“I would not be surprised if  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

8 May 2021 at 10:24 am

Shave-stick discovery and another Clubman Pinaud/Pinaud-Clubman aftershave: Lustray Coachman

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Since I’m using a shave stick today, preshave prep was with MR GLO rather than Grooming Dept Moisturizing Pre-Shave. The shave stick is a Razor Emporium stick, which has oxidized somewhat and also dried out a lot, leaving a surface that is quite hard and scratchy.

My first thought was that D.R. Harris is clever in having a screw-on (air-tight) cap for its shave sticks, which prevents drying out. My second thought was, “Wait a minute, my Arko, Speick, Wilkinson, and Valobra shave sticks have no cap and, despite being exposed to air, don’t dry out, harden, and crack the way this one did.”

This was the first shave stick Razor Emporium brought to market, however, and those other brands have been around for decades. I think what we see is that experience is a good teacher. It may well be that the current RE shave sticks have been reformulated to avoid the problem, especially since those other brands seem to have found a solution.

Nevertheless, I was able to get enough soap scraped off for the Sabini brush to create a workable lather. The process of rubbing the stick against the grain all over my stubble was not, however, the usual pleasant experience. It was actively uncomfortable, and I bid the stick adieu when I finished.

My Feather AS-D1 (one of the good ones) did its usual wonderful job and left my face completely smooth and undamaged for a good splash of Lustray Coachman aftershave. (For the relationship of Lustray, Clubman, and Pinaud, see the previous shaving post.)

And the weekend begins at last.

Written by LeisureGuy

8 May 2021 at 8:38 am

Posted in Shaving

Arabian cult may have built 1000 monuments older than Stonehenge

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Ibrahim Sawal writes in New Scientist:

A vast site in north-west Saudi Arabia is home to 1000 structures that date back more than 7000 years, making them older than the Egyptian pyramids and Stonehenge in the UK.

Named after the Arabic word for rectangle, mustatil structures were first discovered in the 1970s, but received little attention from researchers at the time. Hugh Thomas at the University of Western Australia in Perth and his team wanted to learn more about them, and embarked on the largest investigation of the structures to date.

Using helicopters to fly over north-west Saudi Arabia and then following up with ground explorations, the researchers found more than 1000 mustatils across 200,000 square kilometres – twice as many as were previously thought to exist in this area. “You don’t get a full understanding of the scale of the structures until you’re there,” says Thomas.

Made from piled-up blocks of sandstone, some of which weighed more than 500 kilograms, mustatils ranged from 20 metres to more than 600 metres in length, but their walls stood only 1.2 metres high. “It’s not designed to keep anything in, but to demarcate the space that is clearly an area that needs to be isolated,” says Thomas.

In a typical mustatil, long walls surround a central courtyard, with a distinctive rubble platform, or “head”, at one end and entryways at the opposite end. Some entrances were blocked by stones, suggesting they could have been decommissioned after use.

Excavations at one mustatil showed that the centre of the head contained a chamber within which there were fragments of cattle horns and skulls. The cattle fragments may have been presented as offerings, suggesting mustatils may have been used for rituals.

Radiocarbon dating of the skulls shows that they date to between 5300 and 5000 BC, indicating that this was when this particular mustatil was built – and maybe the others too. If so, the monuments would together form the earliest large-scale, ritual landscape anywhere in the world, predating Stonehenge by more than 2500 years.

“This could completely rewrite our understanding of cults in this area at this time,” says team member Melissa Kennedy, also at the University of Western Australia. She says that . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 May 2021 at 7:14 pm

Posted in Religion, Science

The U.S. Owes Hawaiians Millions of Dollars Worth of Land. Congress Helped Make Sure the Debt Wasn’t Paid.

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Rob Perez of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reports in ProPublica:

In the 1990s, Hawaii’s two elder statesmen — U.S. Sens. Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka — were at the forefront of efforts to ensure that the U.S. compensated Native Hawaiians for ancestral lands taken from them over the years.

“Dan Inouye believed that a promise made should be a promise kept,” Akaka, a Native Hawaiian, said in 2012 upon the death of his longtime Senate colleague.

But an investigation by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and ProPublica has found that those same senators voted several times each to support must-pass legislation that included provisions undermining efforts to repay millions of dollars in land debt to Hawaiians. At least six other current and former members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation have supported such legislation one or more times.

Between them, Hawaii’s members of Congress voted for at least six laws authorizing the federal government to sell dozens of excess properties to private parties rather than offering them to a Hawaiian trust established to repatriate the land. In one must-pass military spending bill spanning more than 500 pages, lawmakers slipped in a single sentence that helped a handful of nonprofits to acquire the land. In another, they added language that effectively put the need for military housing ahead of the need for housing Hawaiians.

The circumvention of the landmark 1995 Hawaiian Home Lands Recovery Act, which has not been previously reported, sent the excess lands to a variety of buyers instead: the Catholic Church; the nonprofit operator of a private school; a developer that intends to sell a site to another company with plans to construct hundreds of private-sector homes there.

The transactions mostly involved lands on Oahu, the state’s most populous island, and were executed during a period in which the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, which manages the trust, faced a severe shortage of developable residential land there. About 11,000 Hawaiians are now seeking residential homesteads on Oahu, nearly double what the figure was when the recovery act passed. As the Star-Advertiser and ProPublica reported in December, the trust has only enough land to accommodate less than a third of those homestead-seekers in single-family homes, although it is moving to develop more multi-family housing. Many waitlisters are homeless, and thousands have died without getting a homestead lease.

Even as the federal government was selling excess properties to private buyers, it offered only two parcels to the trust over the past decade, according to the news organizations’ investigation. And one was for a remote mountainside location that DHHL rejected because it determined that the property — a former solar observatory — wasn’t suitable for residential use or to lease for other purposes.

The findings confirmed the suspicions of Mike Kahikina, who said he had a hunch something was amiss during the eight years he served on the Hawaiian Homes Commission, which decides policy for DHHL.

Kahikina joined the commission in 2011, 16 years after the recovery act was signed. Along with eight other commissioners, his job was to help the department get beneficiaries onto residential, ranching and farming homesteads in a timely way — a task DHHL has struggled with historically. By the time he left in 2019, the federal government’s debt was the same size as when he joined.

Kahikina said he periodically raised questions with DHHL about the land debt, but they were never satisfactorily answered.

The news organizations shared their findings with Kahikina — an Air Force veteran, former state legislator, ordained minister and outreach worker for troubled youth — as he sat outside the West Oahu homestead residence that has been in his family for three generations. With his long salt-and-pepper hair tied back in a bun, Kahikina, who now heads the Association of Hawaiians for Homestead Lands, a statewide nonprofit organization of waitlisters, was stunned as he learned details of the private deals. “You connected the dots for me,” he said, repeating himself to emphasize the point. “It’s like we’re an invisible people.”

The investigation relied on federal, state and county records and revealed nearly 40 deals over the past decade involving about 520 acres, all authorized by special language inserted into at least six bills passed by Congress. Beyond the Catholic Church, the developer and the private school operator, the special legislation also allowed land deals with a veterans association, individual homebuyers, another nonprofit private school operator and several religious organizations.

Had it not been for that legislation, advocates say the recovery act could have allowed some of these same entities to access the land while benefiting DHHL at the same time. That’s because under the recovery act, DHHL is permitted to sell certain properties for fair market value and use the proceeds for homestead development.

The Navy, which had owned the majority of lands involved in the private deals, defended its actions. The special legislation expressed the intent of Congress at the time, and if a new law conflicted with a prior one, the new one applied, according to a spokesperson. “Navy followed the law,” she wrote.

The General Services Administration, which plays a key role in federal land disposal, would not address criticisms about bypassing the recovery act. But in response to a letter from one of Hawaii’s two current U.S. senators, a GSA official acknowledged that congressional actions — a reference to the special legislation — allowed some agencies to bypass the recovery act. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more. The US too often proves to be untrustworthy.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 May 2021 at 1:50 pm

“No legal objection, per se”

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E.M. Liddick writes in War on the Rocks:

The commander turns to me. “Any issues, Eric?”

I am the legal advisor to a special operations task force conducting counter-terrorism operations. Our mission: locate and capture — or kill — terrorists.

My “morning,” like so many others, began a few hours earlier, but that means little when day blurs into night, night into day. I had removed my boots and lain down in my uniform on my well-worn twin-sized mattress shortly before the last of our teams began their return to base at about 3 a.m.

The pager, habitually positioned on a ledge near my head, buzzed obnoxiously around 5 a.m., jolting me awake, spiking my heart rate. I reached for it, desperate to reclaim the silence, before swinging my legs off the bed and exhaling an audible groan.

Sleepwalking and squinting, I made my way down the hall to the joint operations center to answer the page. A flurry of activity had replaced the normal quiet found in the few hours between an operation and sunrise. As the commander and operations officer intently focused on an unfolding situation, I walked over to the chief of operations. With a quiet and solemn voice, he broke the news: We just lost one of our men.

With a start, the fog lifted. My brain revved from zero to 60, rifling through battle drills and searching for potential legal issues. Knowing this tragedy could beget more, I sent a runner to wake my deputy and paralegal. When they arrived, I explained the situation and assigned tasks, reminding them that, though we all justifiably felt anger, we needed to be the ones who remained unemotional. I tried to exude confidence and certainty, but my face, I fear, betrayed insecurity and anxiety.

Now, roughly four hours after that obnoxious buzz, I find myself staring at an oversized screen. On it, I observe three congregating individuals, two on bicycles, one who appears young — perhaps a boy, but I can’t be sure — and I, as the legal advisor, am being asked by the commander whether he may legally kill these three humans. I am the judge — he the jury and executioner.

This is a story about how a lawyer’s professional responsibilities, when tossed into the pressure cooker of combat, can produce unpalatable consequences; a story about the reaches of war and post-traumatic stress and moral injury on its less obvious participants; and how the hidden costs of war may be more expansive than we realize.

****

The reports began surfacing almost a decade into the “Global War on Terror”: Drone pilots operating from within the safety of the United States were beginning to show signs of post-traumatic stress.

I remember balking, laughing even. How could a drone pilot who worked in an air-conditioned box in Nevada or wherever, a pilot who worked eight or ten or twelve hours before returning home for dinner, a pilot who faced no real physical danger suffer from post-traumatic stress or moral injury? Absurd, I thought.

Now, almost two decades into that same war and confronting my own grief, I ask: How could I be so scornful, so wrong, so quick to judge?

Much has been written about the invisible wounds of combat, injuries suffered by, among others, infantry soldiersmedicsdrone pilotsinterrogatorsspecial operations forces, and even journalists. Their wounds seem easy to comprehend, with their proximity to the action or direct causal link between the push of a button and manufactured death. But no one speaks about the potential for these wounds to affect others, like judge advocates, who find themselves far removed from the physical danger or the direct causal link. Yet, I feel these wounds within me.

Sure, I was geographically closer to the action, but, psychologically, I remained nearer to Nevada and those drone pilots. I faced little danger beyond sporadic, and ineffective, mortar attacks. I didn’t receive or return fire, didn’t experience “friendly fire,” didn’t fear improvised explosive devices, and, most importantly, didn’t order the strikes or pull the trigger that took another human life. Instead, I was a mere cog in the machinery of death, advising in relative comfort away from the action, fueled by a steady supply of caffeine, snacks, and adrenaline, providing a cloak of legality to the decision-maker’s choice to approve a strike, to pull a trigger — to kill.

Even so, every cog contains some thing. And this something has changed since I returned home. I am different, and the difference is the weight of the guilt I feel. But it is not only the moral weight of how even legal advice kills, but also the burden of . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 May 2021 at 1:43 pm

Why People Feel Like Victims and Victimhood’s Role in Social Acrmony

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Mark MacNamara writes in Nautilus:

In a polarized nation, victimhood is a badge of honor. It gives people strength. “The victim has become among the most important identity positions in American politics,” wrote Robert B. Horwitz, a communications professor at the University of California, San Diego.

Horwitz published his study, “Politics as Victimhood, Victimhood as Politics,” in 2018.1 He focused on social currents that drove victimhood to the fore of American political life, arguing it “emerged from the contentious politics of the 1960s, specifically the civil rights movement and its aftermath.” What lodges victimhood in human psychology?

In 2020, researchers in Israel, led by Rahav Gabray, a doctor of psychology at Tel Aviv University, conducted a series of empirical studies to come up with an answer.2 They identify a negative personality trait they call TIV or Tendency toward Interpersonal Victimhood. People who score high on a TIV test have an “enduring feeling that the self is a victim in different kinds of interpersonal relationships,” they write.

The study of TIV is built around four pillars. The first pillar is a relentless need for one’s victimhood to be clearly and unequivocally acknowledged by both the offender and the society at large. The second is “moral elitism,” the conviction that the victim has the moral high ground, an “immaculate morality,” while “the other” is inherently immoral. The third pillar is a lack of empathy, especially an inability to see life from another perspective, with the result that the victim feels entitled to act selfishly in response. The fourth pillar is Rumination—a tendency to dwell on the details of an assault on self-esteem.

You only need to spend only a few minutes watching or reading the news, in any country, to hear and see victimhood raging. We caught up with Gabray to get the science behind the headlines.

Is TIV an aberration in the personality?

Sometimes it may be, if one is high on the TIV scale. But we didn’t research clinical patients. That’s not what interested me. I’m interested in how this tendency appears in normal people, not those with a personality disorder. What we found was that like in a bell curve, most people who experience TIV appear in the middle range.

You found a correlation between TIV and what you referred to as “anxious attachment style”, as opposed to “secure and avoidant” styles. What is the anxious style?

Another way to say it is an “ambivalent attachment style.” So when a child is very young, and care is uncertain, perhaps the caregiver, or the male figures in the child’s life, don’t act consistently, sometimes they may act very aggressively without warning, or they don’t notice that the child needs care. That’s when the anxious attachment style or ambivalent attachment style is created.

So victimhood is a learned behavior after a certain age.

Yes, normally children internalize the empathetic and soothing reactions of their parents, they learn not to need others from outside to soothe themselves. But people with high TIV cannot soothe themselves. This is partly why they experience perceived offenses for long-term periods. They tend to ruminate about the offense. They keep mentioning they are hurt, remembering and reflecting on what happened, and also they keep dwelling on the negative feelings associated with the offense: hopelessness, insult, anger, frustration.

Why is it so difficult for people with a high degree of TIV to recognize that they can hurt other people?

They don’t want to divide up the land of victimhood with other people. They see themselves as the ultimate victim. And when other people say, “OK, I know that I hurt you, but you also hurt me,” and want them to take responsibility for what they did, the person with TIV is unable to do it because it’s very hard to see themselves as an aggressor.

In one of your studies, you conclude that TIV is related to an unwillingness to forgive, even to an increased desire for revenge. How did you come to that? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 May 2021 at 1:32 pm

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