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US Healthcare System: Their Baby Died in the Hospital. They Had Good Healthcare Insurance. Then Came the $257,000 Bill.

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Sarah Kliff reports in the NY Times (with no paywall on this article):

Brittany Giroux Lane gave birth to her daughter, Alexandra, a few days before Christmas in 2018. The baby had dark eyes and longish legs. She had also arrived about 13 weeks early, and weighed just two pounds.

Alexandra initially thrived in the neonatal intensive care unit at Mount Sinai West. Ms. Lane, 35, recalls the nurses describing her daughter as a “rock star” because she grew so quickly. But her condition rapidly worsened after an infection, and Alexandra died early on the morning of Jan. 15 at 25 days old.

A flurry of small medical bills from neonatologists and pediatricians quickly followed. Ms. Lane struggled to get her breast pump covered by insurance because, in the midst of a preterm birth, she hadn’t gone through the health plan’s prior approval process.

Last summer, Ms. Lane started receiving debt collection notices. The letters, sent by the health plan Cigna, said she owed the insurer over $257,000 for the bills it accidentally covered for Alexandra’s care after Ms. Lane switched health insurers.

Ms. Lane was flummoxed: It was Cigna that had received the initial bill for care and had paid Mount Sinai West. Now, Cigna was seeking the money it had overpaid the hospital by turning to the patient.

“For them, it’s just business, but for us it means constantly going through the trauma of reliving our daughter’s death,” said Clayton Lane, Alexandra’s father and Ms. Lane’s husband. “It means facing threats of financial ruin. It’s so unjust and infuriating.”

Medical billing experts who reviewed the case described it as a dispute between a large hospital and a large insurer, with the patient stuck in the middle. The experts say such cases are not frequent but speak to the wider lack of predictability in American medical billing, with patients often having little idea what their care will cost until a bill turns up in the mail months later.

Congress passed a ban on surprise medical bills last year, which will go into effect in 2022. It outlaws a certain type of surprise bill: those that patients receive from an out-of-network provider unexpectedly involved in their care. There are plenty of other types of bills that surprise patients, such as those received by the Lanes, that are likely to persist.

Continue reading. There’s much more, and there’s no paywall on this: gift article.

Written by Leisureguy

21 September 2021 at 8:03 pm

How Farming with Horses Makes Better Wine

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Sophia McDonald writes in SevenFifty Daily:

As a child growing up in Champagne, Christophe Baron would ride his bike down a dirt road to visit his grandparents and pass a lush green field where a woman regularly rode a large white horse. That animal made a big impression on a small boy, and he vowed that someday, he would live and work with animals, too.

Baron went on to found Cayuse Vineyards in Washington’s Walla Walla Valley, followed by a project he calls Horsepower Vineyards, where much of the vineyard work is done with teams of Percheron and Belgian draft horses. After harvest, the horses pull the cultivators that cover the vines’ crowns with soil to keep them warm. In the spring, they power the plows that pull the soil back, aerate the ground, and cut down weeds.

Using horses at his biodynamic vineyard produces higher-quality wines, Baron believes, and he’s not the only one. Domaine de la Romanée-Conti recently reintroduced horses at its vineyards to help decrease soil compaction as well.

Beyond the practical reasons for driving horse teams through vineyards, there is also a desire among some to keep the craft and tradition of horse viticulture alive. “There’s something irreplaceable and really authentic about using horses,” says Horsepower’s equine and vineyard manager Joel Sokoloff. “We do it because it’s a choice to farm in a much more artisanal and ancestral way.”

Working with animals instead of machines means treading more gently on the earth and farming at a less frenetic, more traditional pace. “We live in a world where everything is the same, where everything goes fast,” Baron says. “It’s always more, more, more.”

But farming with horses is not just slower—it’s more time-consuming and expensive. “It makes no economic sense to farm with horses,” says Charline Drappier, the deputy director of Champagne Drappier, whose family started using Ardennais horses on its 71-acre organic vineyard to till, remove weeds, and aerate the soil about 15 years ago. “It’s a real investment, but it’s pure investment for very little productivity.”

Horses can also be a dangerous liability to owners who don’t understand how to work them. “Sometimes people see this very romantic picture of horses as gentle giants,” says Stephen Hagen, the owner of Antiquum Farm at the southern end of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, who previously farmed his vineyards with horses for several years and has been working with them since he was a teenager. “The truth is there’s nothing more dangerous you can do—besides maybe bull riding—than hooking farming implements to the back of two 2,000-pound horses and farming with them. That’s especially true when you’re working horses in the physical constraints of a vineyard. There’s a high degree of caution and skill that’s necessary.”

What Horses Do that Machines Can’t

Cultivators drawn by four-legged critters rather than steel-and-rubber farm equipment make for a much more tactile, gentle experience for the ground and the vine, says Sokoloff. “You can feel through your hands and through the cultivator every stone you hit and every soil change.” If a tractor snags a vine, the driver will never feel it. Someone driving a team of horses is more likely to, and can stop before they tear the plant from the ground.

Even passing through the vineyard 14 times a year, horses put less . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

21 September 2021 at 11:05 am

New Evidence of Corruption at Epa Chemicals Division

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Sharon Lerner reports in the Intercept:

Scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency have provided The Intercept with new information showing that senior staff have made chemicals appear safer — sometimes dodging restrictions on their use — by minimizing the estimates of how much is released into the environment.

The EPA gauges the potential risk posed by a chemical using two measures: how toxic the agency considers it and how much of the substance the public will likely be exposed to. Whistleblowers from the EPA’s New Chemicals Division have already provided The Intercept with evidence that managers and other officials were pressuring them to assess chemicals to be less toxic than they actually are — and sometimes removing references to their harms from chemical assessments.

Now new documents, including meeting summaries, internal emails, and screenshots from the EPA’s computer system, along with interviews with whistleblowers and other EPA scientists, show that the agency’s New Chemicals Division has avoided calculating the exposure to — and thus the risk posed by — hundreds of chemicals and have repeatedly resisted calls to change that policy even after scientists have shown that it puts the public at risk.

Call It “Negligible”

Since 1995, the EPA has operated under the assumption that chemicals emitted below certain cutoff levels are safe. Whether a toxic chemical is emitted through the smokestacks of an industrial plant, via leaks in its machinery, or from a leaky landfill into groundwater, the agency requires scientists to quantify the precise risk posed by the chemical only if the release (and thus likely human exposure) reaches certain thresholds. If the releases from both smokestacks and leaks are below the thresholds, the chemical is given a pass. In recent years, however, scientists have shown that some of the chemicals allowed onto the market using this loophole do in fact present a danger, particularly to the people living in “fence-line communities” near industrial plants.

In 2018, several EPA scientists became worried that the use of these exposure thresholds could leave the public vulnerable to health risks. Their concern was heightened by an email that a manager in the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics sent in October of that year, instructing the scientists to change the language they used to classify chemicals that were exempted from risk calculation because they were deemed to have low exposure levels. Up to that point, they had described them in reports as “below modeling thresholds.” From then on, the manager explained, the scientists were to include the words “expects to be negligible” — a phrase that implies there’s no reason for concern.

Several scientists who worked on calculating chemical risks believed that there was in fact reason for concern and that the use of the thresholds leaves the public vulnerable to health effects, including cancer. And after being instructed to refer to exposures they hadn’t actually measured or modeled as “negligible,” the scientists proposed dropping or lowering the cutoffs and running the calculations for each individual chemical — a task that would add only minutes to the assessment process. But the managers refused to heed their request, which would have not only changed how chemicals were assessed moving forward but would have also had implications for hundreds of assessments in the past.

“They told us that the use of the thresholds was a policy decision and, as such, we could not simply stop applying them,” one of the scientists who worked in the office explained to The Intercept.

The issue resurfaced in May 2020 when a scientist presented the case of a single chemical the agency was then considering allowing onto the market. Although it fell into the “negligible” category using the cutoffs that had been set decades previously, when the scientists calculated the exposure levels using an alternate EPA model, which is designed to gauge the risk of airborne chemicals, it became clear that the chemical did pose a risk of damaging the human nervous system. The chemical is still going through the approval process.

In February, a small group of scientists reviewed the safety thresholds set by the EPA for all of the 368 new chemicals submitted to the agency in 2020. They found that more than half could pose risks even in cases in which the agency had already described exposure as “negligible” and thus had not calculated specific risk. Again, the scientists brought the exposure threshold issue to the attention of managers in the New Chemicals Division, briefing them on their analysis and requesting that the use of the outdated cutoffs be stopped. But they received no response to their proposal. Seven months later, the thresholds remain in use and the risk posed by chemicals deemed to have low exposure levels is still not being calculated and included in chemical assessments, according to EPA scientists who spoke with The Intercept.

The internal struggles over exposure present yet another example of managers and senior staff working to undermine the agency’s mission, according to the EPA scientists. “Our work on new chemicals often felt like an exercise in finding ways to approve new chemicals rather than reviewing them for approval,” said one of two scientists who filed new disclosures to the EPA inspector general on August 31 about the issue. The detailed account of corruption within the New Chemicals Division that four whistleblowers previously submitted to members of Congress, the EPA inspector general, and The Intercept also included information on the ongoing problems caused by the use of the exposure thresholds.”

“It all comes down to money,” said Kyla Bennett, director of science policy for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER, the organization representing the whistleblowers, who pointed out that risk values above the agency’s accepted cutoffs require the EPA to impose limits that may make a chemical harder to use — and sell. “Companies don’t want warning labels, they don’t want restrictions.”

It’s unclear why some senior staff and managers within the EPA’s New Chemicals Division seem to feel an obligation not to burden the companies they regulate with restrictions. “That’s the $64,000 question,” said Bennett, who pointed out that EPA staffers may enhance their post-agency job prospects within the industry if they stay in the good graces of chemical companies. She also noted that managers’ performance within the division is assessed partly based on how many chemicals they approve. “The bean counting is driving their actions,” said Bennett. “The performance metrics should be, how many chemicals did you prevent from going onto the market, rather than how many did you get onto the market.”

In response to questions about this story, the EPA  . . .

Continue reading. There’s more, and no paywall.

Written by Leisureguy

19 September 2021 at 4:42 pm

Transparent wood material could be the window of tomorrow

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Interesting idea — and clearly a window of glass made from wood would be a better insulator than a (single-pane) glass window. Ashwini Sakharkar writes in Inceptive Mind:

While the smartphone industry is mastering flexible screens, Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) researcher Junyong Zhu in co-collaboration with colleagues from the University of Maryland and the University of Colorado, has developed a transparent wood material that can be used in a variety of industries. This material is seen as a potential replacement for the glass currently used in construction in nearly every way.

New transparent material looks like glass, but it is made entirely of wood. It is made from the wood of the Balsa tree: – a tree of the flowering plant family that grows very fast and can reach a height of 30 m. Its wood has been widely used in fields such as model assembly, packaging, insulation, and floating equipment. The wood of this species is treated at room temperature, oxidizing in a special bleaching bath that bleaches it of nearly all visibility. The wood is then penetrated with a synthetic polymer called polyvinyl alcohol (PVA), creating a product that is virtually transparent.

Wood becomes transparent, like glass, but it also has the properties of plastic – it bends upon impact and crumbles like wood instead of breaking into sharp pieces like glass. According to the developers, the new material is stronger than ordinary glass, safer, more economical, and more efficient in terms of thermal protection.

The researcher team also noted in their paper that heat easily transfers through the conventional glass, especially single pane, and amounts to higher energy bills when it escapes during cold weather and pours in when it’s warm. Glass production in construction also comes with a heavy carbon footprint. Replacing conventional glass with wood glass can significantly reduce energy consumption and CO2 emission. The process of making new materials is also more environmentally friendly.

At present, the researchers are focusing primarily on . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

19 September 2021 at 10:43 am

Food fraud and counterfeit cotton: The detectives untangling the global supply chain

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Samanth Subramanian reports in the Guardian:

Five years ago, the textile giant Welspun found itself mired in a scandal that hinged on a single word: “Egyptian”. At the time, Welspun was manufacturing more than 45m metres of cotton sheets every year – enough to tie a ribbon around the Earth and still have fabric left over for a giant bow. It supplied acres of bed linen to the likes of Walmart and Target, and among the most expensive were those advertised as “100% Egyptian cotton”. For decades, cotton from Egypt has claimed a reputation for being the world’s finest, its fibres so long and silky that it can be spun into soft, luxurious cloth. In Welpsun’s label, the word “Egyptian” was a boast and a promise.

But the label couldn’t always be trusted, it turned out. In 2016, Target carried out an internal investigation that led to a startling discovery: roughly 750,000 of its Welspun “Egyptian cotton” sheets and pillowcases were made with an inferior kind of cotton that didn’t come from Egypt at all. After Target offered its customers refunds and ended its relationship with Welspun, the effects rippled through the industry. Other retailers, checking their bed linen, also found Welspun sheets falsely claiming to be Egyptian cotton. Walmart, which was sued by shoppers who had bought Welspun’s “Egyptian cotton” products, refused to stock Welspun sheets any more. A week after Target made its discoveries public, Welspun had lost more than $700m from its market value. It was cataclysmic for the company.

Blindsided, Welspun struggled to understand what had gone wrong, but working that out wasn’t easy. The cotton business is labyrinthine, and the supply chains of products – running from the source farm to the shop shelf – have grown increasingly complex. A T-shirt sold in New Delhi might be made of cotton grown in India, blended with other cotton from Australia, spun into yarn in Vietnam, woven into cloth in Turkey, sown and cut in Portugal, bought by a Norwegian company and shipped back to India – and that’s a relatively simple supply chain. For years, Welspun had been buying raw cotton, yarn and whole cloth, all claiming to be of Egyptian origin, from dozens of vendors. The source of the fiasco might have been a mistake – a mislabelled shipment of cotton yarn, perhaps – or it might have been deliberate fraud by some remote supplier. Either way, it was lost in the maze.

In the thick of its crisis, Welspun sought out a company named Oritain. Founded in 2008, in the town of Dunedin in New Zealand, Oritain is a kind of forensic detective agency – a supply-chain CSI. Its work, which takes us into the heart of modern commerce, depends upon a basic truth about our planet. The Earth is so geologically diverse that, in a location’s soil or water, the precise concentrations of elements often turns out to be unique to that region. That singular mix of elements works its way into the crops from the region as well, so that cotton grown in the south of the US has a different combination of elements compared to cotton from Egypt – each combination distinct, like a signature.

Prof Russell Frew, the geochemist who co-founded Oritain, had been studying element analysis at the University of Otago when he recognised how his research could address a major commercial problem. Fraudulent products sit on shop shelves everywhere. When they’re detected, they trigger fierce controversies, like the time in 2013, when British and Irish authorities found horse meat liberally mixed into “beef” patties. But for every headline-grabbing deception, there are countless unnoticed ones. Sugar syrup is blended into organic honey. “New Zealand lamb chops” come from Chinese feedlot animals; extra virgin olive oil is cut with cheap, inferior oil; T-shirts are stitched out of cotton grown on forced-labour farms. Labels often lie. The counterfeit food game alone is worth $49bn a year.

These deceits, Frew realised, could be sniffed out by element analysis: hence Oritain. The company’s clients include well known brands such as Primark, but also industry bodies such as Cotton USA and Meat Promotion Wales. All of them are keen to avoid nasty surprises of the kind that Welspun experienced, the kind that can burn up the bottom line or sink a range of products – the low-quality supermarket steak masquerading as prime Welsh beef, say, or the pair of socks that turns out to be made with cotton from Xinjiang, in China, where factories are suspected of using captive labour.

Oritain promises to determine with 95% accuracy if a coffee bean or a cut of meat is really from the source advertised on its label. Some items are easier to analyse than others. “Tea is a . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

18 September 2021 at 11:57 am

When Wall Street came to coal country: how a big-money gamble scarred Appalachia

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Mountaintop-removal coal mining in West Virginia

Evan Osnos reports in the Guardian:

Once or twice a generation, Americans rediscover Appalachia. Sometimes, they come to it through caricature – the cartoon strip Li’l Abner or the child beauty pageant star Honey Boo Boo or, more recently, Buckwild, a reality show about West Virginia teenagers, which MTV broadcast with subtitles. Occasionally, the encounter is more compassionate. In 1962, the social critic Michael Harrington published The Other America, which called attention to what he described as a “vicious circle of poverty” that “twists and deforms the spirit”.

Around the turn of this century, hedge funds in New York and its environs took a growing interest in coalmines. Coal never had huge appeal to Wall Street investors – mines were dirty, old-fashioned and bound up by union contracts that made them difficult to buy and sell. But in the late 1990s, the growing economies of Asia began to consume more and more energy, which investors predicted would drive up demand halfway around the world, in Appalachia. In 1997, the Hobet mine, a 25-year-old operation in rural West Virginia, was acquired for the first time by a public company, Arch Coal. It embarked on a major expansion, dynamiting mountaintops and dumping the debris into rivers and streams. As the Hobet mine grew, it consumed the ridges and communities around it. Seen from the air, the mine came to resemble a giant grey amoeba – 22 miles from end to end – eating its way across the mountains.

Up close, the effects were far more intimate. When Wall Street came to coal country, it triggered a cascade of repercussions that were largely invisible to the outside world but of existential importance to people nearby.

Down a hillside from the Hobet mine, the Caudill family had lived and hunted and farmed for a century. Their homeplace, as they called it, was 30 hectares (75 acres) of woods and water. The Caudills were hardly critics of mining; many were miners themselves. John Caudill was an explosives expert until one day, in the 30s, a blast went off early and left him blind. His mining days were over, but his land was abundant, and John and his wife went on to have 10 children. They grew potatoes, corn, lettuce, tomatoes, beets and beans; they hunted game in the forests and foraged for berries and ginseng. Behind the house, a hill was dense with hemlocks, ferns and peach trees.

One by one, the Caudill kids grew up and left for school and work. They settled into the surrounding towns, but stayed close enough to return to the homeplace on weekends. John’s grandson, Jerry Thompson, grew up a half-hour down a dirt road. “I could probably count on one hand the number of Sundays I missed,” he said. His grandmother’s menu never changed: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, corn and cake. “You’d just wander the property for hours. I would have a lot of cousins there, and we would ramble through the barns and climb up the mountains and wade in the creek and hunt for crawdads.”

Before long, the Hobet mine surrounded the land on three sides, and Arch Coal wanted to buy the Caudills out. Some were eager to sell. “We’re not wealthy people, and some of us are better off than others,” Thompson said. One cousin told him, “I’ve got two boys I got to put through college. I can’t pass this up because I’ll never see $50,000 again.” He thought, “He’s right; it was a good decision for him.”

In the end, nine family members agreed to sell, but six refused, and Jerry was one of them. Arch sued all of them, arguing that storing coalmine debris constituted, in legal terms, “the highest and best use of the property”. The case reached the West Virginia supreme court, where a justice asked, sceptically, “The highest and best use of the land is dumping?”

Phil Melick, a lawyer for the company, replied: “It has become that.” He added: “The use of land changes over time. The value of land changes over time.”

Surely, the justice said, the family’s value of the property was not simply economic? It was, Melick maintained. “It has to be measured economically,” he said, “or it can’t be measured at all.”


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To their surprise, the Caudills won their case, after a fashion. They could keep 10 hectares – but the victory was fleeting. Beneath their feet, the land was becoming unrecognisable. Chemicals produced by the mountaintop mine were redrawing the landscape in a bizarre tableau. In streams, the leaves and sticks developed a thick copper crust from the buildup of carbonate, and rocks turned an inky black from deposits of manganese. In the Mud River, which ran beside the Caudills’ property, a US Forest Service biologist collected fish larvae with two eyes on one side of the head. He traced the disfigurements to selenium, a byproduct of mining, and warned, in a report, of an ecosystem “on the brink of a major toxic event”. (In 2010, the journal Science published a study of 78 West Virginia streams near mountaintop-removal mines, which found that nearly all of them had elevated levels of selenium.)

This was more than just the usual tradeoff between profit and pollution, another turn in the cycle of industry and cleanup. Mountaintop removal was, fundamentally, a more destructive realm of technology. It had barely existed until the 90s, and it took some time before scientists could measure the effects on the land and the people. For ecologists, the southern Appalachians was a singular domain – one of the most productive, diverse temperate hardwood forests on the planet. For aeons, the hills had contained more species of salamander than anywhere else, and a lush canopy that attracts neotropical migratory birds across thousands of miles to hatch their next generation. But a mountaintop mine altered the land from top to bottom: after blasting off the peaks – which miners call the “overburden” – bulldozers pushed the debris down the hillsides, where it blanketed the streams and rivers. Rainwater filtered down through a strange human-made stew of metal, pyrite, sulphur, silica, salts and coal, exposed to the air for the first time. The rain mingled with the chemicals and percolated down the hills, funnelling into the brooks and streams and, finally, into the rivers on the valley floor, which sustained the people of southern West Virginia. 

Emily Bernhardt, a Duke University biologist, who spent years tracking the effects of the Hobet mine, told me: “The aquatic insects coming out of these streams are loaded with selenium, and then the spiders that are eating them become loaded with selenium, and it causes deformities in fish and birds.” The effects distorted the food chain. Normally, tiny insects hatched in the water would fly into the woods, sustaining toads, turtles and birds. But downstream, scientists discovered that some species had been replaced by flies usually found in wastewater treatment plants. By 2009, the damage was impossible to ignore. In a typical study, biologists tracking a migratory bird called the cerulean warbler found that its population had fallen by 82% in 40 years. The 2010 report in Science concluded that the impacts of mountaintop-removal mining on water, biodiversity and forest productivity were “pervasive and irreversible”. Mountaintop mines had buried more than 1,000 miles of streams across Appalachia, and, according to the EPA, altered 2,200 sq miles of land – an area bigger than Delaware.

Before long, scientists discovered impacts on the people, too. Each explosion at the top of a mountain released elements usually kept underground – lead, arsenic, selenium, manganese. The dust floated down on to the drinking water, the back-yard furniture, and through the open windows. Researchers led by Michael Hendryx, a professor of public health at West Virginia University, published startling links between mountaintop mines and health problems of those in proximity to it, including cancer, cardiovascular disease and birth defects. Between 1979 and 2005, the 70 Appalachian counties that relied most on mining had recorded, on average, more than 2,000 excess deaths each year. Viewed one way, those deaths were the cost of progress, the price of prosperity that coal could bring. But Hendryx also debunked that argument: the deaths cost $41bn a year in expenses and lost income, which was $18bn more than coal had earned the counties in salaries, tax revenue and other economic benefits. Even in the pure economic terms that the companies used, Hendryx observed, mountaintop mining had been a terrible deal for the people who lived there.


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O
ne afternoon, I hiked up through the woods behind the Caudills’ house to see the changes in the land. By law, mines are required to “remediate” their terrain, returning it to an approximation of its former condition. But, far from the public eye, the standards can be comically lax. After climbing through the trees for a while, I emerged into a sun-drenched bowl of . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

18 September 2021 at 11:26 am

My new default search engine: Duck Duck Go

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I’ve mentioned that I’ve switched to Vivaldi as my default browser — it’s not only terrific, it’s free — and just recently I used Preferences to make Duck Duck Go my default search engine. I’ve been a Google guy for a long time, but in recent years the proportion of search results that are paid ads — and often ads that don’t turn out to have what I’m looking for — has increased to the point of frustration. Duck Duck Go just delivers the goods, with no ads. That’s a benefit, quite apart from DDG’s strong privacy policy (and in fact is a side-effect of that policy).

On smartphones DDG also acts as a privacy-oriented browser (blocking trackers), but Vivaldi does that already — and I use my MacBookk Air M1 for browsing, not my phone.

There is another privacy-first browser, Neeva, but that is not yet available here, and that, after 3 free months, is US$60 per year. DDG is free, which I find beneficial. I will make a contribution to DDG from time to time, but not US$60 per year — more like CAD 20 per year.

Written by Leisureguy

17 September 2021 at 12:53 pm

Answer to U.S. labor shortage? ‘Hidden’ workforce

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Interesting point on how algorithmic sorting of job applications hides good potential hires. Christina Pazzaneses interviews in the Harvard Gazette Joseph B. Fuller about a new report that found that businesses could plug critical labor shortage by tapping into 27 million workers who are “hidden” from corporate hiring processes. The article begins:

Since business has picked up with the COVID vaccine rollout, record numbers of employers have struggled to find workers. In August, half of U.S. small business owners had jobs they wanted to fill, a historic high, according to a trade group survey; 91 percent said there were few or no qualified applicants. The reasons for this labor-employment mismatch are complex and not fully understood, economists say.

 A new report says there is a “hidden” workforce of 27 million people in the U.S. who would gladly, and capably, fill those jobs — if given the chance. But because of hiring practices, the applications of this diverse group usually go straight to the rejection pile.

Co-author Joseph B. Fuller ’79, M.B.A. ’81, co-chair of the Managing the Future of Work project at Harvard Business School, says corporate leaders could solve many of their labor problems if they gave these workers a closer look, and gain a real advantage over competitors unwilling to do so, and improve workplace diversity. Interview has been edited for clarity and length.

GAZETTE: What was the impetus for this report?

FULLER: The vast majority of academic research on labor markets is from the supply side. It doesn’t look at the employer as an animated object that makes decisions based on a rationale that may or may not be sound. Before I was a professor at HBS, I was in industry, and it always struck me that there were these anomalies. Communities with lots of people looking for work and employers bemoaning the lack of candidates, but employers essentially acting as if a [qualified] candidate is supposed to present her or himself [for] the job they have on offer for the terms they’re offering. And if that didn’t happen, there was something quote “wrong.” They weren’t very active in addressing it themselves. Why was that?

The second thing is, if you look at the government data, it’s not actionable. [It doesn’t delineate] “this is how many long-term unemployed there are; this is how many discouraged workers there are; this is how many underemployed workers there are.” Huge numbers of people, but very little nuance in explaining why. So, I wanted to understand what’s behind these numbers.

GAZETTE: Many screened out of the application process early are people with felony convictions and people without a college degree. Who else makes up this “hidden” workforce?

FULLER: Veterans tend to be hidden because their skills, and the way those skills are described, don’t match with the skill descriptions employers are seeking. If someone’s looking for a salesperson, they’re looking for sales experience. So, they’re looking for those kinds of keywords in your résumé description of yourself. If they’re not there, you don’t get considered.

People who’ve had gaps in their work history: Half the companies in the United States have a filter to exclude applicants who have not been employed in the last six months or if there’s a gap in their work history of more than six months.

The biggest category is called NEET: Not in Employment, Education or Training. That’s a person who doesn’t have a job, doesn’t have a degree, is not in school. [Automated screening systems don’t] know what to do with them.

A big part of this research effort is to take that number [of 27 million] and break it down into identifiable chunks and give both employers and policymakers some insight into what does it take to get this part of the population into the workforce.

GAZETTE: About 99 percent of Fortune 500 companies use artificial intelligence tracking systems to screen applicants and then winnow them down to a manageable number before starting the interview process. Those systems determine who makes the cut based on specific parameters or keywords. Why such an all or nothing approach? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

17 September 2021 at 10:28 am

Elizabeth Holmes: Visionary, criminal, or both?

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Christina Pazzanese, Harvard Staff Writer, interviews Eugene Soltes, Business School professor and author of Why They Do It, about Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes:

Former Theranos employees began testifying this week against Elizabeth Holmes, the once-celebrated biotech’s founder and CEO, in a criminal trial that has Silicon Valley worried.

In opening statements last week, federal prosecutors charged that Holmes and the company’s chief operating officer, Ramesh Balwani, had long known that Theranos’ home blood test didn’t work, but misled investors to keep money flowing in. Holmes and Balwani are accused of defrauding patients, doctors, and investors of over $700 million. At its peak in 2013-14, the privately held firm was valued at more than $9 billion.

A 2015 Wall Street Journal exposé, which became the bestseller “Bad Blood,” led to several criminal and civil probes, and sanctions imposed by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Theranos dissolved in 2018. Prosecutors must prove that Holmes, who was 19 when she launched the company in 2003 after dropping out of Stanford University, knew the product didn’t deliver while she solicited new business and investments. Defense attorneys say Holmes “believed” in the revolutionary blood-testing device and that “trying hard and coming up short is not a crime.”

Eugene Soltes, McLean Family Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, is an expert in corporate integrity and risk management. He interviewed dozens of business executives convicted of crimes, including Bernie Madoff, for his 2016 book, “Why They Do It: Inside the Mind of a White-Collar Criminal.” Soltes says the case against Holmes is not a slam dunk and explains why even a conviction is unlikely to deter others. The interview was edited for clarity and length.

GAZETTE: What are your thoughts as the trial gets underway?

SOLTES: I think most people looking at the news think this is a very simple case. However, when it gets down to how white-collar crimes are prosecuted, it’s quite challenging. We don’t prosecute people based on our intuitive notions of is this fraud or not fraud? Or is this lying or not lying? Instead, we look at the specific pieces of evidence and data and how they are interpreted. Most critically, the jury has to evaluate not on a preponderance of evidence, but whether the charges against her are made beyond a reasonable doubt.

You read “Bad Blood” and it’s like, why are they even going to trial? The fraud is so obvious. But this is the difference between a journalistic narrative and looking at what evidence the jury will be able to see and hear. Beyond a reasonable doubt is a very high bar. They’re looking at these very specific allegations about when and how the alleged fraud was committed.

Second, the defense is presumably going to focus on the difference between what is often called fraud versus “puffery” — general statements of opinion that people are supposed to reasonably interpret as not being factually true. It’s all the marketing ads we read on a day-to-day basis. Silicon Valley is notorious for touting their innovations. In fact, people really want that kind of excitement, that’s what people are attracted by and that’s accepted. Creating a business, describing those innovations in an enthusiastic manner, and then having it fail because it didn’t play out as intended is not fraud. The defense is almost certainly going to describe Theranos as another inspired but failed startup. Obviously, many people looking at the failure see a different story — a founder whose rush to become the next “unicorn” ignored the real risks its products have on people.

GAZETTE: What would you ask Holmes if given the opportunity? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

15 September 2021 at 6:48 pm

Posted in Business, Law, Psychology

No wish to disturb, but civilization will crumble within a generation: Not a single G20 country is in line with the Paris Agreement on climate

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It’s very much as if large organizations — governments and major corporations — are not concerned that climate change is going to decimate the civilized world. And the reason is pretty clear: they don’t care. Note that I am not saying that the persons do not care. It’s the organizations that do not care. Organizations are memeplexes — complex structures made of memes, with their own imperatives and goals, independent of the collection of hosts (human persons) whose minds together make up the meme structure.

3M is a very old company (founded 119 years ago), and it has an distinct culture. That company and culture has persisted/lived through several generations of managers and employees because — just as “you” exist independent of the cells in your body, which are live, die, and are replaced as years go by — the organization exists independent of the specific personnel in it at any particular time. Memes (and memplexes) have their own drives and directions, and those are not always beneficial to their human hosts.

So it seems to be with climate change: we humans will suffer greatly, but we seem powerless to change the direction of the memes that have evolved in human culture. (A good read in this connection is Susan Blackmore’s talk “Dangerous Memes; or, What the Pandorans let loose.”)

Ivana Kottasová reports for CNN:

None of the world’s major economies — including the entire G20 — have a climate plan that meets their obligations under the 2015 Paris Agreement, according to an analysis published Wednesday, despite scientists’ warning that deep cuts to greenhouse gas emissions are needed now.

The watchdog Climate Action Tracker (CAT) analyzed the policies of 36 countries, as well as the 27-nation European Union, and found that all major economies were off track to contain global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The countries together make up 80% of the world’s emissions.

The analysis also included some low-emissions countries, and found that the Gambia was the only nation among all 37 to be “1.5 compatible.” As the study only included a few smaller emitters, it’s possible there are other developing countries in the world on track as well.

Under the 2015 Paris accord, more than 190 countries agreed to limit the increase in global temperatures to well below 2 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures — ideally to 1.5 degrees. Scientists have said 2 degrees is a critical threshold for some of the Earth’s ecosystems, and is one that would also trigger more catastrophic extreme weather events.

The report comes less than two months ahead of UN-brokered international climate talks in Glasgow, known as COP26. The event’s president, British MP Alok Sharma, has said he hopes to “keep 1.5 alive” as a global warming limit.

CAT reported that progress had stalled after dozens of world leaders made ambitious new pledges to slash greenhouse gas emissions during the US President Joe Biden’s Climate Leaders’ Summit in April.
“In May, after the Climate Leaders’ Summit and the Petersburg dialogue, we reported that there appeared to be good momentum with new climate action commitments,” said Niklas Höhne, a founding partner of the NewClimate Institute, a CAT partner.

“But since then, there has been little to no improvement: nothing is moving,” he said. “Anyone would think they have all the time in the world, when in fact the opposite is the case.”

Six countries, including the UK, have an overall climate policy that is “nearly sufficient,” according to the report, meaning they are not yet consistent with 1.5-degree alignment but could be with small improvements. The UK’s targets are in line with 1.5 degrees, but its policies in practice don’t meet the benchmark.
The overall climate plans of the US, European Union and Japan are not sufficient to reach the 1.5-degree goal, the analysis found, saying that while their domestic targets are relatively close to where they need to be, their international policies are not.

CAT had previously categorized the US as “critically insufficient” — the worst category — under former President Donald Trump, who formally withdrew the country from the Paris Agreement shortly before the end of his term.
The United States’ domestic emission-cutting target has since been upgraded to “almost sufficient.” However, the US is still insufficient in CAT’s “fair share” target rating, which takes into account the country’s “responsibility and capability.” . . .

Continue reading, though it’s depressing. There’s quite a bit more.

See also “Global Update: Climate target updates slow as science demands action,” which offers technical detail of our approaching doom.

Written by Leisureguy

15 September 2021 at 4:57 pm

How indoor air quality affects human health and cognition

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Douglas Starr writes in Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS):

Joseph Allen runs a major public health research project at Harvard University, probing how indoor air quality affects human health and cognition. He consults with companies on ventilation and air filtration, and during the pandemic he became a prominent voice on public health, writing dozens of op-eds criticizing early guidance from health authorities and debunking misconceptions about how the virus spreads. But none of it would have happened if he hadn’t washed out as an FBI recruit.

The son of a New York City homicide detective who opened his own investigative agency, Allen spent his teens and 20s helping with the family business. He did surveillance, undercover work, computer forensics, and skiptrace—tracking down people who left town to avoid alimony. Eventually he took over the agency, leading investigations and supervising eight agents.

“I enjoyed the work and thought it was challenging,” Allen recalls. But part of him always wanted to be a scientist. He majored in environmental science at Boston College, and in his late 20s, still torn, he began to apply to graduate school even as he started the process to become an FBI agent. After 2 years of interviews and testing, the last step was a routine polygraph test. He failed the first round—the trick questions he was asked were so obvious that he could not take them seriously. So FBI flew in one of its toughest examiners from Iraq—a hulking, jackbooted guy who got right in Allen’s face, screaming that he knew he was lying. But Allen kept cool, and after a while, the interrogator stormed out and slammed the door.

“I thought he would come back in the room and say, ‘Congratulations,’ cause I’m thinking I’m crushing it,” Allen recalls. “But they failed me because they said I employed countermeasures.” FBI apparently didn’t want an agent who couldn’t be unnerved by a polygraph test. And that solved Allen’s career dilemma. “I guarantee I’m the only public health student ever to fail an FBI lie detector polygraph in the morning and start graduate school a few hours later,” Allen says. But his investigative instincts never left him.

A tall, athletic-looking man with a bald head and stylish stubble, Allen directs the Healthy Buildings Program at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, where he studies the effects of toxic gases emitted from furniture, carpets, and paints; stale air; and high levels of carbon dioxide. Years of studies by Allen and others have shown poorly circulated air in buildings impairs our ability to think clearly and creatively. Considering that we spend more than 90% of our lifetimes indoors, those findings have implications for personal well-being—and for businesses concerned about their bottom line.

“Joe has always had a unique understanding of this range of domains—from how buildings work, to environmental exposure assessment, to making connections with health outcomes,” says Brent Stephens, chair of the Department of Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology. “There’s not a tremendous number of people in this world that have worked on that whole spectrum.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, the previously esoteric field of indoor air quality suddenly became the focus of widespread concern. Like many of his colleagues, Allen jumped into the fray, advising school systems, police departments, entertainment companies, the Boston Symphony, and a host of other entities on how to make their indoor air healthier, during the pandemic and afterward.

“COVID really changed the conversation,” says Matt Murray, vice president of leasing at Boston Properties, the largest publicly traded developer in the United States and one of Allen’s consulting clients. Before the pandemic, the company would have to explain to bored executives why they should pay attention to indoor air. “Now, the CEOs are all saying, ‘What filters do you use? How you process the air you bring into the workspace?’” Murray says. “And we’re ready for those conversations because we’ve been working with Joe.”

AFTER HE FAILED his FBI exam, Allen became a different kind of sleuth. For his doctoral thesis at the Boston University School of Public Health, he investigated toxic flame-retardant chemicals released into the air by furniture, and found they were nearly ubiquitous. (The chemicals were later banned.) After graduation he got a job with a consulting firm, where he investigated problems such as toxic emissions from drywall and outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease, which is caused by bacteria that grow in plumbing and become aerosolized by ventilation systems, showers, or even flushed toilets. Those investigations introduced him to “sick building syndrome,” a problem first identified in the 1970s in which the occupants experience fatigue, itchy eyes, headaches, and other symptoms. Exactly what causes these ailments isn’t clear, but exposure to contaminated air is a likely culprit. Allen became convinced that the building you work in can have more impact on your health than your doctor.

In 2014, Allen accepted a position at Harvard, where he soon turned his attention to how the indoor environment can affect people’s cognitive abilities. Many of us have struggled to pay attention during a long staff meeting in a stuffy conference room. Research by Allen and others suggests that lassitude may not be due solely to boredom, but also to the carbon dioxide (CO2)-rich conference room air.

Ever since the energy shocks of the 1970s, buildings in the United States have been made as airtight and energy-efficient as possible. The result was a buildup of toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and exhaled CO2. “Green building standards” introduced in the late ’90s focused on reducing toxic materials and making buildings healthier as well as more sustainable, but they didn’t prioritize indoor air quality and ultimately did little to improve it.

In a multiyear series of experiments, Allen and his team have investigated the consequences. In the first study, published in 2015, they had 24 white-collar volunteers spend six working days in environmentally controlled office spaces at Syracuse University’s Total Indoor Environmental Quality Laboratory. On various days the experimenters would alter ventilation rates and levels of CO2 and VOCs. Each afternoon the volunteers were tested on their ability to think analytically and react to a crisis. (One test, for example put the volunteer in the role of a small-town mayor trying to react to an emergency.) All tests were double-blind: Neither the volunteers nor the study personnel knew that day’s environmental conditions.

The results were dramatic. When  . . .

Continue reading. There’s more — and it’s important.

The Clean Air Act should be extended to indoor air quality in businesses — and in some instances, OSHA also should be involved. Or, of course, we could just trust businesses to take seriously the health and well-being of their employees and customers. (Just joking — good one, eh?)

Written by Leisureguy

15 September 2021 at 11:15 am

A seemingly simple problem that has persisted unsolved

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The cartoon is from the late 1800’s. It seems odd that a problem that would seem to have a simple solution would be so persistent. It’s as though there are forces working against a solution. 

Written by Leisureguy

15 September 2021 at 10:48 am

Having Synesthesia Helps This Perfumer Create Unique Scents

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Liana Schaffner writes in allure:

There are tricky, technical words that perfumers use to exchange ideas (try saying “tetramethyl acetyloctahydronaphthalenes” one time, slowly) and easily recognizable (easily pronounceable) ones for notes like rose or vanilla. But there’s no real universal language for complex compositions — one person’s “fresh” is another’s “sweet.” Instead, we often conjure imagery of laundry snapping in the breeze, waves lapping at the shore, or lemons ripening in the sun.

But these visual clichés aren’t the only way: “One of the most effective ways to describe scent is with color,” says Frédéric Malle, founder of the perfume house Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle. For Malle, associating fragrance with color is second nature. Born with a sensory-processing trait called synesthesia, he perceives a range of vivid, painterly strokes when he smells perfume—or anything at all. It’s an automatic response that plays a key role in his creative process. “When I’m developing a scent with a perfumer, I might suggest making it ‘darker’ or ‘more purple’ instead of adding a specific chemical,” he says. “This gives some direction while leaving room for interpretation. The result often surprises me.”

While synesthesia isn’t exactly common (it occurs in up to 5 percent of the population), a visual approach to scent might help to build a common fragrance vocabulary. “It makes perfume tangible and more matter of fact,” says Malle, adding, “I believe everyone has the capacity to equate color with scent.” We asked Malle to look beyond the hyperbole and show us the true colors of four new fragrances. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

12 September 2021 at 10:42 am

How the energy industry tricked Americans into loving a dangerous appliance.

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Rebecca Leber has a long article in Mother Jones that’s well worth reading. It begins:

Early last year in the Fox Hills neighborhood of Culver City, California, a man named Wilson Truong posted an item on the Nextdoor social media platform—where users can interact with their neighbors—warning that city leaders were considering stronger building codes that would discourage the use of natural gas in new homes and businesses. In a message titled “Culver City banning gas stoves?” he wrote, “First time I heard about it I thought it was bogus, but I received a newsletter from the city about public hearings to discuss it…Will it pass???!!! I used an electric stove but it never cooked as well as a gas stove so I ended up switching back.”

Truong’s post ignited a debate. One neighbor, Chris, defended electric induction stoves. “Easy to clean,” he wrote of these glass stovetops, which use a magnetic field to heat pans. [Induction is definitely best of all. – LG] Another neighbor, Laura, expressed skepticism. “No way,” she wrote. “I am staying with gas. I hope you can too.”

Unbeknownst to both, Truong wasn’t their neighbor at all, but an account manager for Imprenta Communications Group. Among the public relations firm’s clients was Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions, a front for the nation’s largest gas utility, SoCalGas, which aims to thwart state and local initiatives restricting the use of fossil fuels in new buildings. c4bes had tasked Imprenta with exploring how platforms such as Nextdoor could be used to engineer community support for natural gas. Imprenta assured me that Truong’s post was an isolated affair, but c4bes displays it alongside two other anonymous Nextdoor comments on its website as evidence of its advocacy in action.

Microtargeting Nextdoor groups is part of the newest front in the gas industry’s war to bolster public support for its product. For decades the American public was largely sold on the notion that “natural” gas was relatively clean, and when used in the kitchen, even classy. But that was before climate change moved from distant worry to proximate danger. Burning natural gas in commercial and residential buildings accounts for more than 10 percent of US emissions, so moving toward homes and apartments powered by wind and solar electricity instead could make a real dent. Gas stoves and ovens also produce far worse indoor air pollution than most people realize; running a gas stove and oven for just an hour can produce unsafe pollutant levels throughout your house all day. These concerns have prompted moves by 42 municipalities to phase out gas in new buildings. Washington state lawmakers intend to end all use of natural gas by 2050. California has passed aggressive standards, including a plan to reduce commercial and residential emissions to 60 percent of 1990 levels by 2030. During his campaign, President Biden called for stricter standards for appliances and new construction. Were more stringent federal rules to come to pass, it could motivate builders to ditch gas hookups for good.

Gas utilities have responded to this existential threat to their livelihood by launching local anti-electrification campaigns. To ward off a municipal vote in San Luis Obispo, California, a union representing gas utility workers threatened to bus in “hundreds” of protesters during the pandemic with “no social distancing in place.” In Santa Barbara, residents have received robotexts warning that a gas ban would dramatically increase their bills. The Pacific Northwest group Partnership for Energy Progress, funded in part by Washington state’s largest gas utility, Puget Sound Energy, has spent at least $1 million opposing electrification mandates in Bellingham and Seattle, including $91,000 on bus ads showing a happy family cooking with gas next to the slogan “Reliable. Affordable. Natural Gas. Here for You.”

The industry group American Gas Association has a website dedicated to promoting cooking with gas.

The gas industry also has worked aggressively with legislatures in seven states to enact laws—at least 14 more have bills—that would prevent cities from passing cleaner building codes. This past spring, according to a HuffPost investigation, gas and construction interests managed to block cities from pushing for the stricter energy efficiency codes favored by local officials. In a potential blow to the Biden administration’s climate ambitions, two big trade groups convinced the International Code Council—the notoriously industry-friendly gatekeeper of default construction codes—to cut local officials out of the decision-making process entirely.

Beyond applying political pressure, the gas industry has identified a clever way to capture the public imagination. Surveys showed that most people had no preference for gas water heaters and furnaces over electric ones. So the gas companies found a different appliance to focus on. For decades, sleek industry campaigns have portrayed gas stoves—like granite countertops, farm sinks, and stainless-steel refrigerators—as a coveted symbol of class and sophistication, not to mention a selling point for builders and real estate agents.

The strategy has been remarkably successful in boosting sales of natural gas, but as the tides turn against fossil fuels, defending gas stoves has become a rear guard action. While stoves were once crucial to expanding the industry’s empire, now they are a last-ditch attempt to defend its shrinking borders.

Over the last hundred years, gas companies have engaged an all-out campaign to convince Americans that cooking with a gas flame is superior to using electric heat. At the same time, they’ve urged us not to think too hard—if at all—about what it means to combust a fossil fuel in our homes.

In the 1930s, the industry embraced the term “natural gas,” which gave the impression that its product was cleaner than any other fossil fuel: “The discovery of Natural Gas brought to man the greater and most efficient heating fuel which the world has ever known,” bragged one 1934 ad. “Justly is it called—nature’s perfect fuel.”

It was also during the 1930s that the industry first adopted the slogan “cooking with gas”; a gas executive saw to it that the phrase worked its way into Bob Hope bits and Disney cartoons. By the 1950s the industry was targeting housewives with star-studded commercials that featured matinee idols scheming about how to get their husbands to renovate their kitchens. In one 1964 newspaper advertisement from the Pennsylvania People’s Natural Gas Company, the star Marlene Dietrich professed, “Every recipe I give is closely related to cooking with gas. If forced, I can cook on an electric stove but it is not a happy union.” (Around the same time, General Electric waged an advertising campaign starring Ronald Reagan that depicted an all-electric house as a Jetsons-like future.) During the 1980s, the gas industry debuted a cringeworthy rap: “I cook with gas cause the cost is much less / Than ’lectricity. Do you want to take a guess?” and “I cook with gas cause broiling’s so clean / The flame consumes the smoke and grease.” . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, including serious and fact-based arguments against using gas ranges. No paywall.

Later in the article:

Beginning in the 1990s, the industry faced a new challenge: mounting evidence that burning gas indoors can contribute to serious health problems. Gas stoves emit a host of dangerous pollutants, including particulate matter, formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxides. One 2014 simulation by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that cooking with gas for one hour without ventilation adds up to 3,000 parts per billion of carbon monoxide to the air—raising indoor concentrations by up to 30 percent in the average home. Carbon monoxide can kill; it binds tightly to the hemoglobin molecules in your blood so they can no longer carry oxygen. What’s more, new research shows that the typical home carbon monoxide alarms often fail to detect potentially dangerous levels of the gas. Nitrogen oxides, which are not regulated indoors, have been linked to an increased risk of heart attack, along with asthma and other respiratory diseases. Homes with gas stoves have anywhere between 50 and 400 percent higher concentrations of nitrogen dioxide than homes without, according to EPA research. Children are at especially high risk from nitrogen oxides, according to a study by UCLA Fielding School of Public Health commissioned by the Sierra Club. The paper included a meta-analysis of existing epidemiological studies, one of which estimated that kids in homes with gas stoves are 42 percent more likely to have asthma than children whose families use electric.

From my own direct experience I know that cooking on an induction burner is by far the best — I’ve cooked with gas and with electric coil burners, and induction beats them hands down.

Written by Leisureguy

12 September 2021 at 9:26 am

Why Silicon Valley’s Optimization Mindset Sets Us Up for Failure

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Rob Reich, Mehran Sahami, and Jeremy M. Weinstein wrote the book System Error: Where Big Tech Went Wrong and How We Can Rebootand TIME has a column adapted from Chapter 1 of the book.

About the authors:

Reich directs Stanford University’s Center for Ethics in Society and is associate director of its new Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence. Sahami is a computer science professor at Stanford and helped redesign the undergraduate computer science curriculum. Weinstein launched President Obama’s Open Government Partnership and returned to Stanford in 2015 as a professor of political science, where he now leads Stanford Impact Labs.

The column begins:

n 2013 a Silicon Valley software engineer decided that food is an inconvenience—a pain point in a busy life. Buying food, preparing it, and cleaning up afterwards struck him as an inefficient way to feed himself. And so was born the idea of Soylent, Rob Rhinehart’s meal replacement powder, described on its website as an International Complete Nutrition Platform. Soylent is the logical result of an engineer’s approach to the “problem” of feeding oneself with food: there must be a more optimal solution.

It’s not hard to sense the trouble with this crushingly instrumental approach to nutrition.

Soylent may optimize meeting one’s daily nutritional needs with minimal cost and time investment. But for most people, food is not just a delivery mechanism for one’s nutritional requirements. It brings gustatory pleasure. It provides for social connection. It sustains and transmits cultural identity. A world in which Soylent spells the end of food also spells the degradation of these values.

Maybe you don’t care about Soylent; it’s just another product in the marketplace that no one is required to buy. If tech workers want to economize on time spent grocery shopping or a busy person faces the choice between grabbing an unhealthy meal at a fast-food joint or bringing along some Soylent, why should anyone complain? In fact, it’s a welcome alternative for some people.

But the story of Soylent is powerful because it reveals the optimization mindset of the technologist. And problems arise when this mindset begins to dominate—when the technologies begin to scale and become universal and unavoidable.

That mindset is inculcated early in the training of technologists. When developing an algorithm, computer science courses often define the goal as providing an optimal solution to a computationally-specified problem. And when you look at the world through this mindset, it’s not just computational inefficiencies that annoy. Eventually, it becomes a defining orientation to life as well. As one of our colleagues at Stanford tells students, everything in life is an optimization problem.

The desire to optimize can favor some values over others. And the choice of which values to favor, and which to sacrifice, are made by the optimizers who then impose those values on the rest of us when their creations reach great scale. For example, consider that Facebook’s decisions about how content gets moderated or who loses their accounts are the rules of expression for more than three billion people on the platform; Google’s choices about what web pages to index determine what information most users of the internet get in response to searches. The small and anomalous group of human beings at these companies create, tweak, and optimize technology based on their notions of how it ought to be better. Their vision and their values about technology are . . .

Continue reading.

The concluding paragraphs:

Several years ago, one of us received an invitation to a small dinner. Founders, venture capitalists, researchers at a secretive tech lab, and two professors assembled in the private dining room of a four-star hotel in Silicon Valley. The host—one of the most prominent names in technology—thanked everyone for coming and reminded us of the topic we’d been invited to discuss: “What if a new state were created to maximize science and tech progress powered by commercial models—what would that run like? Utopia? Dystopia?”

The conversation progressed, with enthusiasm around the table for the establishment of a small nation-state dedicated to optimizing the progress of science and technology. Rob raised his hand to speak. “I’m just wondering, would this state be a democracy? What’s the governance structure here?” The response was quick: “Democracy? No. To optimize for science, we need a beneficent technocrat in charge. Democracy is too slow, and it holds science back.”

Written by Leisureguy

11 September 2021 at 6:17 pm

Tesla finesses state ban on auto makers selling directly to consumers by opening store on tribal land

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The requirement that autos must be sold only through third-party dealerships was once useful, but the utility has faded. Now the law penalizes the public by requiring a middleman and markup, and because state legislatures are basically up for sale, well-funded cardealer associations can control legislative votes. Tesla found a way around the obstacle.

Fred Lambert writes in Electrek:

Tesla has found a loophole to get around New Mexico’s ban on direct car sales by launching their first store and service center on tribal land.

 

New Mexico, like a few other states, still has laws prohibiting direct sales of electric vehicles to the public without going through third-party dealerships.

These bans come from old laws that were meant to protect car dealers from their own automakers supplying the vehicles.

The idea is that automakers couldn’t open a company-owned store next to a third-party dealer after they have made the investment to sell their cars.

However, now car dealerships are using those old laws to prevent automakers who never had deals with third-party franchise dealers, like Tesla, from selling their vehicles to the public, even though it’s fair competition.

Tesla has been fighting those laws in many states with some success.

It hasn’t been the case in New Mexico where Tesla hasn’t been able to establish an official presence.

In 2019, Tesla tried to push a new law in the state with the help of some favorable legislators, but the local car dealer associations flexed their political muscle and it was dropped.

But Tesla has now found a loophole.

This week, the automaker managed to open its first store and service center inside an old casino north of Santa Fe, and they did it by partnering with the first nation of Nambé Pueblo and opening the location on their tribal land. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

10 September 2021 at 11:34 am

Posted in Business, Daily life, Law

World’s biggest ‘direct air capture’ plant starts pulling in CO2

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Jan Wurzbacher, co-chief of Climeworks, left, with his counterpart Christoph Gebald. Wurzbacher said commercial demand had been so high that the Orca plant was nearly sold out of credits for its entire 12-year lifespan

Leslie Hook reports in Financial Times:

The start-up behind the world’s biggest direct carbon capture plant said it would build a much larger facility in the next few years that would permanently remove millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. As Zurich-based Climeworks opened its Orca “direct air capture” project in Iceland on Wednesday, co-chief executive Jan Wurzbacher told the Financial Times it had started design work on a facility 10 times larger that would be completed in the next few years. Orca will collect about 4,000 tonnes of CO2 a year and store it underground — a tiny fraction of the 33bn tonnes of the gas forecast by the IEA to be emitted worldwide this year, but a demonstration of the technology’s viability. “This is the first time we are extracting CO2 from the air commercially and combining it with underground storage,” Wurzbacher said. The Orca plant sells the most expensive carbon offset in the world, costing as much as €1,000 a tonne of CO2 removed and counting Microsoft founder Bill Gates among its customers.

Wurzbacher said commercial demand had been so high that the plant was nearly sold out of credits for its entire 12-year lifespan, prompting the accelerated development of the much larger plant using the same technology. Orca’s other customers . . .

Continue reading. There’s more — and this report is encouraging news.

Written by Leisureguy

10 September 2021 at 10:23 am

China prepares to test thorium-fuelled nuclear reactor

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Smriti Mallapaty has an interesting article in Nature:

Scientists are excited about an experimental nuclear reactor using thorium as fuel, which is about to begin tests in China. Although this radioactive element has been trialled in reactors before, experts say that China is the first to have a shot at commercializing the technology.

The reactor is unusual in that it has molten salts circulating inside it instead of water. It has the potential to produce nuclear energy that is relatively safe and cheap, while also generating a much smaller amount of very long-lived radioactive waste than conventional reactors.

Construction of the experimental thorium reactor in Wuwei, on the outskirts of the Gobi Desert, was due to be completed by the end of August — with trial runs scheduled for this month, according to the government of Gansu province.

Thorium is a weakly radioactive, silvery metal found naturally in rocks, and currently has little industrial use. It is a waste product of the growing rare-earth mining industry in China, and is therefore an attractive alternative to imported uranium, say researchers.

Powerful potential

“Thorium is much more plentiful than uranium and so it would be a very useful technology to have in 50 or 100 years’ time,” when uranium reserves start to run low, says Lyndon Edwards, a nuclear engineer at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation in Sydney. But the technology will take many decades to realize, so we need to start now, he adds.

China launched its molten-salt reactor programme in 2011, investing some 3 billion yuan (US$500 million), according to Ritsuo Yoshioka, former president of the International Thorium Molten-Salt Forum in Oiso, Japan, who has worked closely with Chinese researchers.

Operated by the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics (SINAP), the Wuwei reactor is designed to produce just 2 megawatts of thermal energy, which is only enough to power up to 1,000 homes. But if the experiments are a success, China hopes to build a 373-megawatt reactor by 2030, which could power hundreds of thousands of homes.

These reactors are among the “perfect technologies” for helping China to achieve its goal of zero carbon emissions by around 2050, says energy modeller Jiang Kejun at the Energy Research Institute of the National Development and Reform Commission in Beijing.

The naturally occurring isotope thorium-232 cannot undergo fission, but when irradiated in a reactor, it absorbs neutrons to form uranium-233, which is a fissile material that generates heat.

Thorium has been tested as a fuel in other types of nuclear reactor in countries including the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom, and is part of a nuclear programme in India. But it has so far not proved cost effective because it is more expensive to extract than uranium and, unlike some naturally occurring isotopes of uranium, needs to be converted into a fissile material.

Some researchers support thorium as a fuel because they say its waste products have less chance of being weaponized than do those of uranium, but others have argued that risks still exist.

Blast from the past

When China switches on its experimental reactor, it will be the first molten-salt reactor operating since 1969, when US researchers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee shut theirs down. And it will be the first molten-salt reactor to be fuelled by thorium. Researchers who have collaborated with SINAP say the Chinese design copies that of Oak Ridge, but improves on it by calling on decades of innovation in manufacturing, materials and instrumentation.

Researchers in China directly involved with the reactor . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

One good use of nuclear power is the production of hydrogen (used in cars that use fuel cells). Producing hydrogen through electrolysis is energy-intensive, so power plants using fossil fuels are a bad idea. That leaves electricity from sustainable sources (hydroelectricity, solar, wind, tides) and nuclear power plants. Thus having an efficient and relatively clean nuclear power technology would be a great boon. 

Written by Leisureguy

10 September 2021 at 9:55 am

Eco-Fashion’s Animal Rights Delusion

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Alden Wicker has an interesting article in Craftsmanship magazine:

1. The Silkworm vs. the Orangutan
2. Vegan Fast Fashion
3. If Not Leather, then What?
4. Dyed-in-the-Wool Environmentalists
5. Are Indigenous People Politically Incorrect?
6. Peta’s Explanation

For most women like me, when a fine silk blouse catches our eye in a clothing store, we don’t think much about the worms that made the silk. If you do, here’s the story you will typically find: A few days after silkworms disappear inside their cocoons, right about the time they finish spinning, the little pods are collected and submerged in boiling water. To make a pound of raw silk, up to 5,000 worms must die.

To People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the nation’s leading animal-rights group, that’s a pretty destructive process for the cause of glamour. This is why PETA encourages consumers to buy “cruelty-free” silk alternatives like polyester and viscose (popularly known as rayon). Consumers have hardly needed PETA’s prodding. In a single decade, consumption of rayon doubled, rising to 5.2 million tons in 2015; meanwhile, the silk industry had declined to 202,000 metric tonnes by 2015, constituting less than 0.2 percent of the global textile market. Another victory for animal rights and the fight for more socially conscious consumerism, right?

Maybe—or maybe not. As with so many eco-conscious consumer choices, the issues involved in silk production are both elusive and multilayered. If we’re going to call ourselves conscious consumers, therefore, we have to calculate all aspects of the production process, and its consequences.

In the case of silk, let’s first look at the other way to make silk, which doesn’t kill the worms. For this kind of silk, called Peace or Ahimsa Silk, the pupa is allowed to grow into a moth, tear a hole in the cocoon, and crawl out into the light. But there’s a catch. Because that hole cuts what used to be a continuous strand of thread, the process yields a fabric with a nubbier, less shimmering texture, much like raw silk. It’s beautiful in its own way, but also double the cost. That can drive the retail price of a wedding dress, for example, up by more than $1,000.

To a bride who is committed to having a wedding dress that allowed moths to be “free and happy,” that price may feel worthwhile—as long as she can afford it. But she might want to look again at the Peace worm’s glorious beginnings. It turns out that if silkworms are allowed to emerge as moths, they live short and very difficult lives. Having been domesticated for thousands of years, bombyx mori are unable to fly, and cannot even eat. The males spend their one glorious day of moth-dom crawling across the ground to find and couple with a nearby female before dying. The females lay eggs over the next few days and then die as well. In any case, PETA opposes the use of Peace Silk simply because there is no certification process to ensure the worms weren’t mistreated.

Now, let’s look back at those worms that were put to death in boiling water.

Traditional southern Chinese silks are handmade in a closed-loop ecosystem, in which the silkworms that spin the superfine threads eat the leaves of mulberry trees planted by ponds, the fish in the ponds eat the worm poop, and in turn fertilize the mulberry trees. In Asia, which produces the lion’s share of silk, the boiled pupae are fried up and eaten as a low-carbon protein source—not a bad byproduct for a rapidly growing country badly in need of food. And certain types of silk (Jia¯o-chou and Xiang-yun-sha—see photos) are still dyed using nontoxic vegetable and mud dyes.

Stella McCartney offered a potential solution to the silkworm conundrum when she  . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

A sidebar to the above text notes:

To make rayon—a supposedly animal-friendly fabric—you have to harvest a large number of trees or bamboo, shred and dissolve the wood in a soup of carbon disulfide, dry the resulting glop, then spin it into semi-synthetic fibers. Workers exposed to the fumes from this process can suffer insanity, nerve damage, and increased risk of heart disease and stroke. Factories in China, Indonesia, and India expel its effluent straight into waterways, rendering formerly vibrant ecosystems completely dead.

Written by Leisureguy

10 September 2021 at 9:43 am

Sustainable infrastructure: Tokyo canal

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A drawing of one of the nine docks and towpaths, willow trees, storehouses, bales of rice (each weighing 60kg) etc. From the book 京都千二百年〈下〉世界の歴史都市へ by 西川 幸治 and 高橋 徹. Illustrations by 穂積 和夫

WratOfGnon writes in its newsletter:

Kyoto, the imperial capital of Japan, spring 1608. A merchant by the name of Suminokura Ryōi is given the contract to supply building materials for the renovation of Hōkō-ji, a temple in central Kyoto designed to rival the famous temples of nearby Nara. The Suminokura family had made a name for themselves in finance, medicine and overseas trade, with offices as far away as distant Annan (the Japanese name of the country today called Vietnam).

Suminokura1 soon realized that transporting goods into Kyoto was a difficult and expensive business. The Kamo river which runs through Kyoto was too irregular for transports, so goods arriving by boat mostly had to be unloaded at Fushimi, a town about ten kilometers south of Kyoto, repacked to ponies and transported on roads through the southern neighborhoods of Kyoto before spreading out to their final destinations. The daily comings and goings of men and animals, more or less non-stop, wasn’t popular with the locals either. There was an opportunity here. In 1610, the Suminokura family got permission from the government, and using their own money they contracted teams of workers to dig out a canal parallel to the river, connecting the port of Fushimi with central Kyoto, to be lined with stone from local quarries. It was built for a continuous water depth of a mere thirty centimeters [11.8 inches – LG], about twice the minimum needed for the boats they wanted to use.

At this time, land transport was not very efficient. At walking speed, it was expected that a man could carry 60kg, a pony could carry 120kg and a small simple cart pulled by either man or pony, could take 180kg [397 lbs – LG]. The new canal meant that the same muscle power (either pony or man or both) could pull a boat carrying a maximum load of 2700kg [3 tons – LG] at walking speed. This represents an increase in weight efficiency of about twenty-two point five times over that of a pony. And since no feed was needed it meant that no valuable agricultural land had to be set aside (the “ecological footprint” of the canal was far smaller than a pony based system).

The canal flowed in all weathers all hours of the day and night with no more noise than the soft trampling of the boat operator on the towpaths next to the canal.

When the 9.7km long and 7 meters wide2 [6 miles by 23 feet – LG] canal was completed in 1614—construction took about three years—it changed the face of the city. Spared of the noise and traffic, and with a larger volume of goods coming in both faster and cheaper, the population density increased. Wholesale merchants and artisans could conveniently concentrate their businesses to spots along the canal, building warehouses together so that in time entire neighborhoods would be named “Lumber Town” or “Wood Town” or “Barn Town” and so on (names that still survive to this day even though the merchants are long gone). Building materials could be brought into the city in large quantities: a couple of boats could take all the material you needed to put up a house or a shop.

The boats used on the canal were simple flat bottomed craft called “takasebune”, in construction they used an absolute minimum of wood, and could carry two point seven tons of goods at water depths of just under fifteen centimeters [6 inches – LG]. At typically thirteen meters long and two meters wide [43 feet by 6.6 feet – LG], they weren’t pretty: imagine a rectangular floating box with a sort of raised beak, but they were durable, strong and inexpensive to build by even apprentice carpenters. In 1710 the canal would use 188 of these boats, all of which would use one of nine dedicated quays to moor, unload cargo and turn around for the return journey, each quay holding a maximum of three boats at the same time. There were about 700 people employed on the canal.

Locals benefited from the less busy return trip as well. It was a cheap and efficient method to reach Osaka (the commercial center of Japan where far larger ocean going vessels traded). It even became a famous spot for sightseeing: the willows, the cherry blossom trees, the beautiful gardens along the canal, the stately mansions and interesting tall white and black warehouses attracted both rich and poor. A lively entertainment district also sprung up to cater to both refined merchants and the rougher canal workers. At night the boats were famously used to transport criminals condemned to exile, downstream to Osaka. A police-guard, a crewman, the condemned man, and as a final act of mercy, a relative or friend of the condemned: the last the condemned would see of the world they had to leave behind.3  . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more — and it’s worth considering..

Later in the article:

For over three hundred years the canal was in daily use and benefited the people of Kyoto, until transport on the canal was finally banned in 1920. During its three centuries it needed virtually no maintenance, it relied on no engines or fuel, no mining, no metals, no chemicals. There was no pollution, the boats could be hand built by any carpenter from most any kind of wood. The canal never broke down or got stuck. It did not cause any emissions or erosion, it saved millions of man hours otherwise spent on maintaining roads and road surfaces. There were no accidents: at walking speed and thirty centimeter depth it was safe enough to have children playing in the middle of it with boats coming and going. It could transport anything right into the heart of the city without noise or smell or toxic fumes and the operating costs were negligible. It helped cool the city down during hot summers. It was even a popular sightseeing spot. People would mention it in poetry. It brought with it neither pests nor weeds.4

It was a perfect piece of infrastructure without unforeseen problems or accumulating debt—paid in full from day one—or waste. Completely human scaled and operating on nothing but gravity or human muscle power.

Photograph of the canal in use, ca. 1900.

Written by Leisureguy

9 September 2021 at 6:56 pm

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