Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for April 18th, 2012

The Vatican flexes its muscle, cracks its whip

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Laurie Goodstein reports in the NY Times:

The Vatican has appointed an American bishop to rein in the largest and most influential group of Catholic nuns in the United States, saying that an investigation found that the group had “serious doctrinal problems.”

The Vatican’s assessment, issued on Wednesday, said that members of the group, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, had challenged church teaching on homosexuality and the male-only priesthood, and promoted “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”

The sisters were also reprimanded for making public statements that “disagree with or challenge the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals.” During the debate over the health care overhaul in 2010, American bishops came out in opposition to the health plan, but dozens of sisters, many of whom belong to the Leadership Conference, signed a statement supporting it — support that provided crucial cover for the Obama administration in the battle over health care.

The conference is an umbrella organization of women’s religious communities, and claims 1,500 members who represent 80 percent of the Catholic sisters in the United States. It was formed in 1956 at the Vatican’s request, and answers to the Vatican, said Sister Annmarie Sanders, the group’s communications director.

Word of the Vatican’s action took the group completely by surprise, Sister Sanders said. She said that the group’s leaders were in Rome on Wednesday for what they thought was a routine annual visit to the Vatican when they were informed of the outcome of the investigation, which began in 2008. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 April 2012 at 9:00 pm

Posted in Religion

The Dan Rather scoop on George W. Bush, revisited

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The blurb in the Texas Monthly:

Eight years ago, Dan Rather broadcast an explosive report on the Air National Guard service of President George W. Bush. It was supposed to be the legendary newsman’s finest hour. Instead, it blew up in his face, tarnishing his career forever and casting a dark cloud of doubt and suspicion over his reporting—and that of every other journalist on the case. This month, as Rather returns with a new memoir, Joe Hagan finally gets to the bottom of the greatest untold story in modern Texas politics, with exclusive, never-before-seen details that shed fresh light on who was right, who was wrong, and what really happened.

Read the whole thing.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 April 2012 at 1:55 pm

Rehearsals for D-Day: A disaster

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Fascinating bit of history by Giles Minton:

It was three minutes past two in the morning: 28 April, 1944.

A flotilla of American ships was approaching Slapton Sands on the Devon coast, a crucial practice exercise in advance of the D-Day landings.

Exercise Tiger was a 300-vessel, 30,000 men dress rehearsal for the biggest amphibious landing in history. It would enable Allied commanders to fine-tune their Normandy battle plan.

Angelo Crapanzano one of those involved in the operation. He was in the engine room of his vessel, named LST 507, when it was unexpectedly rocked by a tremendous explosion.

‘I got this sensation of flying up, back, and when I came down I must have bumped my head someplace and must have been out for a few seconds, because I felt cold on my legs,’ he later recalled.

As he recovered consciousness, he realised the ship had been hit by a torpedo. A German naval squadron had encountered the fleet by chance and immediately opened fire.

‘The ship was burning,’ said Crapanzano. ‘[It] was split in half … fire went from the bow all the way back to the wheelhouse.’

The sea also was on fire, because the fuel tanks had ruptured and poured oil into the water.

LST 507 was not the only ship to be hit. Crapanzano witnessed another landing ship, LST 531, being attacked. She sank in ten minutes, killing almost everyone on board. A third vessel also burst into flames, another victim of the German ambush.

By about 2.20am, the captain of Crapanzano’s ship realised that she was fatally damaged. ‘The tank deck was burning fiercely…’ recalled Crapanzano, ‘It [was] just like a gas jet stove. And all the heat going up to the top deck.’

Crapanzano braced himself for the 40-foot jump into the sea, hitting the water at high speed and plunging beneath the surface. ‘It was frigid. It was like unbelievable, unbelievable cold.’

But he didn’t think of the cold for long: he was too busy trying to escape the burning fuel on the water’s surface.

Of the 12 life rafts on the LST, only one had been lowered into the water. It was completely burned, but Crapanzano and 10 others managed to cling to it. They desperately kicked themselves away from the ship so as not to get sucked under when it sank.

Crapanzano witnessed scenes that would haunt him for years. ‘I saw bodies with arms off, heads off, heads split open, you wouldn’t believe what the hell goes on.’

As he flailed around in the water, he was struck by the scale of the catastrophe. Nine German E-boats had struck the Allied fleet as it headed for Slapton Sands. They had attacked hard and fast. Three LSTs were totally crippled and a fourth was badly damaged by friendly fire. The E-boats had got away before the Allies could return fire.

A staggering 638 servicemen were killed in the sudden attack. Yet the Allied landing operation was not abandoned. Instead, the surviving ships pressed on at full speed towards Slapton Sands, leaving the dead and dying in the water.

The beach landings were to prove the setting for the day’s second tragedy. The Supreme Allied Commander, General Eisenhower, had ordered that real ammunition be used, so that men would experience actual battlefield conditions. It was a disastrous decision, for the entire exercise was mistimed. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 April 2012 at 1:51 pm

Posted in Military

Class notes from a Stanford University class on start-ups

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You ambitious young entrepreneurs, take note: Peter Thiel’s CS183: Startup – Class 4 Notes Essay:

Here are my class notes, typed in essay form, from Class 4 of CS183: Startup. Errors, omissions, and/or poor phrasing are my own. Credit for good substance and wording is Peter’s entirely.

CS183: Startup—Notes Essay—April 11—The Last Mover Advantage

I. Escaping Competition

The usual narrative is that capitalism and perfect competition are synonyms. No one is a monopoly. Firms compete and profits are competed away. But that’s a curious narrative. A better one frames capitalism and perfect competition as opposites; capitalism is about the accumulation of capital, whereas the world of perfect competition is one in which you can’t make any money. Why people tend to view capitalism and perfect competition as interchangeable is thus an interesting question that’s worth exploring from several different angles.

The first thing to recognize is that our bias favoring competition is deep-rooted. Competition is seen as almost quintessentially American. It builds character. We learn a lot from it. We see the competitive ideology at work in education. There is a sense in which extreme forms of competition are seen as setting one up for future, non-competitive success. Getting into medical school, for example, is extremely competitive. But then you get to be a well-paid doctor. [But see Alfie Kohn's No Contest: The Case Against Competition on how competition undermines creativity and accomplishment. Almost always, cooperation is better (more productive) than competition. - LG]

There are, of course, cases where perfect competition is just fine. Not all businesses are created to make money; some people might be just fine with not turning a profit, or making just enough to keep the lights on. But to the extent one wants to make money, he should probably be quite skeptical about perfect competition. Some fields, like sports and politics, are incredibly and perhaps inherently competitive. It’s easier to build a good business than it is to become the fastest person alive or to get elected President.

It may upset people to hear that competition may not be unqualifiedly good. We should be clear what we mean here. Some sense of competition seems appropriate. Competition can make for better learning and education. [?? I'd like to see this demonstrated. In my experience, competition has the opposite effect. - LG] Sometimes credentials do reflect significant degrees of accomplishment. But the worry is that people make a habit of chasing them. Too often, we seem to forget that it’s genuine accomplishment we’re after, and we just train people to compete forever. But that does everyone a great disservice if what’s theoretically optimal is to manage to stop competing, i.e. to become a monopoly and enjoy success.

A law school anecdote will help illustrate the point. By graduation, students at Stanford Law and other elite law schools have been racking up credentials and awards for well over a dozen years. The pinnacle of post law school credentialism is landing a Supreme Court clerkship. After graduating from SLS in ’92 and clerking for a year on the 11th Circuit, Peter Thiel was one of the small handful of clerks who made it to the interview stage with two of the Justices. That capstone credential was within reach. Peter was so close to winning that last competition. There was a sense that, if only he’d get the nod, he’d be set for life. But he didn’t.

Years later, after Peter built and sold PayPal, he reconnected with an old friend from SLS. The first thing the friend said was, “So, aren’t you glad you didn’t get that Supreme Court clerkship?” It was a funny question. At the time, it seemed much better to be chosen than not chosen. But there are many reasons to doubt whether winning that last competition would have been so good after all. Probably it would have meant a future of more insane competition. And no PayPal. The pithy, wry version of this is the line about Rhodes Scholars: they all had a great future in their past.

This is not to say that clerkships, scholarships, and awards don’t often reflect incredible accomplishment. Where that’s the case, we shouldn’t diminish it. But too often in the race to compete, we learn to confuse what is hard with what is valuable. Intense competition makes things hard because you just beat heads with other people. The intensity of competition becomes a proxy for value. But value is a different question entirely. And to the extent it’s not there, you’re competing just for the sake of competition. Henry Kissinger’s anti-academic line aptly describes the conflation of difficulty and value: in academia at least, the battles are so fierce because the stakes are so small.

That seems true, but it also seems odd. If the stakes are so small, why don’t people stop fighting so hard and do something else instead? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 April 2012 at 1:24 pm

Posted in Business, Daily life

Dirunal report

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Little bubble still present in left eyeball, but it’s very small. I think I was wrong that the gas was absorbed a constant volume per hour: the gas must be absorbed from bubble boundary, and as the bubble shrinks, so does the boundary, so the absorption rat declines. That’s my current idea, at any rate. One can understand the appeal of experiments once the idea was discovered: through simple speculation one can make up plausible explanations all over the place.

Cleaning ladies have come and gone, so Megs and I are enjoying the periodic neatness before getting to work to demonstrate the second law of thermodynamics.

A sushi/sashimi lunch. I felt a treat was in order, plus I like to vacate the apartment during vacuuming.

I’m thoroughly enjoying the HBR discussion which has picked up some new contributors. You can see them if you scan up and down the comments, which can be sorted by age, popularity, most-liked, etc. I did just recognize that much mention is made of the “preference” men have for cartridge razors, which on examination turns out to be an empty preference—very similar to a review of a book the reviewer’s not read. It turns out that the “preference” stems from having only tried cartridge razors: if you have tried A and have never tried B, a statement that you prefer A to B doesn’t (to my mind) carry much weight, but certainly John Moran is mightily impressed by it. Different strokes for different folks.

I gave away my Whirly-Pop corn popper and my remaining popcorn. I got to indulging, but I had to recognize that I like my popcorn with too much butter and salt, and that popcorn is never so good as I imagine that it will be. So best just to get that stuff out of here.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 April 2012 at 12:51 pm

Posted in Daily life, Food, Shaving

The Eldest uses (and loves) pressure cookers

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I thought of that this morning when I saw the Cool Tool today. Do you use a pressure cooker?

Written by LeisureGuy

18 April 2012 at 11:29 am

Posted in Daily life, Food, Technology

Why industry loves voluntary guidelines and self-policing

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Big Business dotes on voluntary guidelines, self-policing, pledges, and the like because they can then do whatever they want and if they’re caught, they simply apologize: no one goes to jail, no fines are paid—just an apology and a promise to do better in the future.

Oddly, despite the proven fact that this approach simply does not work—for the obvious reasons that corporations, as persons, are sociopaths who will do anything for money—businesses continue to propose it as a “solution” and the government continues to agree. Not me.

Barry Meier and Katie Thomas report in the NY Times:

As doctors scramble to understand the risks posed by a flawed heart device component made by St. Jude Medical, the episode is raising a bigger question — whether the $10 billion heart device industry has fully embraced promised safety reforms.

The industry was shaken in 2005 by disclosures that a major maker of heart defibrillators, Guidant, had not warned doctors about a potentially fatal flaw in its products.

Subsequently, Guidant and other device makers promised to set up independent medical advisory boards, to quickly investigate malfunctions in their products and to alert doctors to potential problems. The key to preventing a repeat episode, specialists say, was for manufacturers to scrutinize every death to see if it pointed to an underlying flaw that could kill or injure other patients.

But now the same issues that dogged device makers seven years ago are resurfacing amid a controversy over how St. Jude Medical has handled disclosures about a problem component, a wire — or lead — that connects a defibrillator to a patient’s heart.

Last month, an outside researcher, Dr. Robert Hauser of Minneapolis, released a study indicating that short-circuits and other failures of the St. Jude lead might have played a role in some 20 patient deaths.

His report followed several studies showing that the lead, called the Riata, was also prone to another malfunction, a tendency for internal wires to break through the protective outer coating and cause electrical problems like unintended shocks in some patients. An estimated 128,000 patients worldwide still use the Riata lead, which the company stopped selling in late 2010.

St. Jude executives, including the chief executive, Daniel J. Starks, quickly reacted to Dr. Hauser’s report by unleashing a public relations campaign aimed at discrediting the study’s accuracy and Dr. Hauser. But left unanswered amid the noise was the question: how closely had St. Jude been examining those deaths for signs pointing to a broader problem involving the Riata lead?

“Someone in the company should have been watching this,” said Dr. Robert J. Myerburg, who led an independent investigation into Guidant’s decision not to warn doctors that some of its defibrillators could short-circuit. A defibrillator emits an electrical jolt to interrupt a potentially fatal heart rhythm and restore the normal heartbeat. . .

Continue reading. And know that they will get away with it, and go scot-free. In the US today, businesses can pretty much do as they please. They own the Congress, you see.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 April 2012 at 11:19 am

DOJ review of flawed FBI forensics processes amounted to a cover-up

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Rather than expose wrong-doing, the DOJ review carefully concealed wrong-doing and, when possible, averted their gaze (and their investigation) to avoid discovering wrong-doing. The Department of Justice at this point is, I think, fully compromised. Their activities and operations are suspect, because when we look, we see miscreants either in full operation (Fast and Furious) or being protected and their misdeeds concealed (or ignored—no one, so far as I can tell, lost his job from the Fast and Furious operation).

Unfortunately, we do not have a Congress that can handle this, because our Congress is even more dysfunctional than the DoJ. But all this is what happens as nations decline: they lose their will and their direction and swirl in unproductive eddies while important issues go unaddressed until it’s too late (e.g., global warming, raising taxes).

The story by  Spencer Hsu, Jennifer Jenkins and Ted Mellnik appears in the Washington Post:

The bombshell came at the most inopportune time.

An FBI special agent was testifying in the government’s high-profile terrorism trial against Omar Abdel Rahman, the “blind sheik” suspected of plotting the first attack on the World Trade Center.

Frederic Whitehurst, a chemist and lawyer who worked in the FBI’s crime lab, testified that he was told by his superiors to ignore findings that did not support the prosecution’s theory of the bombing.

“There was a great deal of pressure put upon me to bias my interpretation,” Whitehurst said in U.S. District Court in New York in 1995.

Even before the Internet, Whitehurst’s extraordinary claim went viral. It turned out he had written or passed along scores of memos over the years warning of a lack of impartiality and scientific standards at the famed lab that did the forensic work after the World Trade Center attack and in other cases.

With the FBI under fire for its handling of the 1993 trade center attack, the Oklahoma City bombing and the O.J. Simpson murder case, officials had to act.

After the Justice Department’s inspector general began a review of Whitehurst’s claims, Attorney General Janet Reno andFBI Director Louis J. Freeh decided to launch a task force to dig through thousands of cases involving discredited agents, to ensure that “no defendant’s right to a fair trial was jeopardized,” as one FBI official promised at a congressional hearing.

The task force took nine years to complete its work and never publicly released its findings. Not the results of its case reviews of suspect lab work. Not the names of the defendants who were convicted as a result.And not the nature or scope of the forensic problems it found.

Those decisions more than a decade ago remain relevant today for hundreds of people still in the U.S. court system, because officials never notified many defendants of the forensic flawsin their cases and never expanded their review to catch similar mistakes.

A review of more than 10,000 pages of task force documents and dozens of interviews demonstrate that the panel operated in secret and with close oversight by FBI and Justice Department brass — including Reno and Freeh’s top deputy — who took steps to control the information uncovered by the group.

“It was not open,” said a person who worked closely with the task force and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the bureau and Justice Department maintain a strong influence in forensic science. “Maybe [a coverup] wasn’t the intent, but it did seem to look that way. . . . It was too controlled by the FBI.”

The documents and interviews tell a story of how the Justice Department’s promise to protect the rights of defendants became in large part an exercise in damage control that left some prisoners locked away or in the dark for years longer than necessary. The Justice Department continues to decline to release the names of defendants in the affected cases.

A Washington Post review of the department’s actions shows an agency struggling to balance its goal of defending convictions in court with its responsibility to protect the innocent. The Justice Department’s decision to allow prosecutors to decide what to disclose to defendants was criticized at the time and allowed most of the process to remain secret. But by cloaking cases in anonymity, failing to ensure that defendants were notified of troubles with their cases and neglecting to publicly report problems or recommend solutions, the task forceobscured problems from further study. . .

Continue reading. I also blogged about this same topic earlier, pointing out another Washington Post story. I fear the Justice Department at this point is deeply corrupted.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 April 2012 at 10:19 am

Chess in schools

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As readers know, the University of Maryland Baltimore Campus is an exceptionally good university, thanks to the vision and activity of the president, who totally transformed a commuter city university into a powerhouse. Among other things, UMBC provides the same focus to its chess team and most universities do to their football businesses. Here’s another instance of chess in the academic world: a NY Times article by Anne Barnard and Dylan Loeb McClain:

The classroom at Intermediate School 318 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, was filled on Tuesday with the thumping and clattering of a half-dozen high-speed chess matches, played with a rambunctious energy more reminiscent of a hockey game than of Garry Kasparov and Deep Blue.

The school’s conquering heroes — its chess players — were blowing off steam. On Sunday, in Minneapolis, they became the first middle school team to win the United States Chess Federation’s national high school championship. The team, mostly eighth graders, beat out top high schools like Stuyvesant in Manhattan and Thomas Jefferson in Alexandria, Va.

The victory burnishes what is already a legend in the chess world. At I.S. 318, more than 60 percent of the students come from families with incomes below the federal poverty level. Yet each stairwell landing bristles with four-foot chess trophies, and the school celebrities are people like James A. Black Jr. A 13-year-old with twinkly eyes and curly eyelashes, James is not a football hero or a valedictorian, but a certified chess master who gently corrects his teachers on the fine points of strategy.

Watching over a particularly raucous game on Tuesday, James, wearing a black sweatsuit and a huge book bag, took notice of the moment when only kings and pawns were left. “Automatic draw,” he declared. “Insufficient mating material.”

I.S. 318 is a perennial powerhouse, often sweeping middle school national championships against exclusive schools where more students can afford private lessons. A recent graduate, Rochelle Ballantyne, has secured a chess scholarship to the University of Texas-Dallas — though she is still a student at Brooklyn Tech — and aims to be the first African-American female master in chess history. Even before the big win, Magnus Carlsen of Norway, the No. 1 ranked player in the world, was scheduled to visit the students next week.

But the new milestone means something more, say school officials, who express hope that it will help the program survive budget cuts that threaten chess and other after-school and elective programs across the city.

“The difference in mental development between a junior high school kid and a high school kid is impossible to overstate,” said Elizabeth Spiegel, the school’s full-time chess teacher, who helped turn a small after-school program into a national contender, the core of the school’s identity and the focus of a recently completed documentary, “Brooklyn Castle.” . . .

Continue reading. I wonder whether any schools have embraced Go or Contract Bridge in a similar fashion.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 April 2012 at 10:01 am

Posted in Daily life, Education, Games

4 things grosser than Pink Slime

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Don’t read while eating. Tom Philpott has a brief article at Mother Jones on how our foods are handled:

The specter of “pink slime”—puréed, defatted, and ammonia-laced slaughterhouse scraps—has caused quite the uproar over the past six weeks. (The latest: ProPublica has a great explainer on pink slime and other filler products.) The current fixation on pink slime may well lead to the demise of the product; already, supermarket and fast-food chains and school cafeterias are opting to stop adding the stuff into their burger mixes. The company’s maker, Beef Products International, has had to temporarily shut down three of its four plants in response to collapsing demand, which doesn’t augur well for the company’s long-term health.

But I’m wondering if focusing on the ew-gross aspects of “lean, finely textured beef” (as the industry calls it) doesn’t miss the bigger picture, which is that the meat industry’s very business model is deeply gross. Even if pink slime is purged from the face of the earth, the system that produces our meat and related products (eggs, milk) won’t be fundamentally changed. A while back, I identified something about meat production that’s “even grosser than pink slime”—proposed new rules that would privatize inspection at poultry slaughterhouses while dramatically speeding up kill lines. Here are four more. . .

Continue reading. And in connection with this article, I highly recommend Mark Bittman’s profile of Colin Spencer in today’s NY Times. It’s a great read throughout, but note this paragraph:

. . . Cooking, as it happens, took up almost none of our conversation, which quickly turned to the history of the relationship between “heretical” eating — which is how Spencer referred to vegetarianism in his history “The Heretic’s Feast” — and other “heretical” behavior, like homosexuality. (Spencer has “always” been bisexual, and has written authoritatively about sexual issues, especially in his 1995 work, “Homosexuality in History.”) Although the right to eat in any style one likes has not been a much-discussed issue, at least in huge public forums, vegetarians — along with people whose eating styles differed from the norm for religious reasons — were long treated as a minority, especially, notes Spencer, since the advent of Christianity.

He’s written that the story has long been one of “persecution, suppression and ridicule,” because vegetarianism is “not simply a criticism of meat-eating but a criticism of power … Not to eat meat, or to frown on the captivity and killing of animals, went to the heart of society.” . . .

Written by LeisureGuy

18 April 2012 at 9:53 am

Posted in Daily life, Food

The Tyranny of Freedom

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Thought-provoking post by William Deresiewicz atThe American Scholar:

Last year I wrote a post about the devolution of the vocabulary we use to describe ourselves collectively, from citizens to voters to taxpayers to consumers. A similar impoverishment can be seen in the language of our political ideals. The only thing we seem to believe in anymore is freedomFreedom has become the be-all and the end-all of our political expectation, the full meaning of the American experiment.Justice is gone, and even more conspicuously banished is that term of terms for movements from abolitionism to feminism, for Lincoln and King: equality. This is the doing of the Right, of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush in their public rhetoric, but the rest of us have let ourselves be pulled along. Like good liberals, we’ve had too much decency to stand up for our own beliefs, so that by now we have forgotten what they are. Which has left us unequipped—left us all unequipped—to comprehend what’s going on around us.

Look at the Arab Spring, or to be precise, the way Americans have understood it. “They’re fighting for their freedom,” our journalists and pundits tell us. Well, yes, but they’re fighting for a lot of other things, as well, like dignity, and hope, and opportunity, and most of all, the things that guarantee these goods, including freedom: the rights of citizenship. They’re fighting for the right to vote, to hold office, to enjoy due process and equal protection, to live under a government of laws instead of men, of transparency and accountability. Our own revolution was about collective self-government even more than personal liberty (which is why the Bill of Rights was an afterthought to the Constitution). Collective self-government, or in other words, government, the very thing the Right is trying to discredit and dismantle. To see the Arab Spring as a desire for freedom, period, is to flatter ourselves into thinking that they want to be just like us, instead of recognizing that much of what they’re fighting for—dignity, opportunity, transparency, accountability—we also have to fight for, have to keep on fighting for.

Which brings us to the other signal political event of our time, . . .

Continue reading. That earlier post (to which he links) is also intriguing and well worth the click.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 April 2012 at 9:47 am

Posted in Daily life, Government

The President is a great razor

with 2 comments

I brought out one of my other pre-shave soaps from the test run I did: one of the QEDreserve soaps (aka “cleansing bars”), which are excellent. Indeed, I liked this one so much this morning that I’m going to stick with it for a while.

I heard from Mike (of Mike’s Naturals, the shaving soaps I’m using this week). He pointed out that his shaving soap, because of the clay and lanolin content, requires more water than other shaving soaps, and yesterday I did indeed find it worked better with more water. Today I got out the lathering bowl to allow me to mix more water into the lather. I loaded the Vie-Long “Zurito” (as Phil of named it) and then worked more water into the lather, with good results.

The Gillette President (shown above replated in rhodium) is a wonderful razor, it turns out. Loaded with a newish Astra Superior Platinum job, it produced one of those remarkable shaves where things come together well. A splash of Alt-Innsbruck and I’m almost ready for the cleaning ladies.

At the HBR blog, the discussion continues.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 April 2012 at 9:38 am

Posted in Shaving


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