Later On

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

Archive for July 13th, 2007

Called the Laffer curve ’cause it makes you laff

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This is funny:

From Mark Thoma, via Brad DeLong, comes what will henceforth be my absolutely favorite example of twisting data to fit your theories. Observe the following graph of corporate tax rates vs. revenue in units of GDP:

thoma2.png

Pretty straightforward, really. As you raise taxes, the government collects more revenue. Norway seems to collect more than its fair share, which might be interesting to dig into, but the trend seems clear. But there’s something nagging at the back of your mind — aren’t there people out there in the world who believe that raising taxes actually decreases revenue past some certain not-very-high tax rate? “Supply-side economists,” or something like that? People who exert a wildly disproportionate influence on U.S. tax policy? What would they make of such a graph?

Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as supply-side economics, and you can find its practitioners in such out-of-the way places as the American Enterprise Institute and the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal. Here is how such people view these data:

thoma1.png

No, I am not being unfair. I did not draw the “Laffer Curve” on top of those data in order to embarrass the WSJ or AEI. They did it themselves; the second graph is how the plot was actually published by the Journal, while the first one was Mark Thoma’s subsequent reality-based-community version of the plot. As Kevin Drum says, it’s “like those people who find an outline of the Virgin Mary in a potato chip.”

Among other features, we note with amusement that the plotted curve implies that tax revenues hit zero at a corporate tax rate of about 33%, and become dramatically negative thereafter. As of this writing, it is unclear what advanced statistical software package was used to fit the Laffer Curve to the data; the smart money seems to be on MS Paint.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 July 2007 at 9:20 pm

Posted in GOP

Smoking is good for you

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In part. From Science News:

Call it a flimsy silver lining to a noxious blue cloud: Long-term smokers have half the risk of Parkinson’s disease that nonsmokers do, according to a new report.

In 12,000 people studied, those who smoked the most—the equivalent of at least a pack a day for 60 years—had the lowest risk. And after smokers stubbed out their last butts, the protective effect faded.

Cigarette, cigar, and pipe smoking appear to offer similar anti-Parkinson’s benefits, according to the report in the July Archives of Neurology.

Author Beate Ritz of the University of California, Los Angeles characterizes the amount of Parkinson’s protection provided by smoking as moderate. “Never-smokers have about a twofold higher risk of Parkinson’s disease than ever-smokers,” she says.

However, because Parkinson’s disease is fairly rare—only about 60,000 new cases are diagnosed each year in the United States—and because smoking causes cancer and heart disease, “nobody would ever recommend smoking in order to prevent Parkinson’s,” Ritz emphasizes.

Ritz and her colleagues compiled data from 11 epidemiological studies dating back to 1960. The studies included about 3,000 Parkinson’s patients and 9,000 healthy people. Ritz’ team recorded the smoking history and Parkinson’s status of each subject.

For 2 decades, researchers have speculated that tobacco prevents Parkinson’s. The new report, though, “is extremely convincing,” says Maryka Quik of the Parkinson’s Institute in Sunnyvale, Calif.

The protective effect was seen in every age group except those diagnosed at age 75 or later. Ritz speculates that the difficulty of diagnosing Parkinson’s in older patients may explain that result.

As for how smoking may prevent the disease, “nicotine is the likely suspect,” says study coauthor Harvey Checkoway of the University of Washington in Seattle.

Robert L. Copeland Jr. of the Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, D.C., agrees. He points to studies in his lab and elsewhere showing that nicotine protects neurons that generate dopamine, a key signaling molecule in the brain.

Parkinson’s symptoms appear after patients lose 70 to 80 percent of their dopamine-making neurons. Several small studies have tested nicotine patches and gum for symptom relief in people who already have the disease. But by then, it may be too late for nicotine to do much good, says Quik. Such trial results have been equivocal.

Ritz offers other possible explanations. Some 4,000 chemicals pollute tobacco smoke, and any of those alone or in combination with nicotine may contribute to the anti-Parkinson’s effect, she says.

Some aspects of the data lead Ritz to speculate that the explanation isn’t chemical at all. Instead, there may be some fundamental difference in susceptibility to nicotine addiction between people who develop Parkinson’s and those who don’t. “It could be a difference in the dopamine system in brain,” Ritz says. Dopamine is important both in Parkinson’s disease and in addiction.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 July 2007 at 9:08 pm

Posted in Health, Medical

“Increase billable hours at all costs”

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That must be the motto:

Some poor people accused of federal crimes are represented by full-time federal public defenders who earn salaries, others by court-appointed lawyers who bill by the hour. A new study from a Harvard economist says there is a surprisingly wide gap between the two.

Both kinds of lawyers are paid by the government, and they were long thought to perform about equally well. But the study concludes that lawyers paid by the hour are less qualified and let cases drag on even as they achieve worse results for their clients, including sentences that average eight months longer. Appointed lawyers also cost taxpayers $61 million a year more than salaried public defenders would.

There are many possible reasons for the differences in performance. Salaried public defenders generally handle more cases and have more interactions with prosecutors, meaning they may have a better sense of what they can hope to negotiate for their clients. Salaried lawyers also tend to have superior credentials and more legal experience, the study found, and those factors probably result in better performance. And salaried lawyers have no incentive to spend more time on a case than it deserves and run up their bills.

The study will add a new factor to the debate over the nation’s indigent defense systems. In 1963, the Supreme Court ruled in Gideon v. Wainwright that poor people accused of serious crimes are entitled to legal representation paid for by the government.

Roughly three quarters of all federal defendants rely on lawyers paid for by the government, about evenly divided between salaried public defenders and appointed lawyers paid by the hour. Most of the rest hire their own lawyers, with about two percent representing themselves. The debate over how best to provide poor defendants with adequate representation has so far largely concerned whether lawyers for indigent defendants are paid enough to ensure a fair fight with prosecutors. The debate has not focused how the lawyers are paid, and whether that makes a difference.

The new study looked at federal prosecutions from 1997 to 2001. It was performed by Radha Iyengar, a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Sciences, and presented as a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper.

Judge Morris B. Hoffman, a Colorado trial judge and a co-author of a 2005 study on the representation of indigent defendants, said the new study’s innovation was in noticing that public defenders and appointed lawyers are assigned randomly in many federal judicial districts.

That means, Ms. Iyengar wrote, that the two sorts of lawyers had “the same underlying distribution of guilt in the cases they represent and thus are equally likely to lose at trial.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by LeisureGuy

13 July 2007 at 7:46 pm

Posted in Business, Government

Wow: switching from dollars

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From Bloomberg. I wonder whether other oil-producing countries are going to want to be paid in Euros, what with the dollar’s continuing decline. Play with the graphs here—click on the currency to see the graph, which you can invert with a click (instead of x Euros per dollar, it’s easier to understand with x dollars per Euro).

Iran asked Japanese refiners to switch to the yen to pay for all crude oil purchases, after Iran’s central bank said it is reducing holdings of the U.S. dollar.

Iran wants yen-based transactions “for any/all of your forthcoming Iranian crude oil liftings,” according to a letter sent to Japanese refiners that was signed by Ali A. Arshi, general manager of crude oil marketing and exports in Tehran at the National Iranian Oil Co. The request is for all shipments “effective immediately,” according to the letter, dated July 10 and obtained by Bloomberg News.

The yen rose on speculation for an increase in demand for the currency, the result of Japan’s annual 1.24 trillion yen ($10.1 billion) of oil imports from Iran. Central bankers in Venezuela, Indonesia and the United Arab Emirates have said they will invest less of their reserves in dollar assets because of the weakening currency.

“What else can Japan do but to accept the request, once the oil producer sent its wish?” said Hirofumi Kawachi, an analyst at Mizuho Investors Securities Co. in Tokyo. “The tensions between the U.S. and Iran are escalating, and it’s Iran’s measure to hedge risk.”

A spokesman for Iran’s oil ministry in Tehran said he could neither confirm nor deny that the letter had been sent. Most Japanese oil refiners have until now used U.S. dollars to pay Iran for oil, said the spokesman, who declined to be identified by name because of government policy.

The yen advanced to 122.07 per dollar at 2:30 p.m. in New York, from 122.42 late yesterday.

Iran is cutting its U.S. dollar reserves to less than 20 percent of total foreign currency holdings, and will buy more euros and yen as tensions with the U.S. increase, Central Bank Governor Ebrahim Sheibany said on March 27.

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Written by LeisureGuy

13 July 2007 at 5:46 pm

The possibility of justice

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Businesses will take advantage whenever they can—and “fair” doesn’t even enter into their considerations. “Ethical” is also irrelevant, and even “illegal” is borderline interesting. Their key concerns are (a) will it increase profits? and (b) can we get away with it? Remember, Ford put the exploding gas tank in the Pinto, which sent owners to a fiery death after a modest collision, to save $10 per car only after they calculated that they would come out money ahead after lawsuits. (When Ford was caught, they also falsified documents trying to escape a guilty verdict.)

But there’s some hope:

Many Americans are unknowingly stripped of their rights when they sign up for health insurance, cable television or credit cards.  Buried in the fine print of these contracts are clauses that force harmed consumers into a private system that is stacked in favor of giant corporations – sometimes with devastating consequences (see the comments).  Binding mandatory arbitration clauses are proliferating in contracts everywhere.

But now we can tip the scales back in favor of consumers.  Yesterday, Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) and Representative Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) introduced a groundbreaking legislation to restore the rights of millions of consumers, the Arbitration Fairness Act.  This measure bans the use of binding mandatory arbitration in employment, consumer, franchise or civil rights disputes.

Public Citizen’s President Joan Claybrook had this to say at today’s press conference:

Let me be blunt. Privatizing justice benefits big corporate interests like national banks and insurance companies but does not help ordinary people. Corporations have figured out that simply by inserting an arbitration clause in contracts for everyday consumer goods and services or employment, they can usually evade accountability for any harm they cause or laws they break — laws meant to protect consumers and employees from the misuse and abuse of corporate power in the marketplace.

How? First, the contracts are take-it-or-leave-it, so individuals have no choice but to accept the arbitration clause if they want the product, service or job, even if they are required by law to buy the service, as is the case with auto insurance, or required by life’s uncertainties to purchase a much-needed service like health insurance.

Second, the lack of any meaningful independent review of arbitration decisions creates a climate ripe for abuse. The arbitration process is secretive and, of course, the courts have little involvement. Companies impose arbitration on consumers to keep their corporate misbehavior hidden from the piercing sunlight of our public civil justice court system.

Third, arbitration companies are beholden to big corporate players for repeat business, which creates a bias. They do not bite the hand that feeds them. For example, public data show that in the portfolio of one California arbitrator who ruled in 532 cases, 526 were in favor of business — a mere 1.14 percent for the ordinary consumer.

Fourth, arbitration is costly: The more you play, the more you pay, which denies justice to many who cannot afford to play on an already uneven field.

The Arbitration Fairness Act of 2007 would change that terrible anti-consumer landscape. If we are to have any hope of restraining powerful corporate interests from abusing their overwhelming market power to the detriment of individuals, families, workers and whole communities, it must change. We cannot simply trust companies to do the right thing.

You can learn more and read Joan’s complete statement here.  We should do everything we can to make the Arbitration Fairness Act the law of the land.  Contact your member of Congress today.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 July 2007 at 3:29 pm

Election voided and must be re-done: Diebold machines

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From a regular reader, a very interesting story:

In Breaking News late this afternoon [July 12, 2007 – LG], we find yet another reason why Direct Recording Electronic (DRE, usually touch-screen) voting systems are incompatible with democracy: When an election held on them is contested, the machines themselves — which are said to hold the ballots internally — cannot be used in another election until the contest is settled.

Late news this afternoon, sent to The BRAD BLOG moments ago, reveals that a judge in an Alameda County, California election contest is set to rule that a contested ballot measure election from 2004 must now be reheld since the county destroyed data from the election when they sent the Diebold DRE voting systems back to the company in Plano, Texas.

All but 4% of election data, records and audit logs was overwritten in subsequent contests, according to the following release from Americans For Safe Access (ASA) who were the plaintiffs in the contest.

In 2004, Alameda was the same county where it was found that Diebold had installed uncertified hardware and software in the county’s voting system. The illegal action by the company eventually led to the decertification of certain Diebold systems in California.

The judge’s unprecedented decision to re-hold an election after plaintiffs were denied their right to a proper recount after the county’s failure to preserve election records on the Diebold touch-screen systems could have reverberations around the country.

The ASA release explains the astounding details and background in this tale, along with the judge’s tentative findings in full…

Read more.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 July 2007 at 2:35 pm

Waiting for healthcare

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Good post by Kevin Drum:

 OK, OK, I’ll never complain about having to wait three months for a dental checkup again. Mark Kleiman, who nearly died thanks to waiting times for his cancer diagnosis, sums up his post about his experience this way:

The claim that replacing the current insurance mishmash with a better-integrated payment and decision-making process would mean more rationing, or even more rationing-by-queuing, is the sort of palpable falsehood that people who are perfectly honorable in real life are only too willing to utter in ideological conflict, especially if paid to do so. Under a single-payer system we’d have an idea who was waiting how long for what, while under the current system no such data are available. In all my waiting, I was never in a formal “queue,” and if the cancer had gotten me before the pathologist figured out what it was no one would have counted that death as the result of rationing. But only in wingnut health-policy fantasyland is not measuring a problem the same as not having a problem.

This is a point that’s worth keeping in mind when you hear about waiting times in other countries. The only reason we even know they have waiting times is because they measure it. We don’t. That doesn’t mean we don’t have waiting times. It just means we don’t know how long they are, which in turn implies that we don’t have any interest in reducing them. After all, if we did, we’d measure them, wouldn’t we?

Written by LeisureGuy

13 July 2007 at 1:30 pm

Posted in Government, Health, Medical

The new-baby journal

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Another journal thought from 6 years ago:

A NEW-BABY JOURNAL

Nothing changes your life like having a baby. Everything after that arrival is different from everything before, simply because of the presence of a little person who totally depends on his or her parents. And when the new arrival comes with company – twins or triplets or more – the change in your life is all the greater.

Although new parents have little free time to keep a journal, records of the baby’s (or babies’) progress are important – for health reasons, for satisfaction, and for looking back at this time in later years. Although there will be times when the baby is crying and you are working in a sleep-deprived fog to make things right while trying not to lose it totally, you have the reassurance that what is hard to endure is sweet to recall, and these difficult days you will later remember with fondness. Believe it or not. And even though you won’t be able to make a daily entry, you can probably gather your strength and find the time to make an occasional entry – even a short entry can later help you recall an entire day.

Following are some thoughts to help you sort out what kind of journal you might have for recording your offspring’s progress – and occasional setbacks. This list is intended to stimulate your own ideas – it is not a prescription of what you “should” write, but rather things you might consider. In the end, it’s your journal, and your ideas of what’s important will shape your writing.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by LeisureGuy

13 July 2007 at 11:55 am

Looking back & the college journal

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Do any of my readers keep a journal? I have journaled off and on, always an interesting exercise. I even did the 12-week structured journal that Julia Cameron describes in The Artist’s Way (link includes related books).

Doing that 12-week journal is quite an interesting exercise, BTW, and if you undertake it, be sure to keep the “artist’s dates” that she describes. The journal is an outpouring, and the artist’s dates provide an intake—both are important.

I was using the “Online Identity Calculator” to see what my online “brand” was like (10 of 10), and I happened across a journal suggestion that I made 6 years ago—how time flies! It was written in support of The Journal, a journal program for Windows that I favor—though in fact, the traditional journal in a book is easier to preserve and pass along: you don’t get involved in version or format issues. (Those poor people whose journals were carefully kept on 8″ diskettes and now might as well be on the moon for all the good they are: where are you going to get a reader for a Northstar hard-sectored 8″ diskette? Heck, even having a journal on a 5 1/4″ diskette would be a problem today.)

At any rate, I thought the College Journal idea is pretty good, if I say it myself.

UPDATE: Also read this post by Trent Hamm at The Simple Dollar.

Here’s how I would do a college journal:

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by LeisureGuy

13 July 2007 at 11:51 am

For the hyper-competitors out there

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If you’re really competitive, you want to be able to read fluently when the text is upside down, right? That is, you’re sitting across the table in the negotiation, and the other negotiator is looking at a page of notes. If you can read those notes as easily upside down as right side up—well, do I have to spell it out? It’s not unfair, either: if s/he wants you to see the notes, well…

Here’s how to practice: ˙ɥnp—uʍop ǝpısdn s,ʇɐɥʇ ʇxǝʇ ɟo sʇol puɐ sʇol pɐǝɹ

Get someone else to enter lots of text—ideally related to the topic under negotiation so you can quickly recognize the common terms of the context—then you fred it.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 July 2007 at 11:20 am

Posted in Business, Software

Complete Warner music & movie catalog free

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Available now on imeem.com. Read about it. It seems to be true: right now I’m listening to Sonny Stitt and Hank Jones.

Wow. What a good site. Once I found the “jazz” tag, I discovered some very nice playlists, which I’m now listening to. And with the RCA Lyra Wireless, I can pipe the music to my stereo in the living room. Cool.

And I’m enjoying a lovely cold-brewed iced coffee.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 July 2007 at 10:57 am

Posted in Movies & TV, Music, Software

Nice Web 2.0 app for students—and thus for teachers

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Take a look at Notely. It’s described as:

Notely is a collection of online tools designed to help all you drunken students out there to organise your busy lives. whether you’re in University, College or High School Notely has the tools to help you get organised.

And, of course, we’re all students, in a sense. (Brief flash: The teachers at St. John’s are known as “tutors,” and one of them, Ford K. Brown, once remarked that St. John’s students, to have the right open and inquiring mind, must be freshmen by nature, and that tutors, to function properly in their role, must be freshmen by nature willy nilly.)

At any rate, the Notely tool looks like something a teacher would recommend to students. Or perhaps not…

Written by LeisureGuy

13 July 2007 at 10:29 am

Wikipedia mapped

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WikiMindMap uses MindMap notation to show related articles and entries in Wikipedia (any version—that is, you can specify the German version, the English version, etc.). It can alert you to things you might not have thought to investigate, and you can readily move something from the mindmap’s extremity to the center, and see things that relate to that. Useful? Perhaps. Fun? Definitely.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 July 2007 at 10:25 am

Posted in Software, Techie toys

Free letters to Canadian addresses

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I just wrote a letter to The Niece using EasyPost, a free (for now) service that will send postal letters to any address in Canada. Very nice, and saves postage to boot. Email is all well and good, but there’s nothing like bringing in the mail and finding a personal letter in the mix.

For addresses in the US, there’s esnailer, also free. With postage as high as it is, free mail is attractive. OTOH, paying $0.45 for a solid address and phone number and contacts is not a bad price. The thing that makes me wary of esnailer is that they want too much information: my phone number, for example, and the relationship to me of the person I’m writing, which makes me think that perhaps that person will receive sometime soon a letter, “Hello, xxx, your friend Leisureguy thought you would be interested in these fine products.” And so on.

The Canadian service is blissfully free of such intrusions. So I guess I won’t use esnailer, after all. But I will use EasyPost. (Of my information, EasyPost wanted only my email address, to notify me that the letter has been mailed; and of recipient information, they wanted only the address.)

Written by LeisureGuy

13 July 2007 at 9:46 am

Posted in Daily life, Software

Regulating foods and food quality

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Some see any government regulation of food purity, quality, sanitation, etc., as government overreach, impinging on our basic rights and freedoms. Their position is that, if the government stops the regulation, the free-market economy will naturally fix the problem.

Of course, the regulations and regulatory agencies actually started because the free-market economy wasn’t doing the job. Businesses, if allowed, will cut all sorts of corners to increase profits—for example:

Chopped cardboard, softened with an industrial chemical and flavored with fatty pork and powdered seasoning, is a main ingredient in batches of steamed buns sold in one Beijing neighborhood, state television said.

The report, aired late Wednesday on China Central Television, highlights the country’s problems with food safety despite government efforts to improve the situation.

Countless small, often illegally run operations exist across China and make money cutting corners by using inexpensive ingredients or unsavory substitutes. They are almost impossible to regulate.

State TV’s undercover investigation features the shirtless, shorts-clad maker of the buns, called baozi, explaining the contents of the product sold in Beijing’s sprawling Chaoyang district.

Baozi are a common snack in China, with an outer skin made from wheat or rice flour and a filling of sliced pork. Cooked by steaming in immense bamboo baskets, they are similar to but usually much bigger than the dumplings found on dim sum menus familiar to many Americans.

The hidden camera follows the man, whose face is not shown, into a ramshackle building where steamers are filled with the fluffy white buns, traditionally stuffed with minced pork.

The surroundings are filthy, with water puddles and piles of old furniture and cardboard on the ground.

“What’s in the recipe?” the reporter asks. “Six to four,” the man says.

“You mean 60 percent cardboard? What is the other 40 percent?” asks the reporter. “Fatty meat,” the man replies.

The bun maker and his assistants then give a demonstration on how the product is made.

Squares of cardboard picked from the ground are first soaked to a pulp in a plastic basin of caustic soda — a chemical base commonly used in manufacturing paper and soap — then chopped into tiny morsels with a cleaver. Fatty pork and powdered seasoning are stirred in.

Soon, steaming servings of the buns appear on the screen. The reporter takes a bite.

“This baozi filling is kind of tough. Not much taste,” he says. “Can other people taste the difference?”

“Most people can’t. It fools the average person,” the maker says. “I don’t eat them myself.”

The police eventually showed up and shut down the operation.

UPDATE: The story is now said to be a fake (though who knows?) and the reporter has been sentenced to a year in the slammer.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 July 2007 at 9:22 am

Friday cat-blogging: sunning Megs

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Megs this morning, lolling about on the rug. She loves summer mornings. And summer afternoons. Actually, she loves pretty much anytime. Yesterday she sat and napped quite contentedly all day on the little quillow on the sofa.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 July 2007 at 8:01 am

Posted in Cats, Megs

Bay rum superlather

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I, alas, do not at the present have a QED Bay Rum shaving stick (wishlist alert), so this morning I first worked up a thick lather with QED Bay Rum in the tub using Simpsons Harvard 3 Best Badger, then added just a bit of Em’s Place Bay Rum lathering shave cream. I got tons of dense, slick, wonderful lather—enough for 9 passes, possibly 12. But it wasn’t so much fun as rubbing the shave stick on my face and then using shaving cream on the brush to lather both simultaneously.

Still, no real complaints: great lather. I used the ivory-handled Chatsworth with a Treet Platinum blade. Man, what a great blade! Smooth and sharp and slick and not a nick. The problem, I now see, is that stopping the blade exploration too soon leaves too many blades unknown, and among those are some precious gems. jbc was right: he’s a forum member who constantly hectored us to try more blades.

And to top off the shave, St. John’s Bay Rum. A Bay Rum morning. Arrrrgh! Time for coffee!

Written by LeisureGuy

13 July 2007 at 7:01 am

Posted in Shaving

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