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Archive for November 16th, 2022

DHS blocked vital research on domestic threats, say terrorism experts

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When the government breaks down because officials do not want to know. Hannah Allam reports in the Washington Post (no paywall):

As bloody, hate-fueled attacks rose in 2019, Homeland Security officials pledged to step up their response to domestic terrorism, funding in-depth research that would help them understand the scale of the problem.

“Accurate nationwide statistics will better position DHS to protect communities from these threats,” the department said in a strategy report.

More than two years later, that data collection has not begun, and $10 million languishes unused because of internal disputes over privacy protocols, according to researchers and an official of the Department of Homeland Security.

Academics who received DHS contracts say their projects to study violent attacks and extremist movements have been delayed, some effectively scrapped, because of an endless loop of privacy concerns that typically would not apply to work based on open-source records — unclassified materials such as news reports. In interviews, researchers described the roadblocks they have faced as “crazytown,” “mind-boggling” and “beyond logic.”

Their accounts were confirmed by a DHS official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely describe a sensitive internal debate. The official said around 20 research projects funded by Homeland Security faced varying degrees of delays because of rulings by the DHS’s Privacy Office that deemed them high-risk even after researchers repeatedly explained that the information they intended to use was widely available to the public. At least $2 million of funding has been returned unused; $10 million more is essentially frozen unless privacy officers approve the research.

After so many months of paralysis, the official said, DHS relations with top terrorism scholars have soured, and DHS leaders are left with a gap in data — just as national attention is again focused on political violence, which is at the root of the ongoing trials in the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, the recent assault of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul Pelosi, and far-right threats around the midterm elections.

Those issues are likely to come up this week as Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas makes public appearances to address the government’s response to violent extremism, a national security priority for the Biden administration. In June 2021, the need for more research was spelled out in the country’s first national strategy for countering domestic terrorism, which noted that understanding the threat “requires facilitating a systematic provision of information and data.”

So far, that information-gathering work has not been carried out.

“Right now, if the secretary of Homeland Security turns to us and says, ‘Last year, how many serious attacks based on ideology or grievance happened?’ we can’t answer those fundamental questions,” the DHS official said. “We don’t know.”

Homeland Security declined to address specific examples of delayed contracts or to explain the privacy concerns. In a statement, a DHS spokesperson said that addressing domestic violent extremism is a top priority and cited interagency intelligence-sharing, prevention-focused grant programs, and a dedicated domestic terrorism branch within the Intelligence and Analysis office.

“DHS engages in a community-based approach to prevent terrorism and targeted violence, and does so in ways that protect privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties, and that adhere to all applicable laws,” the statement said.

Within DHS, the official speaking anonymously said, one view is that privacy officers are trying to shield Mayorkas from potentially controversial research at a time when federal agencies are criticized by both major political parties for their response to political violence. Republicans in Congress have portrayed the effort to investigate domestic terrorism as a thought-police exercise that infringes on First Amendment rights. Some Democrats, too, have expressed wariness of federal overreach, citing the civil liberties violations of the war-on-terror years.

DHS is already under scrutiny because of the rollback of plans to fight disinformation and for reports that authorities sought dossiers on protesters in Portland, Ore. — indications of how easily counterterrorism work can be politicized.

The academic researchers on contract with DHS said they . . .

Continue reading. (no paywall)

There’s much more, but I should append a frustration warning.

Update: See also this article on the ongoing failure that DHS represents.

Written by Leisureguy

16 November 2022 at 8:51 pm

Is Elon Musk evil? or simply a fool?

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Noah Berlatsky has an excellent article in Public Notice answering that question. I’ll give you the TL;DR from the end of the article (which is definitely worth reading):

He’s evil and a butthead, both.

The article begins:

Billionaire Tesla CEO Elon Musk officially took private ownership of Twitter on October 27. Soon after he fired around half his employees, including key executives. He also gutted its checkmark verification system by turning it into a paid subscription service; this was intended, he said, to raise much needed revenue to offset the $13 billion in debt with which he saddled the company. Instead, it made it easy for trolls to impersonate everyone from George W. Bush to pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly; after an impersonator tweeted out that the latter was no longer charging for insulin, its stock cratered.

The chaos has caused advertisers to flee Twitter in droves, which is a catastrophic threat to a company where advertising revenue is the core income stream. In addition, Musk’s frenetic thrashing has probably violated the company’s FTC consent decree. Privacy execs in charge of monitoring and implementing that decree fled the company last week, the FTC itself issued a sharp warning, and Twitter stands to be fined millions, if not billions.

Musk has been self-boosting frantically on Twitter itself. (“Twitter HQ is great” he said in one tweet.) But in communications to his remaining employees (instantly made public) he’s warned that the company could be facing bankruptcy.

Musk’s brief tenure at Twitter has been so farcically inept that experts have called it a “case study in failed leadership.” Many on social media, though, have argued that Musk hasn’t really failed. His handling of the company has been so incompetent, and his response to critics so openly hostile, that some have argued that Musk bought the company intentionally — or perhaps subconsciously — to destroy it.

So which is it? Is Musk trashing Twitter because he is an incompetent fool? Or is he trashing Twitter because he is an evil, ugly troll?

The answer, as so often with these things, is “both.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

16 November 2022 at 3:18 pm

The 4-day workweek: Fewer hours, same pay

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Paddy Hirsch write’s in NPR’s Planet Money:

Companies in the United Kingdom are about to complete the biggest trial of a four-day work week ever undertaken, anywhere in the world. The program’s thesis was a provocative one: that for six months, these companies would reduce their workers’ hours by 20%, to 32 hours a week, but continue to pay them 100% of their pay.

Charlotte Lockhart, the founder of Four Day Week, the organization behind the pilot program, says company leaders usually have a visceral reaction when they hear the idea of cutting hours without cutting pay. Something like, “That’ll never work in my business. That’ll never work in my industry. That’ll never work in my country. That’ll never work in the world.”

Fortunately, she found 73 companies to give it a shot. They include financial firms, recruiters, consultants, health care companies and even a fish and chip shop (this is Britain, after all). And while the data on the study hasn’t been released yet, the anecdotal feedback from these firms appears to be positive. Fully 86% said they will likely continue the four-day workweek policy. The same pay for less time at work? Sign us up!

Reframing the workplace

From the moment the five-day week was adopted as the industry standard, about a century ago, we’ve been talking about spending less time at work. John Maynard Keynes declared in the early 1930s that technological advancement would bring the work week down to 15 hours within a century. A U.S. Senate subcommittee doubled down on this in 1965, predicting we’d only be working 14 hours by the year 2000.

But, over the last few years, the idea of shortening the work week has been given new impetus by the pandemic, which threw workplaces into disarray. That created a unique opening for reformers like Charlotte Lockhart. “The opportunity we have here is to completely reframe the workplace,” she says.

To get companies on board, she is using the holy grail of increased productivity as a lure. That’s a particularly tantalizing enticement for companies in the UK, where productivity has languished for more than a decade, and where, she says, workers are on average productive for just three hours a day.

“There is clear evidence around the world that if you reduce work time, you increase productivity,” she says, pointing to findings from studies done in IcelandNew Zealand, the UK, Belgium and Japan.

[Editor’s note: This is an excerpt of Planet Money‘s newsletter. You can sign up here.]

The data produced by these studies tends to be a little squishy: There are not a lot of hard numbers in them that allow readers to gauge productivity gains or losses in material terms. But managers and workers have generally reported being equally or more productive in a shortened week. They reported improved health and general wellbeing, as well as reduced stress and burnout. One big finding was that people who work fewer hours in the week tend to get more sleep, which almost everyone in the scientific community agrees is key to productivity.

Laura Giurge, a professor of behavioral science who studies wellbeing at the University of Oxford and the London School of Economics, says happier, better rested workers are likely to be more productive, and less likely to burn out or churn out. And a shortened week can drive productivity in other ways.

“It forces people to prioritize better and really focus on completing their core work,” she says. “It is almost like a removal of bullshit tasks or tasks that seem important but aren’t.”

She notes that companies often waste resources by keeping employees idle between meetings and tasks. “These idle hours not only fragment employees’ attention — and therefore productivity — but can also cost companies up to $100 billion a year in lost wages,” she says.

A shorter week can also go a long way to dealing with one of the biggest impairments to corporate productivity: employees taking time off to go to the doctor or recover from an illness. Giurge quotes research done in the U.S. estimating that . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

16 November 2022 at 12:09 pm

Posted in Business, Daily life

To Fight Misinformation, We Need to Teach That Science Is Dynamic

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Scientific American has an interesting article by Carl T. Bergstrom, Daniel R. Pimentel, and Jonathan Osborne:

Sixty-five years ago, a metal sphere the size of a basketball caught the U.S. science, military and intelligence communities by surprise. Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, launched into orbit by Russia, triggered U.S. policy makers to recognize that they were falling behind globally in educating and training scientists. In response, the government began investing in science education at every level from elementary to postgraduate. The aim was to scale up the nation’s scientific workforce and improve the public’s understanding of science, ensuring that we would never again face a comparable technology gap.

The Sputnik-era reforms produced a cadre of experts. But these reforms were largely unsuccessful in helping the public understand how science works, why science matters, and why and when it should be trusted. Reading most textbooks today, a student might never realize that before settled facts and models emerge, there is a period of uncertainty and disagreement. As we have seen during the COVID pandemic, some people think that the absence of consensus is an indication of some sort of scandal or malfeasance, instead of the way science is conducted. From there, one might be inclined to doubt the entire system, including any subsequent consensus.

It’s easy to see why so many of us struggle to distinguish trustworthy science from what is flawed, speculative or fundamentally wrong. When we don’t learn the nature of consensus, how science tends to be self-correcting and how community as well as individual incentives bring to light discrepancies in theory and data, we are vulnerable to false beliefs and antiscience propaganda. Indeed, misinformation is now a pervasive threat to national and international security and well-being.

Giving people more facts is insufficient. Instead, we need a populace that can tell which sources of information are likely to be reliable, even if the science itself is beyond what they learned in school, so that they can identify when they need scientific information to make decisions in their own lives. Just as critically, people must understand enough about how science attempts to minimize error. In other words, every member of our society needs to be what science education researcher Noah Feinstein calls a “competent outsider.”

To become competent outsiders, students need to learn how science produces reliable knowledge. But here our educational system is falling short. In the words of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the process of science is taught as a sequence of “posing problems, generating hypotheses, designing experiments, observing nature, testing hypotheses, interpreting and evaluating data, and determining how to follow up on the findings.” Curricula at all levels must teach how the social, collaborative nature of science works to produce reliable knowledge. Here are five core topics that should be included:

Uncertainty. Practicing scientists spend most of their time dealing with unsettled questions, whereas textbooks traffic in long-settled science. This can be disorienting when science-in-the-making is suddenly thrust into public view. Students should be taught how scientists manage uncertainty: typically, scientists consider some explanations more likely than others while holding open the possibility that any of a number of alternatives is correct. In most cases, when a new study is published, its results are not taken to be the definitive answer but rather a pebble on the scale favoring one of several hypotheses.

Peer review. Scientific claims are validated (or tossed out) through peer review, but this process does not . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

16 November 2022 at 10:02 am

Posted in Daily life, Science

The highly esteemed vintage Merkur white bakelite slant, with Grog

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Shaving brush whose white handle's profile is that of a keyhole and having a knot with a cream-colored body and gray tips. A tub of Grog Shave soap with blue label. A white bakelite slant razor. A bottle of Grog aftershave with blue label.

RazoRock’s Keyhole brush is a very pleasant shaving companion. It easily brought forth a fine lather from Tallow + Steel’s take on bay-rum shaving soap, Grog, with a fragrance composed of “West Indies Bay + Key Lime + Labdanum + White Fir + Rosemary + Ylang Ylang.”

Merkur’s white bakelite slant is a treasure, especially since they don’t seem inclined to make any more of them, despite is exceptional comfort and superb performance. Three passes left my face completely smooth — the classic BBS result.

A splash of Grog aftershave, and the day begins.

The tea this morning is Murchie’s London Afternoon: “Fragrant rose petals are interwoven with smoky Lapsang Souchong, sweetened with creamy vanilla and a touch of bright bergamot.”

Written by Leisureguy

16 November 2022 at 8:56 am

Posted in Caffeine, Shaving

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