February 26, 2017

Posted by orrinj at 6:18 PM


Warren Buffett rails against fee-hungry Wall Street managers (Trevor Hunnicutt and Jonathan Stempe, 2/26/17, Reuters)

Billionaire Warren Buffett, whose stock picks over several decades have enriched generations of Berkshire Hathaway Inc (BRKa.N) shareholders, delivered a black eye to the investment industry on Saturday, urging ordinary investors to buy plain-vanilla index funds.

"When trillions of dollars are managed by Wall Streeters charging high fees, it will usually be the managers who reap outsized profits, not the clients," Buffett said in his annual letter to shareholders.

"Both large and small investors should stick with low-cost index funds," he added. [..]

[B]uffett said most stock investors are better off with low-cost index funds than paying higher fees to managers who often underperform.

Posted by orrinj at 6:05 PM


Economists Say 'Economic Nationalism' Is Economic Nonsense (Stuart Anderson, 2/26/17, Forbes)

Virtually no economists believe that it makes sense for the U.S. government to attempt to balance imports and exports with each country. "It's an important, and usually overlooked point, that countries don't trade, only people and businesses trade," explains Mark J. Perry, a professor of economics and finance at the University of Michigan's Flint campus and creator of the popular economics blog Carpe Diem. "And every international transaction by definition has a satisfied buyer and a satisfied seller, and those engaged in those mutually beneficial trades aren't countries, but individuals and corporations. As we explain in the first week of an economics class, trade is always win-win."

Economists have understood for centuries that trade deficits are not a good indicator of a country's economic well-being. For example, the U.S. trade deficit has been lower in times of recession. Moreover, the U.S. "trade deficit" is "exactly offset" by America's "investment surplus" that reflects our ability to attract foreign investment, notes Daniel Griswold, a Mercatus Center senior research fellow and co-director of the Program on the American Economy and Globalization. "If politicians try to 'fix' the trade deficit, they will only succeed in cutting off the net inflow of foreign investment."

In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith said it best: "Nothing, however, can be more absurd than this whole doctrine of the balance of trade, upon which, not only these restraints, but almost all the other regulations of commerce are founded." You can trust Adam Smith on trade or you can trust Donald Trump. You can't trust both.

When it comes to manufacturing jobs, trade is being blamed instead of other factors. "According to a study by the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University, 85 per cent of these [manufacturing] jobs losses are actually attributable to technological change - largely automation - rather than international trade," reports the Financial Times.

Posted by orrinj at 5:53 PM


Dream of Offshore U.S. Wind Power May Be Too Ugly for Trump (Joe Ryan  and Jennifer A Dlouhy, February 23, 2017, Bloomberg)

The push to win over the Trump administration comes as offshore wind is on the brink of success in North America after a decade of false starts. Costs are falling dramatically. Deepwater Wind LLC completed the first project in U.S. waters in August. And in September, the Obama administration outlined plans to ease regulatory constraints and take other steps to encourage private development of enough turbines to crank out 86,000 megawatts by 2050. That's about the equivalent of 86 nuclear reactors.

"We are an industry on the rise," Thomas Brostrom, Dong's general manager of North America, said in an interview. "We want very much to come in and explain to the new administration what we can do for job creation and energy independence." [...]

To be clear, installing turbines at sea requires years of planning, and Trump may be out of office by the time some developers need federal approvals. State governments, meanwhile, remain the biggest drivers of renewable energy development, because they can mandate that utilities get a certain amount of power from offshore wind or other sources.

Posted by orrinj at 5:42 PM


Defense Secretary Mattis has been everything Trump skeptics hoped for (Benjamin Shull, February 24, 2017, The Week)

The defense chief has strongly defied his boss on torture, which Trump still maintains "absolutely" works. But despite the president's delusions about waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques, Mattis' resistance appears to be winning out; Trump said he would let the defense secretary "override" him on the issue.

Mattis has butted heads with Trump on staffing. The Wall Street Journal reports a "degree of consternation" with Mattis from the White House, in part due to his continuing efforts to install Trump critics in the Defense Department. During Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's nomination, Mattis also reportedly was a strong advocate of the former CEO because Mattis viewed him as a potential partner against the more bellicose members of the Trump team, namely Flynn.

Mattis was also apparently annoyed about Trump's executive order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. After it was implemented, he apparently was instrumental in getting Iraqis who helped U.S. troops receive exemptions, a policy that will reportedly continue in the revised order, due to be released next week. "Right now, I am assured that we will take steps to allow those who have fought alongside us, for example, to be allowed into the United States," Mattis told Iraqis Monday.

Mattis has also made it a point to reassure others allies around the world who are nervous about the president's antics.

The continual apology tour is going to get old quick.

February 25, 2017

Posted by orrinj at 5:22 AM


Why Sweden's six-hour work day trial worked (The Local, 7 February 2017)

At the Svartedalen home for the elderly in Gothenburg, staff worked six-hour days for two years at full pay. At the start of the trial we could already see a less stressed, happier staff. They explained that it allowed them to provide a better level of attention for the elderly, and more time for their family, and leisure time. The elderly residents were also positive about interacting with less stressed staff and a calmer atmosphere. Both management and the staff union confirmed that standards have increased since the trial started.

The positive effects have continued. The trial was followed by researchers, who noted good results when it comes to quality, health benefits, job creation and socio-economic effects. After two years we can see that the workplace environment and health of staff has improved. For example, there has been a 10 percent reduction of people calling in sick. That's a big step, considering sick days have increased significantly in both Gothenburg and Sweden for the same work group.

Better working conditions are important in order to attract the staff numbers needed for a future with more elderly people. On top of that, the improved situation for staff has meant that the elderly received a higher quality of treatment and care. For example, the number of activities offered to them increased by 80 percent.

Posted by orrinj at 4:57 AM


Will Trump Create Churchill's Dream Team of 'English Speaking Peoples'? (Chemi Shalev,  Jan 18, 2017, Ha'aretz)

Churchill's concept of a common bond and common purpose of the British Isles and its outposts in the Commonwealth and in the breakaway United States came to be known later as Anglosphere. It was rejected, in essence, in favor of Atlanticism, the alliance between the United States and Western Europe that gave birth to NATO and has been the bedrock of the security of the West for the past seven decades. Margaret Thatcher endorsed Anglosphere but did not pursue it, although her close relationship with fellow conservative Ronald Reagan was indeed special. In recent years, Anglosphere has enjoyed a renaissance of sorts in British conservative circles that has now been turbocharged by the recent Brexit decision that potentially decouples Britain from the European continent. With Donald Trump as president, the stars may be aligning for Churchill's ideas and for Anglosphere.

Of course, the very mention of such a brilliant orator and towering intellect as Churchill in the same sentence as the clueless and barely comprehensible Trump may seem like sacrilege, but international circumstances and Trump's instinctive, gut-reaction foreign policy may be leading him in the British Bulldog's footsteps. Reading Trump's recent interview with the Sunday Times, one is struck by the president-elect's clear embrace of post-Brexit Britain and his concurrent disparagement of Germany's Angela Merkel, of the European Union and of NATO. Trump not only touted his Scottish roots and his mother's admiration for the Queen, he offered to conclude a quick trade deal between the two countries, as an alternative to Britain's trade relations with the EU that might be lost. His statement was echoed by British Prime Minister Theresa May this week as an important element of the U.K.'s post-Brexit efforts to engage with the wider world. [...]

Some infrastructure for Anglosphere already exists. The most prominent is the joint intelligence-gathering group known as "Five Eyes" which encompasses the U.S., U.K., Australia, New Zealand and Canada. The five countries are also linked by technological treaties as well as the collaborative agreements such as ABCA Armies that seek to standardize their military equipment. Since World War II, however, Churchill's vision of a common front of English-speaking nations has never been the focus of policy for political leaders in either the United States or the United Kingdom. And while it may never blossom into the kind of EU-type union that Churchill had in mind, with Trump, ironically, it might no longer be just a pipe dream. The concept of Anglo-Saxon unity could be closer to realization more than ever before.

India too.

Posted by orrinj at 4:56 AM

ARE THERE REALLY PEOPLE WHO DON'T USE IT? (self-reference alert):

a further word of exhortation: RSS (Alan Jacobs, 2/21/17, New Atlantis)

May I suggest that you try an RSS service instead? RSS is the great neglected technology of the internet. [...]

Every now and then I come across an interesting site that doesn't have an RSS feed, but that's a rare experience. An RSS feed is just a URL, slightly different than the URL of a website, but all modern aggregators can find the RSS feed from the main site URL: you can just paste http://text-patterns.thenewatlantis.com into the aggregator's Add Site box to subscribe to this blog, for instance. Big sites -- the New York Times, CNN, ESPN, the Guardian, and the like -- will have many feeds, and most of them have a page where all those feeds are listed. (It might take a little googling to find it.) 

Over time you can build up a roster of sites that you keep regular track of, sites where you can find substantive news and ideas and a minimum of crap, and then you'll have a far better and more consistent source for what you want to know than social media can give you. Also, every aggregator and app I know of allows you to export that list as an OPML file, which you can then import into another service if you find one you like better than your original choice. 
Try RSS. You'll love it. 

Almost every story we post here just comes in over RSS feed.  [I use feedspot]

Posted by orrinj at 4:54 AM


Driving Mr. Albert : A trip across America with Einstein (Michael Paterniti, October 1997, Harper's)

Not long ago. In Maine on a bus. In Massachusetts on a train. In Connecticut behind the wheel of a shiny, teal-colored rental car. The engine purrs. I should know, I'm the driver. I'm on my way to pick up an eighty-four-year-old man named Thomas Harvey, who lives in a modest, low-slung 1950s ranch that belongs to his sixty-seven-year-old girlfriend, Cleora. To get there you caroom through New Jersey's exurbia, through swirls of dead leaves and unruly thickets of oak and pine that give way to well-ordered fields of roan, buttermilk, and black snorting atoms -- horses. Harvey greets me at the door, stooped and chuckling nervously, wearing a red-and-white plaid shirt and a solid-blue Pendleton tie that still bears a waterlogged $10 price tag from some earlier decade. He has peckled, blowsy skin runneled with lines, an eagle nose, stubbed yellow teeth, bitten nails, and a spray of white hair as fine as corn silk that shifts with the wind over the bald patches on his head. He could be one of a million beach-bound, black-socked Florida retirees, not the man who, by some odd happenstance of life, possesses the brain of Albert Einstein -- literally cut it out of the dead scientist's head.

Harvey has stoked a fire in the basement, which is dank and dark, and I sit among crocheted rugs and genie bottles of blown glass, Ethiopian cookbooks, and macramé. It has taken me more than a year to find Harvey, and during that time I've had a dim, inchoate feeling -- one that has increased in luminosity -- that if I could somehow reach him and Einstein's brain, I might unravel their strange relationship, one that arcs across this century and America itself. And now, before the future arrives and the supercomputers of the world fritz out and we move to lunar colonies -- before all that hullabaloo -- Harvey and I are finally sitting here together.

That day Harvey tells me the story he's told before -- to friends and family and pilgrims -- one that has made him an odd celebrity even in this age of odd celebrity. He tells it deliberately, assuming that I will be impressed by it as a testament to the rightness of his actions rather than as a cogent defense of them. "You see," he says, "I was just so fortunate to have been there. Just so lucky." [...]

The next morning, April 18, when the chief pathologist of the hospital -- our Harvey, then a strapping forty-two-year-old with Montgomery Clift good looks -- arrived for work, Einstein's body was laid out, naked and mottle-skinned, on a gurney. "Imagine my surprise," Harvey says to me now. "A fellow up in New York, my former teacher Dr. Zimmerman" -- and an acquaintance of Einstein's -- "was going to do the autopsy. But then he couldn't get away. He rang me up, and we agreed that I'd do it." Harvey says that he felt awe when he came face-to-face with the world-famous physicist, the voice of conscience in a century of madness, who had bewildered the world by suggesting that time should be understood as the fourth, and inseparable, dimension. Now he lay alone in the pale light, 180 pounds of mere matter.

Harvey took a scalpel in his hand and sliced Einstein open with a Y incision, scoring the belly, the skin giving like cellophane, then cut the rib cartilage and lifted the sternum. He found nearly three quarts of blood in Einstein's peritoneal cavity, a result of the burst aneurysm, and after investigating his heart and veins concluded that, with an operation, the physicist might have lived for several more years, though how long was hard to tell "because Einstein liked his fatty foods," in particular goose scratchings.

Working under the humming lights, his fingers inside Einstein's opened body, juggling the liver, palpating the heart, Harvey made a decision. Who's to say whether it was inspired by awe or by greed, beneficence or mere pettiness? Who's to say what comes over a mortal, what chemical reaction takes place deep in the thalamus, when faced with the blinding brightness of another's greatness and, with it, a knowledge that I/you/we shall never possess even a cheeseparing of that greatness?

Working quickly with a knife, Harvey tonsured the scalp, peeled the skin back, and, bearing down on a saw, cut through Einstein's head with a quick, hacking motion. He removed a cap of bone, peeled back the meninges, then clipped blood vessels and bundles of nerve and the spinal cord. He reached with his fingers deeper into the chalice of the man's cranium and simply removed the glistening brain. To keep for himself. Forever. In perpetuity. Amen.

What he didn't count on, however, was that with this one act his whole world would go haywire. Apparently, word got out through Zimmerman that Harvey had the brain, and when it was reported in the New York Times a day later, some people were aghast. Einstein's son, Hans Albert, reportedly felt betrayed. Harvey claimed that he was planning to conduct medical research on the brain, and, in an agreement eventually struck with Hans Albert over the phone, he assured that the brain would only be the subject of medical journals and not become a pop-cultural gewgaw, as the Einsteins most feared. Sometime after the autopsy, Harvey was fired from his job for refusing to give up the brain. Years passed, and there were no papers, no findings. And then Harvey fell off the radar screen. When he gave an occasional interview -- in articles from 1956 and 1979 and 1988 -- he always repeated that he was about "a year away from finishing study on the specimen."1

1According to newspaper accounts following Einstein's death, mystery immediately shrouded the brain. Dr. Zimmerman, on staff at New York City's Montefiore Medical Center, expected to receive Einstein's brain from Harvey, but never, in fact, did; Princeton Hospital decided not to relinquish the brain. Harvey, however, also decided not to relinquish the brain and at some point removed it from the hospital.
Forty years later -- after Harvey has gone through three wives, after he has sunk to lesser circumstances, after he has outlived most of his critics and accusers, including Hans Albert - we are sitting together before a hot fire on a cold winter day. And because I like him so much, because somewhere in his watery blue eyes, his genial stumble-footing, and that ineffable cloak of hunched integrity that falls over the old, I find myself feeling for him and cannot bring myself to ask the essential questions:

Is Harvey a grave-robbing thief or a hero? A sham artist or a high priest? Why not heist a finger or a toe? Or a simple earlobe? What about rumors that he plans to sell Einstein's brain to Michael Jackson for $2 million? Does he feel ashamed? Or justified? If the brain is the ultimate Fabergé egg, the Hope diamond, the Cantino map, the One-Penny Magenta stamp, "Guernica," what does it look like? Feel like? Smell like? Does he talk to it as one talks to one's poodle or ferns?

Posted by orrinj at 4:49 AM


The Democrats' Geography Problem : An overwhelming share of their voters live in metropolitan areas. Will their appeal ever expand beyond? (ALAN GREENBLATT, JANUARY 2017, Governing)
A couple of decades ago, half the Democrats in the Iowa Senate represented rural areas. By the time the last session got underway, there were only two Democrats left from the mostly sparsely populated counties west of Interstate 35. Now, there are none. The inability of Iowa Democrats to compete throughout an entire half of the state is a big reason why the GOP took over the state Senate in November.

All over the country, Democrats have a similar geography problem. With an overwhelming share of their voters living within a limited number of metropolitan districts, it's hard for them to compete in broad swaths of territory elsewhere. This handicap, which has made the U.S. House into something resembling a fortress for Republicans, is making it increasingly difficult for Democrats to win legislative chambers. "When you sit down and start counting the number of state legislative districts the Republicans have and the number of chambers they have, it's evident that the Democrats have a structural problem that they need to overcome," says Colorado State University political scientist Kyle Saunders.

Posted by orrinj at 4:43 AM


Iceland knows how to stop teen substance abuse but the rest of the world isn't listening : In Iceland, teenage smoking, drinking and drug use have been radically cut in the past 20 years. Emma Young finds out how they did it, and why other countries won't follow suit. (Emma Young, 17 January 2017, Mosaic)

"I was in the eye of the storm of the drug revolution," Milkman explains over tea in his apartment in Reykjavik. In the early 1970s, when he was doing an internship at the Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital in New York City, "LSD was already in, and a lot of people were smoking marijuana. And there was a lot of interest in why people took certain drugs."

Milkman's doctoral dissertation concluded that people would choose either heroin or amphetamines depending on how they liked to deal with stress. Heroin users wanted to numb themselves; amphetamine users wanted to actively confront it. After this work was published, he was among a group of researchers drafted by the US National Institute on Drug Abuse to answer questions such as: why do people start using drugs? Why do they continue? When do they reach a threshold to abuse? When do they stop? And when do they relapse?

"Any college kid could say: why do they start? Well, there's availability, they're risk-takers, alienation, maybe some depression," he says. "But why do they continue? So I got to the question about the threshold for abuse and the lights went on - that's when I had my version of the 'aha' experience: they could be on the threshold for abuse before they even took the drug, because it was their style of coping that they were abusing."

At Metropolitan State College of Denver, Milkman was instrumental in developing the idea that people were getting addicted to changes in brain chemistry. Kids who were "active confronters" were after a rush - they'd get it by stealing hubcaps and radios and later cars, or through stimulant drugs. Alcohol also alters brain chemistry, of course. It's a sedative but it sedates the brain's control first, which can remove inhibitions and, in limited doses, reduce anxiety.

"People can get addicted to drink, cars, money, sex, calories, cocaine - whatever," says Milkman. "The idea of behavioural addiction became our trademark."

This idea spawned another: "Why not orchestrate a social movement around natural highs: around people getting high on their own brain chemistry - because it seems obvious to me that people want to change their consciousness - without the deleterious effects of drugs?"

By 1992, his team in Denver had won a $1.2 million government grant to form Project Self-Discovery, which offered teenagers natural-high alternatives to drugs and crime. They got referrals from teachers, school nurses and counsellors, taking in kids from the age of 14 who didn't see themselves as needing treatment but who had problems with drugs or petty crime.

"We didn't say to them, you're coming in for treatment. We said, we'll teach you anything you want to learn: music, dance, hip hop, art, martial arts." The idea was that these different classes could provide a variety of alterations in the kids' brain chemistry, and give them what they needed to cope better with life: some might crave an experience that could help reduce anxiety, others may be after a rush.

At the same time, the recruits got life-skills training, which focused on improving their thoughts about themselves and their lives, and the way they interacted with other people. "The main principle was that drug education doesn't work because nobody pays attention to it. What is needed are the life skills to act on that information," Milkman says. Kids were told it was a three-month programme. Some stayed five years.

In 1991, Milkman was invited to Iceland to talk about this work, his findings and ideas. He became a consultant to the first residential drug treatment centre for adolescents in Iceland, in a town called Tindar. "It was designed around the idea of giving kids better things to do," he explains. It was here that he met Gudberg, who was then a psychology undergraduate and a volunteer at Tindar. They have been close friends ever since.

Milkman started coming regularly to Iceland and giving talks. These talks, and Tindar, attracted the attention of a young researcher at the University of Iceland, called Inga Dóra Sigfúsdóttir. She wondered: what if you could use healthy alternatives to drugs and alcohol as part of a programme not to treat kids with problems, but to stop kids drinking or taking drugs in the first place? 

Posted by orrinj at 4:01 AM


The Accidental Universe : Science's crisis of faith (Alan Lightman, December 2011, Harper's)

The scientists most distressed by Weinberg's "fork in the road" are theoretical physicists. Theoretical physics is the deepest and purest branch of science. It is the outpost of science closest to philosophy, and religion. Experimental scientists occupy themselves with observing and measuring the cosmos, finding out what stuff exists, no matter how strange that stuff may be. Theoretical physicists, on the other hand, are not satisfied with observing the universe. They want to know why. They want to explain all the properties of the universe in terms of a few fundamental principles and parameters. These fundamental principles, in turn, lead to the "laws of nature," which govern the behavior of all matter and energy. An example of a fundamental principle in physics, first proposed by Galileo in 1632 and extended by Einstein in 1905, is the following: All observers traveling at constant velocity relative to one another should witness identical laws of nature. From this principle, Einstein derived his theory of special relativity. An example of a fundamental parameter is the mass of an electron, considered one of the two dozen or so "elementary" particles of nature. As far as physicists are concerned, the fewer the fundamental principles and parameters, the better. The underlying hope and belief of this enterprise has always been that these basic principles are so restrictive that only one, self-consistent universe is possible, like a crossword puzzle with only one solution. That one universe would be, of course, the universe we live in. Theoretical physicists are Platonists. Until the past few years, they agreed that the entire universe, the one universe, is generated from a few mathematical truths and principles of symmetry, perhaps throwing in a handful of parameters like the mass of the electron. It seemed that we were closing in on a vision of our universe in which everything could be calculated, predicted, and understood.

However, two theories in physics, eternal inflation and string theory, now suggest that the same fundamental principles from which the laws of nature derive may lead to many different self-consistent universes, with many different properties. It is as if you walked into a shoe store, had your feet measured, and found that a size 5 would fit you, a size 8 would also fit, and a size 12 would fit equally well. Such wishy-washy results make theoretical physicists extremely unhappy. Evidently, the fundamental laws of nature do not pin down a single and unique universe. According to the current thinking of many physicists, we are living in one of a vast number of universes. We are living in an accidental universe. We are living in a universe uncalculable by science.

"Back in the 1970s and 1980s," says Alan Guth, "the feeling was that we were so smart, we almost had everything figured out." What physicists had figured out were very accurate theories of three of the four fundamental forces of nature: the strong nuclear force that binds atomic nuclei together, the weak force that is responsible for some forms of radioactive decay, and the electromagnetic force between electrically charged particles. And there were prospects for merging the theory known as quantum physics with Einstein's theory of the fourth force, gravity, and thus pulling all of them into the fold of what physicists called the Theory of Everything, or the Final Theory. These theories of the 1970s and 1980s required the specification of a couple dozen parameters corresponding to the masses of the elementary particles, and another half dozen or so parameters corresponding to the strengths of the fundamental forces. The next step would then have been to derive most of the elementary particle masses in terms of one or two fundamental masses and define the strengths of all the fundamental forces in terms of a single fundamental force.

There were good reasons to think that physicists were poised to take this next step. Indeed, since the time of Galileo, physics has been extremely successful in discovering principles and laws that have fewer and fewer free parameters and that are also in close agreement with the observed facts of the world. For example, the observed rotation of the ellipse of the orbit of Mercury, 0.012 degrees per century, was successfully calculated using the theory of general relativity, and the observed magnetic strength of an electron, 2.002319 magnetons, was derived using the theory of quantum electrodynamics. More than any other science, physics brims with highly accurate agreements between theory and experiment.

Guth started his physics career in this sunny scientific world. Now sixty-four years old and a professor at MIT, he was in his early thirties when he proposed a major revision to the Big Bang theory, something called inflation. We now have a great deal of evidence suggesting that our universe began as a nugget of extremely high density and temperature about 14 billion years ago and has been expanding, thinning out, and cooling ever since. The theory of inflation proposes that when our universe was only about a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second old, a peculiar type of energy caused the cosmos to expand very rapidly. A tiny fraction of a second later, the universe returned to the more leisurely rate of expansion of the standard Big Bang model. Inflation solved a number of outstanding problems in cosmology, such as why the universe appears so homogeneous on large scales.

When I visited Guth in his third-floor office at MIT one cool day in May, I could barely see him above the stacks of paper and empty Diet Coke bottles on his desk. More piles of paper and dozens of magazines littered the floor. In fact, a few years ago Guth won a contest sponsored by the Boston Globe for the messiest office in the city. The prize was the services of a professional organizer for one day. "She was actually more a nuisance than a help. She took piles of envelopes from the floor and began sorting them according to size." He wears aviator-style eyeglasses, keeps his hair long, and chain-drinks Diet Cokes. "The reason I went into theoretical physics," Guth tells me, "is that I liked the idea that we could understand everything--i.e., the universe--in terms of mathematics and logic." He gives a bitter laugh. We have been talking about the multiverse.

While challenging the Platonic dream of theoretical physicists, the multiverse idea does explain one aspect of our universe that has unsettled some scientists for years: according to various calculations, if the values of some of the fundamental parameters of our universe were a little larger or a little smaller, life could not have arisen. For example, if the nuclear force were a few percentage points stronger than it actually is, then all the hydrogen atoms in the infant universe would have fused with other hydrogen atoms to make helium, and there would be no hydrogen left. No hydrogen means no water. Although we are far from certain about what conditions are necessary for life, most biologists believe that water is necessary. On the other hand, if the nuclear force were substantially weaker than what it actually is, then the complex atoms needed for biology could not hold together. As another example, if the relationship between the strengths of the gravitational force and the electromagnetic force were not close to what it is, then the cosmos would not harbor any stars that explode and spew out life-supporting chemical elements into space or any other stars that form planets. Both kinds of stars are required for the emergence of life. The strengths of the basic forces and certain other fundamental parameters in our universe appear to be "fine-tuned" to allow the existence of life. The recognition of this fine­tuning led British physicist Brandon Carter to articulate what he called the anthropic principle, which states that the universe must have the parameters it does because we are here to observe it. Actually, the word anthropic, from the Greek for "man," is a misnomer: if these fundamental parameters were much different from what they are, it is not only human beings who would not exist. No life of any kind would exist.

If such conclusions are correct, the great question, of course, is why these fundamental parameters happen to lie within the range needed for life. Does the universe care about life? Intelligent design is one answer. Indeed, a fair number of theologians, philosophers, and even some scientists have used fine-tuning and the anthropic principle as evidence of the existence of God. For example, at the 2011 Christian Scholars' Conference at Pepperdine University, Francis Collins, a leading geneticist and director of the National Institutes of Health, said, "To get our universe, with all of its potential for complexities or any kind of potential for any kind of life-form, everything has to be precisely defined on this knife edge of improbability.... [Y]ou have to see the hands of a creator who set the parameters to be just so because the creator was interested in something a little more complicated than random particles."

Intelligent design, however, is an answer to fine-tuning that does not appeal to most scientists. The multiverse offers another explanation. If there are countless different universes with different properties--for example, some with nuclear forces much stronger than in our universe and some with nuclear forces much weaker--then some of those universes will allow the emergence of life and some will not. Some of those universes will be dead, lifeless hulks of matter and energy, and others will permit the emergence of cells, plants and animals, minds. From the huge range of possible universes predicted by the theories, the fraction of universes with life is undoubtedly small. But that doesn't matter. We live in one of the universes that permits life because otherwise we wouldn't be here to ask the question.

The explanation is similar to the explanation of why we happen to live on a planet that has so many nice things for our comfortable existence: oxygen, water, a temperature between the freezing and boiling points of water, and so on. Is this happy coincidence just good luck, or an act of Providence, or what? No, it is simply that we could not live on planets without such properties. Many other planets exist that are not so hospitable to life, such as Uranus, where the temperature is -371 degrees Fahrenheit, and Venus, where it rains sulfuric acid.

The multiverse offers an explanation to the fine-tuning conundrum that does not require the presence of a Designer. As Steven Weinberg says: "Over many centuries science has weakened the hold of religion, not by disproving the existence of God but by invalidating arguments for God based on what we observe in the natural world. The multiverse idea offers an explanation of why we find ourselves in a universe favorable to life that does not rely on the benevolence of a creator, and so if correct will leave still less support for religion."

Some physicists remain skeptical of the anthropic principle and the reliance on multiple universes to explain the values of the fundamental parameters of physics. Others, such as Weinberg and Guth, have reluctantly accepted the anthropic principle and the multiverse idea as together providing the best possible explanation for the observed facts.

Because every finding in physics confirms Design, those who oppose God have been forced to invent a theory for which there is no evidence.

Thus Robert Griffiths's line : "If we need an atheist for a debate, we go to the philosophy department. The physics department isn't much use."

February 24, 2017

Posted by orrinj at 11:21 AM


Republican governors on Obamacare repeal: Not so fast (Tami Luhby, February 24, 2017, CNN MOney)

 First, governors need to decide how to handle Medicaid expansion, which funneled an extra $99 billion to the states between January 2014 and September 2015, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Some governors have been very vocal about keeping Medicaid expansion. Ohio Governor John Kasich says he won't "sit silent" and watch the program get "ripped out."

"That is a very, very bad idea, because we cannot turn our back on the most vulnerable," said Kasich, noting the program's importance in treating those with drug addiction and mental health issues.

And though he still supports repealing Obamacare, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie told CNN's Jake Tapper that he doesn't want those who've gained coverage under Medicaid expansion to be left uninsured. [...]

Some Republican governors agree with their Democratic peers that block grants could reduce the effectiveness and reach of the safety net. And leaders of non-expansion states are concerned that funding might be frozen at current levels, which would leave them at a disadvantage since they did not broaden their programs. [...]

Governors also have to contend with their residents' support of Medicaid.

A Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that some 84%of those polled say it is either "very" or "somewhat" important for any replacement plan to ensure that states that received federal funds to expand Medicaid continue to receive those funds. This includes majorities of Democrats (95%), independents (84%) and Republicans (69%).

Two-thirds of respondents say they don't support turning Medicaid into a grant program. They prefer the status quo, they said.

Posted by orrinj at 11:08 AM


In A Driverless Car World, The Reduced Traffic Will Save Us Billions (Ben Schiller, 02.24.17, Co.Exist)

The paper, published by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, estimates that if California had cut congestion by 50% in 2010--a big if--it would have created 350,000 jobs, added $35 billion to the economy, and improved wages by $14 billion. The way the state could've done this, the researchers said, was by switching largely to driverless cars. Extrapolated to the U.S. as a whole, researchers Clifford Winston and Quentin Karpilow write that reducing congestion in this way could add at least $214 billion in GDP, boost labor incomes by $90 billion, and create 2.4 million jobs, likely in autonomous vehicle maintenance and customer service. (For those who doubt that AVs will create jobs and will instead just leave drivers unemployed, the researchers offer the comparison of ATMs, which were expected to put bank tellers out of work. In fact, bank teller jobs have grown and more bank branches opened since the 1990s.)

Posted by orrinj at 10:51 AM


Out of the Park Baseball 18 announces the Perfect Team Digital Cover Contest

Out of the Park Baseball 18, an Official Licensee of MLB.com, MLBPA, and MiLB.com, will feature a Digital Cover for the first time, highlighting baseball's "Perfect Team" of 11 top players at each position and the top Manager in baseball - as voted by its passionate community

Follow-up to Metacritic's 2016 PC Game of the Year will live-stream the cover team announcement then pit the "Perfect Team" winners against the "Perfect Team" runners-up

Out of the Park Developments, an official licensee of MLB.com, the MLBPA, and MiLB.com, today announced Out of the Park Baseball 18 will have a "digital cover" for the first time in its illustrious history. Instead of choosing a single player, however, OOTP 18 will be represented by a "Perfect Team" of the 11 best players at each position - plus a manager - to celebrate the launch of the followup to the Metacritic 2016 PC Game of the Year.

"As a deep strategy game, we feel that nothing better represents what Out of the Park Baseball is about than putting the best possible team on our first-ever digital cover," said lead developer, lifelong baseball fan, and Out of the Park Developments CEO Markus Heinsohn. "Baseball is the ultimate team game, and our fans argue every day about what makes us the best possible lineup. What better way to represent what we are all about than having them vote on the best players and manager to put on the digital diamond?"

Out of the Park Baseball 18 will be officially released on March 24, 2017. The follow-up to the acclaimed Metacritic 2016 PC Game of the Year includes several exciting new features and a treasure trove of deep improvements to its award-winning gameplay. The "Perfect Team" voting contest opens February 23 and closes on March 9, 2017. Fans will be able to choose from two players at each position as well as a manager. Winners of the vote will be officially named the "Perfect Team" and will be forever enshrined on the digital cover of Out of the Park Baseball 18.

The players in the contest that will be voted on are:

C: Gary Sanchez (NYY) vs Buster Posey (SF)

1B: Freddie Freeman (ATL) vs. Paul Goldschmidt (ARI)

2B: Jason Kipnis (CLE) vs. Robinson Cano (SEA)

SS: Trea Turner (WSH) vs. Carlos Correa (HOU)

3B: Nolan Arenado (COL) vs. Manny Machado (BAL)

OF: Yoenis Cespedes (NYM) vs. J.D. Martinez (DET)

OF: Starling Marte (PIT) vs. Christian Yelich (MIA)

OF: Jose Bautista (TOR) vs. Nomar Mazara (TEX)

SP1: Jake Arrieta (CHC) vs. Max Scherzer (WSH)

SP2: Clayton Kershaw (LAD) vs. Chris Sale (BOS)

CP: Zach Britton (BAL) vs. Seung-hwan Oh (STL)

M: Joe Maddon (CHC) vs. Bruce Bochy (SF)

The link to the voting contest is here: OOTP 18 Perfect Team Virtual Cover Contest

On March 15, Out of the Park Baseball Community Manager T.J. Lauerman will live stream the winning team announcement. On launch week, T.J. will live stream a game pitting the winners of the contest against the runners-up. All of these events will take place live on Out of the Park Developments Twitch channel, and will be archived to the Out of the Park Developments YouTube page for later viewing.

From today to March 23, customers may pre-order OOTP 18 for $35.99, a 10% discount off its full retail price. All pre-order purchases include early access to the Gold Master version on March 20, four days ahead of the official launch on March 24.

OOTP 18 can be pre-ordered through this link:


OOTP 18 runs on PC/Mac/Linux and, like last year, it features the American League and National League logos, the World Series trophy, official logos and jerseys for all 30 MLB teams, over 150 Minor League Baseball league and team logos, and historical MLB logos.

Posted by orrinj at 10:45 AM


Exclusive: Senior Trump Aide Forged Key Ties To Anti-Semitic Groups In Hungary (Lili Bayer, February 24, 2017, Forward)

When video recently emerged showing Sebastian Gorka, President Donald Trump's high-profile deputy assistant, wearing a medal associated with the Nazi collaborationist regime that ruled Hungary during World War II, the controversial security strategist was unapologetic.

"I'm a proud American now and I wear that medal now and again," Gorka told Breitbart News. Gorka, 46, who was born in Britain to Hungarian parents and is now an American citizen, asked rhetorically, "Why? To remind myself of where I came from, what my parents suffered under both the Nazis and the Communists, and to help me in my work today."

But an investigation by the Forward into Gorka's activities from 2002 to 2007, while he was active in Hungarian politics and journalism, found that he had close ties then to Hungarian far-right circles, and has in the past chosen to work with openly racist and anti-Semitic groups and public figures.

Gorka's involvement with the far right includes co-founding a political party with former prominent members of Jobbik, a political party with a well-known history of anti-Semitism; repeatedly publishing articles in a newspaper known for its anti-Semitic and racist content; and attending events with some of Hungary's most notorious extreme-right figures.

Posted by orrinj at 10:21 AM


A Renewed Republican Party (Joshua Mitchell, sPRING 2017, American aFFAIRS jOURNAL)

Globalism, as we know, has benefitted a narrow swath of America, as the electoral map of 2016 indicates. Counties that voted for Clinton are the jurisdictional overlayment of the cities and regional zones in which a preponderance of citizens are involved in the global "management" (the buzzword of the globalist epoch) of materials or, more importantly, information. These voters were generally inattentive to their fellow citizens who were not in on the globalist game plan. For them, political justice involved material growth made possible by global management and the identity debt-points that global elites dispensed to this or that oppressed "identity" group as a consequence of past infractions or of the irredeemable fault of others--typically (the imaginary category of) White People. These two together were the theoretical centerpieces of 2016 Clinton campaign.

That globalism and identity politics went together in the minds of so many Democrats is no mere quirk or accident. What binds globalism and identity politics together is the judgment that national sovereignty is not the final word on how to order collective life. This judgment against national sovereignty--let us state the matter boldly--was the animating principle of the post-1989 world order, an order that is now collapsing before our eyes. Citizens who came of age after 1989 scarcely know how daring this project has been and, thanks to the American university, can scarcely conceive of any alternative to it. The post-1989 world order, however, is not fixed and immutable. It is, moreover, a rather bold historical experiment. A brief digression into the history of Western political thought confirms that this is so. Republicans must understand the long-standing viable alternative that predates the post-1989 experiment; and they must understand it in their very bones. For unless they grasp the real reason for the recent collapse, they will be tempted to see the repudiation of the political classes of both parties as a mere populist uprising, which will, they hope, dissipate as citizens either accept their fate in a globalized world or cease to be irrational. The larger issue, now that the post-1989 world is collapsing, is not populism, but rather national sovereignty. Let us see why.

The Peace of Westphalia, which formally inaugurated the modern European system of nation-states, came into effect in 1648. Shortly thereafter, in 1651, Hobbes wrote one of the great works in the history of political philosophy, Leviathan. In a now-common reading of that work, and correct so far as it goes, Hobbes's Leviathan provides us with the individuated self, oriented by self-interest and the fear of death. These ideas are in Leviathan, but they only scratch the surface of that great work. Hobbes's deeper concern in Leviathan was the English Civil War, which in no small part was a religious war involving the claims of Roman Catholics and Presbyterians. The doctrinal difference between the Roman Catholics and the Presbyterians need not concern us; what matters is where each of these Christian sects located sovereignty. Hobbes thought that Roman Catholics were guilty of what we might call "false universalism," because they vested sovereignty at the supra-state level, in Rome. Hobbes thought that the Presbyterians were guilty of what we might call "radical particularism," because they vested sovereignty at the sub-state level, in private conscience. The English Civil War occurred, on Hobbes's reading, because of these religious wagers that peace and justice were possible without national sovereignty. In his estimation, these supra- and sub-state alternatives are perennial temptations of the human heart. Their defenders may promise much, but neither "commodious living" nor justice are possible through them. Only by vesting sovereignty in the state can there be improvement for citizens and workable understandings of justice.

The post-1989 experiment with globalism and identity politics demonstrates that Hobbes was correct, so long ago, that supra- and sub-state sovereignty are perennial temptations of the human heart. The post-1989 version of that temptation saw global elites use the apparatus of the state to bolster so-called free trade, international law, global norms, and international accords about "climate change," the advances towards which purported to demonstrate the impotence of the state itself. In such a world managed from above, the only task left for the Little People was to feel good--or feel permanent shame--about their identities, and perhaps to get involved in a little "political activism" now and again, to show their commitment (on Facebook, of course) to "social justice." The Little People in such a world were not citizens, they were idle "folks," incapable of working together, because what really mattered was not rational deliberation with their neighbors, but what they owed, or were owed, by virtue of their identities. Determining the calculus of their debt, in turn, were Very White Progressives in the Democratic Party who cared not a jot about the real outstanding debt of $19 trillion owed by the U.S. treasury. These Very White Progressives sought to adjudicate justice from above, by legal carve-outs or, if necessary, by executive actions pertaining, for example, to transsexual bathrooms, so that all "identities" could have their due. Fortunately, 2016 was year the American electorate decided this ghastly fate was not to be theirs.

Our book proceeded from the tension between national sovereignty and transnationalism and from the fear, on the right, that the latter was an inexorable force that would consume the latter.  But, as I worked on it, it occurred to me that something much more interesting was happening than just a struggle between these two ideas.  America, mostly, but the Anglosphere generally, have redefined sovereignty over the past several centuries so that it is no longer a function of bordered nations but of consenting populations.  The entire American experiment can be seen as a repudiation of the idea that there exist sovereigns who are entitled to act as they choose within the confines of their nations.  We have replaced it with the idea of popular sovereignty, which can hardly be stated more directly and succinctly than as follows:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. -- That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, -- That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. 

One of the main results of our adoption of this Founding ideal is that we do not recognize as legitimate regimes that do not adhere to same, or, we may recognize them temporarily, for our convenience, but always hold in reserve our right to change them.  At the time of the book this had been demonstrated--though some had trouble seeing it--in our decision to change the Iraqi regime.  While many eventually focussed on the WMD question, it had never mattered to George W. Bush, nor to Americans generally, for whom the fact of Saddam's totalitarianism was sufficient reason for the war.  In the 9/12/02 UN General Assembly speech that outline the case for the war, W put it thus:

The United States helped found the United Nations. We want the United Nations to be effective, and respectful, and successful. We want the resolutions of the world's most important multilateral body to be enforced. And right now those resolutions are being unilaterally subverted by the Iraqi regime. Our partnership of nations can meet the test before us, by making clear what we now expect of the Iraqi regime. 

If the Iraqi regime wishes peace, it will immediately and unconditionally forswear, disclose, and remove or destroy all weapons of mass destruction, long-range missiles, and all related material. 

If the Iraqi regime wishes peace, it will immediately end all support for terrorism and act to suppress it, as all states are required to do by U.N. Security Council resolutions. 

If the Iraqi regime wishes peace, it will cease persecution of its civilian population, including Shi'a, Sunnis, Kurds, Turkomans, and others, again as required by Security Council resolutions. 

If the Iraqi regime wishes peace, it will release or account for all Gulf War personnel whose fate is still unknown. It will return the remains of any who are deceased, return stolen property, accept liability for losses resulting from the invasion of Kuwait, and fully cooperate with international efforts to resolve these issues, as required by Security Council resolutions. 

If the Iraqi regime wishes peace, it will release or account for all Gulf War personnel whose fate is still unknown. It will return the remains of any who are deceased, return stolen property, accept liability for losses resulting from the invasion of Kuwait, and fully cooperate with the international efforts to resolve these issues, as required by Security Council resolutions. 

If the Iraqi regime wishes peace, it will immediately end all illicit trade outside the oil-for-food program. It will accept U.N. administration of funds from that program, to ensure that the money is used fairly and promptly for the benefit of the Iraqi people. 

If all these steps are taken, it will signal a new openness and accountability in Iraq. And it could open the prospect of the United Nations helping to build a government that represents all Iraqis -- a government based on respect for human rights, economic liberty, and internationally supervised elections. 

Note, first, that WMD are not the rationale, only one element (and even there, it was Saddam's failure to comply with Resolutions he'd agreed to that was the causus, not the fact of WMD itself); second, that what is required is a fundamental change in the nature of how the Iraqis are governed.  

One might be tempted to see this and the concurrent democratization of the Arab world that W pursued as some kind of peculiarity of his, except that it was completely in keeping with Anglospheric history, from Magna Carta to the Balkans.  It is in fact part and parcel of what came to be known as the End of History, the recognition that there was essentially only one way of organizing nations/states for the maximum benefit of their people and that what was required was a politics organized along democratic lines; an economics that is capitalist; and a religion that is protestant (tolerant of multiple faiths).

Given this redefinition of sovereignty and the ever increasingly universal adoption of its components, it seemed odd to me then that folks--mainly my fellows on the right--were so paranoid about transnationalism, which we might call, for simplicity sake, the idea that the sovereignty of individual states should be subservient to an overarching sovereign whose rule would not be subject to consent.  

Sure, the UN exists, but it has, throughout its history, either danced to our tune or we have ignored it (as W did when they ultimately refused to enforce their own Resolutions in Iraq).  And the EU exists, but it was obvious even then that any attempt to make it any more than a free trade zone was going to act as a centrifugal force rather than a centripetal one.   And all one had to do was look at the "nations" of Europe to see that the main dynamic--in Yugoslavia; in Spain, in Great Britain; in Belgium; in Italy; etc.--was a drive towards dissolution of the artificial regimes that had been created by conquest and treaty and towards constituent historical states : Serbia; Scotland; Catalonia; etc. Far from being threatened by a rampant transnationalism; the political reality was, and is, that citizenries have so internalized the right to consensual governance that they require that state decision-making be made as close to home as possible and with maximum input from those who identify themselves as the nation to be governed. [In Europe, such nations are often closely tied up with race/ethnicity/religion; but in America's not dissimilar demands for dissolution they are more regional and multi-ethnic/multi-confessional; California for example.]

So, I concluded that the threat of transnationalism was terribly overblown and that it was far more likely the EU would dissolve than be endowed with dictatorial powers.  

I did though identify one area where the opposite was likely to occur and that was global trade.  This is the one area that requires some surrender of state sovereignty by populations that wish to enjoy the benefits of increased market forces.  The reason for this seems obvious enough: would you buy a car from a dealer who was not bound by the same rules (laws) as you are?  Suppose you agreed to finance the purchase at 4% interest but he was entitled to raise the rate to any level he desired once you'd agreed?  Under such circumstances, it goes without saying, that trade would be impossible because no market actually exists.  Paradoxically, free markets are a function of rules created by a sovereign power.  

Global trade then requires that each sovereign nation relinquish some exclusive power over itself to a wider governing body so that it and all of its trading partners will be bound by a uniform code.  Thus, we arrive at the delicious irony that the main transnational "threat" comes not from the left, which retains some residual hostility to capitalism, but from the right, which is generally pro-commerce.  [Of course both the Left and the Right hate capitalism, so they are unreconcilable to any institution which advances global trade.]

Mr. Mitchell does reach one issue of sovereignty that does explain why even those of us who hold Donald and his Bannionite cohorts in contempt derive some satisfaction from seeing how the Left has reacted to his victory.  That is the anti-democratic imposition of social policies that are not accepted by large swaths and even majorities of the American people, and/or, not accepted by entire regions of America.  When such things occur they become firestorms precisely because it is our own government avoiding the requirement of consent of the governed.  

A nice illustration is the attempt to foist transgender (really non-gendered) bathrooms on the American people, most of whom are opposed.  When Washington acts in such a manner--one hostile to the prevailing culture--it can not help but tend to delegitimize the regime generally.  And it can not hope to settle the matter just through the exercise of brute force, as witness the undying struggle over abortion.  Such issues are best left to the smallest feasible polity to determine for themselves--generally the individual states--where they may not be any less fraught with controversy but where the citizenry will feel that the resulting rules were arrived at locally.

Of course, let us not kid ourselves; while we of the right want these kinds of rules repealed at the national level; we have no qualms about imposing our own partisan views universally, no matter how divisive and extra-constitutional, as witness gun laws.  Such are the enduring temptations of sovereign power.

February 23, 2017

Posted by orrinj at 7:42 PM


FBI refused White House request to knock down recent Trump-Russia stories (Jim Sciutto, Evan Perez, Shimon Prokupecz, Manu Raju and Pamela Brown, February 23, 2017, CNN)

The FBI rejected a recent White House request to publicly knock down media reports about communications between Donald Trump's associates and Russians known to US intelligence during the 2016 presidential campaign, multiple US officials briefed on the matter tell CNN.

White House officials had sought the help of the bureau and other agencies investigating the Russia matter to say that the reports were wrong and that there had been no contacts, the officials said. The reports of the contacts were first published by The New York Times and CNN on February 14.

The direct communications between the White House and the FBI were unusual because of decade-old restrictions on such contacts. Such a request from the White House is a violation of procedures that limit communications with the FBI on pending investigations. [...]

The Trump administration's efforts to press Comey run contrary to Justice Department procedure memos issued in 2007 and 2009 that limit direct communications on pending investigations between the White House and the FBI.

"Initial communications between the [Justice] Department and the White House concerning pending or contemplated criminal investigations or cases will involve only the Attorney General or the Deputy Attorney General, from the side of the Department, and the Counsel to the President, the Principal Deputy Counsel to the President, the President, or the Vice President from the side of the White House," reads the 2009 memo.

Posted by orrinj at 7:29 PM


There Were Two Major Victories Against ISIS in Iraq and Syria (Jen Kirby, 2/23/17, New York)

ISIS suffered dual blows on Thursday, losing strategic ground in both Iraq and Syria. Iraqi forces reclaimed almost all of Mosul's airport from the control of the terror group, a key victory in the government's months-long offensive to retake Iraq's second-largest city. And over in Syria, Turkish-backed rebels seized control of the city of al-Bab, expelling ISIS from one of its last big strongholds there after a bloody, protracted battle that began just before fall.

The gains in Mosul come after Iraqi troops began a renewed push into the western part of the city, which remains under ISIS control. (Iraqi troops liberated eastern Mosul in January.) A week ahead of the operation, the United States led air strikes against 33 targets, including some believed to be ISIS command centers, reports the New York Times. Iraqi police forces led the assault Thursday; ISIS fought back with IEDs, car bombs, and mines buried underground, eventually losing ground as Iraqi forces pushed onto the runway. The Joint Operations Command said "many" ISIS fighters had been killed.

Posted by orrinj at 1:23 PM


  Dismal Results From Vouchers Surprise Researchers as DeVos Era Begins (Kevin Carey, Feb. 23rd, 2017, NY Times)

The first results came in late 2015. Researchers examined an Indiana voucher program that had quickly grown to serve tens of thousands of students under Mike Pence, then the state's governor. "In mathematics," they found, "voucher students who transfer to private schools experienced significant losses in achievement." They also saw no improvement in reading.

The next results came a few months later, in February, when researchers published a major study of Louisiana's voucher program. Students in the program were predominantly black and from low-income families, and they came from public schools that had received poor ratings from the state department of education, based on test scores. For private schools receiving more applicants than they could enroll, the law required that they admit students via lottery, which allowed the researchers to compare lottery winners with those who stayed in public school.

They found large negative results in both reading and math. Public elementary school students who started at the 50th percentile in math and then used a voucher to transfer to a private school dropped to the 26th percentile in a single year. Results were somewhat better in the second year, but were still well below the starting point.

This is very unusual. When people try to improve education, sometimes they succeed and sometimes they fail. The successes usually register as modest improvements, while the failures generally have no effect at all. It's rare to see efforts to improve test scores having the opposite result. Martin West, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, calls the negative effects in Louisiana "as large as any I've seen in the literature" -- not just compared with other voucher studies, but in the history of American education research.

There's always the chance that a single study, no matter how well designed, is an outlier. Studies of older voucher programs in Milwaukee and elsewhere have generally produced mixed results, sometimes finding modest improvements in test scores, but only for some subjects and student groups. Until about a year ago, however, few if any studies had shown vouchers causing test scores to decline drastically.

In June, a third voucher study was released by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank and proponent of school choice. The study, which was financed by the pro-voucher Walton Family Foundation, focused on a large voucher program in Ohio. "Students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools," the researchers found. Once again, results were worse in math.

Three consecutive reports, each studying one of the largest new state voucher programs, found that vouchers hurt student learning. 

Posted by orrinj at 1:20 PM


Trump Deportation Threats to Constrict Already-Tight Job Market (Patricia Laya, February 22, 2017, Bloomberg)

President Donald Trump's sweeping crackdown on undocumented immigrants will strain an already tight U.S. job market, with one study suggesting that removing all of them would cost the economy as much as $5 trillion over 10 years.

That represents the contribution of the millions of unauthorized workers to the world's largest economy, about 3 percent of private-sector gross domestic product, according to a recent paper issued by the National Bureau of Economic Research. At an average of $500 billion in output a year, removing all such immigrants would be like lopping off the equivalent of Massachusetts from the U.S. economy, said study co-author Francesc Ortega.

Posted by orrinj at 1:15 PM


Boehner: Republicans won't repeal and replace Obamacare (DARIUS TAHIR, 02/23/17, Politico)

Boehner, who resigned in 2015 amid unrest among conservatives, said at an Orlando health care conference that the idea that a repeal-and-replace plan would blitz through Congress is just "happy talk."

Instead, he said changes to former President Barack Obama's signature legislative achievement would likely be relatively modest.

"[Congressional Republicans are] going to fix Obamacare - I shouldn't call it repeal-and-replace, because it's not going to happen," he said.

Posted by orrinj at 1:07 PM


Neanderthals' DNA makes its presence felt : A gene's ancestry changes the way it is regulated, affecting appearance and health. (Dyani Lewis, 2/23/17, Cosmos)

When scientists sequenced the Neanderthal genome in 2010, it became apparent that prehistoric dalliances had taken place between Neanderthals and our European and Asian ancestors.

A faint afterglow of these matings is still present in the genomes of modern humans. Around 2% of the genomes of non-Africans is of Neanderthal origin.

In some cases, carrying the Neanderthal version of a gene has been linked to changes in fat metabolism, depression and lupus risk.

Posted by orrinj at 12:48 PM


Trump trade data proposal defies common sense, honest accounting (DANIEL GRISWOLD, 02/23/17, The Hill)

Reconfiguring U.S. trade numbers in such a fashion would be a bad idea motivated by an economically shaky assumption. The assumption is that exports are the positive side of the trade ledger and imports are the negative side. Therefore, a trade deficit is a net negative for the U.S. economy.
By reducing the official count of exports and enlarging the trade deficit, or so the thinking goes, policymakers may be more likely to take steps to "fix" the deficit by reducing imports. 

This mercantilist approach misses the core reality of trade -- Americans benefit from imports and exports, arguably even more so. Imported goods benefit the vast majority of Americans by spurring more competition to satisfy consumers with better products at lower prices. This raises the real wages of American workers, especially low-income workers who spend a larger share of their budgets on such tradable goods and food, clothing, and shoes.  

Posted by orrinj at 12:39 PM


La La Land has the world's worst traffic congestion (Charisse Jones, 2/20/17 , USA TODAY)

Cheap gas and a surging economy are taxing the nation's roads and contributing to congestion that cost U.S. motorists almost $300 billion last year in wasted time and fuel, according to a new report.

Los Angeles had the worst traffic in the world among the 1,064 cities studied by transportation analytics firm INRIX. The average driver wasted 104 hours sitting in gridlock during the busiest commuting times last year, and lost $2,408 each in squandered fuel and productivity. [...]

New York motorists spent 89 hours on average in traffic during peak periods last year. The average San Francisco driver cooled their heels behind the wheel 83 hours on average in 2016.

Posted by orrinj at 12:34 PM


Manafort faced blackmail attempt, hacks suggest : Stolen texts appear to show threats to expose relations between Russia-friendly forces, Trump and his former campaign chairman. (KENNETH P. VOGEL, DAVID STERN and JOSH MEYER 02/23/17, Politico)

Attached to the text is a note to Paul Manafort referring to "bulletproof" evidence related to Manafort's financial arrangement with Ukraine's former president, the pro-Russian strongman Viktor Yanukovych, as well as an alleged 2012 meeting between Trump and a close Yanukovych associate named Serhiy Tulub.

"Considering all the facts and evidence that are in my possession, and before possible decision whether to pass this to [the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine] or FBI I would like to get your opinion on this and maybe your way to work things out that will persuade me to do otherwise," reads the note. It is signed "Sergii" -- an alternative transliteration of Leshchenko's given name -- and it urges Manafort to respond to an email address that reporters have used to reach Leshchenko.

In the text to Manafort's daughter to which the note was attached, the sender writes from a different address, "I need to get in touch with Paul i need to share some important information with him regarding ukraine investigation." The sender adds "as soon as he comes back to me i will pass you documents," but also warns: "if I don't get any reply from you iam gonaa pass it on to the fbi and ukrainian authorities inducing media."

Posted by orrinj at 9:40 AM


The Future of Not Working (Annie Lowrey, Feb. 23rd, 2017, NY Times Magazine)

The villagers had seen Western aid groups come through before, sure, but nearly all of them brought stuff, not money. And because many of these organizations were religious, their gifts came with moral impositions; I was told that one declined to help a young mother whose child was born out of wedlock, for example. With little sense of who would get what and how and from whom and why, rumors blossomed. One villager heard that GiveDirectly would kidnap children. Some thought that the organization was aligned with the Illuminati, or that it would blight the village with giant snakes, or that it performed blood magic. Others heard that the money was coming from Obama himself.

But the confusion faded that unseasonably cool morning in October, when a GiveDirectly team returned to explain themselves during a town meeting. Nearly all of the village's 220 people crowded into a blue-and-white tent placed near the school building, watching nervously as 13 strangers, a few of them white, sat on plastic chairs opposite them. Lydia Tala, a Kenyan GiveDirectly staff member, got up to address the group in Dholuo. She spoke at a deliberate pace, awaiting a hum and a nod from the crowd before she moved on: These visitors are from GiveDirectly. GiveDirectly is a nongovernmental organization that is not affiliated with any political party. GiveDirectly is based in the United States. GiveDirectly works with mobile phones. Each person must have his or her own mobile phone, and they must keep their PIN secret. Nobody must involve themselves in criminal activity or terrorism. This went on for nearly two hours. The children were growing restless.

Finally, Tala passed the microphone to her colleague, Brian Ouma. "People of the village," he said, "are you happy?"

"We are!" they cried in unison.

Then he laid out the particulars. "Every registered person will receive 2,280 shillings" -- about $22 -- "each and every month. You hear me?" The audience gasped and burst into wild applause. "Every person we register here will receive the money, I said -- 2,280 shillings! Every month. This money, you will get for the next 12 years. How many years?"

"Twelve years!"

Just like that, with peals of ululation and children breaking into dance in front of the strangers, the whole village was lifted out of extreme poverty. (I have agreed to withhold its name out of concern for the villagers' safety.) The nonprofit is in the process of registering roughly 40 more villages with a total of 6,000 adult residents, giving those people a guaranteed, 12-year-long, poverty-ending income. An additional 80 villages, with 11,500 residents all together, will receive a two-year basic income. With this initiative, GiveDirectly -- with an office in New York and funded in no small part by Silicon Valley -- is starting the world's first true test of a universal basic income. The idea is perhaps most in vogue in chilly, left-leaning places, among them Canada, Finland, the Netherlands and Scotland. But many economists think it might have the most promise in places with poorer populations, like India and sub-Saharan Africa.

GiveDirectly wants to show the world that a basic income is a cheap, scalable way to aid the poorest people on the planet. "We have the resources to eliminate extreme poverty this year," Michael Faye, a founder of GiveDirectly, told me. But these resources are often misallocated or wasted. His nonprofit wants to upend incumbent charities, offering major donors a platform to push money to the world's neediest immediately and practically without cost.

What happens in this village has the potential to transform foreign-aid institutions, but its effects might also be felt closer to home. A growing crowd, including many of GiveDirectly's backers in Silicon Valley, are looking at this pilot project not just as a means of charity but also as the groundwork for an argument that a universal basic income might be right for you, me and everyone else around the world too.

Posted by orrinj at 9:32 AM


McMaster May Reorganize Trump's Foreign Policy Team Once Again (PETER BAKER, FEB. 22, 2017, NY Times)

While the decision to give Mr. Bannon a seat was a conscious one, Mr. Trump's team did not intend to reduce the role of the intelligence director or Joint Chiefs chairman, officials said. In crafting their organization order, the officials said, Mr. Trump's aides essentially cut and pasted language from Mr. Bush's organization chart, substituting the national intelligence director for the C.I.A. director, who back then was the head of the nation's spy agencies.

What Mr. Trump's team did not realize, officials said, was that Mr. Obama's organization chart made those two positions full members of the committee.

As a practical matter, Mr. Trump's aides may not have intended a substantive change...

Thank you, God, for only allowing this presidency during a time of peace and plenty...

Posted by orrinj at 9:09 AM


The True Story of the Comey Letter Debacle (Bethany McLean, Feb. 21st, 2017, Vanity Fair)

Even more famous is Comey's dramatic hospital-room confrontation with members of the Bush administration, in early March of 2004, over the secret warrantless domestic-eavesdropping program, which caused a national furor when the press revealed its existence in late 2005. In what The Washington Post later called "the most riveting 20 minutes of Congressional testimony. Maybe ever," Comey told the story of how he, as acting attorney general, filled in for his boss, John Ashcroft, who was hospitalized. After refusing to re-authorize the program, which he believed was illegal, Comey discovered that other members of the administration were planning an end run to get an incapacitated Ashcroft to sign off on it in his hospital bed. Comey "ran, literally ran," up the stairs to prevent that, he testified. The next day he considered resigning.

"To know Jim Comey is also to know his fierce independence and his deep integrity," said President Obama when, nine years later, he nominated him to serve as F.B.I. director. "He was prepared to give up a job he loved rather than be part of something he felt was fundamentally wrong."

Well, yes. But did Comey really believe that the program was "fundamentally wrong"?

President Bush quickly gave his support to making changes to the program--changes that have never been disclosed publicly--and Comey stayed on as D.A.G. until August 2005, as the wiretapping program continued. The London newspaper The Guardian obtained a classified report about the incident, which made Comey's objections seem to be less broadly substantive and more about legal technicalities involving just one part of the program.

Many would argue that legal technicalities are critically important, but some of Comey's former D.O.J. colleagues carped to The New York Times that his actions had not been as heroic as they were portrayed. One observer cites Comey's willingness to say, "I know what's right," even when doing so causes potentially avoidable drama. Another person who knows Comey well says, "There is stubbornness, ego, and some self-righteousness at work." [...]

On July 5, Comey held the press conference in which he announced that agents had found thousands of e-mails that contained government secrets, all of which had traveled unsecure, unclassified channels on Clinton's private e-mail network. Nonetheless, he said, "we cannot find a case that would support bringing criminal charges," in large part because they did not find intent, which is a critical element of most criminal cases.

Comey certainly knew that the career prosecutors, who had been working hand-in-glove with the F.B.I. agents, would agree with the decision. But he made it clear he hadn't even informed the D.O.J., whose responsibility it is to decide whether to authorize an indictment, that he was holding a press conference. Lynch corroborated this, admitting that the D.O.J. had learned of the press conference only "right before." Indeed, some at the D.O.J. turned to CNN to find out what Comey was saying.

Plenty of Comey's longtime admirers were appalled that he had spoken at all, because by doing so he blew through several of the Justice Department's long-standing policies. "It was an unprecedented public announcement by a non-prosecutor that there would be no prosecution," says someone who once worked for Comey. The F.B.I. does not talk publicly about its investigations, and "it does not make prosecutorial decisions. Full stop."

"[Comey] has said he did not consult with anyone at the D.O.J. beforehand so he could say it was the F.B.I.'s recommendation," observes another former prosecutor. "But right there that is a massive act of insubordination."

Comey then, according to his critics, compounded his mistake by declaring Clinton's conduct and that of her aides "extremely careless." This was another breach of protocol. Neither prosecutors nor agents criticize people they don't charge. "We don't dirty you up," says Richard Frankel, who retired from the F.B.I. in early 2016 and now consults for ABC News. And Comey's choice of language opened another can of worms. Unlike other criminal statutes, which, as a rule, require intent, the Espionage Act does allow for prosecutions of those who display "gross negligence."

Those close to the case were also shocked by what Comey didn't say. For instance, he didn't point out that the "classified" e-mails had not been marked that way when they were sent or received, and didn't point out that all the e-mails were to people who work in government--not to outsiders who aren't supposed to receive such information. "He gave a very skewed picture," says one person involved in the case. "The goal has to be that people understand the decision, and it came out exactly the opposite."

How to explain Comey's omissions? "I don't think he was that well briefed," says another person involved in the case. "It's a function of being at the bureau and of Comey's personality. It is so easy to get insular there. And Comey is not someone who cross-examines his own people. . . . It came across like there was something specific, but there was nothing there."

Those who know Comey say that, while the decision for him not to recommend prosecution was an easy one, his unprecedented decision to speak about it publicly wasn't. Some believe he might have taken the public route even without the tarmac incident, in part because he worried that prosecutors at Main Justice, instead of bringing the investigation to a close, would dither.

There's also speculation that Comey's decision to criticize Clinton was influenced by his prior experience, from Whitewater to Marc Rich, with her and her husband. But sources close to Comey insist that isn't true, and that his decision to go into more detail was influenced by his desire to make people believe the process had been fair despite the appearance of impropriety. An F.B.I. source says that since the details of the investigation were going to come out, framed in hyperpartisan ways via congressional hearings and FOIA requests, Comey wanted to offer an apolitical framing of the facts first.

Critics, however, see in his decision a whisper of the Ashcroft hospital confrontation, with the dark side fully apparent. "This gets into speculation, but knowing Jim, he decides it is all totally f[*****]d up and that he has to save the department and he alone can do it," says someone who knows him well. "Megalomania kicked in."

Comey had put his years of public service and his sterling reputation on the line, but that did nothing to persuade Republicans about the fairness of his investigation, and they refused to let go of the matter. In a July 7 congressional hearing, an incredulous Representative Trey Gowdy (Republican, South Carolina) proceeded to grill him about Clinton's e-mail practices, statements under oath, and legal infractions, ultimately exclaiming, "Help the reasonable person . . . understand why she appears to be treated differently than the rest of us would be."

Congress asked Comey to testify again on September 12, but he reportedly declined. They asked again, on September 28. This time, he obliged, and confirmed that the F.B.I. would not reopen its investigation. No findings at that point "would come near" to prompting such a measure, he told the congressmen. Louie Gohmert (Republican, Texas) continued the Republican harangue: "[The F.B.I. has] never seen anything like this."

With the bureau's probity questioned by Gohmert and others, Comey sprang to the defense. "You can call us wrong," he said, "but don't call us weasels. We are not weasels. We are honest people and . . . whether or not you agree with the result, this was done the way you would want it to be done."

Agreeing to appear in front of the House Judiciary Committee about the investigation was yet another mistake, many believe, forcing Comey to answer questions he normally wouldn't have. Lamar Smith (Republican, Texas) asked him if he'd reopen the case if he found new information. "It's hard for me to answer in the abstract," said Comey, who was under oath. "We would certainly look at any new and substantial information."

Throughout the whole process it seemed like, for him, the investigation was primarily about his own reputation.

Posted by orrinj at 9:00 AM


U.S. appeals court upholds Maryland's ban on assault rifles (Reuters, 2/23/17)

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit decided 10-4 that the Firearm Safety Act of 2013, a law in response to the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, by a gunman with an assault rifle, does not violate the right to bear arms within the Second Amendment.

"Put simply, we have no power to extend Second Amendment protection to the weapons of war," Judge Robert King wrote, referring to the "military-style rifles" that were also used during mass shootings in Aurora, Colorado, San Bernardino, California, and Orlando, Florida.

These are "places whose names have become synonymous with the slaughters that occurred there," he wrote, noting that the Supreme Court's decision in the 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller case excluded coverage of assault weapons.

Actually, only weapons of war are protected by the 2nd Amendment, but those only for use by the states'  well-regulated militias.

Posted by orrinj at 8:55 AM


Most scientists 'can't replicate studies by their peers' (Tom Feilden, 22 February 2017, BBC)

From his lab at the University of Virginia's Centre for Open Science, immunologist Dr Tim Errington runs The Reproducibility Project, which attempted to repeat the findings reported in five landmark cancer studies.

"The idea here is to take a bunch of experiments and to try and do the exact same thing to see if we can get the same results."

You could be forgiven for thinking that should be easy. Experiments are supposed to be replicable.

The authors should have done it themselves before publication, and all you have to do is read the methods section in the paper and follow the instructions.

Sadly nothing, it seems, could be further from the truth.

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