Later On

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

Archive for November 8th, 2007

Did the Surge work?

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Some say yes, some say no, but those answers are usually predicated on the political position of the person answering. How can we get an objective answer? An answer that does not depend on carefully selected statistics (cherry-picking either ripe or rotten cherries, depending on the conclusion desired)?

How about the financial markets? Don’t those people, with money at stake, tend to take a hard-eyed realistic view? Well, take a look:

Iraqi bonds (click image for full size)

When General David Petraeus testified before Congress in September on the efficacy of the military surge in Iraq, his presentation included several charts purporting to show progress—fewer civilian deaths and “security incidents,” and more seized weapons caches. But a report by an MIT economist released shortly afterward suggests a different metric: the financial markets, particularly the market for Iraqi state bonds. The study reports that from the start of the surge earlier this year until September, there was a “sharp decline” in the price of Iraqi state bonds, signaling a “40% increase in the market’s expectation that Iraq will default” on its obligations. Since the bonds are sold on international markets (hedge funds hold a large portion), where the profit motive eliminates personal and political bias, the trajectory of bond prices may be the most accurate indicator available for assessing America’s military strategy. And the data suggest that “the surge is failing to pave the way toward a stable Iraq and may in fact be undermining it.”

“Is the ‘Surge’ Working? Some New Facts,” Michael Greenstone, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; National Bureau of Economic Research

Written by Leisureguy

8 November 2007 at 1:53 pm

Try waterboarding yourself: you’ll see it’s torture

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It’s not a “dunk,” it’s not “swimming lessons,” and—most especially—it’s not a joke. Read this:

A senior Justice Department official, charged with reworking the administration’s legal position on torture in 2004 became so concerned about the controversial interrogation technique of waterboarding that he decided to experience it firsthand, sources told ABC News.

Daniel Levin, then acting assistant attorney general, went to a military base near Washington and underwent the procedure to inform his analysis of different interrogation techniques.

After the experience, Levin told White House officials that even though he knew he wouldn’t die, he found the experience terrifying and thought that it clearly simulated drowning.

Levin, who refused to comment for this story, concluded waterboarding could be illegal torture unless performed in a highly limited way and with close supervision. And, sources told ABC News, he believed the Bush Administration had failed to offer clear guidelines for its use.

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Written by Leisureguy

8 November 2007 at 12:29 pm

I think Joe Galloway sees it correctly

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This is a strong column, but I think he’s right. And don’t forget the one Dept of Justice lawyer who actually went to find out for himself what waterboarding was like: Daniel Levin went to a military base to experience waterboarding firsthand. He said that it definitely was torture. (See next post.)

Waterboarding

Did Bill Clinton have sex with that woman? Is Elvis Presley really dead? Is the Pope Catholic? Does a bear do his ablutions in the woods? Is waterboarding torture?

The answer to all of these questions, put simply, is yes.

All of Judge Michael Mukasey’s artful dodging and word play to avoid acknowledging the obvious to the august members of Senate Judiciary Committee does nothing to change the fact.

When you hog-tie a human being, tilt him head down, stuff a rag in his mouth and over his nostrils and pour water onto the rag slowly and steadily to the point where his lungs fill with water and he’s suffocating and drowning, that is torture.

Four decades ago in the field in Vietnam, I saw a suspected Viet Cong waterboarded by South Vietnamese Army troops. The American Army advisers who were attached to the Vietnamese unit turned their backs and walked away before the torture began. It was then a Vietnamese affair and something they couldn’t be associated with.

The victim was taken to the edge of death. His body was wracked with spasms as he fought for air. The soldier holding the five-gallon kerosene tin filled with muddy water from a nearby stream kept pouring it slowly onto the rag, and the victim desperately sucking for even a little air kept inhaling that water instead.

It seemed to go on forever. Did the suspect talk? I’m sure he did. I’m sure he told his torturers whatever he thought they wanted to hear, whether it was true or not. But I didn’t see the end of it because one of the American advisers came to me and told me I had to leave; that I couldn’t watch this interrogation, if that’s what it was, any longer.

That adviser knew that water torture was torture; he knew that it was outlawed by the Geneva Convention; he knew that he couldn’t be a part to it; and he knew that he didn’t want me to witness such brutality.

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Written by Leisureguy

8 November 2007 at 12:26 pm

Genetic determination of sexual orientation

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I understand that many believe that sexual orientation is a conscious choice (any evidence for this is pretty vague). But evidence to the contrary continues to pile up:

Is sexual orientation something people are born with – like the colour of their skin and eyes – or a matter of choice?

Canadian scientists have uncovered new evidence which shows genetics has a role to play in determining whether an individual is homosexual or heterosexual.

The research was conducted by Dr. Sandra Witelson, a neuroscientist in the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine at McMaster University, and colleagues at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto who studied the brains of healthy, right-handed, 18- to 35-year-old homosexual and heterosexual men using structural Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI).

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Written by Leisureguy

8 November 2007 at 11:47 am

Posted in Daily life, Science

Cool phone

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Calisto

Cool Tools has a good write-up. If I got many phone calls, I think I’d go for this, just because it’s so cool. But my phone is mostly silent, so no need. The conclusion:

… All in all, this is the first cordless headset phone I consider good enough for a home office — and I’ve been buying cordless headset phones since the mid-80s and have more than I can count moldering away in boxes. Interestingly, Plantronics is the company that built the headset used by Neal Armstrong when he first stepped on the Moon!

Much more at the link.

Written by Leisureguy

8 November 2007 at 11:41 am

How Condi’s State Dept investigates

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Condi Rice has been in charge of the State Department for 3 years. It’s hers. The policies are hers. She’s responsible. But she’s not accountable, obviously. She’ll keep her distance on this, and she’ll get away with it. And here’s how her State Department works:

 Last Feb. 7, a sniper employed by Blackwater USA, the private security company, opened fire from the roof of the Iraqi Justice Ministry. The bullet tore through the head of a 23-year-old guard for the state-funded Iraqi Media Network, who was standing on a balcony across an open traffic circle. Another guard rushed to his colleague’s side and was fatally shot in the neck. A third guard was found dead more than an hour later on the same balcony.

Eight people who responded to the shootings — including media network and Justice Ministry guards and an Iraqi army commander — and five network officials in the compound said none of the slain guards had fired on the Justice Ministry, where a U.S. diplomat was in a meeting. An Iraqi police report described the shootings as “an act of terrorism” and said Blackwater “caused the incident.” The media network concluded that the guards were killed “without any provocation.”

The U.S. government reached a different conclusion. Based on information from the Blackwater guards, who said they were fired upon, the State Department determined that the security team’s actions “fell within approved rules governing the use of force,” according to an official from the department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security. Neither U.S. Embassy officials nor Blackwater representatives interviewed witnesses or returned to the network, less than a quarter-mile from Baghdad’s Green Zone, to investigate.

The incident shows how American officials responsible for overseeing the security company conducted only a cursory investigation when Blackwater guards opened fire. The shooting occurred more than seven months before the Sept. 16 incident in which Blackwater guards killed 17 civilians at another Baghdad traffic circle.

The Feb. 7 shootings convulsed the Iraqi Media Network, one of the prominent symbols of the new Iraq, in anger and recrimination.

U.S. officials and the security company, now known as Blackwater Worldwide, offered no compensation or apology to the victims’ families, according to relatives of the guards and officials of the network, whose programming reaches 22 million Iraqis.

“It’s really surprising that Blackwater is still out there killing people,” Mohammed Jasim, the Iraqi Media Network’s deputy director, said in an interview. “This company came to Iraq and was supposed to provide security. They didn’t learn from their mistakes. They continued and continued. They continued killing.”

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Written by Leisureguy

8 November 2007 at 10:54 am

Study that may not make the evening news

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From MPP:

Teenagers who smoke marijuana but not cigarettes are more likely to get good grades, play sports, and live with both parents than those who use both marijuana and tobacco, according to a new Swiss study.

The researchers concluded, “Cannabis-only adolescents show better functioning than those who also use tobacco.”

Of course, this study isn’t generally something you’ll see on CNN or other U.S. mainstream media outlets [no kidding – LG], unlike U.S. government-funded studies that purport to show marijuana’s harmful effects, which always seem to get extensive news coverage.

That said, Fox News has an online story here, which you should “Digg” to make it one of the biggest news stories of the day. If you have a moment right now, please do so without delay.

Other than the Fox News story, only Reason Magazine’s blog and United Press International have covered the study — which was just published in the November issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. You can view the abstract of the study (and purchase the full study) here.

The study compared teens who (1) smoked both marijuana and cigarettes, (2) smoked marijuana but not cigarettes, and (3) used neither.

The study found that teens who smoke marijuana were more likely to have a good relationship with their friends than teens who didn’t use marijuana or cigarettes.

Compared to those who smoked cigarettes in addition to marijuana, the marijuana-using group was also less likely to have been drunk in the past 30 days, less likely to have used marijuana before the age of 15, less likely to have smoked marijuana more than once or twice during the previous 30 days, and less likely to use other illegal drugs.

Other differences between marijuana-only users and abstainers were pretty minor. For instance, the marijuana-only group was more likely to skip class but still had the same level of good grades as the abstainers. And the marijuana-only group wasn’t any more likely than the abstainers to be depressed.

To be clear, MPP doesn’t recommend that teens use marijuana, but we do think that public policies that put teens and adults in prison for using marijuana are misguided and therefore should be reformed.

To that end, MPP continues to barrel forward changing our nation’s marijuana laws, state by state. Will you consider making a donation to support our efforts?

Written by Leisureguy

8 November 2007 at 10:41 am

Some surprises regarding identity thieves

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The surprises (for me) were the perpetrators:

Identity thieves are typically young, work solo, and rely on the Internet for fewer than one-fifth of their crimes, according to a new study of Secret Service cases.

The Center for Identity Management and Information Protection also found that “insider” employees were the offenders in just one-third of the cases. Employees who stole identity information often worked in the retail industry, the report found.

“There are some common perceptions we have that identity theft involves a person sitting at a computer hacking into corporate or individual computers. … Certainly it is happening, but it is a crime that is happening in a multitude of ways, some of it as simple as stealing mail out of a mailbox,” said Gary Gordon, a professor of economic crime programs who founded and heads the center at Utica College.

The Department of Justice-funded study, which was to be released Monday at a news conference in Washington, D.C., differs from previous studies because it focused on identity thieves and their methods, rather than victims, said Michael Stenger, Assistant Director of Investigations for the Secret Service, which agreed to open its case files to the center.

Researchers reviewed 517 cases closed by the Secret Service between 2000 and 2006. Two-thirds of the cases were concentrated in the Northeast and South and there were 933 defendants. The Federal Trade Commission has said about 3 million Americans have their identities stolen annually.

The study found that 42.5 percent of offenders were between the ages of 25 and 34. Another 18 percent were between the ages of 18 and 24. Two-thirds of the identity thieves were male.

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Written by Leisureguy

8 November 2007 at 10:34 am

Posted in Daily life

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Rewarding the right behavior

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It’s hard sometimes to find the right solution. But when you do, it definitely clicks.

Take this problem: people throwing losing betting slips on the ground. That’s a problem because it costs money to clean up the litter and also cleaning up litter is basically no fun. Ah! “Fun.” The secret ingredient.

So this racecourse in Japan has a robotic goat that “eats” the losing tickets. Now people can have a little fun while getting rid of the ticket. (And, it turns out, that kids love to feed the robot goat, so kids run around and pick up tickets and pester their parents for the losing tickets.) Once this solution is seen, it’s easy to think up even more entertaining machine payoffs for a losing ticket…

And this is so much more effective than a ton of “Please Do Not Litter” signs, or announcements to deposit the losing tickets in the trash bins, etc.

Same thing with shaving: lots of men hate it, and they focus their attention on making the shave shorter or more frequent, without considering the solution of finding a way to make the shave enjoyable.

So rather than forcing a behavior—working against the current, as it were—find a way to make the behavior rewarding—to make doing the behavior fun!

A simple example: the refillable water bottles: we want people to use those, filling from the tap, rather than buying pre-filled bottles. So: make filling the refillable bottle fun: have the water stream into the bottle turn a little wheel that does something; or have the bottle be made of something that changes color in an interesting way as the water rises in the bottle, or a picture that comes into view when the bottle has water in it and can’t be seen when the bottle’s empty, or….   You get the idea. If it’s fun to refill the bottle, people will want to do it, and the problem’s solved.

ING Direct should have a little drawing each month, with you getting one entry for each dollar that your account exceeds its previous maximum. That is, if the most you ever had in your ING Direct account was $500, and this month you deposited enough so that the account reached $600, you would have 100 entries in the drawing. So you deposit enough to reach $600, and then immediately withdraw it, right? But that still leaves the maximum the account ever reached to be $600, so you’ll have more and more trouble getting entries unless you leave the money in and then add to it.

Written by Leisureguy

8 November 2007 at 10:29 am

Posted in Daily life

Fight bottled water

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Not the water, the bottling. Selling bottled water is big bucks for business, and big bucks for you when you have to pay not only for the bottled water but also for the landfill operations and recycling operations for all those damn bottles. And quite often the bottled water is “PWS” (public water source: that is, from the tap). I’ve really enjoyed having two refillable bottles in the car and bringing the empty in and refilling it at the sink, then putting on the table to go back to the car next trip out. The water tastes fine, and the backseat floor is not filled with discarded empty bottles. Go for it.

And check this out. Take the pledge.

Thanks, Nick, for pointing this out.

Written by Leisureguy

8 November 2007 at 8:52 am

“How Long Has This Been Going On?”, shaving dept

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To get right to the point: I had my first 9.8 morning shave. It was my first try of “Method Shaving,” a process and products developed by Charles Roberts of Enchante. I’m now (11/22/07) updating this post to bring into one post a summary of my experience to date.

I confess to a tendency to avoid or postpone trying something new. You may have noticed. A common flaw, but it gets in the way of all sorts of pleasant experiences—and, probably, some that turn out to be not so pleasant. At any rate, I’ve had one of the Roberts “Shave Cubes” sitting in the supplies cabinet for some time, along with the Hydrolast Wet Shaving Paste. And there they sat. I eventually got one of the Shavemaster shaving brushes, tried it once, didn’t quite get it, and it sat there, too.

Yesterday I used the Shavemaster again, and this time I rather liked it—I’m in the mood now, apparently. So this morning I decided to try all the Roberts stuff I had: my first Method shave. (“Method” is short for “Roberts Method of Wet Shaving,” which includes theory, products, and practices.)

Naturally, I didn’t read the manual—I’m a guy, right? I just leapt in, using what I recalled from having seen Mantic’s Method Shaving videos (below).

I got the Shave Cube, a 3″ cube of olive soap. It’s also available as a stack of three  3″ square bars, each 1″ thick—a little easier to handle and better if you travel. This soap has no particular fragrance, just soap. I wet it, held it in my left hand, and brushed it vigorously with the wet Shavemaster. It lathered up better than I expected—olive soaps generally are reluctant in the lather department. The lather comes up quickly, and you will renew the lather in the course of your four-pass shaves, using a little water and working up fresh lather. (Water is the secret to the good Method shave.)

Once the brush was full of lather, I put down the cube and used a little spatula to pick up a bit of the Hydrolast Wet Shaving Paste—you need enough to get the right mix, and experience helps here. I initially used an amount the size of a pea, but that was not enough. The size of a peanut (not in the shell, just a single peanut) seems about right.

The Shaving Paste I have is unscented, but has a sort of light, pleasant, clean scent. You can buy it in various fragrances. Plop the bit of paste in the splayed open center of your brush, then work it into the lather by making more lather in your cupped hand and or putting a driblet of water on the brush and lathering vigorously on the Cube once more.

Once you have a good amalgam of Paste and Lather, move to your wet beard and began brushing vigorously, as though creating a superlather from shaving soap and shaving cream. (In fact, I would not call the Wet Shaving Paste a shaving cream—it seems to be more the essential complement to the soap of the Shave Cube, to complete the lather.)

You can also add some Activator to the brush before working up the lather on your beard, but I don’t yet have that. I’ll be getting it, though.

Nice lather. Picked up the Edwin Jagger Georgian with the Sputnik blade (third shave) and did the first pass: downward, N-S. It went fine. In fact, it was exceptionally smooth and easy. I figured that the products, designed to make sure that the beard was really fully wetted, were working, and that the fully wetted beard offered practically no resistance to the blade. Good work, I thought.

I rinsed after the first pass, and—omigod!—my face was so slick. I couldn’t believe the lubrication I got from the Shave Cube + Shaving Paste combination. And it was not greasy—it was the slickness of skin that’s fully wet with pure water. People who bathe with very soft water know the feeling, but our water isn’t especially soft.

Rinse and re-lather, and the second pass is also downward, N-S. I was a bit skeptical at first, but I find that the double downward pass at the beginning does in fact do an excellent job. Evidence: I get better shaves.

Rinse and re-lather, and at this point you probably will have to renew the lather in the brush by adding just a little water and brushing the Cube again. The third pass is sideways, ear toward nose in general.

Finally, rinse and re-lather and do the fourth pass, which I do against the grain: upward, S-N.

I was astounded at the shave—and at my skin: it felt so smooth and soft and supple. And the shave was fantastic.

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Written by Leisureguy

8 November 2007 at 8:09 am

Posted in Shaving

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