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After a Year of Investigation, the Border Patrol Has Little to Say About Agents’ Misogynistic and Racist Facebook Group

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No surprise, since I believe the Facebook group expresses the views of Border Patrol leadership and certainly the views of Border Patrol culture. A.C. Thompson reports in ProPublica:

Brian Hastings, a top Border Patrol official, stared grimly at the television cameras.

It was July 1, 2019, and Hastings was facing down a scandal: News reports had revealed that Border Patrol agents were posting wildly offensive comments and memes in a secret Facebook group.

Agents had shared crudely manipulated images of men sexually assaulting Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat and frequent antagonist of the Border Patrol; joked about migrants who died while trying to enter the United States; and made racist insults about Central Americans. The group called itself “I’m 10-15,” Border Patrol radio code for “aliens in custody,” and included some 9,500 current or former agents.

Critics of the agency — already concerned about the separation of migrant families and deplorable conditions in detention facilities — saw the vulgar Facebook posts as further evidence that a culture of casual racism and misogyny was festering within the Border Patrol.

On national TV that day, Hastings vowed that any agent who engaged in online misconduct would be held accountable. “We take all of the posts that were put out today very seriously,” said Hastings, who was then the chief of law of enforcement operations for the patrol and now oversees the Rio Grande Valley sector. “Each one of these allegations will be thoroughly investigated.” The internal affairs unit of Customs and Border Protection, the agency that oversees the Border Patrol, had already opened an investigation, he said.

Within days, the horrified leaders of the powerful House Committee on Oversight and Reform announced a separate probe of the group, whose existence was first exposed by ProPublica.

But now, more than a year later, after one of the most sweeping internal investigations in the history of the agency, CBP has provided little new information about “I’m 10-15” or its efforts to address toxic attitudes within the ranks. Instead, it has released a basic summary of its findings. The agency has not said who was behind the group or its most egregious posts. And it has not explained how such a group — whose members included Carla Provost, then the highest-ranking official in the Border Patrol — had existed for nearly three years without any sort of intervention from patrol brass.

And in Congress, the oversight committee said its work has been derailed by a lack of cooperation from CBP leaders, who have refused to provide congressional investigators with the names of employees who made offensive posts or even identify the agents who’ve been disciplined.

“More than a year after the existence of the group was reported, CBP continues to obstruct a congressional investigation into the results of the agency’s findings, blatantly shielding agents that have dehumanized immigrants and fostered a culture of cruelty and violence,” said Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Democrat representing El Paso, Texas, who was mocked by agents in “I’m 10-15” posts.

Last month, the agency told the Los Angeles Times that it had investigated 138 employees, eventually deciding to fire four of them, suspend 38 without pay and issue warnings or reprimands to more than two dozen. CBP investigators cleared 60 agents of any wrongdoing.

But CBP has not revealed the exact offenses that led to this wave of firings and other sanctions, nor has it disclosed the key facts — such as name, rank or location — about the employees who’ve been disciplined. Such information could reveal troubling clusters of agents or supervisors at a particular station and whether the terms of the discipline were appropriate. The agency has long maintained that it is barred by federal privacy law from identifying employees who’ve been found guilty of misconduct, and it typically does not disclose the names of front-line Border Patrol agents.

In response to questions from ProPublica about the terms of the suspensions it has imposed, a CBP spokesperson would only provide general answers. “We are not able to share specific details, however, suspensions generally range from three to 14 days,” the spokesperson said.

Under the terms of the Border Patrol’s union contract, suspensions of up to 14 days are considered relatively minor punishment, while those that extend beyond two weeks are deemed to be more serious.

While CBP has not named the employees it fired, Border Patrol sources said that one of those who was ousted is Waldemar Ortiz, an agent who worked at the station in Deming, New Mexico. The sources requested anonymity because they had gone outside of the official chain of command to share information.

A former U.S. Marine, Ortiz posted comments suggesting that Border Patrol agents lock undocumented migrants in shipping containers, according to The Intercept, which obtained a huge trove of content from the Facebook group. The specific actions that led to the agent’s ouster remain unclear.

One source said Ortiz, who has enlisted the support of the National Border Patrol Council, the union representing the nation’s roughly 20,000 Border Patrol agents, could potentially win his job back at an upcoming arbitration hearing. Ortiz did not respond to a request for comment from ProPublica, nor did union President Brandon Judd.

The union has condemned the offensive Facebook posts, saying the “inappropriate content” is not representative “of our employees and does a great disservice to all Border Patrol agents, the overwhelming majority of whom perform their duties honorably.”

ProPublica has not learned the names of the other three employees who’ve been fired or whether they’ll be appealing their firings.

At an unrelated court hearing last year in San Francisco, an attorney for CBP, Laura Myron, argued that documents identifying Border Patrol agents accused of misconduct should not be released to the public. . .

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

Written by LeisureGuy

5 August 2020 at 12:33 pm

“The Day Big Tech Stopped Being Untouchable”

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Matt Stoller writes in BIG:

Today I’m going to write about we learned on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday of this week. In sequence, Wednesday was the day of a historic Congressional hearing on big tech monopoly power, Thursday was when these firms announced blow-out earnings even in the midst of an economic collapse, and Friday saw Donald Trump announce he might ban the social media firm TikTok. That’s democracy, monopoly, and national security in sequence. . . .

“Democracy Reasserts Itself”

On Wednesday, the Chairman of the House Antitrust Subcommittee, David Cicilline, opened a hearing capping the most significant Congressional investigation into corporate power in decades, his subcommittee’s investigation of large technology platforms. In his opening statement, Cicilline made the stakes and the historical backdrop clear.

“American democracy has always been at war against monopoly power,” he said. “Throughout our history, we have recognized that concentrated markets and concentrated political control are incompatible with democratic ideals. Their ability to dictate terms, call the shots, upend entire sectors, and inspire fear represent the powers of a private government.” And then, with a flourish, he concluded, “Our founders would not bow before a king. Nor should we bow before the emperors of the online economy.”

This framing was remarkable, and exactly what I wrote about in my book Goliath: The 100-Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy. One of the highlights of what I found was the critical role of Congress and investigations into corporate power, which Americans had always seen as private governments rivaling our democratic government. Until this week, I had only read these ideas in transcripts of old hearings, in archives, and in interviews with old people talking to me about their youth.

And then came Wednesday. Cicilline brought a New Deal-style sensibility to these hearings, acting as a modern Wright Patman and offering the public that magical moment when public servants confront unaccountable power, and showing the promise and possibility of rule by the people. Some of the small business witnesses who had testified before the committee earlier, like David Heinemeier Hansson of Basecamp, were “blown away” by this performance, which is not a particularly common reaction to Congress these days.

It was truly an extraordinary five and a half hours, where these powerful CEOs had to answer for their misdeeds. I wrote a summary of the hearing and its importance in The Guardian the next morning.

Almost any moment of the four-hour hearing offered a stunning illustration of the extent of the bad behavior by these corporations. Take Amazon, whose CEO, Jeff Bezos, often seemed off-balance and unaware of his corporation’s own practices. Congresswoman Lucy McBath played audio of a seller on Amazon tearfully describing how her business and livelihood was arbitrarily destroyed by Amazon restricting sales of their product, for no reason the seller could discern. Bezos acted surprised, as he often did. Representative Jamie Raskin presented an email from Bezos saying about one acquisition that: “We’re buying market position not technology.” Bezos then admitted Amazon buys companies purely because of their “market position”, demonstrating that many of hundreds of acquisitions these tech companies have made were probably illegal.

Mark Zuckerberg had to confront his own emails in which he noted that Facebook’s purchase of Instagram was done to buy out a competitor. His response was that he didn’t remember, but that he imagined he was probably joking when he wrote that. One congresswoman on Joe Biden’s vice-presidential shortlist, Val Demings, asked Zuckerberg why he restricted Facebook’s tools for competitors like Pinterest, but not for non-competitors like Netflix. He had no answer. Congressman David Cicilline asked about Facebook promoting incendiary speech and making money off advertising sold next to that speech. Zuckerberg pivoted to free speech talking points, and Cicilline cut him off, “This isn’t a speech issue, it’s about your business model.”

The performance of Cicilline, as well as that of his colleagues like Pramila Jayapal and Joe Neguse, was “democracy reasserting itself,” as former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris put it on CNBC. The hearing was the sixth in a series going back a year, and it was the culmination of an investigation in which staffers had gone through millions of documents and uncovered evidence of anti-competitive behavior by Google, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook.

It was also a massive media event. Of course the tech press was all over it, but it was front page news on every major American newspaper, which is remarkable considering this media environment involves a global pandemic and Trump’s endless controversies.

Here’s the New York Times: . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 August 2020 at 6:01 pm

Read this Twitter thread

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Clink the link (the date) to see the whole thread.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 August 2020 at 5:51 pm

Speculation that Trump wants to ban TikTok because of Sarah Cooper

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For example:

See Stuart Emmrich’s article in Vogue, which begins:

Donald Trump abruptly announced on Friday that he plans to ban TikTok from the United States, telling reporters traveling with him on Air Force One that he could issue an executive order as early as Saturday to shut down the Chinese-owned video app.

“As far as TikTok is concerned we’re banning them from the United States,” Trump told the reporters traveling back with him to the nation’s capital after a trip to Florida, according to a pool report. Trump said he could use emergency economic powers or an executive order to ban TikTok in the United States.

“Well, I have that authority. I can do it with an executive order or that,” he said referring to emergency economic powers. (Later press reports questioned whether the president actually had that power to do so, and the ACLU tweeted that banning TikTok was “a danger to free expression and technologically impractical.”)

Earlier this month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. was looking at banning TikTok as well as other Chinese social media apps, citing national security concerns. Pompeo added that the Trump administration was evaluating TikTok as it has with other Chinese state-backed tech companies like Huawei and ZTE, which he has previously described as “Trojan horses for Chinese intelligence.”

But are national security concerns really behind Trump’s sudden pronouncement? Or is there another reason why the president wants to ban TikTok? Social media had their own answer: It’s all about Sarah Cooper.

Cooper, of course, is the actress and comedian who has come to Internet fame by posting videos of her lip syncing Trump’s speeches and interviews to hilarious effect, whether it’s him denying he retreated to the White House bunker because of a threat posed by protestors, dodging a question about what his favorite Bible phrases are, or, most memorably, recreating his now-famous “People, woman, man, camera, TV” interview. With more than half a million followers on TikTok, Cooper has been written up by The Hollywood Reporter, The Washington Post and The New York Times and appeared as a guest on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon and The Ellen Show. (“You make me so happy,” Degeneres said). A profile in the Times of London was headlined: “How Sarah Cooper’s Trump Takedowns Made Her America’s New Comedy Hero.”

And true to form, on Friday night, she posted a video lip synching to Trump’s later comments about TikTok, as he arrived back in Washington and headed to the White House. “We’re looking at TikTok. We may be banning TikTok, we may be doing some other things, there are a couple of options,” she intones, using a recording of a quick press briefing Trump gave before boarding a helicopter, which could be heard whirring in the background. “But a lot of things are happening, so we’ll see what happens. But we are looking at a lot of alternatives with respect to TikTok.” (Cooper even supplies visual effects, with her hair seemingly blowing in the wind as she mouths Trump’s words.) . . .

Continue reading.

And in addition, here’s an interview with Sarah Cooper, in which she makes some interesting points:

Written by LeisureGuy

1 August 2020 at 12:21 pm

Older All-Clad Copper Core doesn’t work on induction burners

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I had assumed that it would, since All-Clad Stainless works fine, but no. They simply didn’t use a stainless steel cladding that responds to magnetism. No problem, really. I’ll replace that one piece with the All-Clad Stainless version.

I note that the current line of Copper Core does work on induction burners — but mine was an older model.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 July 2020 at 2:25 pm

Posted in Congress, Technology

What Big Tobacco’s Fall Tells Us About Big Tech’s Future

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Will Oremus writes on Medium:

April 14, 1994, the CEOs of the seven big American tobacco firms sat side by side, facing a Congressional subcommittee hearing on their products’ health impacts. Rep. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, asked them one by one to answer a simple question: Do you believe nicotine is not addictive? All seven, under oath, confirmed that they did not believe nicotine was addictive (video). The executives acknowledged that they manipulated nicotine levels in their products, but said it was to improve their flavor, not keep users hooked.

The hearing marked a turning point in the industry’s history. Up to that point, Big Tobacco had seemed untouchable politically at the federal level thanks to its cozy relationship with the GOP. But public opinion gradually turned against it as the industry continued to deny what had become plain to see: that its products were deadly, that it knew they were deadly, and that it marketed them to young people anyway.

After the 1994 hearing, the executives’ claims became infamous, and they were dubbed the “seven dwarfs.” A cascade of litigation followed, and by 1998 Republicans had abandoned the industry as a political liability, setting the stage for the industry-changing Tobacco Master Settlement later that year.

What does all of this have to do with the tech industry in 2020? Well…

The Pattern

Mr. Bezos, Mr. Cook, Mr. Pichai, and Mr. Zuckerberg go to Washington.

  • On Wednesday, the CEOs of the four most dominant internet platforms testified before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on antitrust. Each called in via Cisco’s WebEx videoconferencing service, though each runs a company that offers its own such service. (Fun fact: the venerable WebEx is The Wirecutter’s top pick for videoconferencing.)
  • While it may not have been clear to the casual viewer, this wasn’t a one-off event; it was the sixth in a series of hearings by the subcommittee on digital platforms and market power, part of an investigation that’s expected to culminate in a bipartisan report to Congress later this year. So you can automatically discount any take that treated the hearing as if it were supposed to be the be-all and end-all of Congress’s antitrust inquiry. As the Amazon critic Stacy Mitchell pointed out in my Q&A with her ahead of the hearing, there’s a long game here that’s bigger than the hearing itself.
  • That became more apparent when the subcommittee released a huge trove of documents obtained in the course of the investigation, which included internal emails and chats from each of the companies. These documents build a far better antitrust case against the four tech giants than anything the CEOs said during the hearing,” CNBC’s Steve Kovach wrote.
  • Still, Wednesday’s six-hour marathon understandably stole the spotlight, because it featured the top executives of four of the most powerful companies in world history. The hearing was Thursday’s top story in the major U.S. papers, and drew inevitable comparisons to the Big Tobacco hearings a quarter-century ago.
  • We can learn from the similarities between the two. The label “Big Tech” to describe the largest internet companies overtly echoes “Big Tobacco,” and is meant to evoke the same sense of shadowy power, a force in society whose influence sprawls far beyond its direct relationship with customers. Inviting the executives of all four of the major companies involved in the probe was certain to evoke callbacks to the seven dwarfs. As with Big Tobacco, there’s a sense that Big Tech is up to devious tricks behind the scenes that belie its marketing claims.
  • But the differences are at least as instructive as the similarities, when it comes to mapping out where this will lead us. While smartphones and social media have been compared to tobacco for their addictive qualities and health effects — mostly mental health, in tech’s case — that is not the core of the antitrust argument against them. Whereas Big Tobacco was under fire for making products that were literally lethal to its customers, the alleged harms at issue in the current Big Tech inquiry are mostly to rival businesses, and to more nebulous concepts such as fair competition and open markets. (I wrote briefly on Wednesday about what’s really at stake.) That doesn’t necessarily make them less urgent. But it makes them harder for the mainstream press and general public to wrap their minds around, let alone get riled up about.
  • And unlike the tobacco executives, whose companies were more or less interchangeable, the tech executives who testified Wednesday represent firms whose core platforms focus on four different arenas: online retail, mobile apps, internet search, and social media. There is a common thread — their control of lucrative sub-economies that myriad smaller companies depend on — but each raises distinct competition problems that must be understood individually. That’s why there could be no single “gotcha” moment in Wednesday’s hearing, as there was in the 1994 tobacco hearing; no iconic clip that indicts all of them in one swoop.
  • It did offer moments of drama. They were one-on-ones between a prosecutorial representative and a stammering CEO, as when Rep. Pamila Jayapal, R-WA grilled Zuckerberg (video) on whether he bullied Instagram into selling in 2012, or when Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, D-PA, pressed Bezos (video) on Amazon’s alleged 2010 use of predatory pricing against Diapers.com. On multiple occasions the CEOs were struck by sudden cases of selective amnesia when it came to some of the largest business moves in their history. But watching them dissemble separately, via videoconference, in response to disparate lines of attack was not the same as seeing the tobacco executives squirming side-by-side as Wyden pinned them down with one simple question.
  • The antitrust questions around tech platforms won’t be decided solely by the media and the public, of course. The subcommittee’s inquiry is helmed by Chair David Cicilline, D-RI, who in turn is being advised by staffers with deep knowledge of antitrust law and a strong reform agenda, as this New York Times profile of Cicilline from December 2019 explains. (See also this profile of law professor Lina Khan, who is helping to lead the investigation behind the scenes.) Several other Democratic committee members, including Jayapal — who got her own Times profile as an increasingly vocal Amazon critic in May — seem fully on board.
  • But the Big Tobacco saga reminds us that it may . . .

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

Later in the article:

The documents released by the antitrust subcommittee make for fascinating reading, not just from an antitrust standpoint but for students of business strategy and anyone who wants to better understand how the largest tech companies operate and make decisions. You can read them for yourself here. (You can also watch a replay of the hearing, if you have six hours to kill and a masochistic streak.) As The American Prospect’s David Dayen pointed out, “the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division all had access to the same information that the subcommittee had,” and could have used it to make the same case against Big Tech, but so far has not.

BTW, I checked out WebEx (see link to the Wirecutter review above), and it looks quite good. No limit on the length of meetings even in the free account (which is what I have). Sign-up is easy.

Maybe I should host some blog chats. Any readers interested?

Written by LeisureGuy

31 July 2020 at 11:10 am

This was the week America lost the war on misinformation

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Margaret Sullivan was the only good Public Editor the NY Times had. (The Times has since abolished the post, presumably because it kept pointing out errors and misjudgments by the Times.) She writes in the Washington Post:

You may have heard about the viral video featuring a group of fringe doctors spouting dangerous falsehoods about hydroxychloroquine as a covid-19 wonder cure.

In fact, it’s very possible you saw the video since it was shared on social media tens of millions of times — partly thanks to President Trump who retweeted it more than once, and who described the group’s Stella Immanuel, also known for promoting wacky notions about demon sperm and alien DNA, as “very impressive” and even “spectacular.”

Given this and a few other hideous developments, it’s time to acknowledge the painfully obvious: America has waved the white flag and surrendered.

With nearly 150,000 dead from covid-19, we’ve not only lost the public-health war, we’ve lost the war for truth. Misinformation and lies have captured the castle.

And the bad guys’ most powerful weapon? Social media — in particular, Facebook.

Some new research, out just this morning from Pew, tells us in painstaking numerical form exactly what’s going on, and it’s not pretty: Americans who rely on social media as their pathway to news are more ignorant and more misinformed than those who come to news through print, a news app on their phones or network TV.

And that group is growing.

The report’s language may be formal and restrained, but the meaning is utterly clear — and while not surprising, it’s downright scary in its implications.

“Even as Americans who primarily turn to social media for political news are less aware and knowledgeable about a wide range of events and issues in the news, they are more likely than other Americans to have heard about a number of false or unproven claims.”

Media coverage of the 2016 campaign was disastrous. Now’s the last chance to get 2020 right.

Specifically, they’ve been far more exposed to the conspiracy theory that powerful people intentionally planned the pandemic. Yet this group, says Pew, is also less concerned about the impact of made-up news like this than the rest of the U.S. population.

They’re absorbing fake news, but they don’t see it as a problem. In a society that depends on an informed citizenry to make reasonably intelligent decisions about self-governance, this is the worst kind of trouble.

And the president — who knows exactly what he is doing — is making it far, far worse. His war on the nation’s traditional press is a part of the same scheme: information warfare, meant to mess with reality and sow as much confusion as possible.

Will Sommer of the Daily Beast took a deeper look this week into the beliefs of Stella Immanuel — the Houston doctor whom Trump has termed “very impressive” and “spectacular.”

“She has often claimed that gynecological problems like cysts and endometriosis are in fact caused by people having sex in their dreams with demons and witches,” Sommer wrote. “She alleges alien DNA is currently used in medical treatments, and that scientists are cooking up a vaccine to prevent people from being religious. And, despite appearing in Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress on Monday, she has said that the government is run in part not by humans but by ‘reptilians’ and other aliens.”

Immanuel said in a recent speech in Washington that the power of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment means that protective face masks aren’t necessary. None of this has a basis in fact — but try telling that to the tens of millions who have not only seen it but been urged to believe it.

The video featuring Immanuel and others eventually was taken down by Facebook. But as usual, it was far too late.

And Donald Trump Jr., who tweeted it out calling it a “must watch,” got his hand slapped by Twitter — briefly losing his right to sully the truth and jam the gears of reality. . . .

Continue reading. There’s even more. The US is becoming a basket case.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 July 2020 at 11:59 am

More Formula 1: New requirements, and a look at the driving

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First, the technology seems amazing to me (since I am completely new to this).

Second, the driving!

Written by LeisureGuy

30 July 2020 at 7:44 am

Posted in Business, Technology

How to build a Formula 1 Gearbox

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A follow-on to a video posted earlier:

Written by LeisureGuy

29 July 2020 at 4:57 pm

Posted in Technology, Video

Inside a Formula 1 gearbox

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Another video that shows me how very much I do not know. Update: See also the sequel to this video, where he builds a gearbox.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 July 2020 at 10:33 am

Posted in Technology, Video

Formula 1 pit stop analyzed, and examples

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Examples:

Written by LeisureGuy

28 July 2020 at 4:57 pm

Posted in Technology

Virtualization, Forklifts, Microphones, Shipping Containers, Video Conferencing, Stethoscopes…

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Interesting speculation about the next decade or so. Andrew Kortina writes:

One of the striking and sad things about the pandemic for me has been a disconnect between my own relatively uninterrupted experience and what I see as the broader, more traumatic experience. One of the key drivers of the more dramatic disparity is the technology that is being deployed in response to the pandemic.

In this essay, I will suggest a framework for teasing out the distribution of relative winners and losers resulting from the adoption of new technology. Using this framework, I’ll argue that COVID is accelerating the “virtualization” of the economy and that the adoption of new technology and norms like remote work, Zoom meetings, and delivery commerce will drive lumpier (power) distributions of earnings.

While this essay focuses on disparity in economic consequences, I want to acknowledge the disparity in health consequences of COVID.

#This is a pretty long essay, so here is the tldr;

  • We can extend the “microphone or forklift?” question from a 2007 Edward Leamer essay with a few more representative types – shipping container, video conferencing, stethoscope – to build a useful framework for thinking about the relative win/loss distributions of different kinds of new technology.
  • As virtualization increases global competition for service work and knowledge work, the effects will mirror those of globalization, driving wages down by allowing jobs to move to geos / countries where labor is cheaper.
  • As virtualization allows some local services to become “content,” the effects will mirror those of a “microphone technology,” resulting in superstar effects.
  • Virtualization will benefit capital (owners of tech) and relatively favor labor in lower GDP countries / lower cost geos.
  • One area where virtualization has the potential to create more jobs than it destroys is where it serves as a “stethoscope technology” that facilitates 1:1 listening.

Let’s dive in.

#Setup: Forklifts and Microphones

In a 2007 essay in the Journal of Economics Literature, Edward Leamer asks the following question, which I think we can extend to build a framework that can help us understand the effects of any new type of technology (like virtualization).

“Is a computer more like a forklift or more like a microphone?” . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 July 2020 at 4:23 pm

Formula 1 brakes

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When humans focus on some issue, the rapidity of the evolution of the solutions — meme evolution  — is remarkable, as are the rich detail and depth of results. Some problems, of course, have simple solutions, which sometimes are ingenious, but a problem of any complexity, involving various tradeoffs, can result in amazing solutions.

This video about how the brakes in a Formula 1 car work is fascinating to me for that reason. I started watching F1 videos on YouTube after watching the Matt Damon and Christian Bale movie Ford v. Ferrari, about Ford’s entry into (and temporary dominance of) racing, though the race of focus was Le Mans, not an F1 race. (The differences between Le Mans race cars and F1 cars are numerous, starting with the fact that F1 cars are open-wheel and Le Mans cars are not. Moreover, the racing strategy and requirements are quite different — an F1 car would fail terribly at Le Mans and vice versa — see this story.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 July 2020 at 9:14 am

Posted in Techie toys, Technology

Music in Human Evolution

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Kevin Simler has a very interesting review and summary of the book Why Do People Sing? Music in Human Evolution:

I just finished the strangest, most disconcerting little book. It’s called Why Do People Sing?: Music in Human Evolution by Joseph Jordania.

If the title hasn’t already piqued your interest, its thesis surely will. The thesis is wild, bold, and original, but makes an eerie amount of sense. If true, it would be a revolution — and I don’t use the term lightly — in how we understand the evolution of music, cooperation, warfare, and even religion.

I have my reservations about Jordania’s theory (and his book), but I’ll save them for a later time. As Daniel Dennett once wrote about another remarkable theory:

I think first it is very important to understand [the] project, to see a little bit more about what the whole shape of it is, and delay the barrage of nitpicking objections and criticisms until we have seen what the edifice as a whole is. After all, on the face of it, [the project] is preposterous… [but] I take it very seriously.

These are exactly my feelings about Jordania’s project. Seemingly preposterous, but worth taking very seriously.

0. STYLIZED FACTS

I’m going to share Jordania’s theory with you, but first I want to present a set of “stylized facts” — curious, disparate, and nearly inexplicable phenomena that would seem to have little relation to each other. Then I’ll present the theory that (uncannily) links them all together and explains everything.

OK, brace yourself. Here come the facts:

  • When our ancestors [1] first moved from the forest to the savannah, we were not yet capable of making tools. But early hominid evolution tended away from a physiology that would have helped us hunt and/or defend ourselves from predators. Our canine teeth receded, we became slower and weaker, and we didn’t develop tough skin (in fact the opposite).
  • Lion evolution and migration seems to have mirrored early hominid patterns, both spatiotemporally and (in some ways) behaviorally and morphologically. Lions, for example, are the only social species of cat.
  • Humans are the only ground-dwelling species that sings. There are over 4000 singing species — mostly birds, but also gibbons, dolphins, whales, and seals. But they all sing from water or the trees. When a bird lands on the ground, it invariably stops singing.
  • Of all singing creatures, humans are the only ones who use rhythm.
  • When we sing, we almost always dance, even if it’s just nodding along or tapping a foot. Both singing and dancing (whether together or separate) are group activities used across the world in tribal bonding rituals. Isolated ethnic groups have remarkably similar styles of song and dance.
  • Rhythmic chanting and dancing induce trance states.
  • Early hominids quite possibly ate their dead, and (some while later) definitely started burying them. The instinct to preserve a dead human body from mutilation, and then to dispose of it, is fairly universal. E.g. we strive to retrieve corpses even from a battlefield.

I hope you are intrigued. Each of these facts is hard to explain even in isolation. So a theory that can unify and account for all of them will have to be either profound or crazy — or both.

At this point I’m going to present Jordania’s theory as clearly and comprehensively as I can. I’ll interpolate a bit and add my own explanatory flare, but the ideas come straight out of his book.

1. HUNTERS OR SCAVENGERS?

When human ancestors first descended from the trees and stepped out onto the grasslands, they faced two critical problems: acquiring food and defending themselves from predators. We’ll discuss food acquisition in this section and defense in the next section, but as you’ll see they’re linked by a similar mechanism.

I hadn’t thought deeply about these problems until I read Jordania’s book. I always imagined, naively, that early humans had been “hunter-gatherers.” While this is true of later humans, it’s almost certainly not true of our earliest savannah-dwelling ancestors. Gathering? yes. But hunting, especially big-game hunting, was out of the question. As I mentioned, our earliest ancestors hadn’t yet learned how to make or use tools beyond simple rocks and sticks, and we were fairly weak.

Yet we certainly ate meat — the archaeological record is pretty clear on that. So there’s a growing consensus that we were actually scavengers (or perhaps “scavenger-gatherers”).

Now there are two types of scavenging, two strategies for “carcass acquisition”: passive and confrontational. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 July 2020 at 7:57 pm

Induction burners are great

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My apartment has a more or less terrible stove: the range-top uses electric coils, warped and uneven, and those heat slowly but have a blazing-hot terminal temperature so that moving beyond 3 on the 1-10 dial is risky.

The Eldest suggested I look at a portable induction burner. Since I seldom cook two things at once on the range top — and I can work around that — it seemed feasible. I looked at Wirecutter  and bought their pick, the Duxtop 9100MC. I love it.

With induction burners, the only thing that gets hot is the pot/pan itself. The pot or pan must respond to a magnet, and the test is simple: if a magnet sticks to the bottom, the pot will work. My cookware is All-Clad Stainless and cast-iron, and those work fine. I do have one piece of an old model All-Clad Copper Core, and that does not work at all. Current models of All-Clad Copper Core cookware do work on induction burners — but not the early models.

I find the induction burner makes cooking much easier and more controllable. I plan buy a piece of birch plywood to lay over the stovetop, thus increasing the counter space in my (small) kitchen. I finished the wood simply, just using butcher block oil. (I would have preferred to use tung oil, which works great, but the store had none on hand.) The induction burner sitss on that. I remove the board when I use the oven.

One example: I like to cook eggs in a Smithey No. 8 skillet , an 8″ skillet designed for cooking eggs. It’s cast iron with a smoothly polished cooking area so that once seasoned it is non-stick. One nice thing about that skillet is that it holds a lot of heat, so when eggs are added, the cooking surface maintains its temperature.

The corresponding drawback to its great heat capacity is that loading it with heat took quite a while on an electric coil burner — but on the induction burner all the energy goes directly into the skillet (instead of indirectly: first into heating the burner, which in turn heats the skillet), so the skillet heats quickly. 

I formerly used a Matfer Bourgeat carbon-steel skillet, also non-stick when seasoned. That skillet is lighter in weight and quicker to heat, but when cold eggs are added, the cooking-surface temperature dips a bit — the eggs cooked in the Smithey do better. The Matfer Bourgeat also lacks the curved walls of the Smithey, so flipping eggs (for over-easy) is harder and the eggs are more apt to break.

Now that I have experience with the induction burner, I don’t understand why induction-burner kitchen ranges are not more common.

UPDATE: After a few weeks of using the induction burner for all my cooking, I love it. It heats the cooking surface of the skillet, pot, or pan much more evenly and much more quickly then electric coil burners. I notice that I don’t get the rainbow effect on the bottom of stainless pots that I used to get on the electric coil.  (This effect is the result of uneven heating; the rainbow colors are easily removed with a good stainless cleanser like Barkeeper’s Friend, Cameo, Kleen King, or the like. Still, it’s nice that it doesn’t happen now, and it shows how the cooking surface is heated evenly.)

Pots, even heavy stainless steel, heat quickly, and it’s easy to control temperature. I love it.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 July 2020 at 1:27 pm

The weight of air

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Anton Howes, writing on the age of invention:

Why was the steam engine invented in England? An awful lot hinges on this question, because the answer often depends on our broader theories of what caused the British Industrial Revolution as a whole. And while I never tire of saying that Britain’s acceleration of innovation was about much, much more than just the “poster boy” industries of cotton, iron, and coal, the economy’s transition to burning fossil fuels was still an unprecedented and remarkable event. Before the rise of coal, land traditionally had to be devoted to either fuel, food, or clothing: typically forest for firewood, fields for grain, and pastures for wool-bearing sheep. By 1800, however, English coal was providing fuel each year equivalent to 11 million acres of forest — an area that would have taken up a third of the country’s entire surface area, and which was many times larger than its actual forest. By digging downward for coal, Britain effectively increased its breadth.

And coal found new uses, too. It had traditionally just been one among many different fuels that could be used to heat homes, alongside turf, gorse, firewood, charcoal, and even cow dung. When such fuels were used for industry, they were generally confined to the direct application of heat, such as in baking bricks, evaporating seawater to extract salt, firing the forges for blacksmiths, and heating the furnaces for glass-makers. Over the course of the seventeenth century, however, coal had increasingly become the fuel of choice for both heating homes and for industry. Despite its drawbacks — it was sooty, smelly, and unhealthy — in places like London it remained cheap while the price of other fuels like firewood steadily increased. More and more industries were adapted to burning it. It took decades of tinkering and experimentation, for example, to reliably use coal in the smelting of iron.

Yet with the invention of the steam engine, the industrial uses of coal multiplied further. Although the earliest steam engines generally just sucked the water out of flooded mines, by the 1780s they were turning machinery too. By the 1830s, steam engines were having a noticeable impact on British economic growth, and had been applied to locomotion. Steam boats, steam carriages, steam trains, and steam ships proliferated and began to shrink the world. Rather than just a source of heat, coal became a substitute for the motive power of water, wind, and muscle.

So where did this revolutionary invention come from? There were, of course, ancient forms of steam-powered devices, such as the “aeolipile”. Described by Hero of Alexandria in the 1st century, the aeolipile consisted of a hollow ball with nozzles, configured in such a way that the steam passing into the ball and exiting through the nozzles would cause the ball to spin. But this was more like a steam turbine than a steam engine. It could not do a whole lot of lifting. The key breakthroughs came later, in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and instead exploited vacuums. In a steam engine the main force was applied, not by the steam itself pushing a piston, but by the steam within the cylinder being doused in cold water, causing it to rapidly condense. The resulting partial vacuum meant that the weight of the air — the atmospheric pressure — did the real lifting work. The steam was not there to push, but to be condensed and thus pull. It saw its first practical applications in the 1700s thanks to the work of a Devon ironmonger, Thomas Newcomen.

Science was important here. Newcomen’s engine could never have been conceived had it not been for the basic and not at all obvious observation that the air weighed something. It then required decades of experimentation with air pumps, barometers, and even gunpowder, before it was realised that a vacuum could rapidly be created through the condensation of steam rather than by trying to suck the air out with a pump. And it was still more decades before this observation was reliably applied to exerting force. An important factor in the creation of the steam engine was thus that there was a sufficiently large and well-organised group of people experimenting with the very nature of air, sharing their observations with one another and publishing — a group of people who, in England, formalised their socialising and correspondence in the early 1660s with the creation of the Royal Society.

Yet many of the early experimenters with the nature of air, such as Evangelista Torricelli, Otto von Guericke, Denis Papin, and Christiaan Huygens, were Italian, German, French, and Dutch. The likes of Huygens and Papin may have been involved with England’s Royal Society, but the institution was just a branch of a much broader network of European scientists. Why, then, did the scientific observations only find their practical application in England? One influential answer is to do with England’s resource costs, and especially the presence of coal mines. The economic historian Robert C. Allen, for example, while fully recognising the key role played by seventeenth-century science, argues that “had the British coal industry not existed, there would have been no point going to the expense of developing the steam engine”.

Allen explains that the early engines were so energy-hungry that they were only cost-effective if applied directly to the source of their own fuel: the coal mines. It was where the fuel was cheapest. Thus, Allen argues that as a result of Britain having lots of coal mines, the nascent steam engine was kept alive as a technology for long enough that it could be developed and improved by various other inventors, until such time as it could be made cost-effective to apply it to other kinds of mine and then to rotary motion too. As Britain simply had more coal mines than anywhere else, Allen argues, British-based inventors were thus responsible for more of the steam engine’s improvements. Coal was the cradle for the infant industry.

But I don’t think this is quite right. The devil here is in the detail. Allen himself notes that although the first engine was made public in 1712 at a coal mine, Thomas Newcomen’s earliest experiments with steam engines, c.1700-10, occurred in Cornwall. The problem for Allen’s narrative here is that the earliest engines would thus have been used for pumping mines of tin, not coal. Indeed, I can hardly think of a more expensive place than Cornwall to have tried to invent a coal-fuelled steam engine. I say this because just last week I noticed some interesting details about Cornish fuel supplies in the travel accounts of Celia Fiennes, who meticulously recorded her visit to Cornwall in 1698 — just a few years before Newcomen’s very first engines were erected. Fiennes noted the same problem that Newcomen specifically set out to solve, which was that the tin mines near Cornwall’s southern coast had recently become especially prone to flooding. But she also commented on severe shortages of two of the most necessary resources: Cornwall, Fiennes noted, was almost entirely devoid of wood, which was a crucial material in the construction of any kind of pumping engine, regardless of whether it was powered by horse, water, or steam. This startup cost was likely offset for Newcomen by the fact that the government in the 1700s had begun to subsidise tin production. Investment was thus forthcoming. (It helped that one of the most powerful British ministers was the Earl of Godolphin, a major Cornish owner of tin mines.) But the other noticeably lacking resource, at least in Cornwall’s south, was coal.

Cornwall’s coal was largely shipped from Wales or Bristol, on Britain’s western coast. Yet Fiennes noted that during wartime these ships found it much riskier to sail around Land’s End and into the English Channel, due to the threat from French pirates that might be lying in wait. Cornwall’s northern coast was thus able to get Bristol coal cheaply, but during wartime the southern coast was hardly supplied with any kind of fuel at all, be it coal or even firewood. Fiennes described how her supper could be boiled by burning the abundant local gorse, but that roasting a meal was reserved only for special occasions because it required scarce firewood. When Fiennes was writing, the Nine Years’ War had just ended and the southern coast of Cornwall was beginning to receive its regular coal and wood supplies again. But an even more extensive conflict with France . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 July 2020 at 3:01 pm

Posted in Business, Technology

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If you’re going to farm salmon, do it right — like this

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Michael Grunwald reports for Politico:

On a former tomato field near the tip of the Florida peninsula, in a remote expanse of shabby nurseries growing palm trees and garden plants at the edge of the Everglades, there’s an imposing new building that doesn’t seem to belong in an area that doesn’t seem to change. It has clean rectangular lines, fresh white paint and a footprint nearly as large as the downtown Miami Heat arena 40 miles and a world away. It’s the first piece of an industrial complex that—if all goes as planned—will grow 20 times larger over the next decade, and will reshape the future of food.

This so-called Bluehouse is on track to become the world’s biggest land-based fish farm over the next decade, eventually producing a billion meals a year on a campus the size of the Mall of America. And the fish it will start delivering to American customers this summer are as incongruous as the behemoth of a building itself: Atlantic salmon, a cold-water species that has never been found anywhere near Florida and is almost always flown into the United States from the fjords of Norway or the frigid bays of southern Chile. Now the Norwegian firm Atlantic Sapphire has moved its entire river-to-sea life cycle into indoor tanks, aiming to supply nearly half the current U.S. salmon diet from the sweltering subtropics.

The Bluehouse is a high-tech experiment in productivity and sustainability, a supersized aquatic version of greenhouse agriculture that aims to solve a host of environmental problems plaguing conventional salmon farms in coastal waters. Its red-fleshed fish are growing without antibiotics or pesticides, without exposure to seaborne diseases or parasites, without escapes that could allow them to endanger wild fish, and without damage to the overfished and overpolluted oceans. It’s also a well-timed experiment in simplified logistics. At a moment when the coronavirus is exposing the fragility of elaborate global food supply chains—China recently banned salmon imports after false rumors of contagion, while the U.S. meat industry has struggled to keep slaughterhouses open and supermarkets stocked—the Bluehouse is about to start harvesting American-made protein that doesn’t have to be packed in Styrofoam, handled by multiple middlemen, or shipped around the world in carbon-belching cargo planes.

The technical challenges of raising salmon that never see the outdoors are immense. Just this February, a nitrogen-poisoning mishap in a tank at the company’s pilot plant in rural Denmark killed 200,000 fish. It’s easier to manage cages in the sea than to build gigantic tanks on land, and President Donald Trump recently signed an executive order to make it even easier by relaxing environmental protections in marine waters, which could relieve some pressure for eco-friendly innovation in the U.S.

But if it works, Atlantic Sapphire’s push to help feed the world with less impact on the planet could be as transformative as better-publicized efforts by plant-based protein firms like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. Conventionally farmed salmon already produce fewer greenhouse-gas emissions than pork and far fewer than beef, and the Bluehouse’s designers believe they drive even more drastic reductions while leaving the seas alone. Like the fake-meat companies, Atlantic Sapphire will initially charge more than conventional salmon producers, but it’s betting not only that consumers will pay a price premium to try home-grown sustainable fish, but that they’ll make it part of their permanent routine. Investors seem to agree; the company is now worth nearly $1 billion on the Oslo stock exchange.

“You think of potatoes from Idaho, lobsters from Maine, and now you’ll think of fresh salmon from Florida,” says Atlantic Sapphire’s chief financial officer, Jose Prado. “This will be the new thing, because the world needs what we’re doing here.

What the world needs is sustainably grown protein for a steadily increasing population, and the Bluehouse could produce enormous amounts of it. By 2031, Atlantic Sapphire plans to grow 220,000 annual tons of salmon, or 44 percent of current U.S. consumption, on a 160-acre tract that once grew about 5,000 annual tons of tomatoes. As one industry expert quipped to me: That’s a lotta lox. To put it another way, the goal is to produce about 15 percent as many tons of food as Florida’s citrus industry produced last year on about 0.03 percent as much land.

Atlantic Sapphire’s big advantage over its competitors in the protein world will be efficiency; it’s on track to use just 1.05 pounds of feed for every pound of salmon filet, while cows devour more than six pounds of feed for every pound of beef. And while conventional salmon farms are nearly as efficient at converting fish feed into human food, their supply chains are far more complex. Traditional aquaculture operations have to move salmon from land-based hatcheries at the ends of the earth to near-shore “net pens” back to on-shore processing plants, then can take a week shipping filets on trucks to planes to more trucks to reach American groceries and restaurants. Atlantic Sapphire will do it all at the Bluehouse, then put the final product on trucks to be delivered fresh anywhere in the U.S. within a day.

The obvious question is why Florida, and the answer is an almost miraculous quirk of geology. The area’s stratified underground aquifers happen to provide pristine fresh water that can mimic the river stage for young salmon, abundant salt water that can mimic the estuary stage for mature salmon, and a boulder zone where wastewater can be disposed of safely.

The more important question is why grow fish on land in the first place, and that answer boils down to a combination of rising demand and limited supply. The world keeps eating more seafood, and U.S. salmon consumption has been increasing about 9 percent a year. But the wild catch from the oceans has been stagnant for decades, while conventional aquaculture that uses coastal net pens is being constrained by environmental and regulatory problems; the state of Washington actually banned salmon farming in Puget Sound. Since fishermen are struggling to pull more salmon out of the seas, and farmers are struggling to secure permits to grow more salmon in coastal waters, there’s been a frantic search for a new approach.

“This space is changing so fast right now, it’s hard to keep up,” says Halley Froehlich, an aquaculture expert at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

A variety of potential alternatives are racing to the marketplace. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 July 2020 at 9:56 am

But is it food? The world of cheap produce and its consequences

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Bee Wilson has written a number of excellent books on food — what it is, how it comes to our mouths, and what it does to us. She writes in the Times Literary Supplement:

f you want to make a roomful of people argue with each other, one of the fastest ways is to express any kind of opinion about “cheap food”. To some, it is perfectly obvious that cheap food is an evil that results in underpaid farmers, degraded land and tortured animals. To others, it is equally obvious that cheap food is the great safeguard that stands between poor people and hunger. To this second group, the attacks on cheap food look suspiciously like “And-where-do-you-shop?” snobbery from those who have never known the anxiety of feeding a family on benefits. But to the first group, most of the so-called cheap food in the world is not as cheap as it seems – the concept ignores the high external costs of industrial agriculture. As so often in heated debates, the two sides are arguing about different things. “Cheap food” has many faces, depending on whether you are a producer or a consumer and also whether you happen to have a shopping list in your hand.

Food retailers know that it is an unusual customer who does not look favourably on low prices – or “everyday value” as the supermarket Tesco has it. The same was true in Victorian London, where anyone who wanted to buy a pound of strawberries or some onions or a nice fresh herring for the lowest price would get it from a street seller called a costermonger. The word costermonger derives from a kind of large round apple called a “custard” (not to be confused with the Asian fruit the custard apple), but by 1850, these humble pedlars were selling not just apples but almost any edible item that a Victorian could want, from oysters to gooseberries, and from bloaters (a kind of smoked herring) to “penny lick” ice creams, which, as the name suggests, cost only a penny.

No one knows exactly how many costermongers there were in London during late Victorian times. Most food hawkers were illiterate and couldn’t fill out a census return even if they wanted to, which they probably didn’t. Given that they were frequently harassed by the police, these sellers tended to be distrustful of authority. In 1851, an official government census put the number of London food street sellers at 3,723, but the reformer Henry Mayhew said this was an “absurdly small” figure. Mayhew’s own research suggested that the true number of those hawking various kinds of fish, fruits and vegetables in London was 35,000, not to mention the thousands of other sellers touting anything from hot baked potatoes and pies to sandwiches and nuts. In the mid-1890s, Arthur Sherwell estimated that the number of London costers who were heads of families was 24,094, but this figure did not include unmarried costers or women; nor, crucially, did it include the thousands of young children on whom the trade depended. By the 1880s, those “penny lick” ice creams tended to be sold by Italian children, indentured to “padroni” who paid them little and made them sleep in cramped dwellings four or five to a bed.

We may not know how many Victorian street food sellers existed but what we do know is that their lives were close to intolerable. In the early 1900s, a middle-class reformer called Olive Christian Malvery tried to live for a while as a coster but quit after a month, exhausted by the 4 am starts, long walks to the market, and days spent touting in all weather. Rainy days were bad news for costermongers not only because they had to stand shivering in the wet and cold, but also because there were so few customers – a couple of days of wet weather could mean starvation. Then again, one costermonger reported that “hundreds of us find the length of even a summer’s day entirely too short for our main purpose, which is to keep the wolf from the door”. As the geographer Sébastien Rioux writes in The Social Cost of Cheap Food, which covers almost a century of British food politics, from 1830 to 1914, “Costers worked up to eighteen hours a day and still starved at the end of it”. Henry Mayhew described an eight-year-old girl coster who was so “pale and thin with privation” that she was “wrinkled where dimples ought to have been”. Her job required her to get to Farringdon Market between 4 and 5 in the morning every day. Her only food, twice a day, was two slices of bread and butter with a cup of tea. On Sundays she got a scrap of meat.

The “unattainable dream” for costers, according to Rioux, was to make enough money to invest in a wheelbarrow or donkey cart rather than having to haul around all of their stock in a heavy tray or basket. The vast majority of them never achieved this goal, given that their average income in the 1850s was 10 shillings a week and a barrow cost 25 to 40 shillings. To be a costermonger was often a last refuge for immigrants, “unskilled” or injured workers, who could not find any other work; but it was not much of a refuge, even by the standards of the rest of the Victorian working class.

In 1904 a doctor called Alfred Eicholz observed that 90 per cent of the costermonger boys he saw in Lambeth, Newington and Walworth were suffering from anaemia and many of them had blight in their eyes and prematurely ageing skin. Adult costers also had severe health problems, both physical and mental. In the 1880s, a study had found that the rate of mortality among costermongers was twice as high as the average across all occupations. Street sellers ranked “tenth for liver disease, eighth for gout, fourth for urinary infections, second for diseases of the nervous system, first for diseases of the circulatory system and first for suicide”.

To respectable Victorian society, the misery and degradation of street sellers was largely seen as a thing apart from the main economy. Costers were part of what were sometimes called the “dangerous classes”, who were regarded as an exception to the rule of Victorian progress. These vendors were often subjected to fines or even imprisonment by the police for obstructing the traffic. In 1893 a social reformer called Helen Dendy argued in a speech at the Economic Club that this street-selling class was “economically dead” and had “no real use” in a “modern economy”. Rioux argues that this analysis was not only judgemental but wrong. “Far from being anachronistic figures, these castaways of industrial capitalism were indeed essential to its functioning.” Rioux’s thesis is that the substantial rise in living conditions in the British working classes as a whole after 1870 would have been impossible without the cheap labour provided by costermongers as well as by other food sellers such as shopkeepers and market traders, many of whom also depended on child labour.

The misery of the costermongers was not an exception to the rule of economic “progress”, but one of the conditions that made this progress possible, argues Rioux. The greatest cause of the costermongers’ suffering was also the greatest thing that they had to offer to their customers: cheap food. Costers operated on tiny profit margins precisely because they competed so fiercely with each other for customers. Rioux quotes John Denton, a costermonger at Spitalfields who noted that “We have to buy cheap, because if we did not buy cheap we could not sell cheap, and if we could not sell cheap we could not sell a quantity, and if we did not sell a quantity it would not pay us”. These cheap prices were a boon to other workers as well as to middle-class housewives, who often frequented costermongers.

The period from the 1870s to the start of the First World War saw a steep rise in working-class living standards in Britain, much of it underpinned by a vast array of cheap imported foods. Thanks to new refrigerated steamships and a growing railway network, such items as butter, eggs and meat could be transported from as far afield as New Zealand and Argentina. The British started to eat butter from Denmark; oranges and grapes from Spain; mutton from Argentina; bacon and cheese from the United States; wheat from Canada. The percentage of meat consumed in Britain that was imported rose from 13.6 per cent in 1872 to 42.3 per cent in 1912. The influx of these new cheap food imports gave many in the working classes a much more varied and tasty diet than before. Eggs were no longer a luxury and as the price of imported fruit fell, many in the cities started eating oranges and bananas for the first time. They could only afford to buy these foods because the costers who sold them kept the prices too low to allow themselves a decent life. By the same token, big shopkeepers kept food prices down by forcing employees to work long hours for low pay. A ninety-hour week was not uncommon for a clerk in a Victorian grocer shop, but these hours still might not deliver a wage large enough to live on, despite the cheapness of food.

Cheap food, Rioux convincingly posits, is the answer to the question of how modern free market societies have succeeded in shoring up living standards for workers even in the face of stagnating wages. In a capitalist society, viewed from the point of view of consumers, cheap food looks like an unequivocal democratic good, because it enables people to feed themselves, even on relatively low incomes. Cheap food, Rioux explains, can counter-balance “the structural effects of pay cuts, temporary unemployment, and economic uncertainty”. The missing part of the picture, however, is that cheap food is also one of the factors pushing large swathes of the workforce into exploitation and poverty. Cheap food and cheap labour go hand in hand, and this is as true today in the US as it was in London in the 1880s, as Rioux discusses in his conclusion:

Out of the twenty occupations with the lowest median wages in 2012 [in the US], at least a third of them were directly related to food distribution, including cashiers; counter attendants in cafeterias, food concessions and coffee shops; cooks in fast food restaurants; hosts and hostesses; and waitresses and waiters. With an annual income of about $20,000 for full-time work, most of these workers are locked into poverty wages.

Around the world, food service workers have been some of those hit hardest by the economic effects of the coronavirus lockdown. At the end of April, the Guardian reported that many of those sleeping rough on the streets of London were now out-of-work chefs and waiters or people who had been working in hotels and pubs. It has been peculiarly shocking to realize that these employees who had worked so hard to provide the rest of us with delicious things to eat for so many years should now be without food or shelter.

Tim Lang, professor of Food Policy at City, University of London, presumably sees coronavirus as having brought to the surface fault lines that have long been present in the UK food system. Customers prefer cheap food and, as he points out in Feeding Britain, hospitality workers were already in a precarious state, with 200,000 of them paid below the minimum wage in 2018. Lang argues that despite its plenty, the UK food system is more insecure than it seems. Written well before the pandemic, these observations seem remarkably prescient. . .

Continue reading. There’s more, and this is important.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 July 2020 at 5:14 pm

AI pays off: Why Is Glass Rigid? Signs of Its Secret Structure Emerge.

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John Pavlus writes in Quanta:

Most materials derive their macroscopic properties from their microscopic structure. A steel rod is hard, for instance, because its atoms form a repeating crystalline pattern that remains static over time. Water parts around your foot when you dip it into a lake because fluids don’t have that structure; their molecules move around randomly.

Then there’s glass, a strange in-between substance that has puzzled physicists for decades. Take a snapshot of the molecules in glass, and they’ll appear disordered just like a liquid’s. But most of the molecules barely move, making the material rigid like a solid.

Glass is formed by cooling certain liquids. But why the molecules in the liquid slow down so dramatically at a certain temperature, with no obvious corresponding change in their structural arrangement — a phenomenon known as the glass transition — is a major open question.

Now, researchers at DeepMind, a Google-owned artificial intelligence company, have used AI to study what’s happening to the molecules in glass as it hardens. DeepMind’s artificial neural network was able to predict how the molecules move over extremely long timescales, using only a “snapshot” of their physical arrangement at one moment in time. According to DeepMind’s Victor Bapst, even though the microscopic structure of a glass appears featureless, “the structure is maybe more predictive of the dynamics than people thought.”

Peter Harrowell, who studies the glass transition at the University of Sydney, agrees. He said the new work “makes a stronger case” than ever before that in glass, “structure somehow encodes for the dynamics,” and so glass isn’t as disordered as a liquid after all.

Predicting Propensity

To understand what microscopic changes cause the glass transition, physicists need to relate two kinds of data: how the molecules in a glass are arranged in space, and how they (slowly) move over time. One way to link these is with a quantity called dynamic propensity: how much a set of molecules is likely to have moved by some specific time in the future, given their current positions. This evolving quantity comes from calculating the molecules’ trajectories using Newton’s laws, starting with many different random initial velocities and then averaging the outcomes together.

By simulating these molecular dynamics, computers can generate “propensity maps” for thousands of glass molecules — but only on timescales of trillionths of a second. And molecules in glass, by definition, move extremely slowly. Computing their propensity to a horizon of seconds or more is “just impossible [for] normal computers because it takes too much time,” said Giulio Biroli, a condensed matter physicist at the École Normale Supérieure in France.

What’s more, Biroli said, merely turning the crank on these simulations doesn’t produce much insight for physicists about what structural features, if any, could be causing the molecular propensities in glass.

DeepMind’s researchers set out to train an AI system to predict propensities in glass without actually running the simulations, and to try to understand where these propensities come from. They used a special kind of artificial neural network that takes graphs — collections of nodes connected by lines — as input. Each node in the graph represents a molecule’s three-dimensional position in the glass; lines between nodes represent how far apart molecules are from each other. Since neural networks “learn” by changing their own structure to reflect the structure of their inputs, “the graph neural network is very well suited to represent particles’ interaction,” Bapst said.

Bapst and his colleagues first used the results of simulations to train their AI system: They created a virtual cube of glass comprising 4,096 molecules, simulated the evolution of the molecules based on 400 unique starting positions at various temperatures, and computed the particles’ propensities in each case. After training the neural network to accurately predict these propensities, the researchers next fed 400 previously unseen particle configurations — “snapshots” of the glass molecules’ configurations — into the trained network.

Using only these structural snapshots, the neural network predicted the molecules’ propensities at different temperatures with unprecedented accuracy, reaching 463 times further into the future than the previous state-of-the-art machine learning prediction method.

Correlated Clues

According to Biroli, the DeepMind neural network’s ability to predict molecules’ future movements based on a mere snapshot of their current structure provides a powerful new way to explore the dynamics of glasses, and potentially other materials as well.

But what pattern did the network detect in those snapshots in order to make its predictions? The system can’t . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 July 2020 at 5:56 pm

The remote British village that built one of the UK’s fastest Internet networks

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Telecomms took direct action to prevent this sort of thing from being done in the US, a country now controlled by large corporations. Kiri Allmann reports in Ars Technica:

Nestled between Lancashire’s stand-out beauty, the Forest of Bowland, and the breathtaking vistas of the Yorkshire Dales, the serene, postcard-perfect village of Clapham seems far removed from the COVID-19 pandemic. But when the British government announced a nationwide lockdown in mid-March, Clapham went on high alert.

Local residents formed what they dubbed “Clapham COBRA,” a volunteer emergency response initiative that aimed to mitigate the negative effects of isolation by sharing information, delivering supplies, and checking in on one another. Like many rural villages, Clapham is fairly geographically isolated and home to an ageing population, with most of its roughly 600 residents over the age of 45. But when it came to confronting extreme isolation, it also has a unique advantage: unlike much of rural England, Clapham boasts one of the best Internet connections in the country—and the locals built it themselves.

Ann Sheridan remembers well the moment she got Broadband for the Rural North, known as “B4RN” (pronounced “barn”), to her farm in Clapham in March 2016. She recounted to me over the phone:

I remember my next door neighbors nearly coming to blows because their son downloaded the whole series of Game of Thrones on a 2 megabits per second (Mbps) Internet connection. And none of them could do anything else on the Internet for days, right? So it was obvious that if the community wasn’t going to be left behind … we had to do something.

B4RN started planning to roll out its fiber-to-the-home network in Clapham in 2014, and by the end of 2018, around 180 homes out of 300 in the village had been hooked up with an affordable full gigabit-per-second symmetrical connection (currently only around 10% of homes in Britain are even capable of receiving such a connection). The speeds are impressive, especially in a rural context where Internet connectivity lags horrendously behind urban areas in Britain. Rural download speeds average around 28Mbps, compared to 62.9Mbps on average in urban areas. B4RN, meanwhile, delivers 1,000Mbps.

The Internet is more important than ever during the lockdown, where lack of access exposes other inequalities in Internet use and skills. But B4RN means much more to digitally and geographically isolated communities than the Internet service it provides.

A community network

B4RN is registered as a Community Benefit Society, which means the business belongs to the communities who need it: community members own the enterprise, and in B4RN’s case, they also actually build a lot of the infrastructure themselves. As a result, the process of “getting” B4RN involves a substantial commitment—of time, training, money, and physical labor.

Ann Sheridan was a B4RN “champions,” meaning that she headed the volunteer effort to build B4RN in her village. The role involved “all kinds of things,” she recalls. Building a fiber-optic Internet network from scratch involves a steep learning curve and a lot of teamwork. Community members need to map their coverage area, secure permissions (called wayleaves) to cross their neighbors’ land, and dig trenches across fields and gardens to lay plastic ducting for the fiber-optic cable.
In the end, the connections B4RN facilitates in a place like Clapham are more than technological—they’re personal. And the impact of those connections is especially evident now. “Everybody in the village knows every everyone, it was like that anyway,” Sheridan explains. “But B4RN put rocket boosters under it.”

Over the last year, I have visited and spoken with people in many different communities that have had a hand in building B4RN, and each time I have heard a similar story: you dig B4RN into your own back garden, but B4RN also digs into you. The mutual understanding and genuine friendships fostered among local people during the building process last well beyond the installation itself. In Clapham, the collaborative effort that went into B4RN contributed to a pre-existing rapport that helped in the face of the coronavirus lockdown.

As Sheridan put it: “We know each other. We know our strengths and weaknesses, so we can just crack on with things.”

The connectivity divide

B4RN was born of necessity. To date, traditional profit-making telecommunications companies have struggled to reach rural communities. Mobile coverage lags behind, too: 83% of urban premises have complete 4G coverage, but in rural areas, it’s just 41%. In some areas, including many of the places B4RN operates, there’s no coverage whatsoever.

A major reason for this disparity is that private telecom companies have few financial incentives to extend their networks to rural areas. More physical infrastructure is needed to reach scattered villages and homes, and there are rarely enough potential paying customers in these sparsely populated areas to offset the costs.

Government incentives, such as subsidies and voucher schemes, have helped to spur private companies to take on less commercially viable “builds,” but companies are still slow to carry them out and tend to prioritise bolstering existing infrastructure over building entirely new networks. Year on year, the pervasive digitisation of everyday life, from banking to entertainment, has made this rural-urban digital divide even more profound.

According to the UK’s telecommunications regulator Ofcom, around 11% of rural premises cannot access even a 10 Mbps connection, and although Ofcom observes 95% coverage of “superfast” broadband (30 Mbps) nationwide, those statistics are collected from telecom companies themselves. Rural users often describe much worse service.

In a 2019 survey of National Farmers Union members, 30% said they experienced less than a 2Mbps connection, and only 17% could access a 24Mbps connection. Rural communities are getting left behind, and their experiences of disconnection are invisible in aggregate statistics.

“I wanted broadband”

On arrival in Lancashire in spring 2019, I met Chris Conder, a straight-talking farmer’s wife who was arguably the driving force behind B4RN. Her unwavering campaign for broadband for her village, Wray, has spanned almost two decades and spurred more than one experimental infrastructure project. Like many people I’ve spoken to in rural villages, Conder’s desire for broadband was personal.

“I was a carer for granddad, who had dementia,” Conder told me. Getting him proper care at their rural farm was difficult, but she had heard about telemedicine, and it seemed like exactly the thing she needed.

I would ring the doctor, and I would say, look he’s just thrown the newspaper in the fire and nearly set fire to the house because he’s read something in it that upset him, or he’s fallen on the floor, will you please send somebody out? And the doctor would send the psychiatric nurse a week on Tuesday. And when the psychiatric nurse came, there was a lovely old man sat in his chair, drinking his tea, happy as Larry. So, I couldn’t get any help with his medication, and his condition got worse and worse. And I knew I could do video conferencing if I had broadband, so I tried everything to get broadband … I just thought, if only the doctor could see what he was doing, he would say, oh my goodness, yes, let’s just change his medication.

At first, she investigated options through a major telecom provider. But the costs were high, and villages would have to endure a long wait. In some cases, communities were told to raise tens of thousands of pounds for a company to install a fiber cabinet nearby, but when it arrived, speeds in people’s homes, which were often miles away from the cabinet connection, were still abysmal.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had someone visit us without their own car,” I remember Conder saying on the phone to me in 2018, when I was planning that first excursion up to B4RN from Oxford. . .

Continue reading. There’s more — much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 July 2020 at 11:19 am

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