Later On

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

Archive for May 30th, 2021

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 Walmart.com. 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

It’s working!

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I just revised and extended this post on box construction, so take a look. It now includes step-by-step assembly instructions for the incubator and a photo of the first test batch, entirely successful! I think that post is now good enough to include in the Useful Posts page, so I added it to that list.

Written by Leisureguy

30 May 2021 at 8:27 am

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