Later On

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

Archive for March 26th, 2013

Wired’s weird statement

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Take a look:

You say you want to be alone? Think again. Researchers have found that older people with fewer human contacts are more likely to die—even if they’re happy in their solitude—than are people with richer social lives.

I thought those with tons of human contact still died with 100% certitude—and it doesn’t get more likely than that. “You’re 125% likely to die”? I think not.

I know what the writer (probably) meant, but that’s not what s/he wrote, right?

Written by Leisureguy

26 March 2013 at 3:50 pm

Posted in Daily life, Writing

The reason people believe there’s an afterlife

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I just realized something that’s probably obvious to most: that people believe in an afterlife not because the ego cannot contemplation extinction but because the ego cannot stand the idea of  not being close to those whom we love: getting together again in an afterlife is almost irresistible.

Written by Leisureguy

26 March 2013 at 3:22 pm

Posted in Daily life

SCOTUS and same-sex marriage

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The NY Times has a good summary of the hearing. A couple of things I don’t understand at all:

A. There was a lot of talk of “traditional marriage” (i.e., heterosexual marriages), which I don’t get at all. As I understand it, there is (in effect) no motion on the floor about heterosexual marriage: no objections have been voiced, no attacks on heterosexuals for marrying—-it seems completely unrelated to this case, which is about homosexual marriage. That’s what’s at issue. Heterosexual marriage should not even be an issue.

B. “Going too fast”: As I understand this argument, we should wait and see whether homosexual marriages work before we allow them? But how would you then know? And obviously, heterosexual marriages frequently don’t work and end up in divorce (especially in the Bible Belt states), yet that doesn’t seem to matter all that much. Why should homosexual unions be held to a higher standard? and in any event, how are we to learn what works until we try it? Only by trying halfway houses did we learn that they don’t work. We’ll never learn anything about same-sex marriage until we allow it.

Written by Leisureguy

26 March 2013 at 1:27 pm

Posted in Government, Law

More on money’s distortion field

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I’m beginning to see why money is considered evil by some: it really does seem to encourage socially harmful behavior. Liz Day has a clear example, reported in ProPublica:

Imagine filing your income taxes in five minutes — and for free. You’d open up a pre-filled return, see what the government thinks you owe, make any needed changes and be done. The miserable annual IRS shuffle, gone.

It’s already a reality in Denmark, Sweden and Spain. The government-prepared return would estimate your taxes using information your employer and bank already send it. Advocates say tens of millions of taxpayers could use such a system each year, saving them a collective $2 billion and 225 million hours in prep costs and time, according to one estimate.

The idea, known as “return-free filing,” would be a voluntary alternative to hiring a tax preparer or using commercial tax software. The concept has been around for decades and has been endorsed by both President Ronald Reagan and a campaigning PresidentObama.

“This is not some pie-in-the-sky that’s never been done before,” said William Gale, co-director of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. “It’s doable, feasible, implementable, and at a relatively low cost.”

So why hasn’t it become a reality?

Well, for one thing, it doesn’t help that it’s been opposed for years by the company behind the most popular consumer tax software — Intuit, maker of TurboTax. Conservative tax activist Grover Norquist and an influential computer industry group also have fought return-free filing.

Intuit has spent about $11.5 million on federal lobbying in the past five years — more than Apple or Amazon. Although the lobbying spans a range of issues, Intuit’s disclosurespointedly note that the company “opposes IRS government tax preparation.”

The disclosures show that Intuit as recently as 2011 lobbied on two bills, both of which died, that would have allowed many taxpayers to file pre-filled returns for free. The company also lobbied on bills in 2007 and 2011 that would have barred the Treasury Department, which includes the IRS, from initiating return-free filing. . .

Continue reading. Intuit’s position is so obviously the result of a clear conflict of interest that I don’t know why anyone would pay any attention to it at all—except, of course, for money (lobbyists).

Written by Leisureguy

26 March 2013 at 12:20 pm

Friendly fire from US on BBC journalists at start of Iraq War

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Via Juan Cole’s Informed Comment. Absolutely mesmerizing. Watch the whole thing.

Written by Leisureguy

26 March 2013 at 11:12 am

Posted in Iraq War, Video

Another idea worth a shot proves to fail: State-level tax cuts to boost job growth

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I’m sort of sorry that the halfway house idea didn’t work, mainly because it seemed to make sense. But as I earlier wrote, what stands to reason frequently falls to experience, and thus it was for halfway houses. At least now the money can be better directed: to approaches that are known to work or in testing other approaches.

I earlier commented that money is the black hole of morality: by that I mean money can distort one’s values, so that (for example) one might see executives of the organization that runs the halfway houses trying to pressure the government to continue to spend the money even though the approach has been shown not to work—like people trying to get the government to fund abstinence-only sex ed programs. Or, a well known example, how the tobacco companies lied continuously about the health risks of cigarette smoking for years, simply so they could continue to make money from it. Whenever a true result is hidden, things have gone badly awry. UPDATE: A prominent example: the War on Drugs. It’s demonstrably not working, but those who make money from the war want to keep it going (on both sides of the law).

Perhaps money is like alcohol or food or the like: a certain amount is necessary, a little more can be beneficial, but at some point the benefit is outweighed by the health (physical or psychological) and social costs of consuming so much. Certainly many studies have shown that empathy and honesty and integrity show grave damage as the wealth of the individual increases: the wealthy are more willing to lie, cheat, and hurt others than those with much less money. (In fact, an item in today’s news mentioned the finding that the poor contribute more to charity, as a proportion of their income, than do the wealthy.)

If that is so, a recommended annual amount (of money) would be quite interesting, and it would also be interesting to try to find the point at which damage starts to occur. With food, one can look at weight gain to judge the amount of food one can heat (and of course one should pay attention to nutritional value), but with money we don’t have any easy objective rule of thumb of which I’m aware.

Back to the post topic and title, which refers to another approach that turns out, in practice, to fail, so presumably we’ll be smart enough not to try this again. (Just joking: of course the idea will be advanced again: it’s not about job growth, it’s about cutting taxes so the wealthy can do even less for the common welfare. Money is the black hole of morality.)

Travis Waldron writes at ThinkProgress:

A slew of Republican governors have proposed massive tax cuts that they say will help generate job and economic growth in their states, with some pushing for the abolition of income taxes altogether. That is a misguided approach, though, according to an analysis of past tax cuts from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The five states that implemented deep tax cuts during the 1990s experienced slower job growth over the next economic cycle than states that did not, and none of those states experienced income growth that exceeded inflation, CBPP found:

statetaxcuts

Similarly, the five states that enacted the deepest tax cuts during the boom years of the middle and late 1990s saw job growth over the next full economic cycle (2000-2007) of less than 0.3 percent per year, on average, compared to 1.0 percent for the other states (see graph). They also had slower income growth than the rest of the nation on average.

CBPP’s report also noted that of eight major reports that studied the effects of state-level tax cuts on economic growth, six found that the cuts did not spur growth. Another found inconsistent results and only one supported the idea.

Still, Republicans in KansasOhioIndianaWisconsinNorth CarolinaLouisiana, and Nebraska are pushing massive tax cuts that largely benefit corporations and the wealthy under the banner of boosting economic growth. Those tax cuts will leave lower and middle class families with higher tax rates and fewer services on which they depend. What they won’t deliver, however, is a stronger state-level economy.

Written by Leisureguy

26 March 2013 at 10:40 am

US Drone Campaign in Pakistan: Amazing Infographic (Serle)

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Fascinating post at Informed Comment by Juan Cole:

A new interactive graphic, which uses the Bureau’s drone data, has brought a fresh perspective to the CIA’s nine-year drone campaign in Pakistan.

A team of developers has pulled together every known drone strike and casualty from data provided by the Bureau and New America Foundation. This data has been represented in an interactive timeline which allows the viewer to see how the campaign builds over time, as well as the number of people killed.

Pitch Interactive, a California-based commercial web-development studio, has produced the interactive as part of a pro-bono programme.

The project, Out of Sight, Out of Mind, aims to capture the scale and human cost of the drone war in Pakistan through its visual representation of the CIA’s covert Pakistan drone war from the first event in 2004 to the latest strike.

Wesley Grubbs, who leads the team at Pitch Interactive, told the Bureau that the team set out ‘to cause people to pause for a moment and say “Wow I’ve never seen this in that light before”.’

The visualisation uses an average of the casualty data collected by theBureau’s Covert Drone War project, combined with data collected by New America Foundation which tallies the number of high value targets reported killed in the strikes.

The CIA drone campaign in Pakistan has received much attention in recent months. The debate intensified after last month’s Senate confirmation hearing for new CIA director John Brennan, a leading architect of President Obama’s drone strategy.

Earlier this month Ben Emmerson QC, UN special rapporteur on counter-terrorism, added to the debate after stating that Pakistan did not support the drone strikes. His statement was made following a visit to the country as part of a UN investigation into the legal and ethical framework of drone strikes. Emmerson also said CIA drones had killed 2,200 people in the country including at least 400 civilians, according to Pakistan authorities.

But despite the public debate that has played-out over recent months, Grubbs believes the full scope and consequences of the drone war are still obscured. ’We feel that drone strikes are a very hot topic right now but we feel people are being misled,’ he said.

Click here for the interactive graphic.

Do look at the graphic. It’s amazing.

Written by Leisureguy

26 March 2013 at 10:07 am

Follow the money: The Drug Warriors Cashing In on Pot Prohibition

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Kevin Gray has a revealing article in The Fix:

When eight former DEA chiefs signed a letter to US Attorney General Eric Holder earlier this month, demanding that the feds crack down on Washington and Colorado, the states which voted last November to legalize marijuana, there was more than just drug-war ideology at stake. There was money.

Two of the elder drug warriors, Peter Bensinger (DEA chief, 1976–1981) and Robert DuPont (White House drug chief, 1973–1977), run a corporate drug-testing business. Their employee-assistance company, Bensinger, DuPont & Associates, the sixth largest in the nation, holds the pee stick for some 10 million employees around the US. Their clients have included the biggest players in industry and government: Kraft Foods, American Airlines, Johnson & Johnson, the Federal Aviation Administration and even the Justice Department itself.

“These are not just old drug war architects pushing a drug war model they’ve pushed for 40 years,” says Brian Vicente, a Denver lawyer and co-author of Colorado’s Proposition 64, which legalized marijuana for recreational use. “These guys are asking Eric Holder to pursue prohibition policies that line their own pockets.”

Bensinger and DuPont both deny money is their motive. “It’s true we might benefit from keeping marijuana illegal,” says DuPont. But he argues it’s equally true that marijuana legalization could benefit his bottom line, putting forth the old drug-war line that legalization would create more users. “The more success legalization has, the better it is for our business because they are creating a problem for employers,” he says. “That would be smart for us.” DuPont also points out that only 15% of their business is made up of training employers to detect the warning signs of drug and alcohol abuse and supplying third-party testing. But both men are involved in industry-controlled lobbying groups like the Drug & Alcohol Industry Testing Association, which backed the Drug Testing Integrity Act of 2008, outlawing products that help people beat drug tests and keeping their business healthy.

By inserting themselves into the legal-pot debate, Bensinger, DuPont and other drug warriors benefit by promoting their own legacies and bolstering their own business, lobbying and consulting interests—even in the face of an increasingly skeptical public. A 2011 Gallup survey showed that half of Americans favor legalizing weed. “This letter that they signed is their attempt to once again become relevant within the public policy debate that has largely turned its back on such archaic viewpoints,” says Paul Armentano, deputy director of the pro-marijuana nonprofit, National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

The time-honored revolving door between government and business swings fast and often. It can be straightforward, like the appointment of banking behemoth Goldman Sachs’ alumni as economic policymakers by recent presidential administrations. But when it comes to the drug war, the family tree is more like a thicket of interests among law enforcement, federal and state prisons, pharmaceutical giants, drug testers and drug treatment programs—all with an economic stake in keeping pot illegal.Bensinger and DuPont are longtime allies of the marijuana prohibition group that sent the letter to Holder, . . .

Continue reading.

It just struck me how much distortion of thought and values is caused by money: a kind of black hole of morality.

Written by Leisureguy

26 March 2013 at 10:04 am

Posted in Business, Drug laws

Incomes of bottom 90 percent grew $59 in 40 years

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Natasha Lennard in Salon:

Pulitzer Prize-winner David Cay Johnston has highlighted yet more statistics that illuminate the spike in income inequality in the U.S. in recent decades. Flagging Johnston’s analysis, HuffPo noted Monday, “Incomes for the bottom 90 percent of Americans only grew by $59 on average between 1966 and 2011 (when you adjust those incomes for inflation)… During the same period, the average income for the top 10 percent of Americans rose by $116,071.”

Johnston offered a visual analogy for the disparity in a column for Tax Analysts last month:

The vast majority averaged a mere $59 more in 2011 than in 1966. For the top 10 percent, by the same measures, average income rose by $116,071 to $254,864, an increase of 84 percent over 1966.

Plot those numbers on a chart, with one inch for $59, and the top 10 percent’s line would extend more than 163 feet.

Now compare the vast majority’s $59 with the top 1 percent, and that line extends for 884 feet. The top 1 percent of the top 1 percent, whose 2011 average income of $23.7 million was $18.4 million more per taxpayer than in 1966, would require a line nearly five miles long.

Written by Leisureguy

26 March 2013 at 9:59 am

Posted in Business, Daily life

Setting a maximum wage

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The idea of setting a maximum wage—and linking it as a multiple of average worker pay—strikes me as an excellent idea. Executives can still live quite comfortably, and workers have a reasonable assurance of a good wage. Sam Pizzigati writes at Too Much:

When do societies start taking a new idea seriously? Easy. New ideas start gaining traction when starkly different sorts of people start standing up as their champions.

Just this exact process now seems to be unfolding on the notion some have dubbed the “maximum wage,” the idea that we should limit the income our society’s most exalted executives take home to a specific multiple of the income that goes to ordinary mortals.

Already this winter we’ve seen striking pitches for capping executive incomes emerge from two camps about as different as they could be.

The first came last month with the publication of new environmental movement manifestoEnough Is Enough: Building a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources. The authors — Oregon conservationist Rob Dietz and UK ecological economist Dan O’Neill — have become familiar fixtures at confabs that scruffy tree-huggers frequent.

You won’t find anything the least bit scruffy about the members of the German Corporate Governance Commission. The executives, corporate directors, and economists on this panel hobnob with Germany’s most famous power suits. Indeed, they don’t just hobnob. They define the official national code of conduct that determines how German corporations are expected to behave.

All major German corporations — from Adidas and Bayer to Siemens and Volkswagen —subscribe to this code. Under Germany’s Stock Corporation Act, these companies must declare every year that they remain in code compliance.

Last week, the members of the German Corporate Governance Commission released their latest code amendments. Included in them: a mandate that all German publicly traded firms place a cap on executive compensation, “both in terms of its total amount as well as in terms of its individual components.”This bold recommendation comes on the heels of growing German public outrage over rising executive pay. This public sentiment, Commission chair Klaus-Peter Mueller acknowledges, “has not been without influence on the commission.”

The new German code amendments do not set any specific dollar figure for a national corporate pay maximum. The amendments — set to be finalized this May — leave the specific executive pay maximum up to each corporation.

But Commission members made it clear last week that current pay levels — Germany’s highest-paid CEO, Volkswagen’s Martin Winterkorn, collected $23.7 million in 2011 — have soared far too high.

“The system of remuneration should not be open-ended,” explains Commission member Manfred Gentz, the former board chair at Germany’s largest financial securities trading center.

Germany’s top corporations, adds the German Corporate Governance Commission, should set the soon-to-be-required new executive pay maximums in relation to the rewards that go to ordinary employees.

Some significant industrial enterprises in the world today, Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill point out in their newEnough Is Enough, are already doing just that. In Spain, . . .

Continue reading. Also note the following:

Meet the CEO Who Cut Worker Pay in Half While Pulling in $21 Million Last Year

To End Extreme Poverty, End Extreme Wealth

Written by Leisureguy

26 March 2013 at 9:53 am

How law firms pad the bill

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A smoking gun, reported in the NY Times by Peter Lattman:

They were lawyers at the world’s largest law firm, trading casual e-mails about a client’s case. One made a sarcastic joke about how the bill was running way over budget. Another responded by describing a colleague’s approach to the assignment as “churn that bill, baby!”

The e-mails, which emerged in a court filing late last week, provide a window into the thorny issue of law firm billing. The documents are likely to reinforce a perception held by many corporate clients — and the broader public — that law firms inflate bills by performing superfluous tasks and overstaffing assignments.

The internal correspondence of the law firm, DLA Piper, was disclosed in a fee dispute between the law firm and Adam H. Victor, an energy industry entrepreneur. After DLA Piper sued Mr. Victor for $675,000 in unpaid legal bills, Mr. Victor filed a counterclaim, accusing the law firm of a “sweeping practice of overbilling.”

Mr. Victor’s feud with DLA Piper began after he retained the firm in April 2010 to prepare a bankruptcy filing for one of his companies. A month after the filing, a lawyer at the firm warned colleagues that the entrepreneur’s bill was mounting.

“I hear we are already 200k over our estimate — that’s Team DLA Piper!” wrote Erich P. Eisenegger, a partner at the firm.

Another DLA Piper lawyer, Christopher Thomson, replied, noting that a third colleague, Vincent J. Roldan, had been enlisted to work on the matter.

“Now Vince has random people working full time on random research projects in standard ‘churn that bill, baby!’ mode,” Mr. Thomson wrote. “That bill shall know no limits.”

A DLA Piper spokesman said the firm did not comment on pending litigation. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

26 March 2013 at 9:46 am

Posted in Business, Law

Unequal societies are satisfied with solving problems for the wealthy; others can go pound sand

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Sam Pizzigati in Too Much:

Politicians and bureaucrats “inside the Beltway” that circles Washington, D.C., pundits like to prattle, simply do not understand the challenges of daily life that average Americans face “outside the Beltway.”

But here’s something the pundits have yet to realize: If you really want to understand everyday life in a deeply unequal society like the United States, the best place to look may now be on the Beltway.

Right there on the asphalt concrete, anyone who bothers to look can see all the tensions and frustrations that define daily life in an America ever more divided between a prospering rich and a shrinking, struggling middle class.

The highway officials who run the Beltway stretch that winds through Northern Virginia have just opened up the nation’s latest set of “Lexus lanes.” For a stiff fee, affluent motorists can now zip around the Beltway in “express toll lanes” while their less affluent fellow motorists sit stalled in rush-hour traffic jams.

And those fellow motorists do a lot of stalling. The Washington region has more traffic congestion than any other major metro area in the entire United States. In 2010, the latest national Urban Mobility Report details, commuters in the D.C. area lost an incredible 74 hours to traffic jams. In 1982, by contrast, Washington area commuters lost just 20 hours to slow traffic.Something else fundamental — besides traffic — has changed around Washington since 1982. The area has become substantially more unequal.

The national capital region used to be a middle class haven, a place where average Americans, the Washington Post recalls, could take home “modest but steady paychecks” as federal employees.

But a string of White House initiatives, starting under Bill Clinton and accelerating in the Bush years, have outsourced a heavy share of federal jobs to private contractors. The dollars that the federal government is funneling to these contractors in the Washington area have, overall, quadrupled since 1990.

For average workers, this sea-change in federal employment practice has meant less secure employment and smaller paychecks. For Washington’s “growing upper class of federal contractors, lobbyists, and lawyers,” notes a recent Reuters analysis, this switch has brought a steady gusher of windfalls. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

26 March 2013 at 9:32 am

Posted in Daily life, Government

Religious Trauma Syndrome: How Some Organized Religion Leads to Mental Health Problems

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In my view, the most damaging aspect of any organization, religious or not, is an insistence that certain ideas must never be questioned. This (in my view) damages the spirit of inquiry by crippling (sometimes permanently) curiosity, speculation, investigation, experimentation, and, in general, the ability to learn and grow. Organizations that encourage open inquiry and open debate are, in general, much more healthy (and much more cognizant of reality) than those that cordon off certain areas of thought as never to be investigated or questioned. These authoritarian organizations may or may not be religious: some religions certainly are authoritarian, others not so much—same with businesses, political parties, governments, hospitals, colleges, and any other human organization. The problems that any organization typically encounters are human problems, and these crop up in all contexts. Not all religions are authoritarian, and not all authoritarian organizations are religions. This entire article, though interested, could stand to be generalized to be an article about authoritarian organizations, with this situation as an example.

Valerie Tarico writes for AlterNet:

At age sixteen I began what would be a four year struggle with bulimia.  When the symptoms started, I turned in desperation to adults who knew more than I did about how to stop shameful behavior—my Bible study leader and a visiting youth minister.  “If you ask anything in faith, believing,” they said.  “It will be done.” I knew they were quoting [3] the Word of God. We prayed together, and I went home confident that God had heard my prayers.  But my horrible compulsions didn’t go away. By the fall of my sophomore year in college, I was desperate and depressed enough that I made a suicide attempt. The problem wasn’t just the bulimia.  I was convinced by then that I was a complete spiritual failure. My college counseling department had offered to get me real help (which they later did). But to my mind, at that point, such help couldn’t fix the core problem: I was a failure in the eyes of God. It would be years before I understood that my inability to heal bulimia through the mechanisms offered by biblical Christianity was not a function of my own spiritual deficiency but deficiencies in Evangelical religion itself.

Dr. Marlene Winell is a human development consultant in the San Francisco Area. She is also the daughter of Pentecostal missionaries. This combination has given her work an unusual focus. For the past twenty years she has counseled men and women in recovery from various forms of fundamentalist religion including the Assemblies of God denomination in which she was raised. Winell is the author ofLeaving the Fold – A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving their Religion [4], written during her years of private practice in psychology. Over the years, Winell has provided assistance to clients whose religious experiences were even more damaging than mine. Some of them are people whose psychological symptoms weren’t just exacerbated by their religion, but actually caused by it.

Two years ago, Winell made waves by formally labeling what she calls “Religious Trauma Syndrome” (RTS) and beginning to write [5] and speak on the subject for professional audiences. When the British Association of Behavioral and Cognitive Psychologists published a series of articles on the topic, members of a Christian counseling association protested [6] what they called excessive attention to a “relatively niche topic.” One commenter [6] said, “A religion, faith or book cannot be abuse but the people interpreting can make anything abusive.”

Is toxic religion simply misinterpretation? What is religious trauma? Why does Winell believe religious trauma merits its own diagnostic label?

Let’s start with the basics. What exactly is religious trauma syndrome?

Religious trauma syndrome (RTS) is a set of symptoms and characteristics that tend to go together and which are related to harmful experiences with religion. They are the result of two things: immersion in a controlling religion and the secondary impact of leaving a religious group. The RTS label provides a name and description that affected people often recognize immediately. Many other people are surprised by the idea of RTS, because in our culture it is generally assumed that religion is benign or good for you. Just like telling kids about Santa Claus and letting them work out their beliefs later, people see no harm in teaching religion to children.

But in reality, religious teachings and practices sometimes cause serious mental health damage. The public is somewhat familiar with sexual and physical abuse in a religious context. As Journalist Janet Heimlich has documented in, Breaking Their Will [7], Bible-based religious groups that emphasize patriarchal authority in family structure and use harsh parenting methods can be destructive.

But the problem isn’t just physical and sexual abuse. Emotional and mental treatment in authoritarian religious groups also can be damaging because of 1) toxic teachings like eternal damnation or original sin 2) religious practices or mindset, such as punishment, black and white thinking, or sexual guilt, and 3) neglect that prevents a person from having the information or opportunities to develop normally.

Can you give me an example of RTS from your consulting practice? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

26 March 2013 at 9:11 am

More on the perennially popular topic of spontaneous human combustion

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The prevailing theory in this article by Anneli Rufus at AlterNet is that it’s not spontaneous, though certainly human combustion:

Can bodies burn from the inside out? When human beings are discovered burned to a crisp alone in their otherwise unscathed homes amidst no evidence of mayhem — no telltale blowtorches, cigarettes or Butane — rumors swirl: of mysteries and miracles in which bodies inexplicably burst into flames. It might be an urban legend, sheer magic or divine wrath (hey, it happens in Leviticus), but it is one of the most hotly debated (and hot) causes of death.

The official name of this phenomenon — at least, among those who believe it is a phenomenon — is spontaneous human combustion. Super-supernaturalists — Syfy viewers, say, and exorcists — call it SHC for short. Theories abound. Is the perspiration of heavy smokers and drinkers some kind of natural lighter fluid? Can creosote collect in their lungs, igniting in the mere proximity of extreme heat? According to scientific studies and the kind of people who thought The Blair Witch Project was real, possible culprits include high alcohol blood content, ball lightning, gamma rays, the metabolic molecule acetyl-CoA (aka acetone), and God.

“Autopsy results are pending, but experts say it could be a case of spontaneous human combustion,”  TV station KSLA [3]reported last week after 65-year-old Danny Vanzandt was found incinerated on the kitchen floor of his otherwise undamaged Oklahoma home where the alcoholic chainsmoker lived alone.

Other news agencies chimed in: “Sheriff Rules Out Homicide, But Not Spontaneous Combustion,” blared Arkansas TV channel KFSM [4]. “Police are investigating whether an Oklahoma man died from spontaneously bursting into flames,” echoed Virginia TV channel WTVR. “Possible spontaneous human combustion victim is identified,” announced the Tulsa World. “Danny Vanzandt May Have Died from Spontaneous Human Combustion,” declared the Huffington Post [5].

Such stories surface periodically. Full disclosure: I want to believe them. I want to believe that the spirits of the dead are watching us, and that crows sometimes try to talk to me. I want certain things to defy explanation. Science usually comes along and says “tough nails” to that.

In December 2010, 76-year-old diabetic Michael Faherty wasfound burned to death in his Galway [6], Ireland home. Although the charred corpse lay alongside a fireplace, its head near an open fire, a coroner officially ruled Faherty’s death a case of SHC: Score one for the super-supernaturalists.

The idea of SHC triggers some of our trip-wiriest fears: dying painfully. Dying alone. Dying. The body as its own worst enemy, slaying itself not with the premeditated surrender of suicide but sneaking up unnoticed on itself when no can hear you scream and flash! Surprise. The body as volcano, light show, torch, burning itself out. Saving your loved ones the cost of cremation.

“Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took either of them his censer, and put fire therein, and put incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which he commanded them not. And there went out fire from the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord,” reads Leviticus 10:1-2. “And when the people complained, it displeased the Lord … and the fire of the Lord burnt among them, and consumed them,” Numbers 11:1 helpfully explains.

John DeHaan doesn’t buy the damnation bit. The veteran fire researcher, who has taught forensic science at UC Davis, authored fire-investigation textbooks and spent 40-plus years aiding fire-related criminal investigations, says that the way human bodies are built — with flammable fat sandwiched between very moist, thus flame-resistant, muscle and skin — pretty much prevents their burning from the inside out.

Human bodies do not burn easily even from the outside, even when doused with gasoline, as many murderers have realized to their chagrin.

“There’s absolutely no mechanism I’ve ever seen demonstrated that will cause a body to catch fire from within and burn by itself,” says DeHaan. Through his work with the San Luis Obispo Fire Investigation Strike Team and his own company, Fire-Ex Forensics [7], DeHaan has examined hundreds of charred corpses, and for educational purposes, torched many himself.

“When the first reference everybody drops about a subject is Charles Dickens, you have to wonder about its veracity,” DeHaan says. In Dickens’ novel Bleak House, an alcoholic junk dealer spontaneously combusts, his remains resembling “the cinder of a small charred and broken log of wood sprinkled with white ashes.” This scene is cited frequently as classic literature’s most prominent case of SHC.

“What many people don’t know about Dickens is that he was an ardent prohibitionist,” DeHaan says. “He devoted a tremendous amount of energy to campaigning against the evils of alcohol. He created Krook as an example of the bad things that can happen to an alcoholic.”

As do most scientists, DeHaan credits alleged SHC to the “wick effect,” by which an external ignition source — say, clothes or hair ignited by a cigarette — acts as a wick that splits the skin, penetrating the dermal layers to expose highly flammable subcutaneous body fat, which burns madly, shooting out flames that split more skin, exposing more fat, which burns madly.

“Candlewax burns fine,” DeHaan says, “but only as long as you give it a wick.”

According to his experiments, subcutaneous body fat has a heating value of . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

26 March 2013 at 8:55 am

Posted in Daily life, Science

Colorado cannabis dealers get ready

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T.W. Farnam has a story in the Washington Post:

The pot industry in Colorado is undergoing a massive makeover as it prepares to begin selling marijuana for recreational use legally under state law. Businesses are ramping up production, and trade associations are cleaning up their image, anticipating what could be a billion-dollar industry.

But the entrepreneurs who are hoping to cash in on the “green rush” starting next year are struggling with the unique challenges of conducting a business that the federal government considers a crime.

The state’s pot producers and retailers are having trouble securing business financing because banks won’t give them loans — and most of the time, not even an account.

State lawmakers are about to shake up the marketplace in unpredictable ways with regulations covering everything from the shape of containers to the labeling required for pot-laced brownies and other “infused products.”

And business owners say they’re anxious about the intentions of the federal government, which could seize millions of dollars they have invested or even send them to prison.

At a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said that he would soon announce a response to the initiatives in Colorado and Washington last year legalizing pot for recreational use. The federal government, which deems marijuana a controlled substance, could upend the plans of Colorado entrepreneurs at any moment.

Last year, the state’s voters approved a constitutional amendment to “regulate marijuana like alcohol” for adults to buy in small amounts, building on the state’s 13-year-old law allowing the sale of marijuana to medical patients. Under the new measure, marijuana stores, or dispensaries, must register with the state, but many of the other regulations governing pot sales are still being finalized.

Kristi Kelly, 35, began selling medical marijuana three years ago and plans to grow the business when recreational sales become legal in 2014. Her Good Meds company includes three stores and two industrial indoor gardens.

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

26 March 2013 at 8:47 am

Posted in Drug laws

Barrister & Mann shave soap

with 3 comments

SOTD 26 Mar 2013

I just received my initial order of Barrister & Mann shaving soap. Though a warning that the soap requires more water than one might expect, I found that for me my regular lathering method worked just fine—no added water needed, certainly not to the degree that (e.g.) Mike’s Natural requires.

My Mühle silverfiber shaving brush—a really good synthetic, comparable to good silvertip badger—worked up an excellent lather quickly. Three passes with the ARC Weber holding an Astra Keramik Platinum blade, a good splash of Klar Seifen Klassik aftershave, and the day begins.

Written by Leisureguy

26 March 2013 at 8:30 am

Posted in Shaving

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