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The Tech Elite’s Favorite Pop Intellectual: Julia Galef on bringing the rationalist movement to the mainstream.

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Benjamin Wallace writes in New York:

n 2012, Julia Galef, the host of a podcast called Rationally Speaking, moved from New York to Berkeley to help found a nonprofit called the Center for Applied Rationality. It was the early days of the rationalist movement: a community formed on the internet whose adherents strove to strip their minds of cognitive biases and subject all spheres of life to the glare of scientific thought and probabilistic reasoning. Galef and her CFAR co-founders — mathematician Anna Salamon, research scientist Andrew Critch, and math and science educator Michael Smith — wanted to translate these principles to everyday life. They did this through multiday workshops, where participants could learn to make better decisions using techniques like “goal factoring” (breaking a goal into smaller pieces) and “paired debugging” (in which two people help identify each other’s blind spots and distortions).

Over the next several years, as rationalism became not only the de facto brand of self-help in Silicon Valley but also an intellectual movement followed by pundits and executives alike, CFAR’s profile grew; soon, the nonprofit was running workshops across the country and teaching classes at Facebook and the Thiel Fellowship. But for CFAR’s founders, it was the empirical confirmation of their work that mattered most. Early on, they began conducting a controlled study to determine whether the workshops were demonstrably helpful. They surveyed 40 participants, assessing their before-and-after answers to questions like “How together is your life?” and “How successful do you feel in your social life?” The study found that, one year after the workshop ended, participants showed decreased neuroticism and increased self-efficacy, but to Galef, the results weren’t sufficiently rigorous. “What was it about the workshop?” she says. “Was it the classes or hanging out with like-minded people that makes the difference?” Conducting more tests would have been too expensive. “My vision was we’d come up with hypotheses about techniques, keep the ones that work, and discard the ones that don’t. It turned out to be much harder than I’d realized.”

In 2016, Galef left CFAR, unsatisfied with what she had been able to accomplish there. Instead, she began working on her first book, which, after five years, will be published by Penguin on April 13. The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t is a fitting debut for someone who has considered herself a “populizer” of the rationalist movement. “I take these ideas I think are great and try to explain them to a wider audience,” she says.

When we speak over Zoom, Galef is in Franklin, North Carolina, her face evenly lit by the ring lamp she travels with. Since she and her fiancé left their San Francisco studio this past July, they’ve been doing the digital-nomad thing. Right now, they are near Great Smoky Mountains National Park in a golf-course Airbnb. Galef holds her laptop camera up to the window, revealing a burbling creek outside. “It suits our personalities and lifestyle,” she says. “We both work remotely” — he’s a program officer focused on artificial intelligence at the effective-altruism organization Open Philanthropy — “we’re both introverts, we’re both minimalists, and we both like novelty.”

To the extent that the rationalist movement has been written about, its eccentricities have tended to get outsize attention: Some rationalists live in group houses with names like Event Horizon and Godric’s Hollow; polyamory and a preoccupation with the existential risk posed by AI are both overrepresented. In opposition to mainstream online culture, which believes that certain arguments should be off-limits, the rationalsphere wants to be able to talk about anything. Slate Star Codex — recently renamed Astral Codex Ten — the most prominent rationalist blog, has caused controversy by countenancing free-flowing discussion of topics such as race science and female harassment of men. And because of their devotion to hyperanalysis, some members of the community can present as arrogant and lacking in EQ.

Galef, however, is an amiable ambassador for the movement, adept at distilling its concepts in an accessible and plainspoken manner. The speech of rationalists is heavy on the vernacular, often derived from programming language: “updating your priors” (keeping an open mind), “steel-manning” (arguing with the strongest version of whatever point your opponent is making), “double-cruxing” (trying to get to the root of a disagreement). But . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 April 2021 at 3:11 pm

Amazon shows how trickle-down inequality works

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Sarah Jones writes in the “Intelligencer” section of New York:

Bill Bodani liked his old job. He cleaned slag out at the Sparrows Point steel mill in Maryland, cleared the flues and the broken brick out of the blast furnace. He loved it despite the asbestosis it gave him, writes Alec MacGillis in his new book, Fulfillment. “I enjoyed the people,” Bodani told MacGillis. “They made it enjoyable. The Black, the white. It was a family thing. I don’t care if you knew them for five minutes, they took you in. No matter how bad I got hurt, or how bad things got, there was always a bright side. You had those guys with you.”

Until he didn’t. The mill closed, and Bodani needed a new job. He found one with Amazon, working in a Baltimore-area fulfillment center. He started out at $12 an hour — much less than he’d made at the mill. He’d traded his old friends for a place that would, as MacGillis put it, fire workers “by algorithm.” And Bodani had a problem. He was older, and he needed to use the bathroom more often than did his younger co-workers. When he had used up his breaks, he resorted to an undignified option. He’d piss in a corner of the warehouse, using a forklift as a privacy shield.

MacGillis completed Bodani’s story before the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union announced that it would try to unionize the first Amazon warehouse in the country in Bessemer, Alabama. Workers there reported their own versions of Bodani’s problem. The company regimented their days so strictly that they often didn’t have the time they needed to use the restroom. The union still lost, an election now contested before the National Labor Relations Board. Despite the outcome, the stories stick. Workers said they couldn’t stay six feet apart from each other in the middle of a pandemic, spoke of dirty workstations that never got clean. Amazon, they insisted, was a bad place to work. Why, then, are cities so desperate to bring Amazon home?

In Fulfillment, MacGillis, a reporter for ProPublica and the author of 2014’s The CynicThe Political Education of Mitch McConnell, offers answers. The digital economy has fattened a handful of cities while others, often old industrial hubs, fall behind. There is historical precedent for industries to cluster: “History,” he writes, “is the story of cities with the right confluence of people in close quarters to spin the world forward, whether in classical Athens or Renaissance Florence or industrial-age Glasgow.” That dynamic, however, has “trebled” in recent years, he claims, with innovation the new resource to mine. Amazon and Microsoft swelled Seattle, brought it new wealth, a new class of resident, and a new set of problems. That wealth never reached a number of Seattle’s long-term residents, who could recall an older, more livable version of a vibrant city. What dispersed out from Seattle was not wealth, either, but something else. Inequality trickled down.

MacGillis understands the bargain Amazon offers the public and explores the consequences of that bargain with a sharp, humane eye. He succeeds in telling a story about Amazon from the bottom up — the right way to scrutinize a company that projects a progressive image. Amazon wants us to believe it treats its workers well: It pays them $15 an hour now, a fact it has repeatedly tweeted to its congressional critics. Other companies, even governments, ought to follow Amazon’s stellar example, the company says. MacGillis argues that governments have already been too eager to take Amazon at its word, and that the consequences, for workers and for the places they live, have been catastrophic.

To cities in need of jobs, Amazon can look like a savior. But salvation is an exchange: a soul for a different future. MacGillis argues that this trade is good for Jeff Bezos alone; workers and cities lose out in both a psychological and material sense. Bill Bodani has nothing to offer the new economy but his body. Amazon accepts, and forces him to accept something even more nefarious than a pay cut. To take a job at the mill was to join a community. Young high-school graduates, MacGillis writes, had walked into a union and the welcoming arms of their uncles and fathers. By contrast, the warehouse is a sterile place. Workers are welcomed not with warm introductions but with “a sheet of paper scrawled with AMAZON” and representatives for an Amazon subcontractor. The job itself can be isolating, as Amazon workers themselves have reported; steep quotas and pervasive surveillance offer few opportunities to socialize. This is a useful union-avoidance strategy. It’s also a spiritual blow.

Once cities like Sparrows Point offer up their souls, Amazon gives them a cheap future. Corporations rarely make decisions out of abundant public spirit; Amazon is no exception to the rule. Instead, it eludes taxes. MacGillis calls Amazon’s approach to tax avoidance “a veritable Swiss Army knife, with an implement to wield against every possible government tab,” and the description lines up with reality. Amazon paid no federal income tax for two years before coughing up a paltry $162 million in 2019. It settles upon cities and towns like a locust, chewing up tax breaks totaling $2.7 billion by 2019, according to MacGillis. In 2018, Amazon threatened to cancel a planned expansion in Seattle, its home turf, over an employee-hours tax intended to address the city’s homelessness crisis. The city council passed it, only to reverse itself less than a month later.

In smaller cities, the costs of attracting Amazon can be especially steep. Consider . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 April 2021 at 2:53 pm

Curbing gun violence in the United States

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In a post yesterday, I set out the reasons that suicide should, like homicide, be viewed as part of the serious gun violence problem the US has. What can be done to implement ways of combating gun violence? Colleen Walsh describes in the Harvard Gazette some steps that could be taken.

In the wake of several deadly mass shootings, President Biden announced a list of executive orders last Thursday aimed at reducing gun-related violence, and called for Congress to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Biden’s orders included better regulation of “ghost guns” — homemade weapons that lack traceable serial numbers — and stabilizing braces that transform pistols into more lethal, short-barreled rifles. They also called for increased support for violence-intervention programs, and model “red flag” legislation to make it easier to get guns away from people who pose a danger to themselves or others.

Stopping gun violence will take myriad approaches, including a range of public health efforts, according to David Hemenway, professor of health policy at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, and author of the 2006 book “Private Guns, Public Health.” Hemenway, who is working on a new book about firearms and public health while the Elizabeth S. and Richard M. Cashin Fellow at Harvard Radcliffe Institute, spoke with the Gazette about what needs to be done to curb gun violence in the U.S.

Q&A with David Hemenway

GAZETTE: What was your impression of Biden’s executive orders around gun control?

HEMENWAY: Biden’s overall plan seems excellent—a response that is more than just more law enforcement — and these executive actions are good first steps to reduce the terrible problem of firearm violence in the U.S. There are various specific actions taken, such as beginning to address the issues of ghost guns (which aren’t subject to background checks), and they are all important. He could do more, but there are so many important things he can’t do by himself with executive orders. Overall, I think it’s a nice first step, but he needs Congress to work with him to do many of the most important things.

GAZETTE: What are some of those things?

HEMENWAY: Universal background checks need to be passed by Congress, but even more important than that would be universal gun-licensing laws (which implies universal background checks) and handgun registration. Just as everyone who drives a motor vehicle needs to have a license and vehicle registration, the same should be true for anyone who owns a firearm. Only a few U.S. states have gun licensing, but as far as I can tell, virtually every other developed country has some form of gun licensing, and their levels of gun violence are all far lower than ours. Licensing and registration helps keep guns out of the wrong hands.

There are so many other actions the federal government could take to help further reduce firearm violence. For example, the federal government could model what good training for gun owners should look like. In our work at the School of Public Health, we sent people out to take dozens of basic gun training classes throughout the Northeast. Some of the trainings were excellent, but some were horrible. Only half of the trainers discussed how you should store your guns appropriately, while a few said if you have kids you can just hide your guns. Almost no one discussed the role of guns in suicide, the curiosity of children, methods of de-escalating conflict, alternative methods of self-defense, or the type of continual training one needs to effectively use a gun in self-defense. The federal government could play an important role in helping to create and model rules around training.

We also need better gun-safety standards. Many children (and some adults) don’t know that when you take out the magazine from a semi-automatic pistol, the gun is still loaded, not realizing that there is a bullet left in the chamber and that if you pull the trigger you could kill somebody. This is the most common way that children are killed unintentionally with guns in this country. Even better than teaching every child or even having guns that make it apparent when they can still be fired, semi-automatic pistols can be made so the gun won’t fire when the magazine has been removed. We should also have childproof guns. Many 2- to 4-year-olds kill themselves when they find a loaded firearm. We made childproof aspirin bottles because children would find aspirin bottles and die from ingesting the aspirin, but we still make it too easy for toddlers to find guns and kill themselves.

I also think we need strict liability laws for gun owners. One of the reasons accidental pool drownings decreased in many parts of the world is because people who don’t properly fence and protect their pools became liable in the case of accidental injury, especially to children who gained access to the pool and drowned. The same should be true for something as dangerous as a gun. If you own TNT, or anything which is extremely dangerous, you have to be safe and responsible with it. Right now, that’s not the case for many guns, which are too commonly stored insecurely. Roughly 350,000 guns are stolen each year and end up in the wrong hands.

GAZETTE: Picking up on the issue of liability, Biden said during his press conference if he could do one thing it would be to eliminate immunity for gun manufacturers.

HEMENWAY: That’s certainly important. The reason the law was passed during the Bush administration was to protect the gun manufacturers and distributors who saw what had happened in the tobacco arena, and they didn’t want it to happen to them, so they got Republicans to pass a law giving them incredible immunity compared to other products. So yes, that would be a useful thing.

GAZETTE: Why do you think there is so little appetite in America, even after so many mass shootings, for any additional controls on the sale and use of guns?

HEMENWAY: I think it’s a combination of misinformation and the culture wars. I looked at Google news this morning, and the headline about the Biden initiatives was from Fox News: “Sen. Hawley: Biden ultimately seeks civilian gun confiscation while permitting rioters and crime.”

GAZETTE: What do you think of Biden’s pick to head the ATF, David Chipman?

HEMENWAY: I know David. I think he’s great. He’s very smart, very personable, hard-working, and quite experienced. He was an ATF agent for years ­— he’s certainly well-qualified. It would be good if he could strengthen the ATF’s oversight of gun dealers. The agency has been hamstrung through the years, and there seem to still be too many bad-apple gun dealers who make it too easy for the wrong people to gain access to firearms.

GAZETTE: Biden’s plan also calls for a new report on gun trafficking to be conducted by the Justice Department. In your mind, why is that data so important?

HEMENWAY: Reports are good, but perhaps even more important would be

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 April 2021 at 12:07 pm

Why Is Clarence Thomas Attacking Google? — and more

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Matt Stoller has several interesting reports in his current BIG column:

Last week, conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas issued two statements attacking Google’s concentrated market power. Thomas is an unusual justice, almost never speaking during oral arguments, but also quite influential on the right. So today’s topic is how, and whether, the right’s views about big tech are evolving.

Also short pieces on:

  • Why Amazon beat organized labor in Alabama
  • Why Logitech just killed the universal remote control industry
  • Google’s Eric Schmidt goes full Communism against telecoms
  • Why the big dumb ship in the Suez was Bill Clinton’s fault
  • How razor blade companies negotiate with Amazon and Walmart
  • How Google’s fancy lawyers screwed up and jeopardized Sheryl Sandberg, at $1500/Hour

And now…

Realignment Strain

Last month, in a little noticed House Antitrust Subcommittee hearing on big tech, conservative stalwart Congressman Jim Jordan and Republican FTC regulator Noah Phillips went back and forth over how to address the internet giants. Jordan and Phillips had, until recently, been quite aligned, as fellow Republicans.

But this time, something was different.

Jordan was disturbed about the power of big tech to remove important political voices, like Donald Trump, from the public square. He asked Phillips, as a regulator, what can you do about this? Phillips responded, “I’m afraid I don’t have a good answer.”

It was a shocking moment. Normally, parties defend their own, but in this case, much of the hearing was Republican members of Congress training their fire on their own commissioner. Phillips had voted against bringing the Facebook antitrust suit, and was the only witness who didn’t want to do anything about big tech. His own side wasn’t having it.

There’s an argument on the right, known as “the realignment,” which is that the GOP will break with big business and become a party of the working class. There are reasons to be quite skeptical of this possibility, because the conservative movement has been intertwined with large corporations since the 1970s. I’ve watched some Republican members shouting publicly about big tech, but when it comes to legislating, these same members will oppose any actual changes.

But being totally dismissive isn’t reasonable either. Trump, after all, did launch antitrust suits against tech giants, as did Ken Paxton, the right-wing Texas Attorney General. Wyoming, led by Republican state Senator Tara Nethercott, just strengthened its state antitrust law, and Arizona Republicans nearly pulled off an anti-monopoly coup against Apple’s app store monopoly. And Senator Josh Hawley just introduced an antitrust bill that would not only address big tech’s market power, but would block mergers for firms worth $100 billion or more.

Moreover, there’s also a push factor at work, as big businesses fight against Republican priorities, most recently an election bill in Georgia passed to restrict voting. To protest the law, Major League Baseball moved the All-Star game from Atlanta to Colorado, and Delta and Coca-Cola, among others, publicly criticized the state GOP. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell pushed back, warning that “corporations will invite serious consequences if they become a vehicle for far-left mobs to hijack our country from outside the constitutional order.” McConnell’s warning had little effect. On Saturday, 100 corporate leaders in media, airlines, tech, retailing, etc held a phone call to discuss how to coordinate in opposing conservative voting rights legislation.

This ferment has now reached the pinnacle of the Republican Party, the conservative legal movement, which sets the legal philosophy of the party. Clarence Thomas, who is deeply embedded in these conservative legal networks, is beginning to mark out a different path.

Thomas: Google Is a Monopoly

Last week, Thomas issued two remarkable statements criticizing the concentrated power of Google and tech platforms. In one decision, Thomas mused on a long-running battle between Oracle and Google, where Google copied certain parts of Oracle’s software under the guise of fair use. The specifics of the decision are heated and interesting in and of themselves, but what I’m interested in here is that Thomas called out Google as a monopoly.

“If the majority is worried about monopolization,” he wrote, “it ought to consider whether Google is the greater threat.”

Thomas noted that Google copied Oracle’s work without licensing it, and then develop a monopoly in mobile phone operating software. Whatever the other merits of the case, it was a stark, and accurate, observation.

In his second claim, Thomas went even further. In a case involving Trump’s right to block people on Twitter, Thomas issued a statement on the threat to free speech by dominant tech platforms. “We will soon have no choice but to address how our legal doctrines apply to highly concentrated, privately owned information infrastructure such as digital platforms,” he wrote.

Noting Google’s control over search, Amazon’s control over books, and Facebook and Twitter’s control over social media, Thomas observed these firms aren’t merely private, but are clothed with a public interest. He called for treating tech firms like public utilities, forced to serve all comers, citing precedents involving railroad, telegraph, and telephone regulation. He dismissed the idea of network effects as leading to inherently large firms, noting that network systems don’t need to be contained within the corporate form. While Facebook, Google, Amazon, and so forth are run by a few people, that’s not inherent to technology. “No small group of people,” Thomas wryly observed, “control email.”

The deeper you go into the opinion, the more extraordinary it becomes. Thomas tied big tech dominance to monopoly power, citing “astronomical profits” and a lack of new entrants as evidence of a lack of competition. These observations might seem obvious to you and me, but in the antitrust world, that’s a significant intellectual concession, because the law and economics movement has traditionally held that high profits are a sign of efficiency and not barriers to entry.

One can read these opinions as in some ways an endorsement of the 2020 Democrat-led House Antitrust Subcommittee Report, which called for treating big tech firms as common carriers, a sort of net neutrality for Google, Amazon, and Facebook. Thomas’ opinion marks a big shift for Republicans, who have generally been unfavorable to the idea of such public utility rules.

More fundamentally, Thomas’ recent work is a rebuke of the economics-heavy thinking that both conservative and liberal judges have prioritized. None other than Clarence Thomas, in fact, two years ago penned the notorious Ohio vs American Express decision, which essentially gave special antitrust immunity to big tech firms solely because economists said that network businesses are special. For Thomas, what was in 2018 network economies of scale, has now become tyranny.

Are These Shifts Mere Rhetoric?

For decades, the conservative movement has had a ‘fusion strategy,’ with white social conservatives and big business libertarians as close allies. The deal was that the social conservatives would supply the votes and the corporations would provide the money. . .

Continue reading. There’s more. The Suez Canal report is particularly interesting.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 April 2021 at 4:46 pm

Hearing Aids for the Masses

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Full disclosure: I wear hearing aids, and they did cost several thousand dollars for the pair, but they also greatly improved my quality of life. My step-father, who worked around (loud) power tools most of his life had fairly severe hearing loss, and at the time hearing aids were fairly bulky and uncomfortable. When we were in a group conversing, he smiled a lot, and when my own hearing worsened, I noticed I was doing the same: if you can’t quite make out what people are saying, you tend to just smile and nod.

Shira Ovide in the NY Times discusses some developments that are promising. Emphasis added by me:

Today, let’s talk about relatively simple technology and a change in government policy that could unleash more innovation for Americans who have difficulty hearing.

I’ve been speaking with audiologists, consumer advocates and technology companies about what could be a revolution for our ears — hearing aids at a fraction of the cost and hassle of conventional devices.

Here’s how things stand now: Hearing loss is a pervasive and serious health problem, and many people are reluctant or can’t afford to get conventional hearing aids. Nearly 38 million American adults report some degree of hearing loss, but only a minority of people who could benefit from hearing aids have ever used them.

Hearing aids typically cost thousands of dollars, require multiple visits to specialists and often aren’t covered by health insurance. Untreated hearing loss is associated with cognitive decline, dementia and other harms. Overcoming barriers to hearing treatment may significantly improve Americans’ health.

The federal government is poised to help. Congress in 2017 passed legislation that would let anyone buy hearing aids approved by the Food and Drug Administration without a prescription from an audiologist. The F.D.A. has missed a deadline to release draft guidelines for this new category of over-the-counter hearing aids.

Experts told me that when the F.D.A. moves ahead, it’s likely to lead to new products and ideas to change hearing aids as we know them.

Imagine Apple, Bose or other consumer electronics companies making hearing aids more stylish and relatively affordable — with people having confidence that the devices had been vetted by the F.D.A. Bose told me that it’s working on over-the-counter hearing aid technology.

Barbara Kelley, executive director of the Hearing Loss Association of America, an advocacy organization, told me that she can’t wait for more affordable and accessible hearing help. “I’m really excited for the market to open up to see what we got and see how people are reacting,” she said.

It is already possible to buy a hearing helper — they can’t legally be called hearing aids — without a prescription. These devices, called personal sound amplification products or PSAPs, vary wildly in quality from excellent to junk. But when shopping for them, people often can’t tell the difference.

(The Wall Street Journal also recently wrote about hearing helper technologies, including earbuds that can amplify quiet sounds. And Consumer Reports has a useful guide to hearing aids and PSAPs.)

Nicholas Reed, director of audiology at the Johns Hopkins Cochlear Center for Hearing and Public Health, told me that the F.D.A. process should provide a path for the best PSAPs to be approved as official over-the-counter hearing aids. He expects new companies to hit the market, too.

You may doubt that a gadget you buy next to the toilet paper at CVS could be a serious medical device. Dr. Reed’s research, however, has found that some hearing helpers for $350 or less were almost as good as prescription hearing aids for people with mild-to-moderate hearing loss.

Dr. Reed described the best lower-cost devices as the Hyundai of hearing help. (This was a compliment.) They aren’t flashy, but they will get many people safely and effectively where they need to go. He also imagines that the F.D.A. rules will create the conditions for many more people to buy hearing aids — both over the counter and by prescription.

Over-the-counter hearing aids won’t be able to help everyone, experts told me. And the traditional hearing aid industry has said that people are best served by customized devices with expert help.

There is also more technology brewing at  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 April 2021 at 4:13 pm

Republicans going off in all directions

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Heather Cox Richardson has a post that’s worth reading because it sets out a variety of developing issues, including a serious conflict within the Republican party regarding the direction it should take. She writes:

Congress has been on break since March 29, and tomorrow members will go back to Washington, D.C., to resume work. The next weeks are going to be busy for the lawmakers, not least because the political ground in America appears to be shifting.

In the two weeks the lawmakers have been back in their districts, a lot has happened. The Biden administration released the American Jobs Plan on March 31, calling for a $2 trillion investment in infrastructure. The plan includes traditional items like railroads and bridges and roads; it also uses a modern, expansive definition of infrastructure, including support for our electrical grid, green energy, and clean water delivery, as well as the construction of high-speed broadband to all Americans. The plan also defines childcare and eldercare as infrastructure issues, an important redefinition that will not only help more women regain a foothold in the economy, but will also help to replace manufacturing jobs as a key stabilizer of middle-class America. The administration is selling the infrastructure plan, in part, by emphasizing that it will create jobs (hence “American Jobs Plan” rather than something like “American Infrastructure Act”).

President Biden has proposed paying for the plan by raising the corporate tax from 21% to 28% (it was 35% before Trump’s 2017 tax cut) and by increasing the global minimum tax from 13% to 21% (so that companies cannot stash profits in low-tax countries). He has also proposed saving money by ending the federal tax breaks for fossil fuel companies and by putting teeth in the enforcement of tax laws against corporations who have skated without paying taxes in the past.

The president also put together a blue-ribbon, bipartisan commission to look at the question of adjusting the Supreme Court to the modern era. While people are focusing on the question of whether the number of justices on the Supreme Court should be increased—it has held at 9 since 1869, even as three more circuits have been added—the commission is also looking at “the length of service and turnover of justices on the Court.” It is only very recently that justices grimly held onto a Supreme Court appointment until death; the positions used to turn over with some frequency. The commission is an astonishingly distinguished group of scholars, lawyers, and judges.

Nonetheless, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) claimed the establishment of the commission displayed “open disdain for judicial independence.” And yet, the Supreme Court itself undermined his position in favor of a nonpartisan judiciary late Friday night. It issued an unsigned opinion in which the court decided, by a vote of 5-4, that state restrictions on private religious gatherings during the pandemic infringed on people’s First Amendment rights to the free exercise of religion. Chief Justice John Roberts joined the minority.

Biden has also asked Congress to take on the issue of gun control, after yet more mass shootings in the country. And overshadowing all is the Democrat’s demand for the passage of voting rights legislation that would protect voting, end gerrymandering, and curb the influence of big money in U.S. elections.

While the legislative world has been rocking, so has the world of the Republicans. The party is torn between the Trump wing and the business wing, and in the course of the past few weeks, that rift has widened and destabilized.

On March 25, Georgia passed a sweeping new voting restriction law. Legislators argued that they were simply trying to combat voter fraud, but the law, in fact, significantly restricts voting hours and mail-in voting, as well as turning over the mechanics of elections to partisan committees. The Georgia law came after a similar set of restrictions in Iowa; other states, including Texas, are following suit.

But this attack on voting rights is not playing well with the corporate leaders who, in the past, tended to stand with the Republicans. Leaders from more than 170 corporations condemned the new Georgia law, saying, “We stand in solidarity with voters 一 and with the Black executives and leaders at the helm of this movement 一 in our nonpartisan commitment to equality and democracy. If our government is going to work for all of us, each of us must have equal freedom to vote and elections must reflect the will of voters.” Major League Baseball grabbed headlines when it decided to move this summer’s All-Star game out of the state.

Following the corporate pushback over the Georgia law, the leader of the business Republican faction, Mitch McConnell, said that it was “stupid” for corporations to weigh in on divisive political issues, although he specified he was “not talking about political contributions.” Republican lawmakers have said that corporations should not take political stances, a position that sits uneasily with the 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, which said that corporate donations to political candidates were a form of political speech and could not be limited by the government. The so-called “Citizens United” decision opened up a flood of corporate money into our political system.

Yesterday, more than 100 corporate executives met over Zoom to figure out how . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, and some interesting aspects are discussed later in the column.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 April 2021 at 10:47 am

“I Needed a Job. He Asked If I Was Proposing Marriage.”

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The creepiness and moral turpitude of Donald Trump and his administration have far-reaching ripple effects. Deboarh Kopaken provides examples in the Atlantic:

I was 8 when Patty Hearst was kidnapped. For several years, I was afraid to sit in a well-lit room after sundown, because I was next on the kidnappers’ list, and they were lurking in my backyard. I was sure of this.

Was my fear justified? Of course not. Was it real? One hundred percent yes.

Bill Clinton pardoned Hearst on his last day in office. When I heard the news, I cheered. The woman had been kidnapped at 19, raped, and held in a dark closet for 57 days, after which, suffering from Stockholm syndrome, she robbed a bank with her captors. Pardoning her seemed not only fair, but just.

Exactly 20 years later, on his last day in office, Donald Trump pardoned Ken Kurson. When I read the news, I cursed. This pardon was neither fair nor just.

Kurson was the editor of the Observer when it was owned by his friend Jared Kushner. Last fall, Kurson was arrested and charged with cyberstalking three people and harassing two others. According to the federal complaint, Kurson posted multiple malicious professional reviews of a former friend he spuriously blamed for the end of his marriage. He used an alias to send the friend’s colleagues and others threatening emails accusing her of sleeping with her boss, then stalked her at her workplace until her employers were forced to hire a security firm to protect her. His lawyer argued in a statement that the charges were overblown, and he was pardoned before the case went to trial.

After Kurson’s arrest, I kept scanning the news, hoping that Trump would be too busy being a sore loser and inciting insurrection to pardon Kurson. I was wrong. Which meant I would now spend the rest of my life looking over my shoulder.

From November 2014 to late 2016, Ken Kurson sexually harassed me. I wrote about the degrading experience for this magazine in 2018. I composed the essay in the form of a tongue-in-cheek listicle (“How to Lose Your Job From Sexual Harassment in 33 Easy Steps”), because all too often, as we keep learning (and learning and learning), sexual harassment is not just one event or off-color comment, nor is it just the suggestive emails that followed: “In another life, I’d be Mr. Copaken”; “I love your sloppy seconds”; “Are you proposing marriage to me?” It’s a systematic abuse of power that can deny its victims work, money, and health insurance.

Kurson invited me to lunch after one of my stories for another publication went viral, and said he had a full-time job for me with benefits. I told my current boss I was quitting, only for Kurson to say that it was never an actual job offer, and that he couldn’t match my salary. But he dangled the possibility of a full-time position if I kept freelancing for him, while sending me wildly inappropriate emails about his crumbling marriage. I worried that he might be vengeful. “I consider this the Observer’s story,” he once wrote about one of my article pitches, “and you know I come from a grudge-holding desert people.”

I thought he was joking, but after that story was published in The New York Times, he stopped answering my emails for more than a month. Later, when I asked about a late payment for an article, he replied to say the money had finally been deposited in my account, adding, “Sorry you’re broke… Are you in love w anyone?”

(When The Atlantic asked Kurson for comment, he denied that there had been a job offer. About the emails, he said, “All of us have used language in the past that we now wish had been more artful,” adding, “I try my best to treat everyone I meet with kindness and respect.”)

At the time, I was a solo mother of three––two of them in college. With crushing tuition bills, an expensive cascade of illnesses requiring surgeries, and an empty bank account, I’d had to move to cheaper digs and nab the first full-time job with benefits I could find, as a flack for the pharmaceutical industry. This, along with ageism and a shrinking media industry, has derailed my journalism career to this day.

Following the publication of my story in The Atlantic in 2018, I was not surprised to be inundated with similar tales of woe. I was surprised by the number of tales featuring the same antagonist. I created a spreadsheet to organize them. Here are some excerpts:

“Ken was a creep to me, condescending as well … ”

“Your frightening experience with him gave me flashbacks … The way he spoke to me haunts me to this day … Drag the ogre into the daylight.”

“I woke up to your article about Ken Kurson. I had an insane, if not criminal, experience with him that I’d love to talk to you about.”

This last one was chilling. It came from a woman who knew one of the people Kurson was later charged with cyberstalking, and said she had received threatening emails from Kurson herself. When I called her, she recounted both stories of harassment. The behavior she described did indeed sound criminal. And vindictive. I shared it with Jesse Drucker, an investigative journalist at the Times. “Jesse, I need help,” I said. “I want to help this woman, but I feel like I’m out of my league.”

I forwarded him my spreadsheet, with the obvious caveat not to share it further. Then, just as Drucker started looking into each allegation, Trump nominated Kurson to the board of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Because of course this happened.

Drucker’s story, “The Trump Administration Considers an Old Friend: Ken Kurson,” appeared on May 11. “Concerning Ms. Copaken’s account, Mr. Kurson said, ‘I categorically deny any claim of inappropriate behavior.’”

In response to his denial, I posted a Twitter thread presenting some of the written evidence, email by creepy email.

At the end of the thread, I wrote the following: . . .

Continue reading. There’s more — and the FBI gets involved.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 April 2021 at 5:36 pm

“After Working at Google, I’ll Never Let Myself Love a Job Again”

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Emil Nietfeld, a software engineer, learns that corporations, as persons, are sociopaths. She writes in the NY Times:

I used to be a Google engineer. That often feels like the defining fact about my life. When I joined the company after college in 2015, it was at the start of a multiyear reign atop Forbes’s list of best workplaces.

I bought into the Google dream completely. In high school, I spent time homeless and in foster care, and was often ostracized for being nerdy. I longed for the prestige of a blue-chip job, the security it would bring and a collegial environment where I would work alongside people as driven as I was.

What I found was a surrogate family. During the week, I ate all my meals at the office. I went to the Google doctor and the Google gym. My colleagues and I piled into Airbnbs on business trips, played volleyball in Maui after a big product launch and even spent weekends together, once paying $170 and driving hours to run an obstacle course in the freezing rain.

My manager felt like the father I wished I’d had. He believed in my potential and cared about my feelings. All I wanted was to keep getting promoted so that as his star rose, we could keep working together. This gave purpose to every task, no matter how grueling or tedious.

The few people who’d worked at other companies reminded us that there was nowhere better. I believed them, even when my technical lead — not my manager, but the man in charge of my day-to-day work — addressed me as “beautiful” and “gorgeous,” even after I asked him to stop. (Finally, I agreed that he could call me “my queen.”) He used many of our one-on-one meetings to ask me to set him up with friends, then said he wanted “A blonde. A tall blonde.” Someone who looked like me.

Saying anything about his behavior meant challenging the story we told ourselves about Google being so special. The company anticipated our every need — nap pods, massage chairs, Q-Tips in the bathroom, a shuttle system to compensate for the Bay Area’s dysfunctional public transportation — until the outside world began to seem hostile. Google was the Garden of Eden; I lived in fear of being cast out.

When I talked to outsiders about the harassment, they couldn’t understand: I had one of the sexiest jobs in the world. How bad could it be? I asked myself this, too. I worried that I was taking things personally and that if anyone knew I was upset, they’d think I wasn’t tough enough to hack it in our intense environment.

So I didn’t tell my manager about my tech lead’s behavior for more than a year. Playing along felt like the price of inclusion. I spoke up only when it looked like he would become an official manager — my manager — replacing the one I adored and wielding even more power over me. At least four other women said that he’d made them uncomfortable, in addition to two senior engineers who already made it clear that they wouldn’t work with him.

As soon as my complaint with H.R. was filed, Google went from being a great workplace to being any other company: It would protect itself first. I’d structured my life around my job — exactly what they wanted me to do — but that only made the fallout worse when I learned that the workplace that I cherished considered me just an employee, one of many and disposable.

The process stretched out for nearly three months. In the meantime I had to have one-on-one meetings with my harasser and sit next to him. Every time I asked for an update on the timeline and expressed my discomfort at having to continue to work in proximity to my harasser, the investigators said that I could seek counseling, work from home or go on leave. I later learned that Google had similar responses to other employees who reported racism or sexism. Claire Stapleton, one of the 2018 walkout organizers, was encouraged to take leave, and Timnit Gebru, a lead researcher on Google’s Ethical AI team, was encouraged to seek mental health care before being forced out.

I resisted. How would being alone by myself all day, apart from my colleagues, friends and support system, possibly help? And I feared that if I stepped away, the company wouldn’t continue the investigation.

Eventually, the investigators corroborated my claims and found my tech lead violated the Code of Conduct and the policy against harassment. My harasser still sat next to me. My manager told me H.R. wouldn’t even make him change his desk, let alone work from home or go on leave. He also told me that my harasser received a consequence that was severe and that I would feel better if I could know what it was, but it sure seemed like nothing happened.

The aftermath of speaking up had broken me down. It dredged up the betrayals of my past that I’d gone into tech trying to overcome. I’d made myself vulnerable to my manager and the investigators but felt I got nothing solid in return. I was constantly on edge from seeing my harasser in the hallways and at the cafes. When people came up behind my desk, I startled more and more easily, my scream echoing across the open-floor-plan office. I worried I’d get a poor performance review, ruining my upward trajectory and setting my career back even further.

I went weeks without sleeping through the night.

I decided to take three months of paid leave. I feared that going on leave would set me back for promotion in a place where almost everyone’s progress is public and seen as a measure of an engineer’s worth and expertise. Like most of my colleagues, I’d built my life around the company. It could so easily be taken away. People on leave weren’t supposed to enter the office — where I went to the gym and had my entire social life.

Fortunately, I still had a job when I got back. If anything, I was more eager than ever to excel, to make up for lost time. I was able to earn a very high performance rating — my second in a row. But it seemed clear I would not be a candidate for promotion. After my leave, the manager I loved started treating me as fragile. He tried to analyze me, suggesting that I drank too much caffeine, didn’t sleep enough or needed more cardiovascular exercise. Speaking out irreparably damaged one of my most treasured relationships. Six months after my return, when I broached the subject of promotion, he told me, “People in wood houses shouldn’t light matches.”

When I didn’t get a promotion, some of my stock grants ran out and so I effectively took a big pay cut. Nevertheless, I wanted to stay at Google. I still believed, despite everything, that Google was the best company in the world. Now I see that my judgment was clouded, but after years of idolizing my workplace, I couldn’t imagine life beyond its walls.

So I interviewed with and got offers from two other top tech companies, hoping that Google would match. In response,  . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 April 2021 at 12:43 pm

The Rules That Made U.S. Roads So Deadly

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Bloomberg City Lab has an interesting article. It was particularly interesting to me since I recently had an extended discussion on Facebook with a man who (strongly and stubbornly) believed that highway and intersection design had nothing to do with accidents and that accidents are always the fault of the driver who wasn’t paying attention. He in fact strongly opposed efforts to make intersections and highways safer since that just coddles these inattentive drives. Instead, he proposed telling drivers to pay closer attention and be more careful, and that would solve the problem.

In any case, the article is interesting (and disagrees with this man’s analysis):

A 25-year-old Yale Law student. A crossing guard. A 78-year-old woman. A high-school teacher. These are but four of the pedestrians and bikers counted among the 310 motor-vehicle-related deaths seen in 2020 in Connecticut, where I live. Our state saw one of the highest increases in the U.S. for such deaths: 22% more than in 2019.

Connecticut’s fatality spike is part of a national trend. Earlier this month, the National Safety Council reported that more than 42,000 people in the U.S. died in motor vehicle crashes in 2020, an 8% increase over 2019. What makes this so surprising is that Americans traveled 13% fewer miles by car, because of coronavirus-related lockdowns. So the 8% increase is really a 24% increase on a per-mile-traveled basis — the highest year-over-year jump in 96 years.

Unfortunately, this tragic loss of life was predictable. Outdated, industry-written laws lock in street designs that encourage excessive speed, and we drive vehicles known to be deadly to non-drivers.

You might think that these numbers were boosted by Americans’ heavy-footed driving habits, or that we have a distracted driver (and pedestrian) crisis. While both may be factors, they would not make us unusual — while our fatality rate is. Compare us with Germany, for example, where a love for speed and widespread cellphone use has not resulted in the death rates we see in the U.S. German traffic deaths fell 12% in 2020, which tracks the country’s 11% decrease in traffic volume.

People drive the speeds the roads “tell” them to drive. And they drive the cars that are allowed to be built. As I’ve written in a recent law review article, U.S. laws dictate both.

Let’s talk about U.S. road design rules first. They prioritize one thing: speed. A design manual known as the “Green Book” plays a leading role. Never heard of it? That’s because it’s written without public input by traffic engineers at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). The Green Book has been used for decades by the federal government, all 50 states, and countless municipalities. In general, it requires lanes that are too wide, which encourages cars to drive faster, and practically ignores pedestrians and bikers.

Fire codes, too, mandate overly wide streets, requiring 20 feet of unobstructed path for new or significantly improved streets. But city residents can’t get involved in drafting fire codes, either. They are primarily drafted by an organization of building code officials that recently sued a group who put the code online, so people could actually read it. Despite efforts in some cities to reduce fire-code-mandated street widths, these codes dominate street design nationally.

And then there is the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), which governs signalization and, more importantly, speed limits. This manual is published by the Federal Highway Administration, a federal agency, which is a better alternative to the private rule-making of the Green Book and fire codes. But in one big way, it is deeply problematic: The MUTCD recommends setting speed limits that match the 85th percentile of actual free-flowing traffic, rounded up to the nearest 5 miles per hour. In effect, drivers breaking the law by speeding justifies raising speed limits even more. The MUTCD also standardizes signaling and pavement markings that often prioritize cars over all other road users.

Vehicle design regulations aren’t much better: U.S. safety regulators prioritize the people inside the vehicle, largely ignoring the non-passenger impact of passenger vehicles. Unregulated, car manufacturers have flooded the market with oversized SUVs and pickup trucks with huge frontal surfaces and poor forward vision — design features that would fail to meet Europe’s more stringent vehicle safety standards, and that make such machines more dangerous for pedestrians and those in smaller cars.

SUVs have contributed to the 81% increase in pedestrian fatalities between 2009 and 2018, and roads are deadlier for bikers and pedestrians than they have been in 30 years. Disproportionately represented among these fatalities are Black people, Native people and the elderly. Our laws value drivers and car passengers over everyone else who uses our roads.

5 Ways to Rewrite the Rules of the Road

To reverse these horrific trends, it’s not just popular culture, which romanticizes speed, that must change. It’s our regulatory culture. Design standards dictate how streets and vehicles look and function. Here are five things we can do to revise them.

First, we need to diversify the people who codify road design. AASHTO, the code councils and the federal agency writing the MUTCD are dominated by white, male engineers who are trained to prioritize driver speed. We need women, people of color, transit users and bike-pedestrian advocates to bring new perspectives and cultural competencies into the conversation. We must also adopt the techniques already deployed by designers of slow or complete streets, which incorporate such features as narrower lanes, curb extensions (or bulb-outs), and chicanes to bring vehicle speeds down. This change must start at the top: The Department of Transportation and other federal agencies must no longer accept lopsided rules, written largely in secret, with a disparate impact on so many diverse road users. It’s time to update and revise those federal standards, which will allow state and local standards to evolve as well.

Second, we must boost public input in the eleventh edition of the MUTCD. The Federal Highway Administration is now seeking public comment on its proposed updates to the MUTCD through a formal process all federal agencies must undergo when seeking to amend or create new policies. The proposed draft is riddled with problems. The 85th percentile rule, which raises speed limits when people speed, remains a central part of the draft. A few half-hearted attempts to address pedestrians, bicycles and transit are not enough. The MUTCD needs a complete overhaul, because it dictates the signage, crosswalks and signalization on practically every road in the country. Submit comments by May 14 asking the FHWA to go back to the drawing board.

Third, we need to establish non-driver safety as a formal priority of federal, state and local traffic agencies. The principal priority now is driver speed and convenience.

Fourth,  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 April 2021 at 1:54 pm

The Salmon Sushi Conspirarcy

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A very interesting story (and debunking):

Written by LeisureGuy

8 April 2021 at 1:02 pm

Go Beyond the Grocery Store With These Seven Innovative Spice Companies

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Reina Gattuso writes in Gastro Obscura:

IN 2016, SANA JAVERI KADRI found herself at a crossroads. After moving from her hometown of Mumbai to California, she wanted to learn more about the historical forces shaping her own identity and experience as a queer woman of color in the United States. A food photographer, Javeri Kadri turned to culinary history to better understand the history of global empire. For more than a century before the British crown officially made India a colony, the British East India company—a private corporation that had a monopoly over much of the South Asian spice trade—ruled the subcontinent.

Spice trading, Javeri Kadri realized, hasn’t changed much from its colonial roots. Often, the people growing spices are disconnected from the global marketplace by middlemen, who take the lion’s share of the profits. In 2017, following a series of sourcing trips to spice farms in India, Javeri Kadri founded Diaspora Co., a small spice company that directly sells seasonings from South Asian farms to U.S. and global consumers.

Diaspora Co. is one of a number of small companies bent on challenging the colonial legacy of the spice trade. In contrast to large spice companies, some of which have dominated the industry for hundreds of years, these endeavors tend to work directly with local farmers and are owned by people grounded in the cultural and culinary contexts of the spices they sell.

According to Greg Prang, co-founder of Culinary Culture Connections, which partners with South American Indigenous groups and nonprofits to import their products to the U.S., equitable spice sourcing should go beyond a “fair trade” label. It should focus on building relationships with producers and supporting their autonomy over traditional cultural and culinary practices.

“Fair trade is kind of a front for big corporations to say they’re doing something in respect of sustainability,” he says. Prang speaks from experience. He was trained as an anthropologist and worked in consumer research for multinational food companies for years. When corporations talked about leveraging fair trade branding for profit, “I remember laughing and saying, ‘If you don’t believe it, don’t do it.’”

Prang, Javeri Kadri, and others on this list believe in the importance of equitable sourcing—and they sell some tasty spices, too.

Diaspora Co.

Oakland, California

Besides bringing fresh spices to customers, Diaspora Co. states an intention to “redistribute power away from solely the trader and instead empower its farmers, laborers, and the earth,” according to their website. Today, the company directly sources more than a dozen spices from 12 farmers across six Indian states and Sri Lanka, many of whom use organic and regenerative farming methods.

Favorite offerings include sannam chillies; Sri Lankan kandyan cloves that taste like “pine, butterscotch, henna, and allspice”; and the masala dabba, a handmade brass version of the spice box ubiquitous in South Asian kitchens. The company also has a recipe blog and often weighs in on political issues—including a message of solidarity to the current farmers’ movement in India.

Loisa

New York, New York

In July 2020, politically progressive lovers of Latin American food were left with a dilemma. Robert Unanue, the CEO of Goya Foods—the largest producer of Latin American ingredients in the United States—had praised President Trump, despite the President’s record of racist rhetoric and policies targeting the Latinx community. Many boycotters, wondering where to get beloved seasonings, turned to Latinx-owned spice company Loisa.

Founded in 2017 by Kenny Luna and Scott Hattis, and co-owned by food activist Yadira Garcia, Loisa is named for the Spanglish moniker for the Lower East Side. Its two signature products, both organic, are sazón, a classic mix of cumin, coriander, garlic, oregano, and black pepper, and adobo, which is garlic, turmeric, black pepper, and oregano. The company also sells sofrito and rice and bean mixes. Loisa’s site offers vegan and vegetarian recipes for favorite Latin American dishes, and donates 2 percent of its monthly profits to community-based organizations in the greater New York City area.

Fly By Jing

Chengdu, China

Jing Gao’s spice company began out of a suitcase. As a young, European-raised Chinese chef exploring her roots in Chengdu, Gao began serving pop-up dinners out of her home kitchen. These dinner parties grew into a roving global series, with Gao lugging bags full of Chinese spices wherever she travelled. In 2018, she decided to turn the suitcase spice hustle into a full-fledged business. Gao’s first Kickstarter became the highest-funded craft food project in the site’s history, and Fly By Jing was born.

“I was completely blown away by the reception,” Gao writes via email. “It showed me that people were ready and excited to embrace these flavors.” Gao named the company after Chengdu’s “fly” restaurants, hole-in-the-wall joints so tasty that diners flock to them like flies. She also affixed her given name, Jing, to the company title, rather than Jenny, the name she’d gone by for most of her life.

The company’s first product is still its signature: Sichuan Chili Crisp, a spicy, savory sauce that will leave your mouth tingling. The company has expanded with a handful of other offerings, such as doubanjiang, aged fava bean paste, and zhong dumpling sauce, made of soy sauce, garlic, mushrooms, and spices. The company is also one of the few U.S. importers of Tribute Pepper, a mouth-numbing, citrusy chili once given to emperors as tribute.

Culinary Culture Connections

Bellevue, Washington

Greg Prang seems, at first, an unlikely founder of a company that imports small-scale, Indigenous-produced Brazilian spices. For years, . . .

Continue reading. There are more companies listed.

Written by LeisureGuy

6 April 2021 at 12:18 pm

The health-care industry doesn’t want to talk about this single word

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A clear example of the extent of systemic racism in the United States is offered in a Washington Post column by Ron Wyatt, co-chairof the Institute for Healthcare Improvement’s equity advisory group and faculty for the IHI Pursuing Equity Initiative. Wyatt was the first Black chief medical resident at the Saint Louis University School of Medicine. He writes:

When I write about health policy or speak with medical colleagues about barriers to care, there is one word — and one word only — that evokes a wide range of responses. Some respond with silence; others with avoidance. Some respond with anger and defensiveness.

The word appeared at the top of a paper I submitted to the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2015 with David R. Williams, a professor of public health and African American studies at Harvard University. The title: “Racism in Health and Healthcare: Challenges and Opportunities.”

The editor of the journal at that time, Howard Bauchner, advised us that the word could not be published and that “racial bias” would be substituted into the title before publication. Using “racism,” he said, would result in “losing readers.” As authors and scientists, we compromised. We agreed to the change, and the article was published.

Just a few weeks ago, six years after that decision to compromise, Bauchner and I spoke by phone. He apologized, saying that progress has been made since then.

Has progress been made? JAMA recently announced that following controversial comments on racism in medicine made by a deputy editor, Bauchner was placed on administrative leave on March 25 while an independent investigation is completed.

Entrenched systemic racism — and the deliberate omission of the word in patient safety circles — is the cause of an astonishing level of preventable harm and death among communities of color that have been devalued and discounted for more than 400 years.

The covid-19 pandemic has laid bare the racial inequities of the U.S. health-care system. Too many health-care executives still perpetuate the ahistoric perspective that our country’s model provides safe and equal care for all. Yet the disproportionate number of deaths to covid-19 among racial and ethnic minority groups exposes the systemic and lethal barriers to care.

Last month, a major health-care trade magazine accepted another article that I contributed to with three colleagues, once again with “racism” in the title. When our editor sent us the final authors’ agreement, we noticed the word had been removed from the title and replaced with “intolerance.” This time, we were not willing to compromise. Our editor later informed us that the article would not be published in the May/June issue as scheduled. We were not given a reason.

I have worked all over the United States and internationally as a champion of addressing health inequity. I can say without hesitation — both as a doctor and a citizen — that racism in the United States is a public health crisis.

Having lived in rural Alabama, my family experienced these inequities personally. When my great uncle, who was like a father to me, fell ill, he was taken to a clinic that was segregated by skin color, and was subsequently admitted to a hospital in Selma in 1973. He died one day later. In 2015, I learned he had a ruptured appendix and was never seen by a physician.

I have advised and worked with large, complex health-care systems in the United States, Britain, Australia and Africa. I have collaborated with organizations such as the American Medical Association, the American Hospital Association and the Joint Commission. I have even discussed race as a risk factor for death with White health leaders, such as former president of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement Don Berwick.

Yet, I still sometimes feel that survival mechanism kick in to compromise and veil the truth that structural and systemic racism is a root cause of preventable harm and death across U.S. health care. I have been warned that if I did not continue to compromise, I would be labeled an “angry Black man” and that colleagues would distance themselves from me.

The days of compromise are over.

Solving systemic racism in public health must start with naming it. We must publish the word. We must say the word. If health-care providers are to be competent in caring for communities that have been marginalized and oppressed for centuries, then they must understand the role racism plays in poor health. This includes . . .

Continue reading.

Racists don’t like it when you point out their racism.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 April 2021 at 5:51 pm

Why Are Stents Still Used If They Don’t Work?

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Written by LeisureGuy

5 April 2021 at 9:34 am

As Cuomo Sought $4 Million Book Deal, Aides Hid Damaging Death Toll

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Jesse McKinley, Danny Hakim, and Alexandra Alter report in the NY Times:

As the coronavirus subsided in New York last year, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had begun pitching a book proposal that would center on his image as a hero of the pandemic. But by early last summer, both his book and image had hit a critical juncture.

Mr. Cuomo leaned on his top aide, Melissa DeRosa, for assistance. She attended video meetings with publishers, and helped him edit early drafts of the book. But there was also another, more pressing edit underway at the same time.

An impending Health Department report threatened to disclose a far higher number of nursing home deaths related to the coronavirus than the Cuomo administration had previously made public. Ms. DeRosa and other top aides expressed concern about the higher death toll, and, after their intervention, the number — which had appeared in the second sentence of the report — was removed from the final version.

The revisions occurred as the governor was on the brink of a huge payoff: a book deal that ended with a high offer of more than $4 million, according to people with knowledge of the book’s bidding process.

A New York Times examination of the development of Mr. Cuomo’s lucrative book deal revealed how it overlapped with the move by his most senior aides to reshape a report about nursing home deaths in a way that insulated the governor from criticism and burnished his image.

Mr. Cuomo also utilized the resources of his office — from his inner circle to far more junior personnel — to help with the manuscript. In late June and early July, for example, a top aide to the governor, Stephanie Benton, twice asked assistants to print portions of the draft of the book, and deliver them to Mr. Cuomo at the Executive Mansion in Albany, where he lives.

One of Ms. Benton’s directives came on June 27, the same day that Ms. DeRosa convened an impromptu teleconference with several other top advisers to discuss the Health Department draft report.

On Wednesday, Richard Azzopardi, a senior adviser to the governor, rejected any link between Mr. Cuomo’s book and the Health Department report.

“There is no connection between the report and this outside project, period,” Mr. Azzopardi said. “And any suggestion otherwise is just wrong.”

The book, “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the Covid-19 Pandemic,” was a dramatic retelling of the battle against the virus in a state where nearly 50,000 people have died. It would garner Mr. Cuomo a fleeting spot on the best-seller list.

Emails and an early draft of Mr. Cuomo’s book obtained by The New York Times indicate that the governor was writing it as early as mid-June, relying on a cadre of trusted aides and junior staffers for everything from full-scale edits to minor clerical work, potentially running afoul of state laws prohibiting use of public resources for personal gain. . .

Continue reading. There’s more. MUCH more, and in damning detail: names, dates, actions. This is from the inside, and probably (given Cuomo’s management style) multiple sources.

To take a few paragraphs at random from a long sequence of such paragraphs:

Ms. DeRosa, the highest nonelected official in Mr. Cuomo’s office, was particularly involved with the development of the book, and was present during some online pitch meetings with Mr. Cuomo. The July 5 request, in fact, was to print a 224-page draft entitled “MDR edits” — a reference to Ms. DeRosa, who had sent the draft to Ms. Benton on July 4, according to the emails. The staffers communicated via personal Gmail accounts, not official governmental email addresses.

Mr. Azzopardi said that Ms. DeRosa and Ms. Benton had “volunteered on this project” during their free time, something he added was “permissible and consistent with ethical requirements” of the state.

As for the junior aides’ participation in tasks related to the book, he said, “Every effort was made to ensure that no state resources were used in connection with this project.”

“To the extent an aide printed out a document,” he said, “it appears incidental.”

Ms. DeRosa also had significant input on the July 6 report issued by the Department of Health, which basically cleared Mr. Cuomo’s administration of fault in its handling of nursing homes — discounting the impact of a March 2020 state memo that had asked such facilities to take in or readmit residents who had tested positive for the disease.

Critical changes had been made to the final version of the Health Department report, after concerns were raised about the data by Ms. DeRosa and a second Cuomo aide, Linda Lacewell, according to interviews and documents.

In two earlier drafts of the report, which were both reviewed by The Times, the second sentence said that “from March 1, 2020, through June 10, 2020, there were 9,844 fatalities among NYS nursing home residents with confirmed or suspected COVID-19.”

The earlier drafts were written by . . .

And it goes on, naming names. Cuomo is looking at criminal charges.

Later:

Mr. Cuomo, 63, has declined to confirm exactly how much he was paid for “American Crisis,” which was published by Crown Publishing Group in mid-October, just as a second wave of the coronavirus began to swell in New York.

Crown declined to comment on the sale price or confirm that it slightly exceeded $4 million, a large sum for an author whose previous memoir, “All Things Possible,” from 2014, sold fewer than 4,000 hardcover copies.

The governor’s office said he would donate a “significant portion” of the book’s proceeds to a Covid-related charity, though he has not indicated how much; on Wednesday, Mr. Azzopardi reiterated that the governor’s book payment and charitable contributions would be released with his tax returns and state-mandated financial disclosures, both of which are due in mid-May.

Since the book’s publication, . . .

Written by LeisureGuy

31 March 2021 at 9:44 pm

Bob Pape was a beloved father and foster carer. Did ‘eat out to help out’ cost him his life?

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Sirin Kale writes in the Guardian:

Amanda Pape didn’t want to go on a city break to Birmingham during a pandemic, but her husband, Bob, a 53-year-old lawyer, insisted. “Bob was convinced that the government would not allow people to travel if it wasn’t safe,” says Amanda, a 56-year-old former teacher. Bob was persuasive – he was a lawyer, after all – so she relented. Along with her daughter, Jazzy, 19, one of Jazzy’s friends and a child Bob and Amanda were fostering, they booked three nights in a Holiday Inn from 2 August 2020.

The family, from Altrincham, Greater Manchester, stayed from Sunday to Wednesday, to make the most of the government’s “eat out to help out” (EOTHO) scheme, which offered food and soft drink discounts on Mondays to Wednesdays in August. Right until they left for Birmingham, Amanda was uneasy. She was on the verge of cancelling. It felt wrong.

In the end, they had a wonderful time. They visited Cadbury World, where Bob got overexcited and bought too much chocolate at the gift shop. They ate at Five Guys, a Jamaican restaurant and a brewery. “Me and Amanda visited the local Brewdog for a pint,” Bob wrote in his diary. “It was almost normal!” Most mornings, Bob fetched breakfast for everyone from McDonald’s. Amanda would shove a bottle of hand sanitiser at him before he left and remind him to use it.

On their final night, they had dinner at Wetherspoon’s with the kids. There was a bit of ugliness – a man at a nearby table was leering at Jazzy, so they moved seats. “I was concerned as some guys were getting lairy,” Bob said in his diary. Bob took Amanda and their foster child back to the hotel before returning for the girls. It was just as well because Jazzy was a bit the worse for wear. Bob hauled her home and put her to bed.

Where did Bob contract Covid? From the touch-screen he used to place his McDonald’s orders? At Five Guys, where they were careful to sit at a large table, away from everyone else? Amanda thinks about this now, late at night, running through all the places they visited on that weekend when everything was still right in the world and her partner of 11 years was by her side, smiling and carefree, and she thought this blasted pandemic was coming to an end.

Driving home, Amanda was in ebullient spirits. She was silly to have worried. They had had a great trip. Life was good.

There were two Bob Papes. If you had met the first, you would have seen a man dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, most likely with a beer in hand. He was cheerful, gregarious and loved to travel. Bob had no volume control and his constant wisecracking made some people wince. “His entire existence was about embarrassing me,” says Jazzy, a law student, with a sigh. “He wore Hawaiian shirts everywhere. And he was so loud when we were out. I would tell him to be quiet because people were looking.” Bob would look at you intently, make bad jokes, ask you questions about your life and really want to know the answers. “He collected people in the way some people collect bottles,” says Amanda. “He would talk to a stranger in a bar for hours.”

The second Bob was different. This was the lawyer who specialised in child support issues. He was respected and competitive. “If the judgment went his way, he’d say: ‘1-0,’ and wink,” remembers his friend and sometime legal adversary Mike Smith. But Bob preferred to keep his cases out of the tribunal courts, if possible, concerned for the welfare of the child. Most of the time, Bob would encourage his clients to come to an agreement out of the courtroom. If Smith was the opposing counsel, Bob would call him up and ask: how can we resolve this? It was better for the child that way. Less acrimony.

And woe betide a parent who was trying to hide their assets, to cheat their former partner out of child support. He would force them to come clean – even if they were his own client. “His big thing was fairness,” says Smith. “Just because you and your partner have separated doesn’t mean you can walk away from your responsibilities to the child. He was a great believer in that.”

Bob was born in Boston, Lincolnshire. His father was a telecoms engineer; his mother a homemaker. His childhood was wild and carefree. “They all had weird nicknames and would chuck themselves off bridges into the river and hope they didn’t break their necks,” says Amanda. At 16, Bob began temping in a law firm. He was not ambitious and lacked focus. “His first job had been collecting trolleys at the local supermarket, but he’d got fired from that for not paying attention,” says Amanda. “His dad wondered how long it would be before he got sacked from the law firm.”

Bob’s job there was to move boxes around and sort paperwork. On slow days, he would read the files. He started asking the lawyers about their cases. One of the senior partners at the firm began to take an interest in him. “He took Bob under his wing and said: ‘If you want to learn, I will teach you. I will pass on to you everything I know if you promise me that you’ll teach someone else one day,’” says Amanda. Bob founded his own firm, specialising in child support cases, in 1997.

When the senior partner died, he left Bob his wig in his will. On hearing this, . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more. Later in the article, the thorn:

When the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, announced EOTHO in a statement to parliament last summer, Covid cases were falling. Just 640 were reported in the UK on that day, 8 July. “I know people are cautious about going out, but we would not have lifted the restrictions if we did not think we could do so safely,” said a bullish Sunak, the second-youngest chancellor in history.

Sunak was the driving force behind EOTHO; promotional images for the initiative had his signature on them. He was riding high at the time, basking in approval ratings higher than those of the prime minister. A political unknown just six months previously, he was now beloved by the British public for turning on the spending taps. The government-funded scheme gave consumers 50% off the cost of food and soft drinks, up to a maximum discount of £10 a person, in participating businesses on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays in August. A total of 160m meals were claimed at 78,116 participating outlets that month, meaning that about 1.5 meals were claimed for each person in the UK.

Two days before Sunak’s announcement, Prof Lidia Morawska of Queensland University of Technology published an open letter, warning the World Health Organization (WHO) and national healthcare authorities of the dangers of airborne transmission of Covid. Her letter was signed by 239 scientists from around the world. “We are 100% sure about this,” Morawska said at the time, warning governments that 1- or 2-metre social distancing rules in indoor settings did not protect people from infection via airborne Covid particles. “These rules are completely arbitrary,” Morawska says. “They just prevent people from inhaling very large particles. But very small particles, which come out of a person’s mouth or nose when they are speaking, can stay in the air for a very long time and go much further than 1 metre.”

These Covid-19 particles range in size from less than a micrometre up to 100 micrometres, roughly the width of a strand of human hair. Even an asymptomatic person can shed them simply by breathing and talking; people with Covid are the most infectious in the first week of infection, often before the onset of symptoms. In an indoor restaurant setting, particularly one with poor ventilation or reliant on air-conditioning, these particles may circulate freely in the air, infecting people at tables metres away from the infected person. “Imagine you’re in a restaurant with a smoking area,” says Morawska. “There’s no one smoking in the area you’re in. But you can still smell the smoke from the other area. In the same way, the virus can travel with this air flow.”

It is impossible to estimate how far airborne Covid particles can travel in an indoor setting. “They will travel as far as the airflow takes them,” says Morawska. “That may be metres or tens of metres.” UK government guidance requires that restaurants space tables at least one metre apart, with rules to mitigate risk, such as removing multiuse items including menus, mandating table service to avoid people clustering together at the bar, requiring face coverings when not eating or drinking and improving ventilation.

Han Liu of the University of Minnesota has modelled the transmission of Covid in restaurant settings. “Only keeping 6ft [1.8 metres] away from each other is not enough in some circumstances,” says Liu. He cites other factors, such as air-conditioning, ventilation and even the way body heat can cause air particles to rise and circulate. “All of these factors will create a complex flow pattern that will drive small droplets further than 6ft from a spot and infect other people.” Although Liu’s study was published in February 2021, he points me towards a paper published in July 2020 that examined a Covid outbreak in a restaurant in Guangzhou, China. It came to similar conclusions.

Did the government consult scientists before the introduction of the EOTHO scheme? Speaking at an Institute for Government briefing in November 2020, Prof John Edmunds, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said that Sage was not informed in advance about EOTHO. The Treasury has never said if it sought advice from other, non-Sage-affiliated, scientists prior to the introduction of the scheme. In January 2021, the Labour MP Bridget Phillipson asked Sunak if he would publish a copy of the epidemiological advice he received before introducing EOTHO. The Treasury minister Jesse Norman said the scheme was designed in “a safe and responsible manner”, but his department has failed to publish any advice.

Had the government consulted Sage or other scientists before the introduction of EOTHO, they could have warned the chancellor about the risk of airborne transmission of the virus in indoor restaurant settings. The evidence was already there. “We knew this was a respiratory virus and we knew all along that it was transmitted by the air,” Morawska says. “If the government was telling people to eat out in restaurants in August, but didn’t do anything to protect people from airborne transmission, then it was just exposing people to the virus.”

The day after Morawska’s open letter, the WHO publicly acknowledged the risk of airborne transmission of Covid. The day after that, Sunak stepped up to the dispatch box and announced the EOTHO policy. Afterwards, he travelled to a central London branch of the restaurant chain Wagamama. In front of photographers, a grinning chancellor served customers with his sleeves rolled up. He did not wear a mask. . .

Written by LeisureGuy

30 March 2021 at 1:24 pm

“Why we can’t have nice things” — Planned obsolescence

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I found this video very interesting, but it does not mention the benign aspect of planned obsolescence: if you expect a device — a washing machine, for example — to have a useful life of 15 years, don’t put a motor guaranteed to last 100 years in it (since that would drive up the cost for no purpose).

Written by LeisureGuy

30 March 2021 at 12:25 pm

Inside the Koch-Backed Effort to Block the Largest Election-Reform Bill in Half a Century

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Jane Mayer writes in the New Yorker:

In public, Republicans have denounced Democrats’ ambitious electoral-reform bill, the For the People Act, as an unpopular partisan ploy. In a contentious Senate committee hearing last week, Senator Ted Cruz, of Texas, slammed the proposal, which aims to expand voting rights and curb the influence of money in politics, as “a brazen and shameless power grab by Democrats.” But behind closed doors Republicans speak differently about the legislation, which is also known as House Resolution 1 and Senate Bill 1. They admit the lesser-known provisions in the bill that limit secret campaign spending are overwhelmingly popular across the political spectrum. In private, they concede their own polling shows that no message they can devise effectively counters the argument that billionaires should be prevented from buying elections.

A recording obtained by The New Yorker of a private conference call on January 8th, between a policy adviser to Senator Mitch McConnell and the leaders of several prominent conservative groups—including one run by the Koch brothers’ network—reveals the participants’ worry that the proposed election reforms garner wide support not just from liberals but from conservative voters, too. The speakers on the call expressed alarm at the broad popularity of the bill’s provision calling for more public disclosure about secret political donors. The participants conceded that the bill, which would stem the flow of dark money from such political donors as the billionaire oil magnate Charles Koch, was so popular that it wasn’t worth trying to mount a public-advocacy campaign to shift opinion. Instead, a senior Koch operative said that opponents would be better off ignoring the will of American voters and trying to kill the bill in Congress.

Kyle McKenzie, the research director for the Koch-run advocacy group Stand Together, told fellow-conservatives and Republican congressional staffers on the call that he had a “spoiler.” “When presented with a very neutral description” of the bill, “people were generally supportive,” McKenzie said, adding that “the most worrisome part . . . is that conservatives were actually as supportive as the general public was when they read the neutral description.” In fact, he warned, “there’s a large, very large, chunk of conservatives who are supportive of these types of efforts.”

As a result, McKenzie conceded, the legislation’s opponents would likely have to rely on Republicans in the Senate, where the bill is now under debate, to use “under-the-dome-type strategies”—meaning legislative maneuvers beneath Congress’s roof, such as the filibuster—to stop the bill, because turning public opinion against it would be “incredibly difficult.” He warned that the worst thing conservatives could do would be to try to “engage with the other side” on the argument that the legislation “stops billionaires from buying elections.” McKenzie admitted, “Unfortunately, we’ve found that that is a winning message, for both the general public and also conservatives.” He said that when his group tested “tons of other” arguments in support of the bill, the one condemning billionaires buying elections was the most persuasive—people “found that to be most convincing, and it riled them up the most.”

McKenzie explained that the Koch-founded group had invested substantial resources “to see if we could find any message that would activate and persuade conservatives on this issue.” He related that “an A.O.C. message we tested”—one claiming that the bill might help Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez achieve her goal of holding “people in the Trump Administration accountable” by identifying big donors—helped somewhat with conservatives. But McKenzie admitted that the link was tenuous, since “what she means by this is unclear.” “Sadly,” he added, not even attaching the phrase “cancel culture” to the bill, by portraying it as silencing conservative voices, had worked. “It really ranked at the bottom,” McKenzie said to the group. “That was definitely a little concerning for us.”

Gretchen Reiter, the senior vice-president of communications for Stand Together, declined to respond to questions about the conference call or the Koch group’s research showing the robust popularity of the proposed election reforms. In an e-mailed statement, she said, “Defending civil liberties requires more than a sound bite,” and added that the group opposes the bill because “a third of it restricts First Amendment rights.” She included a link to an op-ed written by a member of Americans for Prosperity, another Koch-affiliated advocacy group, which argues that the legislation violates donors’ freedom of expression by requiring the disclosure of the names of those who contribute ten thousand dollars or more to nonprofit groups involved in election spending. Such transparency, the op-ed suggests, could subject donors who prefer to remain anonymous to retaliation or harassment.

The State Policy Network, a confederation of right-wing think tanks with affiliates in every state, convened the conference call days after the Democrats’ twin victories in the Senate runoffs in Georgia, which meant that the Party had won the White House and majorities in both houses of Congress, making it likely that the For the People Act would move forward. Participants included Heather Lauer, the executive director of People United for Privacy, a conservative group fighting to keep nonprofit donors’ identities secret, and Grover Norquist, the founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform, who expressed alarm at the damage that the disclosure provisions could do. “The left is not stupid, they’re evil,” he warned. “They know what they’re doing. They have correctly decided that this is the way to disable the freedom movement.”

Coördinating directly with the right-wing policy groups, which define themselves as nonpartisan for tax purposes, were two top Republican congressional staffers: Caleb Hays, the general counsel to the Republicans on the House Administration Committee, and Steve Donaldson, a policy adviser to McConnell. “When it comes to donor privacy, I can’t stress enough how quickly things could get out of hand,” Donaldson said, indicating McConnell’s concern about the effects that disclosure requirements would have on fund-raising. Donaldson added, “We have to hold our people together,” and predicted that the fight is “going to be a long one. It’s going to be a messy one.” But he insisted that McConnell was “not going to back down.” Neither Donaldson nor Hays responded to requests for comment. David Popp, a spokesperson for McConnell, said, “We don’t comment on private meetings.”

Nick Surgey, the executive director of Documented, a progressive watchdog group that investigates corporate money in politics, told me it made sense that McConnell’s staffer was on the call, because the proposed legislation “poses a very real threat to McConnell’s source of power within the Republican Party, which has always been fund-raising.” Nonetheless, he said that the close coördination on messaging and tactics between the Republican leadership and technically nonpartisan outside-advocacy groups was “surprising to see.” . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 March 2021 at 1:24 pm

The History of the Pivot Table, The Spreadsheet’s Most Powerful Tool

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Dan Knopf writes in Quartz:

Pivot tables are the quickest and most powerful way for the average person to analyze large datasets. No coding skills or mathematical brilliance are necessary—just the ability to point and click your mouse.

But don’t take our word for it. Pivot tables had a superfan in none other than Apple founder Steve Jobs, who immediately saw their genius.

In 1985, Jobs was forced out of his role as chairman of the board at Apple after failing to beat IBM in the business computer market. Fortunately, he was a stubborn man. Jobs immediately started the company NeXT, with the idea of taking on IBM once again.

As he developed the NeXT computer, which would launch in 1988, Jobs was looking for killer software programs to create demand for the product. From his experience at Apple, he knew that a good spreadsheet program could drive sales. Jobs credited VisiCalc, the first widely used spreadsheet software, for the huge success of the Apple II computer, released in 1979.

In his search for that need-to-have product, Jobs met with software company Lotus. The organization had already developed Lotus 1-2-3, a popular spreadsheet program that ran on IBM computers. It was in these meetings that Jobs would first stumble upon the “pivot table.”

Software developer Pito Salas was at the time working in research and development for Lotus, looking into how people typically utilize spreadsheets. Salas saw that users would often use spreadsheets to try to calculate summary statistics by categories (often referred to as crosstabs). For example, a company selling bicycles might want to examine their data to find unit sales by month or revenue by country. The way people did that at the time was cumbersome and error-prone because it involved writing complicated formulas.

Salas decided the world needed software that would make those calculations simple. Rather than enter formulas, users would be able to point and click to get those summary statistics. The Lotus team called this tool “flexible views,” but today similar tools are called “pivot tables” in both Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets.

The Lotus team showed Jobs an early prototype. “Steve Jobs thought it was the coolest thing ever,” Salas, now a professor at Brandeis University, tells Quartz. Jobs then convinced Lotus to develop the pivot table software exclusively for the NeXT computer. The software came out as Lotus Improv, and though the NeXT computer was a commercial failure, Lotus Improv would be hugely influential. The “flexible views” aspect of Improv would be built into both Lotus 1-2-3 and Excel (the latter was the first to actually use the term “pivot table”).

Bill Jelen, Excel evangelist and co-author of Pivot Table Data Crunching, credits Salas as the “father of pivot tables.” Salas says his contribution to pivot tables is one of his life’s most gratifying accomplishments, though he believes he was just building on the foundations of many others.

Today, pivot tables are among the most important and commonly used tools in the spreadsheet wizard’s toolbox. “A pivot table lets you create a one-page summary report from hundreds of thousands of rows of data, often in four, five, or six clicks,” says Jelen. “It is the fastest way to get answers from large datasets.”

It’s hard to know exactly how . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 March 2021 at 11:44 am

Ships keep crashing because the maritime industry won’t apply the lessons of aviation.

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David Graham writes in the Atlantic:

When a big jet airplane crashes, it almost always makes headlines around the world, and for good reason: Fatal passenger accidents are extremely rare. Right now, though, the eyes of the world are on the Ever Given, the massive container ship still stubbornly lodged between the banks of the Suez Canal.

The Ever Given’s predicament is both highly unusual and typical: Seldom does a ship get stuck in the Suez (though it does happen every few years), and seldom does a maritime disaster attract such attention. But even though the world is incredibly dependent on ships like Ever Given—a reality that pandemic-related disruptions have suddenly made visible—major maritime incidents are surprisingly common. According to the insurer Allianz, 41 large ships were lost in 2019, and 46 in 2018. Over the past decade, about 100 big vessels have been lost annually.

Why does this keep happening? Every maritime accident, like every plane crash, has its own unique failures. But one key to the improvement in aviation safety was the advent of a radical new approach to safety and training, known as cockpit resource management or crew resource management. Airplane failures still occur, but they rarely become fatal catastrophes. The shipping industry has tried to learn from aviation’s success, dubbing its equivalent “bridge resource management,” but the implementation and modernization of the approach have largely failed.

The result is ships destroyed, vital goods delayed, and mariners’ lives lost. We still don’t have enough information to understand what happened on the Ever Given, with possible causes including a loss of power and high winds. But when I asked Captain John Konrad, a merchant mariner who runs the maritime-news site gCaptain, how many major ship incidents were a result of bad bridge resource management, he answered, “Every one. They are all BRM problems.”

When aviation took off, it borrowed its titles, uniforms, and practices from seafaring. The man (in that era) in charge of the plane was a captain, and he wore naval-style insignia. His second in command was the first officer or chief mate; the person in charge of the cabin, as on a ship, was the purser. At Pan Am, lead pilots were known as “clipper skippers,” taking the name from the airline’s famous flying boats.

A sea captain historically held nearly absolute authority aboard his ship. His power was unquestioned and unquestionable; in the British Navy, mutiny was a capital offense. Around the world, many captains retain the power to conduct weddings. They are traditionally also expected to be the last off a sinking ship, or to go down with it. When the captain of the Costa Concordia fled his sinking cruise ship in 2012, he was upbraided by Coast Guard officers and then the press. He was ultimately sentenced to 16 years in prison, including one year for abandoning passengers.

This power bred an imperiousness among captains, and it translated to aviation. The journalist William Langewiesche recounts a first officer’s quip that he was the captain’s sexual adviser, “because whenever I speak up, he says, ‘If I want your fucking advice, I’ll ask for it.’” But beginning in the 1970s, aviation experts realized that this approach was often to blame for crashes that might have been prevented if pilots had heeded advice from their co-pilots, flight engineers, or flight attendants.

In one famous CRM triumph, three pilots were able to save 184 of the 296 people aboard a 1989 United flight following a catastrophic engine failure. The captain, Alfred Haynes, later remembered, “Up until 1980, we kind of worked on the concept that the captain was the authority on the aircraft. What he said, goes. And we lost a few airplanes because of that. Sometimes the captain isn’t as smart as we thought he was … If I hadn’t used [CRM], if we had not let everybody put their input in, it’s a cinch we wouldn’t have made it.”

Some aviation failures are still associated with bad cockpit culture. Six months later, an Avianca flight landing at JFK crashed, killing most on board, after it ran out of fuel—a problem that the National Transportation Safety Board attributed to poor communication both among the crew and with air-traffic control. Still, the gains have been impressive, especially in the United States: From 2009 to 2018, no U.S. airline had a single fatality.

But these advances in aviation haven’t made it aboard ships. “The maritime industry in the ’90s took CRM, the basics, and they created BRM,” Konrad said. “They kind of dumbed it down a little bit. They have not updated it since the ’90s.” . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 March 2021 at 11:11 am

What Can We Learn from a Big Boat Stuck in a Canal?

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Matt Stoller explains in his current BIG column:

Today I’ll be writing about the big boat stuck in the Suez Canal. This situation is a very simple and dumb disruption to global trade, and it is precisely the simplicity and stupidity at work that lets us peak beneath the glossy sheen of trade happy talk that has fooled us for so long.

First, some house-keeping. A few years ago I wrote a piece in the American Conservative with national security expert Lucas Kunce on private equity and monopolies in the military defense base. Kunce is now running for Senate on an anti-monopoly platform. I don’t tend to mention political candidates in this newsletter, but I’ll put a caveat in there for people who have a bylined article with me about monopoly power. Also, this week I was on the podcast Useful Idiots with Matt Taibbi and Katie Halper to talk about why changing the business model behind big tech is better than censorship.

Finally, my organization is doing an event on health care monopolies this coming Tuesday at 2pm ET. If you are interested, you can RSVP here.

And now…

The Empire State Building Falls into the Suez Canal

In this newsletter, I do a lot of explaining about complicated problems caused by big dumb corporate institutions. I don’t have to do that this time, because the story of the mess in the Suez is so simple. “After years of bitcoin and reddit short selling and credit default swaps and a million other things I don’t understand,” one random person put in a tweet that went viral, “it’s so refreshing to hear that global commerce is in peril because a big boat got stuck in a canal.”

That’s basically the story right there, it’s a big boat and it got stuck in a canal. The ship blocking the Suez, called the Ever Given, weights 220,000 tons, and is as long as the Empire State Building is high. Despite the hilarious nature of the problem, the disruption to world trade is large and serious, costing tens of billions of dollars. And if the ship can’t be dislodged soon, some consumers will once again experience shortages of basic staples like toilet paper.

That said, the reason this disruption to global commerce seems so dumb is because it is. It starts with the ship size itself. Over the last few decades, ships have gotten really really big, four times the size of what they were 25 years ago, what the FT calls “too big to sail.’ The argument behind making such massive boats was efficiency, since you can carry more at a lower cost. The downside of such mega-ships should have been obvious. Ships like this, which are in effect floating islands, are really hard to steer in tight spaces like ports and canals, and if they get stuck, they are difficult to unstick. In other words, the super smart wizard financiers who run global trade made ships that don’t fit in the canals they need to fit into.

The rise of mega-ships is paralleled by the consolidation of the shipping industry itself. In 2000, the ten biggest shipping companies had a 12% market share, by 2019 that share had increased to 82%. This understates the consolidation, because there are alliances among these shippers. The stuck ship is being run by the Taiwanese shipping conglomerate Evergreen, which bought Italian shipping firm Italia Marittima in 1998 and London-based Hatsu in 2002, and is itself part of the OCEAN alliance, which has more than a third of global shipping.

Making ships massive, and combining such massive ships into massive shipping monopolies, is a bad way to run global commerce. We’ve already seen significant problems from big shipping lines helping to transmit financial shocks into trade shocks, such as when Korean shipper Hanjin went under and stranded $14 billion of cargo on the ocean while in bankruptcy. It’s also much harder for small producers and retailers to get shipping space, because large shippers want to deal with large clients. And fewer ports can handle these mega-ships, so such ships induce geographical inequality. Increasingly, we’re not moving ships between cities, we’re moving cities to where the small number of giant shipping lines find it efficient to ship.

Dumb big ships owned by monopolies are the result of dumb big ideas, the physical manifestation of what Thomas Friedman was pushing in the 1990s and 2000s with books such as The Lexus and the Olive Tree and The World is Flatthe idea that “taking fat out of the system at every joint” was leading towards a more prosperous, peaceful and competitive world. Friedman’s was a finance-friendly perspective, a belief that making us all interdependent with a very thin margin of error would force global cooperation.

Just make ships bigger, went the thinking, until . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 March 2021 at 6:29 pm

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