Later On

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Archive for May 2010

Bibi and Barack

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Joe Klein at TIME’s Swampland:

Time’s Massimo Calabresi has a fine piece on the thorny relationship between Bibi Netanyahu and Barack Obama, in which he clears the air about what happened at their March 23 meeting in the White House–a meeting that has become the subject of viral rumor-mongering among neoconservatives and assorted Israeli-firsters. Here, for example, is John Podhoretz’s "account" of the meeting:

We still don’t know quite what happened, but it appears that the president came into the room with a list of unilateral demands, that he grew impatient with Netanyahu’s answers, and that he left unceremoniously by claiming he was going to have dinner with his wife and kids but that he would “be around” in case the prime minister “changed” his tune.

The bold-face emphasis above is mine. Because it’s interesting that, from not knowing quite what happened, Podhoretz gets all the way to this:

This is meaningful. It suggests not merely that Obama differs with Israel on matters of policy but also that he takes these differences personally. And that, in turn, demonstrates there is an animus at work here, a predisposition to think badly of Israel—to view the Jewish state at best as an impediment to the good working order of a fairer world and at worst as a sower of discord. This is a bitter truth…

A bitter truth! Oy-freaking-vey! Turns out the actual truth is not so bitter. Here is Calabresi’s account, based on multiple interviews with aides to Netanyahu and Obama:

On March 23, Netanyahu and Obama held a one-on-one in the Oval Office with no staffers. Scheduled for half an hour, it ran 90 minutes, the longest meeting Obama had held with any foreign leader. Much of it focused on Iran and issues unrelated to the peace process. But Netanyahu also put a proposal on the table for East Jerusalem, according to Israeli and American sources familiar with the conversation. Obama thought Netanyahu’s ideas were promising, and the two men continued the discussion with a handful of staffers, then joined a larger group in the Roosevelt Room.

Obama went to the residence for dinner with his family; Netanyahu continued to work on specific language with U.S. and Israeli staffers in the Roosevelt Room. At Netanyahu’s request, Obama returned, in casual clothes, and the two men spent an additional 35 minutes together alone, going over Netanyahu’s proposal for getting past the East Jerusalem impasse. When Netanyahu put his new proposal to his closest Cabinet members days later, they approved it. Netanyahu refused to accept a blanket freeze on eviction, demolition and construction in East Jerusalem, but he broke with previous Prime Ministers and offered to allow the Palestinians to reopen paragovernmental institutions in East Jerusalem, say senior Israeli and American officials. It was a rare moment of unity between two opposing worldviews: a symbolic gesture by Netanyahu that satisfied Obama’s practical needs.

Again, the emphasis is mine. And the truth appears to be the precise opposite of what Podhoretz posited: a moment of hateful–dare I imply, maybe, perhaps,crypto-Muslim, anti-semitic–spite on President Obama’s part was actually a rare, successful negotiation between two allies. It should be noted that Calabresi’s nuanced, balanced account does not gild the lily: there is real tension over Netanyahu’s desire to gobble up all of Jerusalem, in contravention of the Geneva Conventions.

Podhoretz is, thus, peddling the sort of uninformed, nefarious crap that elements of the Jewish community have been slinging about  Barack Obama since he emerged as a potential President. It should be noted, yet again, that Obama’s position on Israeli settlements in the occupied territories is precisely the same as that of every American President since Nixon (though, it must be noted, that George W. Bush mouthed the policy, but didn’t really believe it). As the editor of Commentary, a place where informed argument once took place, JPod presides over a greasy gusher of swill like this on a daily basis. No actual defense of Israeli encroachment onto Palestinian territories is ever broached there. That is because the only defense possible is an imperial one–we took the land, we own it. The Palestinians are barbarians. (And, in the evangelical variant: it’s prophesy. Jewish control of all the Holy Land is necessary for the End of Times to commence.)

In its refusal to reflect on the moral consequences of these actions–and its refusal to engage in a serious discussion of these issues–Commentary stands well outside the Jewish intellectual tradition, a tradition of rigor and the appreciation of philosophical inconvenience, that many of us cherish.

(I will concede this much to Podhoretz: Maybe Barack should have offered Bibi a nice pastrami sandwich…although Netanyahu probably had other dinner plans.)

Written by Leisureguy

31 May 2010 at 4:44 pm

Did the ancient Athenians invent humanity?

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I highly recommend at least the first episode of Greeks: The Crucible of Civilization. I’ll summarize what I got from it, secure in the knowledge that one of my readers is a professional Classicist and can correct my mistakes.

Here’s what happened. In ancient Athens, as in all early civilizations, there were basically two classes: the wealthy and powerful, and everyone else. Everyone else worked from dawn to dusk, taxed a-plenty to support the aristocrats, who in turn bought equipment and trained in the various arts, including war. For almost everyone, you shut up, took orders, and kept your head down.

Pisistratus, one of the Athenian aristocrats, wanted to run the whole show—and he did, for a while, but was ousted. But then he found a tall and beautiful woman in an outlying village. He dressed her in robes, put a helmet on her head, and rode into Athens with her in the chariot, proclaiming that Athena herself was installing him as the absolute ruler of Athens (in the vernacular, a tyrant, but at the time without a pejorative connotation).

Naturally, he anticipated that the aristocrats would sooner or later tumble to the dodge, so he needed backers—and he had a plan. He cut taxes fairly substantially for the common people, and also offered free loans so they could improve their lot. Needless to say, they very much liked Pisistratus—and there were a lot more of them than aristocrats.

Moreover, the free loans and improved productivity greatly improved the olive crop, and Athenian olives were at the time touted as the best. So Athens began to enjoy a brisk trade with other nations, using their navy, their olive oil, and what they gained in trade with Egypt, the Persian Empire, and the Romans and Etruscans, along with trade with other city states.

Things were going well. Eventually Pisistratus was again ousted as tyrant, but again returned. He promoted the arts, saw to it that the Iliad and Odyssey were copied out in their entirety, and in general did a good job.

After he died, his two sons Hippias and Hipparchus took over. Hipparchus was murdered in a political plot, which resulted in Hippias becoming quite paranoid and oppressive (the modern version of a tyrant). Eventually, he was deposed, after exiling and killing quite a few of the Aristocrats. Isigoras, another tyrant, equally oppressive, took over with the help of 40 Spartans and pretty much cleaned house, getting rid of anyone who might be a threat.

In the meantime, some things had changed. First of all, the common people rather liked having a piece of the action and not being worked to death to pay taxes. Moreover, the Greek ideal of heroic deeds was being channeled into the Olympic games. Originally, only aristocrats could participate, but as the games took hold, the natural desire arose to see really the best performances—even if not by an aristocrat. (Cf. the gradual racial integration of sports in America.) You can imagine the conversations: “I won the foot race!” – “Yeah, great. But I bet you couldn’t have beat <commoner>. He’s damn fast.” – “Really?” – “Yeah. I’d love to see him in a race.”

So ultimately the games became a true aristocracy: the best athletes, regardless of social rank, participated, so that a king might end up racing a potter, or an aristocrat throwing against a cobbler. And, of course, sometimes the winner would be from the lower classes, but still honored, recognized, and remembered. This emergence of an egalitarian spirit certainly played a role in what happened.

What happened around 507 BCE was an innovation: the common people spontaneously rose in revolt against Isigoras and his Spartan guards. The latter retreated to the Acropolis, where they were able to hold out for two days. On the third day, Athenians—again, the common people, leaderless—scaled the cliff and vanquished the former ruler and his guard.

Although the movie clearly stated that something like this had never been done before, I was at first doubtful, thinking of many other uprisings and rebellions that preceded. But those, I reflected, were not the same as a spontaneous uprising of the common people. Always before, it was some ambitious leader who stirred up the people, fomented a rebellion, and installed himself in power—no real change in government, just in people.

This was different: the Athenians had done this on their own, without leaders, and they were not particularly eager to install another leader, having just rid themselves of Isigoras. And, as luck (and Isigoras) had it, there were no leaders waiting in the wings to attempt to seize the moment.

So they called Cleisthenes back from exile, and they asked him to figure out where they should go from here—but no rulers, please.

I think surely the nascent egalitarianism of the Olympic games, together with the citizens getting a piece of the action under Pisistratus, made them want to have control over their own lives, not answer to someone else.

Cleisthenes was the perfect guy, as it turned. First, he had them construct a place where the (male) citizens could assemble: big blocks of stone in an open area, laid in giant steps. Then he thought up a way to settle disputes without having a judge or a ruler or a fight: voting. He installed a giant urn, and each citizen could drop in one stone: black for “no” or “oppose”, or white for “yes” or “support”.

So the citizens would gather every 9 days, talk about what was going on and what things required action, and argue about what action to take. And then they would vote.

It worked because everyone felt that they got a chance to make their views heard, and they had a chance to vote for what they wanted. And no one was telling them what to do. (At about this time, the Athenians began to describe people who lived under a ruler as “slaves” rather than “free”, in sharp contrast to the Athenians themselves.)

So this was a great innovation: all citizens participated, and all were involved, and no one was telling them what to do. I believe that this truly initiated the Golden Age of Athens because under this new scheme, every citizen felt free to contribute and innovate, rather than 95% of the citizens working themselves to death and a small minority free to innovate. (Cf. countries in which women are still oppressed—not allowed access to education, not allowed to work other than at domestic chores: those countries in effect discard 50% of the possible advances and contributions that they could have had if women were free. In the case of Athens, it was not just twice as much potential for innovation and creativity, it was twenty times as much: all the citizens instead of just the aristocrats.

But immediately this new idea had to fight for its life: Darius, king of Persia, sent a force of 40,000 to take Athens. Athens responded by calling for every single man in Athens to join in battle on the plains of Marathon—and the response was with spirit. No way were they going back to living under a ruler, as a “slave.” Those who were trained to fight and had shields, armor, and swords, were the core, but every man joined in: with spears, with knives, with sticks, and, I imagine, with a big rock if they didn’t have anything else.

Though they were outnumbered, the Persian Army consisted (in the Athenian view) of slaves—and in fact of soldiers who really didn’t have a dog in this fight. They were there because they were ordered there, and they fought or else. But their hearts were not in it—certainly not like the Athenians, who were determined to die rather than lose their new way of life.

The Athenians slaughtered some 6000 of the Persians, and the rest fled.

Athens—and the new idea—was saved. The story continues, and I’ll leave it to you to view, but I want to point out one more thing. Themistocles fought in the battle of Marathon and then “went into politics”, as it were. He was popular with the Athenians, related well to the citizens, and had good ideas—but he was NOT an aristocrat. He didn’t have their education (and could not, for example, play a musical instrument or write poetry). Indeed, the only way he could have possibly become a leader was because now the Athenians chose their own leaders. He’s among the first generation that grew up in a democracy, which is why “running for office” seemed a natural idea to him. So now, leaders could emerge who previously could only have assumed leadership through some sort of rebellion or civil war.

And, as it turns out, Themistocles was exactly the leader Athens needed.

It strikes me that this little period is when people began to explore the greater possibilities of being human—and to realize the creativity that could be unleashed if every citizen was free to participate in what was going on.

The Wife pointed out that this is a Western view, but I then pointed out the benefits we got from this approach. The first was that great spurt of creativity in Athens, which included the only time that any civilization discovered the idea of proof. And the town meetings in Athens were the source of the Roman Senate, the parliaments of nations today, and the US Congress. And ultimately, along that direction, came the idea of scientific method, possibly the great contribution of Western civilization. And we owe all that to the ancient Athens.

I highly recommend the whole series. I didn’t even touch on the amazing beauty of Athenian pottery—when potters were the lowest of the low, and their pottery was simply a way to hold and transport things. But then—unasked—the potters began decorating the pots, not using repeated geometric patterns, as all other civilizations did, but with naturalistic paintings. Indeed, not only did no one ask for that, no one seems to have been terribly interested at the time. It was a potter’s thing, and the potters did it to one-up each other—and so they got better and better.

I think this visible blooming of a strong sense of individuality and individual authorship probably is a reflection of the new social structure, another way it was changing things: potters could now make more of their own decisions, they could decorate their pots if they wanted, and they were individually creative and aware of their gifts.

UPDATE: The emergence of democracy in Athens seems a lot like a cultural mutation, which came about because previous tyrants had removed all likely leaders, creating a sort of cultural petri dish that would favor such a mutation: when citizens, leaderless, revolted and seized control of the city, for the first time there was the option of continuing without a leader—no one elbowed his way to the front and said, “I’ll take over now,” or if someone did, he was ignored.

The new mutation met an immediate threat, which tested whether it had staying power. And then, as the democracy became established, the new social/cultural environment supported new types of leaders (like Themistocles) and lots and lots of individual creativity, signed works. And think what it must have been like, in every possible field of art and thought, not having to deal with the old guard. From that period on, playwrights have to take into account what has been written before, but at that time: nothing had been written before, and they were doing totally new things—as did Herodotus, who wrote about much of this.

The great bursting forth of creativity in Athens’s Golden Age showed what the new structure could produce, and the fame of Athens ensured that the mutation was documented and could be replicated elsewhere.

UPDATE: I guess the equivalent of what I’m saying: By happenstance, a combination of pre-existing memes and actual events created a very powerful meme in Athens, derived from strong individuality (based in part on memes of heroes) and a sense of egalitarianism: democracy. The result of the meme in that socio-economic milieu was the rapid development and evolution of many more memes, spontaneously erupting as the interaction of the democracy meme with other memes and events.

UPDATE 2: See this post on why the above is naïve and superficial.

Written by Leisureguy

31 May 2010 at 3:46 pm

Posted in Daily life, Politics

The Obama-Gates Department of Detentions

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Scott Horton:

The White House has released its 52-page National Security Strategy (PDF). If you saw President Obama’s West Point speech, you already know the highlights of this policy, and it’s unsurprising if you have tracked foreign policy issues since the 2008 presidential campaign. The strategy can be distinguished from Bush-era policy by its heavy reliance on “soft power,” its recognition of the importance of building and maintaining alliances, and its geeky fascination with the national-security consequences of technology and innovation. The portions dealing with Pakistan and Afghanistan in particular reflect significant shifts in approach. But I join Spencer Ackerman in flagging one strange passage, under the heading of “Strengthen the Power of Our Example”:

The increased risk of terrorism necessitates a capacity to detain and interrogate suspected violent extremists, but that framework must align with our laws to be effective and sustainable. When we are able, we will prosecute terrorists in Federal courts or in reformed military commissions that are fair, legitimate, and effective. For detainees who cannot be prosecuted—but pose a danger to the American people—we must have clear, defensible, and lawful standards. We must have fair procedures and a thorough process of periodic review, so that any prolonged detention is carefully evaluated and justified. And keeping with our Constitutional system, it will be subject to checks and balances. The goal is an approach that can be sustained by future Administrations, with support from both political parties and all three branches of government.

It’s hard to pass by the reference to detaining prisoners “who cannot be prosecuted.” If they’re involved with terrorists, the law provides the tools to arrest and charge them. This is about cases in which the United States has no meaningful evidence that would link the person held to a terrorist group. It looks like an endorsement of indefinitely detaining persons against whom the United States has no evidence of criminal conduct but whom it “suspects” may constitute a threat, usually based on the say-so of the intelligence service of some tyrannical but allied foreign power. That is the very definition of tyrannical conduct, yet here it is perversely touted as an example for emulation by others.

The Obama Administration has failed to provide a coherent justification for its detentions policy. This hasn’t stopped the District of Columbia Circuit—the amen corner for judicial acquiescence in the face of power grabs by the Executive—from giving it a green light to build and expand future Guantánamos, as is shown by the recent exercise in judicial pointlessness called Al Maqaleh v. Gates (PDF). Daphne Eviatar’s recent post discusses the consequences of this decision. In a word, it is a sweeping abdication of judicial responsibility in the face of the Executive’s proposal to build a global prison regime. It’s a death knell for the good old doctrine that the Constitution follows the flag.

The Obama Administration came to Washington promising to clean up the Bush-era detentions policy and make it conform to the clear requirements of law. Then it seems to have decided that the law wasn’t so convenient and that simply providing for unbridled executive authority à la Bush-Cheney wasn’t such a bad idea after all. In terms of Washington power politics, that decision …

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

31 May 2010 at 2:38 pm

Israel launches unprovoked attack on ship in international water, 10-19 civilians on ship killed

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Israel loves the unprovoked attack, apparently. As with the Japanese in 1941, Israel has has declared war by an attack. (I also recall their unprovoked attack on the USS Liberty, also in international waters, in a deliberate attempt to sink the American ship.)

Several reports are below. You’ll note that Israel refers to the persons defending the ship as “attackers.” I would consider the armed intrusion of the Israeli commandos the attack. But Israel always casts itself as the victim,A so the people on board the ship are the attackers.

Here are some reports:

ThinkProgress: Israeli Commandos Raid Gaza Aid Flotilla, Netanyahu Cancels Meeting With Obama

Haaretz: A Special Place in Hell / The Second Gaza War: Israel lost at sea

Greenwald: Israel attacks aid ship, kills at least 10 civilians

Al Jazeera: Deadly Israeli raid on aid fleet

J Street: In Wake of Flotilla Tragedy, J Street Urges Stronger US Leadership to End Conflict Now

BBC: Deaths as Israeli forces storm Gaza aid ship

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31 May 2010 at 2:08 pm

My new Char Griller

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Char Griller 1515 Patio Pro

I just finished assembling this grill. It seems quite well made, though assembly resembles a logic puzzle. Still, I was successful, despite a paucity of lock washers—they were about 10 short. The Amazon comments reflect the mild challenge of correct assembly. (Indeed, reading them I realized I had not attached the hooks—the assembly instructions don’t mention them).

Soon I will venture out and get something to grill on it. But: so far, so good.

Written by Leisureguy

31 May 2010 at 1:45 pm

Posted in Daily life

A close look at Personal Brain

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Personal Brain is another database adapted to free-form text. It’s not an outliner (cf., but it does a similar job. Like Thinklinkr, Personal Brain is platform independent—Thinklinkr does this by running as a Web 2.0 app, Personal Brain by having versions for PC, Mac, and Linux.

James Fallows has a good regard for PB, and here’s a user’s detailed evaluation.

Written by Leisureguy

31 May 2010 at 11:23 am

Posted in Daily life, Software

Menthol fresh

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Very nice shave today: great lather from the Proraso with the Omega. Then three smooth passes with the Apollo Mikron and its Swedish Gillette blade. Finally a splash of Blue Floïd.

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31 May 2010 at 11:20 am

Posted in Shaving

The Right and the ACLU

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I’ve observed before that I think the Right would be the natural supporters of the ACLU, except that the ACLU often ends up defending representatives of marginalized populations that the Right actively hate (the poor, women, people of other races than white and other religions than fundamentalist Christianity, people who have been arrested, outright criminals, etc.). Conor Friedersdorf has a nice post on the how the Right even attacks the ACLU for not taking action (in this case, defending students who wore American-flag shirts on Cinco de Mayo) even when the ACLU is in fact taking action. (The Right has never had much regard for facts, it’s true.) It’s worth reading the column for the various comments from Right-wing voices (Rush Limbaugh, for example), tearing the ACLU a new one for not doing what they are in fact doing.

Written by Leisureguy

30 May 2010 at 10:14 am

Posted in Daily life, GOP, Law

Dump BP?

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Brad Johnson at ThinkProgress:

The latest attempt by BP to shut down its apocalyptic oil gusher — the “top kill” maneuver — has failed, despite BP CEO Tony Hayward’s assurance yesterday that it had a 70 percent chance of success. There’s no question that the federal government, if the president so decides, can take over the challenge of mitigating the damage of BP’s oil to the shores and waters of the Gulf of Mexico. But can President Obama take charge of stopping the wellhead gusher from the foreign oil giant? The administration argues it’s keeping BP in charge of the attempts to shut down the blown out well because government doesn’t have the equipment or expertise to solve this engineering problem without BP:

Adm. Thad Allen, Incident Commander: “To push BP out of the way, it would raise the question, to replace them with what?” [White House briefing, 5/24/10]

David Axelrod, White House adviser: “They’ve got equipment that our government doesn’t have.” [Fox News, 5/24/10]

Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Interior: “This administration has done everything we can possibly do to make sure that we push BP to stop the spill and to contain the impact. We have also been very clear that there are areas where BP and the private sector are the ones who must continue to lead the efforts with government oversight, such as the deployment of private sector technology 5,000 feet below the ocean’s surface to kill the well.” [White House briefing, 5/24/10]

The administration has been keeping an ecological criminal in charge of the crime scene during a national crisis. Seventeen nations have offered assistance — but “the final decision is up to BP” to accept it, according to the State Department — and only Canada, Mexico and Norway have been allowed to help so far. The law — Title 33, Section 1321 — mandates that President Obama “shall direct all Federal, State, and private actions to remove the discharge,” using any means necessary. There are not any resources — people or equipment — that Obama doesn’t have the authority to seize and put into service.

It’s certainly fair to expect that private sector resources may be needed for this disaster, but BP’s only unique qualification for the disaster response is that it is the perpetrator. Although BP is by default a party responsible for implementing the cleanup plan, it is by no means the only possibility. The rig was operated by Transocean; the cementing done by Halliburton; the blowout preventer built by Cameron. Other companies involved in ultra-deepwater drilling include engineering giant Schlumberger, Norway’s nationalized oil company Statoil, Shell, and Chevron.

If the Navy can’t direct the undersea mission after it’s given authority over any needed private resources, it calls into question why we entrust it to operate aircraft carriers and nuclear-armed, nuclear-powered submarines.

Obama does not need to keep working with BP management — like CEO Tony “Very Very Modest” Hayward, BP America president Lamar “No Certainty” McKay, BP Chairman Carl-Henric “Big And Important” Svanberg, or COO Doug “Very Optimistic” Suttles — who have repeatedly laughed off the scale of this catastrophe. If federal officials believe that BP engineers should continue to work on the problem, the President has the authority to have those people working directly for the federal government.

In fact, the president has the authority to nationalize BP America and seize all of its assets, rendering the question of reliance on BP moot. If Obama does not believe that the Clean Water Act’s “spill of national significance” provisions give him sufficient authority, he can rightly declare a national emergency, or demand that Congress deliver him necessary legislation. Or there’s an easier option: BP is on the hook for all costs of this apocalyptic disaster. Obama can simply buy BP America and send the bill to its foreign parent company.

Written by Leisureguy

30 May 2010 at 8:42 am

Reducing salt content in processed foods

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Whenever a measure is taken for the public welfare it is relentlessly attacked by the companies whose profits might be affected. Following the tobacco-struggle years, all industries now seem to follow the tobacco-company playbook: dispute every finding, form seemingly independent organizations (the more scientific-sounding their title the better: "Tobacco Research Institute," for example) to issue reports from hired scientists to contradict every negative finding from actual scientists, and stall, stall, stall—the longer the day of reckoning can be put off, the more time to rake in profits.

The oil and coal industries are using those tactics to fight efforts to combat climate change, and now the salt industry is readying itself to fight restrictions on salt content in processed foods. Michael Moss has an article in the NY Times that describes how the industry’s preparing itself. From the article:

With salt under attack for its ill effects on the nation’s health, the food giant Cargill kicked off a campaign last November to spread its own message.

“Salt is a pretty amazing compound,” Alton Brown, a Food Network star, gushes in a Cargill video called Salt 101. “So make sure you have plenty of salt in your kitchen at all times.”

The campaign by Cargill, which both produces and uses salt, promotes salt as “life enhancing” and suggests sprinkling it on foods as varied as chocolate cookies, fresh fruit, ice cream and even coffee. “You might be surprised,” Mr. Brown says, “by what foods are enhanced by its briny kiss.”

By all appearances, this is a moment of reckoning for salt. High blood pressure is rising among adults and children. Government health experts estimate that deep cuts in salt consumption could save 150,000 lives a year.

Since processed foods account for most of the salt in the American diet, national health officials, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York and Michelle Obama are urging food companies to greatly reduce their use of salt. Last month, the Institute of Medicine went further, urging the government to force companies to do so.

But the industry is working overtly and behind the scenes to fend off these attacks, using a shifting set of tactics that have defeated similar efforts for 30 years, records and interviews show. Industry insiders call the strategy “delay and divert” and say companies have a powerful incentive to fight back: they crave salt as a low-cost way to create tastes and textures. Doing without it risks losing customers, and replacing it with more expensive ingredients risks losing profits.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Leisureguy

30 May 2010 at 8:35 am

Monday shave today

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I didn’t shave yesterday, which was a take-it-easy day, but since we’re seeing other friends today, out came the tools:

The Edwin Jagger synthetic-bristle brush generated an extremely good lather from the Kell’s Original Energy shave stick. As you can see, he perhaps should look to finding better label technology.

The Pils, Swedish Gillette blade loaded, did its usual great job, and New York remains a favorite aftershave.

Written by Leisureguy

30 May 2010 at 8:26 am

Posted in Shaving

Interesting conversation with a reader

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Not mine, but Trent Hamm’s: he writes The Simple Dollar.

I think this post is worth reading.

Written by Leisureguy

29 May 2010 at 6:43 pm

Posted in Daily life

Dark times for civil rights and individual freedom

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Glenn Greenwald has three columns about the very bad direction the US is taking in the area of civil liberties and Executive Power. I highly recommend them, and I would appreciate a comment pointing out any instances of narcissism on Greenwald’s part.

The reason for this request is that I fairly often see a comment on how narcissistic Greenwald is, but only the conclusion is stated, never the evidence. And I just don’t see it. I readily admit I could be missing it, which  is why I’m asking for those who do see it to point out the evidence.

To help, this post contains a list of the DSM criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and the evidence I saw for Bush fitting that description. In other words, I didn’t back then say, "Bush is narcissistic," I pointed out evidence that led to the conclusion. That seems better than just stating the conclusion.

Here are the Greenwald columns that strike me as thoroughly worth reading:

A disgrace of historic proportions

Who are the real "crazies" in our political culture?

Pure Kafka

Written by Leisureguy

29 May 2010 at 5:44 pm

Is Wikipedia reliable?

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The question arose in conversation whether Wikipedia is reliable or not. As stated, the proposition is misleadingly phrased: reliability, unlike (say) pregnancy, is a matter of degree, not of yes/no, is/is not.

So, then, phrasing the question properly: to what degree is Wikipedia reliable? The answer is: pretty reliable. While no one (with any sense) would base important research or a critical paper on material taken directly from Wikipedia, for non-critical information, it’s plenty reliable enough. For example, I just tried a terrific sauce that was labeled Moroccan Harissa. I didn’t think twice about looking up “harissa” in Wikipedia.

Take a look at the entry. First, there’s a perfectly ample description to satisfy one’s curiosity. Moreover, the references on which the article is based are provided:

  1. Malouf, Lucy (2008). Artichoke to Za’atar: Modern Middle Eastern Food. U of California P. p. 66. ISBN 9780520254138.
  2. Morse, Kitty; Laurie Smith (1998). Cooking at the kasbah: recipes from my Moroccan kitchen. Chronicle Books. p. 39. ISBN 9780811815031.
  3. Fayed, Saad. “Flank Steak with Harissa”. Retrieved 2009-08-02.]
  4. “Baby Eggplant with Harissa and Mint”. Ashbury’s Aubergines. Retrieved 2009-08-02. [1]

So that’s good: I can check the article’s consistency with the sources. Moreover, since I use Google Chrome with the World of Trust extension, each link is marked by a World of Trust symbol that indicates to what degree the site can be trusted.

And the “external links” (i.e., links unused in the article) are also useful:

Finally, two notes that indicate how Wikipedia is a process:

This condiment-related article is a stub. You can help Wikipedia by expanding it.

This Arab cuisine-related article is a stub. You can help Wikipedia by expanding it.

I think that is quite impressive. And, for daily life, who could want more? Moreover, sooner or later, a person who knows more about the topic will come along and revise and extend the entry—in much the same way that obvious errors are quickly corrected.

Contentious articles (e.g., politically sensitive) do get quite a bit of churning, but one would expect that and treat those more gingerly, perhaps using them only for what can be learned from the links. And those articles generally are closely monitored by the editors and sometimes locked down to prevent changes until things settle down.

Written by Leisureguy

29 May 2010 at 5:33 pm

Posted in Daily life

What I like to swill

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I have double-walled glasses that hold 1 British pint (20 oz), into which I put:

  • juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 1/2 c. Whole Foods pomegranate juice

Fill half the space remaining with Whole Foods brand Italian sparkling mineral water and the other half with Tejava tea, both of which I keep in the fridge.

Extremely tasty, and pomegranate juice (@ 3 oz/day) has been shown to improve arterial health.

Written by Leisureguy

29 May 2010 at 5:17 pm

Highly recommended: Ploesti: The Great Ground-Air Battle of 1 August 1943

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As regular readers know, I seldom make a recommendation, but in this case I feel that I must. I’m reading again Ploesti: The Great Ground-Air Battle of 1 August 1943 (link to secondhand hardbound copies—and it’s worth getting in hardback).

The epigraph to the book:

In Tsarist times a game of courage called Kukushka was played late at night in garrisons in Caucasia and Siberia. Two officers stood in adjoining rooms with an open door between. One had a pistol, the other had not. At a signal, the lights were extinguished. The unarmed player opened the contest by dashing toward the door, yelling "Kukushka!" The rules permitted him to go through it straight or diagonally, left or right, couching or leaping. His opponent’s problem was to shoot him as he came through the door.

— Othmar Gurtner, The Myth of the Eigerwald

And the epigraph to the opening chapter:

He who owns the oil will own the world, for he will rule the sea by means of the heavy oils, the air by means of the ultra-refined oils, and the land by means of petrol and the illuminating oils. And, in addition to these, he will rule his fellow men in an economic sense, by reason of the fantastic wealth he will derive from oil.

— Henri Bérenger, 1921

Truly a book worth reading.

Written by Leisureguy

29 May 2010 at 3:14 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life, Military

New drugs coming to help autistics

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Celeste Biever in New Scientist:

CAN people with autism take a pill to improve their social skills? For the first time, drugs are being tested that could address the social difficulties associated with autism and other learning disorders by tackling some of the brain chemistry thought to underlie them.

The only drugs currently prescribed to people with autism seek to dampen aggression and anxiety. The new drugs, now in the very early stages of clinical testing, address some of the classic symptoms of autism.

"People may learn more, learn to speak better, learn social skills and to be more communicative," says Randall Carpenter of Seaside Therapeutics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is testing one of the drugs.

Geraldine Dawson, chief science officer at the charity Autism Speaks and a psychiatrist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is equally enthusiastic about the prospect of a new class of drugs. "For the first time we are seeing drugs that could tackle core autism symptoms," she says…

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

29 May 2010 at 2:44 pm

Bisphenol-A: it’s still everywhere in your food

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Marion Nestle at Food Politics:

A coalition of public health and environmental groups, collectively known as the National Workgroup for Safe Markets, has produced a report on the amounts of Bisphenol A (BPA) in canned foods: No Silver Lining: An Investigation into Bisphenol A in Canned Foods.

What did it find?  BPA in 92% of the foods sampled.  Most canned foods are lined with BPA plastic, and it leaches into the foods.

I’ve discussed concerns about the health effects of BPA in previous posts.  Here is an update on attempts to get rid of it.

To put all this in context, take a look at Jerome Groopman’s New Yorker article,The Plastic Panic: How Worried Should We Be About Everyday Chemicals? He isn’t exactly sure, but points out how difficult it is to test the health effects of any one of many chemicals in our environment–flame retardants and plastics among them–and how far regulation lags in dealing with this problem.  He concludes:

How do we go forward? Flame retardants surely serve a purpose, just as BPA and phthalates have made for better and stronger plastics. Still, while the evidence of these chemicals’ health consequences may be far from conclusive, safer alternatives need to be sought. More important, policymakers must create a better system for making decisions about when to ban these types of substances, and must invest in the research that will inform those decisions. There’s no guarantee that we’ll always be right, but protecting those at the greatest risk shouldn’t be deferred.

Given the evidence brought forth to date on BPA, I’d call this an understatement.

Written by Leisureguy

29 May 2010 at 2:37 pm

Why Pakistan needs the Separation of Religion and State

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The Tea Party and the Religious Right would like to abolish the separation of church and state. They in effect want the government to get into the Christian religion business, though they don’t specific the sect the government should choose as a model, a major oversight. Different Christian sects have serious disagreements and are often at daggers drawn: Northern Ireland is an example, with Protestant Christians and Catholic Christians killing each other with great satisfaction. In fact, let me quote this paragraph from Charles Reade’s wonderful book The Cloister and the Hearth:

Soon after this a fellow-enthusiast came on the scene in the unwonted form of an old lady. Margaret, sister and survivor of the brothers Van Eyck, left Flanders, and came to end her days in her native country. She bought a small house near Tergou. In course of time she heard of Gerard, and saw some of his handiwork: it pleased her so well that she sent her female servant, Reicht Heynes, to ask him to come to her. This led to an acquaintance: it could hardly be otherwise, for little Tergou had never held so many as two zealots of this sort before. At first the old lady damped Gerard’s courage terribly. At each visit she fished out of holes and corners drawings and paintings, some of them by her own hand, that seemed to him unapproachable; but if the artist overpowered him, the woman kept his heart up. She and Reicht soon turned him inside out like a glove: among other things, they drew from him what the good monks had failed to hit upon, the reason why he did not illuminate, viz., that he could not afford the gold, the blue, and the red, but only the cheap earths; and that he was afraid to ask his mother to buy the choice colours, and was sure he should ask her in vain. Then Margaret Van Eyck gave him a little brush–gold, and some vermilion and ultramarine, and a piece of good vellum to lay them on. He almost adored her. As he left the house Reicht ran after him with a candle and two quarters: he quite kissed her. But better even than the gold and lapis-lazuli to the illuminator was the sympathy to the isolated enthusiast. That sympathy was always ready, and, as he returned it, an affection sprung up between the old painter and the young calligrapher that was doubly characteristic of the time. For this was a century in which the fine arts and the higher mechanical arts were not separated by any distinct boundary, nor were those who practised them; and it was an age in which artists sought out and loved one another. Should this last statement stagger a painter or writer of our day, let me remind him that even Christians loved one another at first starting.

But perhaps our Religious Right could look at Pakistan and see what happens when religion is combined with government. Juan Cole:

… The horrifying assault on the Ahmadi congregations underlines why Pakistan needs a separation of religion and state. The problem with using Islam as the state ideology (as the country’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah clearly foresaw) is that there is no generic Islam. If a strict Sunnism of a revivalist or Salafi sort is the orthodoxy, then Twelver Shiites, Ismailis, Ahmadis and Sufis will be disadvantaged. I would argue that these latter groups taken together constitute a majority of the country (most Pakistanis are Sufis, and most Sufis are Sunni, but fundamentalist Sunnism despises mystical Sufism, which strives for spiritual union of the believer with the divine beloved)…

Read the whole thing. It doesn’t take much to imagine the bloody struggles between different sects of Christians—indeed, we have only to look at history. Nothing a sect of Christians seems to like more than the wholesale slaughter of another sect (who are always labeled “heretics”, so it’s okay to kill them).

Written by Leisureguy

29 May 2010 at 2:30 pm

Beinart’s critique of Israel, with response by the Anti-Defamation League

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I earlier blogged about Beinart’s article, and now the New York Review of Books has published a response and discussion.

Worth reading.

Written by Leisureguy

29 May 2010 at 2:18 pm

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