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Archive for July 21st, 2021

Is it worthwhile to do research on the leading causes of death in the US? What about doing research on No. 12 on the list?

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Nidhi Subbaraman writes in Nature:

Maeve Wallace has studied maternal health in the United States for more than a decade, and a grim statistic haunts her. Five years ago, she published a study showing that being pregnant or recently having had a baby nearly doubles a woman’s risk of being killed1. More than half of the homicides she tracked, using data from 37 states, were perpetrated with a gun.

In March 2020, she saw something she hadn’t seen before: a funding opportunity from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study deaths and injuries from gun violence. She had mentioned firearms in her studies before. But knowing that the topic is politically fraught, she often tucked related terms and findings deep within her papers and proposals. This time, she says, she felt emboldened to focus on guns specifically, and to ask whether policies that restrict firearms for people convicted of domestic violence would reduce the death rate for new and expecting mothers. Male partners are the killers in nearly half of homicides involving women in the United States. “This call for proposals really motivated me to ask the research questions that I may not have otherwise asked,” says Wallace, an epidemiologist at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Wallace’s group is one of several dozen funded by a new pool of federal money for gun-violence research in the United States, which has more firearm-related deaths than any other wealthy nation. Although other countries fund research on guns, it is often in the context of trafficking and armed conflict. US federal funding of gun-violence research has not reflected the death toll, researchers say.

The new money comes after more than two decades of what has essentially been a freeze on funding for the topic. And that’s left a massive knowledge gap, says Asheley Van Ness, director of criminal justice at Arnold Ventures in New York City, a philanthropic organization that pledged US$20 million to gun research in 2018, in part because of the paltry federal funding. “For decades we just have under-researched basic questions on gun violence,” she says.

Spurred by advocacy that followed some high-profile school shootings, Congress has now authorized $25 million for each of the past two years to go to the NIH and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for the study of gun violence as a public-health issue. In April, President Joe Biden suggested doubling that figure.

Although researchers were initially slow to answer the funding call, studies such as Wallace’s are starting to look at how gun policies affect homicide rates. Others will investigate strategies to reduce suicides, which typically account for nearly two-thirds of gun deaths in the United States. And a handful of state health departments around the country are getting funding to collect better statistics on gun-related injuries.

The opening of the tap for federal dollars is considered an important advance, but those who have been watching the field for years say it will take more money and consistent investment to attract a committed cohort of researchers and fill in the data gaps. “That’s like turning a ship,” says David Studdert, who studies health law at Stanford Law School in California.

Meanwhile, gun violence in the United States shows no signs of slowing: 2020 emerged as the deadliest year in two decades, and the first few months of 2021 look even worse.

Control clause

Federal funds for firearms research have been heavily restricted ever since the 1996 Dickey Amendment, a clause added to that year’s annual spending bill that barred the CDC from funding any effort that advocates or promotes gun control.

Although the amendment did not explicitly ban research on firearms, the CDC saw its budget cut by $2.6 million in the year it passed — the same amount the agency was spending on the topic. CDC administrators saw the move as a message to steer clear, says Andrew Morral, a behavioural scientist at the Rand Corporation in Washington DC and director of the National Collaborative on Gun Violence Research, a consortium of foundations that fund firearms research.

The amendment remained in subsequent spending bills, and researchers who continued to work on gun violence say that their work received more scrutiny. “Any research we would put forward would create just a waterfall of backlash,” says Charles Branas, an epidemiologist at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York City. The gun lobby would argue that the work was biased, Branas says. Lawmakers would start asking questions. “That’s not something a cancer researcher has to contend with,” he says. “I think it scared off a lot of potential young scientists.”

The result has been an anaemic level of funding for research on one of the top 20 causes of mortality in the United States. One 2017 estimate2 says that gun-violence research is funded at about $63 per life lost, making it the second-most-neglected major cause of death, after falls (see ‘Dollars by death rate’). Private foundations have tried to fill the gap, but the levels are still low. The longest-running private funder, the Joyce Foundation in Chicago, Illinois, has invested $32 million since 1993; its annual funding has surpassed $2 million only once.

Things began to change after 2012 when a gunman shot and killed 20 children and 6 staff, before killing himself, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Amid a raging political fight over gun control, then-president Barack Obama called on federal agencies to fund research on the topic, triggering a call for proposals at the NIH (but not at the CDC, where funding is more tightly controlled by congressional appropriations).

Sandy Hook set the stage for federal funding to open up, says Nina Vinik, a former programme director and now a consultant at the Joyce Foundation. Among the numerous efforts to push for gun policy, “advocates saw that the case for federal funding for research was just an easy one for people to understand and get behind”, she says.

Funding figures bear this out. According to data provided by the NIH, between 1996 and 2015 the agency spent just under $2 million per year on average on research related to firearms. A new analysis by Nature estimates that the average more than tripled to just over $6 million per year over the next four years (see ‘Gun-research funding in the United States’).

Then, in February 2018, a shooter in Parkland, Florida, killed 17 people at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and injured 17 others before police arrested him. A national firestorm erupted over gun-control policies alongside renewed advocacy for research funding. The next month, lawmakers added language to the annual budget legislation that clarified the conundrum posed by the Dickey Amendment, stating that “the CDC has the authority to conduct research on the causes of gun violence”. Lawmakers eventually authorized dedicated funding in December 2019, giving $12.5 million each to the CDC and the NIH specifically for gun-violence research. Congress approved a second round of funding for the 2021 fiscal year in December, and President Biden in his budget request for 2022 asked for $50 million to go to the agencies.

Immediate impact

In March 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic looming, the NIH put out a call for projects seeking to study public-health questions related to gun violence.

Wallace at Tulane was one of nine researchers funded through the mechanism. She says that her research on gun laws could have direct relevance to policy. Gathering evidence that rules in some states reduce deaths for pregnant people could persuade other states to enact similar measures. That would be huge, Wallace says, because it “identifies a policy that states can pass now and have an immediate impact”.

Lisa Wexler, a community-based participatory researcher at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, also answered the NIH’s funding call. She was looking for ways to involve families in her work to prevent suicides in rural Alaska. During the 1990s and 2000s, Wexler worked there as a mental-health counsellor and a community organizer, and saw the crisis faced by Alaska Native youth. Alaska’s Indigenous people are twice as likely to die by suicide as are non-native residents of the state, and it is the leading cause of death for Alaska Native men under the age of 24.

She and her collaborators at the Maniilaq Association, an Alaska Native non-profit organization in Kotzebue that provides health services to Northwest Alaska residents, are laying the groundwork to test a new approach to gun safety. At health clinics, they will give people a brief talk about the need to safely store firearms at home, and offer them a lockable ammunition box or the option to have someone install a gun cabinet. “Making the environment safer is incredibly important, and it’s sort of an overlooked part of what we need to be doing for suicide prevention specifically in this country,” says Wexler. Past studies have shown that limiting access to lethal means correlates with a decline in suicide rates3,4. Wexler’s programme, by involving all residents, acknowledges the Alaska Native values of community support and belonging — as well as the ubiquity and necessity of gun ownership in the region.

“Hunting and fishing and gathering and living close to the land and animals and sea is still very deeply ingrained in the region here,” says Arlo Davis, Family Safety Net coordinator at the Maniilaq Association, who works with Wexler. “Our challenge is how do we do this research without shaming anybody — because most households have guns.”

Any shift in suicide trends will take some years to see, Wexler says, but she hopes such an approach will be one way to reduce the death toll.

Across the country in Philadelphia, implementation scientist Rinad Beidas at the University of Pennsylvania is testing whether routine paediatric visits can be an effective time to talk with new parents about gun safety. Like Wexler, Beidas hopes to prevent suicides — the risk of death by suicide is higher when guns are easily accessible in a home. Her NIH-funded project will have paediatricians counselling parents about ways to limit gun access — for instance, by keeping firearms unloaded and locked away in their homes — alongside the conventional checklist of child-safety measures, including car seats and smoke alarms. Study volunteers will also receive locks for their guns from the programme. “Just like we made cars safer with seatbelts, we want to make homes safer around safe firearm storage,” she says.

All told, the NIH disbursed about $8.5 million to nine new proposals in 2020, short of the $12.5 million authorized by Congress. The agency attributes the shortfall to the timing with the pandemic: “We did not receive as …

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by Leisureguy

21 July 2021 at 5:11 pm

Magnus Carlsen Crushed in 26 Seconds!!!

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Magnus Carlsen is world chess champion, and he is quickly defeated in this tournament game of bullet chess. In this game the time limit seems to have been 1 minute per player.

Written by Leisureguy

21 July 2021 at 3:25 pm

Posted in Chess, Games, Video

Raymond Scott’s bizarre but intriguing ideas

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Being ahead of one’s time is a serious curse. Ted Gioia has a most interesting column that begins:

Background: Below is the latest in my series of profiles of individuals I call visionaries of sound—innovators who are more than just composers or performers, but futurists beyond category. Their work aims at nothing less than altering our entire relationship with the music ecosystem and day-to-day soundscapes.

In many instances, their names are barely known, even within the music world. In some cases—as with Charles Kellogg, recently profiled here—they have been entirely left out of music history and musicology books.

In this installment, I focus on the remarkable legacy of Raymond Scott. During the coming months, I will be publishing more of these profiles. Perhaps I will collect them in a book at some point.

The Secret Music Technology of Raymond Scott

Unfortunately, I need to start this article by talking about Porky Pig.

Raymond Scott deserves better. He never intended for his legacy in music to depend on cartoon animals. But his largest audience, as it turned out, would be children who laugh at Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig and the other animated protagonists of the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons released by Warner Bros.

Scott didn’t write cartoon music—at least, not intentionally—but his music appears on more than 100 animated films. For that give credit (or blame) to Carl Stallings, who needed to churn out a cartoon soundtrack every week, more or less, while under contract to Warner Bros. Stallings found a goldmine in the compositions of Raymond Scott, whose music had been licensed to the studio. These works, which straddle jazz and classical stylings, possess a manic energy that made them the perfect accompaniment to a chase scene or action sequence or some random cartoon-ish act of violence.

Scott called his music “descriptive jazz”—his name for a novel chamber music style that drew on the propulsive drive of swing, with all the riffs and syncopation of that dance style, but with less improvisation and proclaiming a taste for extravagant, quasi-industrial sounds. It was like techno before there was techno, but with a jitterbug sensibility.

When I first learned about Scott, I was taught to view him as a music novelty act, akin perhaps to Zez Confrey or Spike Jones, and the most frequently cited examples of his work (to the extent, they were mentioned at all) were these cartoon soundtracks. But Scott had higher ambitions. He was, after all, a Juilliard graduate, with a taste for experimental music, and worldview more aligned with Dali and Dada than Daffy Duck. But Scott also wanted to be a technologist—his early aim had been to study engineering. He dreamed of combining these two pursuits, and gaining renown as one of the trailblazers in electronic music.

Under slightly different circumstances, he might have become even more famous for music tech than for his cartoon music, as well-known as Robert Moog or Ray Dolby or Les Paul or Leon Theremin. But those dreams were all in the future, when he picked the name “Raymond Scott” out of a phone book—because he thought it “had good rhythm.” . . .

Continue reading. It gets stranger and stranger. He invented a music synthesizer, for example, hiring Bob Moog to design circuits for him. (Moog later made his own synthesizer, of course.) Amazing story.

There’s an old country song called “Pictures from Life’s Other Side.” This whole piece reminded me of that.

Written by Leisureguy

21 July 2021 at 3:03 pm

Watching the Watchmen: The Michigan Group Who Planned to Kidnap the Governor

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Ken Bensinger and Jessica Garrison report in Buzzfeed:

The Michigan kidnapping case is a major test for the Biden administration’s commitment to fighting domestic terrorism — and a crucible for the fierce ideological divisions pulling the country apart.

In the inky darkness of a late summer night last September, three cars filled with armed men began circling Birch Lake in northern Michigan, looking for ways to approach Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s three-bedroom vacation cottage, subdue her — using a stun gun if necessary — and drag her away.

One vehicle stopped to check out a boat launch while a second searched in vain for the right house in the thick woods ringing the lake. The third car ran countersurveillance, using night vision goggles to look out for cops and handheld radios to communicate with the others.

Earlier, they had scoped out a bridge over the Elk River, just a few miles away, scrambling down under the span to figure out where plastic explosives would need to be placed to blow it sky-high. That would slow police response, giving the men time to escape with the governor — who had infuriated them by imposing COVID lockdowns, among other outrages — and either take her to Lake Michigan, where they could abandon her on a boat, or whisk her to Wisconsin, where she would be tried as a “tyrant.”

“Everybody down with what’s going on?” an Iraq War veteran in the group demanded to know when they ended their recon mission, well past midnight, at a campsite where they were all staying.

“If you’re not down with the thought of kidnapping,” someone else replied, “don’t sit here.”

The men planned for all kinds of obstacles, but there was one they didn’t anticipate: The FBI had been listening in all along.

For six months, the Iraq War vet had been wearing a wire, gathering hundreds of hours of recordings. He wasn’t the only one. A biker who had traveled from Wisconsin to join the group was another informant. The man who’d advised them on where to put the explosives — and offered to get them as much as the task would require — was an undercover FBI agent. So was a man in one of the other cars who said little and went by the name Mark.

Just over three weeks later, federal and state agents swooped in and arrested more than a dozen men accused of participating in what a federal prosecutor called a “deeply disturbing” criminal conspiracy hatched over months in secret meetings, on encrypted chats, and in paramilitary-style training exercises. Seven of the men who had driven to Birch Lake that night would end up in jail.

The case made international headlines, with the Justice Department touting it as an example of law enforcement agencies “working together to make sure violent extremists never succeed with their plans.” Prosecutors alleged that kidnapping the governor was just the first step in what some on the right call “the Big Boog,” a long-awaited civil war that would overthrow the government and return the United States to some supposed Revolutionary War–era ideal.

The defendants, for their part, see it very differently. They say they were set up.

The audacious plot
 to kidnap a sitting governor — seen by many as a precursor to the Jan. 6 assault on the US Capitol by hundreds of Trump-supporting protesters — has become one of the most important domestic terrorism investigations in a generation.

The prosecution has already emerged as a critical test for how the Biden administration approaches the growing threat of homegrown anti-government groups. More than that, though, the case epitomizes the ideological divisions that have riven the country over the past several years. To some, the FBI’s infiltration of the innermost circle of armed anti-government groups is a model for how to successfully forestall dangerous acts of domestic terrorism. But for others, it’s an example of precisely the kind of outrageous government overreach that radicalizes people in the first place, and, increasingly, a flashpoint for deep state conspiracy theories.

The government has documented at least 12 confidential informants who assisted the sprawling investigation. The trove of evidence they helped gather provides an unprecedented view into American extremism, laying out in often stunning detail the ways that anti-government groups network with each other and, in some cases, discuss violent actions.

An examination of the case by BuzzFeed News also reveals that some of those informants, acting under the direction of the FBI, played a far larger role than has previously been reported. Working in secret, they did more than just passively observe and report on the actions of the suspects. Instead, they had a hand in nearly every aspect of the alleged plot, starting with its inception. The extent of their involvement raises questions as to whether there would have even been a conspiracy without them.

A longtime government informant from Wisconsin, for example, helped organize a series of meetings around the country where many of the alleged plotters first met one another and the earliest notions of a plan took root, some of those people say. The Wisconsin informant even paid for some hotel rooms and food as an incentive to get people to come.

The Iraq War vet, for his part, became so deeply enmeshed in a Michigan militant group that he rose to become its second-in-command, encouraging members to collaborate with other potential suspects and paying for their transportation to meetings. He prodded the alleged mastermind of the kidnapping plot to advance his plan, then baited the trap that led to the arrest.

This account is based on an analysis of court filings, transcripts, exhibits, audio recordings, and other documents, as well as interviews with more than two dozen people with direct knowledge of the case, including several who were present at meetings and training sessions where prosecutors say the plot was hatched. All but one of the 14 original defendants have pleaded not guilty, and they vigorously deny that they were involved in a conspiracy to kidnap anyone. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

21 July 2021 at 12:58 pm

“My Deep, Burning Class Rage”

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Charlotte Cowles recounts in The Cut how a woman, who understandably wishes to remain anonymous, encounters financial inequity among those she knows and how it affects her. It begins:

Get That Money is an exploration of the many ways we think about our finances — what we earn, what we have, and what we want. In Living With Money, we talk to people about the stories behind their bank balances. Here’s how a 40-year-old woman in New York copes with “class rage” — the feeling that all her friends and colleagues are wealthier, and she’ll never be able to catch up.

I define class rage pretty specifically. It’s how I feel when I think that someone is in a similar financial situation to me, and then I discover that they actually have this extra source of money. When I was younger, it was like, “Oh wait, you come from a rich family.” But now it’s like, there’s a secret trust fund. Or a wealthy spouse. At my core, I believe that if you have money, your life is easier. If a person grew up rich, or with relative financial security, then I just can’t relate to them at all.

I work in book publishing in New York, which definitely compounds this problem. The publishing world is full of wealthy people — like a lot of creative industries, it has some glamour but it doesn’t pay well. So if you want to live comfortably, it helps if you have another income source. And these aren’t the types of wealthy people who flaunt their money. They tend to be more embarrassed about it. So they downplay it, like, “Oh, I’m just a poor book editor. I just do this job because I love literature.” And I’m like, no! You do this job because you can! That’s what really gets to me.

I don’t feel this way toward rich people in general, like celebrities or bankers on Wall Street. It’s not about rich people who make a lot of money at their jobs. Instead, I feel it toward people who have always had money — who’ve had this sense of backup that allows them to experiment in life and do what they want. I’m so jealous of that built-in freedom.

I know that these are unfair assumptions, and I might sound like a terrible person. I have plenty of rich colleagues who still work hard and are nice, good people. I hate that I feel this way. And I’m sure that lots of people might feel the same way about me — money and resources are all relative. But I have quite a bit of debt and my whole life feels so tenuous sometimes. I’m 40 and I’m single and I spend almost all of my money on rent and I’m constantly stressed about finances. I blame a lot of my problems on money, even though I know that’s irrational — they’re not really money problems. I just can’t shake the fact that if I had more financial security, my life would be much better. I don’t get jealous about material things — it’s lifestyle stuff, like having the freedom to go out for dinner without having to go consign my clothes to pay for it, which I have definitely done.

I was always jealous of people with money. When I was growing up, my dad was a high school teacher and my mom mostly did temp work, sort of picking up jobs where she could. We weren’t dirt poor, but it was very hand-to-mouth. Money was always an issue. At one point when I was a kid, my dad got cancer and the medical bills put my parents into a lot of debt. They tried not to make a big deal out of it, but there was always just this level of concern. There was no cushion. We had one car and it was always breaking down. I always knew that if I wanted anything, I’d have to work very hard for it, probably harder than most people I knew. Asking my parents for money was and is definitely never an option.

When I went to college, that was the first time I noticed a real divide between people who had money and people who didn’t, because some of us needed jobs. It was also the first time I became aware of how it impacted how you could perform. Like, I had to work three nights a week, so I literally didn’t have as much time to spend on my assignments as I wanted to. When I moved to New York in my mid-20s for grad school, I saved up for a year beforehand, working seven days a week, often double shifts. I got a full scholarship, but I still had to pay rent and support myself. And I’ve just been in survival mode ever since. When I finished my MFA, I was earning $25,000 a year and my rent was $1,200 a month. You do the math.

In grad school, I saw a whole new level of privilege. I was working three jobs and my friends and I would talk about struggling with money and then I’d realize that their parents were paying their rent. Or they could charge things to their parents’ credit cards in an “emergency.” Or that some of them had never had a job before in their lives. I became aware of the sheer amount of money that had gone into some of these people. Like, between their private schooling and Ivy League college and grad school, that’s more money than I’ll ever make in my lifetime. To be this walking investment, with this price tag on your life — I can’t understand what that would feel like. I’m sure there’s some pressure, and that must suck. But at the same time, the road has been smoothed for you.

One of my close friends from my MFA program, we had pretty similar career struggles and worked in very similar jobs, and it seemed like we were on a similar path in life. And I did occasionally notice that she’d say something like, “Oh, my family has this little ramshackle cabin in the woods somewhere, it’s covered in cobwebs,” when she really should have said, “I have a ski house in Colorado.” But I didn’t really know the extent of it until she had a baby. And that’s when a line was drawn. Suddenly, she was looking at real estate, buying an apartment, hiring a full-time nanny. And I’m not proud of this, but it changed how I felt about our entire relationship. I felt deceived. I know that people shouldn’t have to declare how much money they have in their family as a prerequisite for friendship. But it was more that what had felt to me like a shared struggle wasn’t real for her. When we had talked about our worries, about our careers and our futures, all those conversations suddenly felt tainted. It’s possible that she was doing it just to fit in and be friendly. But I felt like I’d been fooled.

We drifted apart after that, which is what usually happens when I find out about somebody’s money. I’ve never gotten in a fight over it. I just sort of stew, and then there’s this psychological distance that emerges.

I can’t do a lot of things because of money. Everyone says that — “I’m too poor, I can’t go out.” And that enrages me because I really mean it. It’s isolating, because I can’t talk about it. I can’t say, “I have $7 in my checking account,” because it scares people. And no one wants to be around someone who complains about money. I definitely have had to cut out a lot of acquaintances and networking opportunities because I cannot afford to just meet for a drink. I’m sure that people think that I’m depressed or I’ve just drifted off or something, but it’s really just the money.

I completely understand why people downplay their wealth. I would probably do the same thing if I were around someone with a lot less money than me. But what annoys me is the hypocrisy of it, acting like you haven’t had a leg up. I would just prefer people to be honest. Just accept that you’re privileged. Accept that you’re lucky. Accept that certain things are easier for you because of money. But people never do. Sometimes I wonder if they’re even aware.

What really haunts me is when I feel like I’ve been . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

21 July 2021 at 12:48 pm

Our Workplaces Think We’re Computers. We’re Not.

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Illustration by The New York Times; photograph by Stephanie Anestis

Related somewhat is a quotation I just encountered:

“The question of whether a computer can think is no more interesting than the question of whether a submarine can swim.”   — Edsger W. Dijkstra

In the NY Times an interesting podcast, with this introduction:

For decades, our society’s dominant metaphor for the mind has been a computer. A machine that operates the exact same way whether it’s in a dark room or next to a sunny window, whether it’s been working for 30 seconds or three hours, whether it’s near other computers or completely alone.

But that’s wrong. Annie Murphy Paul’s The Extended Mind argues, convincingly, that the human mind is contextual. It works differently in different environments, with different tools, amid different bodily states, among other minds.

Here’s the problem: Our schools, our workplaces, our society are built atop that bad metaphor. Activities and habits that we’ve been taught to associate with creativity and efficiency often stunt our thinking, and so much that we’ve been taught to dismiss — activities that look like leisure, play or rest — are crucial to thinking (and living!) well.

Paul’s book, read correctly, is a radical critique of not just how we think about thinking, but how we’ve constructed much of our society. In this conversation, we discuss how the body can pick up on patterns before the conscious mind knows what it’s seen, why forcing kids (and adults) to “sit still” makes it harder for them to think clearly, the connection between physical movement and creativity, why efficiency is often the enemy of productivity, the restorative power of exposure to the natural world, the dystopian implications of massive cognitive inequality, why open-plan offices were a terrible idea and much more.

You can listen to our whole conversation by following “The Ezra Klein Show” on AppleSpotifyGoogle or wherever you get your podcasts.

(A full transcript of the episode is available here.)

Written by Leisureguy

21 July 2021 at 12:38 pm

Some bonsai I like

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If I had a yard or even a balcony that got some sun, I’d definitely be doing some bonsai now. There are, of course, innumerable YouTube videos on doing bonsai (and I’ve even posted some — this one, for example, is particularly relevant). I personally like books, and many are available specifically for beginners. Given the pace of such a project, I think it would be meditative and relaxing. Consider giving it a go.

Written by Leisureguy

21 July 2021 at 11:39 am

Posted in Art, Books, Daily life, Memes

Arianna Rosenbluth Changed the World Before Leaving Science Behind

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By and large, society during my generation treated women badly (and by “society” I mean “men” but also organizations (overwhelmingly managed by men) and social conventions). This article provides one example but there are many others. One example often offered is how Crick and Watson used Rosalind Franklin’s findings but failed to credit her. That particular story does not correspond to the facts but there are many others — for example, how long Wally Frank had to wait before she was finally able to take a suborbital flight yesterday.

Here’s an example that is true, which Anastasia Carrier recounts in the Harvard Gazette. She writes:

A few years ago, Jean Rosenbluth was visiting her mother at a nursing home in Pasadena. The occasion was a holiday party, and Jean and her husband were seated with her mother and another couple. It came up in conversation that the man sharing the table was a history of science professor, specializing in physics.

“Oh, my mother was a physicist,” Jean said as she introduced her mother. “This is Arianna Rosenbluth.”

The professor was stunned. “Wait, the Arianna Rosenbluth?” Arianna smiled shyly and kept eating her lemon meringue pie.

Arianna Wright Rosenbluth, who received a master’s degree in physics from Radcliffe College in 1947, was one of five scientists who created the revolutionary Metropolis algorithm—the first practical implementation of what are now known as the Markov Chain Monte Carlo methods, go-to tools for solving large, complex mathematical and engineering problems.

Over the years, these methods have been used to simulate both quantum physics and markets, predict genetic predisposition to certain illnesses, forecast the outcomes of political conflicts, and model the spread of infectious diseases. It was Rosenbluth who found a way to get early computers to use the Markov Chain method, creating a blueprint that others followed.

“Arianna’s impact would last for a long time,” says Xihong Lin, a professor of biostatistics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who used Markov Chain Monte Carlo methods to analyze a large set of COVID-19 data from Wuhan and to calculate the infectiousness of the virus. The methods have also helped specialists evaluate the effectiveness of quarantine and stay-at-home measures.

“Without Rosenbluth, I don’t think the field of Markov Chain Monte Carlo would go that far,” says Lin, referring to the role of the Radcliffe-trained scientist in enabling wide use of the tool across disciplines. “Implementation is critically important. That’s why her contribution is a landmark and really should be emphasized—should be honored.”

The paper that Rosenbluth coauthored—along with her then-husband, Marshall Rosenbluth, Edward and Augusta Teller, and Nicholas Metropolis—was published in 1953, but the algorithm’s origin story remained a mystery for five decades. In 2003, Marshall shared his memory of the achievement during a conference celebrating its 50th anniversary. The researchers developed the tool to illuminate how atoms rearranged themselves as solids melted, he said. Marshall did most of the conceptual work, and Arianna translated their idea into a computer algorithm—a task that required a fundamental understanding of physics and computer science, and also creativity.

By all accounts, Rosenbluth, who died of COVID-19 complications in December at age 93, was brilliant. She earned her PhD in physics at Harvard at 21 and in her short career worked under two physicists who went on to earn Nobel Prizes. And yet she effectively quit science in her late 20s, leaving her job at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory to be a stay-at-home mother. She rarely spoke about her time in the lab—although she sometimes mentioned to her children how irritating it was that her ideas were overlooked because she was a woman trying to make it in a male-dominated field. Other times, she would lovingly describe MANIAC I—the Los Alamos machine that she used for computing the Metropolis algorithm.

“She was ahead of her time,” says Pierre E. Jacob, the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Natural Sciences and a professor of statistics in the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences, whose work involves Markov chains and probability modeling. In his syllabus, he renamed the Metropolis algorithm the Rosenbluth algorithm after reading about Arianna’s death.

“Better late than never,” he says.

Star on the Rise

Growing up in Houston, Arianna Wright was a mystery to her parents.

“Her mom and dad had this genius child, and they kind of didn’t know what to do with her,” says Mary Rosenbluth, one of Arianna’s four children. Leffie (Woods) Wright was confused by her quiet and introspective daughter, who didn’t care for fashion and rules but loved reading, especially fantasy books like L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz series. Mary recalls a newspaper article among her mother’s things that described Arianna as a child genius.

“It kind of struck me,” she says. “Here’s this girl growing up in suburban Houston, and she was just so different from everybody else.”

Arianna received a full-ride scholarship to Rice Institute (now Rice University) in Houston and took a bus to her classes. She earned her bachelor’s when she was 18, with honors in physics and mathematics. During her college days, she fenced against men as well as women, winning city and state championships. She qualified for the Summer Olympics in 1944, but World War II led to the cancellation of the games. She qualified again four years later but couldn’t afford to travel to London.

At Harvard, Arianna was rejected by one potential advisor because he didn’t take female PhD students, says Alan Rosenbluth, Arianna’s oldest child and a retired physicist. That was not uncommon. “Women were discouraged every step of the way,” says Margaret W. Rossiter, a Cornell historian of women in science. But Arianna forged ahead, in 1949 becoming just the fifth woman to earn a PhD in physics from Harvard.

She accepted a postdoctoral fellowship funded by the Atomic Energy Commission to study at Stanford University, where she . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

It strikes me that Arianna’s recognition of how to express the ideas of Markov chains using code in a computer algorithm bears a passing resemblance to how Zhi Bingyi’s recognition of how to express Chinese characters using the Latin alphabet on a keyboard (as described in the previous post).

Written by Leisureguy

21 July 2021 at 11:29 am

How a solitary prisoner decoded Chinese for the QWERTY keyboard

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Would it have been easier and faster if he had used the Dvorak keyboard? 🙂 In Psyche Thomas S Mullaney, professor of Chinese history at Stanford University, gives a fascinating account that shows the amazing way the brain works. He writes:

In China, suburban garages do not factor in the lore of computing history the way they do in the United States. But prisons do – at least, one particular prison in which a brilliant Chinese engineer was sentenced to solitary confinement for thought crimes against Mao Zedong during China’s Cultural Revolution. His name was Zhi Bingyi and, during long and anxiety-ridden days, months and years of solitude, he made a breakthrough that helped launch China’s personal computing revolution: he helped make it possible to type Chinese with a run-of-the-mill Western-style QWERTY keyboard.

Zhi was born in 1911 on China’s eastern coast, in Jiangsu province. His generation shouldered an almost unbearable burden: a mandate to dedicate their lives to the modernisation of their country. Zhi completed his undergraduate education in 1935, receiving a degree in electrical engineering from Zhejiang University. He moved to Germany in 1936, receiving his doctorate in 1944 from the University of Leipzig. He spent nearly 11 years in Germany, becoming fluent in the language, and marrying a German woman.

Upon the couple’s return to China in 1946, Zhi held a variety of distinguished posts, yet his long-time experience overseas made him suspect in the eyes of the still-nascent Chinese Communist Party regime following the 1949 revolution. When the Cultural Revolution erupted in 1966, Zhi became a marked man. Named a ‘reactionary academic authority’ (fandong xueshu quanwei) – one of the era’s many monikers for those condemned as enemies of the revolution – he was confined in one of the period’s infamous ‘ox pens’. The cell measured a claustrophobic six square metres. Outside its four walls, China descended into the political turmoil of the Cultural Revolution. In his hometown of Shanghai, fanatics and paramilitary groups pledged undying loyalty to the person of Chairman Mao. In the early months of the crisis, bands of radical youth set out upon ‘seek and destroy’ raids intent on purging the country of all pre-revolutionary vestiges of ‘Old China’.

Unsure if he would ever see his wife again, with no other voices besides his guards’, and with no work to occupy his mind, Zhi filled the long hours staring at the wall of his cell – specifically, at an eight-character poster that made a chilling assurance to him and anyone unfortunate enough to set their eyes upon it:

(tanbai congkuan, kangju congyan)
‘Leniency For Those Who Confess, Severity For Those Who Resist’

The message was clear: We have the authority to destroy your life (if you resist)Or to make your imprisonment somewhat more tolerable (if you confess).

Zhi read this terrifying couplet over and over again, for days, weeks and months on end. And then something began to happen – something that reminds us of the inherent strangeness of language.

No matter one’s mother tongue, the process of becoming fluent in a language is a process of forgetting that language is a form of arbitrary code. There is nothing inherently ‘candid, frank, or open’ about the character 坦 (tan), nor ‘white, blank, or clear’ about the character 白 (bai). As with any young child, Zhi in his earliest years of life would have looked upon these symbols as random assemblages of pen strokes on the page, born of a complex web of conventions whose origins we will never be able to reconstruct in full. But steadily, over the course of innumerable repetitions, something happens to us: the sounds and sights of language begin to approach, and then to achieve, a kind of natural, god-givenness. The character 白 (bai) no longer ‘stands in’ for whiteness by dint of painstaking study and memorisation, but merges with it effortlessly. This merger is the fruition of every child’s struggle to speak, read and write: the struggle to make inroads into their family and community’s semiotic universe, transforming it from an indecipherable code to a medium of expression.

While most of us experience this transformation as a one-way process, it can be reversed. A sound or symbol made second-nature can be denatured – defamiliarised and queered, in which one is somehow able to tap into the original meaninglessness of one’s mother tongue, even as one continues to be able to hear, see and speak it fluently.

This is what happened to Zhi. As he whiled away his time in prison, mulling over these eight characters (seven, if we account for one character that is repeated), this act of repetition restored to them their inherent arbitrariness. By the 100th reading – perhaps the 1,000th, we cannot know – Zhi began to explode these characters in his mind, into a variety of elements and constellations. The first character (坦), for example, could be readily divided into two distinct parts: 土 and 旦, and then further still into + and − (making up the component 土) and 日 and  (making up 旦). The second character 白 could be subdivided, as well, perhaps into 日, with a small stroke on top. Then the rest. Even in this short, eight-character passage, the possibilities of decomposition were abundant.

Zhi managed to get hold of a pen – the one he was given to write political self-confessions – but paper was impossible to find. Instead, he used the lid of a teacup, which his captors provided him to drink hot water. When turned over, Zhi discovered, the lid was large enough to fit a few dozen Latin letters. Then he could erase them and start again, like a student in ancient Greece with an infinitely reusable wax tablet. And so he mulled over each character one by one, decomposing them into elements, and then converting those elements into letters of the Latin alphabet.

He was creating a ‘spelling’ for Chinese – although not in the conventional sense of the word.

In Zhi’s system, the letters of the Latin alphabet would not be used to spell out the sound of Chinese words. Nor would they be used to ‘compose’ them per se. Instead, he envisioned using Latin letters to retrieve one’s desired Chinese character from memory. For him, Latin letters would be the instructions or criteria one fed to a machine, telling the device to, in effect, ‘retrieve the Chinese characters that match these requirements’.

Take the example of fu (幅), a Chinese character meaning ‘width’. Ultimately, Zhi settled upon an unexpected ‘spelling’ for this character, which bore no resemblance to its sound: J-I-T-K. The first letter in this sequence (J) corresponded not to the phonetic value of the character (which should begin with ‘F’) but to a structural element located on the left-most side of the character: the component 巾 that, when seen in isolation, is pronounced jin. The code symbol ‘J’ was derived from the first letter of the pronunciation of the component.

The rest of the spelling – I, T and K – followed the same logic. ‘I’ was ‘equal to’ the component/character yi (一); ‘K’ referred to the component kou (口); and ‘T’ to tian (田). Other letters in Zhi’s code performed the same role:

D = the structure 刀 (with ‘D’ being derived from dao, the pronunciation of this character when seen in isolation)
L = 力 (same logic as above, based on the Pinyin pronunciation li)
R = 人 (same logic as above, based on the Pinyin pronunciation ren)
X = 夕 (same logic as above, based on the Pinyin pronunciation xi)

Zhi eventually gave his code a name: ‘See the Character, Know the Code’ (Jianzi shima), ‘On-Site Coding’ (OSCO), or simply ‘Zhi Code’ (Zhima).

In September 1969, Zhi was released from prison, rejoining his wife and family at their apartment on South Urumqi Road, in Shanghai – albeit in a form of prolonged house arrest.

Other changes were afoot, as well. In 1971, the United Nations recognised Beijing as the official representative of China, granting the country a seat on the Security Council. In 1972, Richard Nixon shocked the world with the first US presidential delegation to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In 1976, Mao died of cancer, setting in motion a profound sweep of political, economic and social transformations. Then, in 1979, the gates opened even wider, with the normalisation of relations with the US.

One of the many changes that Sino-US normalisation brought was an influx – first a drip, then a flood – of US-built computers . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by Leisureguy

21 July 2021 at 10:56 am

Test shave: A drying soap + Grooming Dept Hydrating Gel

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Grooming Dept suggested one way of using their Hydrating Gel is to add a couple of squirts to the loaded brush before working up the lather, thus mixing into the lather the skin-friendly gel. I tried that with a very good soap and could not detect any improvement because the soap was already so rich with skin-conditioning and skin-nourishing ingredients that any additional benefit from Hydrating Gel was not noticeable. But it occurred to me that with a more marginal shaving soap — and in particular with a soap that leaves my skin feeling dry — Hydrating Gel might well be a boon.

MdC Orginal Shaving Soap

Martin de Candre makes a wonderfully luxurious lather, but it leaves my skin feeling dry. I don’t know what ingredient might be the cause, but I counter by using an aftershave balm or milk rather than a splash (or, now that I know about it, I use an aftershave splash with a squirt or two of Hydrating Gel mixed in), but I thought it would be interesting to try adding Hydrating Gel to the brush and see what that would do — thus today’s shave.

To isolate the effects, I skipped my usual pre-shave application of Grooming Dept Moisturizing Pre-Shave, since that does make a noticeable difference in how soft and supple my skin feels after the shave, and I also decided to skip any aftershave. I originally thought just a plain splash would not alter the results — I was going to use Alpa 378 — but then I decided that an unadorned use of shaving soap and hydrating gel would give the best finding. So what you see in the photo is the entirety of the shave.

I splashed some water on my stubble, held the knot of my Rooney Finest under the hot-water tap, and gave it a couple of shakes and then loaded it from the tub of Martin de Candre shaving soap. I had to add a driblet of water to complete the loading, and then I pushed open the knot a little and added two good squirts of Hydrating Gel before I started building the lather on my face.

The lather seemed fine — MdC has always made good lather, so I didn’t notice much change in that. (I also have the benefit of very soft tap water, which helps a lot with soaps.) This week I’ve been running through a sequence of slant razors, and this morning’s is the RazoRock German 37, whose head is a clone of the Merkur 37 but which has a three-piece design — IMO a superior design since it allows the user to swap handles if he wants.

Three passes left my face perfectly smooth, and then a splash of cold water served as an aftershave.

It’s now been about half an hour after the shave, and I do detect a difference. My skin is noticeably less dry than what I normally experience when using this soap, and I’m sure it would be even better if the shave including Grooming Dept Moisturizing Pre-Shave and ended with an aftershave splash with a squirt of Hydrating Gel mixed in, or with an aftershave balm or milk.

Bottom line: If you’re using a shaving soap that leaves your skin feeling a little dry, trying adding some Hydrating Gel to the brush after you’ve loaded it with soap — and I suggest also using Hydrating Gel with the aftershave splash.

Written by Leisureguy

21 July 2021 at 9:29 am

Posted in Shaving

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