Later On

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

A look inside The War for Gaul: A New Translation

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The following is an excerpt from The War for Gaul: A New Translation, by Julius Caesar, translated by James J. O’Donnell, professor of history, philosophy, and religious studies and University Librarian at Arizona State University, whose books include PagansThe Ruin of the Roman Empire, and Augustine: A New Biography.

Caesar deserves to be compared with Alexander the Great. No one before or since comes close. Command, conquest, and a lasting legacy set them apart from the likes of mere strivers like Napoleon or Hitler. And the war in Gaul was the making of Caesar.

Isn’t that what you would expect a translator of Caesar to say? It’s all entirely true and many have said as much before. But admiring him without understanding him makes us complicit in his ill-­doing as well. This translation of his account of the war in Gaul will try to restore your objectivity and freedom of judgment. Make of him what you will.


Cormac McCarthy should be the one to write the story of Caesar in Gaul. As insensitive and brutal as McCarthy’s Americans afoot in a land of native and Spanish peoples they wrongly took for uncivilized, Caesar’s armies had little excuse for what they did and they preferred not to remember it once done. But Caesar told their story coolly. Though people die in droves, horribly, on these pages, the Latin word for “blood” appears only twice, near the end.

The facts of the story must be made clear. A general with something to prove, a career to make, and plunder to be harvested for financial gain was handed an army and a province and a guarantee he would have both for long enough to make serious mischief. He spent nine years battering his way through his province and the rich and promising lands beyond, bullying allies and brutalizing the resistant. By the time he was through, the lands and peoples that obeyed his commands—and those of his successors for another half millennium—had been vastly increased, and he was poised to make himself master of the world, or at least the world that stretched from the English Channel to Damascus.

He had no business doing any of this. His colleagues admired his chutzpah, knowing that he went far beyond every reasonable moral or legal boundary. His excesses were possible because he was in competition with two other monsters, one of whom fell in battle at the opposite end of the world while Caesar was in Gaul, the other of whom let Caesar go too long, then fought him, then fled, and ended up hacked to death by the minions of a king who thought it prudent to curry favor with Caesar.

But the book Caesar wrote is magnificent: amoral, certainly, but clear, vivid, and dramatic, a thing to be remembered and read for the ages. Books about war often make us sympathize with the wretchedness of the victims. This one forces us to be Romans of the kind its author wanted to be. We read it nervously, cheering for a bullfight we didn’t want to attend and don’t approve of, admiring the grace of the awesome minuet that floods the sand with blood. There is no denying that this is a great work of literature, one of the greatest, and at the same time, there should be no denying that it is a bad man’s book about his own bad deeds. I think it is the best bad man’s book ever written.

But many will resist my saying the plain fact. Because his carven prose depends on a deliberately restrained vocabulary and a terse, correct style, the book has been thought suitable for schoolboys for many generations, until about the time Latin schoolmasters discovered finally that women can read too. Now the book is in disfavor, for the wrong reasons: because it is about war, and because it is too easy. But we all need to read books about war if we are to avoid dying in one, and this book is anything but easy.

The best reasons for not teaching this book to the young are . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

16 September 2021 at 12:49 pm

The hypnotic beauty of money

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One of my favorite lines, in the movie Heist (2001): Danny DeVito’s character Bergman says,

Everybody needs money. That’s why they call it “money.”

Written by Leisureguy

16 September 2021 at 12:29 pm

A stout-hearted shave

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The RazoRock Keyhole brush is a perfect exemplar of the tectonic shift in the shaving brush landscape. It’s a very nice brush indeed — in appearance, in feel, and in performance — and it costs $10. If what you want in a shaving brush is its usefulness, it makes no economic sense to pay $250 for a brush that does the same task. 

I do understand how some possessions serve a dual function: their stated purpose and also as status markers. An ultra-expensive watch, for example, has a social task in addition to telling the time (reliably, one hopes, since a watch whose cost is but a fraction can tell time perfectly, setting itself daily with the atomic clock). But unless one carries around his shaving brush to show it to others, the impression it might make in one’s social circle is zero. If what you want is good lather easily generated, get a $10 brush with a good grip (I particularly like the Keyhole grip: very secure) and a good synthetic knot, and put the extra money in the soap.

And, speaking of the soap, I do like Mystic Water tallow-based soaps, which in some cases (like today’s soap) include lanolin:

A dark brown soap made with Guinness stout and scented with a smooth beer fragrance that is blended with creamy oatmeal, orange peel, butterscotch, farm-fresh milk, almond, and vanilla.  It doesn’t smell like actual beer but it is a warm, comforting scent.  Fragrance and lanolin.

For those who miss Mickey Lee Soapworks’ The Drunken Goat, this is a good choice. It does not include goat milk but it does have the Guiness stout, and its ingredients are good:

. . . shaving soap is made with beef tallow combined with stearic acid, shea butter, castor oil, sustainably sourced organic palm oil, avocado oil, aloe vera, bentonite clay, silk protein, allantoin, and extra glycerin. It offers exceptional protection, glide, and post-shave skin care and is excellent for even sensitive skin and tough beards. Most of my shaving soaps also include lanolin, and I use both botanical essential oils and high quality fragrances in my soap. 

One benefit of using a different razor daily is that each day I get a fresh experience of the razor’s performance, undimmed by my having grown accustomed to it, the wearing away of novel experience that reduces the unusual in time to the ordinary. For example, in today’s shave with the Maggard Razors V2 open-combf, I was struck anew by its surprising excellence — it is both extremely comfortable and extremely efficient. And today, with my hands feeling a little slick, I noted too the excellence of the Maggard Razors stainless-steel MR7 handle: very grippy, and feels good in the hand — plus it’s modestly priced (as is the V2OC head).

Written by Leisureguy

16 September 2021 at 9:56 am

Posted in Shaving

Elizabeth Holmes: Visionary, criminal, or both?

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Christina Pazzanese, Harvard Staff Writer, interviews Eugene Soltes, Business School professor and author of Why They Do It, about Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes:

Former Theranos employees began testifying this week against Elizabeth Holmes, the once-celebrated biotech’s founder and CEO, in a criminal trial that has Silicon Valley worried.

In opening statements last week, federal prosecutors charged that Holmes and the company’s chief operating officer, Ramesh Balwani, had long known that Theranos’ home blood test didn’t work, but misled investors to keep money flowing in. Holmes and Balwani are accused of defrauding patients, doctors, and investors of over $700 million. At its peak in 2013-14, the privately held firm was valued at more than $9 billion.

A 2015 Wall Street Journal exposé, which became the bestseller “Bad Blood,” led to several criminal and civil probes, and sanctions imposed by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Theranos dissolved in 2018. Prosecutors must prove that Holmes, who was 19 when she launched the company in 2003 after dropping out of Stanford University, knew the product didn’t deliver while she solicited new business and investments. Defense attorneys say Holmes “believed” in the revolutionary blood-testing device and that “trying hard and coming up short is not a crime.”

Eugene Soltes, McLean Family Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, is an expert in corporate integrity and risk management. He interviewed dozens of business executives convicted of crimes, including Bernie Madoff, for his 2016 book, “Why They Do It: Inside the Mind of a White-Collar Criminal.” Soltes says the case against Holmes is not a slam dunk and explains why even a conviction is unlikely to deter others. The interview was edited for clarity and length.

GAZETTE: What are your thoughts as the trial gets underway?

SOLTES: I think most people looking at the news think this is a very simple case. However, when it gets down to how white-collar crimes are prosecuted, it’s quite challenging. We don’t prosecute people based on our intuitive notions of is this fraud or not fraud? Or is this lying or not lying? Instead, we look at the specific pieces of evidence and data and how they are interpreted. Most critically, the jury has to evaluate not on a preponderance of evidence, but whether the charges against her are made beyond a reasonable doubt.

You read “Bad Blood” and it’s like, why are they even going to trial? The fraud is so obvious. But this is the difference between a journalistic narrative and looking at what evidence the jury will be able to see and hear. Beyond a reasonable doubt is a very high bar. They’re looking at these very specific allegations about when and how the alleged fraud was committed.

Second, the defense is presumably going to focus on the difference between what is often called fraud versus “puffery” — general statements of opinion that people are supposed to reasonably interpret as not being factually true. It’s all the marketing ads we read on a day-to-day basis. Silicon Valley is notorious for touting their innovations. In fact, people really want that kind of excitement, that’s what people are attracted by and that’s accepted. Creating a business, describing those innovations in an enthusiastic manner, and then having it fail because it didn’t play out as intended is not fraud. The defense is almost certainly going to describe Theranos as another inspired but failed startup. Obviously, many people looking at the failure see a different story — a founder whose rush to become the next “unicorn” ignored the real risks its products have on people.

GAZETTE: What would you ask Holmes if given the opportunity? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

15 September 2021 at 6:48 pm

Posted in Business, Law, Psychology

No wish to disturb, but civilization will crumble within a generation: Not a single G20 country is in line with the Paris Agreement on climate

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It’s very much as if large organizations — governments and major corporations — are not concerned that climate change is going to decimate the civilized world. And the reason is pretty clear: they don’t care. Note that I am not saying that the persons do not care. It’s the organizations that do not care. Organizations are memeplexes — complex structures made of memes, with their own imperatives and goals, independent of the collection of hosts (human persons) whose minds together make up the meme structure.

3M is a very old company (founded 119 years ago), and it has an distinct culture. That company and culture has persisted/lived through several generations of managers and employees because — just as “you” exist independent of the cells in your body, which are live, die, and are replaced as years go by — the organization exists independent of the specific personnel in it at any particular time. Memes (and memplexes) have their own drives and directions, and those are not always beneficial to their human hosts.

So it seems to be with climate change: we humans will suffer greatly, but we seem powerless to change the direction of the memes that have evolved in human culture. (A good read in this connection is Susan Blackmore’s talk “Dangerous Memes; or, What the Pandorans let loose.”)

Ivana Kottasová reports for CNN:

None of the world’s major economies — including the entire G20 — have a climate plan that meets their obligations under the 2015 Paris Agreement, according to an analysis published Wednesday, despite scientists’ warning that deep cuts to greenhouse gas emissions are needed now.

The watchdog Climate Action Tracker (CAT) analyzed the policies of 36 countries, as well as the 27-nation European Union, and found that all major economies were off track to contain global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The countries together make up 80% of the world’s emissions.

The analysis also included some low-emissions countries, and found that the Gambia was the only nation among all 37 to be “1.5 compatible.” As the study only included a few smaller emitters, it’s possible there are other developing countries in the world on track as well.

Under the 2015 Paris accord, more than 190 countries agreed to limit the increase in global temperatures to well below 2 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures — ideally to 1.5 degrees. Scientists have said 2 degrees is a critical threshold for some of the Earth’s ecosystems, and is one that would also trigger more catastrophic extreme weather events.

The report comes less than two months ahead of UN-brokered international climate talks in Glasgow, known as COP26. The event’s president, British MP Alok Sharma, has said he hopes to “keep 1.5 alive” as a global warming limit.

CAT reported that progress had stalled after dozens of world leaders made ambitious new pledges to slash greenhouse gas emissions during the US President Joe Biden’s Climate Leaders’ Summit in April.
“In May, after the Climate Leaders’ Summit and the Petersburg dialogue, we reported that there appeared to be good momentum with new climate action commitments,” said Niklas Höhne, a founding partner of the NewClimate Institute, a CAT partner.

“But since then, there has been little to no improvement: nothing is moving,” he said. “Anyone would think they have all the time in the world, when in fact the opposite is the case.”

Six countries, including the UK, have an overall climate policy that is “nearly sufficient,” according to the report, meaning they are not yet consistent with 1.5-degree alignment but could be with small improvements. The UK’s targets are in line with 1.5 degrees, but its policies in practice don’t meet the benchmark.
The overall climate plans of the US, European Union and Japan are not sufficient to reach the 1.5-degree goal, the analysis found, saying that while their domestic targets are relatively close to where they need to be, their international policies are not.

CAT had previously categorized the US as “critically insufficient” — the worst category — under former President Donald Trump, who formally withdrew the country from the Paris Agreement shortly before the end of his term.
The United States’ domestic emission-cutting target has since been upgraded to “almost sufficient.” However, the US is still insufficient in CAT’s “fair share” target rating, which takes into account the country’s “responsibility and capability.” . . .

Continue reading, though it’s depressing. There’s quite a bit more.

See also “Global Update: Climate target updates slow as science demands action,” which offers technical detail of our approaching doom.

Written by Leisureguy

15 September 2021 at 4:57 pm

Pleasantly meditative video on making Japanese curry udon noodles

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Note the size of the garlic cloves.

Written by Leisureguy

15 September 2021 at 4:21 pm

Norm Macdonald: a profile and a great joke

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Andrew R. Chow has a good profile of Norm Macdonald in TIME magazine and includes a video of Macdonald telling a wonderful joke. Here’s the joke

Written by Leisureguy

15 September 2021 at 2:13 pm

Posted in Daily life, Humor, Video

A Boy Went to a COVID-Swamped ER. He Waited for Hours. Then His Appendix Burst.

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Those who refuse to get the COVID vaccine and refuse to wear masks are putting not just themselves at risk but others as well. Refusing to heed public health measures is an aggressive act against society that is also a danger to self.

Jenny Deam reports in ProPublica:

What first struck Nathaniel Osborn when he and his wife took their son, Seth, to the emergency room this summer was how packed the waiting room was for a Wednesday at 1 p.m.

The Florida hospital’s emergency room was so crowded there weren’t enough chairs for the family to all sit as they waited. And waited.

Hours passed and 12-year-old Seth’s condition worsened, his body quivering from the pain shooting across his lower belly. Osborn said his wife asked why it was taking so long to be seen. A nurse rolled her eyes and muttered, “COVID.”

Seth was finally diagnosed with appendicitis more than six hours after arriving at Cleveland Clinic Martin Health North Hospital in late July. Around midnight, he was taken by ambulance to a sister hospital about a half-hour away that was better equipped to perform pediatric emergency surgery, his father said.

But by the time the doctor operated in the early morning hours, Seth’s appendix had burst — a potentially fatal complication.

As the nation’s hospitals fill and emergency rooms overflow with critically ill COVID-19 patients, it is the non-COVID-19 patients, like Seth, who have become collateral damage. They, too, need emergency care, but the sheer number of COVID-19 cases is crowding them out. Treatment has often been delayed as ERs scramble to find a bed that may be hundreds of miles away.

Some health officials now worry about looming ethical decisions. Last week, Idaho activated a “crisis standard of care,” which one official described as a “last resort.” It allows overwhelmed hospitals to ration care, including “in rare cases, ventilator (breathing machines) or intensive care unit (ICU) beds may need to be used for those who are most likely to survive, while patients who are not likely to survive may not be able to receive one,” the state’s website said.

The federal government’s latest data shows Alabama is at 100% of its intensive care unit capacity, with Texas, Georgia, Mississippi and Arkansas at more than 90% ICU capacity. Florida is just under 90%.

It’s the COVID-19 cases that are dominating. In Georgia, 62% of the ICU beds are now filled with just COVID-19 patients. In Texas, the percentage is nearly half.

To have so many ICU beds pressed into service for a single diagnosis is “unheard of,” said Dr. Hasan Kakli, an emergency room physician at Bellville Medical Center in Bellville, Texas, about an hour from Houston. “It’s approaching apocalyptic.”

In Texas, state data released Monday showed there were only 319 adult and 104 pediatric staffed ICU beds available across a state of 29 million people.

Hospitals need to hold some ICU beds for other patients, such as those recovering from major surgery or other critical conditions such as stroke, trauma or heart failure.

“This is not just a COVID issue,” said Dr. Normaliz Rodriguez, pediatric emergency physician at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida. “This is an everyone issue.”

While the latest hospital crisis echoes previous pandemic spikes, there are troubling differences this time around.

Before, localized COVID-19 hot spots led to bed shortages, but there were usually hospitals in the region not as affected that could accept a transfer.

Now, as the highly contagious delta variant envelops swaths of low-vaccination states all at once, it becomes harder to find nearby hospitals that are not slammed.

“Wait times can now be measured in days,” said Darrell Pile, CEO of the SouthEast Texas Regional Advisory Council, which helps coordinate patient transfers across a 25-county region.

Recently, Dr. Cedric Dark, a Houston emergency physician and assistant professor of emergency medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, said he saw a critically ill COVID-19 patient waiting in the emergency room for an ICU bed to open. The doctor worked eight hours, went home and came in the next day. The patient was still waiting. . .

Continue reading. There’s more, and no paywall.

And from another report:

Enyart is at least the fifth conservative radio talk-show host to have died of covid-19 in the last six weeks after speaking out against vaccination and masking. The others are Marc Bernier, 65, a longtime host in Florida; Phil Valentine, 61, a popular host in Tennessee; Jimmy DeYoung, 81, a nationally syndicated Christian preacher also based in Tennessee; and Dick Farrel, 65, who had worked for stations in Miami and Palm Beach, Fla., as well as for the conservative Newsmax TV channel.

Written by Leisureguy

15 September 2021 at 1:27 pm

How indoor air quality affects human health and cognition

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Douglas Starr writes in Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS):

Joseph Allen runs a major public health research project at Harvard University, probing how indoor air quality affects human health and cognition. He consults with companies on ventilation and air filtration, and during the pandemic he became a prominent voice on public health, writing dozens of op-eds criticizing early guidance from health authorities and debunking misconceptions about how the virus spreads. But none of it would have happened if he hadn’t washed out as an FBI recruit.

The son of a New York City homicide detective who opened his own investigative agency, Allen spent his teens and 20s helping with the family business. He did surveillance, undercover work, computer forensics, and skiptrace—tracking down people who left town to avoid alimony. Eventually he took over the agency, leading investigations and supervising eight agents.

“I enjoyed the work and thought it was challenging,” Allen recalls. But part of him always wanted to be a scientist. He majored in environmental science at Boston College, and in his late 20s, still torn, he began to apply to graduate school even as he started the process to become an FBI agent. After 2 years of interviews and testing, the last step was a routine polygraph test. He failed the first round—the trick questions he was asked were so obvious that he could not take them seriously. So FBI flew in one of its toughest examiners from Iraq—a hulking, jackbooted guy who got right in Allen’s face, screaming that he knew he was lying. But Allen kept cool, and after a while, the interrogator stormed out and slammed the door.

“I thought he would come back in the room and say, ‘Congratulations,’ cause I’m thinking I’m crushing it,” Allen recalls. “But they failed me because they said I employed countermeasures.” FBI apparently didn’t want an agent who couldn’t be unnerved by a polygraph test. And that solved Allen’s career dilemma. “I guarantee I’m the only public health student ever to fail an FBI lie detector polygraph in the morning and start graduate school a few hours later,” Allen says. But his investigative instincts never left him.

A tall, athletic-looking man with a bald head and stylish stubble, Allen directs the Healthy Buildings Program at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, where he studies the effects of toxic gases emitted from furniture, carpets, and paints; stale air; and high levels of carbon dioxide. Years of studies by Allen and others have shown poorly circulated air in buildings impairs our ability to think clearly and creatively. Considering that we spend more than 90% of our lifetimes indoors, those findings have implications for personal well-being—and for businesses concerned about their bottom line.

“Joe has always had a unique understanding of this range of domains—from how buildings work, to environmental exposure assessment, to making connections with health outcomes,” says Brent Stephens, chair of the Department of Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology. “There’s not a tremendous number of people in this world that have worked on that whole spectrum.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, the previously esoteric field of indoor air quality suddenly became the focus of widespread concern. Like many of his colleagues, Allen jumped into the fray, advising school systems, police departments, entertainment companies, the Boston Symphony, and a host of other entities on how to make their indoor air healthier, during the pandemic and afterward.

“COVID really changed the conversation,” says Matt Murray, vice president of leasing at Boston Properties, the largest publicly traded developer in the United States and one of Allen’s consulting clients. Before the pandemic, the company would have to explain to bored executives why they should pay attention to indoor air. “Now, the CEOs are all saying, ‘What filters do you use? How you process the air you bring into the workspace?’” Murray says. “And we’re ready for those conversations because we’ve been working with Joe.”

AFTER HE FAILED his FBI exam, Allen became a different kind of sleuth. For his doctoral thesis at the Boston University School of Public Health, he investigated toxic flame-retardant chemicals released into the air by furniture, and found they were nearly ubiquitous. (The chemicals were later banned.) After graduation he got a job with a consulting firm, where he investigated problems such as toxic emissions from drywall and outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease, which is caused by bacteria that grow in plumbing and become aerosolized by ventilation systems, showers, or even flushed toilets. Those investigations introduced him to “sick building syndrome,” a problem first identified in the 1970s in which the occupants experience fatigue, itchy eyes, headaches, and other symptoms. Exactly what causes these ailments isn’t clear, but exposure to contaminated air is a likely culprit. Allen became convinced that the building you work in can have more impact on your health than your doctor.

In 2014, Allen accepted a position at Harvard, where he soon turned his attention to how the indoor environment can affect people’s cognitive abilities. Many of us have struggled to pay attention during a long staff meeting in a stuffy conference room. Research by Allen and others suggests that lassitude may not be due solely to boredom, but also to the carbon dioxide (CO2)-rich conference room air.

Ever since the energy shocks of the 1970s, buildings in the United States have been made as airtight and energy-efficient as possible. The result was a buildup of toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and exhaled CO2. “Green building standards” introduced in the late ’90s focused on reducing toxic materials and making buildings healthier as well as more sustainable, but they didn’t prioritize indoor air quality and ultimately did little to improve it.

In a multiyear series of experiments, Allen and his team have investigated the consequences. In the first study, published in 2015, they had 24 white-collar volunteers spend six working days in environmentally controlled office spaces at Syracuse University’s Total Indoor Environmental Quality Laboratory. On various days the experimenters would alter ventilation rates and levels of CO2 and VOCs. Each afternoon the volunteers were tested on their ability to think analytically and react to a crisis. (One test, for example put the volunteer in the role of a small-town mayor trying to react to an emergency.) All tests were double-blind: Neither the volunteers nor the study personnel knew that day’s environmental conditions.

The results were dramatic. When  . . .

Continue reading. There’s more — and it’s important.

The Clean Air Act should be extended to indoor air quality in businesses — and in some instances, OSHA also should be involved. Or, of course, we could just trust businesses to take seriously the health and well-being of their employees and customers. (Just joking — good one, eh?)

Written by Leisureguy

15 September 2021 at 11:15 am

A seemingly simple problem that has persisted unsolved

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The cartoon is from the late 1800’s. It seems odd that a problem that would seem to have a simple solution would be so persistent. It’s as though there are forces working against a solution. 

Written by Leisureguy

15 September 2021 at 10:48 am

A baseball shave: Field of Dreams and June Clover

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When I ordered some Mystic Water shaving soaps, I also received a number of samples, among which was Field of Dreams:

The inspiration for this soap comes from my own memories of hanging out at my brother’s Little League games and my uncles’ baseball games every summer of my childhood: the leather glove, the dirt of the infield, freshly cut grass, and wood notes. I used this to make a felted baseball soap (on the Mystic Water Soap website) and the guys who smelled it said it would make a great shaving soap or aftershave.  Fragrance oils and lanolin.

The name doubtless comes from the (enjoyable) movie Field of Dreams, made from W.P. Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe(I can see why she chose the movie title for the soap rather than the book title.)

The lather, thanks in part to my Simpson Duke 3 Best brush, was excellent — and no wonder. The maker writes:

 My shaving soap is made with beef tallow combined with stearic acid, shea butter, castor oil, sustainably sourced organic palm oil, avocado oil, aloe vera, bentonite clay, silk protein, allantoin, and extra glycerin. It offers exceptional protection, glide and post-shave skin care and is excellent for even sensitive skin and tough beards. Most of my shaving soaps also include lanolin, and I use both botanical essential oils and high quality fragrances in my soap. 

The Feather AS-D1, in which I always use a Feather blade, is a good example of a razor that feels very mild on the face being quite aggressive in removing stubble. Today’s 3-pass shave left my face perfectly smooth with no effort on my part. A splash of June Clover (now, alas, a vintage aftershave) with a squirt of Grooming Dept Hydrating Gel completed the shave and the theme of a baseball summer day.

Written by Leisureguy

15 September 2021 at 9:29 am

Posted in Shaving

An update on the Vivaldi browser

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The more I use Vivaldi, the more I like it. I have now made it my default browser. When you install, get the full package with Notes and Calendar and the rest. It’s feature-rich, so don’t expect to learn it all at once, but day by day and bit by bit it becomes better and better as you learn more and more how to use it.

Also, important point: it’s free.

Written by Leisureguy

14 September 2021 at 9:11 pm

Posted in Daily life, Software

It’s Not Just Us: Even American Animals Are Getting Fatter

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David Epstein had an interesting article back in October 2013. I came across it this morning. It begins:

Everyone knows Americans are fat and getting fatter, and everyone thinks they know why: more eating and less moving.

But the “big two” factors may not be the whole story. Consider this: Animals have been getting fatter too. The National Pet Obesity Survey recently reported that more than 50 percent of cats and dogs—that’s more than 80 million pets—are overweight or obese. Pets have gotten so plump that there’s now a National Pet Obesity Awareness Day. (It was Wednesday.) Lap dogs and comatose cats aren’t alone in the fat animal kingdom. Animals in strictly controlled research laboratories that have enforced the same diet and lifestyle for decades are also ballooning.

In 2010, an international team of scientists published findings that two dozen animal populations—all cared for by or living near humans—had been rapidly fattening in recent decades. “Canaries in the Coal Mine,” they titled the paper, and the “canaries” most closely genetically related to humans—chimps—showed the most troubling trend. Between 1985 and 2005, the male and female chimps studied experienced 33.2 and 37.2 percent weight gains, respectively. Their odds of obesity increased more than 10-fold.

To be sure, some of the chimp obesity crisis may be caused by the big two. According to Joseph Kemnitz, director of the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center, animal welfare laws passed in recent decades have led caretakers to strive to make animals happier, often employing a method known to any parent of a toddler: plying them with sugary food. “All animals love to eat, and you can make them happy by giving them food,” Kemnitz said. “We have to be careful how much of that kind of enrichment we give them. They might be happier, but not healthier.”

And because they don’t have to forage for the food, non-human primates get less exercise. Orangutans, who Kemnitz says are rather indolent even in their native habitats in Borneo and Sumatra, have in captivity developed the physique of spreading batter.

Still, in “Canaries in the Coal Mine,” the scientists write that, more recently, the chimps studied were “living in highly controlled environments with nearly constant living conditions and diets,” so their continued fattening in stable circumstances was a surprise. The same goes for lab rats, which have been living and eating the same way for thirty years.

The potential causes of animal obesity are legion: ranging from increased rates of certain infections to stress from captivity. Antibiotics might increase obesity by killing off beneficial bacteria. “Some bacteria in our intestines are associated with weight gain,” Kemnitz said. “Others might provide a protective effect.”

But feral rats studied around Baltimore have gotten fatter, and they don’t suffer the stress of captivity, nor have they received antibiotics. Increasingly, scientists are turning their attention toward factors that humans and the wild and captive animals that live around them have in common: air, soil, and water, and the hormone-altering chemicals that pollute them.

Hormones are the body’s chemical messengers, released by a particular gland or organ but capable of affecting cells all over the body. While hormones such as testosterone and estrogen help make men masculine and women feminine, they and other hormones are involved in a vast array of functions. Altering or impeding hormones can cause systemic effects, such as weight gain.

More than a decade ago, Paula Baille-Hamilton, a visiting fellow at Stirling University in Scotland who studies toxicology and human metabolism, started perusing scientific literature for chemicals that might promote obesity. She turned up so many papers containing evidence of chemical-induced obesity in animals (often, she says, passed off by study authors as a fluke in their work) that it took her three years to organize evidence for the aptly titled 2002 review paper: “Chemical Toxins: A Hypothesis to Explain the Global Obesity Epidemic.” “I found evidence of chemicals that affect every aspect of our metabolism,” Baille-Hamilton said. Carbamates, which are used in insecticides and fungicides, can suppress the level of physical activity in mice. Phthalates are used to give flexibility to plastics and are found in a wide array of scented products, from perfume to shampoo. In people, they alter metabolism and have been found in higher concentrations in heavier men and women.

In men, phthalates interfere with the normal action of testosterone, an important hormone for maintaining healthy body composition. Phthalate exposure in males has been associated with a suite of traits symptomatic of low testosterone, from lower sperm count to greater heft. (Interference with testosterone may also explain why baby boys of mothers with higher phthalate levels have shorter anogenital distances, that is, the distance between the rectum and the scrotum. Call it what you want, fellas, but if you have a ruler handy and find that your AGD is shorter than two inches, you probably have a smaller penis volume and a markedly higher risk of infertility.)

Baille-Hamilton’s work highlights evidence that weight gain can be influenced by endocrine disruptors, chemicals that mimic and can interfere with the natural hormone system.

A variety of flame retardants have been implicated in endocrine disruption, and one chemical originally developed as a flame retardant—brominated vegetable oil, or BVO—is banned in Europe and Japan but is prevalent in citrusy soft drinks in the U.S. Earlier this year, Gatorade ditched BVO, but it’s still in Mountain Dew and other drinks made by Gatorade’s parent company, PepsiCo. (Many doctors would argue that for weight gain, the sugar in those drinks is the primary concern.) PepsiCo did not respond to a request for comment, but shortly after the Gatorade decision was made a company spokeswoman said it was because “some consumers have a negative perception of BVO in Gatorade.”

And then there are the newly found zombie chemicals, which share a nasty habit—rising from the dead at night—with their eponymous horror flick villains. The anabolic steroid trenbolone acetate is used as a growth promoter in cattle in the U.S., and its endocrine disrupting metabolites—which wind up in agricultural run-off water—were thought to degrade quickly upon exposure to sunlight. Until last month, when researchers published results in Science showing that the metabolites reconstitute themselves in the dark. . .

Continue reading. Endocrine disruptors — for example, the microscopic plastic particles now commonly found in seafood — are very bad because their effect is amplified by natural bodily processes: a tiny amount can have a large effect.

Written by Leisureguy

14 September 2021 at 1:41 pm

Posted in Daily life, Food, Health, Science

Giant Viruses and the Tree of Life

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Patrick Forterre writes in Inference:

SCIENTISTS HAVE ALWAYS thought viruses much smaller than bacteria. And with good reason. Most bacteriophages are 100 times smaller than the bacteria that they infect. Bacteria can be viewed under an optical microscope; but an electron microscope is required in order to see a viral particle. When giant viruses were discovered in 2003, they came as a surprise. The giant mimivirus, for example, had actually been discovered in 1992, but misidentified as a bacterium—Bradfordcoccus.1 The confusion was understandable. Mimivirus particles are 750 nanometers long—easily visible with an optical microscope; and, what is more, the dye used to reveal bacterial cell walls also stained mimivirus particles.

A number of other monster viruses have been discovered in the last decade.2 Most of them have been isolated and described by Didier Raoult and Jean-Michel Claverie in Marseille. If Marseille is now the Mecca of giant virus research, Vancouver is something of a mini Mecca. It is there that Curtis Suttle and his team isolated and described both Cafeteria roenbergensis and Bodo saltans.3 Most giant viruses observed in the laboratory have been studied in amoebae,4 but giant viruses are found in extraordinarily diverse terrestrial and aquatic environments.5 Some infect algae, and there is some suspicion that the mimivirus infects human cells as well.6 All giant viruses infect eukaryotes.

Viruses closely related to the mimivirus have been grouped into the family Mimiviridae. The other giant viruses have been classified into three families: MolliviridaePandoraviridae, and Pithoviridae.

Mimiviridae and Molliviridae produce virions, or viral particles, with a characteristically icosahedral shape. Pandoraviridae and Pithoviridae produce strange ovoid particles that have often been confused for intracellular protists.7 One of the most unusual of the giant viruses is a member of Mimiviridae. Discovered in Brazil, the Tupanvirus contains a virion featuring a gigantic head and an equally gigantic membranous tail. Such a shape is without precedent in the viral world.

Giant viruses contain linear or double-stranded DNA that encode for 500 to 2,500 proteins. The Pandoravirus encodes 2,000 genes, which is only 10 times fewer than a human cell, and, at roughly 2.5 million base pairs, its genome is the largest of any known virus. The mimivirus genome encodes about half that number. Produced by a Pithovirus, the largest known virion is an ovoid particle with a length of 1.5 micrometers and a width of 0.5 micrometers. The size of a virion and the size of its genome are not necessarily correlated. They are no good guide to the threshold beyond which a virus is counted giant.8

Five years after giant viruses were discovered, researchers learned that giant viruses can themselves become infected by smaller viruses.9 The virophages that infect them have genomes that code for only about twenty genes. These virophages, unable to infect amoebae by themselves, are transported inside amoebae by their giant virus hosts.10 Once inside, the virophages transcribe and replicate their genes using the machinery of the giant virus, the giant virus then using the amoeba’s machinery to transcribe and replicate its own genes.11 The three known virophages—Mavirus, Sputnik, and Zamilon—happen to infect members of the Mimiviridae family, but virophages targeting other giant viruses are likely to be identified.


THE DISCOVERY OF giant viruses and their virophages immediately reopened an old question: are viruses alive? Viruses had been excluded from the tree of life because they lacked the machinery needed either to reproduce or to synthesize proteins. A virus must hijack a cell before it can do either. But when scientists realized that viruses are more complex than originally presumed—encoding several thousand genes and becoming infected by other viruses—they began to suspect that viruses might be alive after all. When a virophage infects a Mimiviridae, it seems to become ill, its virions manifesting an abnormal morphology.

How can something be ill if it is not alive?12

Viruses had been excluded from living systems for another reason. They did not seem to share proteins that are universal across the three cellular domains: Archaea, Bacteria, and Eukarya. Yet many giant viruses do encode universal proteins, including RNA polymerase, some aminoacyl tRNA synthetases, and a few proteins involved in protein synthesis or DNA replication. Some phylogenetic analysts now place giant viruses in a fourth monophyletic group somewhere between Archaea and Eukarya.13 For all that, the fact remains that giant viruses lack the capacity to synthesize their own proteins without parasitizing a cell. Purificación López-García and David Moreira have thus disputed the phylogenetic analysis behind the phylogenetic analysts, arguing that the giant viruses are nothing more than genetic pickpockets, their genes acquired from a cellular origin in yet another triumph of theft over honest toil.14

Chantal Abergel and Claverie have also argued for the cellular origin of viral genes. But they have noticed, in addition, that most of the genes that giant viruses encode lack homologues in both modern cellular organisms and giant viruses from other families. Giant viruses, they suggest, might have arisen by regressive evolution—features lost instead of gained—from cellular lineages that diverged from modern cellular organisms before the advent of the last universal common ancestor of Archaea, Bacteria, and Eukarya. Claverie predicts that, as new giants are discovered, the distinction between viruses and cells will blur even further.15

Virus, Virion, and Virocell

WHEN IN DOUBT, define. The existence of giant viruses prompted virologists to search for a definition that could encompass the whole range of viruses, from the smallest, with genomes encoding two genes, to the largest, encoding thousands. All viruses produce virions—a viral particle consisting of a core of nucleic acid surrounded by a capsid protein shell.16 It is the capsid that distinguishes viruses from other mobile genetic elements, such as plasmids. The smallest virus and the smallest plasmid both have one gene coding for a replication protein. The virus has an additional gene that codes for a capsid.17

All virions have at least one capsid. For this reason, Raoult and I initially suggested defining viruses as capsid-encoding organisms.18 Some small virions are formed by one or more DNA- or RNA-binding proteins; others, by several capsid proteins, with a lipid membrane inside or outside the shell. The virions of giant viruses are elaborate structures involving hundreds of proteins and a lipid membrane that is often decorated with polysaccharide extensions. Virions and viruses are not the same thing. Confusion between the two is pervasive. The confusion is easy to understand. Virions can be easily isolated, they are infectious, and they can be photographed.

But they are not viruses.

Claverie was the first to emphasize the distinction.19 Within the cytoplasm of an infected cell, the mimivirus produces a large compartment called a viral factory, where the viral DNA, while being transcribed and replicated, is shielded from the cell’s defense mechanisms. Many RNA and DNA viruses produce viral factories.20 But in the mimivirus, the factory is huge—the size of the infected amoeba’s nucleus. Claverie suggested that the viral factory is the actual virus, and that virions are the equivalent of the spores or gametes of cellular organisms.21

After Claverie published this argument, I observed that bacterial and archaeal viruses do not produce an isolated viral factory inside the cytoplasm of the infected cell: they transform the entire cell into a factory.22 I suggested calling the infected cell a virocell.23 Adopting Claverie’s idea, I argued that . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by Leisureguy

14 September 2021 at 1:07 pm

Posted in Evolution, Science

eVTOL aircraft makes little noise

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Loz Blain reports in New Atlas on an interesting electric plane:

Lilium’s eVTOL is vastly different to anything else in the air taxi world, using 36 small ducted fans in place of larger open rotors. This has advantages and disadvantages, which we’ve discussed in detail before. Essentially, smaller fans make for vastly lower hover efficiency, but the company says they create less drag than large rotors in forward flight, improving efficiency over longer range flights.

Lilium also says they’ll make these aircraft much easier to scale up to 15 seats and beyond without losing the ability to land on standard helipads.

And it also says that with cutting-edge acoustic treatment they should have a significantly lower noise signature than large-rotor competitors, which will make them much more friendly to people living under the flight path or close to a vertiport.

Now, the company has released a pair of videos showing its 5th-generation tech demonstrator prototype – an older 5-seat model first flown in 2019 – in flight with the sound included, one of which handily gives a measure of distance as the aircraft approaches. It’s more a measure of the quality of the sound than the quantity; there’s no decibel readout, and really nothing to compare the volume against. Take a look: . .

Continue reading. There’s more, including more videos.

Written by Leisureguy

14 September 2021 at 12:06 pm

Posted in Daily life, Technology

A great shave and a shaving cream finding

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Yesterday’s shave was a disappointment in the lather department. I thought one possibility was that I had used insufficient cream, since the bead of cream from that tube was thin, but I thought I should do a comparison. D.R. Harris shaving products are excellent, so I brought out this tube of D.R. Harris Rose — and it, too, produced a thin bead of cream, so I could match the amount to what I used yesterday. And I also used a small brush today, just as I did yesterday.

The amount and brush a match, but not the lather. The D.R. Harris lather was thick, plentiful, and fragrant. I have discarded yesterday’s shaving cream: great package, poor performance.

Well-lathered and already feeling good about the shave, I set to work with my Above the Tie R (now called R1), and three passes later applied a good splash of D.R. Harris Pink After Shave. A good way to start the day.

Written by Leisureguy

14 September 2021 at 11:26 am

Posted in Shaving

Airless tires: Getting closer

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Loz Blain reports in NewAtlas:

We’ve been reporting on Michelin’s airless tire technology for more than 16 years now. Indeed, the first time we wrote about the “Tweel” back in 2005, it quickly became the most popular story ever for what was then called

The advantages are pretty clear: firstly, you can never be brought to a stop by a puncture or blowout – Michelin says about 200 million tires every year hit scrapyards early thanks to these. Secondly, you don’t have to look after your tire pressures; that doesn’t just save you time, it also eliminates all early wear caused by underinflation.

Their internal spokes are hugely tunable to meet desired performance characteristics. You can individually tune their stiffness under acceleration, braking, cornering and bump handling forces. The bump handling characteristics can even be tuned to eliminate the need for separate suspension in some types of vehicles.

You can poke holes right through the tread to let water escape, potentially creating much better resistance to aquaplaning. They take less raw material and less energy to make, making them better for the environment, and Michelin has estimated they’ll last up to three times as long as a regular ol’ hoop.

They have obviously not been easy to commercialize, though; 16 years and counting is a long and difficult birth for a product people are clearly interested in. The Tweel, which replaces the entire wheel assembly, has been available for some time for various off-road vehicles, but it’s still yet to make it to the road.

Michelin has teamed up with GM to design and start selling an airless tire for street use on passenger cars. Called Uptis, this product is a full-wheel solution requiring specialized rims. Michelin says it will withstand much greater impacts than a regular tire and wheel, and will have a “dramatically” longer lifespan, while adding no extra rolling resistance, not feeling any different to the driver and adding only around seven percent to the weight of the wheel – less than existing run-flat tires do.

GM will begin offering Uptis as an option on . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

14 September 2021 at 10:35 am

Posted in Daily life, Technology

Diet may affect risk and severity of COVID-19

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Tracy Hampton writes in The Harvard Gazette:

Although metabolic conditions such as obesity and Type 2 diabetes have been linked to an increased risk of COVID-19, as well as an increased risk of experiencing serious symptoms once infected, the impact of diet on these risks is unknown. In a recent study led by researchers at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and published in Gut, people whose diets were based on healthy plant-based foods had lower risks on both counts. The beneficial effects of diet on COVID-19 risk seemed especially relevant in individuals living in areas of high socioeconomic deprivation.

“Previous reports suggest that poor nutrition is a common feature among groups disproportionately affected by the pandemic, but data on the association between diet and COVID-19 risk and severity are lacking,” says lead author Jordi Merino, a research associate at the Diabetes Unit and Center for Genomic Medicine at MGH and an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School.

For the study, Merino and his colleagues examined data on 592,571 participants of the smartphone-based COVID-19 Symptom Study. Participants lived in the U.K. and the U.S., and they were recruited from March 24, 2020 and followed until Dec. 2, 2020. At the start of the study, participants completed a questionnaire that asked about their dietary habits before the pandemic. Diet quality was assessed using a healthful Plant-Based Diet Score that emphasizes healthy plant foods such as fruits and vegetables.

During follow-up, 31,831 participants developed COVID-19. Compared with individuals in the lowest quartile of the diet score, those in the highest quartile had a 9 percent lower risk of developing COVID-19 and a 41 percent lower risk of developing severe COVID-19. “These findings were consistent across a range of sensitivity analysis accounting for other healthy behaviors, social determinants of health and community virus transmission rates,” says Merino.

“Although we cannot emphasize enough the importance of getting vaccinated and wearing a mask in crowded indoor settings, our study suggests that individuals can also potentially reduce their risk of getting COVID-19 or having poor outcomes by paying attention to their diet,” says co-senior author Andrew Chan, a gastroenterologist and chief of the Clinical and Translational Epidemiology Unit at MGH.

The researchers also found a synergistic relationship between poor diet and increased socioeconomic deprivation with COVID-19 risk that was higher than the sum of the risk associated with each factor alone.

“Our models estimate that nearly a third of COVID-19 cases would have been prevented if one of two exposures — diet or deprivation — were not present,” says Merino.

The results also suggest that  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

13 September 2021 at 4:52 pm

Plant-Based Diet Tied to Better Urological Health in Men

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The subtitle of this article will also be of interest to many men:

Eat more plants for your prostate and your erections

Mike Bassett, Staff Writer, writes in MedPage Today:

Men interested in preserving their urological health may benefit from eating more vegetables and fruits, researchers reported.

A trio of studies presented at the American Urological Association (AUA) virtual meeting suggested that plant-based diets were associated with a decreased risk of erectile dysfunction (ED), lower PSA rates, and possibly a lower rate of total and fatal prostate cancer among younger men.

“We can summarize this session succinctly,” said AUA press conference moderator Stacy Loeb, MD, of NYU Langone Health in New York City, who also presented one of the studies.

“Eat more plants for your prostate and your erections,” she advised.

Plant-Based Protection

Investigators at the University of Miami (UMiami) Miller School of Medicine used the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) to evaluate the association between a plant-based diet and PSA levels. Using Food Frequency Questionnaire dietary data they calculated a plant-based diet index (PDI) and healthful plant-based diet index (hPDI).

Ali Mouzannar, MD, reported that in a cohort of 1,399 men, those with a higher consumption of healthy plant-based diet (high hPDI scores) had a decreased probability of having an elevated PSA (OR 0.47, 95% CI 0.24-0.95).

“It seems plant-based diets have protective effects against prostate cancer,” Mouzannar said during the press session. “We still need more insight and more clinical trials to establish the causative effect, but there have been multiple associations between lower risk of prostate cancer, lower risk of elevated PSA with a plant-based diet.”

He added that “it also works the other way around — meat has been shown to be associated with a high rate of aggressive prostate cancer, and high risk of recurrence.”

In a second UMiami-based study, Ruben Blachman-Braun, MD, Ranjith Ramasany, MD, and colleagues used NHANES data base to evaluate 2,549 men, 57.4% of whom had some degree of ED. He reported that risk factors, such as increased age, BMI, hypertension, diabetes, and history of stroke, were all strongly associated with the risk of ED.

“However, increasing plant-based consumption was associated with a decreased risk of erectile dysfunction,” Blachman-Braun pointed out (OR 0.98, 95% CI 0.96 0.99).

Loeb and colleagues conducted a prospective study involving 27,243 men, who were followed up to 28 years, in the Health Follow-up study.

They found that in men ages ≤65 at diagnosis, greater overall consumption of plant-based diet was associated with a lower risk of advanced prostate cancer (HR 0.68, 95% CI 0.42-1.10). Among younger men, greater consumption of a healthful plant-based diet was associated with lower risks of total prostate cancer (HR 0.81 95% CI 0.70-0.95), and fatal disease (HR 0.53, 95% CI 0.32-0.90).

“This is really encouraging given the many health and environmental benefits of plant-based diets,” Loeb said. “And we believe they should be recommended for men who are concerned about the risks of prostate cancer.”

‘A Win-Win’

On the issue of the environmental impact of following plant-based diets, Mouzannar noted that higher meat consumption is associated with greenhouse gas emissions, water issues, decreased biodiversity. “There is a significant effect in following plant-based diets,” he said. “Whether that’s in individuals by promoting a healthy lifestyle and decreasing the risk of multiple cancers — in addition to prostate cancer, specifically — or the environmental effects.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

13 September 2021 at 4:06 pm

The role meat may play in triggering Parkinson’s disease, and the role fiber may play in protecting against it.

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Written by Leisureguy

13 September 2021 at 3:02 pm

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