March 5, 2017

Posted by orrinj at 6:13 PM


How robotic delivery will disrupt the grocery industry (CHRISTIAN FRITZ, MARCH 5, 2017, Venture Beat)

Currently, if you are an average consumer, you go to the supermarket around 1.6 times per week and each time you spend on average around $32, or $51.20 per week. If each trip takes 30 minutes, you incur an opportunity cost of 0.8 times your hourly wage per week (the median hourly wage for people with a Bachelor's degree or more is currently approximately $24 in the U.S.), which means you essentially pay a 37.5 percent markup on the groceries you buy for going shopping yourself. [...]

But what if you could get groceries in less than two minutes without even leaving your apartment? Another beer? This time try an amber rather than the lager you just had? Think guacamole would go extremely well with those Doritos you just opened? Missing an egg for Sunday morning pancakes? In other words, what if you could get groceries quickly delivered to your door with the click of a button or by saying, "Alexa, get me a beer"?

This and a lot more will be possible in the next five years as robots become more reliable, inexpensive, and efficient. In-door delivery robots could remove items from refrigerated shelves in the basement and ferry them upstairs to apartment dwellers. The automated "bot-marts" could be operated by grocery retailers or residential property management companies. Together with RFID-based payment systems, loading and unloading mechanisms to and from the fridge, and AI algorithms to optimize inventory and restocking management, delivery bots could autonomously supply a building's residents with groceries. (Full disclosure: I work for a robot-delivery company. While we have an offering for apartment buildings, we don't handle groceries, and we don't offer automated refrigeration or restocking.)

Because software could track the demand for specific items, these mini-marts could automatically order supplies as needed, eliminating waste. Since most consumers actually don't change their grocery purchasing habits all that much each week, such a system could rather quickly learn what its residents like to eat and drink and make sure to always stock those items. This means you could have a never-empty fridge without ever having to go to the grocery store again.

Posted by orrinj at 5:32 PM


Comey Asks Justice Dept. to Reject Trump's Wiretapping Claim (MICHAEL S. SCHMIDT and MICHAEL D. SHEAR, MARCH 5, 2017, NY Times)

The F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, asked the Justice Department this weekend to publicly reject President Trump's assertion that President Barack Obama ordered the tapping of Mr. Trump's phones, senior American officials said on Sunday. Mr. Comey has argued that the highly charged claim is false and must be corrected, they said, but the department has not released any such statement.

Mr. Comey, who made the request on Saturday after Mr. Trump leveled his allegation on Twitter, has been working to get the Justice Department to knock down the claim because it falsely insinuates that the F.B.I. broke the law, the officials said. [...]

Mr. Comey's request is a remarkable rebuke of a sitting president, putting the nation's top law enforcement official in the position of questioning Mr. Trump's truthfulness. The confrontation underscores the high stakes of what the president and his aides have unleashed by accusing the former president of a conspiracy to undermine Mr. Trump's young administration. his own reputation.

Posted by orrinj at 2:59 PM


Trump Can't Save Coal (Adam Millsap, 3/05/17, Mercatus Center)

[C]oal must also be able to compete with alternative sources of energy, and lately natural gas has provided more value for consumers. The figure below shows that the real price of natural gas is at its lowest level since 1997.

Another analysis from Bloomberg shows that the price of producing power from natural gas relative to coal fell dramatically after 2009 and has remained low since. Additionally, this relative price decline is largely due to the price of natural gas falling, not the price of coal rising. This price decline also matches up with the decline in coal mining employment shown earlier--evidence that competition from natural gas is at least partly responsible.

The increased use of natural gas doesn't appear to be waning, either. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, electricity generation from natural gas (33%) caught up to electricity generation from coal (33%) in 2015. As recently as 2000 natural gas was responsible for only about 15% of the nation's energy while coal was responsible for approximately 50%.  The current parity between the two is the result of a trend that began in the late 1990s, before the most recent regulations.

Posted by orrinj at 12:10 PM


I Am a Member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Not a Terrorist (GEHAD EL-HADDAD, FEBRUARY 22, 2017, NY Times)

I write this from the darkness of solitary confinement in Egypt's most notorious prison, where I have been held for more than three years. I am forced to write these words because an inquiry is underway in the United States regarding charges that the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization to which I have devoted years of my life, is a terrorist group.

We are not terrorists. The Muslim Brotherhood's philosophy is inspired by an understanding of Islam that emphasizes the values of social justice, equality and the rule of law. Since its inception in 1928, the Brotherhood has lived in two modes: surviving in hostile political environments or uplifting society's most marginalized. As such, we have been written about, spoken of, but rarely heard from. It is in that spirit that I hope these words find light.

We are a morally conservative, socially aware grass-roots movement that has dedicated its resources to public service for the past nine decades. Our idea is very simple: We believe that faith must translate into action. That the test of faith is the good you want to do in the lives of others, and that people working together is the only way to develop a nation, meet the aspirations of its youth and engage the world constructively. We believe that our faith is inherently pluralistic and comprehensive and that no one has a divine mandate or the right to impose a single vision on society.

Since our inception, we have been engaged politically in the institutions of our country as well as socially to address the direct needs of people. Despite being the most persecuted group under former President Hosni Mubarak's rule in Egypt, our involvement in the Parliament, either in coalitions with other political groups or as independents, is a testament to our commitment to legal change and reform. We spoke truth to power in an environment full of rubber-stamp parties. We worked with independent pro-democracy organizations against plans to hand the presidency to Mr. Mubarak's son. We also worked closely with an array of professional syndicates and labor unions.

During the one year of Egypt's nascent democracy, we were dedicated to reforming state institutions to harbor further democratic rule. We were unaware of the amount of pushback we would receive from hard-liners in these institutions. We were ill-equipped to handle the level of corruption within the state. We pursued reforms through government, ignoring public protest in the streets. We were wrong. By now I am sure many books have been written about what we got wrong, but any fair analysis of the facts will show that we are fundamentally opposed to the use of force. Our flaws are many, but violence is not one.

Posted by orrinj at 11:53 AM


Yavlinsky Says 1917 'Detour' Led Russia Into 100-Year 'Dead End' (Robert Coalson, 3/05/17, Radio Liberty)

In a contribution for RFE/RL's Russian Service titled Back To February, [ liberal politician and Yabloko party candidate for the 2018 presidential election Grigory Yavlinsky] Yavlinsky argues that, between the abdication of Russian Tsar Nicholas II in February 1917 and the Bolshevik seizure of power in October, Russia took a "detour" into a 100-year "dead end."

Russia's historical path, Yavlinsky says, was disrupted by the October coup and the January 1918 dispersal of the Constituent Assembly that had been elected to determine the form of the country's future government.

"Since that time, Russia has not had a legitimate government," Yavlinsky writes.

The February Revolution came about, Yavlinsky argues, because the monarchy had rejected political modernization and because whole swaths of a dynamically changing society -- former serfs, the emerging bourgeoisie, the growing working class -- had no opportunities to influence political processes.

"The main reasons for the fall of the autocracy are well known -- the slow pace of reforms, the inability of the authorities to cope with change, the transformation of autocratic power into an obstacle to the modernization of the country and the government. Autocracy rejected political modernization and was hopelessly left behind by historical developments.... And with that, it lost its legitimacy. Does this sound familiar?"

Despite these crises and the pressure World War I, however, the country's leaders in the summer of 1917 found a potential way out. Nicholas II abdicated in favor of his brother, Grand Duke Michael Aleksandrovich. Michael, however, refused to take the throne without the consent of an elected Constituent Assembly.

Like most of the political elite at that time, Michael anticipated that the assembly would write a new constitution that would create either a constitutional monarchy or a republican form of government. Most importantly, Yavlinsky argues, the Constitutional Assembly would ensure the perpetuation of the government's legitimacy.

"The Constituent Assembly is the main signpost on the historical highway the country should have taken in February 1917," Yavlinsky writes.

Posted by orrinj at 8:54 AM


Russia is the slow burn of the Trump administration, and it's not going away (Dan Balz, March 4, 2017, Washington Post)

There are several elements to the Russia investigation. The overarching issue is the attempt by a foreign government to disrupt an American election and thereby undermine confidence in the world's leading democratic government. Just as important is answering the question of whether there was any collusion or cooperation between the Trump campaign and the Russians in attempting to undermine Clinton's campaign.

Ambassadors routinely meet with elected U.S. officials. They are especially keen to learn as much as they can about someone who could become president and about the people around the candidate. Sessions's meeting with Kislyak last September easily falls into that category. Similarly, the more recent meetings between Kislyak and retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner could be seen in that way as well, or as an effort during the transition to develop necessary contacts.

But Flynn was never forthcoming about his conversations until revelations by The Post, and he was forced to resign after misleading Vice President Pence.

Just as Sessions was unwilling to volunteer his contacts with the Russian ambassador during his confirmation hearings, the administration has rarely volunteered who met with whom and what was discussed. That's fed suspicions that have intensified calls for more investigation.

The president could begin by ordering an internal investigation, led by someone not now in the administration, of all those contacts. This could force every member of his team to come clean. The administration's credibility on all this, however, has been weakened because, as one Republican put it, "They keep fanning those flames by denying it so vociferously." That means any such public report would be viewed with some skepticism, but at a minimum it would provide an inventory that doesn't exist and the appearance of cooperation.

One vulnerability for the president is his own role in stirring up questions. His posture during the campaign of embracing policies that were in Russia's interests and his positive comments about Russian President Vladimir Putin put him at odds with Republican orthodoxy and raised questions about his motivations and possible business links with Russia. He has denied having any.

Another vulnerability comes from the nature of the Trump campaign, which for much of the election cycle was loosely structured. A variety of people claimed access or influence. The full extent to which Trump advisers, associates or even campaign hangers-on were in contact with Russians remains a mystery. All are legitimate questions aimed at trying to understand whether there was cooperation or collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign writ large.

As much as Trump would like to wish all this away, he can't. The reality is that the investigations are at an early stage. Congress hasn't even begun to call witnesses. The prospect of a special prosecutor looms. This, with health care and tax policy and other initiatives, is now part of Trump's first-year agenda. The president needs a new strategy, one that treats the Russia issue as the serious problem that it is. that the idea of coddling Russia is so antithetical to Republican politics, so you have to argue that Donald and his gang are objectively pro-Putin and none of the money and contacts made any difference.

Posted by orrinj at 8:47 AM


The Real American Pie  : Mince pie was once inextricable from our national identity. Blamed for bad health, murderous dreams, the downfall of Prohibition, and the decline of the white race, it nonetheless persisted as an American staple through the 1940s. So what happened? (Cliff Doerksen, December 17, 2009, Chicago Reader)

As an icon of the American way, apple pie is a johnny-come-lately, a usurper, a pale pretender to its pastry throne. The phrase as American as apple pie is of 20th-century origin and didn't attain wide currency until the 1940s. Perhaps not coincidentally, the 40s are also when mince pie went into eclipse as our defining national dish.

But to its 19th- and early-20th-century admirers, mince pie was "unquestionably the monarch of pies," "the great American viand," "an American institution" and "as American as the Red Indians." It was the food expatriates longed for while sojourning abroad. Acquiring an appreciation for it was proof that an immigrant was becoming assimilated. It was the indispensable comfort dish dispatched to American expeditionary forces in World War I to reinforce their morale with the taste of home. "Mince pie is mince pie," as an editorialist for the Washington Post put it in 1907. "There is no other pie to take its place. Custard pie is good and so is apple pie, but neither has the uplifting power and the soothing, gratifying flavor possessed by mince pie when served hot, with a crisp brown crust."

Moreover, unlike apple pie or anything else on the American menu before or since, mince pie dominated in multiple categories. It was beloved as an entree, as dessert, and, in parts of New England, as breakfast. And although more popular in winter than summer, and absolutely mandatory at Thanksgiving and Christmas, mince pie was eaten year round, unconfined to the holiday ghetto it now shares with iffy ritual foods like eggnog, green bean casserole, and marshmallow candied yams.

Most remarkably, mince pie achieved and maintained its hegemony despite the fact that everyone--including those who loved it--agreed that it reliably caused indigestion, provoked nightmares, and commonly afflicted the overindulgent with disordered thinking, hallucinations, and sometimes death.

Posted by orrinj at 8:40 AM


Tapping Trump? (Julian Sanchez, March 4, 2017, JustLaw)

[T]he allegation made by various news sources is that, in connection with a multi-agency intelligence investigation of Russian interference with the presidential election, the FBI sought an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court authorizing them to monitor transactions between two Russian banks and four persons connected with the Trump campaign.  The Guardian's report alleges that initial applications submitted over the summer, naming "four members of the Trump team suspected of irregular contacts with Russian officials," were rejected by the FISC. But according to the BBC, a narrower order naming only the Russian banks as direct targets was ultimately approved by the FISC in October.  While the BBC report suggests that the surveillance was meant to ferret out "transfers of money," the Mensch article asserts that a "warrant was granted to look at the full content of emails and other related documents that may concern US persons."

Taking all these claims with the appropriate sodium chloride seasoning, what can we infer?  First, contrary to what many on social media--and even a few reporters for reputable outlets--have asserted, the issuance of a FISA order does not imply that the FBI established probable cause to believe that any Trump associate was acting as an "agent of a foreign power" or engaged in criminal wrongdoing.  That would be necessary only if the court had authorized direct electronic surveillance of a United States person, which (if we credit the BBC report) the FISC apparently declined to do.  Assuming the initial applications were indeed for full-blown electronic surveillance orders, then the fact that the FBI supposedly did name the Trump associates at first would suggest they may have thought they had such evidence, but one would expect the FISC to apply particularly exacting scrutiny to an application naming persons associated with an ongoing presidential campaign.  An application targeting only foreign corporate entities--especially entities openly controlled or directed by the Russian government--would require no such showing, even if the FBI's ultimate interest were in communications concerning those U.S. persons.

It's worth noting here that, contra Trump's claim on Twitter, none of the articles in question claim that phones were tapped.  Indeed, it's not even entirely clear that the order the FISC finally issued in October was a full-blown electronic surveillance warrant requiring a probable cause showing.  If the FBI was primarily interested in obtaining financial transaction records, corporate documents, and (depending on both the facts and the FISC's interpretation of the FISA statute) perhaps even some stored e-mail communications, that information might well have been obtainable pursuant to a ยง215 "business records" order, which imposes only the much weaker requirement that the records sought be "relevant to an authorized investigation."  The BBC's use of the word "intercept" to describe the investigators' aim, as well as Mensch's characterization of the order as a "warrant," both suggest full-blown electronic surveillance, but reporters aren't always particularly meticulous about their use of legal terms of art, and similarly, sources with indirect knowledge of an investigation may not be scrupulously exact about the distinction between an "order" and a "warrant."

In either event, there's nothing here to suggest either the direct involvement of President Obama nor any clear indication of a violation of the law.  If, however, the primary purpose of the investigation was to build a criminal case against U.S. persons in the Trump camp, then the use of FISA authorities to gather information by naming foreign entities sounds like "reverse targeting"--tasking collection on a foreign target when your real interest is a U.S. person with whom they're communicating.  That would be, to use the technical term, highly shady even if not unlawful. Thanks to the Patriot Act, however, FISA authorities may be used in investigations that have a "significant" foreign intelligence purpose, even if the "primary" purpose is criminal prosecution--a change from the prior standard imposed by the courts, which had required that foreign intelligence be the "primary" purpose of surveillance under the aegis of FISA, precisely to prevent authorities from evading the stricter requirements imposed by Title III, the statute that covers wiretapping for domestic criminal investigations.

Posted by orrinj at 8:32 AM


Prudence vs. Fanaticism: On the American & French Revolutions (Russell Kirk, Imaginative Conservative)

A little book forgotten for a century and a half, Friedrich Gentz's Origin and Principles of the American Revolution, compared with the Origin and Principles of the French Revolution, has recently been reprinted in the United States. For the revolutions of our own century have given it renewed meaning. In the first year of the nineteenth century John Quincy Adams, only thirty-three years old, was Minister Plenipotentiary of the United States to Prussia. Adams educated himself the whole of his life; and, perfecting his German during his residence at Berlin, he translated from the Berlin Historisches Journal (April and May, 1800) a long article on the French and American Revolutions by Friedrich Gentz, a rising Prussian man of letters, three years older than the precocious Adams. Gentz was the founder, editor, and sole contributor to this remarkable magazine of ideas. These were men of mark: Adams would become President of the United States, and Gentz, with Metternich, the architect of European conservatism. "It cannot but afford a gratification to every American attached to his country," Adams wrote to Gentz, "to see its revolution so ably vindicated from the imputation of having originated, or been conducted upon the same principles, as that of France."

Gentz had studied under Kant, but Burke's Reflections had converted the young man to conservative principles, and, abhorring the theories and consequences of the French Revolution, he had translated the Reflections into German, thus exerting his first influence upon European politics and making his reputation. Like Gentz, the younger Adams had been profoundly influenced by Burke; and though he tried to act the role of arbiter between Burke and Paine, Adams really was persuaded by all Burke's principal arguments. His Letters of Publicola, published in 1791, had demolished Paine's Rights of Man and had cudgeled the French revolutionaries, enraging Jefferson. The Americans, young Adams had written, had not fallen into the pit of radical abstract doctrine: "Happy, thrice happy the people of America, whose gentleness of manners and habits of virtue are still sufficient to reconcile the enjoyment of their natural rights with the peace and tranquillity of their country; whose principles of religious liberty did not result from an indiscriminate contempt of all religion whatever, and whose equal representation in their legislative councils was founded upon an equality really existing among them, and not upon the metaphysical speculations of fanciful politicians, vainly contending against the unalterable course of events and the established order of nature."

Thus Adams was of one mind with Gentz, and saw in Gentz's essay the most succinct and forceful contrast between the moderate polity of the American colonies, founded upon a respect for prescriptive rights and custom, and the leveling theories of French radicalism. Only the word "Republic" was common to the two new dominations, Adams perceived; and the French Republic already had ceased to contain any element of true representative government. 

Posted by orrinj at 8:26 AM


Trump, Offering No Evidence, Says Obama Tapped His Phones (MICHAEL D. SHEAR and MICHAEL S. SCHMIDT, MARCH 4, 2017, NY Times)

But a senior White House official said that Donald F. McGahn II, the president's chief counsel, was working to secure access to what Mr. McGahn believed to be an order issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court authorizing some form of surveillance related to Mr. Trump and his associates.

The official offered no evidence to support the notion that such an order exists. It would be a highly unusual breach of the Justice Department's traditional independence on law enforcement matters for the White House to order it to turn over such an investigative document.

Any request for information from a top White House official about a continuing investigation would be a stunning departure from protocols intended to insulate the F.B.I. from political pressure. It would be even more surprising for the White House to seek information about a case directly involving the president or his advisers, as does the case involving the Russia contacts.

After the White House received heavy criticism for the suggestion that Mr. McGahn would breach Justice Department independence, a different administration official said that the earlier statements about his efforts had been overstated. The official said the counsel's office was looking at whether there was any legal possibility of gleaning information without impeding or interfering with an investigation. The counsel's office does not know whether an investigation exists, the official said.

...and we'll take the protestations seriously.
Posted by orrinj at 8:20 AM


Gaza's healthcare crumbling under Israeli siege (Imran Khan, 3/05/17, Al Jazeera)

Israel's continued siege of Gaza is having an effect on medical services leaving many residents struggling.

With procedures costing around $30,000, residents of Gaza have had to turn to charities and international aid to pay for their operations.

"Around 4,000 Palestinians need to leave Gaza for urgent medical treatment but they can't because of the siege," Dr Ashraf Al Qidra, spokesman for the Ministry of Health, told Al Jazeera.

"Cancer patients are particularly affected as their condition is deteriorating. Our whole medical system is crumbling. We can't get equipment in and we cannot train our doctors."

Posted by orrinj at 8:08 AM


The Potential for Blockchain to Transform Electronic Health Records (John D. Halamka, MD, Andrew Lippman, Ariel Ekblaw, MARCH 03, 2017, Harvard Business Review)

Here's the idea:

Blockchain was originally conceived of as a ledger for financial transactions. Every financial institution creates a cryptographically secured list of all deposits and withdrawals. Blockchain uses public key cryptographic techniques to create an append-only, immutable, time-stamped chain of content. Copies of the blockchain are distributed on each participating node in the network.

Today humans manually attempt to reconcile medical data among clinics, hospitals, labs, pharmacies, and insurance companies. It does not work well because there is no single list of all the places data can be found or the order in which it was entered. We may know every medication ever prescribed, but it can be unclear which medications the patient is actually taking now. Further, although data standards are better than ever, each electronic health record (EHR) stores data using different workflows, so it is not obvious who recorded what, and when.

Imagine that every EHR sent updates about medications, problems, and allergy lists to an open-source, community-wide trusted ledger, so additions and subtractions to the medical record were well understood and auditable across organizations. Instead of just displaying data from a single database, the EHR could display data from every database referenced in the ledger. The end result would be perfectly reconciled community-wide information about you, with guaranteed integrity from the point of data generation to the point of use, without manual human intervention.

My colleagues at the MIT Media Lab and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center tested this concept with medications, proving the viability of such an approach. In our white paper, "A Case Study for Blockchain in Healthcare," we proposed a novel, decentralized record management system to handle EHRs using blockchain technology, which we called MedRec.

MedRec doesn't store health records or require a change in practice. It stores a signature of the record on a blockchain and notifies the patient, who is ultimately in control of where that record can travel. The signature assures that an unaltered copy of the record is obtained. It also shifts the locus of control from the institution to the patient, and in return both burdens and enables the patient to take charge of management. For those patients who do not want to manage their data, I imagine that service organizations will evolve to serve as patient delegates for this task. One challenge of the project and the idea is building an interface that can make this responsibility palatable for patients. Most of the individual patient portals that people use today have cumbersome designs, create more work, and have different user interfaces at every institution. A deployed MedRec system would feature a user interface to simplify patient interaction with health care records that bridge multiple institutions.

Posted by orrinj at 7:54 AM


Even Cheaper Groceries Are Coming to Walmart and Target (Brad Tuttle, Feb 28, 2017, Money)

Walmart and Target try to win customer loyalty based on an "everyday low price" business model. And now it looks like the prices from both retailers are going even lower.

Walmart sells more groceries than any other supermarket in America, and the company is pushing a broad price-cutting initiative to ensure it stays on top of the competition. Reuters reported this week that Walmart has been slashing prices on staples like eggs and milk in stores throughout the Southeast and Midwest in order to compete better with low-price upstarts such as Aldi.

Aldi, which is owned by the same company as Trader Joe's, routinely gets top marks for low prices in consumer surveys. But price checks conducted by Reuters show that Walmart has undercut Aldi in many markets around the country. A basket of 15 common grocery store purchases (milk, bananas, peanut butter, chicken breasts, paper towels, etc.) cost 5% to 10% less in Walmart stores where price cuts have gone into effect, according to Reuters.