Later On

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

Archive for November 21st, 2021

Big Business’s effort to protect monopolies and undermine the US government

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Matt Stoller writes in BIG:

The Swamp Strikes at Lina Khan

Since the Senate confirmed Lina Khan to be one of two key antitrust enforcers in June, the network of corporatist operatives in D.C. and Wall Street have been quietly trying to undermine her. This week, the campaign came into the open. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce just announced in the Wall Street Journal that it will be engaged in open conflict with the Federal Trade Commission, and more broadly with anti-monopolists across government.

“It feels to the business community that the FTC has gone to war against us, and we have to go to war back,” said Chamber President and CEO Suzanne Clark. The plan from the Chamber is endless harassment of the agency. They are filing Freedom of Information Act requests for the correspondence of Khan and her staff, writing warning letters about the commission’s actions, and threatening to sue the FTC at every step (even on things that went through on a bipartisan vote). The Chamber is also sending letters to every agency in government, in organized pushback against the Biden executive order on competition. The goal is to frighten lawyers at these agencies, to make it too painful to try and govern.

Meanwhile, Google, which is probably funding the Chamber’s campaign against the Biden anti-monopoly agenda, demanded that new Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Kanter recuse himself from any involvement in the antitrust suit against them, and advocacy groups funded by dominant firms are echoing the attack on Khan. The Chamber’s public declaration of war is, in fact, pro forma; everyone knows that big tech funds the Chamber, and that big tech has been running a nonstop campaign against assertive antitrust enforcement. The only difference is now it’s public that they are doing it.

Attacks on public servants who stand up to power tend to start with process critiques, as well as allegations that someone is radical or dangerous. Jim Cramer on CNBC, for instance, has been regularly going after Khan as anti-business and unfairly hostile to big, as has conservative outlet Breitbart (which is rumored to have extensive ties to Facebook).

Antitrust defense lawyers are spreading false rumors, like the FTC is asking about corporate social responsibility policies in merger reviews, which is something that Senator Mike Lee – who seems to personally despise Khan – has picked up in hearings. Meanwhile, internal foes of Khan at the FTC are saying that she’s a bad manager, and that there’s a staff exodus. Stories with headlines like “Lina Khan Sees Turbulent Start as Head of Federal Trade Commission” emerge regularly.

The goal of all of these little process stories and rumors – true or not – is to spread doubt, so that when that official makes a mistake, there’s a pre-existing narrative about why that mistake happened. The real objection here is that Khan, and anti-monopolists like Jonathan Kanter, who was just confirmed as the Department of Justice Antitrust Division chief, are actually intent on wielding power.

Such pushback against Khan and anti-monopolists was inevitable, because the anti-monopoly movement is an existential threat to the power of Wall Street and dominant firms. The FTC is one of the key agencies in government designed to take on corporate misconduct and consolidation, and neutering the commission in the early 1980s was a key step in building a corporatized American order. The old guard desperately wants to keep the FTC out of the hands of the anti-monopolists, because they know how powerful it can be.

And Khan is a nightmare for them. Prior to her appointment, Khan’s academic work – in particular her analysis of Amazon – led to a wholesale rethinking of the problem of corporate power in both parties and across commerce. Scholars, labor leaders, and businesspeople are musing on the problem of concentration in everything from shipping to to meatpacking to oil and gas.

Now we’re starting to see what Khan looks like as an administrator, and as it turns out, she is a very serious and competent regulator. She’s already had one notable success in amplifying the work of the ‘right to repair’ movement. Apple, in response to FTC pressure, just announced that it will make it easier for consumers to repair their own phones and MacBooks. This follows Microsoft’s similar move, and we can expect to see changes across the economy as firms gradually stop locking customers out of their own equipment. That’s a big deal.

That said, the real challenge in the antitrust world is the historic merger wave. According to Bloomberg, “Companies have announced $2.8 trillion of deals so far in 2021, an unprecedented number that puts this year on track to be the most active ever.” (These are a result of cheap credit from the Fed and the CARES Act passed in 2020.) This wave creates a special problem for the FTC. While European competition enforcers can simply block a deal until it’s been investigated, in the U.S. deals automatically go through unless the FTC brings a challenge in court with a deeply researched complaint. With thousands of deals going through, the experience of being at the FTC today is like playing tennis against a machine that shoots tennis balls at you unrelentingly.

In the midst of this merger boom, Khan has been pursuing every possible trick to address the problem. She has demanded merging firms get prior approval before pursuing new mergers, ended the process of quickly clearing mergers, and withdrawn loose merger guidelines. The FTC is now sending letters to firms telling them that the commission may undo mergers in the future, thus creating an incentive for firms to delay deals. These moves are not enough to . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

21 November 2021 at 3:26 pm

Life expectancy calculator, given your current stats

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Life expectancy tables often are based on life expectancy at birth — for example, the US overall male life expectancy is 76.3 years (compared to the EU’s male life expectancy of 78.5 years, but what do they know?). Female life expectancy is a bit better: US 81.3 years, EU 84.0 years.

But as you live, your life expectancy changes. For example, if you die in your 40’s from some disease, you obviously no longer have a life expectancy at all. And if your survive to (say) 96.3 in the US, you don’t have to turn in the extra 10 years.

So it’s possible to get a better idea of your life expectancy by taking some additional factors into account: not only your sex, but also your current age, whether you smoke, your overall health, and so on.

This little calculator does that. (It does not, however, take into account where you live, though it’s obvious that there’s a big difference between, say, US and EU life expectancies (probably due to the EU’s superior social welfare programs: healthcare, family leave, education, and so on, things conservatives strongly oppose — new slogan: “GOP opposes longer lifespans”).

Written by Leisureguy

21 November 2021 at 1:21 pm

Posted in Daily life, Science

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Reason is the Slave to Passions: AI edition

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Recently I blogged Daniel Weltman’s 1000-word essay on what David Hume had to say about reason being subservient to passion. I wrote to him to point out that António Demásio in Descartes’ Error described how people who cannot feel any emotion (i.e., passion) due to a brain injury are unable to make a decision. He replied, and with his permission I share his reply:

Hi Michael. Thanks for your comment on the article! I do indeed know about Damásio’s book. As you can imagine, in the centuries since Hume, we’ve developed somewhat more detailed models of human action, and so to a certain extent, the “passion” vs. “reason” dichotomy is somewhat outdated, and so the question of whether passions are necessary for action would today be rejected as imposing an overly simplistic way of thinking about things. But you’re absolutely right that Damásio suggests that Hume’s central idea is right, at least when it comes to humans.

There are lots of interesting implications of this. One is whether this is a necessary fact about humans, or whether it could be altered: could someone with no passions find some replacement when it comes to motivation? This question is especially important with respect to developing artificial intelligence. One goal we might have is programming robots to act in a certain way. If humans cannot act without passions, is it possible for robots to do so? If they can do it, why can’t we? And if they can’t do it, does this mean that if I program a robot to do something, I must’ve somehow programmed passions into it?

Lots of stuff to think about!

I hadn’t though of AI, and while general AI remains elusive, we do have high-performing AI programs such as AlphaGo, which defeated world champion Lee Sedol 4-1 in a 5-game match. But did AlphaGo feel about its defeat the way that Lee Sedol felt about his? I doubt it.

Still, it does seem that reason in itself is quiescent and not moved until passion drives it. Without some passion — curiosity, ambition, purpose — reason has no motive to do anything at all. Reason becomes activated when there is some sort of desire to drive it. Even in mathematics, which is as pure an example of reason in action, the structures and findings are due to curiosity and ambition and a desire to understand and to know.

AlphaGo was built with a desire to win at Go. The passions was provided by the algorithms.

Update: Daniel Weltman emailed me to point out that “desire” includes (naturally enough) the implication of “desirability,” and we often must perforce do things that come up short in the desirability department — for example, take out garbage, or change a stinky diaper. “Desire” suggests an associated enjoyability, which may be absent from actions we decide to do (although regular readers know that I strongly advocate figuring out how to make enjoyable things one must do, particularly repeated necessary tasks — see “Make Repeated Tasks Enjoyable” (and, for that matter, the more specific “Learning a New Skill Is a Struggle — Find Pleasure in It”).

Nonetheless, it is certainly true that we can (and often do) take actions that we say we don’t “want” to do. But, obviously, we are directing ourselves to do them, so some internal decision has been made to do those things. I think the word “will” would work better here than “desire,” since “will” strips away the implication of enjoyment and leaves bare the stark inner decision to achieve some goal.

Is “will,” though, a passion? I don’t think of it as that, but it is also not (mere) reason. Reason can be employed by the self to actualize what one wills, and without the will reason does not move. Roberto Assagioli, MD, the father of psychosynthesis, saw will as central to our psychological health and functioning — cf. The Act of Will, or the paper “The Training of the Will” (PDF).

Perhaps will might be seen as a passion of the soul, or of the self.

Written by Leisureguy

21 November 2021 at 12:43 pm

The US has a very few — Gates, Bezos, Musk, Buffett, et al. — who capture almost all the wealth

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The turning point was Ronald Reagan.

Written by Leisureguy

21 November 2021 at 12:01 pm

Orange Kabocha squash and Royalty pumpkin

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Orange Kabocha squash and Royallty pumpkin

The Wife and I visited the Root Cellar, the new produce market over in Cook Street Village, and I picked up a couple of attractive squashes. (You know you’re growing older when you talk about picking up attractive squashes.) I was particularly taken by the Royalty’s yellow and orange coloring. The label identifies it as a “Royalty pumpkin,” so I followed that usage in the post title, but “pumpkin” is merely the name given to some squashes.

The word “pumpkin” does not have any botanical meaning but is actually a common term used to refer to any round, orange squash (mostly belonging to the species Cucurbita pepo and Cucurbita maxima). Conversely, a squash is any edible herbaceous vine that belongs to the Cucurbitaceae family. Its color and shape can vary depending on its species. In other words, a pumpkin is a squash but not all squash are pumpkins.

I had never heard of an orange kabocha, which is, as you see, a dark orange with a green tinge. A little searching found the probable reason:

Orange kabocha

The Orange kabocha squash, botanically classified as Cucurbita maxima, is a uchiki red kuri and kabocha squash hybrid. The Orange kabocha, sometimes known as sunshine kabocha, is said to have superior flavor and texture over its parenting varieties.

That photo is from the link. In terms of the squash’s belly button — where the blossom was — the kuri is an outie (see this photo) and the kabocha is much flatter. The orange kabocha has the kabocha-style belly button.

Since I’ve now tasted both kabocha and kuri — and in fact have some cooked kuri in the fridge — I’m eager to try the orange kabocha. I’m curious to see what the seeds will be like once roasted. (Kabocha seeds are not worth roasting — too tough and hard, quite unlike buttercup seeds. Update: I tried another kabocha, and its seeds were fine. So there’s more variance in seed edibility/quality than I expected. /update BTW, there’s a butternut-buttercup hybrid, the honeynut squash, that I would dearly love to try. I’ll have to look for it at the Root Cellar, though on my recent visit I didn’t even see any buttercup squash.)

Pepita Pumpkin

The Royalty pumpkin/squash is totally new to me, and I can find no information about it in the searches I’ve done. It’s a beautiful thing, though, isn’t it? I was looking for more information about its nutritional value and for recipe ideas, but found nothing. I will do the usual chop and roast, including seeds. (In this morning’s searches, I learned that there are some squash specially bred to have tasty, tender seeds: the pepita pumpkin, for example.) So when you buy “pepitas,” you’re buying seeds from that sort of pumpkin.

Here’s a photo of squashes I have on hand, so you can compare and contrast the orange and regular kabocha;

L to R: Orange kabocha, regular kabocha, Royalty pumpkin

Update: The orange kabocha squash had a good number of seeds, and they were not so tough as the seeds from the regular kabocha in the photo. I roasted them for 40 minutes at 400ºF, the last 30 minutes along with half the squash cut into chunks and about 8 halved mushrooms, all tossed with olive oil, a small pinch of fine grey sea salt, and a good sprinkling of ground chipotle.

Written by Leisureguy

21 November 2021 at 11:47 am

Double Inhale, Single Exhale Breathing Reduces Stress & Anxiety

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Very interesting. And it works, for reasons he explains in the 2-minute clip.

Written by Leisureguy

21 November 2021 at 5:34 am

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