Later On

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

Archive for April 27th, 2009

A powerful tool for learning and improvement

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Whenever I’ve been involved in any sort of project or coherent effort directed at a goal, I find that one of the most valuable tools is the "Lessons Learned" document prepared after completion (or, in the case of a failed project, after the project has been killed). This document lays out, for yourself and for others in the future, what was learned and what improvements were discovered (either in time for the project or for the next such project). This document becomes particularly valuable if it is bound in combination with a pre-project document that sets out the project goals and sketches the anticipated direction and challenges. The combination of the two will show exactly what was overlooked in the planning and will provide good guidance in the future.

The military knows this well. The after-action report is standard, and often reports with "Lessons Learned" in the title are published. In particular, the US Marine Corps has been a model of a learning organization. (See, for example, Tom Ricks’s excellent book Making the Corps.)

The CIA, on the other hand, seems to be ignorant of this useful approach. Greg Miller in the LA Times:

The CIA used an arsenal of severe interrogation techniques on imprisoned Al Qaeda suspects for nearly seven years without seeking a rigorous assessment of whether the methods were effective or necessary, according to current and former U.S. officials familiar with the matter.

The failure to conduct a comprehensive examination occurred despite calls to do so as early as 2003. That year, the agency’s inspector general circulated drafts of a report that raised deep concerns about waterboarding and other methods, and recommended a study by outside experts on whether they worked.

That inspector general report described in broad terms the volume of intelligence that the interrogation program was producing, a point echoed in smaller studies later commissioned by then-CIA Director Porter J. Goss.

But neither the inspector general’s report nor the other audits examined the effectiveness of interrogation techniques in detail or sought to scrutinize the assertions of CIA counter-terrorism officials that so-called enhanced methods were essential to the program’s results. One report by a former government official — not an interrogation expert — was about 10 pages long and amounted to a glowing review of interrogation efforts.

"Nobody with expertise or experience in interrogation ever took a rigorous, systematic review of the various techniques — enhanced or otherwise — to see what resulted in the best information," said a senior U.S. intelligence official involved in overseeing the interrogation program.

As a result, there was never a determination of "what you could do without the use of enhanced techniques," said the official, who like others described internal discussions on condition of anonymity.
Former Bush administration officials said the failure to conduct such an examination was part of a broader reluctance to reassess decisions made shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The Defense Department, Justice Department and CIA "all insisted on sticking with their original policies and were not open to revisiting them, even as the damage of these policies became apparent," said John B. Bellinger III, who was legal advisor to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, referring to burgeoning international outrage.

"We had gridlock," Bellinger said, calling the failure to consider other approaches "the greatest tragedy of the Bush administration’s handling of detainee matters."

The limited resources spent examining …

Continue reading. Remember: Hindsight is one of the most powerful tools you have—but only if you use it to inform future efforts.

Written by Leisureguy

27 April 2009 at 4:15 pm

The Right’s peculiar fondness for torture

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From the Center for American Progress:

Last week, President Obama made headlines after suggesting that he would support a "bipartisan" commission to investigate President Bush’s torture crimes, days after he released four Bush-era Office of Legal Counsel memos that detailed torture tactics used by CIA interrogators. These practices include slamming detainees against the wall, cramped confinement, sleep deprivation, the use of insects, and "the waterboard." Asked whether Obama should "investigate whether any laws were broken in the way terrorism suspects were treated under the Bush administration," 51 percent of the public said they would favor such an investigation. Meanwhile, advocates of torture — led by Vice President Cheney — are doing all they can to fill the public debate with misinformation in an attempt to push back against an investigation of Bush national security policies. After years of promoting secrecy in national security, for example, Cheney recently submitted a formal request for documents that he claims prove his point that torture prevented terrorist attacks. Cheney has also made multiple media appearances defending his and his boss’s approval of torture. Today’s Progress Report examines some of the myths about torture being promulgated by several Bush administration officials and other conservatives in recent weeks.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Leisureguy

27 April 2009 at 4:03 pm

Glasses fixed

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I drove up to my optician in Santa Cruz, who fitted a new temple-piece to my regular glasses and also put the temple piece back on the computer glasses. The computer glasses also have spring-action temples, so when the screw was removed, the spring pulled the little part of the hinge back up into the temple part-way. The result was that when you tried to put the temple back on, the holes didn’t line up correctly: there was a bit of overlap, but most of the hole on the temple piece was too far back.

He explained that one uses a special screw in this case: the screw’s point is extended with a (non-threaded) pin, small enough to fit through the overlap of the holes. Then, as you turn the screw, it pulls the holes into alignment and screws in. At that point, you snip off the pin extension.

Or you can put the temple in a vice, pull out the hole, and use a small wedge (a toothpick, for example) to keep it out until the hinge screw can be put back.

At any rate, things are fine now.

Written by Leisureguy

27 April 2009 at 4:01 pm

Posted in Daily life

Swan Lake Chinese style

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Thanks to Constant Reader for pointing out this:

And here’s a pas de deux from the ballet.

Written by Leisureguy

27 April 2009 at 3:53 pm

Posted in Art, Daily life, Video

Who needs bioterrorism when we have manure lagoons?

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Marion Nestle answers this question:

Tom Philpott of Grist reported on Friday that a Chinese company called Cofco—a state-owned food-and-agribiz giant—is thinking of buying out U.S. owned Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, "at a significant premium to its share price."

Of course, that was before the shit hit the spam. Now, we’re suddenly facing a swine flu outbreak, which Philpott aptly describes as "a nasty mash-up of swine, avian, and human viruses. As Philpott subsequently reported on Saturday, the Mexican health agency IMSS suspects the outbreak may be linked to the clouds of flies that thrive in the manure lagoons of the Smithfield-owned industrial hog operations in Vera Cruz, where the swine flu was first detected.

With the World Health Organization warning of a prospective global pandemic, I’m not sure that Cofco is going to be so eager to acquire Smithfield. But supposing they were, do you think it’s a good idea to have the largest industrial hog operation in the world run by the Chinese government?

Continue reading for Prof. Nestle’s answer.

Written by Leisureguy

27 April 2009 at 11:49 am

Good line from Paul Krugman

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From his blog:

So Bobby Jindal makes fun of “volcano monitoring”, and soon afterwards Mt. Redoubt erupts. Susan Collins makes sure that funds for pandemic protection are stripped from the stimulus bill, and the swine quickly attack.

What else did the right oppose recently? I just want enough information to take cover.

Written by Leisureguy

27 April 2009 at 11:34 am

Posted in Daily life, GOP, Government

Sean Hannity will submit to being waterboarded

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He will do it to raise money for charity. Very interesting. More info here.

Unfortunately, though, Sean Hannity is a serial and (so far as I can tell) compulsive liar, so he’s undoubtedly lying about this as well. But if he goes through with it, I’ll certainly donate.

Written by Leisureguy

27 April 2009 at 11:31 am

Posted in GOP, Torture

The coming collapse of the Middle Class

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Constant Reader highly recommends this lecture. Distinguished law scholar Elizabeth Warren teaches contract law, bankruptcy, and commercial law at Harvard Law School. She is an outspoken critic of America’s credit economy, which she has linked to the continuing rise in bankruptcy among the middle-class.

Written by Leisureguy

27 April 2009 at 11:21 am

Gen. McCaffrey calls for investigation

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From Al Rodgers, who has LOTS more in his post here.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about "Gen. McCaffrey calls for investigation", posted with vodpod

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27 April 2009 at 11:16 am

A look back at the last swine flu threat

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Interesting article by Michael Himowitz:

Before public health officials rush into a large-scale vaccination program, they will undoubtedly look at lessons learned from the last public campaign against swine flu.

That began in February of 1976, in the heat of a presidential primary, when a 19-year-old Army recruit at Fort Dix, N.J., suddenly took ill and died.

Four other soldiers were soon hospitalized, and within two weeks, Army doctors said they were looking at an outbreak of swine flu.

At the time, epidemiologists believed that a related strain of swine flu had been responsible for the great "Spanish Flu" pandemic of 1918-20, which killed more than half a million Americans and at least 20 million worldwide.

That’s not so clear today. A recent genetic reconstruction of the 1918 virus by a team of public and private researchers suggests that it was a strain that never actually passed through swine but jumped directly from birds to humans.

The nation’s response was a hasty but ambitious inoculation program with the unprecedented goal of reaching the entire population.

In the end, only 24% of Americans actually got swine flu shots before embarrassed public health officials called a halt to the campaign.

One reason was that the swine flu pandemic they had feared never materialized.

Another was a problem with the vaccine, which was linked to some 500 cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome and at least 25 related deaths from pulmonary complications.

Although most agree that it was a public relations disaster, health historians still debate the merits of the 1976 swine flu vaccination campaign.

Critics call it one of the worst medical boondoggles in modern history. Defenders say it’s a classic case of aggressive public health mobilization that saved the nation from a modern plague.

The 1976 public outcry over swine flu …

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

27 April 2009 at 11:13 am

The Media as courtiers

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Glenn Greenwald peels a strip of hide from Jon Meacham and the media in general. He begins:

One of the few impressive abilities of establishment journalists is their aptitude at so rapidly embracing and so loyally reciting the standard Beltway script of conventional wisdom.  Newsweek Editor Jon Meacham today has a new column on torture and prosecutions that is an almost exact replica of David Broder’s and virtually every other column written by his fellow media stars [on the "torture debate," the Left and Right are the extremes; I’m above all of that and reside in the Serious middle; those who advocate prosecutions are leftists motivated by ugly vengeance; any investigations (like all important government proceedings) should occur only in secret and be devoted only to asking if torture works, etc. etc.].  But Meacham did manage unintentionally to express a thought that so perfectly reflects how they think that it’s worth noting (h/t Retired Military Patriot; emphasis added):

And to pursue criminal charges against officials at the highest levels—including the former president and the former vice president—would set a terrible precedent. . . . That is not to say presidents and vice presidents are always above the law; there could be instances in which such a prosecution is appropriate, but based on what we know, this is not such a case.

Presidents and Vice Presidents aren’t "always above the law" — just most of the time.  It’s possible to imagine some extreme hypothetical case where it might be reasonable to want to impose accountability when the President commits crimes, but such a case is so unthinkably rare — so theoretical — that it’s not even worth describing what that situation might be.  That’s the only view that can be heard on Meet the Press — the masses must understand that it’s wrong to treat Presidents the same way that ordinary citizens are treated when they break the law — and Meacham was on yesterday with David Gregory to deliver that very message without challenge, the second consecutive week that show presented a unanimous panel endorsing presidential immunity for lawbreaking.

Also from Meacham:  prosecuting Presidents for committing crimes would "set a terrible precedent" — but placing Presidents above the law and adopting a bar against holding them accountable for crimes doesn’t set a bad precedent at all, nor does it create any sort of destructive incentive scheme.  If you were the President and were tempted to break the law, what possible reason would you have to refrain from doing so, given your certain knowledge that (as long as the crime did not involve a titillating sex scandal) you’d have the Jon Meachams and David Broders and the other decadent, monarch-worshiping establishment spokespeople to insist that you had the right to do so and nothing must be done when you’re caught?  That’s what passes for reasonable, measured thought among our media elites:  "That is not to say presidents and vice presidents are always above the law."

It just cannot be said enough that our political elites truly do believe that "law" is only for the dirty, filthy masses — but not for them.  It really is that explicit.  Joan Walsh was on Howie Kurtz’s CNN show yesterday and the other guests — The Washington Post‘s Chris Cillizza and former Bush speechwriter David Frum — responded to her like she was from Neptune all because she repeatedly made one point — torture is against the law and therefore those who ordered it, by definition, committed crimes.  This is a point they literally could not comprehend.  That’s because they reject the necessary premise in which this simple proposition is grounded:  that political leaders are bound by what we call "law."  The reason we have become the country we’ve become is because we’ve fallen all the way down to Jon Meacham and David Broder from what, at least in principle, used to guide us — the Hard Leftist, vengeful idea of Thomas Paine: …

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

27 April 2009 at 10:58 am

Remaking American higher education

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Very interesting op-ed by Mark Taylor, the chairman of the religion department at Columbia:

GRADUATE education is the Detroit of higher learning. Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market (candidates for teaching positions that do not exist) and develop skills for which there is diminishing demand (research in subfields within subfields and publication in journals read by no one other than a few like-minded colleagues), all at a rapidly rising cost (sometimes well over $100,000 in student loans).

Widespread hiring freezes and layoffs have brought these problems into sharp relief now. But our graduate system has been in crisis for decades, and the seeds of this crisis go as far back as the formation of modern universities. Kant, in his 1798 work “The Conflict of the Faculties,” wrote that universities should “handle the entire content of learning by mass production, so to speak, by a division of labor, so that for every branch of the sciences there would be a public teacher or professor appointed as its trustee.”

Unfortunately this mass-production university model has led to separation where there ought to be collaboration and to ever-increasing specialization. In my own religion department, for example, we have 10 faculty members, working in eight subfields, with little overlap. And as departments fragment, research and publication become more and more about less and less. Each academic becomes the trustee not of a branch of the sciences, but of limited knowledge that all too often is irrelevant for genuinely important problems. A colleague recently boasted to me that his best student was doing his dissertation on how the medieval theologian Duns Scotus used citations.

The emphasis on narrow scholarship also encourages an educational system that has become …

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

27 April 2009 at 10:52 am

Atheism becoming respectable

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After Obama’s mention of non-believers among US citizens, things have been looking up for non-believers. Laurie Goodstein reports in the NY Times:

CHARLESTON, S.C. — Two months after the local atheist organization here put up a billboard saying “Don’t Believe in God? You Are Not Alone,” the group’s 13 board members met in Laura and Alex Kasman’s living room to grapple with the fallout.

The problem was not that the group, the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, had attracted an outpouring of hostility. It was the opposite. An overflow audience of more than 100 had showed up for their most recent public symposium, and the board members discussed whether it was time to find a larger place.

And now parents were coming out of the woodwork asking for family-oriented programs where they could meet like-minded nonbelievers.

“Is everyone in favor of sponsoring a picnic for humanists with families?” asked the board president, Jonathan Lamb, a 27-year-old meteorologist, eliciting a chorus of “ayes.”

More than ever, America’s atheists are linking up and speaking out — even here in South Carolina, home to Bob Jones University, blue laws and a legislature that last year unanimously approved a Christian license plate embossed with a cross, a stained glass window and the words “I Believe” (a move blocked by a judge and now headed for trial).

They are connecting on the Internet, holding meet-ups in bars, advertising on billboards and buses, volunteering at food pantries and picking up roadside trash, earning atheist groups recognition on adopt-a-highway signs.

They liken their strategy to that of the gay-rights movement, which lifted off when closeted members of a scorned minority decided to go public…

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

27 April 2009 at 10:49 am

Posted in Daily life, Religion

Clinton’s approach to Israel

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Roger Cohen has a good column on the changing US posture toward Israel:

The sparring between the United States and Israel has begun, and that’s a good thing. Israel’s interests are not served by an uncritical American administration. The Jewish state emerged less secure and less loved from Washington’s post-9/11 Israel-can-do-no-wrong policy.

The criticism of the center-right government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come from an unlikely source: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She’s transitioned with aplomb from the calculation of her interests that she made as a senator from New York to a cool assessment of U.S. interests. These do not always coincide with Israel’s.

I hear that Clinton was shocked by what she saw on her visit last month to the West Bank. This is not surprising. The transition from Israel’s first-world hustle-bustle to the donkeys, carts and idle people beyond the separation wall is brutal. If Clinton cares about one thing, it’s human suffering.

In fact, you don’t so much drive into the Palestinian territories these days as sink into them. Everything, except the Jewish settlers’ cars on fenced settlers-only highways, slows down. The buzz of business gives way to the clunking of hammers.

The whole desolate West Bank scene is punctuated with garrison-like settlements on hilltops. If you’re looking for a primer on colonialism, this is not a bad place to start.

Most Israelis never see this, unless they’re in the army. Clinton witnessed it. She was, I understand, troubled by the humiliation around her.

Now, she has warned Netanyahu to get off “the sidelines” with respect to Palestinian peace efforts. Remember that the Israeli prime minister and his right-wing Likud party have still not accepted even the theory of a two-state solution…

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

27 April 2009 at 10:45 am

GOP slow-walks confirmations

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They may not be able to get things done, but by God, the GOP certainly can keep things from getting done. Bart Jansen in Congressional Quarterly:

Tensions are rising in the Senate over President Obama’s nominees, as Republicans delay picks ranging from a Cabinet post to a U.S. Circuit Court judgeship, and Democrats complain that the disputes are slowing important legislation.

Majority Leader Harry Reid , D-Nev., has raised concerns about burning time filing procedural motions to limit debate on a handful of nominees.

The most notable, recent example: Obama’s nomination of Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to be Health and Human Services secretary. Although still expected to win confirmation in a vote scheduled for April 28, Sebelius, a Democrat, has been challenged by Republicans over her position supporting abortion rights. (Story, p. 9)

The weakened Republican minority finds it difficult to amend legislation, but nominations provide opportunities to highlight policy disputes on high-profile issues, including foreign policy and abortion rights. Democrats contend that plodding through confirmation debates followed by protracted votes hinders legislative progress on their priorities, such as health care, energy and economic affairs.

“We can’t do that if we’re stalling on every nomination that comes in front of us,” said Sen. Patty Murray , D-Wash.

“Using these tactics on the floor on simple nominations is not what the American public wants or expects today,” she said.

The latest challenge came April 23, when Reid suggested time agreements for debating several nominations.

In addition to recommending five hours of debate for Sebelius, he suggested four hours of debate on Thomas L. Strickland to become assistant secretary of Interior for fish and wildlife and three hours for David J. Hayes to become deputy secretary of Interior.

But Minority Leader Mitch McConnell , a Kentucky Republican, objected to each proposal.

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

27 April 2009 at 10:42 am

"Throw out fifty things"

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Informative and helpful book review at The Simple Dollar. Good decluttering advice. The review begins:

Whenever I see clutter, I see money lost. For one, the clutter itself is usually made up of unused items that have value. Books, decorations, games, DVDs, and so on – they all cost money to purchase and many have at least some degree of resale value. For another, clutter takes up time, and time is money. It takes longer to find things. It takes longer to clean. It takes longer to rearrange and to organize.

Thus, over time, I’ve begun to look at clutter as an enemy of sorts. Stuff that just takes up space, particularly stuff with very limited aesthetic appeal, is stuff that can easily be eliminated.

That’s not to say that I’m entirely successful in my war on clutter. There are many places in our home that are quite cluttered (starting with my office, for example), but I often have difficulty sifting through that clutter and determining what exactly I should keep – and what I should get rid of.

Throw Out Fifty Things by Gail Blanke offers an interesting solution in the title itself. Blanke’s premise is that by going through your cluttered spaces and choosing fifty things to get rid of, you push yourself through the psychological barriers that cause you to create clutter in the first place.

Blanke identifies four key rules of disengagement (how to decide what to get rid of): …

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

27 April 2009 at 10:36 am

Posted in Books, Daily life

Leadership lessons

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Very nice interview of Richard Anderson (CEO of Delta Airlines) in the NY Times with some life lessons he’s learned. For example:

I’ve learned to be patient and not lose my temper. And the reason that’s important is everything you do is an example, and people look at everything you do and take a signal from everything you do. And when you lose your temper, it really squelches debate and sends the wrong signal about how you want your organization to run. And it was a good lesson. It was a long time ago. And I had a C.E.O. who I was very close to, and he just took me aside and gave me a really short instruction about it. And it was a really important instruction.

Lots more. Read it all.

Written by Leisureguy

27 April 2009 at 10:34 am

Posted in Daily life

Progressivism is increasing

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Interesting article by John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira in The American Prospect:

President Barack Obama’s stimulus package, his joint address to Congress, and his 2010 budget have sent conservatives into fits of indignation over the supposed radicalism of the new president’s agenda. Dusting off red-scare rhetoric from the early years of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, Minority Leader John Boehner declared Obama’s initiatives on energy, health care, and education to be "one big down payment on a new American socialist experiment." At the Conservative Political Action Conference held at the end of February, Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina implored the young activists to "take to the streets to stop America’s slide into socialism." Former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee added, "The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics may be dead, but the Union of American Socialist Republics is being born!" National Review, taking a slightly more measured tone in confronting the specter of collectivist tyranny, asked historians and other academics, "Is Ayn Rand freshly relevant in the Age of Obama?"

How do we make sense of all this righteous anger? Are conservatives tapping into a deep-seated aversion to progressive government among the electorate? Hardly. Not unlike the characters in Rand’s various fantasies of libertarian anarchy, conservatives today are living in an alternative universe. And the sooner they wake up to this reality the better off they will be.

The 2008 presidential election not only solidified partisan shifts to the Democratic Party, it also marked a significant transformation in the ideological and electoral landscape of America. In two major studies of American beliefs and demographic trends–the State of American Political Ideology, 2009 and New Progressive America, both conducted by the Progressive Studies Program at the Center for American Progress–we found that the president’s agenda reflects deep and growing consensus among the American public about the priorities and values that should guide our government and society. Not surprisingly, conservatives are the ones who are out of line with the values of most Americans.

***

The rise of progressivism in America today is reflected most directly in public ratings of various ideological approaches…

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

27 April 2009 at 10:30 am

Interesting census distortion

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Mark Kleiman points out this little trick:

Most of America’s prisons are in poor, rural, predominantly white, Republican-voting areas. The Census Bureau counts people as residents of the place they usually sleep, so prisoners count as residents of their prisons.

But the inmates themselves are more than 50% African-American or Latino. The Census Bureau rule artificially increases the nominal population of those areas (and thus their voting power and share of federal dollars) at the expense of the places the inmates actually come from and will return to. That helps stack legislatures with supporters of more and more incarceration: the repeal of the Rockefeller drug laws in New York was delayed for more than a decade by northern-tier state senators who feared the loss of prison-guard jobs for their actual constituents.

There’s a grim echo here of the "three-fifths rule" under which the voting power of slave-owners was inflated by counting a fraction of slaves as part of the population.

The effect is not a small one: the current prison headcount is 1.5 million. Is is really too late to change the rules before the 2010 Census?

Written by Leisureguy

27 April 2009 at 10:27 am

Broken glasses

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With eyeglasses, the divergence between the interests of the manufacturers and the consumer seem to diverge markedly. I have a pair of Takumi frames that I’ve used for years. I like them because the temple pieces use internal springs to stay tight and the clip-ons are magnetic. But one temple pieces is now useless: the internal spring broke. The frames were expensive—around $300, as I recall, and the lenses (which fit this particular frame) were $400: bifocals with a slab-off, high-index plastic, anti-reflection coated. So about $700 worth of eyeglasses is unusable because of a spring that cost less than a penny.

I realized last night that I could simply buy another temple piece of the right length. It wouldn’t even have to match the other temple-piece: who cares?

Only, of course, opticians—at least the one I went to—are basically order-takers. They don’t, for example, stock spare parts. And the reason for that is simple: manufacturers go to great lengths to ensure that a part of one frame will not work in another. Much better (for them) that you buy an entire new frame than simply replace the temple—and, of course, that involves buying new lenses, since they also take care to design unique lens shapes (the perimeter shape).

So I’m sitting here fuming and thinking that a string might work: tie a loop with a bowline knot, then feed the string through the temple attachment point and tie at knot to make the string the right length. It might work.

In the meantime, I’m working, blurrily, sans glasses.

UPDATE: My Santa Cruz optician is NOT an order-taker but an actual optician. I called, and though the frames are now out of print, he has lots of spare temple pieces that would fit. I’ll drive up this afternoon and let him have a go at it.

Written by Leisureguy

27 April 2009 at 9:57 am

Posted in Business, Daily life

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