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Amazon shows how trickle-down inequality works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 April 2021 at 2:53 pm

Curbing gun violence in the United States

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

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

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

Q&A with David Hemenway

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

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

GAZETTE: What are some of those things?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 April 2021 at 12:07 pm

Locusts Swarmed East Africa, and This Tech Helped Squash Them

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In the NY Times Rachel Nuwer describes a very interesting approach toward controlling a plague of locusts in Africa:

. . . In 2020, billions of the insects descended on East African countries that had not seen locusts in decades, fueled by unusual weather connected to climate change. Kenya had last dealt with a plague of this scale more than 70 years ago; Ethiopia and Somalia, more than 30 years ago. Nineteen million farmers and herders across these three countries, which bore the brunt of the damage, saw their livelihoods severely affected.

. . . But as bad as 2020’s swarms were, they and their offspring could have caused much worse damage. While the weather has helped slow the insects’ reproduction, the success, Mr. Cressman said, has primarily resulted from a technology-driven anti-locust operation that hastily formed in the chaotic months following the insects’ arrival to East Africa. This groundbreaking approach proved so effective at clamping down on the winged invaders in some places that some experts say it could transform management of other natural disasters around the world.

“We’d better not let this crisis go to waste,” said David Hughes, an entomologist at Penn State University. “We should use this lesson as a way not just to be adapted to the next locust crisis, but to climate change, generally.”

Desert locusts are the Dr. Jekylls and Mr. Hydes of the insect world. Normally, the grasshopper-like plant eaters spend their time living solitarily across the deserts of North Africa, Southwest Asia and the Middle East. But when rains arrive, they change from a muted brown into a fiery yellow and become gregarious, forming groups of more than 15 million insects per square mile. Such a swarm can consume the equivalent amount of food in a single day as more than 13,000 people.

The locust plague that hit East Africa in 2020 was two years in the making. In 2018, two major cyclones dumped rain in a remote area of Saudi Arabia, leading to an 8,000-fold increase in desert locust numbers. By mid-2019, winds had pushed the insects into the Horn of Africa, where a wet autumn further boosted their population. An unusual cyclone in Somalia in early December finally tipped the situation into a true emergency.

“Ten years ago, there would have been between zero and one cyclones coming off the Indian Ocean,” Dr. Hughes said. “Now there’s eight to 12 per year — a consequence of climate change.”

Countries like Sudan and Eritrea that regularly deal with small, seasonal swarms have teams of locust trackers who are trained to find the insects and recognize which life cycle stage they are in. They use a tablet-based program to transmit locust data by satellite to national and international authorities so experts can design appropriate control strategies.

But people outside of those frontline locust nations who may want to start using this system today would encounter a typical technology problem: The version of the tablets that the locust-tracking program was written for is no longer manufactured, and newer tablets are not compatible with the software. And even if the hardware were available, in 2020, East Africa lacked experts who could identify locusts.

“We’d never had a dress rehearsal for the real thing,” said Alphonse Owuor, a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization specialist in Somalia. “We had people who were very familiar with locusts in theory, but who didn’t have the experience or equipment required to carry out this massive operation.”

With swarms suddenly covering an area of Kenya larger than New Jersey, officials were tasked with creating a locust-combating operation virtually from scratch. Collecting dependable, detailed data about locusts was the first crucial step.

“Saying ‘Oh, there’s locusts in northern Kenya’ doesn’t help at all,” Mr. Cressman said. “We need longitude and latitude coordinates in real time.”

Rather than try to rewrite the locust-tracking software for newer tablets, Mr. Cressman thought it would be more efficient to create a simple smartphone app that would allow anyone to collect data like an expert. He reached out to Dr. Hughes, who had already created a similar mobile tool with the Food and Agriculture Organization to track a devastating crop pest, the fall armyworm, through PlantVillage, which he founded.

PlantVillage’s app uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to help farmers in 60 countries, primarily in Africa, diagnose problems in their fields. Borrowing from this blueprint, Dr. Hughes and his colleagues completed the new app, eLocust3m, in just a month.

Unlike the previous tablet-based program, anyone with a smartphone can use eLocust3m. The app presents photos of locusts at different stages of their life cycles, which helps users diagnose what they see in the field. GPS coordinates are automatically recorded and algorithms double check photos submitted with each entry. Garmin International also helped with another program that worked on satellite-transmitting devices.

“The app is really easy to use,” said Ms. Jeptoo of PlantVillage. Last year, she recruited and trained locust trackers in four hard-hit Kenyan regions. “We had scouts who were 40- to 50-year-old elders, and even they were able to use it.”

In the last year, more than 240,000 locust records have poured in from East Africa, collected by PlantVillage scouts, government-trained personnel and citizens. But that was only the first step. Countries next needed to act on the data in a systematic way to quash locusts. In the first few months, however, officials were strategizing “on the back of envelopes,” Mr. Cressman said, and the entire region had just four planes for spraying pesticides.

When Batian Craig, director of 51 Degrees, a security and logistics company focused on protecting wildlife, saw Mr. Cressman quoted in a news story about locusts, he realized he could help.

Mr. Craig and his colleagues, who are headquartered at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Central Kenya, conduct regular anti-poaching aerial surveys that could be repurposed to seek out and destroy locust swarms. They also closely communicate with rural communities affected by the insects.

Additionally, 51 Degrees uses a free program called EarthRanger. Created by Vulcan, a Seattle-based philanthropic company originally co-founded by Paul Allen of Microsoft and his sister Jody Allen, EarthRanger compiles and analyzes geographic data ranging from rhino and ranger locations to sensor data and remote imagery.

Engineers at Vulcan agreed to customize a version of EarthRanger for locusts, integrating data from the eLocust programs and the computer loggers on aerial pesticide sprayers.

Lewa Conservancy quickly became the headquarters for aerial survey and control across the region. By June 2020, these efforts were paying off. Locusts were prevented from spilling into Africa’s Sahel region and west to Senegal.

“If we didn’t stop them, . . .

Continue reading. There’s more, including a good college of large photos.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 April 2021 at 10:54 am

Why Is Clarence Thomas Attacking Google? — and more

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

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

Also short pieces on:

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

And now…

Realignment Strain

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

But this time, something was different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas: Google Is a Monopoly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are These Shifts Mere Rhetoric?

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

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

Written by LeisureGuy

12 April 2021 at 4:46 pm

Hearing Aids for the Masses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is also more technology brewing at  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 April 2021 at 4:13 pm

Republicans going off in all directions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by LeisureGuy

12 April 2021 at 10:47 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because of course this happened.

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

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

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

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

Written by LeisureGuy

11 April 2021 at 5:36 pm

The Rules That Made U.S. Roads So Deadly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 Ways to Rewrite the Rules of the Road

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

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

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

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

Fourth,  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 April 2021 at 1:54 pm

The Salmon Sushi Conspirarcy

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A very interesting story (and debunking):

Written by LeisureGuy

8 April 2021 at 1:02 pm

Why tearing down Fauci is essential to the MAGA myth

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Michael Gerson was a speechwriter for George W. Bush and is currently a columnist. Here’s a recent column that appeared in the Washington Post that reflects the despair of traditional Republicans (among whom he counts himself) in the face of MAGA madness:

MAGA political philosophy is not systematic, but it is comprehensive. Right-wing populism offers a distorted lens to view nearly all of life.

Through this warped lens, progress toward equal rights is actually the oppression of White people. Free and fair elections, when lost, are actually conspiratorial plots by the ruthless left. But perhaps the most remarkable distortion concerns the MAGA view of covid-19.

We have all seen the basic outlines of pandemic reality. Experts in epidemiology warned that the disease would spread through contact or droplets at short distances, which is how it spread. The experts recommended early lockdowns to keep health systems from being overwhelmed, and the lockdowns generally worked. The experts said Americans could influence the spread of the disease by taking basic measures such as mask-wearing and social distancing. The disease was controlled when people did these things. The disease ran rampant when they did not, killing a lot of old and vulnerable people in the process.

There were, of course, disagreements along the way about the length of lockdowns and the form of mandates. But on the whole, American citizens have witnessed one of the most dramatic vindications of scientific expertise in our history. We have been healthier when we listened to the experts and sicker when we did not.

This is the context in which the MAGA right has chosen to make Anthony S. Fauci — the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984 — the villain in their hallucinogenic version of pandemic history.

It is worth disclosing when a columnist has a personal connection to a public figure. I have known Fauci since I was in government during the early 2000s and watched him help create the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. He is the best of public service: supremely knowledgeable, personally compassionate, completely nonpolitical, tenacious in the pursuit of scientific advancement and resolute in applying such knowledge to human betterment. He has no other ambition or agenda than the health of the country and world.

Yet slamming Fauci was a surefire applause line at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February. Former Trump administration officials continue to target him. Republican members of Congress vie with one another to put Fauci in his place.

For Trump officials, including Donald Trump himself, this makes perfect sense. If Fauci has been right about covid, then playing down the disease, mocking masks, modeling superspreader events, denying death tolls, encouraging anti-mandate militias and recommending quack cures were not particularly helpful. If Fauci has been right, they presided over a deadly debacle.

When former Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro claims that Fauci is “the father of the actual virus” or former chief of staff Mark Meadows complains about Fauci’s indifference to the (nearly nonexistent) flow of covid across the southern border, the goal is not really to press arguments. It is to create an alternative MAGA reality in which followers are free from the stress of truth — a safe space in which more than half a million people did not die and their leader was not a vicious, incompetent, delusional threat to the health of the nation.

Metaphorically (but only barely metaphorically), there is a body on the floor with multiple stab wounds. The Trump administration stands beside it with a bloody knife in its hand. It not only claims to be innocent. It claims there is no blood. There is no body. There is no floor.

Congressional Republicans who criticize Fauci to prove their populist manhood are even more pathetic. Their self-abasement is voluntary. Watching Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) debate science with Fauci during committee hearings is like watching Albert Einstein being disputed by his dry cleaner. Fauci is often reduced to making obvious points in a patient voice. Fauci deserves his Presidential Medal of Freedom just for his heroic forbearance.

All these critics of Fauci have chosen to attack the citadel of science at its strongest point. With squirt guns. While naked and blowing kazoos.

This useless exertion is somehow wrapped in the language of freedom. Freedom from the servitude of a piece of cloth on your face that might save your neighbor’s life. Freedom to light off fireworks below a potential avalanche. . .

Continue reading. The column concludes:

Fauci is practicing epidemiology. His critics are practicing idiocy. Both are very good at their chosen work.

Written by LeisureGuy

6 April 2021 at 12:11 pm

“I’m finally done with the Senate filibuster. We’re running out of time to save democracy.”

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Noah Bookbinder, a former criminal prosecutor for the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section, is the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, writes in USA Today:

I worked as a counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee for eight years. I heard senators that I admired repeat the apocryphal story of George Washington supposedly explaining to Thomas Jefferson that the Senate was “the saucer that cools the tea,” preventing the House from rushing through ill-advised legislation.

While the filibuster was not part of the framers’ plan — and indeed some of the framers warned against a supermajority requirement for legislation — it seemed consistent with this idea of the Senate as an intended obstacle to tyranny by a bare, partisan majority. Perhaps more importantly, I saw the cycles of control in the Senate. I saw how those tactics of delay and obstruction that drove a majority party crazy one year were lifelines when that party ended up in the minority the next

Those seemed like compelling arguments to keep the Senate filibuster, so I passionately resisted the idea of eliminating it for years. Too slowly perhaps, it has become clear to me that times have changed. The old arguments are no longer enough — in fact, our democracy might not survive at all unless Congress passes reforms that a minority seems determined to block. The Senate must get rid of the filibuster in order for us to maintain a democratic system of government going forward, and the sooner the better.

White minority wants to keep control

Our democracy already teetered on the brink when Donald Trump, who lost the 2020 presidential election by more than 7 million votes and a substantial margin in the Electoral College, falsely and repeatedly claimed to have won and then actually tried to convince officials in multiple states to overturn the results of the voting in those states.

When efforts by Trump and his supporters to undermine and overturn the election failed, Trump’s supporters switched to a quieter but no less dangerous tactic. Bills have now been introduced in 47 states to restrict access to voting, curbs which will disproportionately impact non-white voters. Many of these bills are on their way to passing. Efforts are also in the planning stages to aggressively gerrymander districts to benefit the former president’s party.

The cumulative effect of all this is to prevent a mostly white minority of Americans from losing control of the United States government. There is legislation that could prevent this, but it looks like it will be blocked in the Senate by the filibuster, something that has often happened to bills meant to advance racial equity and justice.

Now, the combination of systematic disenfranchisement of Black and brown voters, aggressive use of gerrymandering, and a system of unchecked money in political campaigns could allow a minority of voters to ensure that those who supported Trump’s abuses are ushered into control of Congress and the presidency; once in power, they have already shown their willingness to use it to further degrade checks and balances for their own advancement. The democracy as we know it might begin to crumble.

We need H.R. 1: It would maintain voting rights and voting integrity that states saved amid COVID-19

This sounds apocalyptic and maybe a little crazy. It is not. We need only look at the four years of Trump’s presidency, moving from emoluments violations, obstruction of investigations, embrace of white supremacists, and sidelining of watchdogs and prosecutors who threatened him to full-scale attempts to overturn an election and incite insurrection, to see how quickly and completely the foundations of our democracy can be shaken.

Worry about comity later

Legislation before Congress can stop all this from happening. H.R. 1, the For the People Act, contains crucial voting rights protections that will prevent many of the efforts in states to restrict the ability to vote; it will ensure fair, non-partisan redistricting and reform money in politics, as well as curbing much unethical conduct and many abuses of power. We can also shore up our democracy against attack with bills like the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, the Protecting Our Democracy Act and an act to finally grant District of Columbia residents the same rights to democratic participation that people in all 50 states have.

GOP ex-officials:We need a voting rights champion like Vanita Gupta at Justice, and fast

But if the Senate’s intractable minority is allowed to continue to prevent all legislation to protect our democratic system, we will run out of time. Efforts in the states to curb voting rights and ensure rule by a shrinking white minority will be able to take effect without any check; after the rules are changed and the deck stacked, it might not again be possible to elect a Congress and a president amenable to protecting democratic participation and checks and balances.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. The Senate must  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

3 April 2021 at 12:47 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The earlier drafts were written by . . .

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

Later:

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

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

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

Since the book’s publication, . . .

Written by LeisureGuy

31 March 2021 at 9:44 pm

Understanding Legal Argument (1): The Five Types of Argument

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John Danaher writes at Philosophical Disquisitions:

I have been teaching about legal reasoning and legal argumentation for years. When I do so, I try to impress upon students that legal argument is both simple and complex.

It is simple because in every legal case there is, in essence, one basic type of argument at the core of the dispute between the parties. This argument works from a general legal rule to a conclusion about the application of that rule to a set of facts. Philosophers and logicians would say that the basic form of legal argument is a syllogism: a simple three-step argument involving a major premise (a general principle or rule), a minor premise (a claim about a particular case or scenario) and then a conclusion (an application of the general rule to the particular case).

Here is a simple conditional syllogism:

  • (1) If roses are red, then violets are blue. (Major Premise)
  • (2) Roses are red. (Minor Premise)
  • (3) Therefore, violets are blue. (Conclusion)

My view is that legal arguments take on a similar conditional, syllogistic form. There is a legal rule that stipulates that if certain conditions are met, then certain legal consequences will follow. This is the major premise of legal argument. Then there is a set of facts to which that rule may apply. This is the minor premise of legal argument. When you apply the rule to the facts you get a conclusion.

In abstract form, all legal arguments look like this:

  • (1) If conditions A, B and C are satisfied, then legal consequences X, Y and Z follow. (Major premise: legal rule)
  • (2) Conditions A, B and C are satisfied (or not). (Minor Premise: the facts of the case)
  • (3) Therefore, legal consequences X, Y and Z do (or do not) follow. (Conclusion: legal judgment in the case).

To give a more concrete example, imagine a case involving a potential murder:

  • (1*) If one person causes another person’s death through their actions, and they performed those actions with intent to kill or cause grievous bodily harm, and they had no lawful excuse for those actions, then they are guilty of murder and may be punished accordingly.
  • (2*) Cain caused Abel’s death through his actions and in doing so he intended to kill and acted without lawful excuse.
  • (3*) Therefore, Cain is guilty of murder and may be punished accordingly.

Simple, right? Unfortunately it is not. Although this basic argument is the core of all legal disputes it is not the totality of those disputes. The problem is that legal rules don’t just show up and apply themselves to particular cases. There are lots of potential legal rules that could apply to a given set of facts. And there are lots of qualifications and exceptions to legal rules. You have to argue for the rules themselves and show why a particular rule (or major premise) should apply to a particular case. In addition to this, the facts of the case don’t just establish themselves. They too need to argued for and the law adopts a formalised procedure for establishing facts, at least when a case comes to trial.

In this two-part article, I want to examine some of the complexities of legal argument. I do so first by examining the different kinds of argument you can present in favour of, or against, particular legal rules (i.e. for and against the major premise of legal argument). Understanding these kinds of arguments is the main function of legal education. People who study law at university or in professional schools spend a lot of their time examining all the different ways in which lawyers try to prove that a certain rule should apply to a given set of facts.

Several authors have presented frameworks and taxonomies that try to bring some order to the chaos of arguments for legal rules. I quite like Wilson Huhn’s framework The Five Types of Legal Argument, which not only does a good job of reducing legal argument down to five main forms, but also identifies all the different ways of arguing for or against a legal rule within those five main forms. I’ll try to explain Huhn’s framework, in an abbreviated fashion, in the remainder of this article. I should say, however, that I have modified his framework somewhat over the years and I’m not entirely clear on which bits of it are his and which bits are my own modification. Most of it is his. Some bits are mine (and most of the examples are ones that I use in my teaching and not ones that come from Huhn’s book).

1. Argument from Text

For better or worse, law has become a text-based discipline. There are authoritative legal texts — constitutions, statutes, case judgments and so on — that set down legal rules. Consequently, one of the most common forms of legal argument is to identify the case-relevant legal texts and then use them to figure out the relevant rule. This is the first type of legal in Huhn’s framework and perhaps the starting point for most legal arguments.

Here’s a real example. Suppose . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, since he describes all five types of argument.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 March 2021 at 7:29 pm

The Collapse of Puerto Rico’s Iconic Telescope

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Daniel Alarcón writes in the New Yorker:

Just before eight in the morning on December 1st of last year, Ada Monzón was at the Guaynabo studios of WAPA, a television station in Puerto Rico, preparing to give a weather update, when she got a text from a friend. Jonathan Friedman, an aeronomer who lives near the Arecibo Observatory, about an hour and a half from San Juan, had sent her a photo, taken from his sister-in-law’s back yard, of the brilliant blue Caribbean sky and the green, heavily forested limestone hills. In the picture, a thin cloud of dust hovered just above the tree line; the image was notable not for what it showed but for what was missing. On a normal day—on any day before that one, in fact—a shot from that back yard would have captured Arecibo’s nine-hundred-ton radio-telescope platform, with its massive Gregorian dome, floating improbably over the valley, suspended from cables five hundred feet above the ground. Accompanying the photo was Friedman’s message, which read, simply, “Se cayó ”—“It fell.”

Every year since Arecibo’s completion, in 1963, hundreds of researchers from around the world had taken turns pointing the radio telescope toward the sky to glean the secrets of the universe. It had played a role in the fields of radio astronomy and atmospheric, climate, and planetary science, as well as in the search for exoplanets and the study of near-Earth asteroids that, were they to collide with our planet, could end life as we know it. There were even biologists working at Arecibo, studying how plant life developed in the dim light beneath the telescope’s porous dish.

Monzón, along with thousands of other scientists and radio-astronomy enthusiasts for whom Arecibo held a special meaning, had been on high alert for weeks, ever since two of its cables had failed, in August and in early November. Although the telescope seemed to have survived Hurricane Maria, in 2017, without serious damage, the earthquakes that followed had perhaps weakened components that were already suffering from decades of wear and tear. It was, in many ways, a death foretold. Even so, when the inevitable finally occurred, Monzón was stunned.

Monzón is a presence in Puerto Rico, a much beloved and trusted figure, as meteorologists sometimes are in places where reporting on extreme weather can be a matter of life and death. She’d covered Hurricane Maria and its harrowing aftermath, as well as dozens of lesser but still dangerous storms and the resulting floods or landslides. She’d done a Facebook Live through a magnitude-6.4 earthquake. Still, she told me, the end of Arecibo was somehow harder, more personal. “It was devastating,” she said. “One of the most difficult moments of my life.” Arecibo, she added, “was a place of unity for everyone who loves science on this island, and all of us who truly love Puerto Rico.”

For more than half a century, Arecibo was the world’s largest single-aperture telescope, its global reputation built on grand discoveries that matched its size: from the observatory, the presence of ice on the poles of Mercury was first detected, the duration of that planet’s rotation was determined, and the surface of Venus was mapped; the first binary pulsar, later used to test Einstein’s theory of relativity, was found by astronomers working at Arecibo. (They were awarded a Nobel Prize for the discovery in 1993.)

In 1974, a team led by an astronomer at Cornell University named Frank Drake (which included Carl Sagan) put together the Arecibo Message, a radio transmission that was beamed to a cluster of stars more than twenty-five thousand light-years away. The message was meant to celebrate human technological advancement, and, supposedly, to be decoded and read by extraterrestrials. Not all radio telescopes can both receive and transmit: this was one more way in which Arecibo was special. The message itself—a series of bits and squares containing the numbers one through ten, the atomic numbers of certain elements, and a graphic of a double helix, among other scientific touchstones—was mostly symbolic, to mark the occasion of an upgrade to the telescope’s capabilities, but it captured the public imagination nonetheless. In theory, were any alien life-forms to respond, we earthlings could discern their answer at Arecibo.

Each year, more than eighty thousand visitors came to the observatory, including tourists from all over the world and twenty thousand Puerto Rican schoolchildren, who had their first brush with the cosmos there. The 1995 James Bond film “GoldenEye” featured an absurd fight scene that was shot at Arecibo, which culminated in Pierce Brosnan’s Bond dropping a scowling villain to his death from the suspended platform; two years later, in the film “Contact,” Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey shared a kiss beneath a starry sky with the Gregorian dome as a backdrop. “If you had to tell someone about Puerto Rico,” Monzón told me, “you’d say, ‘We have the largest radio telescope in the world,’ and they’d say, ‘Oh, sure, Arecibo.’ ”

That December morning at the WAPA studios, Monzón told the production team that she had to go on the air right away, and minutes later she was standing in front of a weather map, her voice cracking: “Friends, with my heart in my hands, I have to inform you that the observatory has collapsed.” She bit her lip and shook her head. “We tried to save it however we could. And we knew this was a possibility. . . .” She trailed off, looked down at the phone in her hand, and stammered that the director of the observatory was calling. She answered on air and, for an awkward moment, even wandered off camera. Everything was true, she told her audience when she returned. It was gone.

The construction of a world-class radio telescope in Puerto Rico was, in some ways, an accident of the Cold War. After the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite, in 1957, there was a lot of money in Washington for big ideas that could showcase American power and technology, particularly in space. Enter a Cornell physicist and astronomer named William Gordon, a veteran of the Second World War in his early forties, who wanted to use radio waves to study the upper atmosphere—something that required a giant transmitter and a massive dish. Nothing on this scale had ever been done. Radio astronomy was still in its early days; Cornell was among the first American universities where it was studied. The Advanced Research Projects Agency, created by President Eisenhower, funded the project, hoping that it would detect any intercontinental ballistic missiles cutting a path across the upper atmosphere.

In order to be useful for planetary study, the telescope had to be situated in the tropics, where the planets pass overhead in their orbits. Cuba, in the midst of revolution, was not an option. Hawaii and the Philippines were too far away. Puerto Rico, which had formalized its colonial relationship with the U.S. less than a decade earlier, emerged as a possibility, facilitated by a Ph.D. candidate from there who was studying at Cornell. The rest, as they say, is history. Gordon, who died in 2010, described the rather arbitrary nature of the site-selection process in a 1978 interview: “Our civil-engineer man looked at the aerial photographs of Puerto Rico and said, ‘Here are a dozen possibilities of holes in the ground in roughly the dimensions you need.’ And we looked at some and said, ‘Well, that’s too close to a town or a city or something.’ Very, very quickly he reduced it to three, and he and I went down and looked at them and picked one.”

The one that they picked was a half-hour drive into the hills from Arecibo, a town of about seventy thousand, with a harbor and a lively central plaza. In the sixties, it was a hub of rum production, home to one of the island’s largest cathedrals and three movie theatres. Every year during carnival, people came to Arecibo from all over the island to dance to steel-drum bands. There was a fifty-room hotel on the plaza, where visiting scientists and engineers sometimes stayed, and where the New York Times and the Daily News were delivered every Sunday. Gordon and his team moved to Arecibo in 1960, setting up shop in a small office behind the cathedral. Several other mainland scientists and their families, along with a few Cuban engineers, settled in Radioville, a seaside development a couple of miles west of the center of town—named for a radio station, not for the observatory, which, in any case, was still just an idea.

Size was always a core-value proposition of the observatory at Arecibo. At the time, the largest radio telescope, near Manchester, England, had a diameter of two hundred and fifty feet; Arecibo’s telescope would be a thousand feet wide, dwarfing every other such instrument in use. The limestone hills of northern Puerto Rico were dotted with natural sinkholes, which made the excavation and construction simpler, though there was nothing simple about building a spherical dish with the area of approximately eighteen football fields. The curve of the dish had to be precise in order for the radio waves to be gathered within a movable instrument platform. According to the astronomer Don Campbell, who arrived at Arecibo in 1965 and is now working on a history of the facility, the construction of the observatory—which was built at a cost of around nine million dollars, the equivalent of more than seventy million today—was a tremendous achievement.

The original walkway to the suspended platform had wooden slats. There was no phone communication from the observatory to the city, though there was a radio link to a phone that rang on the fourth floor of the Space Sciences Building at Cornell. Back then, the trip from San Juan to the observatory might take two or three hours, longer during the harvest season, when trucks piled high with sugarcane clogged the narrow roads. Joanna Rankin, a radio astronomer at the University of Vermont, who made her first observation at Arecibo in 1969, told me that the terrain at the site was so steep and unforgiving she found it miraculous that the place had even been built. “Going up there at night was like being on an island in the sky,” she said. “So vast and so delicate.” The facility attracted an adventurous sort of personality in those early days, Campbell said. Still, it was good living: the scientists worked hard all week and went to the beach every Sunday. The Arecibo Country Club, which had no golf course and whose swimming pool was often drained of water, nonetheless hosted great parties, to which the scientists were often invited. And, of course, the chance to work on a telescope of that magnitude was unique.

Planetary and atmospheric researchers used Arecibo to . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, Arecibo was once a part of America’s greatness.

Later in the column:

The problems began for Arecibo in the mid-aughts, when the National Science Foundation, which owned the site and supported it with about twelve million dollars a year, convened a panel of astronomers to evaluate the foundation’s holdings. With the N.S.F. facing flat budget allocations, and with several large investments in new telescopes under way, the panel recommended a multimillion-dollar cut to the Arecibo astronomy budget, to be implemented over several years. The report was stark and final: if partners couldn’t be found to help cover the cost of maintaining the site by 2011, Arecibo should be closed.

And there’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 March 2021 at 6:44 pm

America’s Immigration Amnesia: Despite recurrent claims of crisis at the border, the United States still does not have a coherent immigration policy

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Caitlin Dickerson writes in the Atlantic:

In the early 2000s, Border Patrol agents in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas were accustomed to encountering a few hundred children attempting to cross the American border alone each month. Some hoped to sneak into the country unnoticed; others readily presented themselves to officials in order to request asylum. The agents would transport the children, who were exhausted, dehydrated, and sometimes injured, to Border Patrol stations and book them into austere concrete holding cells. The facilities are notoriously cold, so agents would hand the children Mylar blankets to keep warm until federal workers could deliver them to child-welfare authorities.

But starting in 2012, the number of children arriving at the border crept up, first to about 1,000 a month, then 2,000, then 5,000. By the summer of 2014, federal officials were processing more than 8,000 children a month in that region alone, cramming them into the same cells that had previously held only a few dozen at a time, and that were not meant to hold children at all.

As the stations filled, the Obama administration scrambled to find a solution. The law required that the children be moved away from the border within 72 hours and placed in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services, so they could be housed safely and comfortably until they were released to adults willing to sponsor them. But HHS facilities were also overflowing. The department signed new contracts for “emergency-influx shelters,” growing its capacity by thousands of beds within a matter of months. Government workers pulled 100-hour weeks to coordinate logistics. And then, seemingly overnight, border crossings began to drop precipitously. No one knew exactly why.

“The numbers are unpredictable,” Mark Weber, an HHS spokesperson, told me in 2016, just as another child-migration surge was beginning to crest. “We don’t know why a bunch of kids decided to come in 2014, or why they stopped coming in 2015. The thing we do know is these kids are trying to escape violence, gangs, economic instability. That’s a common theme. The numbers have changed over the years, but the themes stayed the same.”

The cycle repeated itself under President Donald Trump in 2019, and is doing so again now. And as border crossings rise and the government rushes to open new emergency-influx shelters, some lawmakers and pundits are declaring that the Biden administration is responsible for the surge. “The #BidenBorderCrisis was caused by the message sent by his campaign & by the measures taken in the early days of his new administration,” Marco Rubio tweeted last week. The administration is “luring children to the border with the promise of letting them in,” Joe Scarborough, the Republican congressman turned cable-television host, told millions of viewers during a recent segment.

But for decades, most immigration experts have viewed border crossings not in terms of surges, but in terms of cycles that are affected by an array of factors. These include the cartels’ trafficking business, weather, and religious holidays as well as American politics—but perhaps most of all by conditions in the children’s home countries. A 2014 Congressional Research Service report found that young peoples’ “motives for migrating to the United States are often multifaceted and difficult to measure analytically,” and that “while the impacts of actual and perceived U.S. immigration policies have been widely debated, it remains unclear if, and how, specific immigration policies have motivated children to migrate to the United States.”

The report pointed out that special protections for children put into place under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 may have shifted migration patterns by encouraging parents to send their children alone rather than travel as a family. But it found that blaming any one administration for a rise in border crossings ultimately made no sense—the United States has offered some form of protection to people fleeing persecution since the 1940s, and those rights were expanded more than 40 years ago under the Refugee Act of 1980.

This is not to say that President Joe Biden’s stance on immigration—which has thus far been to discourage foreigners from crossing the border while also declaring that those who do so anyway will be treated humanely—has had no effect on the current trend. Like other business owners, professional human traffickers, known as coyotes, rely on marketing—and federal intelligence suggests that perceived windows of opportunity have been responsible for some of their most profitable years.

For example, border crossings rose in the months before President Trump took office in part because coyotes encouraged people to hurry into the United States before the start of the crackdown that Trump had promised during his campaign. With Trump out of office, some prospective migrants likely feel impelled to seek refuge now, before another election could restore his policies.

But placing blame for the recent increase in border crossings entirely on the current administration’s policies ignores the reality that the federal government has held more children in custody in the past than it is holding right now, and that border crossings have soared and then dropped many times over the decades, seemingly irrespective of who is president.

Given, then, that the movement of unaccompanied minors has long ebbed and flowed—we are now experiencing the fourth so-called surge over the course of three administrations—why do border facilities still appear overwhelmed? The answer, in part, is . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 March 2021 at 1:36 pm

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

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Sirin Kale writes in the Guardian:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by LeisureGuy

30 March 2021 at 1:24 pm

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

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David Graham writes in the Atlantic:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 March 2021 at 11:11 am

Since the Civil War, voter suppression in America has had a unique cast.

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Heather Cox Richardson writes:

Since the Civil War, voter suppression in America has had a unique cast.

The Civil War brought two great innovations to the United States that would mix together to shape our politics from 1865 onward:

First, the Republicans under Abraham Lincoln created our first national system of taxation, including the income tax. For the first time in our history, having a say in society meant having a say in how other people’s money was spent.

Second, the Republicans gave Black Americans a say in society.

They added the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, outlawing human enslavement except as punishment for crime and, when white southerners refused to rebuild the southern states with their free Black neighbors, in March 1867 passed the Military Reconstruction Act. This landmark law permitted Black men in the South to vote for delegates to write new state constitutions. The new constitutions confirmed the right of Black men to vote.

Most former Confederates wanted no part of this new system. They tried to stop voters from ratifying the new constitutions by dressing up in white sheets as the ghosts of dead southern soldiers, terrorizing Black voters and the white men who were willing to rebuild the South on these new terms to keep them from the polls. They organized as the Ku Klux Klan, saying they were “an institution of chivalry, humanity, mercy, and patriotism” intended “to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States… [and] to aid and assist in the execution of all constitutional laws.” But by this they meant the Constitution before the war and the Thirteenth Amendment: candidates for admission to the Ku Klux Klan had to oppose “Negro equality both social and political” and favor “a white man’s government.”

The bloody attempts of the Ku Klux Klan to suppress voting didn’t work. The new constitutions went into effect, and in 1868 the former Confederate states were readmitted to the Union with Black male suffrage. In that year’s election, Georgia voters put 33 Black Georgians into the state’s general assembly, only to have the white legislators expel them on the grounds that the Georgia state constitution did not explicitly permit Black men to hold office.

The Republican Congress refused to seat Georgia’s representatives that year—that’s the “remanded to military occupation” you sometimes hear about– and wrote the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution protecting the right of formerly enslaved people to vote and, by extension, to hold office. The amendment prohibits a state from denying the right of citizens to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

So white southerners determined to prevent Black participation in society turned to a new tactic. Rather than opposing Black voting on racial grounds—although they certainly did oppose Black rights on these grounds– they complained that the new Black voters, fresh from their impoverished lives as slaves, were using their votes to redistribute wealth.

To illustrate their point, they turned to South Carolina, where between 1867 and 1876, a majority of South Carolina’s elected officials were African American. To rebuild the shattered state, the legislature levied new taxes on land, although before the war taxes had mostly fallen on the personal property owned by professionals, bankers, and merchants. The legislature then used state funds to build schools, hospitals, and other public services, and bought land for resale to settlers—usually freedpeople—at low prices.

White South Carolinians complained that members of the legislature, most of whom were professionals with property who had usually been free before the war, were lazy, ignorant field hands using public services to redistribute wealth.

Fears of workers destroying society grew potent in early 1871, when . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

28 March 2021 at 9:24 pm

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

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Matt Stoller explains in his current BIG column:

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

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

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

And now…

The Empire State Building Falls into the Suez Canal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 March 2021 at 6:29 pm

Three groundbreaking journalists saw the Vietnam War differently. It’s no coincidence they were women.

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Cambodian Prime Minister Long Boret, center, meets with war correspondent Elizabeth Becker in Cambodia in 1974. (Elizabeth Becker)

Margaret Sullivan writes in the Washington Post:

Frances FitzGerald paid her own way into Vietnam. She was an “on spec” reporter with no editor to guide her, no office to support her, and no promise that anyone would publish what she wrote about the war.

She knocked out her first article on a blue Olivetti portable typewriter she had carried from New York and mailed it the cheap and slow way from a post office in the heart of Saigon’s French quarter to the Village Voice, nearly 9,000 miles away.

It arrived, and on April 21, 1966, the Voice published FitzGerald’s indictment of the chaotic U.S. war policy.

“The result was a highly original piece written in the style of an outsider, someone who asked different questions and admitted when she didn’t have answers,” wrote Elizabeth Becker in her new book, “You Don’t Belong Here: How Three Women Rewrote the Story of War,” which celebrates the work of FitzGerald, Kate Webb and Catherine Leroy.

Becker, a former war correspondent in Cambodia toward the end of the decades-long conflict, wrote about these women in part because she had experienced much of what they did — just a little later, and with appreciation for the paths they’d broken.

“I went through it at the tail end, and they were my role models,” Becker told me last week. She admired them because they had broken gender barriers, endured sexual harassment and been belittled by journalistic peers who thought women had no place near a war zone.

But “I wanted to write more than a ‘breaking the glass ceiling’ book,” said Becker, who has broken a few of her own: It’s likely that, as a stringer in Cambodia in the early 1970s, she was the first woman to regularly report from a war zone for The Washington Post. Later, she became the senior foreign editor at NPR and a New York Times correspondent.

What struck Becker about her subjects went far beyond gender. It was the women’s approach to their work. They were more interested in people than in battlefields, quicker to see the terrible cost of violence to the Vietnamese as well as to Westerners, less likely than many of their male colleagues to swallow the government’s party line.

“They brought this common humanity and an originality to their work,” Becker said.

Remarkably early, FitzGerald clearly described what American officials didn’t want the public to see: the chaos, the lack of sensible purpose.

“For the Embassy here the problem has not been how to deal with the crisis — there is no way to deal with it under U.S. Standard Operating Procedures — but rather how to explain what is happening in any coherent terms,” she wrote in that 1966 article for the Voice. . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 March 2021 at 6:22 pm

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