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The Tech Elite’s Favorite Pop Intellectual: Julia Galef on bringing the rationalist movement to the mainstream.

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Benjamin Wallace writes in New York:

n 2012, Julia Galef, the host of a podcast called Rationally Speaking, moved from New York to Berkeley to help found a nonprofit called the Center for Applied Rationality. It was the early days of the rationalist movement: a community formed on the internet whose adherents strove to strip their minds of cognitive biases and subject all spheres of life to the glare of scientific thought and probabilistic reasoning. Galef and her CFAR co-founders — mathematician Anna Salamon, research scientist Andrew Critch, and math and science educator Michael Smith — wanted to translate these principles to everyday life. They did this through multiday workshops, where participants could learn to make better decisions using techniques like “goal factoring” (breaking a goal into smaller pieces) and “paired debugging” (in which two people help identify each other’s blind spots and distortions).

Over the next several years, as rationalism became not only the de facto brand of self-help in Silicon Valley but also an intellectual movement followed by pundits and executives alike, CFAR’s profile grew; soon, the nonprofit was running workshops across the country and teaching classes at Facebook and the Thiel Fellowship. But for CFAR’s founders, it was the empirical confirmation of their work that mattered most. Early on, they began conducting a controlled study to determine whether the workshops were demonstrably helpful. They surveyed 40 participants, assessing their before-and-after answers to questions like “How together is your life?” and “How successful do you feel in your social life?” The study found that, one year after the workshop ended, participants showed decreased neuroticism and increased self-efficacy, but to Galef, the results weren’t sufficiently rigorous. “What was it about the workshop?” she says. “Was it the classes or hanging out with like-minded people that makes the difference?” Conducting more tests would have been too expensive. “My vision was we’d come up with hypotheses about techniques, keep the ones that work, and discard the ones that don’t. It turned out to be much harder than I’d realized.”

In 2016, Galef left CFAR, unsatisfied with what she had been able to accomplish there. Instead, she began working on her first book, which, after five years, will be published by Penguin on April 13. The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t is a fitting debut for someone who has considered herself a “populizer” of the rationalist movement. “I take these ideas I think are great and try to explain them to a wider audience,” she says.

When we speak over Zoom, Galef is in Franklin, North Carolina, her face evenly lit by the ring lamp she travels with. Since she and her fiancé left their San Francisco studio this past July, they’ve been doing the digital-nomad thing. Right now, they are near Great Smoky Mountains National Park in a golf-course Airbnb. Galef holds her laptop camera up to the window, revealing a burbling creek outside. “It suits our personalities and lifestyle,” she says. “We both work remotely” — he’s a program officer focused on artificial intelligence at the effective-altruism organization Open Philanthropy — “we’re both introverts, we’re both minimalists, and we both like novelty.”

To the extent that the rationalist movement has been written about, its eccentricities have tended to get outsize attention: Some rationalists live in group houses with names like Event Horizon and Godric’s Hollow; polyamory and a preoccupation with the existential risk posed by AI are both overrepresented. In opposition to mainstream online culture, which believes that certain arguments should be off-limits, the rationalsphere wants to be able to talk about anything. Slate Star Codex — recently renamed Astral Codex Ten — the most prominent rationalist blog, has caused controversy by countenancing free-flowing discussion of topics such as race science and female harassment of men. And because of their devotion to hyperanalysis, some members of the community can present as arrogant and lacking in EQ.

Galef, however, is an amiable ambassador for the movement, adept at distilling its concepts in an accessible and plainspoken manner. The speech of rationalists is heavy on the vernacular, often derived from programming language: “updating your priors” (keeping an open mind), “steel-manning” (arguing with the strongest version of whatever point your opponent is making), “double-cruxing” (trying to get to the root of a disagreement). But . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 April 2021 at 3:11 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

Toilets – what will it take to fix them?

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Josie Glausiusz has an interesting book review in Nature:

Pipe Dreams: The Urgent Global Quest to Transform the Toilet Chelsea Wald Avid Reader/Simon & Schuster (2021)

Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret Catherine Coleman Flowers The New Press (2020)

Since the sixth century BC, when the Romans began building their Cloaca Maxima (“Greatest Sewer”), a safe sewage system has epitomized civilization. More than two millennia later, one Victorian novelist called a good sewer “nobler” and “holier” than the most admired Madonna ever painted. For sound reasons: the construction of a massive London sewer network in the 1860s ended waterborne epidemics of cholera that had killed tens of thousands of people. In 2007, more than 11,300 readers of The BMJ chose the sanitary revolution — the introduction of clean water and sewage disposal — as the most important medical milestone since 1840.

The need for innovative toilets is enormous. In 2017, two billion people lacked a minimally adequate toilet, and 673 million people still had to defecate in the open. Poor sanitation is linked to the transmission of diseases including cholera, typhoid, polio, hepatitis A and trachoma. Access to clean water and sanitation for all by 2030 is one of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but the cost of achieving this is tens of billions of dollars per year, as two new books explore: Pipe Dreams, by Chelsea Wald; and Waste, by Catherine Coleman Flowers.

Today, “toilets no longer look quite so miraculous as they once did”, writes Wald in her deeply researched, entertaining and impassioned exploration of sanitation ancient and innovative. As cities grow, their aged sewage infrastructures become overwhelmed, especially during storms. Once-noble conduits are now frequently clogged by fatbergs, vast accretions of grease and wet wipes with the consistency of concrete and the weight of several elephants.

“Modern sanitation infrastructure has created the illusion that our excreta just disappear like magic,” Wald writes. “But poop doesn’t just drive down the highway into the sunset.” Often, it remains untreated, poisoning people and ecosystems. A new generation of toilets is needed, she argues: one that squanders less water, nutrients and energy. And so Wald travels from Alaska to Indonesia and many places in-between, interviewing scientists, public-health officials and toilet entrepreneurs.

Many countries are edging their way towards the SDGs by implementing inventive sanitation projects at minimal expense. In the town of Sneek in the Netherlands, Wald visits a company called DeSaH, which has put vacuum toilets into more than 200 apartments, whooshing away waste and treating it in a small local facility. Each toilet uses 1 litre of water per flush, compared with the usual eight. Vacuum systems are in use at sites in wealthy nations including the Netherlands and Sweden, and at Bloomberg’s European headquarters in London. But scaling up this water-saving technology on a global scale is challenging, Wald notes, given financial and other hurdles.

In Kenya, a social enterprise named Sanivation collects human faeces, treats it and presses it into “poop briquettes” for fuel, Wald writes. The company has sold 1,500 tonnes of the small spheres so far, saving 88 trees for every tonne. In Indonesia, where there are few sewers, Wald shadows “sanitation entrepreneur” Koen Irianto Uripan, who put thousands of fibreglass septic tanks in the yards of homes in the city of Surabaya. With jokes and a papier-mâché poop prop, Uripan markets a cheap, easily installed indoor toilet connected to one of these tanks, in which bacteria break down waste. The work is part of a much larger, countrywide campaign to reduce the number of people who have to defecate in the open.

Our universal disgust over excretion inspires both humour and anxiety. The ancient Babylonians recognized a privy demon called Šulak that could trigger bad luck, injury or illness. In the Jewish tradition, rabbis composed blessings for angels who accompanied a person to the “house of the chair” and waited outside, and a blessing is recited on exiting the lavatory.

But fear is all too real for those without secure and hygienic toilets. Women who must share with strangers, or go outdoors, are at greatly increased risk of being raped, studies in South Africa and India have shown1,2. Toilets with doors that lock from the inside, and have shelves for clean menstrual products, can help women and girls — cisgender and transgender — to feel safe and dignified; and those still at school will be less likely to skip classes. In Durban, South Africa, among other places, city planners have refitted shipping containers for the purpose. . .

Continue reading. There’s more.≠

Written by LeisureGuy

12 April 2021 at 4:02 pm

“After Working at Google, I’ll Never Let Myself Love a Job Again”

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Emil Nietfeld, a software engineer, learns that corporations, as persons, are sociopaths. She writes in the NY Times:

I used to be a Google engineer. That often feels like the defining fact about my life. When I joined the company after college in 2015, it was at the start of a multiyear reign atop Forbes’s list of best workplaces.

I bought into the Google dream completely. In high school, I spent time homeless and in foster care, and was often ostracized for being nerdy. I longed for the prestige of a blue-chip job, the security it would bring and a collegial environment where I would work alongside people as driven as I was.

What I found was a surrogate family. During the week, I ate all my meals at the office. I went to the Google doctor and the Google gym. My colleagues and I piled into Airbnbs on business trips, played volleyball in Maui after a big product launch and even spent weekends together, once paying $170 and driving hours to run an obstacle course in the freezing rain.

My manager felt like the father I wished I’d had. He believed in my potential and cared about my feelings. All I wanted was to keep getting promoted so that as his star rose, we could keep working together. This gave purpose to every task, no matter how grueling or tedious.

The few people who’d worked at other companies reminded us that there was nowhere better. I believed them, even when my technical lead — not my manager, but the man in charge of my day-to-day work — addressed me as “beautiful” and “gorgeous,” even after I asked him to stop. (Finally, I agreed that he could call me “my queen.”) He used many of our one-on-one meetings to ask me to set him up with friends, then said he wanted “A blonde. A tall blonde.” Someone who looked like me.

Saying anything about his behavior meant challenging the story we told ourselves about Google being so special. The company anticipated our every need — nap pods, massage chairs, Q-Tips in the bathroom, a shuttle system to compensate for the Bay Area’s dysfunctional public transportation — until the outside world began to seem hostile. Google was the Garden of Eden; I lived in fear of being cast out.

When I talked to outsiders about the harassment, they couldn’t understand: I had one of the sexiest jobs in the world. How bad could it be? I asked myself this, too. I worried that I was taking things personally and that if anyone knew I was upset, they’d think I wasn’t tough enough to hack it in our intense environment.

So I didn’t tell my manager about my tech lead’s behavior for more than a year. Playing along felt like the price of inclusion. I spoke up only when it looked like he would become an official manager — my manager — replacing the one I adored and wielding even more power over me. At least four other women said that he’d made them uncomfortable, in addition to two senior engineers who already made it clear that they wouldn’t work with him.

As soon as my complaint with H.R. was filed, Google went from being a great workplace to being any other company: It would protect itself first. I’d structured my life around my job — exactly what they wanted me to do — but that only made the fallout worse when I learned that the workplace that I cherished considered me just an employee, one of many and disposable.

The process stretched out for nearly three months. In the meantime I had to have one-on-one meetings with my harasser and sit next to him. Every time I asked for an update on the timeline and expressed my discomfort at having to continue to work in proximity to my harasser, the investigators said that I could seek counseling, work from home or go on leave. I later learned that Google had similar responses to other employees who reported racism or sexism. Claire Stapleton, one of the 2018 walkout organizers, was encouraged to take leave, and Timnit Gebru, a lead researcher on Google’s Ethical AI team, was encouraged to seek mental health care before being forced out.

I resisted. How would being alone by myself all day, apart from my colleagues, friends and support system, possibly help? And I feared that if I stepped away, the company wouldn’t continue the investigation.

Eventually, the investigators corroborated my claims and found my tech lead violated the Code of Conduct and the policy against harassment. My harasser still sat next to me. My manager told me H.R. wouldn’t even make him change his desk, let alone work from home or go on leave. He also told me that my harasser received a consequence that was severe and that I would feel better if I could know what it was, but it sure seemed like nothing happened.

The aftermath of speaking up had broken me down. It dredged up the betrayals of my past that I’d gone into tech trying to overcome. I’d made myself vulnerable to my manager and the investigators but felt I got nothing solid in return. I was constantly on edge from seeing my harasser in the hallways and at the cafes. When people came up behind my desk, I startled more and more easily, my scream echoing across the open-floor-plan office. I worried I’d get a poor performance review, ruining my upward trajectory and setting my career back even further.

I went weeks without sleeping through the night.

I decided to take three months of paid leave. I feared that going on leave would set me back for promotion in a place where almost everyone’s progress is public and seen as a measure of an engineer’s worth and expertise. Like most of my colleagues, I’d built my life around the company. It could so easily be taken away. People on leave weren’t supposed to enter the office — where I went to the gym and had my entire social life.

Fortunately, I still had a job when I got back. If anything, I was more eager than ever to excel, to make up for lost time. I was able to earn a very high performance rating — my second in a row. But it seemed clear I would not be a candidate for promotion. After my leave, the manager I loved started treating me as fragile. He tried to analyze me, suggesting that I drank too much caffeine, didn’t sleep enough or needed more cardiovascular exercise. Speaking out irreparably damaged one of my most treasured relationships. Six months after my return, when I broached the subject of promotion, he told me, “People in wood houses shouldn’t light matches.”

When I didn’t get a promotion, some of my stock grants ran out and so I effectively took a big pay cut. Nevertheless, I wanted to stay at Google. I still believed, despite everything, that Google was the best company in the world. Now I see that my judgment was clouded, but after years of idolizing my workplace, I couldn’t imagine life beyond its walls.

So I interviewed with and got offers from two other top tech companies, hoping that Google would match. In response,  . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 April 2021 at 12:43 pm

One knot, five applications

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Back in the day — way back in the day — when I was in Cub Scouts I was fascinated by knots. Of course there are the square knot and the granny knot everyone knows, but I liked the sheet bend, the sheepshank, the clove hitch, the timber hitch, the bowline (an essential knot), the bowline on a bight (in part, I think, I like the names). This list of knots is animated, so if you click knot, you see it being tied.

John Donne was partial to knots himself, and they appear frequently in his poems. Knots carry with them a kind of history in the context of how they were used. The Gordian knot has entered common language. The mathematics of knots is formidable and fruitful. Knotted breads (pretzels, braided loaves, and the like) please and delight.

IMO, every young person should learn well how to tie a few dozen knots and understand their use.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 April 2021 at 3:07 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

Cool tool for those who must feed a fireplace or wood stove

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Written by LeisureGuy

8 April 2021 at 7:59 pm

Why you can’t compare Covid-19 vaccines

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Written by LeisureGuy

2 April 2021 at 9:51 am

Induction burner update and upgrade

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I grow increasingly suspicious of Wirecutter’s recommendations. They support the site through affiliate links, near as I can tell, and thus have a conflict of interest built in. Their top rated induction burner was the Duxtop 9100MC 1800-watt induction burner, which turns out to have only a 4″ coil, so the enter of your pot or pan is heated by the burner and from there heat must be conducted to the full cooking surface. This works fairly well for small pans and for larger pans with a core that conducts heat efficiently (e.g., All-Clad Copper Core or All-Clad d3  Stainless, which has an aluminum core), but it doesn’t work so well with cast-iron and in particular with 12″ cast-iron skillets.

After reading the Cook’s Illustrated review (CI is supported by subscription fees, so less likely to have overt conflicts of interest), I have ordered a Max Burton 6450 1800-watt Digital Induction cooktop, which has a 6.3″ coil. At the link they explain the drawbacks (beyond price) of a 9″-coil model . (Note to click “Read more” at the link.)

The ideal would be a Bosch 800 Series 30 in. 4.6 cu. ft. Slide-In Induction Range with Self-Cleaning Convection Oven in Stainless Steel, but that’s not going to happen.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 April 2021 at 3:08 pm

Explore the Louvre’s Entire Collection of 480,000 Artworks in a New Digital Database

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Colossal notes:

The Louvre just launched a new online database compiling more than 480,000 artworks from its collections and those at the Musée National Eugène-Delacroix and The Tuileries Garden. Spanning Egyptian antiquities and medieval sculpture to Renaissance and modern decorative arts, the free digital catalog includes works on long-term loan and is complete with an interactive map to pursue each room of the French institution. Some pieces are grouped into albums, including one collating 2020’s acquisitions and another dedicated to the National Museums Recovery, a collection of works gathered after World War II that’s being held by the Louvre until they’re claimed by their rightful beneficiaries. Dive into the entire archive, which is updated daily, on the museum’s site.

Do click that Colossal link above — the page has several images from the Louvre collection.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 April 2021 at 10:57 am

Posted in Art, Daily life, Technology

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

“Why we can’t have nice things” — Planned obsolescence

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I found this video very interesting, but it does not mention the benign aspect of planned obsolescence: if you expect a device — a washing machine, for example — to have a useful life of 15 years, don’t put a motor guaranteed to last 100 years in it (since that would drive up the cost for no purpose).

Written by LeisureGuy

30 March 2021 at 12:25 pm

The History of the Pivot Table, The Spreadsheet’s Most Powerful Tool

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Dan Knopf writes in Quartz:

Pivot tables are the quickest and most powerful way for the average person to analyze large datasets. No coding skills or mathematical brilliance are necessary—just the ability to point and click your mouse.

But don’t take our word for it. Pivot tables had a superfan in none other than Apple founder Steve Jobs, who immediately saw their genius.

In 1985, Jobs was forced out of his role as chairman of the board at Apple after failing to beat IBM in the business computer market. Fortunately, he was a stubborn man. Jobs immediately started the company NeXT, with the idea of taking on IBM once again.

As he developed the NeXT computer, which would launch in 1988, Jobs was looking for killer software programs to create demand for the product. From his experience at Apple, he knew that a good spreadsheet program could drive sales. Jobs credited VisiCalc, the first widely used spreadsheet software, for the huge success of the Apple II computer, released in 1979.

In his search for that need-to-have product, Jobs met with software company Lotus. The organization had already developed Lotus 1-2-3, a popular spreadsheet program that ran on IBM computers. It was in these meetings that Jobs would first stumble upon the “pivot table.”

Software developer Pito Salas was at the time working in research and development for Lotus, looking into how people typically utilize spreadsheets. Salas saw that users would often use spreadsheets to try to calculate summary statistics by categories (often referred to as crosstabs). For example, a company selling bicycles might want to examine their data to find unit sales by month or revenue by country. The way people did that at the time was cumbersome and error-prone because it involved writing complicated formulas.

Salas decided the world needed software that would make those calculations simple. Rather than enter formulas, users would be able to point and click to get those summary statistics. The Lotus team called this tool “flexible views,” but today similar tools are called “pivot tables” in both Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets.

The Lotus team showed Jobs an early prototype. “Steve Jobs thought it was the coolest thing ever,” Salas, now a professor at Brandeis University, tells Quartz. Jobs then convinced Lotus to develop the pivot table software exclusively for the NeXT computer. The software came out as Lotus Improv, and though the NeXT computer was a commercial failure, Lotus Improv would be hugely influential. The “flexible views” aspect of Improv would be built into both Lotus 1-2-3 and Excel (the latter was the first to actually use the term “pivot table”).

Bill Jelen, Excel evangelist and co-author of Pivot Table Data Crunching, credits Salas as the “father of pivot tables.” Salas says his contribution to pivot tables is one of his life’s most gratifying accomplishments, though he believes he was just building on the foundations of many others.

Today, pivot tables are among the most important and commonly used tools in the spreadsheet wizard’s toolbox. “A pivot table lets you create a one-page summary report from hundreds of thousands of rows of data, often in four, five, or six clicks,” says Jelen. “It is the fastest way to get answers from large datasets.”

It’s hard to know exactly how . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 March 2021 at 11:44 am

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

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

Bob Kramer: The Kitchen Bladesmith

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I have a Bob Kramer kitchen knife — the one pictured above — though Bob Kramer himself made only the middle rivet in the handle. However, he did design the knife and specify it and oversaw production, and it’s quite a nice knife. (I do kind of wish I had bought the stainless version — carbon steel requires extra care because it’s so prone to rust, though it take takes a lovely sharp edge.) Both those knives are the result of the request from Sur La Table mentioned below, and in fact I bought mine from Sur La Table four years ago.

Todd Openheimer’s article, profusely illustrated, appears in Craftsmanship magazine. It begins:

 

Editor’s Note: The original version of this story was published in The New Yorker in November, 2008, under the title, “Sharper: Bob Kramer and the secret lives of knives.” This longer adaptation takes the reader deeper into Kramer’s background, his visits with fellow master bladesmiths in Japan, and his idiosyncratic pursuit of perfection. It also includes photographs, videos, and a new sidebar on Kramer’s recent quest to make a knife out of a meteorite.

One fall evening in 2007, I headed down to my basement to sharpen a collection of kitchen knives, in preparation for a dawn outing to dive for abalone on the Northern California coast. I took on this task because the meat of an abalone, a kind of giant sea snail found in only a few areas of the world, is slimy and dense, like a flexed muscle, so it must be sliced thin and hammered mercilessly before being cooked and served. Without a sharp knife, the task of cleaning and trimming abalone becomes an act of crude carpentry, and a potentially bloody one.

Down in my basement workshop, thirty-five minutes after I had first put steel to stone, four of my five knives were shaving the hair off my arm. But the fifth, a small, custom-made boning knife, couldn’t slice a sheet of newspaper. Frustrated and eager for sleep, I re-soaked my series of wet-stones and tried the boning knife one last time, with more pressure. Finally, the blade’s edge shone like a wedding ring—but it still wouldn’t cut. Discouraged and mystified, I packed up the four good knives and headed for bed. The next evening, after returning from the dive, I called Bob Kramer, a culinary knifemaker from Olympia, Washington, I had once met at a knife show, and asked what was going on with the boning knife. “It depends on how the blade was tempered,” Kramer said. “If the steel was heated too much, it won’t take an edge.”

Kramer used to be a professional knife-sharpener, so the boning knife’s challenges captured his curiosity, and he asked me to put it in the mail. A week later I got a phone call: “It’s old, high-speed tool steel,” he said. “That stuff was made for drills during World War One to be extremely wear-resistant. It’s hard as a rock. That’s why they don’t use it much anymore.” Nevertheless, Kramer had managed to sharpen the knife—in fact, he gave it a razor edge. He now spent a good five minutes explaining his steps so that I could duplicate the process myself. But I wanted to know, since the blade carried no tell-tale markings, how he had determined it was made from a World War One drill bit. “Because of the way it sparked,” he said. “When you put high-carbon steel on the grinder, it really crackles, like a sparkler, almost in a three-sixty. This blade just sent out a dull spark, kind of orange, and in just a couple of directions. High-speed steel does that.”

At the time of this conversation, Kramer was one of 113 people in the world, and the only former chef, to be certified as a Master Bladesmith. To earn this title (which is conferred by the American Bladesmith Society, of Texarkana, Texas), he underwent five years of practice and study, culminating in the manufacture, through hand-forging, of six knives. Five had to be of gallery-quality designs; the fifth was a roughly finished, fifteen-inch Bowie knife, which Kramer had to employ to accomplish four tasks, in this order: Cut through a one-inch thick piece of manila rope in a single swipe; chop through a two-by-four, twice; place the blade on one’s forearm and, with the belly of the blade that has done all this chopping, shave; and finally, lock the knife in a vice and bend it ninety degrees without having it crack. The combination of these challenges tests steel’s central but conflicting capabilities: its flexibility and its hardness. If tested thusly, my boning knife, despite being hand-made, would have snapped like a toothpick.

Despite attaining a Master’s status, Kramer remains in awe of steel’s unsolved mysteries. Like a mad alchemist, he cannot stop tinkering with steel recipes, forging together different metal blocks and powders to ennoble iron with just the right blend of nickel, vanadium, or some other selection of chemistry’s basic elements. The amalgams continue to respond in ways that baffle the nation’s most senior metallurgists, and Kramer too. He feels like a Zen student, humbled at the foot of his master, glistening steel. Even so, he’s not done badly. One morning in 2007, the no-nonsense, elite cooking magazine, Cook’s Illustrated, called asking for one of his knives to include in an equipment-rating article. Kramer worked into the night for three days, then shipped off one of his eight-inch chef’s knives. When the magazine’s story ran, it was accompanied by a small sidebar asking whether such a seemingly straight-forward knife could be worth its exorbitant cost (four hundred seventy-five dollars, at that time; they are worth thousands of dollars today.) The editors’ answer: “Yes. The Kramer knife outperformed every knife we’ve ever rated.” Kramer’s backlog of orders, already long, immediately jumped to two years. A few months later, the kitchen-supply chain, Sur La Table, asked Kramer to design a less expensive version of his knives for mass-production, which it would carry exclusively as the store’s top-of-the-line cutlery. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more. It’s a lengthy article and includes three videos.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 March 2021 at 2:47 pm

Posted in Daily life, Technology

What is this? The case for continually questioning our online experience

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Dan Nixon has an interesting piece in Perspectiva. He notes:

What is this? is part of the Digital Ego project.

Read & download the essay as a PDF here: What is this? The case for continually questioning our online experience

At the link in the first line you will also find an audio file of his reading the piece, along with the piece itself, which begins:

It is all too easy to take what we see for granted. Even the most basic act of perception can encompass so much more than at first seems to be the case. ‘Seeing is more than a physiological phenomenon’, the American photographer Dorothea Lange once remarked. ‘We see not only with our eyes but with all that we are and all that our culture is’. We might even say that our human being is, to a large extent, a matter of human perceiving; as the philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin put it, the totality of life lies in the verb “seeing.”

This ‘frame’, life as seeing, is well suited for efforts to understand the various ways in which our digital technologies are shaping our lives at the deepest levels. Checking in with so many feeds and updates throughout the day, our everyday experience has become increasingly fragmented; in what can feel like a digital ‘hall of mirrors’, it is ever harder to see things in an integrated way. Meanwhile, our social fabric is increasingly tugged by divisive forces that split us apart and encourage us to see past each other entirely.

Underlying both sets of issues lies the particular logic of a digital media ecosystem through which everything comes to be viewed, at some level, in terms of data. As the philosopher Luciano Floridi notes, digital technologies ‘make us think about the world informationally and make the world we experience informational’.

It is within this context that Perspectiva has launched the Digital Ego project, with the aim of exploring what it means to grow and flourish as humans against this digital background to our lives. As Tom Chatfield, my co-lead for the project sets out here, this inquiry includes starting a dialogue around the ‘virtues for the virtual’ that we collectively need to cultivate. Capacities such as critical thinking, kindness, and humility seem especially important here, as does our ability to see things from multiple perspectives, to adopt a more integrated worldview, and to be okay with not knowing.

Yet underpinning all of the above, and amidst the swirl of urgent issues we find ourselves caught up in at the current time – the pandemic, taut political climates, our precarious environmental position, to name but a few – I argue here that what we need most of all is to cultivate a spirit of questioning towards our actual, lived experience in the digital sphere of our lives.

Not so much cerebral efforts to pin things down in order to get fixed answers, but an ongoing, open-ended questioning towards what’s happening in our actual experience. It’s the practice of coming back to the simple question, ‘what is this?’ over and over again, in relation to all that we encounter with and through our digital technologies.

Using this simple method, what follows is an invitation to question our actual experience at all levels: from our most mundane day-to-day experiences using our technologies, through to the less visible forces and contexts shaping those experiences. We will consider: what is the quality of the exchanges we are having online? How does a particular ‘currency of ideas’ shape how we see ourselves and others on social media platforms, and what might we experiment with here? How do our egos come to take centre-stage in our online spaces? What options do we have, amidst the algorithms and incentives underpinning our media ecosystem, for getting a more expansive view of what’s really going on?

We will end with some of the deeper questions that emerge from this inquiry, reflecting on what is problematic about the tech mindset of ‘solutionism’ and why an open-ended spirit of questioning can serve as the ideal response. Why should we be vigilant about making room for the inherent mysteriousness of our everyday experience? Why, finally, is it crucial that we consider what silence and stillness and ‘intermundane space’ look like in a digitally-mediated world?

Before exploring these different levels of questioning, let me briefly outline the general approach a little further.

Questioning as a spiritual and philosophical practice for the digital age

For over twenty years, the Zen meditation teachers Martine and Stephen Batchelor have taught the practice of continually coming back to the simple question, ‘what is this?’ in relation to one’s actual, lived experience. Through questioning, they suggest, we can learn to undercut our habitual tendency to fixate on things – to identify with some sense that ‘I am like this’ or ‘This is like that’.

This chimes with the value placed on curiosity in the West, although the form of questioning undertaken in the Zen tradition is quite distinctive. Recounting his years spent living in a monastery in Korea, Stephen Batchelor describes how ‘we would all sit in a darkened room and ask ourselves ‘What is this?’. And rest with that question. Nothing else’. In What is this? Ancient questions for modern minds, written with Stephen, Martine elaborates:

The practice is about questioning; it’s not a practice of answering… [it’s about] trying to cultivate a sensation of questioning in the whole body and mind. The anchor is the question, and we come back to the question again and again.

The practice that the Batchelors describe is a spiritual one, but a similar spirit of questioning runs through the philosophical tradition of phenomenology. Beginning with the work of Edmund Husserl around the turn of the 20th Century, phenomenologists emphasise the need to . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 March 2021 at 2:14 pm

Bradley University’s Game Design Program Ranks Top 10 in the World Again

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Here’s the report. I’ll mention in passing that The Son is departmental chair.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 March 2021 at 3:41 pm

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