Later On

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

Archive for the ‘Government’ Category

Situation Report: Killing off the Libertarian Hellscape Timeline

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

Written by Leisureguy

23 January 2022 at 5:04 pm

How a New Hampshire libertarian utopia was foiled by bears

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This Vox report by Sean Illing is from just over a year ago — published in December, 2020 — but it deserves some recognition and reading:

Every ideology produces its own brand of fanatics, but there’s something special about libertarianism.

I don’t mean that as an insult, either. I love libertarians! For the most part, they’re fun and interesting people. But they also tend to be cocksure about core principles in a way most people aren’t. If you’ve ever encountered a freshly minted Ayn Rand enthusiast, you know what I mean.

And yet one of the things that makes political philosophy so amusing is that it’s mostly abstract. You can’t really prove anything — it’s just a never-ending argument about values. Every now and again, though, reality intervenes in a way that illustrates the absurdity of particular ideas.

Something like this happened in the mid-2000s in a small New Hampshire town called Grafton. Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling, author of a new book titled A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear, says it’s the “boldest social experiment in modern American history.” I don’t know if it’s the “boldest,” but it’s definitely one of the strangest.

The experiment was called the “Free Town Project” (it later became the “Free State Project”), and the goal was simple: take over Grafton’s local government and turn it into a libertarian utopia. The movement was cooked up by a small group of ragtag libertarian activists who saw in Grafton a unique opportunity to realize their dreams of a perfectly logical and perfectly market-based community. Needless to say, utopia never arrived, but the bears did! (I promise I’ll explain below.)

I reached out to Hongoltz-Hetling to talk about his book. I wanted to know what happened in New Hampshire, why the experiment failed, and what the whole saga can teach us not just about libertarianism but about the dangers of loving theory more than reality.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

How would you describe the “Free Town Project” to someone who doesn’t know anything about it?

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

I’d put it like this: There’s a national community of libertarians that has developed over the last 40 or 50 years, and they’ve never really had a place to call their own. They’ve never been in charge of a nation, or a state, or even a city. And they’ve always really wanted to create a community that would showcase what would happen if they implemented their principles on a broad scale.

So in 2004, a group of them decided that they wanted to take some action on this deficiency, and they decided to launch what they called the Free Town Project. They sent out a call to a bunch of loosely affiliated national libertarians and told everyone to move to this one spot and found this utopian community that would then serve as a shining jewel for the world to see that libertarian philosophies worked not only in theory but in practice. And they chose a town in rural New Hampshire called Grafton that already had fewer than 1,000 people in it. And they just showed up and started working to take over the town government and get rid of every rule and regulation and tax expense that they could.

Sean Illing

Of all the towns in all the world, why Grafton?

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

They didn’t choose it in a vacuum. They actually conducted a very careful and thorough search. They zeroed in on the state of New Hampshire fairly quickly because that’s the “Live Free or Die” state. They knew that it would align well with their philosophy of individualism and personal responsibility. But once they decided on New Hampshire, they actually visited dozens of small towns, looking for that perfect mix of factors that would enable them to take over.

What they needed was a town that was small enough that they could come up and elbow the existing citizenry, someplace where land was cheap, where they could come in and buy up a bunch of land and kind of host their incoming colonists. And they wanted a place that had no zoning, because they wanted to be able to live in nontraditional housing situations and not have to go through the rigamarole of building or buying expensive homes or preexisting homes.

Sean Illing

Wait, what do you mean by “nontraditional housing”?

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

As the people of Grafton soon found out, a nontraditional housing situation meant a camp in the woods or a bunch of shipping containers or whatever. They brought in yurts and mobile homes and formed little clusters of cabins and tents. There was one location called “Tent City,” where a bunch of people just lived in tents from day to day. They all united under this broad umbrella principle of “personal freedom,” but as you’d expect, there was a lot of variation in how they exercised it.

Sean Illing

What did the demographics of the group look like? Are we talking mostly about white guys or Ayn Rand bros who found each other on the internet?

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

Well, we’re talking about hundreds of people, though the numbers aren’t all that clear. They definitely skewed male. They definitely skewed white. Some of them had a lot of money, which gave them the freedom to be able to pick up roots and move to a small town in New Hampshire. A lot of them had very little money and nothing keeping them in their places. So they were able to pick up and come in. But most of them just didn’t have those family situations or those 9-to-5 jobs, and that was really what characterized them more than anything else.

Sean Illing

And how did they take over the local government? Did they meet much resistance?

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

When they first showed up, they hadn’t told anyone that they were doing this, with the exception of a couple of sympathetic libertarians within the community. And so all of a sudden the people in Grafton woke up to the fact that their town was in the process of being invaded by a bunch of idealistic libertarians. And they were pissed. They had a big town meeting. It was a very shouty, very angry town meeting, during which they told the Free Towners who dared to come that they didn’t want them there and they didn’t appreciate being treated as if their community was an experimental playpen for libertarians to come in and try to prove something.

But the libertarians, even though they never outnumbered the existing Grafton residents, what they found was that they could come in, and they could find like-minded people, traditional conservatives or just very liberty-oriented individuals, who agreed with them on enough issues that, despite that angry opposition, they were able to start to work their will on the levers of government.

They couldn’t pass some of the initiatives they wanted. They tried unsuccessfully to withdraw from the school district and to completely discontinue paying for road repairs, or to declare Grafton a United Nations free zone, some of the outlandish things like that. But they did find that a lot of existing Grafton residents would be happy to cut town services to the bone. And so they successfully put a stranglehold on things like police services, things like road services and fire services and even the public library. All of these things were cut to the bone.

Sean Illing

Then what happened over the next few years or so?

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

By pretty much any measure you can look at to gauge a town’s success, Grafton got worse. Recycling rates went . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more — and indeed, there’s the book.

It strongly reminds me of Don Quixote, who spend so much time and study in reading his books of knights-errant that those became his reality, so that when he encountered things in the real world, he could see them only through the warped lens of his reading, so he attacked the windmills as though they were giants and the flock of sheep as though they were an army. He could no longer see things as they were, but only as his books and readings told him they should be.

Written by Leisureguy

22 January 2022 at 4:44 pm

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

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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

The mask conundrum: A dialogue

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Kevin Drum treats us to a Socratic dialogue. He writes:

There’s a fundamental problem with our campaign to get people to wear masks. It’s pretty obvious, but here it is:

Socrates: Our greatest healers and physicians are united in urging us to wear masks in order to fight the plague that runs rampant among us. Do you believe their advice to be sound?

Glaucon: Why yes.

Socrates: And what evidence do they offer that you find so persuasive?

Glaucon: It is obvious that masks reduce the expulsion of bad airs from breathing and coughing. If I am suffering from the plague—but still out in the agora because I am not yet feeling any ill effects—it diminishes the number of malignant corpuscles that I introduce into the world.

Socrates: So when you wear a mask, you do it to help other people, not yourself?

Glaucon: That is so. It is not perfect, but it is still beneficent to the good health of Athens.

Socrates: And you consider this a virtuous act.

Glaucon: Indeed I do. A respect for the good of society is one of the highest virtues.

Socrates: Quite so. But you’ll admit that not everyone thinks as you do.

Glaucon: Unhappily, all my experience among men teaches me that you are right.

Socrates: So on the one side, we have your fellow citizens of virtue. They are the most likely to heed the advice of our physicians, are they not?

Glaucon: I cannot disagree.

Socrates: And being virtuous, they have probably already visited a physician and procured for themselves a potion that protects against the plague?

Glaucon: Indeed, I myself have done so. I believe it was called a “vaccine.”

Socrates: And what does this “vaccine” accomplish?

Glaucon:  . . .

Do continue reading. Drum points out a paradox we need to solve.

Written by Leisureguy

22 January 2022 at 1:36 pm

The roots of Libertarianism

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Libertarianism has never made any sense at all to me, though I do understand some people find its ideas attractive and its logic irrefutable. The fact that it doesn’t work doesn’t bother them because, dad-gummit, it should work. (You may detect aspects of Don Quixote in this attitude, and if so, we we are in agreement.)

But where did this strange delusion originate? As it happens, there’s an excellent history that’s available as a PDF. Here it is:

From that document:

The more people got to know about LeFevre’s libertarian program, the more they started calling it out as an elaborate swindle hatched by wealthy interests, designed to talk the public into dismantling their own government power and institutions the only power that protected the public from the sort of corporate abuse that had brought on the Great Depression.

The purpose of Freedom School’s teachings, it was becoming increasingly clear, was to turn the American public against their own government, to free up corporations and the rich to do as they pleased, by selling it as “freedom” and to tarnish the forces that impeded corporate power government, democracy, labor unions as “tyranny.”

Read the whole thing.

And see also this previous post. (Libertarian Texas power grid)

And this one. (Libertarian destruction of Sears)

And this one. (Libertarians take over and destroy a city in Texas)

And this one. (Libertarians take over and destroy a city in New Hampshire)

And this one. (Libertarian naïveté)

Oh, heck: here’s the whole list. (blog search on “libertarian”)

Written by Leisureguy

22 January 2022 at 11:04 am

A Dam in Syria Was on a ‘No-Strike’ List. The U.S. Bombed It Anyway.

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Too often the US acts as a criminal nation. Obviously, some other nations do as well, and some do much worse. Still, the US professes ideals, and the US military professes “honor” (whatever they mean by that — in general, military “honor” seems to cover a multitude of sins, crimes, and coverups). Dave Philipps, Azmat Khan, and Eric Schmitt report in the NY Times (link is a gift link: no paywall):

Near the height of the war against the Islamic State in Syria, a sudden riot of explosions rocked the country’s largest dam, a towering, 18-story structure on the Euphrates River that held back a 25-mile-long reservoir above a valley where hundreds of thousands of people lived.

The Tabqa Dam was a strategic linchpin and the Islamic State controlled it. The explosions on March 26, 2017, knocked dam workers to the ground and everything went dark. Witnesses say one bomb punched down five floors. A fire spread, and crucial equipment failed. The mighty flow of the Euphrates River suddenly had no way through, the reservoir began to rise, and local authorities used loudspeakers to warn people downstream to flee.

The Islamic State, the Syrian government and Russia blamed the United States, but the dam was on the U.S. military’s “no-strike list” of protected civilian sites and the commander of the U.S. offensive at the time, then-Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, said allegations of U.S. involvement were based on “crazy reporting.”

“The Tabqa Dam is not a coalition target,” he declared emphatically two days after the blasts.

In fact, members of a top secret U.S. Special Operations unit called Task Force 9 had struck the dam using some of the largest conventional bombs in the U.S. arsenal, including at least one BLU-109 bunker-buster bomb designed to destroy thick concrete structures, according to two former senior officials. And they had done it despite a military report warning not to bomb the dam, because the damage could cause a flood that might kill tens of thousands of civilians.

Given the dam’s protected status, the decision to strike it would normally have been made high up the chain of command. But the former officials said the task force used a procedural shortcut reserved for emergencies, allowing it to launch the attack without clearance.

Later, three workers who had rushed to the dam to prevent a disaster were killed in a different coalition airstrike, according to dam workers.

The two former officials, who spoke on the condition that they not be named because they were not authorized to discuss the strikes, said some officers overseeing the air war viewed the task force’s actions as reckless.

The revelation of Task Force 9’s role in the dam attack follows a pattern described by The New York Times: The unit routinely circumvented the rigorous airstrike approval process and hit Islamic State targets in Syria in a way that repeatedly put civilians at risk.

Even with careful planning, hitting a dam with such large bombs would likely have been seen by top leaders as unacceptably dangerous, said Scott F. Murray, a retired Air Force colonel, who planned airstrikes during air campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo.

“Using a 2,000-pound bomb against a restricted target like a dam is extremely difficult and should have never been done on the fly,” he said. “Worst case, those munitions could have absolutely caused the dam to fail.”

After the strikes, dam workers stumbled on an ominous piece of good fortune: Five floors deep in the dam’s control tower, an American BLU-109 bunker-buster lay on its side, scorched but intact — a dud. If it had exploded, experts say, the whole dam might have failed.

In response to questions from The Times, U.S. Central Command, which oversaw the air war in Syria, acknowledged dropping three 2,000-pound bombs, but denied targeting the dam or sidestepping procedures. A spokesman said that the bombs hit only . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, and the link bypasses the paywall.

As you can see, the military, after hiding the facts failed, went immediately to their standard Plan B, which is to lie. (“Honor,” you know.)

Written by Leisureguy

21 January 2022 at 1:03 pm

Don’t choose extinction

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Written by Leisureguy

21 January 2022 at 12:09 pm

Abolish Coroners

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Eleanor Cummins writes in the New Republic:

They’re responsible for a massive undercounting of Covid deaths in America. But that’s just the latest reason to get rid of this poorly regulated, overly politicized, and utterly unscientific relic of the colonial era.

Wavis Jordan “doesn’t do Covid deaths.” That’s what the pastor and Republician coroner of Cape Girardeau County, Mississippi, told Missouri Independent last month. He requires families to submit a positive test if they want coronavirus listed on the death certificate. Otherwise, the cause of deaths at home in his county are attributed to a range of other conditions that might be exacerbated by Covid-19, including Alzheimer’s, heart attack, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease—but never the virus itself.

Jordan isn’t the only death investigator undercounting Covid-19. In Louisiana’s Lafayette Parish, for example, people are currently being pronounced dead over the phone; without enough Covid tests, the county writes down “what the families tell us,” according to a recent USA Today report. In Rankin County, Mississippi, the local coroner told USA Today that many families initially refuse Covid-19 as a cause of death—until they learn about the federal government’s burial reimbursement program. The cut corners add up: In 2020 and 2021, there were one million excess deaths in the United States, but only 800,000 have been attributed to Covid-19 by the coroners and medical examiners on the ground.

These stories may seem shocking. But they’re no surprise to anyone familiar with the American coroner system, a notoriously underfunded, under-regulated, and often unscientific relic of the colonial era—and the crumbling bedrock of modern public health surveillance. The pandemic has simply shown what many public health experts have been arguing for years: The coroner system has got to go.

Historically, coroners have been political appointees or elected officials associated with the criminal justice system. They investigate any death that doesn’t appear natural—a broad category that includes suicides, homicides, and accidents. They may also pitch in with pandemics, natural disasters, and other mass casualty events that overwhelm frontline services. For those who die in a hospital, the majority of death certificates are signed by physicians. But when people begin to die en masse at home, as happened in the early parts of the pandemic, the responsibility falls on coroners and medical examiners. In 2018, the most recent year for which national data is available, more than 1.3 million deaths were referred for further investigation, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

In the last century, the role of coroners and medical examiners has become increasingly important for tracking diseases, researching outcomes of both chronic and infectious diseases and safety issues, and developing effective public health intervention strategies. But unlike medical examiners, who are physicians and, in ideal cases, trained forensic pathologists, the bar for coroners is often much lower. In some states, anyone 18 years or older with no prior felonies may be elected coroner. Once they’re in office, training is patchwork; some jurisdictions require no further education at all.

The coroner system has its roots in medieval England, where coroners protected the interests of the crown, including investigating deaths and collecting taxes. It arrived in the U.S. in the colonial period, where  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

21 January 2022 at 11:36 am

Biden renewed a free program to feed needy kids. Most states haven’t even applied.

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Like the previous post, this Washington Post report by Laura Reiley illustrates the degree to which in the US those who are struggling are invisible to those who are not. Note that those would do the actual work of applying are not struggling to put food on the table, so what do they care? Not their problem. The report begins:

Odessa Davis worked three jobs to get by, until the pandemic shutdowns made it impossible to work to put food on the table for herself and her 12-year-old son, Leon.

Previously, Leon had gotten reduced-price meals at his school. Now the expense and preparation of his meals fell to Davis, 33. At first, the Montgomery County, Md., resident resorted to picking up food boxes from Capital Area Food Bank, whipping up meals on the fly as if in an episode of “Chopped,” trying to make it fun.

“I went to whatever food drives were available. I was sad that I had to do it,” she said. “I felt like a failure.”

Soon, the federal government devised a plan to get lunch money into the hands of low-income families, like Davis and her son, to make up for meals missed because of school closures or illness, which meant $200 every month for the duo.

The money was a lifeline. But at the start of this school year, it stopped.

“I was upset that it stopped, because I did rely on it.” she said. “They cut it off, and we’re still in a pandemic.”

At its peak, 18.5 million kids relied on Pandemic-EBT, which began under the Trump administration and continued under President Biden. The program gave families forced home a debit-card benefit to use at the grocery store, for some online food shopping or even at farmers markets.

Now the program is flagging. Most states have not applied for the school year that began in September. Experts say the pandemic has changed in ways that make maintaining the program an impossible burden for already strapped administrators.

As Deputy Agriculture Undersecretary Stacy Dean told The Washington Post, “The context has changed.”

With only eight states approved for this federal aid, and another 17 somewhere in the application process, the remaining states threaten to leave billions of dollars on the table in direct assistance to students and preschoolers who qualify for free or reduced-price school meals.

And now there’s renewed urgency: As the omicron variant surges, at least 5,409 schools had canceled class or switched to virtual learning by the end of the first week of this month. Under the current law, students in states that aren’t approved for the benefit this school year are ineligible to receive assistance in the summer, when school is not in session.

As the pandemic continues to drive widespread food insecurity, these administrative difficulties could result in millions of kids going hungry — all while money intended for their relief goes unused.

“Throughout the pandemic, the P-EBT program has been one of our best tools for providing children the meals they need to stay healthy,” said Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor. Scott said it is alarming that some states have not yet secured access to the program, estimating that 30 million eligible kids might not receive summer benefits.

“These decisions will have serious consequences for millions of families. I hope that every state will fulfill its responsibility to prevent child hunger as we continue to fight this pandemic,” he said.

The program was designed to get money for food into the hands of the kids who qualified when schools went remote. At the time, it was easy: Almost all . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

19 January 2022 at 6:11 pm

How Debt-Based License Suspensions Criminalize Poverty

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This is the kind of injustice that is mostly invisible to those who live in economically segregated neighborhoods and make a good salary. From the video description:

Delaware could end one of the cruelest ways the legal system criminalizes poverty. Millions of Americans have suspended driver licenses due to outstanding fines, leading to lost jobs and endless cycles of debt. Delaware may soon join 22 states working to stop this injustice of debt-based license suspensions.

Written by Leisureguy

19 January 2022 at 4:49 pm

The last design you’ll ever make

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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

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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

Mini-golf game based on Congressional districts

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The Washington Post has an interactive mini-golf game that’s actually a lot of fun, while also displaying just how aggressive gerrymandering has become. That’s a gift link, so no paywall.

Written by Leisureguy

19 January 2022 at 1:14 pm

The Rise of A.I. Fighter Pilots

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After poker, warfare. Sue Halpoern in the New Yorker describes how A..I. will be flying fighter planes. Skynet, here we come! The article begins:

n a cloudless morning last May, a pilot took off from the Niagara Falls International Airport, heading for restricted military airspace over Lake Ontario. The plane, which bore the insignia of the United States Air Force, was a repurposed Czechoslovak jet, an L-39 Albatros, purchased by a private defense contractor. The bay in front of the cockpit was filled with sensors and computer processors that recorded the aircraft’s performance. For two hours, the pilot flew counterclockwise around the lake. Engineers on the ground, under contract with DARPA,  the Defense Department’s research agency, had choreographed every turn, every pitch and roll, in an attempt to do something unprecedented: design a plane that can fly and engage in aerial combat—dogfighting—without a human pilot operating it.

The exercise was an early step in the agency’s Air Combat Evolution program, known as ace, one of more than six hundred Department of Defense projects that are incorporating artificial intelligence into war-fighting. This year, the Pentagon plans to spend close to a billion dollars on A.I.-related technology. The Navy is building unmanned vessels that can stay at sea for months; the Army is developing a fleet of robotic combat vehicles. Artificial intelligence is being designed to improve supply logistics, intelligence gathering, and a category of wearable technology, sensors, and auxiliary robots that the military calls the Internet of Battlefield Things.

Algorithms are already good at flying planes. The first autopilot system, which involved connecting a gyroscope to the wings and tail of a plane, débuted in 1914, about a decade after the Wright brothers took flight. And a number of current military technologies, such as underwater mine detectors and laser-guided bombs, are autonomous once they are launched by humans. But few aspects of warfare are as complex as aerial combat. Paul Schifferle, the vice-president of flight research at Calspan, the company that’s modifying the L-39 for DARPA, said, “The dogfight is probably the most dynamic flight program in aviation, period.”

A fighter plane equipped with artificial intelligence could eventually execute tighter turns, take greater risks, and get off better shots than human pilots. But the objective of the ace program is to transform a pilot’s role, not to remove it entirely. As DARPA envisions it, the A.I. will fly the plane in partnership with the pilot, who will remain “in the loop,” monitoring what the A.I. is doing and intervening when necessary. According to the agency’s Strategic Technology Office, a fighter jet with autonomous features will allow pilots to become “battle managers,” directing squads of unmanned aircraft “like a football coach who chooses team members and then positions them on the field to run plays.”

Stacie Pettyjohn, the director of the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security, told me that the ace program is part of a wider effort to “decompose our forces” into smaller, less expensive units. In other words, fewer humans and more expendable machines. DARPA calls this “mosaic warfare.” In the case of aerial combat, Pettyjohn said, “these much smaller autonomous aircraft can be combined in unexpected ways to overwhelm adversaries with the complexity of it. If any one of them gets shot down, it’s not as big of a deal.”

All told, the L-39 was taken up above Lake Ontario twenty times, each sortie giving the engineers and computer scientists the information they need to build a model of its flight dynamics under various conditions. Like self-driving cars, autonomous planes use sensors to identify discrepancies between the outside world and the information encoded in their maps. But a dogfighting algorithm will have to take into account both the environment and the aircraft. A plane flies differently at varying altitudes and angles, on hot days versus cold ones, or if it’s carrying an extra fuel tank or missiles.

“Most of the time, a plane flies straight and level,” Phil Chu, an electrical engineer who serves as a science adviser to the ace program, explained. “But when it’s dogfighting you have to figure out, O.K., if I’m in a thirty-degree bank angle, ascending at twenty degrees, how much do I have to pull the stick to get to a forty-degree bank angle, rising at ten degrees?” And, because flight is three-dimensional, speed matters even more. “If it’s flying slowly and you move the stick one way, you get a certain amount of turn out of it. If it’s flying really fast and you move the stick the same way, you’ll get a very different response.”

In 2024, if the ace program goes according to plan, four A.I.-enabled L-39s will participate in a live dogfight in the skies above Lake Ontario. To achieve that goal, DARPA  has enlisted three dozen academic research centers and private companies, each working on one of two problem areas: how to get the plane to fly and fight on its own, and how to get pilots to trust the A.I. enough to use it. Robert Work, who was the Deputy Secretary of Defense during the Obama Administration, and pushed the Pentagon to pursue next-generation technologies, told me, “If you don’t have trust, the human will always be watching the A.I. and saying, ‘Oh, I’ve got to take over.’ ”

There is no guarantee that ace will succeed. DARPA projects are  . . .

Continue reading. (Unfortunately, the New Yorker offers no gift links.)

Update: Here is the man vs. AI dogfight mentioned in the article.

Written by Leisureguy

18 January 2022 at 4:04 pm

How coal holds on in America

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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

An exchange of letters between Sultan Mehmed IV and the Zaporozhian Cossacks

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Written by Leisureguy

17 January 2022 at 5:49 pm

The Billionaires Funding the Coup’s Brain Trust

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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

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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

Russia’s Mystic Destiny

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David Troy’s current situation report in Medium:

The Hunt for Casus Belli

What’s Happening Now

Some academic Kremlinologists tend to dismiss Dugin’s influence in the Kremlin, a message that also seems to be echoed in some Kremlin propaganda. However, as Putin’s domestic fortunes become increasingly precarious, Kremlin actions and messaging seem to be converging with Duginist themes — namely the “mystic destiny” of the Rus people represented in the reunification of Russia and Ukraine.

This piece from the Center for European Policy Analysis also cites Dugin’s recent rhetoric:

According to Dugin: “The moment has come for Moscow to announce the renaming of the CIS into the Eurasian Union, including all the political units of the post-Soviet space.”

Dugin advocates a Russian land grab in Ukraine. This would involve the occupation of so-called Left-Bank Ukraine — that is, the land between the current international border and the River Dniepr — presumably including eastern Kyiv, making the Ukrainian capital a divided city and placing much of its hinterland under Russian rule. He also argued that Russia should push right up to the borders of the Baltic states, which would likely mean sending troops through Belarus, and issue an ultimatum to the thee NATO members: neutrality or war. He was echoed by the head of the RT TV channel Margarita Simonyan, who wrote on Twitter that if Russia itself could produce the goods that it buys in the United States, it could “liberate Donbas right now, and not leave out Odesa either.”

The convergence of that rhetoric with that of Margarita Simonyan, who is very close to Putin and the Kremlin, represents a new high water mark for Dugin’s apparent grip on Putin’s imagination. Russia also has been contemplating false-flag attacks that would provide a casus belli to justify an invasion.

The next few weeks will be critical. It seems likely that if there is an invasion it will be in the next couple of weeks. If for some reason Russia loses its nerve, possibly this episode will pass, but that seems increasingly less likely.

It was a busy week in imaginary money land. One of the more insane projects to surface this week is a project called “Cryptoland,” a Disneyland-style crypto theme park island fully divorced from reality. It was unveiled in a 20 minute infomercial video that features Pixar-style animation, and an apparently pirated John Williams soundtrack. It truly must be seen to be believed.

It’s so insanely ludicrous as to stretch the imagination, and raise questions whether it might in fact be some sort of intelligence operation. But the evidence so far just points to sheer lunacy. The Financial Times has more [behind a paywall – LG].

Meanwhile, Paul Krugman has started to see the substantial ties between the MAGA and crypto worlds. :

But let’s leave market predictions aside and ask what’s with the deepening alliance between Bitcoin and MAGA?

The answer, I’d argue, is that Bitcoin was supposed to create a monetary system that functions without trust — and the modern right is all about fostering distrust. Covid is a hoax; the election was stolen; California’s forest fires had nothing to do with climate change, and they were started by Rothschild-controlled space lasers.

In this context it’s perfectly natural for MAGAesque politicians to demand an end to a monetary system that runs through banks — we know who controls them, right? — and rests on a currency that’s managed by government-appointed officials. There’s no evidence of widespread monetary abuse, but that doesn’t matter on the extreme right.

A couple of weeks ago . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

15 January 2022 at 1:28 pm

How Airlines Quietly Became Banks

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Written by Leisureguy

14 January 2022 at 1:10 pm

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