Later On

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

Archive for the ‘Business’ Category

Willem Dafoe Breaks Down His Career, from ‘The Boondock Saints’ to ‘Spider-Man’

leave a comment »

Written by Leisureguy

24 January 2022 at 3:48 pm

Posted in Business, Movies & TV

“Multitasking Isn’t Progress—It’s What Wild Animals Do for Survival”

with 2 comments

Ted Gioia writes:

I plan to write a series of posts outlining some unconventional or dissident conceptual frameworks I’ve found useful in understanding contemporary society.

These aren’t the usual tired ideas or dead metaphors already familiar to us. I won’t even mention those stale truisms, because you already know every one of them—in fact, we would all probably be better off forgetting them.

Fewer things are more destructive than a dead-end concept. They are much like dead-end roads—they take you on a trip to nowhere. They provide an illusion of motion, but actually bring you further away from any useful destination.

The concepts I’m sharing are less familiar, and all the more valuable for that reason. They have forced me to look at everyday situations in new ways, requiring me to challenge some of my own preconceptions and attitudes. Even when they fail to encompass all of a particular reality, they still add value by disrupting the labels and assumptions that I use—and all of us use—to navigate through day-to-day life.

In this installment, I want to focus on Byung-Chul Han’s concept of the Burnout Society.

Han is one of the most significant German philosophers of our time, but his background is unusual. He was born in Seoul, South Korea in 1959, and studied metallurgy before moving to Germany to immerse himself in philosophy, theology, and literature. He received his doctorate in 1994, writing his dissertation on Martin Heidegger. His philosophy career didn’t start in earnest until his forties, yet he has now published at least twenty books.

Until recently, Han gave no interviews. In a celebrity-driven culture, he refuses to play the game, remaining stubbornly reluctant to discuss his own life and personal background. But that hasn’t prevented him from gaining a large audience, much broader than you might imagine a German philosopher attracting in the current day.  His lectures draw a capacity audience, and his ideas are now crossing over into other disciplines. In particular, a number of people in the art and culture world have started to pay close attention to his concepts and opinions.

Those who have read my book Music; A Subversive History may recall my use of Han’s aesthetic concepts—notably his view that the cult of smoothness is the defining quality of contemporary art. He applies this concept to everything from the design of the iPhone, with its comforting smooth contours, to the Brazilian bikini wax, which aims at a similar endpoint on our bodies.

In this instance, I want to focus on a different concept, namely Han’s notion that we are living in a “Burnout Society” that causes a wide range of characteristic dysfunctions and ailments. These are difficult for society to address because the assumptions built into our inquiries are actually causing these problems.

What follows below is mostly from Han, but reframed and focused by some of my own ideas.


.
THE BURNOUT SOCIETY

Everywhere around us we see the signs: depression, burnout, hyperactivity, anxiety, self-harm. Sometimes the disorders get classified as medical syndromes with impressive acronyms, such as ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) or CFS (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) or BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder).

In other cases—a suicide or fatal breakdown, for example—things have gone too far for even medical intervention. All the acronyms in the world won’t help you then. But in every instance, something similar can be seen: the victims are at war with themselves.

That’s misleading, Han would say. They only seem to be the instigators of their problems, which are coming from . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

This reminds of something I’ve come to realize in recent years. FOMO (fear of missing out) is pointless because you (and I and any individual) will miss out — inevitably. There is too much in the world — and even too much in human culture or even just in our own particular culture — to absorb. You (and I) will miss out on many more things than we don’t miss out on.

I blogged recently about two brief videos about areas of knowledge and activity on which I’ve totally miss out in the sense of having concrete and specific knowledge, experience, and skill: making movies and making small airplanes. I watched those two videos with fascination because they showed me how much i’ve missed out on in just those two specific areas.

I’ve made my peace with that, and I focus on enjoying (and doing as well as I can, which is generally far short of expertise) things I do encounter and like. Rather than being frustrated by all that I’m missing, I luxuriate in all that I have. That seems the sensible choice, given the ineluctable realities of life. I leap joyously into those things I am not missing out on, and I continue to pay attention to what I encounter, and occasionally seize onto something new (fermenting vegetables, for example).

I believe it’s a big mistake to miss what you actually encounter because your attention is focused on worry about things you’re missing. We taste but a tiny sliver of what life has to offer, so it’s important to enjoy the slice we get.

Written by Leisureguy

24 January 2022 at 12:13 pm

Newsletter Natural Selection

leave a comment »

Slime Mold Time Mold has a very interesting post, which begins:

Apparently, Substack wants to destroy newspapers. And maybe that would be good — maybe it would be good for journalism to be democratized, for bloggers to inherit the earth. Of course we’re bloggers and not newspapers, so maybe we’re biased.

Obviously it would be great if someone came up with a set of blogging and newsletter tools that were just amazing, that were the clear front-runner, that outperformed every other platform. We’d love it if the technical problems were all solved and we just had a perfect set of blogging tools.

But if everyone ends up on the same platform, well, that’s kind of dangerous. If one company controls the whole news & blogging industry, they can blacklist whoever they want, and can squeeze users as much as they want.

Even if you think Substack has a good track record, there’s no way they can guarantee that they won’t squeeze their writers once they control the market. Even if you trust the current management, at some point they will all retire, or all die, or the company will be bought by wesqueezeusers.biz, and then you’re shit outta luck.

Substack just can’t make a credible commitment that makes it impossible for them to abuse their power if they get a monopoly. You have to take them at their word. But since management can change, you can’t even really do that. They just can’t bind their hands convincingly.

But there may be some very unusual business models that would fix this problem. 

On the Origin of Substacks

Imagine there’s a “Substack” company that commits itself to breaking in half every time it gets 100,000 users (or something), creating two child companies. Each company ends up with 50,000 users. All the blogs with even-numbered IDs go to Substack A, and all the blogs with odd-numbered IDs go to Substack B. The staff gets split among these two companies, and half of them move to a new office. Both companies retain the same policy of breaking in half once they hit that milestone again — an inherited, auto-trust-busting mechanism.

(Splitting into exactly two companies wouldn’t have to be a part of the commitment. They could equally choose to break up into Substack Red, Substack Blue, and Substack Yellow: Special Pikachu Edition.)

In addition, a core part of the product would be high-quality, deeply integrated tools to switch from one of these branches to another. Probably this would involve an easy way to export all your posts and a list of your subscribers to some neutral file format (maybe a folder full of markdown, css, and csv files), and to import them from the same format into a new blog. If you end up in Substack B and you want to be in Substack A instead (your favorite developer works there or something), the product would make it very easy to switch, maybe to the point of being able to switch at the push of a button.

To help with this, the third and final commitment of the company, and all child companies, would be to . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more — and no paywall. And it’s intriguing — and something a company could easily do.

What I like is that it harnesses the power of cultural evolution in a way that supports the common welfare.

Written by Leisureguy

23 January 2022 at 5:25 pm

Situation Report: Killing off the Libertarian Hellscape Timeline

leave a comment »

Dave Troy’s Situation Reports are always worth reading. Here’s the latest.

Written by Leisureguy

23 January 2022 at 5:04 pm

Matt Stoller’s Open Thread: Have You Ever Been Through a Merger?

leave a comment »

Matt Stoller has an interesting open thread, which he introduces with this:

Last week, Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan and Department of Justice Antitrust Division chief Jonathan Kanter announced they are going to revise merger policy, and they want public input before doing so. Therefore, today’s open thread for paid subscribers is about mergers. Have you been through a merger? Orchestrated a merger? Dealt with a customer or supplier going through a merger? What was it like? Do you have any broader observations about corporate combinations?

Here are my experiences.

In my first job out of college, the tiny company at which I worked went through a merger. This was during the dot com boom, and we were floating on venture capital trying to find a business model. Our CEO came upon a small but profitable company that made accounting software in a niche area. The founders wanted to get out of the business because they had been running the company for twenty years and sought to retire, and we seemed like a good energetic group who could take over. So we bought it, and instantly became profitable.

You’d think this would be a great situation. But with little industry background, we flailed around for a year, enraging customers and partners. Our product ‘upgrade’ made the software worse, which became clear when we had to deal with significant customer service issues involving bugs, incompatible systems, and just bad accounting. As a 23 year old, I ended up being told to fire seven people that year, including people 20 years older with more wisdom and insight (as well as more responsibilities).

We eventually cleaned up the mess, but the experience stuck with me as I learned more about antitrust and corporate strategy. Since the 1980s, economists have come to believe that mergers are nearly always good, that the combined firms are more efficient. When I learned that the bedrock assumption behind antitrust economics is that mergers are nearly always efficient, I thought it was a joke. But it’s not.

The merger I went through was a best-case scenario. It involved a small firm passing from one generation to the next, without any real problems involving monopolization. And yet there was a massive loss of efficiency if only because the new team had to learn the business. For bigger mergers, and mergers involving private equity-type transactions, mergers are often value-destructive. In 2018, for instance, AT&T fought the government’s antitrust division for the right to buy Time Warner, and won. The combo turned into a giant turf battle among executives, management consultants crawled all over the place, sucking out cash, and finally three years later, AT&T is undoing the transaction on which they wasted tens of billions of dollars. That’s the usual story (plus the $400M golden parachute for the Time Warner CEO, which is unfortunately also quite common).

But some mergers are far worse than just a waste of resources. I encountered one of these when I was a staffer in the Senate. When Office Depot and Staples were trying to merge, the CEO of a 150-person firm that sold to office supply stores came to my office and asked for help stopping the deal. The buyer who dealt with his particular product category at Staples was a 25 year-old kid who didn’t like him, and wanted to source from China. If Staples got control of Office Depot, his business would die. He told me most of the office supply industry agreed with this assessment, but all of them were too afraid to speak out for fear of retaliation. He begged me to keep the visit a secret. Fortunately, a judge blocked the Staples-Office Depot combination.

But this kind of weird uneconomic transaction, where large amounts of power are put in the hands of random unqualified corporate actors, is  . . .

Continue reading. And comment.

Written by Leisureguy

22 January 2022 at 2:42 pm

How Predator Priests Avoid Jail

leave a comment »

The previous post contains a detailed example of how a large and strongly hierarchical organization failed its expressed ideals, and this video describes another large and strongly hierarchical organizations failure in ts expressed ideals. It seems to me the source of the problem is not the size — even small organizations, as small as a family, sometimes provide glaring examples — but the strong hierarchy. The families that fail — for example, Amish families that conduct and conceal the rape of their children — are also typically strongly hierarchical. 

Something about a strong hierarchy corrupts those to whom the hierarchy delivers power — perhaps it’s as simply as Lord Acton’s dictum that power corrupts, perhaps because those near the top see themselves as free from rules that apply to the lower ranks, granting themselves privileges by virtue of their position. The lesson is clear: beware strong hierarchies.

Written by Leisureguy

21 January 2022 at 3:07 pm

Don’t choose extinction

leave a comment »

Written by Leisureguy

21 January 2022 at 12:09 pm

The last design you’ll ever make

leave a comment »

The original Östereich Post KS 1952

Interaction Magic has a lengthy and well-illustrated article on the right to repair. It begins:

In the summer of 1950, a secret team of Austrian engineers embarked on project Nr. 121. From the basement of their Östereich Post headquarters, they set out to define a global benchmark in sustainable product design. The KS1952 Telephone that followed was a huge commercial success, influencing half a century of consumer electronics innovation and spawning the famous German Langzeitdesign (“Long term design”) movement.

You’ve never heard of this, because it’s complete fiction. The telephone is real and inside it’s a masterclass in design for repair. But instead of half a decade of global Langzeitdesign, we’ve waited almost seventy years for the growing right to repair movement to propel via grassroots movementscafesclinicsfestivals and (slowly) EU law into the mainstream.

To conserve the resources we have, repairing products to extend their lifespan is critical as there are currently no viable alternatives. Re-manufacturing of electronics has yet to appear at any significant scale. In the UK, less than 10% of all plastic is actually recycled. Microsoft’s Ocean Plastic Mouse might look cute, but if you really cared about the oceans you’d be best off not buying a new mouse at all.

Designers were brought up to design from cradle to grave. Our new challenge is to postpone that grave as long as we can.

How can we design the last product our customers will ever need buy?

Designing for a right to repair

From Teslas to insulin pumps, whether you design for it or not, the products we make will get opened up and repaired.

Consciously designing for repair needs three parts:

  1. A supply chain of replacement parts
  2. Design for re-assembly
  3. Accessible documentation

For consumer electronics, extending the product’s lifespan traditionally relied on ability of the manufacturer to supply replacement parts. Little Henry Hoover sets the benchmark here. This charming British design icon has 75 components, almost all of which can be used to repair the original 1981 design.

Unlike vacuum cleaners, consumers tend to notice meaningful improvements in the capabilities of smartphones every 3-5 years. Fairphone launched the Fairphone 1 in December 2013. They rightly deserve praise for a business built on lowering their environmental impact, from material sourcing and labour conditions to modularity and repairability. Despite these best intentions, Fairphone managed only 4 years of spare parts until the impact of managing a growing supply chain of obsolescence forced their hand.

Repair not replace is nothing new. We’ve been doing this for hundreds of years for economic, if not environmental, reasons. Yet problems arise when we depend on the manufacturer’s own parts for repair. Right to repair is as much mindset shift as engineering challenge and retaining all of the power with manufacturers is little better than providing no repair option at all.

Brands and manufacturers must learn the benefits that arise when they relinquish control of the repair process to their customers. As designers, our brief is simple. We must design for repair, assuming we’ll no longer be there to help.

And it all starts with  …

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

19 January 2022 at 1:32 pm

The Texas Electric Grid Failure Was a Warm-up

leave a comment »

Russell Gold reports in the Texas Monthly:

Anthony Mecke had drifted to sleep in the break room when a loud knock roused him at 1:23 a.m. “We just got the call,” a coworker said.

Mecke, a moonfaced 45-year-old, is the manager of systems operation training at CPS Energy, the city-owned electricity provider that serves San Antonio. He started at the company not long after high school, working at one point as a cable splicer, a job he performed in hot tunnels beneath the sidewalks of San Antonio. He thought he’d seen it all. But when he hustled from the break room, where he’d sneaked in a power nap after an all-day shift, into the company’s cavernous control room, housed in a tornado-proof building on the city’s East Side, what he witnessed unsettled him.

This was Monday, February 15, 2021. A winter storm had brought unusually frigid temperatures to the entire middle swath of the United States, from the Canadian border to the Rio Grande. In San Antonio, it dropped to 9 degrees. In Fort Worth, the storm’s icy arrival a few days earlier had led to a 133-vehicle pileup that left 6 dead. Abilene and Pflugerville had advised residents to boil their water, the first of thousands of such warnings that would eventually affect 17 million Texans. Across the state, families hunkered down and did anything they could to stay warm. The overwhelming majority of Texas homes are outfitted with electric heaters that are the technological equivalent of a toaster oven. During the most severe cold fronts, residents crank up those inefficient units, and some even turn on and open electric ovens and use hair dryers.

Mecke could track the spiking energy use in real time. One wall of the control room is covered in enormous computer monitors displaying maps and data. He scanned for one particular piece of information. The state’s electricity reserves, which are tapped to prevent emergencies, were already depleted. The problem wasn’t just surging demand. Power plants all across the grid were shutting off, incapacitated by frozen equipment and a dearth of natural gas, the primary source of fuel.

The Texas power grid was, at that moment, like an airplane low on fuel that needed to jettison cargo to stay aloft. That’s what the call had been about. The state’s grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, had just told CPS Energy and fifteen of the state’s other electric utility companies to immediately begin turning off power for portions of their service areas. The result would be blackouts.

Nobody yet knew just how widespread the blackouts would become—that they would spread across almost the entire state, leave an unprecedented 11 million Texans freezing in the dark for as long as three days, and result in as many as seven hundred deaths. But neither could the governor, legislators, and regulators who are supposed to oversee the state’s electric grid claim to be surprised. They had been warned repeatedly, by experts and by previous calamities—including a major blackout in 2011—that the grid was uniquely vulnerable to cold weather.

Unlike most other states that safely endured the February 2021 storm, Texas had stubbornly declined to require winterization of its power plants and, just as critically, its natural gas facilities. In large part, that’s because the state’s politicians and the regulators they appoint are often captive to the oil and gas industry, which lavishes them with millions of dollars a year in campaign contributions. During the February freeze, the gas industry failed to deliver critically needed fuel, and while Texans of all stripes suffered, the gas industry scored windfall profits of about $11 billion—creating debts that residents and businesses will pay for at least the next decade.

Since last February, the state has  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

19 January 2022 at 1:23 pm

How coal holds on in America

leave a comment »

Cultural forces, conventions, pressures, and loyalty can result in what appears, to someone who is not a part of the culture, something that seems senseless if not outright stupid. The practice, thankfully abandoned, of footbinding in order to deform the feet, or (still practiced) female genital mutilation come to mind. Coal in North Dakota seems to be an example. Joshua Partlow reports in the Washington Post (and that’s a gift link, so no paywall):

David Saggau, the chief executive of an energy cooperative, tried to explain the losing economics of running a coal-fired power plant to a North Dakota industry group more than a year ago.

Coal Creek Station had lost $170 million in 2019 as abundant natural gas and proliferating wind projects had cut revenue far below what it cost to run the plant. After four decades sending electricity over the border to Minnesota, Coal Creek would be closing in 2022, Saggau said, and nobody was clamoring to buy it.

“We made folks aware that the plant was for sale for a dollar,” Saggau, of Great River Energy, told the Lignite Energy Council during an October 2020 virtual meeting. “We’re basically giving it away.”

A renewable future was at hand. Winds come howling over the Missouri River in the heart of North Dakota — at the site where Lewis and Clark spent their first frigid winter — and Great River Energy planned to supply wind power over Coal Creek’s valuable transmission line. NextEra Energy, EDF Renewables and other powerhouse firms were racing to lock landowners into leases to harvest some of the most powerful and sustained winds in the country.

But that new clean-energy future never materialized in this part of coal country, with a landscape that has been mined for more than a century and has the scars and sinkholes to prove it. And the sale of Coal Creek Station, which received its last major permit approval earlier this month, illuminates the United States’ halting transition to renewables. Even in places such as North Dakota, where supply and demand align with clean energy, culture and politics pose major obstacles.

In these rural North Dakota counties, local officials passed ordinances that blocked wind and solar projects. State officials rallied to save Coal Creek, and a politically connected North Dakota energy firm stepped in to prolong its life, promising someday to capture its carbon emissions and store them underground.

“I’m not just looking to prop up coal,” Stacy Tschider, the president of Rainbow Energy Marketing Corp., said in July when his company announced it was buying the plant. “I’m looking to take coal to the next level.”

During the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow in the fall, conference head Alok Sharma declared that “the end of coal is in sight.” More than 40 countries pledged to phase out coal, the single-biggest source of atmosphere-warming carbon dioxide emissions. The United States did not join them. Despite its rapid decline, coal still generates about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity and has strong political backing in pockets of the country.

Charles Stroup, a local banker and land agent who supports wind power in North Dakota’s Mercer County, compared the coal industry here to a dying relative that the community is desperate to save, no matter how grim the prognosis.

“Mother doesn’t die in 10 minutes,” Stroup said. “She takes a while.”

For many here, the loss of coal remains unthinkable, and new sources of energy — no matter how promising for local residents and governments — represent a serious threat.

“If we get the word that [Coal Creek Station] is gone for sure, the best business and economic play for the lignite counties and the State is to ban any more renewables,” McLean County state’s attorney Ladd Erickson wrote in an email in 2020 to aides to North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum (R) and Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), part of a batch of documents obtained through a state public records request.

Otherwise, Erickson, an elected official who serves as prosecutor and legal adviser to the county commissioners, warned that “there will be no more coal mining because new mine areas will be all wind turbines, solar panels, and power lines.”

Homages to coal

The prospect of Coal Creek’s closing landed hard in Underwood, a city of about 800 people. The antiques shop on its . . .

Continue reading.(Gift link: no paywall)

The fate of human civilization is small potatoes compared to local politics and cultural allegiance. You can see now why the residents of Easter Island were able to chop down every palm on the island and thus destroy the forests that were the basis of the environment on which they depended. North Dakota proudly continues that tradition.

Written by Leisureguy

18 January 2022 at 2:54 pm

The Billionaires Funding the Coup’s Brain Trust

leave a comment »

Andy Kroll reports in Rolling Stone:

The Claremont Institute, once a little-known think tank often confused with the liberal-arts college of the same name, has emerged as a driving force in the conservative movement’s crusade to use bogus fraud claims about the 2020 election to rewrite voting laws and remake the election system in time for the 2022 midterms and 2024 presidential election. Most infamously, one of the group’s legal scholars crafted memos outlining a plan for how then-Vice President Mike Pence could potentially overturn the last election.

Conservative mega-donors like what they see.

The biggest right-wing megadonors in America made major contributions to Claremont in 2020 and 2021, according to foundation financial records obtained by Rolling Stone. The high-profile donors include several of the most influential families who fund conservative politics and policy: the DeVoses of West Michigan, the Bradleys of Milwaukee, and the Scaifes of Pittsburgh.

The Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation donated $240,000 to Claremont in 2020 and approved another $400,000 to be paid out in the future, tax records show. The Bradley Foundation donated $100,000 to Claremont in 2020 and another $100,000 in 2021, according to tax records and a spokeswoman for the group. The Sarah Scaife Foundation, one of several charities tied to the late right-wing billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, supplied another $450,000 to Claremont in 2020, according to its latest tax filings.

Claremont’s own tax filings show that its revenue rose from 2019 to 2020 by a half-million dollars to $6.2 million, one of the highest sums since the organization was founded in 1979, according to the most recent available data. A Claremont spokesman said the group wouldn’t comment about its donors beyond publicly available data but estimated that Claremont’s revenue for the 2021 fiscal year had increased to $7.5 million.

The DeVoses, Bradleys, and Scaifes are among the most prominent donor families in conservative politics. For Bradley and Scaife, the giving to Claremont tracks with a long history of funding right-wing causes and advocacy groups, from the American Enterprise Institute think tank and the “bill mill” American Legislative Exchange Council, to anti-immigration zealot David Horowitz’s Freedom Center and the climate-denying Heartland Institute.

Bradley in particular has given heavily to groups that traffic in misleading or baseless claims about “election integrity” or widespread “voter fraud.” Thanks to a $6.5 million infusion from the Bradley Impact Fund, a related nonprofit, the undercover-sting group Project Veritas nearly doubled its revenue in 2020 to $22 million, according to the group’s tax filing. Bradley is also a long-time funder of the Heritage Foundation, which helped architect the wave of voter suppression bills introduced in state legislatures this year, and True the Vote, a conservative group that trains poll watchers and stokes fears of rampant voter fraud in the past.

The Bradley Foundation was founded in 1942 by the Bradley family. Brothers Harry and Lynde Bradley co-founded the Allen-Bradley company, which would later provide much of the funding for the Bradley Foundation. The nonprofit, which has given out more than $1 billion in its history, no longer has any Bradley family members on its board.

But while the Bradley donations are to be expected, the contributions from the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation to Claremont are perhaps more surprising. Betsy DeVos, in one of her final acts as Trump’s education secretary, condemned the “angry mob” on January 6 and said “the law must be upheld and the work of the people must go on.”

A spokesman for the DeVoses, Nick Wasmiller, said Betsy DeVos’s letter “speaks for itself.” He added: “Claremont does work in many areas. It would be baseless to assert the Foundation’s support has any connection to the one item you cite.” While the foundation’s 2020 tax filing said its grants to Claremont were unrestricted, Wasmiller said the filing was wrong and the money had been earmarked. However, he declined to say what it was earmarked for.

The donations flowing into Claremont illustrate that although the group’s full-throated support for Trump and fixation on election crimes may be extreme, they’re not fringe views when they have the backing of influential conservative funders. “Were it not for the patronage of billionaire conservatives and their family foundations, the Claremont Institute would likely be relegated to screaming about its anti-government agenda on the street corner,” says Kyle Herrig, president of government watchdog group Accountable.US.

The Claremont spokesman responded to Herrig’s comment by saying . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

16 January 2022 at 5:59 pm

Hope on the Horizon

leave a comment »

Matt Stoller writes in BIG:

“Despotism, be it financial or political, is vulnerable, unless it is believed to rest upon a moral sanction. The longing for freedom is ineradicable. It will express itself in protest against servitude and inaction unless the striving for freedom be made to seem immoral.” – Louis Brandeis, 1914

Today I’m writing about how the fight against monopolies is moving into a new stage. We’re actually starting to win some things here and there.

In the courts, the regulatory agencies, and Congress/states, the power of dominant firms is, ever so slightly, beginning to erode. It’s a weird time to say that, because politics is otherwise so dysfunctional. Retail sales are down, so is manufacturing output, inflation is at 7%, and a majority of Americans, pretty evenly across both parties, feel that democracy is in danger of collapsing. So that’s not good.

But beneath the surface, the relationship that the public with the most powerful institutions in American society – dominant corporations – is changing.

Here are eight different examples from the last week showing that monopolists are facing real headwinds.

(1) Big Tech Antitrust Trials Move Forward as Facebook Loses Motion to Dismiss
The antitrust trials against big tech are moving forward, and the government is doing well. There are two big trials, one by the Federal Trade Commission, and one by a group of state attorneys general. On Tuesday, the Federal Trade Commission won an important procedural step against Facebook. Judge Boasberg – who is not particularly friendly to antitrust enforcers – had dismissed the first agency complaint filed in 2020, but Lina Khan filed a new complaint with stronger claims. Facebook asked for another dismissal, and even more aggressively, for Khan to be recused. The judge ruled against Facebook on both counts, so the case will be going to trial. (I was on Marketplace talking about this development, which you can listen to here.)

On the second case against Facebook, with state attorneys general, the judge had ruled against them on obscure procedural grounds. In a different context, the states would have given up in a fight against one of the biggest companies in the world. This time, however, they appealed.

Meanwhile, in the Texas case against Google, a judge unsealed the price-fixing deal between Google and Facebook in which Google paid Facebook to withdraw from the third party online market, further revealing that Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg both personally signed off on the deal. Oh, and there are more details on exactly what Google was doing in its rigging of advertising auction markets, which is known in technical terms as ‘stealing.’

(2) Antitrust Law Hits Individual Executives
Martin Shkreli, the infamous pharma bro put in jail for securities fraud, was found personally liable for directing a scheme to inflate the cost of the life-saving drug Daraprim by excluding competitors from the market. A judge order him to pay $64 million, and also barred him from the pharmaceutical industry for life. More than the obnoxiousness of the villain, the precedent here matters. It’s rare for an individual to be found liable for monopolization, so this decision means that judges are getting more comfortable seeing antitrust violations as immoral behavior, instead of seeing the problem as well-meaning businessmen being a bit too zealous.

Antitrust expert Dina Srinivasan had an interesting comment. . .

Continue reading. There’s more, and we could all use some cheering up.

Written by Leisureguy

16 January 2022 at 11:10 am

Which countries produce which foods

leave a comment »

A very interesting chart at Visual Capitalist lets you select a food and then see which countries produce most of that food — for example, leeks are big in France, Turkey, and Southeast Asia. Hazelnuts? Italy and Turkey. And so on. Of course, this will change a lot as climate change progresses.

Written by Leisureguy

16 January 2022 at 7:23 am

Posted in Business, Daily life, Food

Fox News makes money from poisoning society

leave a comment »

Is it a good thing that Fox News profits from creating a toxic political environment? Not for the public, nor for the functioning of our society and government, but quite good for Rupert Murdoch and his family and shareholders. 

Read this post by Kevin Drum.

A hospital might profit from contaminating a town’s water supply. I don’t think we would want that, nor would we allow it. I do know about freedom of the press, but the press for which that freedom was guaranteed is not at all like the “press” we experience today.

I’m not sure what the right remedy would be, but doing nothing risks the breakdown of social trust and productive amity. 

Written by Leisureguy

15 January 2022 at 1:35 pm

How Airlines Quietly Became Banks

leave a comment »

Written by Leisureguy

14 January 2022 at 1:10 pm

Could Small Still Be Beautiful?

leave a comment »

Bryce T. Bauer writes in Craftsmanship:

1. “Economics as a Form of Brain Damage”
2. The Schumacher Center for a New Economics
3. The New Economics of Land Ownership
4. The New Economics of Business Financing
5. The New Economics of Currency
6. The New Economics of Entrepreneurship
7. Challenges to the New Economy

Four decades ago, just as some of the forces that have caused today’s problems with globalization and inequality began to take hold, a British economist by the name of E.F. Schumacher took America by storm with a set of contrary ideas about how an economy should work.

Schumacher aimed squarely at supporting everyday people and the communities where they lived. For a brief period in the mid-1970s, his name enjoyed headline status — and his book, “Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered,” joined a pantheon of powerful, call-to-action works of the time. Schumacher’s book was taken so seriously that, a few years after its publication, it was listed alongside such enduring critiques as Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and Paul R. Ehrlich’s “The Population Bomb.”

While “Small Is Beautiful” hasn’t endured with quite the same power those works have enjoyed, its ideas have still seeped into the thinking of some of the nation’s latter-day acolytes of social and environmental sustainability, including Wendell Berry, Jane Jacobs, and Bill McKibben. Schumacher’s work also inspired a small think-tank focused on turning the small towns and bucolic countryside of the Massachusetts Berkshires into a laboratory for further exploration of his theories.

Given how rarely Schumacher’s once-popular ideas are discussed today, one can’t help but wonder—were his perceptions all wrong? Or, as the director of the institute focused on sustaining his ideas, and as Schumacher himself also said, was their time yet to come? If the latter, might that time be now? Every day, it seems, more and more experts join the argument that the accelerating dominance of global companies — in a world struggling with income inequality, resource depletion, and the growing ravages of climate change — has put us on an unsustainable path. If that bleak outlook is correct, maybe it’s time to give Schumacher’s ideas a second look.

“ECONOMICS AS A FORM OF BRAIN DAMAGE”

When “Small Is Beautiful” came out, in 1973, Schumacher had already worked for several decades as an economist. In the years after its publication, he toured the United States speaking to crowds across the country and meeting with political leaders, including an address before 50 members of Congress and a meeting with President Jimmy Carter. At the time, America was being wrenched by many of the ills he said modern economics would cause. The 1970s was a decade marked by oil and gas shocks, labor unrest and stagflation, a growing concern over the environment, and the discord of the Vietnam War. Schumacher was attuned to what it all portended. (In fact, the first use of the term “global warming” occurred just two years after Schumacher’s book was published.) Schumacher wrote “we do well to ask why it is that all these terms — pollution, environment, ecology, etc. — have so suddenly come into prominence…is this a sudden fad, a silly fashion, or perhaps a sudden failure of nerve?”

Born in Bonn, Germany, Schumacher had fled Nazi Germany to England in 1937. During the Second World War, when Great Britain began interning Germans, including Jewish refugees, Schumacher and his family moved to the countryside, where he worked on a farm until his writing caught the notice of John Maynard Keynes, the British economist who launched the 20th century’s activist alternative to unfettered, free-market economics.

The core of Schumacher’s argument lay in his book’s subtitle: “Economics as if People Mattered.” For far too long, economists had approached the problem of development in a way that focused too much on goods over people, emphasizing the elimination of labor instead of job creation. He accused these experts of treating consumption as the end itself, always to be maximized.

In Schumacher’s view, the economy would not benefit from the standard methods of stimulation; if anything, it should be de-intensified. If this could be managed, Schumacher believed, it would allow time “for any piece of work — enough to make a really good job of it, to enjoy oneself, to produce real equality, even to make things beautiful.”

The opportunity to work this way — which is central to any artisan or tradesman, and to his or her ability to produce top-notch, innovative work — clearly has only declined further in the years since Schumacher made this observation. And if anything, his critique might be even more timely today. In a new book, “Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope,” veteran New York Times journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn argue that the growing scarcity of jobs that offer such visceral satisfactions is part of what’s plunged America’s working class into unprecedented levels of despair, drug addiction, and suicide.

To be truly helpful, Schumacher argued, development funds in poor areas should be spent on “intermediate technology” — that is, technology that’s cheap, resilient, and simple enough to be used by workers in areas that lack access to education, ready capital, and sophisticated infrastructure. Technology that’s too expensive, and too complex to be readily used in developing economies, he said, destroys “the possibilities of self-reliance.”

Whenever he traveled to speak about these ideas in the U.S., crowds met his stops — 2,000 in Chicago, 500 in Minneapolis, 200 at the Colorado School of the Mines in Golden, 600 in an overflow crowd at the Helena, Montana Civic Center — and his book was, at one point, reportedly selling 30,000 copies a month. His ideas also inspired a government “Office of Appropriate Technology” in California, where then-governor Jerry Brown introduced Schumacher during a 1977 tour of America. (That organization is still in existence, in slightly altered form in Montana, as the National Center for Appropriate Technology.) During Gov. Brown’s more idealistic days, he once said, “if you want to understand my philosophy, read this,” as he brandished a copy of “Small Is Beautiful.”

“The 60s was a generation that wanted to do things different…and there was Schumacher saying I was a conventional economist and I was mistaken,” says Susan Witt, who became the executive director and co-founder of what’s now called the E.F. Schumacher Center for a New Economics. “I didn’t take into account human beings. I didn’t take into account their spiritual lives. I didn’t take into account concern for the earth and I’ve had to re-think my economics. Those essays in ‘Small Is Beautiful’ touched a generation.”

One of those touched by Schumacher’s ideas was . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

13 January 2022 at 12:07 pm

Color in movies and TV: Where did it go? An investigation.

leave a comment »

Emily VanDerWerff reports in Vox:

If you watch a lot of movies and TV shows, you might have noticed that over the last few decades everything has gotten a lot more … gray. No matter the kind of story being told, a sheen of cool blue or gray would wash over everything, muting the colors and providing an overall veneer of serious business.

So many TV shows and movies now have a dull filter applied to every scene, one that cuts away vibrancy and trends toward a boring sameness. Every frame’s color scheme ends up feeling the same as every other frame. And when there are so many projects using similar techniques, you end up with a world of boring visuals that don’t stand out.

The best term I’ve read for this comes from incisive film Twitter member Katie Stebbins. She calls it the “intangible sludge,” and her comparison of screenshots from season one of Dexter (2006) and the new Dexter limited series (2021) underlines what she means.

Notice how in the first image, you can see the pinks of Michael C. Hall’s skin, the various blues of his shirt. But in the second, everything is muted. Hall’s skin is pale and even yellowish. His shirt is an indefinable blue/green/black/brown. A shadowy blandness coats everything.

The word that describes the look of that second picture is “desaturated.” Colors have been pulled way back, giving everything a slightly washed-out appearance, like in an old photograph. Desaturation is not in and of itself bad. It’s a tool that can be used poorly or used well. But why is it everywhere now?

There’s no one answer to that question, but here are my five best guesses as to what I think might be behind the endless desaturation of Hollywood.

Possible answer No. 1: The rise of digital color grading made it really easy to come up with all-purpose looks

Okay, things are about to get technical, but we’ll have some fun along the way. Promise.

From the dawn of color film, color timing has been an important part of moviemaking. (“Color timing” is more colloquially known as “color correction,” but people who actually work in the field don’t view it as “correction.”) When you’re filming something over multiple weeks or months, you might be piecing together a scene or sequence from bits and pieces shot over multiple days. The light might not match, or the leaves on the trees might not be the same shade of green. And if things don’t match, we’ll notice almost immediately on a subconscious level.

Hence: color timing. For most of the history of film, color correction was achieved physically, via chemicals applied to film negatives in a lab.

And pretty soon, filmmakers figured out that you could use these sorts of color shifts — whether they were created on set or in the lab — to guide an audience emotionally through a film. Cutting between scenes with wildly different color schemes could even provoke certain responses within viewers.

“It’s not just the color in any given scene. It’s how that color bumps up against the scene, that’s before and after it,” said Steve Cosens, one of the directors of photography on the new HBO Max miniseries Station Eleven. “There’s color latency. If your eye is looking at a scene, and it’s so warm that when you go to the next scene, your eye is automatically going to compensate, and it’s going to make it cooler.”

In the late 1990s, it became possible to digitally scan film negatives in a way that allowed people who would eventually become known as digital imaging technicians (henceforth a DIT) to manipulate the properties of the image. The first film to have its run scanned for this sort of manipulation was the 1998 movie Pleasantville. In that movie, two ’90s teenagers are sucked into a black-and-white 1950s sitcom world, and as they introduce things like sex and literature and weather (yes, somehow they introduce weather), elements of the town burst into color. The entire film was shot in color, then digitally converted to black and white, with a handful of elements kept in color for effect.

At the time, this was treated as hugely groundbreaking filmmaking, but the articles written about it in 1998 undersell how ubiquitous these techniques would become.

The first movie to use digital color manipulation in the way we’d think of it today — i.e., shifting the colors within a film image to meet a digitally achieved palette — is generally considered to be the 2000 Coen brothers’ Great Depression picaresque O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins knew that the Coens wanted the film to have a Dust Bowl tinge, but he also knew that the film would shoot in Mississippi in the summer, which would mean lots of lush greenery. To tilt the picture more toward the yellow sepia tone the Coens wanted, he initially thought about applying physical filters to the lens. But he found that process limiting and decided to turn to a company called Cinesite — which had just broken new ground with its work on the 1998 film Pleasantville.

The results are striking. Watch O Brother, Where Art Thou? and you will never know it was filmed in a lush, green Mississippi summer. It looks dried out and beaten to hell. Deakins and the Cinesite folks talk about that process in the following video (which is really worth a watch if you want to get into the weeds on all of this).

O Brother, Where Art Thou? showed how color grading could be used in much more subtle ways. In this case, the palette of neutrals and brown tones was subtle and desaturated,” said Dr. Jennifer O’Meara, a film professor at Trinity College Dublin, who has studied digital film coloring techniques extensively. “Notably, Deakins worked collaboratively with the colorist, Julius Friede. The specifics of their working arrangement helped to reduce fears among cinematographers that postproduction color editing would take the creative control of a film’s image track away from those who shot it.”

In 2022, nearly every movie and TV show has a dedicated DIT who works with the cinematographer and the director to figure out what an image might look like after it’s been run through a series of digital filters. As with so many technologies in film history — from hand coloring to Technicolor — a handful of pioneers showed what was possible, O’Meara explains, and then everybody else got on board.

“It usually takes some overt demonstrations of new color processes in action to make them look appealing enough for more filmmakers to invest the time and money required to use them,” O’Meara said.

Now, cinematographers and others on a film’s production team have to know how to work with these digital processes.

Digital color timing “really is like

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

12 January 2022 at 7:43 pm

“Restaurant of Mistaken Orders”

leave a comment »

Written by Leisureguy

12 January 2022 at 1:16 pm

Pesticides and cancer risk

leave a comment »

Another example of effects of environmental pollution:

Written by Leisureguy

12 January 2022 at 1:02 pm

Why more stringent regulation is needed for ‘forever chemicals’

leave a comment »

The Harvard Gazette has a three-question interview:

 The Biden administration recently announced a plan to set enforceable drinking water limits on certain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)—long-lasting, man-made chemicals that are used in a wide range of consumer products and that are known to pose health risks to millions of Americans. Philippe Grandjean, adjunct professor of environmental health at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, discusses the importance of regulating PFAS.

Q: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says it plans to establish a national drinking water standard for certain PFAS chemicals by March 2023. What do you think of the plan?

A: I’m thrilled about it. Any support we can conjure for the EPA to get going is good, because we’re so far behind in limiting the use of these dangerous chemicals. PFAS are used in many products, such as waterproof clothing, nonstick cookware, firefighting foams, cosmetics, food packaging, cleaning supplies, and electronics. We know that the blood of nearly all Americans contains some PFAS, which we call “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the body. And we’ve shown with two decades of intensive research that PFAS are linked to serious health issues such as kidney and testicular cancer, weakened immune system, endocrine disruption, fertility problems, and decreased birth weight.

The European Union (EU) is way ahead of the U.S. on regulating PFAS. In September 2020, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) set a new safety threshold for the four most common PFAS. The EPA’s limit is for only two PFAS—PFOS and PFOA—and it’s more than 30 times higher than the European limit, and it pertains only to drinking water. So that illustrates how far behind the U.S. is.

In setting their limit, the EFSA took into account toxicity to the immune system posed by PFAS, which is expressed by lowered antibody responses to childhood vaccines—an effect that we first reported in JAMA in 2012. The EFSA’s exposure limit is meant to ensure that women of reproductive age do not accumulate too much of a PFAS burden. The strategy makes sense, in my opinion, because PFAS compounds tend to pass through the placenta during pregnancy, so that a mother will share her accumulated burden of these compounds with the next generation. In addition, our 2015 study found that when the mother is breastfeeding—something that is strongly recommended by the CDC and WHO—these compounds are excreted through human milk. The infant may reach a blood concentration of PFAS that is 10-fold higher than the mother’s. And this happens at the most vulnerable stage of life, when various organs and biochemical functions are being fine-tuned. If something goes wrong at this stage, it will likely stay with us for the rest of our lives and affect our disease risks later on.

For example, in a study we published recently, we found that, even in nine-year-old children, their accumulated PFAS exposures were associated with elevated cholesterol, an outcome that was thought only to affect adults. And people who have high cholesterol as children or young adults are also likely to have high cholesterol later in life.

Q: The EU regulated four PFAS, but not others. Why?

A: The EU decided to look at those four because they are so-called “legacy” PFAS, about which there is substantial documentation. They didn’t address the field of substitutes—new potential compounds that might enter the environment in the future. But we have to face this problem at some point. These compounds are so useful that, if industry realizes there’s a certain compound they can’t use, they will immediately look for alternatives. That’s my concern, and many of my colleagues have the same concern: that if the physical and chemical properties of the substitutes are the same, they may have the same toxicological problems as the legacy chemicals.

One positive development in the U.S. is that, in late December, the EPA granted a petition from six North Carolina public health and environmental justice organizations to compel companies to conduct toxicity testing of additional PFAS. It’s a step in the right direction.

Q: Given that substitutes may be dangerous, what do you think governments should do in terms of regulating PFAS?

A: I’m willing to accept that  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

12 January 2022 at 12:56 pm

%d bloggers like this: