The End of the Left and the Right as We Knew Them

[Note:  This item comes from friend Ed DeWath.  DLH]

The End of the Left and the Right as We Knew Them
By Thomas B. Edsall
Jun 22 2017

By now it has become quite clear that conservative parties in Europe and the United States have been gaining strength from white voters who have been mobilizedaround issues related to nationalism — resistance to open borders and to third-world immigration. In the United States, this development has been exacerbated by ongoing conservative recruitment on issues of race that has reinforced opposition to immigration. On the liberal side, the Democratic Party and the center-left European parties have been allied in favor of globalization, if we define globalization as receptivity to open borders, the expansion of local and nationalistic perspectives and support for a less rigid social order and for liberal cultural, immigration and trade policies. In recent decades, these parties, both in Europe and in the United States have begun to include and reflect the views of large numbers of well-educated elites— relatively affluent knowledge or creative class workers — in alliance with predominantly nonwhite minority constituencies of the less well-off.

Ewald Engelen, a social scientist at the University of Amsterdam, argues that the old paradigm of a left arguing for strong government intervention and a right preferring market solutions to social problems has been replaced. “Today,” he told Al Jazeera,“we see that the dominant dichotomy has become globalism versus nationalism.”

Stewart Patrick, the director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program at the Council on Foreign Relations, elaborated on these trends in an email:

The most salient political division today is not between conservatives and liberals in the United States or social democrats in the United Kingdom and France, but between nationalists and globalists. The victory of the Leave campaign in Britain, the triumph of Trump, and the unprecedented success of Marine Le Pen’s National Front (albeit in a losing effort) were underpinned by economic and cultural anxiety that transcended traditional ideological lines — and a rejection of conventional parties and a political establishment that had too long ignored those concerns.

In the United States, Sean McElwee, a policy analyst at the liberal think tank Demos, and Jason McDaniel, a professor of political science at San Francisco State University, examined data from American National Election Studies and reported in The Nation that

Trump accelerated a realignment in the electorate around racism, across several different measures of racial animus — and that it helped him win. By contrast, we found little evidence to suggest individual economic distress benefited Trump. The American political system is sorting so that racial progressivism and economic progressivism are aligned in the Democratic Party and racial conservatism and economic conservatism are aligned in the Republican Party.

In their essay, McElwee and McDaniel graphed data documenting their findings, which is reproduced in the accompanying chart. White voters who supported Trump were decidedly strong on measures of anti-black affect and hostility to the integration of immigrants into the population of the United States.


Understanding Income Risk: New Insights from Big Data

[Note:  This item comes from friend David Rosenthal.  DLH]

Understanding Income Risk: New Insights from Big Data
Large data sets reveal new insights into the risks individuals face from fluctuating incomes
Jun 26 2017

Income inequality is a topic of much research and heated debate—concern well warranted given the substantial and continuing rise in inequality over the past four decades. But income risk—intimately related and arguably of equal concern to workers, families and firms—has received far less attention. This essay seeks to redress that imbalance. It provides a close look at income risk, discussing findings from recent research that uses innovative technique and draws upon a wealth of new data.

Every person and each segment of the U.S. population experiences volatility in annual earnings; the changes from one period to the next may be trivial, but in some years they can also result in great hardship or tremendous opportunity. Losing a job, being promoted, suffering an illness or becoming disabled—all are often unforeseen events that dramatically affect income flows and economic opportunities for individuals, households and businesses. To the extent that policymakers and the public seek to reduce the harm (or enhance the prospects) that income volatility creates, they should include income risk in the broader discourse on income and wealth in the United States and abroad. The research reviewed here aims to contribute to that discussion.

Distribution versus uncertainty

To begin, it’s important to distinguish between inequality and risk. Income inequality measures how income levels are distributed from highest to lowest across a population at a given point in time: One individual may earn $35,000 in a year while another earns three times that. To the extent that workers can move across the income distribution—from lower to upper income levels, or the reverse—some of these differences will average out over time and may not have very large welfare consequences for the economy as a whole. Income mobility is itself an important, but distinct, concern.

Income risk measures a very different economic phenomenon: the uncertainty that individuals (or firms) experience because of income fluctuations. A household could find its annual income cut in half (or doubled) from one year to the next. Some of this variation is inescapable. As the economy goes from expansions to recessions, and as a person’s health declines with age, incomes tend to fall. These are inevitable phenomena, but their timing is uncertain, leading to substantial insecurity. 

Income risk also captures many labor market events that cause major hardship—job losses, demotions, jobs disappearing due to factory closures, employer bankruptcies, industry declines and so on. Even in an economy where inequality is not rising or is fairly modest, the magnitude, unpredictability and degree of insurability of income fluctuations can have a life-changing impact on workers and their households. 

Understanding income risk with better data and stronger tools

Despite its importance in daily life and over entire lifetimes, the nature of income risk is not well understood. This is due in part to a relative dearth of high-quality “panel” data sets on individual earnings. A panel data set tracks the path of the same individuals (or households, businesses, states, countries and the like) over time; these data measure the relevant statistic of the same units at regular intervals for a long stretch of time and for many individuals. For a variety of reasons—small samples, attrition over time, nonrandom and unrepresentative selection, measurement or reporting errors—good panel data are often hard to come by. Income inequality, by contrast, can be measured with “cross-sectional” data, which are generally easier to gather and therefore more plentiful.

Poor data quality forces researchers to make strong restrictions and statistical assumptions that may be unfounded, and this combination of data issues and necessary restrictions on methodology has yielded a wide range of conflicting answers to questions about income risk. My earlier research on these topics relied on these small data sets and imperfect methods, making me increasingly uncomfortable about their use and motivating me to seek out better data and improved technique.

Fortunately, a number of newly available data sets have allowed economists, myself included, to explore trends and patterns in income risk in more detail with fewer assumptions than required with earlier data sets. This has yielded new and often surprising insights.1

In this essay, I discuss new research findings on three dimensions of income risk: Changes over (1) the business cycle (that is, during recessions and expansions), (2) the life cycle and (3) the long run—for example, over the past 40 or so years. 

Individual income risk over the business cycle

What happens to individual income risk in recessions? Can the fortunes of a worker during a recession be predicted by a characteristic observed and measured prior to the recession? Answers to these questions can deepen society’s understanding of income risk.


Is the staggeringly profitable business of scientific publishing bad for science?

Is the staggeringly profitable business of scientific publishing bad for science?
It is an industry like no other, with profit margins to rival Google – and it was created by one of Britain’s most notorious tycoons: Robert Maxwell.
By Stephen Buranyi
Jun 27 2017

In 2011, Claudio Aspesi, a senior investment analyst at Bernstein Research in London, made a bet that the dominant firm in one of the most lucrative industries in the world was headed for a crash. Reed-Elsevier, a multinational publishing giant with annual revenues exceeding £6bn, was an investor’s darling. It was one of the few publishers that had successfully managed the transition to the internet, and a recent company report was predicting yet another year of growth. Aspesi, though, had reason to believe that that prediction – along with those of every other major financial analyst – was wrong.

The core of Elsevier’s operation is in scientific journals, the weekly or monthly publications in which scientists share their results. Despite the narrow audience, scientific publishing is a remarkably big business. With total global revenues of more than £19bn, it weighs in somewhere between the recording and the film industries in size, but it is far more profitable. In 2010, Elsevier’s scientific publishing arm reported profits of £724m on just over £2bn in revenue. It was a 36% margin – higher than Apple, Google, or Amazon posted that year.

But Elsevier’s business model seemed a truly puzzling thing. In order to make money, a traditional publisher – say, a magazine – first has to cover a multitude of costs: it pays writers for the articles; it employs editors to commission, shape and check the articles; and it pays to distribute the finished product to subscribers and retailers. All of this is expensive, and successful magazines typically make profits of around 12-15%.

The way to make money from a scientific article looks very similar, except that scientific publishers manage to duck most of the actual costs. Scientists create work under their own direction – funded largely by governments – and give it to publishers for free; the publisher pays scientific editors who judge whether the work is worth publishing and check its grammar, but the bulk of the editorial burden – checking the scientific validity and evaluating the experiments, a process known as peer review – is done by working scientists on a volunteer basis. The publishers then sell the product back to government-funded institutional and university libraries, to be read by scientists – who, in a collective sense, created the product in the first place.

It is as if the New Yorker or the Economist demanded that journalists write and edit each other’s work for free, and asked the government to foot the bill. Outside observers tend to fall into a sort of stunned disbelief when describing this setup. A 2004 parliamentary science and technology committee report on the industry drily observed that “in a traditional market suppliers are paid for the goods they provide”. A 2005 Deutsche Bank report referred to it as a “bizarre” “triple-pay” system, in which “the state funds most research, pays the salaries of most of those checking the quality of research, and then buys most of the published product”.

Scientists are well aware that they seem to be getting a bad deal. The publishing business is “perverse and needless”, the Berkeley biologist Michael Eisen wrote in a 2003 article for the Guardian, declaring that it “should be a public scandal”. Adrian Sutton, a physicist at Imperial College, told me that scientists “are all slaves to publishers. What other industry receives its raw materials from its customers, gets those same customers to carry out the quality control of those materials, and then sells the same materials back to the customers at a vastly inflated price?” (A representative of RELX Group, the official name of Elsevier since 2015, told me that it and other publishers “serve the research community by doing things that they need that they either cannot, or do not do on their own, and charge a fair price for that service”.)

Many scientists also believe that the publishing industry exerts too much influence over what scientists choose to study, which is ultimately bad for science itself. Journals prize new and spectacular results – after all, they are in the business of selling subscriptions – and scientists, knowing exactly what kind of work gets published, align their submissions accordingly. This produces a steady stream of papers, the importance of which is immediately apparent. But it also means that scientists do not have an accurate map of their field of inquiry. Researchers may end up inadvertently exploring dead ends that their fellow scientists have already run up against, solely because the information about previous failures has never been given space in the pages of the relevant scientific publications. A 2013 study, for example, reported that half of all clinical trials in the US are never published in a journal.

According to critics, the journal system actually holds back scientific progress. In a 2008 essay, Dr Neal Young of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which funds and conducts medical research for the US government, argued that, given the importance of scientific innovation to society, “there is a moral imperative to reconsider how scientific data are judged and disseminated”.


The Magical Apple Spin-Off That Almost Invented the iPhone … in 1993

The Magical Apple Spin-Off That Almost Invented the iPhone … in 1993
By Sean Braswell
Jun 27 2017

Can you guess which company penned this mission statement in 1990?

We have a dream of improving the lives of many millions of people by means of small, intimate life support systems that people carry with them everywhere. These systems will help people to organize their lives, to communicate with other people, and to access information of all kinds….

Apple is a good guess, but the above was actually the dream of General Magic, an Apple Inc. spin-off that aimed to create a revolutionary hand-held computer. Named after Arthur C. Clarke’s famous maxim that “the best new technology is indistinguishable from magic,” it was Silicon Valley’s hottest startup, at least for a spell. But even magic and partnerships with Apple, Sony, Motorola and other big players failed to conjure a market for its innovative but unsettled technology.

General Magic was the brainchild of Apple’s Marc Porat, once labeled a “wizard with a business plan.” Months before the U.S. Olympic Basketball program started assembling its “dream team” in 1991, Porat began assembling his own all-star squad of coding legends and design and hardware gurus from within Apple’s ranks. Leading the talented crew of tech wizards were co-founders Bill Atkinson and Andy Hertzfeld — two of Macintosh’s key designers — as well as artist Susan Kare (designer of the trash can and other Mac icons). 

General Magic’s vision was more an illusion than a reality. 

Technology startups are often born in garages, but as the Los Angeles Timesobserved, “General Magic was born in a mansion.” Apple Chairman John Sculley, also on General Magic’s board, helped Porat build his dream team, and Apple, likely trying to hedge its bets with its own hand-held project, Newton, came aboard early with $10 million in seed money. The secret startup initially flew under the radar, but as it began drawing more big-name investors and partners, including AT&T, Sanyo and Sony, word got out.

Almost 17 years before the iPhone, General Magic’s aim was nothing less than a pocket-size communications device that could send messages, perform computing and make calls. The company called a dramatic press conference in February 1993 to announce two key components of that device: Magic Cap (a user-friendly operating system) and Telescript (a telecommunications language to allow devices to communicate across different networks). Industry observers raved that the company was creating “the digital version of English” to go with its hand-held personal assistant of the future. General Magic raised almost $90 million, and another $82 million at its 1995 initial public offering. Silicon Valley’s brightest angled to work at its Mountain View headquarters, equipped with free-roaming rabbits and conference rooms named after famous illusionists like Houdini.


Humans reach for godhood — and leave their humanity behind

Humans reach for godhood — and leave their humanity behind
By Michael Gerson
Jun 26 2017–and-leave-their-humanity-behind/2017/06/26/5f74b20c-5a93-11e7-9fc6-c7ef4bc58d13_story.html

Much analysis of Yuval Noah Harari’s brilliant new book, “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow,” focuses on the harrowing dystopia he anticipates. In this vision, a small, geeky elite gains the ability to use biological and cyborg engineering to become something beyond human. It may “upgrade itself step by step, merging with robots and computers in the process, until our descendants will look back and realize that they are no longer the kind of animal that wrote the Bible [or] built the Great Wall of China.” This would necessarily involve the concentration of data, wealth and power, creating “unprecedented social inequality.” 

“In the early 21st century,” argues Harari, “the train of progress is again pulling out of the station — and this will probably be the last train ever to leave the station called Homo sapiens.” 

Few of us Homo sapiens are eager to take such a trip, apart from some “dataists” who pant for the apocalypse. But, as Harari repeatedly insists, the prophet’s job is really an impossible one. Someone living in the 12th century would know most of what the 13th century might have to offer. Given the pace of change in our time, the 22nd century is almost unimaginable. 

Yet the predictions are not the most interesting bits of the book. It is important primarily for what it says about the present. For the past few hundred years, in Harari’s telling, there has been a successful alliance between scientific thought and humanism — a philosophy placing human feelings, happiness and choice at the center of the ethical universe. With the death of God and the denial of transcendent rules, some predicted social chaos and collapse. Instead, science and humanism (with an assist from capitalism) delivered unprecedented health and comfort. And now they promise immortality and bliss.

This progress has involved an implicit agreement, “In exchange for power,” says Harari, “the modern deal expects us to give up meaning.” Many (at least in the West) have been willing to choose antibiotics and flat-screen TVs over the mysticism and morality behind door No. 2.

It is Harari’s thesis, however, that the alliance of science and humanism is breaking down, with the former consuming the latter. The reason is reductionism in various forms. Science, argues Harari, revealed humans as animals on the mental spectrum, then as biochemical processes and now as outdated organic algorithms. We have “opened up the Sapiens black box” and “discovered there neither soul, nor free will, nor ‘self’ — but only genes, hormones and neurons.” 

This rather depressing argument is well presented, with a few caveats. Harari’s breezy style is sometimes in tension with his utter nihilism. Here is a moral rule: You can either be cheery or you can describe the universe as an empty, echoing void where human beings have no inherent value. But you can’t do both. 

And Harari’s treatment of religion is, charitably put, superficial. He seems to think that the absence of an immortal soul can be proved by dissection. Scientists have “looked into every nook in our hearts and every cranny in our brains. But they have so far discovered no magic spark.” For future reference, religious believers don’t generally view the liver or the pineal gland as the seat of the soul. And when Harari claims that religion is “no longer a source of creativity” and “makes little difference,” it is tempting to shout “Martin Luther King Jr.” at your e-reader. 

But Harari has one great virtue: intellectual honesty. Unlike some of the new atheists, he recognizes that science is incapable of providing values, including the humanistic values of Locke, Rousseau and Jefferson. “Even Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker and the other champions of the new scientific worldview refuse to abandon liberalism,” Harari observes. “After dedicating hundreds of erudite pages to deconstructing the self and the freedom of will, they perform breathtaking intellectual somersaults that miraculously land them back in the 18th century.”


From braille to Be My Eyes – there’s a revolution happening in tech for the blind

[Note:  This item comes from friend David Rosenthal.  DLH]

From braille to Be My Eyes – there’s a revolution happening in tech for the blind
Apps are linking visually impaired people to sighted volunteers as assistive technology enters a new era of connectivity
By Alex Lee
Jun 26 2017

“Connected to other part,” my iPhone says to me as I stand somewhere in London’s Soho, trying to decipher the letter on the top of a bus stop.

“Hello?” says an American woman, reminding me of Scarlett Johansson’s disembodied artificially intelligent character from the sci-fi film Her.

“Hey, er … can you give me a hand by reading the letter on the bus stop?” I ask.

“Sure … can you move your phone a bit more up, and to the left … Ya! It says … F.” 

Result. I thank her, end the session, pull up Citymapper and navigate my way onto the 453 going to New Cross.

I have a little bit of vision, but only enough to see motion and movement. 

I am using an app called Be My Eyes, an app that connects blind and visually impaired people to sighted volunteers via a remote video connection. Through the phone’s camera, the blind person is able to show the sighted individual what they are looking at in the real world, allowing the volunteer to assist them with any of their vision-related problems. 

I began to lose my sight in the summer of 2013 to a rare genetic mitochondrial disease called Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy and was soon registered blind. I consequently found myself relying on an assortment of assistive technologies to do the simplest of tasks. 

Be My Eyes has just over 35,000 visually-impaired users registered for the app and over half a million volunteers. Whenever a visually impaired user requests assistance a sighted volunteer receives a notification and a video connection is established.

Its benefits are obvious. Jose Ranola, a 55-year-old from the Philippines who works in construction and has retinitis pigmentosa, said: “I use it to help me identify medicine and read printed materials and also to describe places and objects.” He adds: “All my experiences were good. The volunteers were very helpful.”

James Frank, a 49-year-old counsellor in Minnesota, US, who has severely damaged optic nerves, is also a fan. “The response has been favourable and the volunteers are always polite,” he says. “The longest I have waited is maybe a minute.”

Brenda Smith, 51, who lives in Brisbane, Australia, has the same condition as I do. She says she uses Be My Eyes for day-to-day tasks like reading instructions on food and telling apart the white bread her son eats from the brown bread she does. She says she also used it recently to guide her to which switch had thrown in the electricity box.

In the UK there are over 2 million who have some form of sight loss and an estimated 285 million people registered blind or visually impaired worldwide. Technology has long been playing a roles in improving their lives. In the mid-1970s Ray Kurzweil, a pioneer in optical character recognition (OCR) – software that can recognise printed text – founded Kurzweil Computer Products and programmed omni-font, the first OCR program with the ability to recognise any kind of print style. He went on to make the Kurzweil Reading Machine, the first ever print-to-speech reading machine for the use of the blind.

Now, there’s a new booming age in the field of accessibility, driven in part by smartphones and high-speed connectivity. Screen readers have developed to such an extent that braille is no longer necessarily taught to people who lose their sight later in life.


95-Degree Days: How Extreme Heat Could Spread Across the World

[Note: This item comes from friend Mike Cheponis. DLH]

95-Degree Days: How Extreme Heat Could Spread Across the World
Jun 22 2017

Extremely hot days, when temperatures soar to 95 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, can be miserable. Crops wilt in the fields. Electric grids strain to keep pace with demand. People are at greater risk of dying. And those hot temperatures are expected to be much more frequent in the coming decades.

The map above, based on a new analysis from the Climate Impact Lab, shows how 95-degree days (35 degrees Celsius) are expected to multiply this century if countries take moderate climate action. In this scenario, countries would take some measures, but not drastic ones, to curb emissions — roughly the trajectory of the current pledges under the Paris climate agreement.

The resulting global warming would still cause significant shifts for many cities. In Washington, from 1986 to 2005, an average of seven days each year had temperatures of at least 95 degrees. By the end of the century, the city can expect 29 of these extremely hot days per year, on average. (The likely range is 14 to 46 hot days per year.)

Phoenix is used to the heat, averaging 124 days per year with 95-degree weather. At the end of the century, that’s expected to increase to around 155 days — an extra month of extreme temperatures each year. Madrid would go from eight severely hot days per year to 43, Beijing from nine to 35.

The swings are even greater closer to the equator. New Delhi, India’s capital city, has historically averaged 105 days with temperatures of at least 95 degrees each year. That’s likely to rise to a range of 137 to 200 days per year.

Things could get worse if countries fail to take action

If the world’s nations took no action on global warming, and emissions continued to rise at the same pace they did in the first decade of this century — with total global warming of 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit or more by the end of the century — extremely hot days would become much more commonplace.