Later On

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

Archive for April 1st, 2008

Dept of Homeland Security is above the law

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The Bush Administration is again ignoring the law, though this time it was allowed by Congress! We definitely need to get better people into Congress. The LA Times‘ Nicole Gaouette describes the developments:

 In an aggressive move to finish building 670 miles of border fence by the end of this year, the Department of Homeland Security announced today that it will waive federal environmental laws to meet that goal.

The two waivers, which will allow the department to slash through a thicket of environmental and cultural laws, would be the most expansive to date, encompassing land in California, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas that stretches about 470 miles.

The waivers are highly controversial with environmentalists and border communities, which see them as a federal imposition that could damage the land and disrupts wildlife.

But they are praised by conservatives who championed the 2006 Secure Fence Act, despite the reluctance of President Bush, who has said a broader approach is needed to deal with illegal immigration.

Republicans greeted the news with satisfaction.

“It’s great. This is the priority area where most of the illegal activity is going on and where most of the deaths are occurring,” said Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-Solana Beach), chairman of the Immigration Reform Caucus. “The quicker we can get the physical fence up, the sooner we’ll avoid situations like the deaths of agents. And it’s still a national security issue. You just have to stop this kind of open traffic along the border.”

Wildlife groups reacted with dismay.

Brian Segee, an attorney with Defenders of Wildlife, said, “It’s dangerous, it’s arrogant, it’s going to have pronounced environmental impacts and it won’t do a thing to address the problems of undocumented immigrants or address border security problems. It’s an incredibly simplistic and ineffective approach to complex problems.”

The waivers are intended to clear the way for fencing to block pedestrians and cars, as well as extra camera, towers and roads near the border. A special waiver was issued for a project in Hidalgo County, Texas, that would combine levees and a barrier.

Congress gave Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff the power to waive federal law in order to build the fence quickly. Since construction began, the department has faced fierce opposition from local communities and has had to go to court against more than 50 property owners simply to survey land to determine whether it is suitable for a fence.

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

1 April 2008 at 7:57 pm

Powers of 10

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Starting way, way out, and moving in jumps:

View the Milky Way at 10 million light years from the Earth. Then move through space towards the Earth in successive orders of magnitude until you reach a tall oak tree just outside the buildings of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in Tallahassee, Florida. After that, begin to move from the actual size of a leaf into a microscopic world that reveals leaf cell walls, the cell nucleus, chromatin, DNA and finally, into the subatomic universe of electrons and protons.

Notice how each picture is actually an image of something that is 10 times bigger or smaller than the one preceding or following it. The number that appears on the lower right just below each image is the size of the object in the picture. On the lower left is the same number written in powers of ten, or exponential notation.

Watch it now, then scroll down to read more about it.

Written by Leisureguy

1 April 2008 at 7:42 pm

Posted in Science

A genetic basis for language tones?

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Interesting:

For the most part, the thousands of languages in the world today fall into one of two categories (notable exceptions being Japanese, some Scandinavian dialects and northern Spain’s Basque tongue): tonal or nontonal.

Two linguists believe they know the genetic underpinnings for these differences. During a study of linguistic and genetic data from 49 distinct populations, the authors discovered a striking correlation between two genes involved in brain development and language tonality. Populations that speak nontonal languages (where the pitch of a spoken word does not affect its meaning) have newer versions of the genes, with mutations that began to appear roughly 37 thousand years ago.

“You can consider this as the first of the many possible studies that we could do to try to find a genetic basis for language and language typology and the different populations that speak a language,” says Patrick Wong, an assistant professor of communication sciences and disorders at Northwestern University, who was not involved in this study.

In English, the pitch at which a word is spoken conveys emotion but usually does not affect its meaning. But in many sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asian and Latin American languages tone changes the meaning of words. For instance, the Chinese word huar said in a high pitch means flower, but in a dipping pitch means picture.

The new research, published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA ties this difference to two genes,…

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

1 April 2008 at 7:33 pm

Posted in Science, Toys

No such thing as a “hot hand” in basketball

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I know this, and I thought by now everyone knew it. If you toss a fair coin, the chance that heads will come up is 50%. But if you keep tossing, you can get arbitrarily long runs of heads—and of tails. It doesn’t mean that you have a “hot hand” in the coin toss—it just means that randomness can include multiple heads in a row. Similarly in gambling: winning x times in a row in a fair game of chance is not a “lucky streak”—it’s just a random clump.

I think I read that some initial CD players had “random” modes that were truly random, and people didn’t like it when the same track played 3 or 4 times in a row—which, of course, will happen if it’s truly random. So they changed the software and the name and it’s now generally called “shuffle” mode: a different order, but each track played but once.

At any rate, I was reminded of this when The Frontal Cortex reviewed some of the studies made of basketball players that demonstrate that the “hot hand” doesn’t exist. The post begins:

Someone should really tell the NCAA tournament television commentators that “the hot hand” doesn’t exist. I’ve gotten pretty tired of hearing these tired cliches about Texas going cold, or Stephen Curry catching fire yet again. Never has a cognitive illusion gotten so much play.

The illusory nature of basketball shooting streaks was first demonstrated by Amos Tversky (of kahnemanandtversky fame) and Thomas Gilovich, a psychologist at Cornell. They began the investigation by sifting through years of Philadelphia 76er statistics. They looked at every single shot taken by ever single player, and recorded whether or not that shot had been preceded by a string of hits or misses. If “the hot hand” was a real phenomenon, then players should have a higher field goal percentage after making several previous shots. The streak should elevate their game.

So what did the scientists find?

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

1 April 2008 at 7:19 pm

Posted in Daily life, Games, Science

Computer Programming OpenCourseWare

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This is useful: free computer programming courses. The rankings:

Some of the best universities in the world offer free computer programming courses through individual and collaborative OpenCourseWare initiatives. Get a list of the most useful sources of computer programming OpenCourseWare here.

#1 MIT

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology offers more than 100 free undergraduate and graduate-level courses related to computer science and computer programming. Most courses consist of a combination of text, audio and video. Course materials typically include lectures, assignments, labs and exams.

#2 Rice University’s Connexions

Launched at Rice University nearly one decade ago, Connexions is a non-profit organization that publishes all sorts of free education materials. The site offers dozens of computer programming courses and related materials to self-learners around the world. Courses are text-based and viewable on the site or via downloadable PDFs.

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Written by Leisureguy

1 April 2008 at 4:59 pm

Glenn Greenwald’s new book available for ordering

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He devote’s today’s column to talking about the book. From the column:

My new book — Great American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican Politics — is available for online ordering now. It will be available in book stores beginning April 15. Ordering now can help increase visibility for the book and its arguments.

Writing a book enables a much different type of analysis and discussion than the type one is able to pursue in a daily column or blog. The day-to-day focus here is typically on a discrete event — the latest act of government lawlessness, Congressional complicity, media deceit or pundit propaganda. A book is a more deliberative process. It therefore allows one to take several steps back and think about the underlying causes of those events, identify what they have in common, and consider ways they can be changed.

From the time I began blogging in October, 2005, I’ve written about many different topics, but almost all have a similar undercurrent: the Limbaugh/Kristol/Fox-News right-wing faction that controls the Republican Party and has dominated our political life for the last 15 years, and the multiple ways that our political institutions — and particularly the Drudgified establishment press — enable them. Marketing packages aside, this book is about them; how they function; the weakness-driven bloodthirstiness, dishonesty and sleaze which defines them; the indispensable eagerness of the establishment media to be used by them; and what can be done by those opposed to them to change all of that.

All of the radical and reprehensible events of the last eight years —

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Written by Leisureguy

1 April 2008 at 4:18 pm

I haven’t been hired, honest

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But why not?, I wonder. Are they hiring?

“Hiring a block of bloggers to verbally attack a specific person or promote a specific message may be worth considering,” suggests a 2006 study written for the U.S. military’s Special Operations Command. “Information strategists can consider clandestinely recruiting or hiring prominent bloggers or other persons of prominence … to pass the U.S. message.” However, the study warns, “people do not like to be deceived, and the price of being exposed is lost credibility and trust.” In addition to recruiting, building or promoting blogs friendly to the U.S. military, the study suggests hacking an “enemy blog” to use it “covertly as a vehicle for friendly information operations. … Subtly changing the messages and data — merely a few words or phrases — may be sufficient to begin destroying the blogger’s credibility. … The enemy may reason that the blogger in question has betrayed them and [may] take down the site (and the blogger) themselves.” A U.S. Special Operations Command spokesperson told Wired that the study’s suggestions “are not ‘actionable,’ merely thought provoking.”

Source: Wired.com blog “Danger room,” March 31, 2008

Written by Leisureguy

1 April 2008 at 4:14 pm

How US is viewed (and why)

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From the Christian Science Monitor, reported by Liam Stack:

Egypt and the United States issued conflicting accounts Tuesday of a shooting incident involving a US cargo ship and a small boat in the Suez Canal, feeding into the deep distrust here of American motives in the Middle East.

The Global Patriot, which was under short-term charter to the Navy’s Military Sealift Command, entered the canal from the Red Sea after dark Monday, when it was approached by several small boats, US and Egyptian officials say.

According to the Egyptian government and local reports, the vessel opened fire on one of the motorboats as it transited through the canal, killing an Egyptian man and injuring two others. Two men on the boat were injured and one man, identified as Mohamed Moqtar Afifi by Agence France-Presse, was killed.

The US Navy has been particularly alert to the activities of such small boats near its warships since Al Qaeda’s 2000 suicide attack on the USS Cole in Yemen killed 17 sailors.

“The Americans come to the Middle East and deal with everyone like they are Al Qaeda,” says Essam el-Erian, a prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s most influential opposition group. He says that it is “well known in the area that these people sail beside big ships and sell things.”

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Written by Leisureguy

1 April 2008 at 4:12 pm

If you’re happy and you know it, thank your parents

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Half of happiness is due to genetic factors:

You can’t buy happiness but it looks like you can at least inherit it, British and Australian researchers said on Thursday.

A study of nearly 1,000 pairs of identical and non-identical twins found genes control half the personality traits that make people happy while factors such as relationships, health and careers are responsible for the rest of our well-being.

“We found that around half the differences in happiness were genetic,” said Tim Bates, a researcher at the University of Edinburgh who led the study. “It is really quite surprising.”

The researchers asked the volunteers — ranging in age from 25 to 75 — a series of questions about their personality, how much they worried and how satisfied they were with their lives.

Because identical twins share the same genes and fraternal twins do not, the researchers could identify common genes that result in certain personality traits and predispose people to happiness.

People who are sociable, active, stable, hardworking and conscientious tend to be happier, the researchers reported in the journal Psychological Science.

“What this study showed was that the identical twins in a family were very similar in personality and in well-being, and by contrast, the fraternal twins were only around half as similar,” Bates said. “That strongly implicates genes.”

More at the link.

Written by Leisureguy

1 April 2008 at 4:06 pm

Posted in Daily life, Science

Another good walk

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To the Pacific Grove Library and back, accompanied this time by Illinois Jacquet. The library’s a good destination: it has a water fountain, restrooms, and, of course, books. The only problem is that when you check out books—say, four by Dan Festerman—you have to schlep them home. So I  took the flat route home rather than the hilly.

Written by Leisureguy

1 April 2008 at 4:00 pm

Posted in Daily life, Health

Raw-beet salad

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From Mark Bittman. Raw beets are very tasty and easy to eat once they’re shredded. Don’t cook—that destroys some of the nutrients in beets.

Raw-Beet Salad

Yield: 4 servings; Time: 10 minutes

Uncooked beets are less sweet and earthy than they are when boiled or roasted. If you just can’t resist cooking them, once they’re shredded, they can be quickly sautéed in butter or oil.

1 pound beets
1 large shallot
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard, or to taste
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar or other good strong vinegar
Minced parsley, dill, chervil, rosemary or tarragonPeel the beets [optional—you can simply scrub them. – LG] and the shallot. Combine them in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade, and pulse carefully until the beets are shredded; do not puree. (Or grate the beets by hand and mince the shallots; combine.) Scrape into a bowl.

Toss with the salt, pepper, mustard, oil and vinegar. Taste, and adjust seasoning. Toss in the herbs, and serve.

If the beets come with greens, be sure to eat the greens, too: very healthful. You can wash them well and chop them to include in the salad, or sauté them in a little oil, dribble with some lemon juice, and eat them that way.

Written by Leisureguy

1 April 2008 at 10:30 am

How the GOP approaches voting rights

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This is disgusting:

Willie Ray was a 69-year-old African-American City Council member from Texarkana who wanted her granddaughter, Jamillah Johnson, to learn about civil rights and voting during the 2004 presidential election. The pair helped homebound seniors citizens get absentee ballots, and once they were filled out, put them in the mail.

Fort Worth’s Gloria Meeks, 69, was a church-going, community activist who proudly ran a phone bank and helped homebound elderly people like Parthenia McDonald, 79, to vote by mail. McDonald, whose mailbox was two blocks away from her home (she recently died), called Meeks “an angel” for helping her, a friend of both women said.

And until he recently moved out of state, Walter Hinojosa, a retired school teacher and labor organizer from Austin, was another Democratic Party volunteer who helped elderly and disabled people vote by getting them absentee ballots and mailing them.

Today, Ray and Johnson have criminal records for breaking Texas election law and faced travel restrictions during a six-month probation. Gloria Meeks is in a nursing home after having a stroke, prompted in part, her friends say, by state police who investigated her — including spying on Meeks while she bathed — and then questioned her about helping McDonald and others to vote. Hinojosa, meanwhile, has left Texas.

Their crime: not signing their name, address and signature on the back of the ballots they mailed for their senior neighbors, and carrying envelopes containing those ballots to the mailbox. Since 2005, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican, has been prosecuting Democratic Party activists, almost all African-Americans and Latinos, as part of an effort to eradicate what he said was an “epidemic” of voter fraud in Texas.

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

1 April 2008 at 9:56 am

Posted in Election, GOP, Government

Prison rape

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Ezra Klein has a strong article in the American Prospect about prison rape, which begins:

‘From the studio that brought you ‘Brokeback Mountain,’ ” intones the preview for the light comedy “Let’s Go To Prison,” “comes a penetrating look at the American penal system.” In case that was too subtle for you, the DVD box features a dropped bar of soap, just waiting for some poor inmate to bend over to pick it up — and suffer a hilarious sexual assault in the process.

Or maybe you’re not feeling up for a movie. It’s more of a board-game afternoon. How about picking up “Don’t Drop the Soap,” a board game created by the son of Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas. The game “is simply intended for entertainment,” said Nicole Corcoran, the governor’s spokeswoman. What, after all, could be more entertaining then trying to “avoid being cornered by the Aryans in the shower room” (one of the goals of the game, according to its promotional material)?

Here in Washington, however, the weather has been beautiful lately, so if you were bored last week, you might have wanted to do something out of the house. One option would have been going down to the Department of Justice, where, on the third floor, officials were holding hearings on prison rape, interrogating administrators from some of the worst prisons in the nation about the abuses that go on within their walls.

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Written by Leisureguy

1 April 2008 at 9:48 am

Posted in Daily life, Government

Email from a soldier in Iraq

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Spencer Ackerman received this copy of an email from a friend of a friend:

[Name redacted],

I agree that the war was a great strategic mistake. The way I see it, Saddam Hussein was a secular leader and therefore a huge stumbling block to the spread of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East. Yes, he was an evil person and he was our enemy (since Gulf War I) but he was also an enemy of Bin Laden and the Shia extremists etc. If he did have WMDs, he would have used them for regional influence. He never would have given them up to terrorists or risked provoking the US by using them against us. Now, with Saddam gone we have a vacuum that can only be filled by Shia extremists who are more of a terrorist threat than Saddam.

So I agree that coming here was a big mistake for those reasons and others. As far as things on the ground, the outlook isn’t much better. In my opinion, what everyone fails to realize is that this is not a counterinsurgency. If we wanted to stay in Iraq, then it would be a counterinsurgency. But it is clear that our goal is to turn over power and pull out. So, in building our strategic endstate, it’s pointless to set goals that relate to our presence in Iraq. If the “insurgency” is a function of our being there, then it is not an insurgency in terms of our endstate. For example, if one of our goals is to stop IED attacks on US forces, that is pointless. When we leave, there will be no more IED attacks on US forces. So our endstate needs to be different. We need to ask “if we left tomorrow, what would happen in Iraq?” and from there, we need to determine which of those anticipated results are unacceptable to us. Then we must aim our efforts on making sure those unacceptable results do not occur.

When I look at the problem that way, it becomes almost impossible to find a purpose in what we do. Regardless of what we do, the Shia are going to take control. They have completely infiltrated all the security forces. The only kind of leader who could keep them in check was a tyrant like Saddam. And when the Shia take control, as soon as we leave, they are going to be as brutal as they like against the Sunni and there will be little we can do about it. That is what will happen whether we leave tomorrow or in ten years. As far as the foreign fighters, they will leave Iraq when we do. So what are we trying to accomplish here? Train the Iraqi forces? History shows that training forces in the Middle East can backfire. Any training we offer these people will find its way to our terrorist enemies.

Things are heating up as well. The Shia are getting more aggressive. We lost a man the other day and another was seriously wounded a week or so later. We’re facing a high risk with very little potential payoff. We are able to make a difference at the local level. Some of the people are very kind and appreciate our help. That is the only positive thing I can see coming out of this.

Very Respectfully
Junior Officer XXXX

Written by Leisureguy

1 April 2008 at 9:25 am

The undercurrent of racism

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Racism is still alive and undermining US efforts to strengthen itself. Eduardo Porter has an excellent column on the effects of racism in the NY Times. (Of course, race is not the only promoter of “Us” vs. “Them” thinking: soci0-economic class also contributes: I was surprised to find how many of the well-off despise the poor and see them almost as another race.) From the column:

In 1893, Friedrich Engels wrote from London to Friedrich Adolph Sorge, another German Communist then living in New York, lamenting how America’s diversity hindered efforts to establish a workers’ party in the United States. Was it possible to unify Poles, Germans, Irish, “the many small groups, each of which understands only itself”? All the bourgeoisie had to do was wait, “and the dissimilar elements of the working class fall apart again.”

America’s mix of peoples has changed in its 200-plus years. Yet when Barack Obama delivered his bracing speech on race, he was grappling with a similar challenge. “Realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams,” he said. “Investing in the health, welfare and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.”

It is a tall order. Ten years ago, William Julius Wilson wrote that American whites rebelled against welfare because they saw it as using their hard-earned taxes to give blacks “medical and legal services that many of them could not afford for their own families.”

As obviously sensible as Mr. Obama’s proposition might be in a nation of as many hues, tongues and creeds as the United States, it struggles against self-defeating human behavior: racial and ethnic diversity undermine support for public investment in social welfare. For all the appeal of America’s melting pot, the country’s diverse ethnic mix is one main reason for entrenched opposition to public spending on the public good.

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Written by Leisureguy

1 April 2008 at 9:17 am

Posted in Daily life, Government

Coffee in the morning

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Nothing like a good cup of coffee, is there? Well, perhaps a good cup of tea. I know that one of my readers, Steve, is a big fan of Greek coffee, and I wanted to draw his attention to FreshCoffeeShop.com, which has a focus on Greek and Turkish coffee. The site proprietor is also a wet-shaving aficionado—see how everything that rises does converge? He probably likes fountain pens as well.

Written by Leisureguy

1 April 2008 at 8:57 am

Posted in Caffeine, Daily life

For the autodidact

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Lifehack has a good post for those interested in continuing their own education. It’s by Thursday Bram of thursdaybram.com. Here’s just a part of the post. Go to the first link for the rest:

The Independent Scholar’s Handbook — PDF: The Canadian Academy of Independent Scholars has made The Independent Scholar’s Handbook available as a free download. It’s a full book (322 pages) of information on how to study on your own, as well as tips on finding resources on the topics you want to study.

The Autodidact Project
: Ralph Dumain has put together information about … self-education at the Autodidact Project, including a number of study guides.

The LifeHack How-To Wiki: Consider starting your self-education right here with LifeHack. There’s even an article on self-education on the wiki that you might find useful.

Fathom
: A number of universities, led by Columbia University, have put together a whole host of free resources at Fathom. The information is arranged into courses, making it possible to take short classes from the American Film Institute, the London School of Economics and other prestigious institutes for free.

Wikiversity
: While there are some pretty significant gaps in the do-it-yourself courses Wikiversity offers, I’ve found some great resources on science and business subjects — two areas that my college major just didn’t emphasize.

Mentoring and Interviewing: Just sitting down and talking with someone who is more of an expert on a topic than you are can introduce you to new areas of learning that you hadn’t even considered. You can set up formal interviews with experts or have more casual conversations.

iTunes U
: Through iTunes, a huge number of schools offer recordings of lectures in every subject. Currently, I’m working through Stanford’s course on the Future of the Internet, and after that, I’m thinking about listening in on an evolutionary biology class.

Your Local Library: Most libraries offer far more learning resources than simple how-to books. My boyfriend is currently working his way through our local library’s collection of Chinese lessons on CD. And if you aren’t familiar with your local library, I recommend PublicLibraries.com — it’s a huge directory of public libraries, mostly U.S. with some international listings.

TheHomeSchoolMom.com
: TheHomeSchoolMom.com, along with thousands of other homeschooling websites offer up all sorts of free educational resources from curriculums to texts. While these sites rarely have advanced coverage of a topic, if you’re looking to start with the basics, you’re likely to find exactly what you need.

Project Gutenberg
: While there are a number of websites where you can get free e-books, Project Gutenberg is one of the best known, and seems to have one of the widest selections. You may not be able to find many technical works there, but if you’re interested in the classics or history, Project Gutenberg is the place to go.

Related posts on Lifehack.org:

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Written by Leisureguy

1 April 2008 at 8:38 am

Posted in Daily life, Education

Monday’s steps: 7875

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Yesterday the walk was almost exactly an hour, which put me 40% above what I walked last Saturday. I think I’ll not try to increase the time for now and just continue the same route (to the Pacific Grove Library and back) this week to give myself some time to condition myself. I did indeed sleep like a log last night.

Written by Leisureguy

1 April 2008 at 8:25 am

Posted in Daily life

Lavender Series: D.R. Harris

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The D.R. Harris Lavender shaving cream is heavily dyed—it’s an intense purple, and since I didn’t want any of my good shaving brushes to go all purple, I used one that’s not a silvertip: the Simpsons Commodore 3. The lather that resulted was thick and luxurious (and white), and the same razor and blade as yesterday—the Gillette TV Super Speed and Treet Blue Special—did a very smooth job of a three-pass shave.

On the suggestion of one of the guys in the ShaveMyFace.com forum, I extended the final pass a bit, using my wet left hand to feel for any roughness remaining, and when any was found, polishing it away with the razor. Even though I had made the third pass, there was enough residue on my face that, combined with the dab of wetness from my left hand, lubricated the skin for the blade buffing.

That process was to substitute for the Oil Pass, and it did indeed work well. (I have reasonably soft water, and I don’t know how well this would work with hard water.) It’s certainly simpler than having an Oil Pass, and the result is quite smooth. I’ll probably continue to use this from time to time, but also keep up with the Oil Pass from time to time as well: I do enjoy that, and it also does a good job. It’s a trifle more effort, but then I go to the effort of using aftershave, which is not really necessary and is skipped by some.

The aftershave today was the big bottle of Floïd regular. Very nice indeed.

Written by Leisureguy

1 April 2008 at 8:22 am

Posted in Shaving

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