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Archive for the ‘Business’ Category

Big Telecom Blocks Attempt to Bring $15 Broadband To Covid Victims

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Karl Bode reports in Vice:

A Judge has sided with the broadband industry and barred New York State from offering discounted broadband to those struggling during the COVID crisis.

The order by US District Judge Denis Hurley imposes an immediate injunction on New York State, barring it from enforcing the Affordable Broadband Act (ABA), a new state law requiring ISPs provide 25 megabits-per-second broadband for no more than $15-per-month to those struggling financially during the pandemic.

The broadband industry immediately filed suit against the effort, claiming New York was barred from regulating broadband thanks in part to the Trump administration’s 2017 net neutrality repeal. The Trump FCC claimed the repeal would boost job growth and investment in the telecom sector, yet data shows neither actually happened.

Instead, the repeal left the FCC ill-equipped to protect consumers during an economic crisis by eroding much of the agency’s consumer protection authority under the Communications Act. At telecom sector request, the repeal also attempted to ban states from being able to step in and fill the consumer protection void left by an apathetic federal government.

Both broadband experts and previous court rulings have argued that when the Trump FCC gave up its authority over broadband providers, it also gave up its right to tell states what to do. Still, the broadband industry continues to use the repeal as the basis of lawsuits undermining state efforts to hold US telecom giants accountable or pass state net neutrality laws.

Judge Haley sided with industry, proclaiming that providing discounted broadband to poor Americans struggling during Covid would impose “unrecoverable losses” on the hugely profitable and heavily monopolized broadband industry.

“Beginning June 15, 2021, Plaintiffs will suffer unrecoverable losses increasing with time, and the enormity of the matter—six plaintiffs with multiple member organizations attacking a statute affecting one-third of all New York households—portends a lengthy litigation,” the Judge wrote.

Dana Floberg, a telecom expert at consumer group Free Press, stated that the Biden administration could lend a hand by properly staffing the FCC and reversing the Trump administration’s net neutrality repeal.

“The path forward to reining in exorbitant internet prices is clear,” she said. “We need an FCC empowered with the legal authority to investigate and intervene in the market, and we need a long-term benefit to support internet adoption for low-income people.”

Under the law, the party in control of the White House enjoys a 3-2 partisan majority at the FCC. But the Trump administration’s rush appointment of Trump ally Nathan Simington to the agency last December left the agency intentionally gridlocked at 2-2, incapable of obtaining a majority vote on any issues of controversy.

Despite this, the Biden administration has been in no rush to appoint a new commissioner or reverse the net neutrality repeal. More than fifty consumer groups and union organizations wrote the administration this week asking for more urgency in the matter.

“Restoring the FCC’s Title II authority over broadband would give the agency the strong, flexible toolbox it needs to curtail unjust and discriminatory practices, including unreasonable pricing schemes, while avoiding the pitfalls of rate-setting,” Floberg said.

Cable and broadband providers routinely engage in all manner of dodgy pricing practices, from the use of . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

15 June 2021 at 3:47 pm

Some Hospitals Kept Suing Patients Over Medical Debt Through the Pandemic

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There is something deeply wrong with the US healthcare system. Jenny Deam reports in ProPublica:

Last year as COVID-19 laid siege to the nation, many U.S. hospitals dramatically reduced their aggressive tactics to collect medical debt. Some ceased entirely.

But not all.

There was a nearly 90% drop overall in legal actions between 2019 and the first seven months of 2020 by the nation’s largest hospitals and health systems, according to a new report by Johns Hopkins University. Still, researchers told ProPublica that they identified at least 16 institutions that pursued lawsuits, wage garnishments and liens against their patients in the first seven months of 2020.

The Johns Hopkins findings, released Monday in partnership with Axios, which first reported the results, are part of an ongoing series of state and national reports that look at debt collections by U.S. hospitals and health systems from 2018 to 2020.

During those years more than a quarter of the nation’s largest hospitals and health systems pursued nearly 39,000 legal actions seeking more than $72 million, according to data Johns Hopkins researchers obtained through state and county court records.

More than 65% of the institutions identified were nonprofit corporations, which means that in return for tax-exempt status they are supposed to serve the public rather than private interest.

The amount of medical debt individuals owe is often a small sliver of a hospital’s overall revenue — as little as 0.03% of annual receipts — but can “cause devastating financial burdens to working families,” the report said. The federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has estimated medical debt makes up 58% of all debt collection actions.

The poor or uninsured often bear the brunt of such actions, said Christi Walsh, clinical director of health care and research policy at Johns Hopkins University. “In times of crisis you start to see the huge disparities,” she said.

Researchers said they could not determine all of the amounts sought by the 16 institutions taking legal action in the first half of 2020, but of those they could, Froedtert Health, a Wisconsin health system, sought the most money from patients — more than $3 million.

Even after Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers declared a public health emergency on March 12, 2020, hospitals within the Froedtert Health system filed more than 100 cases from mid-March through July, researchers reported, and 96 of the actions were liens.

One lien was against Tyler Boll-Flaig, a 21-year-old uninsured pizza delivery driver from Twin Lakes, Wisconsin, who was severely injured June 3, 2020, when a speeding drag racer smashed into his car. Boll-Flaig’s jaw was shattered, and he had four vertebrae crushed and several ribs broken. His 14-year-old brother, Dominic Flaig, tagging along that night, was killed.

Days after the crash, their mother, Brandy Flaig, said she got a call from a hospital billing office asking for her surviving son’s contact information to set up a payment plan for his medical bills.

Then on July 30 — less than two months later — Froedtert Hospital in Milwaukee filed a $67,225 lien against Boll-Flaig. It was one of seven liens the hospital filed the same day, totaling nearly a quarter of a million dollars, according to the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access website used by researchers and reviewed by ProPublica.

“It’s during the pandemic, we’re still grieving, and they go after Tyler?” Flaig said. “It’s predatory.” Tyler Boll-Flaig declined to be interviewed.

Froedtert Hospital is the largest in the Froedtert Health system, which includes five full-service hospitals, two community hospitals and more than 40 clinics. The health care system reported more than $53 million in operating income during the quarter ending Sept. 30, 2020 — double the amount from the previous year, according to its financial filings. It has also received $90 million in federal CARES Act money to help with its COVID-19 response and operating costs, a spokesperson said.

Only Reedsburg Area Medical Center, a nonprofit hospital in Reedsburg, Wisconsin, pursued more legal actions in the spring and summer of 2020, with 139 lawsuits and 22 wage garnishments, the study showed. Medical center officials did not respond to a request for comment.

In contrast, Advocate Aurora Health, the top-suing health network in the state before the pandemic, dropped to zero court filings after February 2020, the report found.

Stephen Schoof, a Froedtert Health spokesperson, said in an email he . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

15 June 2021 at 2:17 pm

How Software Is Eating the Car

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Robert N. Charette writes in IEEE Spectrum:

Predictions of lost global vehicle production caused by the ongoing semiconductor shortage continue to rise. In January, analysts forecast that 1.5 million fewer vehicles would be produced as a result of the shortage; by April that number had steadily climbed to more than 2.7 million units, and by May, to more than 4.1 million units.

The semiconductor shortage has underscored not only the fragility of the automotive supply chain, but placed an intense spotlight on the auto industry’s reliance on the dozens of concealed computers embedded throughout vehicles today.

“No other industry is undergoing as rapid technological change as the auto industry,” says Zoran Filipi, Chair of the Department of Automotive Engineering at Clemson University’s International Center for Automotive Research. “This is driven by the need to address impending, evermore stringent CO2 and criteria emission regulations, while sustaining unprecedented rate of progress with development of automation and infotainment, and meeting the customer expectations regarding performance, comfort, and utility.” 

The coming years will see even greater change, as more auto manufacturers commit to phasing out their internal combustion engine (ICE) powered vehicles to meet global climate-change targets by replacing them with electric vehicles (EVs) that will eventually be capable of autonomous operation.

The past decade of ICE vehicle development illustrates the rapid progress it has made, as well as where it is heading.

“Once, software was a part of the car. Now, software determines the value of a car,” notes Manfred Broy, emeritus professor of informatics at Technical University, Munich and a leading expert on software in automobiles. “The success of a car depends on its software much more than the mechanical side.” Nearly all vehicle innovations by auto manufacturers, or original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) as they are called by industry insiders, are now tied to software, he says.

Ten years ago, only premium cars contained 100 microprocessor-based electronic control units (ECUs) networked throughout the body of a car, executing 100 million lines of code or more. Today, high-end cars like the BMW 7-series with advanced technology like advanced driver-assist systems (ADAS) may contain 150 ECUs or more, while pick-up trucks like Ford’s F-150 top 150 million lines of code. Even low-end vehicles are quickly approaching 100 ECUs and 100 million of lines of code as more features that were once considered luxury options, such as adaptive cruise control and automatic emergency braking, are becoming standard.

Additional safety features that have been mandated since 2010 like electronic stability control, backup cameras, and automatic emergency calling (eCall) in the EU, as well as more stringent emission standards that ICE vehicles can only meet using yet more innovative electronics and software, have further driven ECU and software proliferation.

Consulting firm Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited estimates that as of 2017, some 40% of the cost of a new car can be attributed to semiconductor-based electronic systems, a cost doubling since 2007. It estimates this total will approach 50% by 2030. The company further predicts that each new car today has about $600 worth of semiconductors packed into it, consisting of up to 3,000 chips of all types.

Totaling the number of ECUs and lines of software only hints at the intricate electronic orchestration and software choreography found in vehicles today. By observing how they perform together, the extraordinary complexity that is meant to be invisible from a driver’s perspective begins to emerge. New safety, comfort, performance and entertainment features, the commercial imperative to offer scores of options to buyers resulting in a multiplicity of variants for each make and model, and the shift from gasoline and human drivers to electric and artificially intelligent drivers and the hundreds of millions of lines of new code that will need to be written, checked, debugged and secured against hackers, are making cars into supercomputers on wheels and forcing the auto industry to adapt. But can it? 

Features and Variants Drive Complexity

The drive over the last two decades to provide more safety and entertainment features has transformed automobiles from mere conveyances to mobile computing centers. Instead of . . .

Continue reading.  There’s much much more, including an interesting chart showing what jobs are assigned to microprocessors.

Written by Leisureguy

14 June 2021 at 1:00 pm

What if higher wages drive faster productivity growth?

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Noah Smith has an interesting column at Noahpinion:

The other day I ordered at a restaurant on my smartphone. No waiter came by to ask me if I was ready to order. I scanned a QR code on a piece of paper taped to a wooden post; this brought up the menu on my phone, and I simply indicated what I wanted. As if by magic, a server appeared a few minutes later with the food. During my meal, no one wandered by to ask me if I “was still working on that”; when I wanted more food, I just used my phone again. I’m sure I’m one of many millions of Americans who’s learning to order food this way, as a result of the understaffing and social distancing rules imposed by the Covid pandemic.

While I was ordering this way, I kept thinking over and over that this shift is a real game-changer in terms of productivity. Let people order food on their phones, and the number of wait staff you need to deliver the same service goes way down. It’s barely more onerous for the customer if at all, and it eliminates the need to have human beings constantly sashaying around the establishment, eyeing how much diners have eaten.

So I guess I wasn’t too surprised when I saw, via Erik Brynjolfsson and Georgios Petropoulos, that labor productivity is growing at rates not seen since the previous century:

What IS surprising is that this growth has accelerated in the first quarter of 2021, as Americans have started coming back to work en masse. If productivity gains had been purely a function of service establishments being forced to do stretch and do more with fewer workers because of Covid, we might have expected to see a reversal as workers came back to work en masse; instead, productivity is growing even faster.

Now, it’s important not to put too much weight on one quarter’s worth of data. This is a noisy time series with plenty of mismeasurement, and there are bound to be revisions (in fact, looking at the non-seasonally-adjusted numbers shows a slightly more modest increase in Q1). But coupled with my observations on the ground, the change seems real; we can see the actual labor-saving technologies being implemented right in front of our eyes. Nor am I the only one who sees this. Writing in the WSJ, Greg Ip reports:

Industries accounting for a third of the job loss since the start of the pandemic have increased output, including retailing, information, finance, construction, and professional and business services, said Jason Thomas, head of global research at private-equity manager Carlyle Group.

“This recession took on a life of its own by leading to greater remote work, greater reliance on technology,” Mr. Thomas said. Executives began to ask “hard questions: Why do we have so much floor space? Are we sure our cost base makes so much sense? Why were we taking so many intra-office trips? This experience has just revealed how ignorant you were about the frontiers of technology that you could exploit.”

So if employers really are investing in labor-saving technology, the question is: Why? Part of it is surely that the pandemic simply nudged managers to reconsider how they do things; inertia in the business world is strong. But another possible explanation is that workers are becoming more powerful and demanding higher wages. In the NYT, Neil Irwin notes some evidence that workers are gaining the upper hand in the labor market:

The “reservation wage,” as economists call the minimum compensation workers would require, was 19% higher for those without a college degree in March than in November 2019, a jump of nearly $10,000 a year, according to a survey by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York…

A survey of human resources executives from large companies conducted in April by The Conference Board, a research group, found that 49% of organizations with a mostly blue-collar workforce found it hard to retain workers, up from 30% before the pandemic.

With workers demanding higher wages, there could be an incentive for companies to invest in technologies that will economize on labor — like QR code ordering at restaurants.

One problem for this narrative is . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

13 June 2021 at 7:40 am

The importance of history

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Heather Cox Richardson writes:

Yesterday, David Ignatius had a piece in the Washington Post that uncovered the attempt of the Trump administration to reorder the Middle East along an axis anchored by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudia Arabia (more popularly known as MBS), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, and Jared Kushner of the U.S.

To make the deal, the leaders involved apparently wanted to muscle Jordan out of its role as the custodian of Muslim and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem, a role carved out in the 1994 peace treaty between Israel and Jordan that was hammered out under President Bill Clinton. The new dealmakers apparently wanted to scuttle the U.S.-backed accords and replace them with economic deals that would reorder the region.

This story has huge implications for the Middle East, for American government, for religion, for culture, and so on, but something else jumps out to me here: this story is a great illustration of the principles behind Critical Race Theory, which is currently tearing up the Fox News Channel. Together, the attempt to bypass Jordan and the obsession with Critical Race Theory seem to make a larger statement about the current sea change in the U.S. as people increasingly reject the individualist ideology of the Reagan era.

When Kushner set out to construct a Middle East peace plan, he famously told Aaron David Miller, who had negotiated peace agreements with other administrations, that he didn’t want to know about how things had worked in the past. “He said flat out, don’t talk to me about history,” Miller told Chris McGreal of The Guardian, “He said, I told the Israelis and the Palestinians not to talk to me about history too.”

Kushner apparently thought he could create a brand new Middle East with a brand new set of alliances that would begin with changing long standing geopolitics in Jerusalem, the city three major world religions consider holy. It is eye-popping to imagine what would have happened if we had torn up decades of agreements and tried to graft onto a troubled area an entirely new way of interacting, based not on treaties but on the interests of this new axis. Apparently, the hope was that throwing enough money at the region would have made the change palatable. But most experts think that weakening Jordan, long a key U.S. ally in the region, and removing its oversight of the holy sites, would have ushered in violence.

The heart of the American contribution to the idea of reworking the Middle East along a new axis with contracts, rather than treaties, seems to have been that enough will and enough money can create new realities.

The idea that will and money could create success was at the heart of the Reagan Revolution. Its adherents championed the idea that any individual could prosper in America, so long as the government stayed out of his (it was almost always his) business.

Critical Race Theory challenges this individualist ideology. CRT emerged in the late 1970s in legal scholarship written by people who recognized that legal protections for individuals did not, in fact, level the playing field in America. They noted that racial biases are embedded in our legal system. From that, other scholars noted that racial, ethnic, gender, class, and other biases are embedded in the other systems that make up our society.

Historians began to cover this ground long ago. Oklahoma historian Angie Debo established such biases in the construction of American law in her book, And Still the Waters Run: The Betrayal of the Five Civilized Tribes back in 1940. Since then, historians have explored the biases in our housing policies, policing, medical care, and so on, and there are very few who would suggest that our systems are truly neutral.

So why is Critical Race Theory such a flashpoint in today’s political world?. . .

Continue reading; inks and sources and sources are at the end of the article.

Written by Leisureguy

12 June 2021 at 9:13 pm

This season’s must-have Hermès bag is made from fungus

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Alice Fisher writes in the Guardian:

It’s fair to say that Hermès knows handbags. The luxury fashion house’s Birkin and Kelly bags are among the most expensive ever sold; demand outstrips supply by so much that you can’t even join a waiting list. Acquiring one is a matter of luck and contacts. So when Hermès announced this season’s handbag would be made from plant leather, it marked a new era in designer accessories.

The autumn/winter 2021 Hermès Victoria (prices start from about £3,500 for its previous leather version) will be made from Sylvania, a leather grown from fungus, before being crafted in France into a perfect Hermès handbag.

Mushrooms, pineapples, grapes, cactus and apples are just some of the plants on the receiving end of billions of dollars of research and development funding to create leather and plastic replacements. Many of the first generation of vegan alternatives used plastic – which also has devastating environmental consequences and can take hundreds of years to decompose. The new materials are made using biotechnology.

The growth of plant leather is driven by the fashion industry’s efforts to improve sustainability, though it’s also used in the car and furniture industries. Fashion creates a high level of pollution – from overproduction of clothing and synthetic fibres, and also from animal leather production.

“Cattle ranching is already the largest driver of deforestation in the Amazon,” says Carry Somers, co-founder of Fashion Revolution, the world’s largest fashion activism organisation. “We urgently need to fix our relationship with fashion to halt unsustainable agricultural practices. We need to look towards circular economy alternatives, including the use of agricultural residues to create bio-leathers.”

Although conventional leather makes use of animal byproducts, production also involves toxic chemicals.

“Even in fully modernised tanneries it’s nearly impossible to reclaim pollutants generated by the tanning process,” says Adrián López Velarde, co-founder of Desserto, a Mexican company that makes cactus leather. “As a rule of thumb, tanning one tonne of hide results in 20-80 cubic metres of polluted waste water, not to mention the offal effluence from preparation, and pesticides to stop mould growth during transportation.”

There’s also been an attitude shift among consumers. Customer concern about supply chains and methods of production was growing before the pandemic, but has accelerated in the past 18 months.

“There’s a huge drive for transparency,” says Carmen Hijosa, founder of Ananas Anam, a company that makes pineapple leather. “It’s especially important to young people, but we’re all becoming more empathic, we understand that we have to respect nature and be kind to each other.”

This change in priorities is the motivation for many of the companies developing bio-leathers. The people behind these new materials come from diverse backgrounds – fashion and art, science and business – and they bring fresh perspective to the world of textiles.

Dan Widmaier, chief executive of the biotextile company Bolt Threads, says: “This is personal for me. Bolt is based in northern California. I, and our employees, have been massively impacted by climate change and fires. The truth is, the challenges are so great right now, that the demand for innovative solutions far outstrips the supply.”

Bio-leathers are made either from agricultural byproducts or specially grown crops. Mycelium, the root structure of fungus, has become a favourite in the luxury industry.

Hermès worked with the Californian company MycoWorks to make Sylvania, which uses a technology called Fine Mycelium. This produces a strong cellular material that can be processed to become a luxury leather. “It’s more than a new material – it’s a manufacturing breakthrough that gives designers new levels of customisation and creative control,” says MycoWorks co-founder Sophia Wang. “Our materials are essentially made to order and there’s complete transparency into what is being made and how. We control each sheet’s size, strength, flexibility, thickness. This customisation creates a range of design possibilities, minimises waste and ensures consistent quality.”

Because these companies have been formed with sustainability in their DNA, good agricultural practice is front and centre. Desserto’s organic cactus plantations in Zacatecas, Mexico, use 164,650% less water compared with animal leather and 190% compared with polyurethane.

Bolt Threads developed and produces Mylo, a mycelium leather used by designers including Stella McCartney. Widmaier is proud of his product and says: “Mylo’s processing and finishing chemistries are evaluated and selected using green chemistry principles and are free of substances such as chromium and DMFa, two of the most noxious chemicals used in animal and synthetic leather respectively.”

For advocates of the circular economy, bio-leathers using byproducts are of particular interest. Piñatex, leather, made by UK-based Ananas Anam from pineapple leaves, is one of the best established. Hijosa, the company’s founder, had been a consultant for . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by Leisureguy

12 June 2021 at 1:39 pm

Free lithium from seawater

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Mining.com has an interesting article. The lithium is free because the by-products pay for the process.

Researchers at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology developed what they believe is an economically viable system to extract high-purity lithium from seawater.

Previous efforts to tease lithium from the mixture the metal makes together with sodium, magnesium and potassium in seawater yielded very little. Although the liquid contains 5,000 times more lithium than what can be found on land, it is present at extremely low concentrations of about 0.2 parts per million (ppmTo address this issue, the team led by Zhiping Lai tried a method that had never been used before to extract lithium ions. They employed an electrochemical cell containing a ceramic membrane made from lithium lanthanum titanium oxide (LLTO).

The cell itself, on the other hand, contains three compartments. Seawater flows into a central feed chamber, where positive lithium ions pass through the LLTO membrane into a side compartment that contains a buffer solution and a copper cathode coated with platinum and ruthenium. At the same time, negative ions exit the feed chamber through a standard anion exchange membrane, passing into a third compartment containing a sodium chloride solution and a platinum-ruthenium anode.

Lai and his group tested the system using seawater from the Red Sea. At a voltage of 3.25V, the cell generates hydrogen gas at the cathode and chlorine gas at the anode. This drives the transport of lithium through the LLTO membrane, where it accumulates in the side-chamber. This lithium-enriched water then becomes the feedstock for four more cycles of processing, eventually reaching a concentration of more than 9,000 ppm.

To make the final product pure enough so that it meets battery manufacturers’ requirements, the scientists then  . . .

Continue reading.

Concluding paragraph:

According to the researchers, the cell will probably need $5 of electricity to extract 1 kilogram of lithium from seawater. This means that the value of hydrogen and chlorine produced by the cell would end up offsetting the cost of power, and residual seawater could also be used in desalination plants to provide freshwater.

Written by Leisureguy

11 June 2021 at 9:31 pm

Koch-and-switch

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Judd Legum writes in Popular Information:

About seven months ago, billionaire businessman Charles Koch’s smiling face was in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. The 85-year-old Koch had spent decades funding a vast network of far-right causes, including the Tea Party, the movement which laid the groundwork for Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency.

Koch said his prior work was a mistake. He vowed that, from now on, he would eschew partisanship and focus on “building bridges across ideological divides.”

Koch’s feature in the Wall Street Journal was part of a broader rebranding effort that coincided with the release of a new book:

Mr. Koch said he has since come to regret his partisanship, which he says badly deepened divisions. “Boy, did we screw up!” he writes in his new book. “What a mess!”

In a separate interview with the Washington Post that was released the same day, Koch congratulated Biden and said he wanted to “work together” with the new Democratic president on “as many issues as possible.”

We’ve got people so hyped on politics now that it seems like they think that’s all there is. You know, ‘If the other side wins, it’ll ruin the country and destroy us forever.’ Both sides are saying that, and feel that, and think this is the most important thing. Well, it is important, but it isn’t going to make any difference unless we all learn to work together and help each other and move toward a society of equal rights and mutual benefit.

Koch said he regretted hiring “ex-Republican operatives” and then “doing nothing” as they engaged in bare-knuckled political combat. Koch insisted that things would be different moving forward. “Let’s get together and make that happen so we can start helping each other, rather than hurting each other,” Koch said.

In the seven months since those interviews, however, Koch has deployed the full resources of his political network to try to stymie virtually every aspect of Biden’s agenda.

Most recently, one of Koch’s primary political organizations, Americans for Prosperity, has pressured Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) to block various priorities of the Biden administration. CNBC reports that Americans for Prosperity has created ads, a video, and a website targeting Manchin. The website calls for Manchin to block a public option for Obamacare, a minimum wage increase, an infrastructure bill, and the For The People Act.

The effort appears to be working, as Manchin announced his opposition to the For The People Act in an op-ed on Sunday. But the campaign targeting Manchin is just one aspect of Koch’s multi-faceted attack on the Biden presidency.

Americans for Prosperity also . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more. I find that Popular Information has a lot of good content, though I don’t that often quote it in the blog. But I do read it and find it worthwhile.

Written by Leisureguy

11 June 2021 at 2:03 pm

Operation Underground Railroad’s Carefully Crafted Public Image Is Falling Apart

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The report by Anna Merian and Tim Marchman in Vice is amazing (and, unfortunately, credible). It begins:

im Caviezel appeared onscreen in Oklahoma on a Friday night, his digital visage bathed in the hot lights of Rhema Bible College’s amphitheater and the adulation of his audience, and proceeded to make a real mess. 

“You can do something now. You can end this,” he told the audience. “If we let our little ones continue to be slaughtered, boy, there’s gonna be a judgment on this world, and especially our country.” 

Caviezel, an actor known for playing Jesus Christ and for his passionate commitment to Christianity, was appearing at the Health & Freedom conference, a dizzying multi-day event devoted to election conspiracy theories and COVID denialism headlined by people like pro-Trump lawyer Lin Wood, who frequently and enthusiastically promotes conspiracy theories associated with QAnon. (The event was, in fact, ostensibly two conferences, one devoted to business and the other to health. They were indistinguishable.) Caviezel was there to promote his newest role, in which he plays Tim Ballard, the founder and most recognizable face of the famed anti-trafficking group Operation Underground Railroad, or OUR. The film, Sound of Freedom, has been in the works—and its release beset with mysterious delays—for several years. (You can, however, view a trailer here.)

Ballard couldn’t appear in person in Oklahoma, Caviezel explained. “He’s down there saving children as we speak. They’re pulling children out of the darkest recesses of hell,” he said. “All kinds of places, the adrenochroming of children.” 

 

“You said adrenochrome?” host Clay Clark, an Oklahoma personality who bills himself as a “growth consultant” and business guru, asked a moment later.  “We need to discuss that.” 

“Essentially, you have adrenaline in your body … and when you are scared, you produce adrenaline,” Caviezel explained. “If a child knows he’s going to die, his body will secrete this adrenaline. And they have a lot of terms that they use that he takes me through, but it’s the worst horror I’ve seen. It’s screaming alone. Even if I never, ever, ever saw it, it’s beyond. And these people that do it, there will be no mercy for them.” The audience applauded, solemnly.

Caviezel, whose agents and managers did not reply to several requests for comment, had just promoted one of the more extreme and lurid conspiracy theories out there, and one central to the cosmology of QAnon—the utterly false idea that a cabal of elites is torturing and killing children to obtain a fictionalized biological substance—and he’d done it in the same breath that he promoted OUR. (Adrenochrome is a real chemical compound, but the idea that it can only be harvested from terrified torture victims was purely the stuff of horror movies before Q came along. For QAnon believers, however, it has a much larger significance. The concept that evil elites are harvesting the substance from murdered children is a central facet of their belief system; they believe those elites take the substance to maintain their youthful appearances or life force.) 

All of this was awkward at best for OUR, which has spent the better part of a year insisting that it “does not condone conspiracy theories and is not affiliated with any conspiracy theory groups, like QAnon, in any way, shape, or form,” as it says on its website. Caviezel’s comments generated a minor tsunami of headlines linking him, the film, Ballard, and the organization to a poisonous conspiracy theory and a stunningly fringe conference, the highlight of which was Lin Wood, who claimed in November that associating him with QAnon is a “smear,” making the shape of a Q in the air for an adoring crowd. (Wood has more recently claimed to be confused about QAnon even is, writing on Telegram on June 2: “I have been repeatedly attacked for being a ‘Qanon conspiracy theorist. Why? I can do research to educate myself on Q. I can do research to educate myself on Anons. My question is: What is QAnon???”) 

In response to a request for comment from VICE World News, a spokesperson for OUR wrote, “Operation Underground Railroad does not condone child trafficking conspiracy theories, such as the harvesting of adrenochrome, nor is the organization affiliated with any conspiracy theory groups, including QAnon. OUR has clearly stated that the effort to knock out child exploitation and human trafficking is being harmed [by] a number of conspiracy theory groups who have chosen to latch onto child exploitation and human trafficking and used a variety of conspiracy theories as a vehicle to deceptively bolster their causes.” The spokesperson also said that Ballard “participated in the conference out of respect to, and at the invitation of, Jim Caviezel to help promote the upcoming movie Sound of Freedom in which Caviezel plays the lead role.” In response to a specific question about Caviezel’s use of the phrase “he takes me through,” a second spokesperson said that Ballard had never explained the process of adrenochrome harvesting to Caviezel.

Before the blowback and the cleanup came, though, Caviezel and Ballard had a movie to promote. 

 

“This is one of the best films I’ve ever done in my life,” Caviezel said. He drew a parallel between it and The Passion of the Christ, an independently-financed film that was, he suggested, successful despite unnamed forces in Hollywood working against it because of people just like those in the audience. “Whether it ever gets seen in this industry is up to your prayers.” 

A moment before that, Ballard had appeared from what looked very much like a recording booth in an undisclosed location where he was, according to Clark, “actually rescuing kids, tonight.”

“I’m here doing an operation overseas which I hope to be able to tell you about soon,” he said. “It’s involving the rescue of children as young as 12 years old … that’s the only reason I’m not there with you.” The movie in which an actor best known for playing Christ portrayed him was, he said, “an opportunity for the world to understand what’s happening.” It would, he suggested, do nothing less than “save the lives of children.” 

This was classic Ballard: Urgent, heroic, a little bombastic, and deeply self-serving. The narrative of a small organization fighting desperately to shine a light on the darkness of children being trafficked and sexually abused also served to paper over another, truer narrative. In this one, OUR is rife with internal divisions, losing key employees who are starting up rival anti-trafficking groups, and under a serious and widening criminal investigation, which VICE World News has confirmed now involves federal authorities and focuses not just on OUR, but on for-profit companies connected to it.

 

After years of success—tens of millions of dollars of donations, flattering stories in the national press, high-profile partnerships with celebrities across the political spectrum, and seats for its founder before Congress and at Donald Trump’s right hand—OUR has reached a new stage. Its carefully-crafted image is coming undone.

OUR remains under investigation by a county attorney in Utah, Troy Rawlings of Davis County, as it has been since last fall. “The investigation is still very active and fruitful,” Rawlings told VICE World News in early June.

The scope of that investigation appears to have widened beyond what VICE World News and FOX 13 have previously reported, which was that Rawlings’ office was looking into whether OUR has made misleading claims in fundraising appeals. VICE World News has confirmed that several people have been interviewed about their dealings with OUR not just by investigators from Rawlings’ office, but by the FBI. Investigators from the IRS and Homeland Security are also said to be involved, according to people familiar with the scope of the investigation. (A spokesperson for OUR declined to say whether Ballard or other OUR staffers had spoken to the FBI, IRS, or DHS, writing, “We can’t comment specifically on your speculative inquiry.” In response to detailed inquiries about the investigation, the same spokesperson wrote, “OUR has complied with all laws that regulate nonprofits and intends to cooperate fully with any official inquiry, if asked.” The FBI and DHS declined to comment, citing policies of not confirming or denying ongoing investigations; the IRS did not respond to a request for comment.) . . .

Continue reading. There’s much much more, including links to other reports on the organization:

A Famed Anti-Sex Trafficking Group Has a Problem With the Truth

Inside a Massive Anti-Trafficking Charity’s Blundering Overseas Missions

Also, this video of Caviezel’s interview:

Written by Leisureguy

10 June 2021 at 6:00 pm

Republicans Are Furious Fast-Food Workers Are Getting a Raise

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Jonathan Chait writes in New York:

The Republican Party, it tells us, has become a workers’ party. The complicating detail is finding ways to lift incomes for low-wage workers that meet the party’s approval. Giving low-income workers money is bad because that creates a disincentive to work. Regulating a higher minimum wage is also no good because that kills jobs. Government-subsidized health insurance or child care is also problematic, and encouraging the formation of unions to give them more bargaining power is totally unacceptable.

That leaves just one Republican-friendly way to increase living standards for low-wage workers: a tight labor market that forces employers to bid up wages. And now, it turns out Republicans don’t like that method, either.

This week, Chipotle announced it would raise its prices by 4 percent to cover the cost of paying higher wages. The National Republican Congressional Committee pounced with a press release attacking the Democrats for having engineered this catastrophe. “Democrats’ socialist stimulus bill caused a labor shortage,” complained a GOP spokesman, “and now burrito lovers everywhere are footing the bill.”

Of course, you wouldn’t expect Republicans to praise the economic results under a Democratic president. What’s interesting is that this is a story they chose to highlight. It’s hardly impossible to find bad or discouraging signs in the economy. There are indicators in the economy that at least hint that the Democratic recovery strategy might not work out. But forcing employers to pay higher wages for fast-food workers is exactly what Biden’s economic program is trying to do.

The Federalist, which has built its reader base by amplifying Donald Trump’s lies in ways more traditional conservative outlets are too embarrassed to follow, has published a column expanding on the official party line. The author, Kylee Zempel, has written several hundred words expressing outrage that the fast-casual joint has “jacked up the price of [her] Chipotle order.”

Zempel is specifically angry that Democrats have engineered a tight labor market forcing Chipotle to raise wages: “Restaurants have had to bribe current and prospective workers with fatter paychecks to lure them off their backsides and back to work,” she complains. “That’s what happens when the federal government steps in with a sweet unemployment deal, incentivizing workers do a little less labor and a little more lounging.”

Well … yes, that’s not wrong. If unemployment is not penalized with absolute deprivation, workers have more leverage to demand higher pay.

Zempel attempts to convey this chain of decisions in a tone of horror: “In an effort to bring on an additional 20,000 workers, Chipotle announced in May that it would raise its average hourly wage to $15 by the end of this month — the same dollar figure Democrats have pushed as a federal minimum wage.”

The putative objection to increasing the minimum wage is that  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

10 June 2021 at 5:23 pm

Posted in Business, Daily life, GOP

What Really Happened When Google Ousted Timnit Gebru

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Tom Simonite writes in Wired:

ONE AFTERNOON IN late November of last year, Timnit Gebru was sitting on the couch in her San Francisco Bay Area home, crying.

Gebru, a researcher at Google, had just clicked out of a last-minute video meeting with an executive named Megan Kacholia, who had issued a jarring command. Gebru was the coleader of a group at the company that studies the social and ethical ramifications of artificial intelligence, and Kacholia had ordered Gebru to retract her latest research paper—or else remove her name from its list of authors, along with those of several other members of her team.

The paper in question was, in Gebru’s mind, pretty unobjectionable. It surveyed the known pitfalls of so-called large language models, a type of AI software—most famously exemplified by a system called GPT-3—that was stoking excitement in the tech industry. Google’s own version of the technology was now helping to power the company’s search engine. Jeff Dean, Google’s revered head of research, had encouraged Gebru to think about the approach’s possible downsides. The paper had sailed through the company’s internal review process and had been submitted to a prominent conference. But Kacholia now said that a group of product leaders and others inside the company had deemed the work unacceptable, Gebru recalls. Kacholia was vague about their objections but gave Gebru a week to act. Her firm deadline was the day after Thanksgiving.

Gebru’s distress turned to anger as that date drew closer and the situation turned weirder. Kacholia gave Gebru’s manager, Samy Bengio, a document listing the paper’s supposed flaws, but told him not to send it to Gebru, only to read it to her. On Thanksgiving Day, Gebru skipped some festivities with her family to hear Bengio’s recital. According to Gebru’s recollection and contemporaneous notes, the document didn’t offer specific edits but complained that the paper handled topics “casually” and painted too bleak a picture of the new technology. It also claimed that all of Google’s uses of large language models were “engineered to avoid” the pitfalls that the paper described.

Gebru spent Thanksgiving writing a six-page response, explaining her perspective on the paper and asking for guidance on how it might be revised instead of quashed. She titled her reply “Addressing Feedback from the Ether at Google,” because she still didn’t know who had set her Kafkaesque ordeal in motion, and sent it to Kacholia the next day.

On Saturday, Gebru set out on a preplanned cross-country road trip. She had reached New Mexico by Monday, when Kacholia emailed to ask for confirmation that the paper would either be withdrawn or cleansed of its Google affiliations. Gebru tweeted a cryptic reproach of “censorship and intimidation” against AI ethics researchers. Then, on Tuesday, she fired off two emails: one that sought to end the dispute, and another that escalated it beyond her wildest imaginings.

The first was addressed to Kacholia and offered her a deal: Gebru would remove herself from the paper if Google provided an account of who had reviewed the work and how, and established a more transparent review process for future research. If those conditions weren’t met, Gebru wrote, she would leave Google once she’d had time to make sure her team wouldn’t be too destabilized. The second email showed less corporate diplomacy. Addressed to a listserv for women who worked in Google Brain, the company’s most prominent AI lab and home to Gebru’s Ethical AI team, it accused the company of “silencing marginalized voices” and dismissed Google’s internal diversity programs as a waste of time.

Relaxing in an Airbnb in Austin, Texas, the following night, Gebru received a message with a 😮 from one of her direct reports: “You resigned??” In her personal inbox she then found an email from Kacholia, rejecting Gebru’s offer and casting her out of Google. “We cannot agree as you are requesting,” Kacholia wrote. “The end of your employment should happen faster than your email reflects.” Parts of Gebru’s email to the listserv, she went on, had shown “behavior inconsistent with the expectations of a Google manager.” Gebru tweeted that she had been fired. Google maintained—and still does—that she resigned.

Gebru’s tweet lit the fuse on a controversy that quickly inflamed Google. The company has been dogged in recent years by accusations from employees that it mistreats women and people of color, and from lawmakers that it wields unhealthy technological and economic power. Now Google had expelled a Black woman who was a prominent advocate for more diversity in tech, and who was seen as an important internal voice for greater restraint in the helter-­skelter race to develop and deploy AI. One Google machine-learning researcher who had followed Gebru’s writing and work on diversity felt the news of her departure like a punch to the gut. “It was like, oh, maybe things aren’t going to change so easily,” says the employee, who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak by Google management.

Dean sent out a message urging Googlers to ignore Gebru’s call to disengage from corporate diversity exercises; Gebru’s paper had been subpar, he said, and she and her collaborators had not followed the proper approval process. In turn, Gebru claimed in tweets and interviews that she’d been felled by a toxic cocktail of racism, sexism, and censorship. Sympathy for Gebru’s account grew as the disputed paper circulated like samizdat among AI researchers, many of whom found it neither controversial nor particularly remarkable. Thousands of Googlers and outside AI experts signed a public letter castigating the company.

But Google seemed to double down. Margaret Mitchell, the other coleader of the Ethical AI team and a prominent researcher in her own right, was among the hardest hit by Gebru’s ouster. The two had been a professional and emotional tag team, building up their group—which was one of several that worked on what Google called “responsible AI”—while parrying the sexist and racist tendencies they saw at large in the company’s culture. Confident that those same forces had played a role in Gebru’s downfall, Mitchell wrote an automated script to retrieve notes she’d kept in her corporate Gmail account that documented allegedly discriminatory incidents, according to sources inside Google. On January 20, Google said Mitchell had triggered an internal security system and had been suspended. On February 19, she was fired, with Google stating that it had found “multiple violations of our code of conduct, as well as of our security policies, which included exfiltration of confidential, business-­sensitive documents.”

Google had now fully decapitated its own Ethical AI research group. The long, spectacular fallout from that Thanksgiving ultimatum to Gebru left countless bystanders wondering: Had one paper really precipitated all of these events?

The story of what actually happened in the lead-up to Gebru’s exit from Google reveals a more tortured and complex backdrop. It’s the tale of a gifted engineer who was swept up in the AI revolution before she became one of its biggest critics, a refugee who worked her way to the center of the tech industry and became determined to reform it. It’s also about a company—the world’s fifth largest—trying to regain its equilibrium after four years of scandals, controversies, and mutinies, but doing so in ways that unbalanced the ship even further.

Beyond Google, the fate of Timnit Gebru lays bare something even larger:  . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

9 June 2021 at 10:58 am

Why electric cars will take over sooner than you think

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Launched in 1998, the EV1 was GM’s first attempt at an electric car and failed to take off.

Justiin Rowlatt has a very interesting report at BBC on why electric cars really are going to dominate Real Soon Now. The article has many charts, so I encourage you to click the link. The article begins:

I know, you probably haven’t even driven one yet, let alone seriously contemplated buying one, so the prediction may sound a bit bold, but bear with me.

We are in the middle of the biggest revolution in motoring since Henry Ford’s first production line started turning back in 1913.

And it is likely to happen much more quickly than you imagine.

Many industry observers believe we have already passed the tipping point where sales of electric vehicles (EVs) will very rapidly overwhelm petrol and diesel cars.

It is certainly what the world’s big car makers think.

Jaguar plans to sell only electric cars from 2025, Volvo from 2030 and last week the British sportscar company Lotus said it would follow suit, selling only electric models from 2028.

And it isn’t just premium brands.

General Motors says it will make only electric vehicles by 2035, Ford says all vehicles sold in Europe will be electric by 2030 and VW says 70% of its sales will be electric by 2030.

This isn’t a fad, this isn’t greenwashing.

Yes, the fact many governments around the world are setting targets to ban the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles gives impetus to the process.

But what makes the end of the internal combustion engine inevitable is a technological revolution. And technological revolutions tend to happen very quickly.

This revolution will be electric

Look at the internet.

By my reckoning, the EV market is about where the internet was around the late 1990s or early 2000s.

Back then, there was a big buzz about this new thing with computers talking to each other.

Jeff Bezos had set up Amazon, and Google was beginning to take over from the likes of Altavista, Ask Jeeves and Yahoo. Some of the companies involved had racked up eye-popping valuations.

For those who hadn’t yet logged on it all seemed exciting and interesting but irrelevant – how useful could communicating by computer be? After all, we’ve got phones!

But the internet, like all successful new technologies, did not follow a linear path to world domination. It didn’t gradually evolve, giving us all time to plan ahead.

Its growth was explosive and disruptive, crushing existing businesses and changing the way we do almost everything. And it followed a familiar pattern, known to technologists as an S-curve.

Riding the internet S-curve

It’s actually an elongated S.

The idea is that innovations start slowly, of interest only to the very nerdiest of nerds. EVs are on the shallow sloping bottom end of the S here.

For the internet, the graph begins at 22:30 on 29 October 1969. That’s when a computer at the University of California in LA made contact with another in Stanford University a few hundred miles away.

The researchers typed an L, then an O, then a G. The system crashed before they could complete the word “login”.

Like I said, nerds only.

A decade later there were still only a few hundred computers on the network but the pace of change was accelerating.

As the market grew, prices fell rapidly and performance improved in leaps and bounds – encouraging more and more people to log on to the internet.

The S is beginning to sweep upwards here, growth is becoming exponential. By 1995 there were some 16 million people online. By 2001, there were 513 million people.

Now there are more than three billion. What happens next is our S begins to slope back towards the horizontal.

The rate of growth slows as virtually everybody who wants to be is now online.

Jeremy Clarkson’s disdain

We saw the same pattern of a slow start, exponential growth and then a slowdown to a mature market with smartphones, photography, even antibiotics.

The internal combustion engine at the turn of the last century followed the same trajectory.

So did steam engines and printing presses. And electric vehicles will do the same.

In fact they have a more venerable lineage than the internet.

The first crude electric car was developed by the Scottish inventor Robert Anderson in the 1830s.

But it is only in the last few years that the technology has been available at the kind of prices that make it competitive.

The former Top Gear presenter and used car dealer Quentin Willson should know. He’s been driving electric vehicles for well over a decade.

He test-drove General Motors’ now infamous EV1 20 years ago. It cost a billion dollars to develop but was considered a dud by GM, which crushed all but a handful of the 1,000 or so vehicles it produced.

The EV1’s range was dreadful – about 50 miles for a normal driver – but Mr Willson was won over. “I remember thinking this is the future,” he told me.

He says he will never forget the disdain that radiated from fellow Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson when he showed him his first electric car, a Citroen C-Zero, a decade later.

“It was just completely: ‘You have done the most unspeakable thing and you have disgraced us all. Leave!’,” he says. Though he now concedes that you couldn’t have the heater on in the car because it decimated the range.

How things have changed. Mr Willson says he has no range anxiety with his latest electric car, a Tesla Model 3.

He says it will do almost 300 miles on a single charge and accelerates from 0-60 in 3.1 seconds.

“It is supremely comfortable, it’s airy, it’s bright. It’s just a complete joy. And I would unequivocally say to you now that I would never ever go back.”

We’ve seen massive improvements in the motors that drive electric vehicles, the computers that control them, charging systems and car design.

But the sea-change in performance Mr Willson has experienced is largely possible because of the improvements in the non-beating heart of the vehicles, the battery.

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

Written by Leisureguy

7 June 2021 at 10:13 am

Apple’s tightly controlled App Store is teeming with scams

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Reed Albergotti and Chris Alcantaran report in the Washington Post:

Apple chief executive Tim Cook has long argued it needs to control app distribution on iPhones, otherwise the App Store would turn into “a flea market.”

But among the 1.8 million apps on the App Store, scams are hiding in plain sight. Customers for several VPN apps, which allegedly protect users’ data, complained in Apple App Store reviews that the apps told users their devices have been infected by a virus to dupe them into downloading and paying for software they don’t need. A QR code reader app that remains on the store tricks customers into paying $4.99 a week for a service that is now included in the camera app of the iPhone. Some apps fraudulently present themselves as being from major brands such as Amazon and Samsung.

Of the highest 1,000 grossing apps on the App Store, nearly two percent are scams, according to an analysis by The Washington Post. And those apps have bilked consumers out of an estimated $48 million during the time they’ve been on the App Store, according to market research firm Appfigures. The scale of the problem has never before been reported. What’s more, Apple profits from these apps because it takes a cut of up to a 30 percent of all revenue generated through the App Store. Even more common, according to The Post’s analysis, are “fleeceware” apps that use inauthentic customer reviews to move up in the App Store rankings and give apps a sense of legitimacy to convince customers to pay higher prices for a service usually offered elsewhere with higher legitimate customer reviews.

Two-thirds of the 18 apps The Post flagged to Apple were removed from the App Store.

The most valuable company in U.S. history, Apple is facing unprecedented scrutiny for how it wields its power and is fighting to hold onto it, including in a blockbuster trial that concluded last month. Regulators and competitors have zeroed in on the App Store in particular: Unlike app stores on other mobile operating systems, Apple’s store faces no competition and is the only way for iPhone owners to download software to their phones without bypassing Apple’s restrictions. Through it, Apple keeps a tight grip on software distribution and payments on its mobile operating system, called iOS.

Apple has long maintained that its exclusive control of the App Store is essential to protecting customers, and it only lets the best apps on its system. But Apple’s monopoly over how consumers access apps on iPhones can actually create an environment that gives customers a false sense of safety, according to experts. Because Apple doesn’t face any major competition and so many consumers are locked into using the App Store on iPhones, there’s little incentive for Apple to spend money on improving it, experts say.

[He believed Apple’s App Store was safe. Then a fake app stole his life savings in bitcoin]

“If consumers were to have access to alternative app stores or other methods of distributing software, Apple would be a lot more likely to take this problem more seriously,” said Stan Miles, an economics professor at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia, Canada. . .

Continue reading. There’s much, much more. Apple’s responses are evasive and defensive and Apple employees seem to have been forbidden to comment (except for those employees paid to lie).

Later in the article:

Apple says it is constantly improving its methods for sniffing out scams and usually catches them within a month of hitting the App Store. In a recent news release, Apple said it employed new tools to verify the authenticity of user reviews and last year kicked 470,000 app developer accounts off the App Store. Developers, however, can create new accounts and continue to distribute new apps.

Apple unwittingly may be aiding the most sophisticated scammers by eliminating so many of the less competent ones during its app review process, said Miles, who co-authored a paper called “The Economics of Scams.” [Typical of meme evolution when a selection process eliminates some memes: the surviving memes adapt to evade being selected out — cf. in lifeform evolution how widespread use of antibiotics leads to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. – LG]

“If people do believe or are not worried about being scammed, then there’s going to be a lot of victimization,” he said. Miles also said Apple could warn consumers that some apps “are probably fraud and so buyer beware and you do your homework before you buy the app and don’t trust our store.”

And later:

The prevalence of scams on Apple’s App Store played a key role at trial. Apple’s lawyers were so focused on the company’s role in making the App Store safe that Epic’s attorneys accused them of trying to scare the court into a ruling in favor of Apple.In other internal emails unearthed during trial that date as far back as 2013, Apple’s PhilSchiller, who runs the App Store, expressed dismay when fraudulent apps made it pastApp Store review.

[Apple is lobbying against a bill aimed at stopping forced labor in China]

After a rip-off version of theTemple Run video game became the top-rated app, according to Schiller’s email exchange, he sent an irate message to two other Apple executives responsible for the store. “Remember our talking about finding bad apps with low ratings? Remember our talk about becoming the ‘Nordstroms’ of stores in quality of service? How does an obvious rip off of the super popular Temple Run, with no screenshots, garbage marketing text, and almost all 1-star ratings become the #1 free app on the store?” Schiller asked his team. “Is no one reviewing these apps? Is no one minding the store?” Apple declined to make Schiller available to comment.At trial, Schiller defended the safety of the app store on the stand. The app review process is “the best way we could come up with … to make it safe and fair.”

Eric Friedman, head of Apple’s Fraud Engineering Algorithms and Risk unit, or FEAR, said that Apple’s screening process is “more like the pretty lady who greets you with a lei at the Hawaiian airport than the drug sniffing dog,” according to a 2016 internal email uncovered during the Epic Games trial. Apple employs a 500-person App Review team, which sifts through submissions from developers. “App Review is bringing a plastic butter knife to a gun fight,” Friedman wrote in another email. Apple declined to make Friedman available to comment. In deposition testimony, Friedman pointed to investments Apple has made to stop fraud. “A lot has changed in the last five years,” he said.

Though the App Store ratings section is filled with customer complaints referring to apps as scams, there is no way for Apple customers to report this to Apple, other than reaching out to a regular Apple customer service representative. Apple used to have a button, just under the ratings and reviews section in the App Store, that said “report a problem,” which allowed users to report inappropriate apps. Based on discussions among Apple customers on Apple’s own website, the feature was removed some time around 2016. Sainzsaid customers can still report apps through other channels.

And there’s much more. It’s a long article and it shows just what a bad job Apple is doing. Part of that may be because Apple gets a heft cut of money spent in the App Store and so doesn’t really care to police it effectively: they make money in either case.

Written by Leisureguy

6 June 2021 at 12:49 pm

Southern Baptist leaders mishandled sex abuse claims

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The Southern Baptist organization provides a good example of how a memeplex’s immune system springing into action. Thinking of such cultural entities as multi-meme “organisms” often allows accurate predictions of behavior. Sarah Pullman Bailey reports in the Washington Post:

New allegations about the mishandling of sex abuse claims at the highest levels of the Southern Baptist Convention were made public in a recent letter between two high-profile leaders that was obtained Friday by The Washington Post.

While such allegations have been made by several women in the past, the letter includes new details from internal conversations, alleging that some institutional leaders bullied a sexual abuse victim, who was called a “whore,” and described in detail how many leaders resisted sexual abuse reforms.

Later this month, more than 14,000 Southern Baptists are expected to meet in Nashville for the convention’s annual meeting, which is intended to inspire unity among Baptists. But the June 15-16 meeting will take place in the midst of intense debates over issues such as sex abuse, racism and the role of women, as well as significant Southern Baptist support for former president Donald Trump, topics that have caused fissures in recent years and caused many high-profile departures from the country’s largest Protestant denomination.

In a dramatic turn of events this week, two letters written by Russell Moore, who recently left his position as head of the SBC’s policy arm, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, have been made public. The new allegations are contained in a May 31 letter Moore sent to the current president of the SBC, J.D. Greear, that appeared on Friday on the site the Baptist Blogger, which has published other internal documents and recordings from Southern Baptist leaders in the past.

“You and I both heard, in closed door meetings, sexual abuse survivors spoken of in terms of ‘Potiphar’s wife’ and other spurious biblical analogies,” Moore wrote to Greear. “The conversations in these closed door meetings were far worse than anything Southern Baptists knew — or the outside world could report.”

In the ancient biblical story, Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce Joseph and falsely accuses him of having assaulted her.

On his last day as a Southern Baptist professional, Moore, who has served as one of the highest-profile leaders in the convention, decided to reveal specific names of key individual leaders involved in what he described as intimidation tactics.

Moore’s letter took direct aim at several members of the SBC’s Executive Committee, the group based in Nashville that runs the business of the convention and handles its finances. He described the “spiritual and psychological abuse of sexual abuse survivors by the Executive Committee itself,” as well as “a pattern of attempted intimidation of those who speak on such matters.”

Moore and Greear did not respond to requests for comment on the letter.

Russell Moore’s departure from the Southern Baptist Convention’s leadership prompts questions over its future

Three employees who work in SBC institutions, who said they needed to remain anonymous to keep their current jobs, corroborated several of the factual details of the letter. Details in the letter were also confirmed by a former employee, an abuse survivor and a prominent abuse advocate.

Moore drew national attention in 2016 when he openly criticized Trump and his evangelical supporters, and Trump responded on Twitter that Moore was “a nasty guy with no heart!”

Moore describes enormous rifts behind the scenes over the issue of how to handle sex abuse within SBC institutions. He wrote in his letter that during the last few years, he tried to smile and pretend everything was all right through his experiences.

“What [people involved] want is for us to remain silent and to live in psychological terror, to protect them by covering up what they do in darkness, while asking our constituencies to come in and to stay in the SBC,” Moore wrote.

In the letter, he refers to a “disastrous move” by some leaders to “exonerate” churches with credible allegations of negligence and mistreatment of sexual abuse survivors. “You and I were critical of such moves, believing that they jeopardized not only the gospel witness of the SBC, but also the lives of vulnerable children and others in Southern Baptist churches.”

Moore also spoke of a sexual abuse survivor whose words, he alleges, were altered by the Executive Committee staff to make it seem as though her abuse was a consensual affair. The Washington Post generally does not name victims of sexual assault without their consent, but the woman, Jennifer Lyell, a former vice president at the SBC’s Lifeway Christian Resources and once the highest-paid female executive at the SBC, said in a text message that she agreed to be identified.

Instead of reporting that she had been abused, Baptist Press, which is overseen by the Executive Committee, reported in March 2019 that Lyell had admitted being involved in a “morally inappropriate relationship” with her former professor.

Lyell, who says she has lost her job, her reputation and her health, confirmed Moore’s account of “bullying and intimidation” by the Executive Committee.

In his letter, Moore wrote that he heard someone refer to Lyell as a “whore” in a corridor at the SBC. The Executive Committee paid her a financial settlement but refused to apologize, he said.

A spokesman for the Executive Committee did not return requests for comment.

Moore’s account of Lyell’s experience was confirmed by Rachael Denhollander, a former USA gymnast who outed team doctor Larry Nassar’s serial sexual assault and has since been a prominent advocate for church abuse survivors and has helped bring attention to Lyell’s case.

“It shows the level of corruption and vile behavior that comes from the leaders in the SBC, the ones who really have the power,” said Denhollander, whose husband is a PhD student at the flagship SBC seminary Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

On Friday evening, The Post reached out to the individuals named in the letter, most of whom declined to comment or did not respond by Saturday late morning. Rolland Slade, chairman of the Executive Committee, wrote in a text message his support for Moore. . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by Leisureguy

6 June 2021 at 7:42 am

Nestlé Document Says Majority of Its Food Portfolio is Unhealthy

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The Financial Times article is behind a paywall, but Slashdot has a quote posted by msmash:

The world’s largest food company, Nestlé, has acknowledged that more than 60% of its mainstream food and drinks products do not meet a “recognised definition of health” and that “some of our categories and products will never be ‘healthy’ no matter how much we renovate.” Financial Times:

A presentation circulated among top executives this year, seen by the Financial Times, says only 37 per cent of Nestlé’s food and beverages by revenues, excluding products such as pet food and specialised medical nutrition, achieve a rating above 3.5 under Australia’s health star rating system. This system scores foods out of five stars and is used in research by international groups such as the Access to Nutrition Foundation. Nestlé, the maker of KitKats, Maggi noodles, and Nescafe, describes the 3.5 star threshold as a “recognised definition of health.”

Within its overall food and drink portfolio, about 70 per cent of Nestlé’s food products failed to meet that threshold, the presentation said, along with 96 per cent of beverages — excluding pure coffee — and 99 per cent of Nestlé’s confectionery and ice cream portfolio. Water and dairy products scored better, with 82 per cent of waters and 60 per cent of dairy meeting the threshold.

Written by Leisureguy

5 June 2021 at 9:38 pm

The Lost Prophet of California Agriculture

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Charlie Siler has a well-illustrated and very interesting article in Craftsmanship magazine. He writes:

  1. Lessons of The Dust Bowl
  2. The Joys of Tinkering
  3. The Search For The Perfect Machine
  4. What Could Have Been

Al Ruozi, age 97, is a high-school dropout from Bakersfield, California, who made his living selling farm machinery that he designed and welded together, using handmade machinery that he built himself, in a building that he and his brother assembled. His primary invention, created in the 1950s, was a machine that gave cotton farmers a better way to clear their land. While little-known in the U.S., Ruozi’s invention has been emulated around the world, leading the way to a new generation of farm equipment that can save water, improve soil quality, and maybe even fight climate change.

“Al Ruozi was the inspiration for much of the innovation that happened over the next 30 years,” says Jeff Mitchell, a conservation specialist in the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis.

Bakersfield was a harsh place in the 1930s, when Ruozi quit school to help out on the family farm. The dust storms of the U.S. prairies had sent thousands of farmers west to California in search of jobs and land. The country was still recovering from the Great Depression, with unemployment improving only after 1933, when it peaked at 25 percent.

The Okies in the shantytowns of Bakersfield had to contend with hostile locals and inadequate sanitation that sometimes led to dysentery, impetigo or hookworm. In December 1936, concern about disease led a group of Bakersfield citizens to burn down an Okie slum that housed 1,500 people.

LESSONS OF THE DUST BOWL

We now know that the seeds of the Dust Bowl were sown in the 1920s, when the virgin topsoil of the Great Plains was broken by gasoline-driven plows, destroying native grasses and ruining the ability of the land to hold itself together, and thus retain moisture. In the 1930s, the ecological payback of the disaster wasn’t as clear as it is today. Yet somehow, the lessons of the prairies’ raging dust storms were not completely lost on a teenaged Ruozi. He saw that land could be ruined, and he suspected that the plow was to blame.

He nursed his concerns as he worked behind a horse-drawn plow, tilling his family’s land by slashing into the compacted dirt with the very practice that had contributed to the plight of the refugees huddled in squalid camps a few miles away. “The idea hit me,” he recalled during a recent conversation in his Bakersfield office. “I thought, why is the ground so hard?” Ruozi resolved to find a way to make it more “pliable.”

He got his chance about a decade later, when he returned to Bakersfield following some time in welding school and a stint in the Army during World War II. In 1948, Ruozi and his brother Gilbert bought and assembled a Quonset hut, one of the semi-cylindrical pre-fabricated structures that were used by the U.S. military in World War II and sold as surplus to the public afterward.

THE JOYS OF TINKERING

Ruozi called the new company Interstate Equipment and Manufacturing Corp. He worked there with his torch, using his welding skills to make potato-tillage equipment for a nearby manufacturer. All the while, he kept tinkering. “I’d pick up an old machine here or there, any time there was a scrap machine, and see if I could make it work,” Ruozi says. “I started out that way. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.”

By the early 1950s, he was making his own patented machine. He called it the . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, including some good photos.

Written by Leisureguy

4 June 2021 at 10:46 am

The empty office: what we lose when we work from home

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This piece suggests science is a social enterprise. (Later in the article, there’s some interesting overlap with issues I discussed in this post.) Gillian Tett writes in the Guardian that begins:

n the summer of 2020, Daniel Beunza, a voluble Spanish social scientist who taught at Cass business school in London, organised a stream of video calls with a dozen senior bankers in the US and Europe. Beunza wanted to know how they had run a trading desk while working from home. Did finance require flesh-and-blood humans?

Beunza had studied bank trading floors for two decades, and had noticed a paradox. Digital technologies had entered finance in the late 20th century, pushing markets into cyberspace and enabling most financial work to be done outside the office – in theory. “For $1,400 a month you can have the [Bloomberg] machine at home. You can have the best information, all the data at your disposal,” Beunza was told in 2000 by the head of one Wall Street trading desk, whom he called “Bob”. But the digital revolution had not caused banks’ offices and trading rooms to disappear. “The tendency is the reverse,” Bob said. “Banks are building bigger and bigger trading rooms.”

Why? Beunza had spent years watching financiers like Bob to find the answer. Now, during lockdown, many executives and HR departments found themselves dealing with the same issue: what is gained and what is lost when everyone is working from home? But while most finance companies focused on immediate questions such as whether employees working remotely would have still access to information, feel part of a team and be able to communicate with colleagues, Beunza thought more attention should be paid to different kinds of questions: how do people act as groups? How do they use rituals and symbols to forge a common worldview? To address practical concerns about the costs and benefits of remote working, we first need to understand these deeper issues.

Office workers make decisions not just by using models and manuals or rational, sequential logic – but by pulling in information, as groups, from multiple sources. That is why the rituals, symbols and space matter. “What we do in offices is not usually what people think we do,” Beunza told me. “It is about how we navigate the world.” And these navigation practices are poorly understood by participants like financiers – especially in a digital age.

The engineers who created the internet have always recognised that people and their rituals matter. Since it was founded in 1986, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) has provided a place for people to meet and collectively design the architecture of the web. Its members wanted to make design decisions using “rough consensus”, since they believed the internet should be an egalitarian community where anybody could participate, without hierarchies or coercion. “We reject: kings, presidents and voting. We believe in: rough consensus and running code” was, and still is, one of its key mantras.

To cultivate “rough consensus”, IETF members devised a distinctive ritual: humming. When they needed to make a crucial decision, the group asked everyone to hum to indicate “yay” or “nay” – and proceeded on the basis of which was loudest. The engineers considered this less divisive than voting.

Some of the biggest decisions about how the internet works have been made using this ritual. In March 2018, in a bland room of the Hilton Metropole on London’s Edgware Road, representatives from Google, Intel, Amazon, Qualcomm and others were gathered for an IETF meeting. They were debating a controversial issue: whether or not to adopt the “draft-rhrd-tls-tls13-visibility-01” protocol. To anybody outside the room, it might sound like gobbledegook, but this protocol was important. Measures were being introduced to make it harder for hackers to attack crucial infrastructure such as utility networks, healthcare systems and retail groups. This was a mounting concern at the time – a year or so earlier, hackers seemingly from Russia had shut down the Ukrainian power system. The proposed “visibility” protocol would signal to internet users whether or not anti-hacking tools had been installed.

For an hour the engineers debated the protocol. Some opposed telling users the tools had been installed; others insisted on it. “There are privacy issues,” one said. “It’s about nation states,” another argued. “We cannot do this without consensus.” So a man named Sean Turner – who looked like a garden gnome, with a long, snowy-white beard, bald head, glasses and checked lumberjack shirt – invoked the IETF ritual.

“We are going to hum,” he said. “Please hum now if you support adoption.” A moan rose up, akin to a Tibetan chant, bouncing off the walls of the Metropole. “Thanks. Please hum now if you oppose.” There was a much louder collective hum. “So at this point there is no consensus to adopt this,” Turner declared. The protocol was put on ice.

Most people do not even know that the IETF exists, much less that computer engineers design the web by humming. That is not because the IETF hides its work. On the contrary, its meetings are open to anyone and posted online. But phrases like “draft-rhrd-tls-tls1.3” mean most people instinctively look away, just as they did with derivatives before the 2008 financial crisis. And, as with finance, this lack of external scrutiny – and understanding – is alarming, particularly given the accelerating effects of innovations such as AI. Many of the engineers who build the technologies on which we rely are well-meaning. But they – like financiers – are prone to tunnel vision, and often fail to see that others may not share their mentality. “In a community of technological producers, the very process of designing, crafting, manufacturing and maintaining technology acts as a template and makes technology itself the lens through which the world is seen and defined,” observes Jan English-Lueck, an anthropologist who has studied Silicon Valley.

When the IETF members use humming, they are reflecting and reinforcing a distinctive worldview – their desperate hope that the internet should remain egalitarian and inclusive. That is their creation myth. But they are also signalling that human contact and context matter deeply, even in a world of computing. Humming enables them to collectively demonstrate the power of that idea. It also helps them navigate the currents of shifting opinion in their tribe and make decisions by reading a range of signals.

Humming does not sit easily with the way we imagine technology, but it highlights a crucial truth about how humans navigate the world of work, in offices, online or anywhere else: even if we think we are rational, logical creatures, we make decisions in social groups by absorbing a wide range of signals. And perhaps the best way to understand this is  . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more. (It’s a long read.)

Written by Leisureguy

3 June 2021 at 12:01 pm

Greece’s Secret to Perfect Honey

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Rob Waters has an interesting article in Craftsmanship magazine, which begins:

  1. Greece’s Potent Herbs
  2. Honey from Tree Sap
  3. Bee Wizard at Work
  4. Honey’s Professional Allure
  5. The “Mystery” Behind Bee Colony Collapse
  6. The Forgotten Bees
  7. Natural Farming, Unique Flavors
  8. A Mystical Connection

Few countries love honey and revere beekeepers more than Greece, and perhaps no country has a deeper history in this craft. According to mythology, Greece’s first keeper of bees was the demigod Aristaeus, who was said to have learned beekeeping as a child from the Nymphs who raised him, and to later pass his knowledge to humans. He “invented the riddled hive… and made a settled place for the labors of the wandering bees,” wrote the poet Nonnus in his epic fifth-century poem, “Dionysiaca”. Nonnus also credited Aristaeus with developing the first beekeeping suit, and to have been reared on nectar and ambrosia, the honey-based foods of the gods.

Mythology aside, beekeeping may have come to Greece as early as 1500 BCE, when laws promulgated by the Hittites outlined the punishment for theft of a hive (5 shekels of silver, about the same as for stealing a sheep). In Athens, archaeologists have excavated cylindrical hives, made from pottery dating to 400 BCE, which often were reused as coffins for children.

Today, the average Greek consumes approximately 3.6 pounds of honey a year, the largest amount per capita in the European Union and more than double the U.S. consumption. According to a 2013 study, Greece has the greatest density of bee colonies in Europe, with 11.4 colonies per square kilometer. (The U.S., by comparison, averages only one colony in twice that amount of land.) The country also produces some of the finest honey in the world. At the 2019 London Honey Awards, judges bestowed prizes on 17 Greek honey producers, crowning them with three of five possible platinum awards.

While bee colonies in the U.S. have been famously dying at a catastrophic rate for at least 10 years, dragging down American honey production, Greece’s honey industry has remained stable, producing honey that is widely praised. Indeed, Greek scientists have found that bee colonies on Mount Olympus, mythical home of the 12 Greek gods, produce several varieties of honey that are among the most potent in the world, containing antibacterial, antioxidant, and anti-cancer properties.

With the Greek economy still reeling from its years-long debt crisis, and unemployment hovering dangerously around 17 to 18 percent, beekeeping is still flourishing—an economic refuge for some, and a growing cottage industry.

I’ve come to Greece to understand why this country has so many prospering bees and beekeepers, and why theirs is so widely ranked as some of the most flavorful, potent, and healthful honey in the world. I also want to learn why Greece has largely avoided the catastrophic die-off of honeybees that has afflicted so many other countries—and what lessons Greek practices might yield for those countries. My questions went well beyond gastronomic concerns. In July, 2019, the Earthwatch Institute declared the honeybee “the most important living being on earth.” The reason: 70 percent of the world’s agriculture depends on bees, yet we’ve managed to let this insect’s population decline so dramatically that bees are now considered an endangered species.

My efforts to answer these questions took me all over Greece, from the craggy, southwestern reaches of the Peloponnese peninsula in southern Greece, to Karditsa, a small, bicycle-friendly city in the center of the country, and finally to Amorgos, a narrow island shaped like a comma in the Aegean Sea.

GREECE’S POTENT HERBS

My journey begins with a drive into the Taygetos Mountains in the Peloponnese with Kostas Stagakis, an organic beekeeper and farmer, and his friend and fellow beekeeper, Kostas Perdikeas. I’m jammed into the back seat of Perdikeas’s four-wheel drive pickup truck with my interpreter for the day, Vivi Letsou, the owner of Zen Rocks Mani, the yoga retreat center that is housing me. Perdikeas swerves around fallen boulders and charges over deep ruts, tossing Letsou and me around in the back seat. He’s stocky, bearded, and wears mirrored sunglasses, making him look like a rugby player, or an off-duty mercenary.

As we ascend into the Taygetos, we pass . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

3 June 2021 at 11:16 am

A Military Drone With A Mind Of Its Own Was Used In Combat, U.N. Says

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Highly recommended: Kill Decision and also influx, by Daniel Suarez (and I would also highly recommend his other books, including the duology Daemon and Freedom™). Joe Hernandez reports for NPR:

Military-grade autonomous drones can fly themselves to a specific location, pick their own targets and kill without the assistance of a remote human operator. Such weapons are known to be in development, but until recently there were no reported cases of autonomous drones killing fighters on the battlefield.

Now, a United Nations report about a March 2020 skirmish in the military conflict in Libya says such a drone, known as a lethal autonomous weapons system — or LAWS — has made its wartime debut. But the report does not say explicitly that the LAWS killed anyone.

“If anyone was killed in an autonomous attack, it would likely represent an historic first known case of artificial intelligence-based autonomous weapons being used to kill,” Zachary Kallenborn wrote in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

The assault came during fighting between the U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord and forces aligned with Gen. Khalifa Haftar, according to the report by the U.N. Panel of Experts on Libya.

“Logistics convoys and retreating [Haftar-affiliated forces] were subsequently hunted down and remotely engaged by the unmanned combat aerial vehicles or the lethal autonomous weapons systems such as the STM Kargu-2 … and other loitering munitions,” the panel wrote.

he Kargu-2 is an attack drone made by the Turkish company STM that can be operated both autonomously and manually and that purports to use “machine learning” and “real-time image processing” against its targets.

The U.N. report goes on: “The lethal autonomous weapons systems were programmed to attack targets without requiring data connectivity between the operator and the munition: in effect, a true ‘fire, forget and find’ capability.”

“Fire, forget and find” refers to a weapon that once fired can guide itself to its target.

The idea of a “killer robot” has moved from fantasy to reality

Drone warfare itself is not new. For years, military forces and rebel groups have used remote-controlled aircraft to carry out reconnaissance, target infrastructure and attack people. The U.S. in particular has used drones extensively to kill militants and destroy physical targets.

Azerbaijan used armed drones to gain a major advantage over Armenia in recent fighting for control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Just last month, the Israel Defense Forces reportedly used drones to drop tear gas on protesters in the occupied West Bank, while Hamas launched loitering munitions — so-called kamikaze drones — into Israel.

What’s new about the incident in Libya, if confirmed, is . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by Leisureguy

2 June 2021 at 3:34 pm

America Has a Drinking Problem

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I have gradually come to recognize that alcohol undermines constancy of purpose. A recovering alcoholic warned me when I was still in college, “Alcohol is sneaky.” He meant that you can think things are going well, but if alcohol is part of one’s daily diet, I would say that person is at serious risk. In recent years my consumption of alcohol has been minimal. I am not a teetotaler, but I drink very little and most weeks not at all.

Kate Julian writes in the Atlantic:

Few things are more American than drinking heavily. But worrying about how heavily other Americans are drinking is one of them.

The Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock because, the crew feared, the Pilgrims were going through the beer too quickly. The ship had been headed for the mouth of the Hudson River, until its sailors (who, like most Europeans of that time, preferred beer to water) panicked at the possibility of running out before they got home, and threatened mutiny. And so the Pilgrims were kicked ashore, short of their intended destination and beerless. William Bradford complained bitterly about the latter in his diary that winter, which is really saying something when you consider what trouble the group was in. (Barely half would survive until spring.) Before long, they were not only making their own beer but also importing wine and liquor. Still, within a couple of generations, Puritans like Cotton Mather were warning that a “flood of RUM” could “overwhelm all good Order among us.”

George Washington first won elected office, in 1758, by getting voters soused. (He is said to have given them 144 gallons of alcohol, enough to win him 307 votes and a seat in Virginia’s House of Burgesses.) During the Revolutionary War, he used the same tactic to keep troops happy, and he later became one of the country’s leading whiskey distillers. But he nonetheless took to moralizing when it came to other people’s drinking, which in 1789 he called “the ruin of half the workmen in this Country.

Hypocritical though he was, Washington had a point. The new country was on a bender, and its drinking would only increase in the years that followed. By 1830, the average American adult was consuming about three times the amount we drink today. An obsession with alcohol’s harms understandably followed, starting the country on the long road to Prohibition.

[Hypocrisy is a serious accusation that should not be lightly made. If an automobile manufacturer — or a typical driver — made a statement opposing speeding or reckless driving, I would not see that as hypocrisy. For a brewer or distiller to state that drinking excessively is bad does not seem hypocritical to me, any more than a restaurateur or grocer stating that gluttony is bad. It seems to me that the author did not think through that accusation. – LG  Postscript: It occurs to me that perhaps people nowadays do not understand how bad hypocrisy is. Perhaps the term has weakened through being used too frequently and/or inappropriately. But hypocrisy is a serious failing indeed, and a hypocrite weakens the social fabric though a basic dishonesty.]

What’s distinctly American about this story is not alcohol’s prominent place in our history (that’s true of many societies), but the zeal with which we’ve swung between extremes. Americans tend to drink in more dysfunctional ways than people in other societies, only to become judgmental about nearly any drinking at all. Again and again, an era of overindulgence begets an era of renunciation: Binge, abstain. Binge, abstain.

Right now we are lurching into another of our periodic crises over drinking, and both tendencies are on display at once. Since the turn of the millennium, alcohol consumption has risen steadily, in a reversal of its long decline throughout the 1980s and ’90s. Before the pandemic, some aspects of this shift seemed sort of fun, as long as you didn’t think about them too hard. In the 20th century, you might have been able to buy wine at the supermarket, but you couldn’t drink it in the supermarket. Now some grocery stores have wine bars, beer on tap, signs inviting you to “shop ’n’ sip,” and carts with cup holders.

Actual bars have decreased in number, but drinking is acceptable in all sorts of other places it didn’t used to be: Salons and boutiques dole out cheap cava in plastic cups. Movie theaters serve alcohol, Starbucks serves alcohol, zoos serve alcohol. Moms carry coffee mugs that say things like this might be wine, though for discreet day-drinking, the better move may be one of the new hard seltzers, a watered-down malt liquor dressed up—for precisely this purpose—as a natural soda.

Even before COVID-19 arrived on our shores, the consequences of all this were catching up with us. From 1999 to 2017, the number of alcohol-related deaths in the U.S. doubled, to more than 70,000 a year—making alcohol one of the leading drivers of the decline in American life expectancy. These numbers are likely to get worse: During the pandemic, frequency of drinking rose, as did sales of hard liquor. By this February, nearly a quarter of Americans said they’d drunk more over the past year as a means of coping with stress.

Explaining these trends is hard; they defy so many recent expectations. Not long ago, Millennials were touted as the driest generation—they didn’t drink much as teenagers, they were “sober curious,” they were so admirably focused on being well—and yet here they are day-drinking White Claw and dying of cirrhosis at record rates. Nor does any of this appear to be an inevitable response to 21st-century life: Other countries with deeply entrenched drinking problems, among them Britain and Russia, have seen alcohol use drop in recent years.

Media coverage, meanwhile, has swung from cheerfully overselling the (now disputed) health benefits of wine to screeching that no amount of alcohol is safe, ever; it might give you cancer and it will certainly make you die before your time. But even those who are listening appear to be responding in erratic and contradictory ways. Some of my own friends—mostly 30- or 40-something women, a group with a particularly sharp uptick in drinking—regularly declare that they’re taking an extended break from drinking, only to fall off the wagon immediately. One went from extolling the benefits of Dry January in one breath to telling me a funny story about hangover-cure IV bags in the next. A number of us share the same (wonderful) doctor, and after our annual physicals, we compare notes about the ever nudgier questions she asks about alcohol. “Maybe save wine for the weekend?” she suggests with a cheer so forced she might as well be saying, “Maybe you don’t need to drive nails into your skull every day?”

What most of us want to know, coming out of the pandemic, is this: Am I drinking too much? And: How much are other people drinking? And: Is alcohol actually that bad?

The answer to all these questions turns, to a surprising extent, not only on how much you drink, but on how and where and with whom you do it. But before we get to that, we need to consider a more basic question, one we rarely stop to ask: Why do we drink in the first place? By we, I mean Americans in 2021, but I also mean human beings for the past several millennia.

Let’s get this out of the way: Part of the answer is “Because it is fun.” Drinking releases endorphins, the natural opiates that are also triggered by, among other things, eating and sex. Another part of the answer is “Because we can.” Natural selection has endowed humans with the ability to drink most other mammals under the table. Many species have enzymes that break alcohol down and allow the body to excrete it, avoiding death by poisoning. But about 10 million years ago, a genetic mutation left our ancestors with a souped-up enzyme that increased alcohol metabolism 40-fold.

This mutation occurred around the time that a major climate disruption transformed the landscape of eastern Africa, eventually leading to widespread extinction. In the intervening scramble for food, the leading theory goes, our predecessors resorted to eating fermented fruit off the rain-forest floor. Those animals that liked the smell and taste of alcohol, and were good at metabolizing it, were rewarded with calories. In the evolutionary hunger games, the drunk apes beat the sober ones.

But even presuming that this story of natural selection is right, it doesn’t explain why, 10 million years later, I like wine so much. “It should puzzle us more than it does,” Edward Slingerland writes in his wide-ranging and provocative new book, Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization, “that one of the greatest foci of human ingenuity and concentrated effort over the past millennia has been the problem of how to get drunk.” The damage done by alcohol is profound: impaired cognition and motor skills, belligerence, injury, and vulnerability to all sorts of predation in the short run; damaged livers and brains, dysfunction, addiction, and early death as years of heavy drinking pile up. As the importance of alcohol as a caloric stopgap diminished, why didn’t evolution eventually lead us away from drinking—say, by favoring genotypes associated with hating alcohol’s taste? That it didn’t suggests that alcohol’s harms were, over the long haul, outweighed by some serious advantages.

Versions of this idea have recently bubbled up at academic conferences and in scholarly journals and anthologies (largely to the credit of the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar). Drunk helpfully synthesizes the literature, then underlines its most radical implication: Humans aren’t merely built to get buzzed—getting buzzed helped humans build civilization. Slingerland is not unmindful of alcohol’s dark side, and his exploration of when and why its harms outweigh its benefits will unsettle some American drinkers. Still, he describes the book as “a holistic defense of alcohol.” And he announces, early on, that “it might actually be good for us to tie one on now and then.”

Slingerland is a professor at the University of British Columbia who, for most of his career, has specialized in ancient Chinese religion and philosophy. In a conversation this spring, I remarked that it seemed odd that he had just devoted several years of his life to a subject so far outside his wheelhouse. He replied that alcohol isn’t quite the departure from his specialty that it might seem; as he has recently come to see things, intoxication and religion are parallel puzzles, interesting for very similar reasons. As far back as his graduate work at Stanford in the 1990s, he’d found it bizarre that across all cultures and time periods, humans went to such extraordinary (and frequently painful and expensive) lengths to please invisible beings.

In 2012, Slingerland and several scholars in other fields won a big grant to study religion from an evolutionary perspective. In the years since, . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, and it’s interesting.

Written by Leisureguy

2 June 2021 at 12:29 pm

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