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Archive for March 4th, 2007

Not incompetence: bad policies

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Good point from TalkingPointsMemo:

A busy news day here at TPM, especially for a Sunday. Let me sign off with a comment from TPM Reader BG that I think captures an important historical and political dynamic at play in any number of Bush Administration disasters, scandals, and foul ups. BG is responding specifically to this post on the conditions at Walter Reed, but the larger point resonates far beyond that single sorry case:

What’s really at issue here is the extent to which problems with the military, specifically, and the government, generally, are a result of policy. The common explanation for the catastrophic results of many of the Bush administration’s initiatives (from Iraq to New Orleans and back again) is that they are the result of “incompetence.”Incompetence, the lack of capacity or skill, is ultimately an exculpating trope. It insinuates that the plan, or effort, was sound and could have succeeded had it been competently carried out. Moreover, the incompetent are in way less liable: their lack of ability lets them off the hook. Thus, “incompetence” insulates the actors from accountability and leaves the policy itself unscathed.

My personal opinion, which has recently been reinforced by much of what I read in Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City, is that the Bush disasters are a result of the administration’s policies and not of some failure to effectively carry them out.

No one says, retrospectively, that Calvin Coolidge’s failure to help the victims of 1927’s Mississippi River flood was a result of incompetence. No one says that Mellon, with his inaction and insistence that the Great Depression would burn itself out through ‘liquidation,’ was incompetent. Both of these positions were wholly in keeping with the policies of the Coolidge and Hoover presidencies, policies that were not discredited until Roosevelt’s victories and the institution of the New Deal.

The problem, a problem that Waxman seems to be keenly aware of, is that as long as the government retains the same kind of policies, the nation will continue to suffer the same hardships. It is not until the beliefs that inform the ways in which the Bush administration runs the government are firmly linked to their consequences that the nation will stop voting for politicians who promulgate, and enact legislation based on, those creeds.

These policies will not (again) be discredited until they are tied to their reprehensible results. Insisting on the ‘incompetence’ of the Bush administration turns attention away from this linkage between policy and result. In fact, it insulates the policies while discrediting the men who are trying to implement them. It, thus, sets the stage for those policies to be enacted again.

Bravo.

— David Kurtz

Written by Leisureguy

4 March 2007 at 9:35 pm

Americans amazingly ignorant about religion

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Only one-third know Who gave the Sermon on the Mount? Amazing:

RELIGIOUS LITERACY: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t
By Stephen Prothero
HarperSanFrancisco. 296 pp. $24.95

The United States is the most religious nation in the developed world, if religiosity is measured by belief in all things supernatural — from God and the Virgin Birth to the humbler workings of angels and demons. Americans are also the most religiously ignorant people in the Western world. Fewer than half of us can identify Genesis as the first book of the Bible, and only one third know that Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount.

These are just two of the depressing statistics in Stephen Prothero’s provocative and timely Religious Literacy. The author of American Jesus (2003) and the chair of the religion department at Boston University, Prothero sees America’s religious illiteracy as even more dangerous than general cultural illiteracy “because religion is the most volatile constituent of culture, because religion has been, in addition to one of the greatest forces for good in world history, one of the greatest forces for evil.”

In this book, the author combines a lively history of the rise and fall of American religious literacy with a set of proposed remedies based on his hope that “the Fall into religious ignorance is reversible.” He also includes a useful multicultural glossary of religious definitions and allusions, in which religious illiterates can find the prodigal son, the promised land, the Quakers and the Koran.

The condition Prothero describes in Religious Literacy is unquestionably one manifestation of a more general decline in the public’s cultural and civic knowledge. According to polls conducted by the National Constitution Center, only one third of Americans can name even one of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. Is it any more startling that only one third can identify the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount?

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Written by Leisureguy

4 March 2007 at 8:14 pm

Quiet planes are more fuel-efficient

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Quiet plane

That’s what they look like. Read the full description. It begins:

Some design problems are so obvious, they hit you right between the eyes. But in 2003, when engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and the University of Cambridge in England were looking for a project they could collaborate on, they found one that lands squarely between the ears.

“Airplane noise has been a serious limiting factor to the growth of aviation,” said Ed Greitzer, a professor of mechanical and aeronautical engineering at MIT. “The noise level has been dropping, but it’s been harder and harder to make improvements. We wanted to see what would happen if we took reducing noise as the primary design goal. What would the airplane look like? And what noise level could we reach?”

Three years and dozens of design iterations later, the engineers and researchers unveiled a design for an otherworldly looking aircraft that could glide in for a landing while creating a small fraction of the racket of conventional airliners. The design concept, code-named the SAX-40, calls for a wide fuselage that provides lift, reducing the speed necessary to keep the plane aloft as it approaches the landing strip. The slower the speed, the less noise that’s generated.

But another, unintended benefit of the design is fuel efficiency. The SAX-40 would carry a passenger 20 percent farther on a gallon of jet fuel than the Boeing 747.

Written by Leisureguy

4 March 2007 at 8:10 pm

Bush: no plans, no preparation

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McClatchy Washington Bureau:

Although the Bush administration has warned repeatedly about the threat of a terrorist nuclear attack and spent more than $300 billion to protect the homeland, the government remains ill-prepared to respond to a nuclear catastrophe.

Experts and government documents suggest that, absent a major preparedness push, the U.S. response to a mushroom cloud could be worse than the debacle after Hurricane Katrina, possibly contributing to civil disorder and costing thousands of lives.

“The United States is unprepared to mitigate the consequences of a nuclear attack,” Pentagon analyst John Brinkerhoff concluded in a July 31, 2005, draft of a confidential memo to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “We were unable to find any group or office with a coherent approach to this very important aspect of homeland security. …

“This is a bad situation. The threat of a nuclear attack is real, and action is needed now to learn how to deal with one.”

Col. Jill Morgenthaler, Illinois’ director of homeland security, said there’s a “disconnect” between President Bush’s and Vice President Dick Cheney’s nuclear threat talk and the administration’s actions.

“I don’t see money being focused on actual response and mitigation to a nuclear threat,” she said.

Interviews by McClatchy Newspapers with more than 15 radiation and emergency preparedness experts and a review of internal documents revealed:

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Written by Leisureguy

4 March 2007 at 7:39 pm

Still avoiding a Plan B

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Recall that Bush hasn’t developed a Plan B for Iraq because, as he told Nancy Pelosi, this time it has to work. And yet having a Plan B is an elementary management rule.

During a White House meeting last week, a group of governors asked President Bush and Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about their backup plan for Iraq. What would the administration do if its new strategy didn’t work?

The conclusion they took away, the governors later said, was that there is no Plan B. “I’m a Marine,” Pace told them, “and Marines don’t talk about failure. They talk about victory.”

Pace had a simple way of summarizing the administration’s position, Gov. Philip N. Bredesen (D-Tenn.) recalled. “Plan B was to make Plan A work.”

In the weeks since Bush announced the new plan for Iraq — including an increase of 21,500 U.S. combat troops, additional reconstruction assistance and stepped-up pressure on the Iraqi government — senior officials have rebuffed questions about other options in the event of failure. Eager to appear resolute and reluctant to provide fodder for skeptics, they have responded with a mix of optimism and evasion.

Even if the administration is not talking about Plan B, the subject is on a lot of minds inside and outside the government. “I would be irresponsible if I weren’t thinking about what the alternatives might be,” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates acknowledged last month to Congress, where many favor gradual or immediate withdrawal.

Gates did not elaborate. Several administration officials, while insisting that a wide range of options was discussed before Bush’s Jan. 10 announcement, firmly closed the door on the subject of fallback plans. “I don’t think anyone is going to be inclined to discuss any contingency-type planning,” said National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe.

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Written by Leisureguy

4 March 2007 at 7:34 pm

Walter Reed is like the Katrina recovery

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A monument to the Bush Administration’s lack of caring and competence. Krugman:

When Salon, the online magazine, reported on mistreatment of veterans at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center two years ago, officials simply denied that there were any problems. And they initially tried to brush off last month’s exposé in The Washington Post.

But this time, with President Bush’s approval at 29 percent, Democrats in control of Congress, and Donald Rumsfeld no longer defense secretary — Robert Gates, his successor, appears genuinely distressed at the situation — the whitewash didn’t stick.

Yet even now it’s not clear whether the public will be told the full story, which is that the horrors of Walter Reed’s outpatient unit are no aberration. For all its cries of “support the troops,” the Bush administration has treated veterans’ medical care the same way it treats everything else: nickel-and-diming the needy, protecting the incompetent and privatizing everything it can.

What makes this a particular shame is that in the Clinton years, veterans’ health care — like the Federal Emergency Management Agency — became a shining example of how good leadership can revitalize a troubled government program. By the early years of this decade the Veterans Health Administration was, by many measures, providing the highest-quality health care in America. (It probably still is: Walter Reed is a military facility, not run by the V.H.A.)

But as with FEMA, the Bush administration has done all it can to undermine that achievement. And the Walter Reed scandal is another Hurricane Katrina: the moment when the administration’s misgovernment became obvious to everyone.

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Written by Leisureguy

4 March 2007 at 7:30 pm

Losing hearts and minds

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From ThinkProgress:

Chaos in Afghanistan.

“American troops opened fire on a highway filled with civilian cars and bystanders today, American and Afghan officials said, in an incident that the Americans said left 16 civilians dead and 24 wounded as they fled the scene of a suicide car bombing in eastern Afghanistan. One American was also wounded.”

UPDATE: “Afghan journalists — some working for the Associated Press — covering the aftermath of a suicide bomb attack and shooting in eastern Afghanistan Sunday said U.S. troops deleted their photos and video and warned them not to publish or air any images of U.S. troops or a car where three Afghans were shot to death.”

Written by Leisureguy

4 March 2007 at 6:19 pm

Good heating pad

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Sunbeam heating pad

This is the heating pad I got. Very effective, has a timer, and little velcro-attached straps so you can strap it around your knee, neck, hip, etc. Quite good. However, check the user reviews at the link. Some find that this pad doesn’t get hot enough. One user comments, “After a little product study I found the real high end heating pads are Thermophore and Theratherm.Check out their customer satisfaction on Amazon. I just purchased a Theratherm because you can set the temperture in degrees F. It seems to work well, but it’s too early to tell. I’ll update in the future.”

Written by Leisureguy

4 March 2007 at 4:32 pm

Posted in Daily life, Technology

Interesting development: Darwinian literary criticism

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This is new to me. And note, for you Classics scholars:

Jonathan Gottschall teaches English literature at Washington and Jefferson College, Washington, Pennsylvania, and is co-editor with David Sloan Wilson of The Literary Animal: Evolution and the nature of narrative (Northwestern, 2005). His new book The Rape of Troy: Evolution, violence, and the world of Homer will be published by Cambridge University Press later this year.

Here’s the theory in a nutshell:

By applying evolution-based thinking to fiction, we believe we can invigorate the study of literature, while at the same time mining an untapped source of information for the scientific study of human nature (see “Truth in fiction”). Darwinian thinking can help us better understand why characters act and think as they do, why plots and themes resonate within such very narrow bounds of variation, and the ultimate reasons for the human animal’s strange, ardent love affair with stories. It may sound like an innocent endeavour, but this is potentially revolutionary. If literary Darwinism is mainly right, then much of what has been written and said in the realm of literary theory and criticism in the second half of the 20th century is in need of significant revision.

Literary Darwinism has emerged during a period of crisis in literary studies. Enrolments and funding are in decline, books languish unpublished as readerships dwindle, and prospects for new PhDs are abysmal. Perhaps worst of all, literary scholars are at risk of being presented as laughing stock by novelists and held up to ridicule by satirical journalists. In short, there is a dreadful sense that the whole reputation of the study of the humanities is in free fall. This drop feels all the more vertiginous given the soaring stock of the sciences. While many literary scholars have responded by trying to knock science down a peg, literary Darwinists have taken the opposite tack. We have posed two questions: what exactly is science doing right that we are doing so wrong, and can we emulate it?

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Written by Leisureguy

4 March 2007 at 4:18 pm

Posted in Books, Education, Science

More on the spear-using chimps

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They not only use spears, they live in caves:

It’s a revelation that destroys yet another cherished notion of human uniqueness. Wild chimpanzees in Fongoli, south-east Senegal, hunt vertebrate prey with spears – the first time such behaviour has been recorded in a non-human animal. And in another surprising first, the same population of chimps shelter in caves. The more we observe them, the more chimps seem to surprise us.

“I keep watching for the Fongoli chimps to begin drawing on the wall of the caves,” says Jill Pruetz of Iowa State University in Ames, who led the research.

In the savannah habitat of Fongoli the chimps, Pan troglodytes verus, often hunt green monkeys, but adult males have priority over access to the meat. So female and juvenile Fongoli chimps have found their own way to procure meat: they fashion short spears, which they sharpen with their teeth, to hunt one of the cutest primates in Africa – bushbabies (Galago senegalensis).

The way chimps use these tools is very different to the “extractive” way they use sticks to harvest insects. Bushbabies are nocturnal and curl up in hollows in trees during the day. If disturbed they will scamper away rapidly. So it appears that the chimps have devised a grisly method of slowing them down. “The chimps use the tools along the lines of a weapon to incapacitate the prey,” says Pruetz.

Chimps were observed forcibly thrusting their spears into hollow trunks and branches, with enough force to injure anything inside. The chimps used a “power grip” and made multiple downward stabs in much the same way as a human might wield a dagger. Ten different individuals were seen performing this behaviour in 22 bouts. In one case the researchers saw a chimp remove a dead bushbaby and consume it (Current Biology, DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2006.12.042). “Immatures and females are innovative in solving the problem of feeding competition,” says Pruetz.

Fongoli chimps have another unique habit: they shelter in caves during the heat of the dry season. It’s significantly cooler in the caves, says Preutz, who will publish this study in a forthcoming issue of Primate. “Back to the drawing board again in terms of trying to define how humans are special,” says Pruetz.

Written by Leisureguy

4 March 2007 at 4:12 pm

Posted in Science

Fair trials: we used to have them

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The US has lost a lot of its standing in the international community, and some of that is due to things like this:

I must admit that the case of David Hicks, the Australian held at Guantanamo, has been off my radar lately, and it shouldn’t be. It’s a national embarrassment. Here’s the latest.

Hicks this week became the first person charged under the new military tribunals set up by Congress just before the mid-term elections in response to the Supreme Court’s Hamdan decision striking down the old tribunal system.

After being held for five years without a trial and being originally charged with conspiracy to commit murder and engage in acts of terrorism, attempted murder and aiding the enemy, Hick was charged with a single count of providing material support for terrorism, which wasn’t outlawed until 2006.

Australians are outraged. Understandably so.

Now comes word that Hicks’ trial may be delayed because his American military lawyer, Maj. Michael Mori, is being threatened with prosecution under the UCMJ by the chief American prosecutor, Col. Morris Davis:

Colonel Davis has accused Major Mori of breaching Article 88 of the US military code, which relates to using contemptuous language towards the president, vice-president, and secretary of defence. Penalties for breaching the code include jail and the loss of employment and entitlements.Major Mori denied he had done anything improper but said the accusations left him with an inherent conflict of interest.

“It can’t help but raise an issue of whether any further representation of David and his wellbeing could be tainted by a concern for my own legal wellbeing,” Major Mori told the Herald. “David Hicks needs counsel who is not tainted by these allegations.”

Major Mori, who has been to Australia seven times, will seek legal advice. The issue will also have to be raised with Hicks when his legal team next sees him.

Morris has criticized Mori’s frequent trips to Australia; and, as The Times reported yesterday, American embassy officials tried and failed to have the Pentagon bar Mori from coming to Australia.

Why would anyone doubt that Hicks will get a fair trial?

Written by Leisureguy

4 March 2007 at 2:57 pm

Kurtz on a roll on the Purge

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Again:

Oh, this is good.

One of the fascinating dynamics in the Justice Department for going on 4 years now has been the tension between the Bush loyalists and those loyal Republicans who still have a shred of decency left. The poster child for the latter category has been James Comey, the deputy attorney general for part of John Ashcroft’s tenure, who appointed his old friend Patrick Fitzgerald as special prosecutor to investigate the Plame affair. Comey was also the guy who refused to reauthorize the NSA warrantless wiretapping program, forcing the White House to get Ashcroft to sign off on it from his hospital bed. Bush, as is his way, nicknamed Comey “Cuomo.”

Comey is two years removed from DOJ, now serving as general counsel for Lockheed Martin. But, as Josh noted, Comey popped up this week singing the praises of canned U.S. Attorney David Iglesias to the Washington Post: “David Iglesias was one of our finest and someone I had a lot of confidence in as deputy attorney general.”

You could almost hear the knives being sharpened.

Then yesterday, as Paul noted, the Bush loyalists fired back, telling the Post that Comey had been consulted by his successor as deputy attorney general, Paul McNulty, about some of the canned prosecutors before McNulty approved the final list.

Ooops. Not so, the Post says today:

In a related matter, administration officials said they were mistaken in saying that Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty consulted his predecessor, James B. Comey, about some of the U.S. attorneys before they were fired. Comey was not consulted, the officials said Saturday.

In a different era, this would call for pistols at dawn. Good stuff.

Written by Leisureguy

4 March 2007 at 11:33 am

Bruce Sterling saw the future

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From his Op-Ed in today’s Washington Post:

I was standing among a crowd of radical Serbs in front of the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade last week when it dawned on me: As a futurist, things are really going my way! It’s 2007, and the old world has backfired so comprehensively that a new era is truly at hand. I actually knew this would happen. I guess, for a prophet, this is what victory feels like!

Back in 1998, the Mexican state of Chiapas caught fire and the smoke from its rainless “rain forests” stretched all the way to Chicago. In Austin, my home town, the sky was the color of a dead television channel. Living under that hideous gout of smoke, I realized that the much-anticipated greenhouse effect was as real as dirt. Most people didn’t grasp that at the time. That’s okay by me: If everybody got it about issues of that sort, I wouldn’t get paid for being a futurist. As it happened, though, five years earlier I’d written a science-fiction novel about climate change. So I was fully briefed.

Al Gore won an Academy Award last week and, who knows, may rack up a Nobel Prize for describing the perfectly obvious. Not the future, but stuff that happened years ago. Go watch his dull, plonking, painfully backward documentary. You see those ice caps melting? That has major consequences.

Wall Street investment tycoon Henry Kravis, the original “Barbarian at the Gate,” is buying into Texas coal plants so they won’t exist. The great and the good at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, were corporate green all the way. Austin has proclaimed itself the world capital of the war on climate change. Britain’s Stern Report on the economics of climate change proves that it’s cheaper to run a world than to wreck it. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has figured out that a climate crisis is as scary as a nuclear exchange. And there is an absolute explosion of trendy green design Web logs, of which mine, Viridiandesign.org, was one of the first.

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Written by Leisureguy

4 March 2007 at 11:19 am

Brit Hume, Right-wing politician

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Isn’t it obvious:

This morning on Fox News Sunday, Brit Hume spoke about the Walter Reed scandal in entirely political terms, saying “the problem” is that it “looks terrible” for the administration.

Hume called the neglect and deplorable conditions at the military hospital a “potential” political firestorm, but said that the “administration did what it did to try to get it over with, and it may well have succeeded.”

Hume suggested that if Democrats had not taken control of Congress in November’s election, the Bush administration would not have demanded resignations from the Army Secretary and the chief of Walter Reed. “This is an administration which is known or had been known for sticking by people even when they were embattled.” (Watch it.)

NPR’s Mara Liasson responded to Hume’s comments: “I think, you know, to say it looks bad, it also is bad. Those pictures were horrible. These are people — nobody who is being treated for any kind of injury should have to live in that condition, let alone people who just fought in a war for our country.”

Transcript

HUME: I think it tells you a lot about the effect of the last election and the political atmosphere in Washington. This is an administration which is known or had been known for sticking by people even when they were embattled. The idea that conditions at Walter Reed hospital, a hospital that is on its way out of business, had deteriorated, that’s probably one of the reasons they wanted to put it out of business. This is unfortunate. It looks terrible, which is the problem. The problem is that it looks as if this administration, which has sent troops into harm’s way, is now neglecting them when they’re injured and need care and help. But make no mistake about it, this was a — there was a potential political firestorm on Capitol Hill began to brew about this. The administration did what it did to try to get it over with, and it may well have succeeded.

Written by Leisureguy

4 March 2007 at 10:48 am

David Kurtz very good on Pete Domenici

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From Talking Points Memo:

Sen. Pete “I have no idea what he’s talking about” Domenici (R-NM) has had an epiphany and now does have an idea what canned U.S. Attorney David Iglesias was talking about when he said Domenici called him about a high-profile public corruption case in New Mexico shortly before the mid-term elections.

Oh, THAT call.

Well, sure, I called him, Domenici said in statement released to home state media Saturday, but I never told him what course of action I thought he should take, or pressured him, or threatened him in any way. Nonetheless, hindsight being 20/20, I regret making that call. And even though I didn’t threaten, pressure, cajole, suggest, hint, wink, or nod, I apologize.

I was waiting for him to say that he’s just some old guy who wanders Capitol Hill in his pajamas. Who would take that guy seriously?

Well, when a U.S. Senator—a senior Senator from your own party, no less—calls you about a case, you can be damn sure it’s not a social call. Here’s what Domenici says transpired on the call:

I asked Mr. Iglesias if he could tell me what was going on in that investigation and give me an idea of what timeframe we were looking at. It was a very brief conversation, which concluded when I was told that the courthouse investigation would be continuing for a lengthy period.

What timeframe “we” were looking at? The royal “we.” It’s just us Republicans here, old boy. Notice too that Domenici’s version of events doesn’t preclude him having abruptly hung up the phone, as Iglesias claims.

But Domenici knows he screwed up. Otherwise, what’s to apologize for? Maybe with a mea culpa, I’m sure the thinking goes, he can put this behind him and move quickly on. Nice touch, that written statement. No follow-up questions. No need to provide a timeline. May get the local reporters off his back for a while.

So many question remain. Here’s one: Did the good senator ever have any discussions with Rep. Heather Wilson (R-NM) about their calls to Iglesias?

Written by Leisureguy

4 March 2007 at 10:31 am

Posted in Congress, GOP, Government

Thinking about the shaving week

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Today’s a no-shave day, so I turn to anticipating the shaves of the coming week. I think this week I’ll use some soaps that sit on the counter and two creams I’ve not tried:

Soaps: Mitchell’s Wool Fat Shaving Soap, L’Occitane Cade, Truefitt & Hill, and Proraso Soap (which I’ve not yet tried).

Creams: Em’s Place Bay Rum and Speick (a German shaving cream in a tube).

The Monday shave, always the most fun, will be with the Mitchell’s Wool Fat Soap. I can’t wait. 🙂

Written by Leisureguy

4 March 2007 at 9:21 am

Posted in Shaving

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