Later On

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

Archive for January 17th, 2023

The Deadbeat Limit — Understanding The Debt Ceiling

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Jay Kuo has a good explainer at Second Nexus:

There’s a lot of talk in Washington around the so-called “debt ceiling” which is a really unfortunate name. I prefer to call it the “deadbeat ceiling.”

Why? A “debt” ceiling implies that what we’re talking about is like a credit card, as if Congress were voting whether or not to raise our borrowing limit.

As former Missouri Senator Claire McKaskill succinctly put it, however, this “is NOT raising your credit card limit, it is making your car payment.”

Let’s walk through why that is, and then I’ll explain why the correct framing of the issue may answer another important and pressing legal question: Can Joe Biden just ignore Congress and fix the deadbeat limit problem on his own?

Why the “debt limit” is a “deadbeat limit.”

With Republicans in charge of the House, the question is whether the GOP will turn the U.S. government into a deadbeat debtor. Deadbeats, if it even needs to be spelled out, are people who don’t pay the debts they promised to pay.

And that’s what this is really about.

You see, Congress already voted to pay for all the paychecks and programs that are supposedly now on the GOP chopping block. So by threatening to not pay them after the fact, they are trying to get two bites at this apple.

It would be as if you ran a big company and signed a lot of employee and vendor contracts, and then the next year you claimed:

“Well, I know I said I’d pay you, and I have that legal obligation, but I’m just not going to do that.”

“Not unless you agree that I can either not pay you anything or pay you a lot less, now that you really need that money!”

If this sounds familiar, this was the precise M.O. of the Trump Organization, which for years routinely stiffed small businesses, contractors and vendors out of the money they were owed and forced them to settle for pennies on the dollar rather than risk a protracted and expensive court fight.

By threatening to renege on payments it already agreed to, in this case by refusing to give the White House the authority to pay the nation’s debts, the GOP-led House is threatening to turn the U.S. government into a deadbeat debtor, just like the Trump Org.

And that’s why Joe Biden is right to refuse to even negotiate with them.

There’s nothing to negotiate, because the payment agreements were already made last year with the passage of the budget.

As Democratic Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii said plainly:

“In exchange for not crashing the United States economy, you get nothing.”

He continued:. . .

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Written by Leisureguy

17 January 2023 at 7:48 pm

Extremely Hardcore: Musk and Twitter

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Zoë Schiffer, Casey Newton, and Alex Heath write in New York (no paywall):

In April 2022, Elon Musk acquired a 9.2 percent stake in Twitter, making him the company’s largest shareholder, and was offered a seat on the board. Luke Simon, a senior engineering director at Twitter, was ecstatic. “Elon Musk is a brilliant engineer and scientist, and he has a track record of having a Midas touch, when it comes to growing the companies he’s helped lead,” he wrote in Slack.

Twitter had been defined by the catatonic leadership of Jack Dorsey, a co-founder who simultaneously served as CEO of the payments business Block (formerly Square). Dorsey, who was known for going on long meditation retreats, fasting 22 hours a day, and walking five miles to the office, acted as an absentee landlord, leaving Twitter’s strategy and daily operations to a handful of trusted deputies. When he spoke about Twitter, it was often as if someone else were running the company. To Simon and those like him, it was hard to see Twitter as anything other than wasted potential.

In its early days, when Twitter was at its most Twittery, circa 2012, executives called the company “the free-speech wing of the free-speech party.” That was the era when the platform was credited for amplifying the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Arab Spring, when it seemed like giving everyone a microphone might actually bring down dictatorships and right the wrongs of neoliberal capitalism. That moment, which coincided with the rise of Facebook and YouTube, inspired utopian visions of how social networks could promote democracy and human rights around the world.

Twitter rode this momentum to become one of the most important companies in tech: an all-consuming obsession for those working or merely interested in politics, sports, and journalism around the world. Frequently, the platform set the news agenda and transformed nobodies into Main Characters. What it lacked in profits it more than made up for in influence.

No one understood how to weaponize that influence better than Donald Trump, who in 2016 propelled himself into the White House in part by harnessing hate and vitriol via his @realDonaldTrump feed. A new consensus that the site was a sewer made it worth a lot less money. Disney CEO Bob Iger pulled out of a bid to acquire Twitter, saying the “nastiness” on the platform was extraordinary.

After the election and the blown deal, Twitter overhauled its content-moderation policies, staffed up its trust and safety team, and committed itself to fostering “healthy conversations.” Never again would it let itself be used by a tyrant to sow discord and increase polarization. Two days after the January 6 insurrection, the platform banned Trump; the company had seen the toll of unfettered speech and decided it wasn’t worth it.

This was the Twitter that irked Elon Musk so much that he became convinced he had to buy it. In his view, by 2022 the company had been corrupted — beholden to the whims of governments and the liberal media elite. It shadow-banned conservatives, suppressed legitimate discourse about COVID, and selectively kicked elected officials off the platform. Who better to restore Twitter to its former glory than its wealthiest poster?

Like Trump, Musk knew how to use Twitter to make himself the center of the conversation. His incessant, irreverent tweeting violated every norm of corporate America, endearing his fans, pissing off his haters, and making him the second-most-followed active account on the site. “At least 50% of my tweets were made on a porcelain throne,” he tweeted one evening in late 2021. “It gives me solace.”

Musk offered to buy the company for the absurdly inflated price of $44 billion. The move thrilled employees like Simon who chafed at Twitter’s laid-back atmosphere and reputation for shipping new features at a glacial pace. Simon, who owned a portrait of himself dressed as a 19th-century French general, told his team, which managed advertising services, that he wanted to build an “impact-focused, egalitarian and empirical culture, where any team member, with a strong data-driven justification, gets the metaphorical center stage.”

Other employees noted the darker motifs of Musk’s career — the disregard he brought to labor relations, the many lawsuits alleging sexual harassment and racial discrimination at his companies — and found his interest in Twitter ominous. On Slack, a product manager responded to Simon’s enthusiasm for Musk with skepticism: “I take your point, but as a childhood Greek mythology nerd, I feel it is important to point out that story behind the idea of the Midas touch is not a positive one. It’s a cautionary tale about what is lost when you only focus on wealth.”

The comment would prove to be prophetic. According to more than two dozen current and former Twitter staffers, since buying the company in October 2022, Musk has shown a remarkable  . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

17 January 2023 at 6:32 pm

Tesla video promoting self-driving was staged, senior engineer testifies

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Written by Leisureguy

17 January 2023 at 5:57 pm

What the Jan. 6 probe found out about social media, but didn’t report

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Cat Zakrzewski, Cristiano Lima, and Drew Harwell have an important report (no paywall) in the Washington Post:

The Jan. 6 committee spent months gathering stunning new details on how social media companies failed to address the online extremism and calls for violence that preceded the Capitol riot.

The evidence they collected was written up in a 122-page memo that was circulated among the committee, according to a draft viewed by The Washington Post. But in the end, committee leaders declined to delve into those topics in detail in their final report, reluctant to dig into the roots of domestic extremism taking hold in the Republican Party beyond former president Donald Trump and concerned about the risks of a public battle with powerful tech companies, according to three people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the panel’s sensitive deliberations.

Congressional investigators found evidence that tech platforms — especially Twitter — failed to heed their own employees’ warnings about violent rhetoric on their platforms and bent their rules to avoid penalizing conservatives, particularly then-president Trump, out of fear of reprisals. The draft report details how most platforms did not take “dramatic” steps to rein in extremist content until after the attack on the Capitol, despite clear red flags across the internet.

“The sum of this is that alt-tech, fringe, and mainstream platforms were exploited in tandem by right-wing activists to bring American democracy to the brink of ruin,” the staffers wrote in their memo. “These platforms enabled the mobilization of extremists on smaller sites and whipped up conservative grievance on larger, more mainstream ones.”

But little of the evidence supporting those findings surfaced during the public phase of the committee’s probe, including its 845-page report that focused almost exclusively on Trump’s actions that day and in the weeks just before.

That focus on Trump meant the report missed an opportunity to hold social media companies accountable for their actions, or lack thereof, even though the platforms had been the subject of intense scrutiny since Trump’s first presidential campaign in 2016, the people familiar with the matter said.

Confronting that evidence would have forced the committee to examine how conservative commentators helped amplify the Trump messaging that ultimately contributed to the Capitol attack, the people said — a course that some committee members considered both politically risky and inviting opposition from some of the world’s most powerful tech companies, two of the people said.

“Given the amount of material they actually ultimately got from the big social media companies, I think it is unfortunate that we didn’t get a better picture of how ‘Stop the Steal’ was organized online, how the materials spread,” said Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism nonprofit. “They could have done that for us.”

The Washington Post has previously reported that Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the committee’s co-chair, drove efforts to keep the report focused on Trump. But interviews since the report’s release indicate that Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat whose Northern California district includes Silicon Valley, also resisted efforts to bring more focus in the report onto social media companies.

Lofgren denied that she opposed including a social media appendix in the report or more detail about what investigators learned in interviews with tech company employees. . .

Continue reading. (no paywall)

Written by Leisureguy

17 January 2023 at 5:13 pm

Twitter is being used by a billionaire to shift public opinion. Time to go elsewhere

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“Eric Blair” (George Orwell’s real name) writes at Deep Narrative:

“Nothing in the world is less surprising and easier to understand than a right-wing billionaire purchasing a media entity and immediately trying to use it to pursue his ideological agenda and class interests.” – Chris Hayes, talking about Twitter and Elon Musk.

What is happening at Twitter?

It now seems clear Elon Musk is changing Twitter to amplify rightwing voices.

He’s fired a large number of employees. He gave remaining employees an ultimatum: if they were “hardcore” enough, they could click a button to stay — and otherwise they’d be laid off. That kind of ultimatum will tend to retain the people that are loyal to Musk himself and aligned with him ideologically, and will tend to get employees who oppose Musk’s agenda to leave. Recently he’s announced that Twitter is hiring again, and he wants referrals from those remaining, more Musk-loyal, more rightwing employees.

Musk has let a number of far-right accounts back on the platform, and reports are that the activity of rightwing trolls on the platform are up.

And back in the spring, when Musk was working on this Twitter deal, Musk got some texts (disclosed as part of a lawsuit) from an unidentified person that might explain what is happening now. That person said “Congratulations! …some of the things that [you] might [make] happen [at Twitter]: Step 1: Blame the platform. Step 2: Coordinated pressure campaign. Step 3: Exodus of the Bluechecks [the verified, trusted accounts]. Step 4: Deplatforming [of liberals]”.

The texts continue:
“But it will not be easy. It will be a war. Let the battle begin. It will be a delicate game of letting right wingers back on Twitter, especially the boss himself [Trump]. I would have someone savvy … a Blake Masters [“Nazi-adjacent”] … to be the VP of actual enforcement.”

It’s clear that whoever is writing Musk in these texts, be it Peter Thiel or someone else, is advising Musk on how to use his purchase of Twitter to advance rightwing interests.

And advancing rightwing interests helps Musk’s class interests, because modern rightwing politics is about using media and identity and culture war issues to benefit billionaires. Culture war and wedge issues and far-right ideology gets votes for policies that enrich billionaires.

Billionaires, modern media, and rightwing ideology

It is a problem of our time that billionaires have learned how to use modern media to influence public opinion — and by changing public opinion, they can corrupt democracies from the inside. Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch are the highest-profile example of pushing America to the right, to favor pro-billionaire policy. They do that via Fox and the voices they air there, from Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham on down. But there are many other examples of billionaires using media outlets to advance a rightwing agena. Paul Singer supports the Washington Free Beacon, Phil Anschutz the Washington Examiner, Dick Uihlein the Federalist, Dan and Farris Wilks support Prager U. The Murdochs have reportedly lost money for decades on the New York Post, and Bob and Rebekah Mercer supported Breitbart because that helped their rightwing, pro-billionaire agenda.

And billionaires are not just creating new outlets. With the decline of American journalism, there is an insidious method now available for wealthy people to influence public debate: Buy a well-known media brand and turn it into a rightwing outlet. In that case, the news brand retains some trust with the public. But that trust can be exploited by injecting rightwing views to influence readers.

Newsweek is a recent example of this kind of “zombie publication“. Newsweek still has some reputation as a mainstream news outlet, but its new owners put far-right MAGA writer Josh Hammer in charge of their opinion section. Hammer has . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

17 January 2023 at 5:07 pm

Covid is worse than many believe

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I highly recommend reading this interesting thread on Mastodon. The first post in the thread:

One thing I’m noticing is that most of my friends have this idea that a “typical” viral infection is something very transient, it self-resolves, and then you’re fine. It’s coming as a massive surprise to them that SARS-CoV-2 might linger in the body, and that its effects may not be so transient. After all, it fights against what they “know” — that viral infections are minor nuisances. They know about AIDs, but that’s an exception, surely?

Is it? . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

17 January 2023 at 4:50 pm

Even a Little Alcohol Can Harm Your Health

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I have de facto quit drinking — that is, I gradually became aware that I wasn’t drinking any alcohol (except at family celebrations like Christmas and Thanksgiving). I just drifted away from it without making any conscious decision (though I imagine my unconscious knew what it was doing).

I’ve read that studies whose findings show better outcomes for those who drink a little (than for those who do not drink at all) included among the non-drinkers people who had quit drinking for reasons of health — thus the observed findings. When the studies were rerun, excluding from the non-drinkers those who had formerly been drinkers, the supposed health benefits of moderate drinking vanished.

Dana G. Smith has an article in the NY Times (no paywall) that explains what is now known about the effects of drinking:

Sorry to be a buzz-kill, but that nightly glass or two of wine is not improving your health.

After decades of confusing and sometimes contradictory research (too much alcohol is bad for you but a little bit is good; some types of alcohol are better for you than others; just kidding, it’s all bad), the picture is becoming clearer: Even small amounts of alcohol can have health consequences.

Research published in November revealed that between 2015 and 2019, excessive alcohol use resulted in roughly 140,000 deaths per year in the United States. About 40 percent of those deaths had acute causes, like car crashes, poisonings and homicides. But the majority were caused by chronic conditions attributed to alcohol, such as liver disease, cancer and heart disease.

When experts talk about the dire health consequences linked to excessive alcohol use, people often assume that it’s directed at individuals who have an alcohol use disorder. But the health risks from drinking can come from moderate consumption as well.

“Risk starts to go up well below levels where people would think, ‘Oh, that person has an alcohol problem,’” said Dr. Tim Naimi, director of the University of Victoria’s Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research. “Alcohol is harmful to the health starting at very low levels.”

If you’re wondering whether you should cut back on your drinking, here’s what to know about when and how alcohol impacts your health.

“Excessive alcohol use” technically means anything above the U.S. Dietary Guidelines’ recommended daily limits. That’s more than two drinks a day for men and more than one drink a day for women.

There is also emerging evidence “that there are risks even within these levels, especially for certain types of cancer and some forms of cardiovascular disease,” said Marissa Esser, who leads the alcohol program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The recommended daily limits are not meant to be averaged over a week, either. In other words, if you abstain Monday through Thursday and have two or three drinks a night on the weekend, those weekend drinks count as excessive consumption. It’s both the cumulative drinks over time and the amount of alcohol in your system on any one occasion that can cause damage.

Scientists think that the main way alcohol causes health problems is by

Continue reading. (no paywall)

Written by Leisureguy

17 January 2023 at 4:23 pm

Mixing sodium and potassium to make some NaK

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Written by Leisureguy

17 January 2023 at 3:02 pm

Posted in Daily life, Science, Video

Uh-oh: AI writing tools and what they mean for journalism

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Philip Moscovitch has an article in the Halifax Examiner whose implications go far beyond journalism. As he points out in the article, vendors — and their competitors — will soon be able to order up reader reviews by the square yard with whatever tilt they want. The sort of tabloid that views its content as mere fodder to draw in the targets of the ads it sells will be able to easily and quickly generate any sort of plausible-sounding attention-getting totally-false reports they want. Extremist political news channels can have AI produce bogus (but plausible) stories with photos of bogus (but plausible) people.

The result will, I think, be a marked decay in public trust — a movement, in fact, that seems already underway.

Moscovitch’s article begins:

For months, I’d been inundated with ads promising to help me write blog posts 10 times faster, using AI. I could scale up my content marketing, produce clean copy in seconds, even write books with it. All I had to do was sign up.

So I did. I signed up for a free trial and put Jasper, an “AI writing assistant” to work for me. And I joined a closed Jasper Facebook group, where I could see what other people were doing with AI writing and art.

AI writing and art tools are having a moment. A few months ago, my social media feeds were full of people creating “art” using AI — feeding prompts into the machine to see what they would come up with, and then fine-tuning them. Most of the writers I saw using these tools said they were “playing around.”

Then, beginning last week, everyone was taking ChatGPT for a spin, asking it to create everything from a Kids in the Hall-style Chicken Lady sketch to a Socratic dialogue between Jesus and Karl Marx, to academic papers (some of which came complete with made-up citations).

With Jasper, you can take a number of different approaches. You can use a template to generate specific kinds of writing — everything from Amazon product descriptions to blog posts to replies to negative online reviews. Or you can use the more free-form content creator, giving it your own specific parameters. Using the templates seemed like more of a hassle than anything, so, after using them to create a LinkedIn post and a “creative story” I mostly stuck with setting my own terms.

Here’s what I learned using Jasper.

Lesson 1: Don’t trust reviews

Generating restaurant reviews in Jasper was startlingly easy. I plugged in the name of a local restaurant I like, and asked for reviews. I won’t tell you the name of the restaurant, because I’m worried someone will wind up taking the fake reviews out of context as real ones, so I’m just replacing the name with “RESTAURANT.”

First, I asked the AI generator to review the restaurant, using a “disgusted” tone of voice:

I was really disappointed with my experience at RESTAURANT. The food was terrible and the service was even worse. I would not recommend this restaurant to anyone. Save your money and go somewhere else.

Generic, but strongly worded. Switching the tone of voice to “angry” got me a more detailed review, including some very specific complaints:

If you enjoy terrible service, overpriced drinks, and waiting an hour for your food, then RESTAURANT is certainly the place for you! My husband and I had the misfortune of dining at this establishment on our anniversary, and it was an experience we will never forget.

Our server was painfully slow, and seemed more interested in flirting with other customers than actually doing her job. Our drinks took forever to arrive, and when they did, they were completely wrong. We ordered the special, which was supposed to come with a side of mashed potatoes, but instead we got a sad little scoop of dry rice.

And don’t even get me started on the food. It was cold, bland, and completely unappetizing. We waited so long for our meal that we were both starving by the time it finally arrived. Needless to say, we will never be returning to RESTAURANT. If you want a good meal and decent service, go anywhere but here!

Asking for a “delighted” voice got me a review saying the place was “cozy and inviting” and “a great place to enjoy some delicious food and drinks with friends.” I actually tried two different versions of this voice. I asked Jasper to review the restaurant in the voice of Tim Houston (it claims to be able to match styles) and the result was very similar to the “delighted” voice.

We’ll come back to AI Tim Houston later, but for now, let’s think about the implications of these reviews. Professional reviewing — reviews written by people knowledgeable in their fields, who could provide context — has been essentially destroyed by user reviews, under the guise of democratization. Through our free labour, we have created value for sites by doing our own reviewing. But you can easily imagine a near-future in which most of the reviews and the responses to reviews on these sites and apps are written by bots.

In the closed Facebook group, people talked about using AI to generate product reviews for their clients, some of them (they claimed) very large corporations.

This brings us to lesson 2.

Lesson 2: Kipple drives out non-kipple . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

17 January 2023 at 1:37 pm

Losing GOP candidate arrested in string of shootings at New Mexico Democrats’ homes

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Dennis Romero has a news report for NBC News:

failed candidate for the New Mexico state House described by police as an “election denier” was arrested Monday in a string of shootings at the homes of state and local Democratic leaders.

Republican Solomon Peña is accused of conspiring with and paying four men to carry out shootings at the Albuquerque-area homes of two Bernalillo County commissioners and two state legislators, Albuquerque police said. No one was hurt in the shootings.

Peña might have been motivated by anger over his loss in November, police said. Police spokesperson Gilbert Gallegos said at a news conference early Monday evening that Peña alleged his defeat was the result of election fraud.

Peña lost his state House challenge to incumbent Democrat Miguel P. Garcia by 5,679 to 2,033, or 74% to 26%.

He took his case to three county commissioners and a state senator — some whose homes were targeted in the shootings — to no avail, Gallegos said.

“He had complaints about his election he felt being rigged,” Gallegos said. “As the mayor said,  . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

17 January 2023 at 1:03 pm

Wee Scot once more, with love

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A squat tub of shaving soap with a thick black  lid and a brown label reading "Natural Bay Rum" sits next to small glass bottle with a purplish-blue label with white lettering that says "Aion Skincare Nourishing Balm." On top of the tub's lid stands a small badger shaving brush next to a stainless steel DE razor lying on its side.

I wanted to take the Vulfix-era Wee Scot for another spin, and this morning I went with Meißner Tremonia’s Natural Bay Rum. I loaded the little brush well, and I noticed that it felt better on my face this morning without the side-by-side comparison with the pre-Vulfix Wee Scot. In fact, it felt not bad at all, and it held plenty of lather. Early in the shave, I decided that, once the shave was done, I would continue to lather, rinse, re-lather, etc., to see how many passes I could get. 

By the time I got to the last pass, the thought had evaporated. However, it was clear that I had plenty of lather for a fourth pass and probably even a fifth. I’ll try again tomorrow. I think the abundance of lather is in part because a) it’s a good soap, and b) I have soft water.

With good prep (in addition to the lather, I of course had used Grooming Dept Moisturizing Pre-Shave), the shave was a pleasure. iKon’s Shavecraft #101 is a super little razor, and it did a marvellous job.

As an aftershave, I used Aion’s Nourishing Balm (from Grooming Dept), thicker than a gel but not an oil — it presents as a salve, and it’s pleasant to use. My skin feels very nice, and the amount of balm required is minuscule. 

The tea this morning is Murchie’s Hatley Castle Blend: “a mix of black and green teas that includes Ceylon, Keemun, Jasmine, and Gunpowder.”

Written by Leisureguy

17 January 2023 at 12:49 pm

Posted in Caffeine, Shaving

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