Later On

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

Archive for January 12th, 2015

The rapid decline of the US as a cultural force

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The “soft power” of the US is in sharp decline because other countries increasingly see the US as crazy. Ann Jones has an interesting article at (scroll down at the link to get to the article):

Americans who live abroad — more than six million of us worldwide (not counting those who work for the U.S. government) — often face hard questions about our country from people we live among. Europeans, Asians, and Africans ask us to explain everything that baffles them about the increasingly odd and troubling conduct of the United States.  Polite people, normally reluctant to risk offending a guest, complain that America’s trigger-happiness, cutthroat free-marketeering, and “exceptionality” have gone on for too long to be considered just an adolescent phase. Which means that we Americans abroad are regularly asked to account for the behavior of our rebranded “homeland,” now conspicuously in decline and increasingly out of step with the rest of the world.

In my long nomadic life, I’ve had the good fortune to live, work, or travel in all but a handful of countries on this planet.  I’ve been to both poles and a great many places in between, and nosy as I am, I’ve talked with people all along the way. I still remember a time when to be an American was to be envied. The country where I grew up after World War II seemed to be respected and admired around the world for way too many reasons to go into here.

That’s changed, of course. Even after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, I still met people — in the Middle East, no less — willing to withhold judgment on the U.S.  Many thought that the Supreme Court’s installation of George W. Bush as president was a blunder American voters would correct in the election of 2004. His return to office truly spelled the end of America as the world had known it.  Bush had started a war, opposed by the entire world, because he wanted to and he could. A majority of Americans supported him.  And that was when all the uncomfortable questions really began.

In the early fall of 2014, I traveled from my home in Oslo, Norway, through much of Eastern and Central Europe. Everywhere I went in those two months, moments after locals realized I was an American the questions started and, polite as they usually were, most of them had a single underlying theme: Have Americans gone over the edge? Are you crazy? Please explain.

Then recently, I traveled back to the “homeland.”  It struck me there that most Americans have no idea just how strange we now seem to much of the world. In my experience, foreign observers are far better informed about us than the average American is about them. This is partly because the “news” in the American media is so parochial and so limited in its views both of how we act and how other countries think — even countries with which we were recently, are currently, or threaten soon to be at war. America’s belligerence alone, not to mention its financial acrobatics, compels the rest of the world to keep close track of us.  Who knows, after all, what conflict the Americans may drag you into next, as target or reluctant ally?

So wherever we expatriates settle on the planet, we find someone who wants to talk about the latest American events, large and small: another country bombed in the name of our “national security,” another peaceful protest march attacked by our increasingly militarized police, another diatribe against “big government” by yet another wannabe candidate who hopes to head that very government in Washington.  Such news leaves foreign audiences puzzled and full of trepidation.

Question Time

Take the questions stumping Europeans in the Obama years (which 1.6 million Americans residing in Europe regularly find thrown our way).  At the absolute top of the list: “Why would anyone oppose national health care?” European and other industrialized countries have had some form of national health care since the 1930s or 1940s, Germany since 1880.  Some versions, as in France and Great Britain, have devolved into two-tier public and private systems.  Yet even the privileged who pay for a faster track would not begrudge their fellow citizens government-funded comprehensive health care. That so many Americans do strikes Europeans as baffling, if not frankly brutal.

In the Scandinavian countries, long considered to be the most socially advanced in the world, a national (physical and mental) health program, funded by the state, is a big part — but only a part — of a more general social welfare system.  In Norway, where I live, all citizens also have an equal right to education (state subsidized preschool from age one, and free schools from age six through specialty training or university education and beyond), unemployment benefits, job-placement and paid retraining services, paid parental leave, old age pensions, and more.  These benefits are not merely an emergency “safety net”; that is, charitable payments grudgingly bestowed upon the needy.  They are universal: equally available to all citizens as human rights encouraging social harmony — or as our own U.S. constitution would put it, “domestic tranquility.”  It’s no wonder that, for many years, international evaluators have ranked Norway as the best place to grow old, to be a woman, and to raise a child. The title of “best” or “happiest” place to live on Earth comes down to a neighborly contest among Norway and the other Nordic social democracies, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland.

In Norway, all benefits are paid for mainly by high taxation. Compared to the mind-numbing enigma of the U.S. tax code, Norway’s is remarkably straightforward, taxing income from labor and pensions progressively, so that those with higher incomes pay more. The tax department does the calculations, sends an annual bill, and taxpayers, though free to dispute the sum, willingly pay up, knowing what they and their children get in return. And because government policies effectively redistribute wealth and tend to narrow the country’s slim income gap, most Norwegians sail pretty comfortably in the same boat. (Think about that!)

Life and Liberty

This system didn’t just happen. It was planned. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 January 2015 at 2:25 pm

Posted in Daily life, Government

How men shave

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The poll is still open, but I was interested to see how it’s shaping up:

Screen Shot 2015-01-12 at 1.46.46 PM

I was sure there would be at least one “ATG only” shaver in the bunch, since I’ve seen comments from a few who do a single pass against the grain (ouch!!), but apparently Shave Nook members are more careful.

I think the XTG ATG makes a good “spruce-up” shave for a man who shaves in the morning but has an evening event where he wants to look good.

You can see that XTG XTG other way is used by several to avoid ATG—men who tend to get in-growns are advised to avoid shaving ATG in areas in which in-growns are likely. The two XTG passes, one in each direction, can achieve good smoothness, especially with a very efficient razor. (See this list.)

Written by LeisureGuy

12 January 2015 at 1:55 pm

Posted in Shaving

Why the Arab World Fights

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Very interesting potted history of the Arab world, by William Pfaff in The American Conservative:

Since the Ottoman Empire’s collapse in the First World War, Arab Islamic civilization has been deep in a crisis that can only be resolved from within. Its character is both political and religious and might be compared with the Thirty Years’ War in Europe that ended in 1648 in the Westphalian Settlement, which created a new international system of national sovereignties and, in religion, acceptance of the Augsburg principle (1555) of cuius regio, eius religio. Roughly speaking, these terms have prevailed in the West to the present day, notwithstanding a sinister 20th-century totalitarian interlude.

The unexpected appearance of what claims to be the new Islamic Caliphate—sweeping all before it, its atrocities demonstrating its power and ruthlessness, its avowed destiny the restoration of an Islamic Golden Age—should not be seen as anything new in imperialist and post-imperialist history. It is astonishing that the debate in Western circles on what (or what not) to do about ISIS has seemed largely innocent of history and indifferent to the pattern of consistent futility and failure in the West’s efforts to impose its will on the non-Western world. A new movement that claims to restore the lost power and glories of Islam, however unconvincing this claim may be, is actually the ultimate stage in the crisis that has afflicted the Arab Muslim civilization since its loss of unity in the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, the last political manifestation of a united Islam.

One is constantly told that history must be consulted in order to understand the present, but in practice that rarely is done with an open mind.

The rise of a radical popular movement demanding that a lost golden age be restored to a fragmented and culturally distraught society occurred at least twice in 19th-century China (the Taiping and Boxer rebellions) and in colonial India (the so-called Sepoy Mutiny) and Sudan (with the Mahdi Mohamed Ahmed, a messianic purifier of Islam who captured Khartoum in 1885 and murdered General Charles Gordon), to take only the best known instances of such uprisings against imperial powers.

The phenomenon has appeared in post-colonial Africa: what else is the terrible Lord’s Resistance Army of children in Uganda, or other radical movements such as Boko Haram, classified in Western capitals as merely “terrorist”? Their power lies in that they are motivated by versions or perversions of religion.

All are political expressions of probably the most important recurrent phenomenon of history itself: the search for the key to the Millennium, common to sophisticated as well as simple societies throughout history. What do people think Communism was, and in fragmented forms remains today? It proposed a method for engineering what Communists—the Comintern and the Soviet and other governments—promised, and indeed believed: the coming of the Great Day when virtue incarnate would manifest itself in a transformed future condition of permanent happiness conferring justice and happiness upon an afflicted people. It is secular religion.

This is a modern phenomenon. In the West during the medieval Age of Religion the promised paradise was held to exist outside of time and would only be opened at the end of the dolor of earthly existence by the arrival of the Messiah. The Millennium marked the end of secular time, when human history would have run its course and the “Thousand Years” of heavenly reign begun—as promised in the Book of Revelation. Marxism was the secular translation of that religious promise, promulgated by the new prophets: Marx himself, Engels, Mao Tse-tung. A secularized prophecy was necessary because God had been assassinated in the European Enlightenment.

That is not the view held in Islam. The Emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, supposedly Islam’s new caliph, awaits fulfillment of the promises of the Prophet Muhammad, which like those of Christianity are intemporal.

The Islamic Caliphate proclaimed in August declares itself eager to attack the West and especially the United States, as well as the West’s heretical Arab allies, notably the American-linked Shia state of Iraq and the established Sunni claimant to Wahhabi primacy, Saudi Arabia. The Sunni-Shia conflict inside Islam is widening and increasingly embittered, promoted by big and rich Islamic states, Sunni Saudi Arabia, Sunni Qatar, and Shia Iran among them. There is plenty of war now in the Middle East, but it currently is nearly all confined within Islamic society and is mainly generated by the ancient religious dispute over the true doctrinal legacy of the Prophet, with subsequent and subordinate political motivations. It is better to leave it there.

Why have American opposition politicians been determined that Barack Obama show his mettle by going to war again? Iraq and Syria in their civil struggles, Hezbollah against Israel, Sunni rebels and Alawite rulers in Syria, all have by now demonstrated that they are formidable fighters against their enemies. The only one recently to fail was the new Iraq army, after a decade of American training: undoubtedly the result of the Iraq government’s incapacity to establish the loyalty and national conviction that bind an army to a state and its people. This is a political failure, a consequence of the George W. Bush administration’s witless destruction of the secular Iraq that existed before 2003. . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

12 January 2015 at 1:19 pm

The New Science of Building Great Teams

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Another work-oriented post, this one by Alex Pentland in the Harvard Business Review:

If you were looking for teams to rig for success, a call center would be a good place to start. The skills required for call center work are easy to identify and hire for. The tasks involved are clear-cut and easy to monitor. Just about every aspect of team performance is easy to measure: number of issues resolved, customer satisfaction, average handling time (AHT, the golden standard of call center efficiency). And the list goes on.

Why, then, did the manager at a major bank’s call center have such trouble figuring out why some of his teams got excellent results, while other, seemingly similar, teams struggled? Indeed, none of the metrics that poured in hinted at the reason for the performance gaps. This mystery reinforced his assumption that team building was an art, not a science.

The truth is quite the opposite. At MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory, we have identified the elusive group dynamics that characterize high-performing teams—those blessed with the energy, creativity, and shared commitment to far surpass other teams. These dynamics are observable, quantifiable, and measurable. And, perhaps most important, teams can be taught how to strengthen them.

Looking for the “It Factor”

When we set out to document the behavior of teams that “click,” we noticed we could sense a buzz in a team even if we didn’t understand what the members were talking about. That suggested that the key to high performance lay not in the content of a team’s discussions but in the manner in which it was communicating. Yet little of the research on team building had focused on communication. Suspecting it might be crucial, we decided to examine it more deeply.

For our studies, we looked across a diverse set of industries to find workplaces that had similar teams with varying performance. Ultimately, our research included innovation teams, post-op wards in hospitals, customer-facing teams in banks, backroom operations teams, and call center teams, among others.

We equipped all the members of those teams with electronic badges that collected data on their individual communication behavior—tone of voice, body language, whom they talked to and how much, and more. With remarkable consistency, the data confirmed that communication indeed plays a critical role in building successful teams. In fact, we’ve found patterns of communication to be the most important predictor of a team’s success. Not only that, but they are as significant as all the other factors—individual intelligence, personality, skill, and the substance of discussions—combined. . .

Continue reading.

There’s quite a bit more, including a video to explain the patterns that work and those that do not.

A sidebar to the article:

Written by LeisureGuy

12 January 2015 at 12:53 pm

My life was changed when I began caring about the people I did not hire

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Fascinating post by Brooke Allen:

Ask yourself this question, “What do employers owe the people they do not hire?” I asked myself that question more than a decade ago and it changed my life forever.

On Sunday, January 18, 2004, I ran a help-wanted ad in the New York Times that read in its entirety, “Programmer – Will train, enjoyment of mathematics a plus” followed by an email address. I was heading a statistical arbitrage trading desk and I needed help maintaining all the code I’d written.

I was surprised to get more than 300 resumes and because nobody had experience in the language we use (APL), and I could not gauge learning potential from a resume, I sent everyone a link to a 500-page manual (latest version available here), and I suggested applicants try their hand at a half-dozen puzzle questions they could easily answer in this language.

Thirty-eight people answered the questions so I invited them in for an open house. I had them sit on our trading floor for a bit where they played a game I’d written called BF Game that simulated an information market. We talked about the technology and the nature of our work and then I asked them what they thought I should do next.

Twenty-seven of the applicants suggested I teach them all first and then make a hiring decision, so I ordered tables and chairs that arrived the next day. And the day after that we built a classroom.

A friend  gave them two days of formal training in APL and then I left them alone for three weeks with some pretty difficult problems. These included the  automation of investment, liquidation, and index arbitrage strategies in BF Game, and the creation of a Bayesian statistical technique for analyzing the words in Tom Sawyer so as to calculate a probability that a given passage comes from Huckleberry Finn.

Within a week they’d created an on-line community on Yahoo with 73 members who volunteered to help them with their project including an out-sourcing company in St. Petersburg, Russia, that sent all their training materials (in English), an author in England who sent a draft of a forthcoming textbook, and numerous trading experts who helped them develop strategies. These eager students opened my eyes to a new way of collaboratively solving problems.

Three weeks later the class had met all my challenges and now I had two problems:

  1. How do I pick someone to hire?
  2. How do I help the people I don’t  hire?

I brought my candidates in asked one question, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 January 2015 at 12:39 pm

Dallas’s historically low murder rate can teach us about policing

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Radley Balko writes in the Washington Post:

Here at The Watch, we’ve praised Dallas Police Chief David Brown and his staff for the department’s community-oriented approach to policing, openness and transparency about excessive force, its rejection of law enforcement as a revenue generator, and its First Amendment-friendly approach to protest.

Now, there’s some evidence of a payoff.

Dallas’ 2014 murder rate was its lowest since 1930 — the year Bonnie and Clyde met at a West Dallas house party.

And the Dallas Police Department’s preliminary count of 116 murders last year — there is one unexplained death awaiting a ruling — would be the lowest yearly murder tally since 1965. It’s also a notable drop from the 143 murders in 2013 and it’s fewer than half the murders recorded in 2004.

Police officials say their crime-fighting and crime-prevention strategies have played a major role in reducing homicides, the rarest of major crimes. Others say outside variables — medical advancements, changing demographics and better social services — deserve much of the credit.

But they all are marveling at the figures.

“I’m really amazed at how low that number has gotten,” said Dallas ISD Police Chief Craig Miller, who became a Dallas police officer in 1982 and later headed the homicide unit.

Miller said police technology, such as surveillance cameras, has helped deter criminals. He also said paramedics and better trauma care have played big roles. Dallas Fire-Rescue has touted improved response times in recent years. And officers also are now equipped with tourniquets and gauze. One officer used the aids last week to help save a gunshot victim in South Dallas.

But it isn’t just the murder rate; the overall crime rate also continues to drop in Dallas.

In general, I think there’s too much of a tendency to credit or blame policing tactics for crime rates. The massive crime drop we’ve seen across the country since the mid-1990s occurred in places that both did and didn’t engage in mass incarceration, did and didn’t engage in “broken windows”-style policing, did and didn’t commit to real community-oriented policing, did and didn’t use a widespread stop-and-frisk policy, and so on. It’s quite possible that the drop had nothing to do policing strategy at all and instead was the product of rising standards of living, an aging population, or even environmental factors like a decrease in childhood exposure to lead.

None of which is to say we don’t need cops — only that crime rates may well be driven more by larger, society-wide trends than individual approaches to policing. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 January 2015 at 12:22 pm

Posted in Law Enforcement

What movies do to our minds and perceptions

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Very interesting book review in The Guardian by David Shariatmadari. From that review:

First, Zacks sets out the wealth of experimental evidence which shows that a filmed version of events will likely override our knowledge of the facts. Not only because superstimuli are so compelling, but because we’re not very good at remembering the sources of information that inform our opinions. Was that in the local paper or did my friend tell me about it? Did I learn that from a history book or from watching Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth? Was I watching Osama bin Laden in the film Zero Dark Thirty or in a documentary? The political implications are huge, if not entirely unexpected: Hollywood can win hearts and minds at the expense of the truth.

Second, and perhaps more surprisingly, Zacks argues that there need be no further controversy about whether violence on TV, in games, or on film makes those exposed to it more aggressive: it does. The evidence is overwhelming, the case effectively closed (though you wouldn’t necessarily know it from the treatment the subject still receives in the media). Zacks cites the Columbia County study, which tracked several hundred children over a period of 30 years, monitoring their baseline levels of aggression, their consumption of violent images and their progress more generally. He also shows how a number of big meta-analyses have come to the same conclusion. The mechanisms? Observational learning, being primed to interpret ambiguous stimuli as aggressive, and desensitisation. A strong cocktail.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 January 2015 at 12:09 pm

Posted in Books, Movies & TV

Radley Balko’s morning links on law enforcement

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Always worth checking. Today:

  • The United States’ easing up on pot is hurting the Mexican drug cartels. But the U.S crackdown on pot and heroin is helping them. Funny how that works.
  • Report finds other instances in which New York police officers used banned chokeholds, and often weren’t disciplined.
  • House and Senate judiciary committee leaders call for an end to the Justice Department’s asset forfeiture “equitable sharing” program.
  • New York City pays out $17 million to settle three wrongful conviction claims. Of course, the taxpayers will foot the bill, not the public officials responsible for the convictions.

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 January 2015 at 11:49 am

Posted in Law Enforcement

How White Liberals Used Civil Rights to Create More Prisons

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Radley Balko in his morning links points out this interesting article by Willie Osterweil in The Nation:

Neither liberals nor conservatives are chomping at the bit to discuss the historical roots of the modern gun-rights movement. If asked to describe it, liberals will gesture vaguely at the eighties and nineties, blaming survivalists, school shootings, “cold, dead hands” and the National Rifle Association. Conservatives, on the other hand, will jump the historical mark by some distance, talking about the founding fathers, the Second Amendment and the right to an armed militia. Neither side wants to admit that the first modern anti-carry law was passed by California Governor Ronald Reagan in 1967. Nor would they want to mention that Reagan passed the law to disarm the twentieth century’s greatest gun-rights militia: the Black Panther Party. Political genealogies in America are more mixed than the 24/7 news cycle will allow.

In her first book, The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison in America, historian Naomi Murakawa demonstrates how the American prison state emerged not out of race-baiting states’-rights advocates nor tough-on-crime drug warriors but rather from federal legislation written by liberals working to guarantee racial equality under the law. The prison industry, and its associated police forces, spy agencies and kangaroo courts, is perhaps the most horrific piece of a fundamentally racist and unequal American civil society. More people are under correctional supervision in the United States than were in the Gulag archipelago at the height of the Great Terror; there are more black men in prison, jail or parole than were enslaved in 1850. How did this happen?

The common-sense answer is that launching the war on drugs during the backlash against civil-rights struggles encouraged agents of the criminal-justice system to lock up black people for minor infractions. This isn’t wrong, or not exactly. Ronald Reagan’s infamous Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, which established federal minimums (a k a sentencing “guidelines”) and abolished parole in the federal prison systems, did lead to an explosion in the number of federal prisoners, particularly drug offenders. It was one of the pivotal moments in the production of the prison-industrial complex (PIC)—the overlapping sphere of government and industrial activity that employs hundreds of thousands of guards, cops, judges, lawyers, bail-bondsmen, administrators and service employees and which sees millions of prisoners performing barely paid production labor to generate profit. But, as Murakawa painstakingly demonstrates, the Sentencing Reform Act has a “liberal core,” and is built on the technical and administrative logic of racial fairness that structures all federal civil-rights legislation.

This is the fundamental thesis of Murakawa’s book: legal civil rights and the American carceral state are built on the same conceptions of race, the state and their relationship. As liberals believe that racism is first and foremost a question of individual bias, they imagine racism can be overcome by removing the discretion of (potentially racist) individuals within government through a set of well-crafted laws and rules. If obviously discriminatory laws can be struck down, and judges, statesmen or administrators aren’t allowed to give reign to their racism, then the system should achieve racially just outcomes. But even putting aside the fact that a removal of individual discretion is impossible, such a conception of “fairness” applies just as easily to producing sentencing minimums as school desegregation.

Murakawa’s method is to apply deconstruction to the congressional record, reading government documents in search of their guiding political and ideological assumptions. “Implicitly,” she argues, “this perspective discounts intentions, recognizing that racial power is not necessarily exerted by will.” Why wade through rancorous debate between liberals and conservatives if all the hubbub resulted in a massively bipartisan project of racist imprisonment?

But Murakawa does not simply collapse liberal and conservative into each other. She makes an important distinction between postwar racial-liberalism and postwar racial-conservatism. Race conservatives are those who don’t believe that racism is real, but that race is: they believe that black people are innately inferior to whites, and attribute their place in society to a failure of black culture. This race-conservatism is what is broadly considered “real racism.”

Race-liberalism, on the other hand, remains the dominant—and usually unspoken—American framework for understanding race. Built on the premise that racism is real but manifests as the prejudice of white people, race-liberals argue that individuals’ racism can corrupt institutions and bias them against black people. That bias damages black psyches as well as black people’s economic and social prospects. Race-liberals believe that training, laws, stricter rules and oversight can eliminate prejudice and render institutions “colorblind.” Since it is biased treatment that damages black prospects, then this fix—civil rights—applied to all of society’s institutions, would eventually end racial disparity.

Both race-liberals and race-conservatives base their theories on one disastrous assumption: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 January 2015 at 11:45 am

World’s Largest Indoor Farm is 100 Times More Productive

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Written by LeisureGuy

12 January 2015 at 11:27 am

Posted in Business, Food, Technology

This Tower Pulls Drinking Water Out of Thin Air

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Very cool article, and thanks to Arne for pointing it out. It reminds me of the wonderful book Design for the Real World, by Viktor Papanek (inexpensive secondhand copies at the link).

Written by LeisureGuy

12 January 2015 at 11:20 am

Posted in Daily life, Technology

Dusty Foggo, unprincipled architect of CIA’s black sites

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Scott Horton writes at The Intercept:

Bureaucrats love secrets. If they are given unchecked power to create secrets, they will find the temptation to use this power irresistible. They will use it to cover justified cases, for example, to preserve diplomatic and military secrets that are important for national security, or to protect the privacy of individual citizens (the information contained on tax returns, for instance). But at the same time bureaucrats use secrecy to obscure from public sight anything that might embarrass them or reduce their political power and influence, for instance, innocent mistakes, evidence of incompetence, evidence that the policies they have made or implemented do not work or have unforeseen negative consequences, corruption, or even evidence of criminal conspiracies and dealings.

Democratic deliberation rests on the premise that ideas, once exposed to the public—unfolded, challenged, tested, and disputed—will stand or fall on their own merit. The bureaucratic drive for secrecy rests, in many cases, on a need to keep information out of the hands of individuals who could use it to harm the bureaucracy. The bureaucrat will invariably say that an enemy could use the information to harm the country, but more often than not the real concern originates with the bureaucrat personally or the office where he or she works.

The bureaucrat may fear that the exposure of a mistake will damage his chances for promotion or undermine the prestige and influence of the bureaucratic institution where he works, making it vulnerable to bureaucratic rivals. To the extent this is the case, secrecy produces a government that is more poorly informed, dull-witted, and more corrupt than would be the case if the power of classifying secrets were stripped away. This is because information stamped “secret” cannot be tested and challenged in the forum of democratic debate; it goes unquestioned and tends to be accepted as truth. If the secret is nonsense, it will likely be revealed as such once exposed.

Bureaucrats quickly learned that affixing a “secret” stamp to their claims insulates them from critical review, and compartmentalizing the secret—further restricting who has access to it—helps even more.

This enables the authors of decisions based on erroneous but “secret” information and analyses to quickly climb through the ranks. They will argue that their mistakes cannot be disclosed because that would reveal even more secrets. Robbed of critical perspective, the duller, less efficient, more corrupt members of the bureaucracy steadily climb to the top of the bureaucratic pyramid. You could climb to the top by being brilliant and successful, of course. But it is much easier to ascend the bureaucratic peaks by being secretive. Thieves and charlatans naturally thrive and prosper in this matrix of secrecy.

One example of the validity of this thesis about the degenerative effects of secrecy on bureaucratic institutions involves the aptly named Dusty Foggo, who concluded a twenty-four-year career in the CIA as executive director.

Foggo had played an important role in ensuring that personnel involved in rendition cases that went awry never faced meaningful discipline and, to the contrary, were advanced ahead of their peers.

(Among them was Alfreda Frances Bitkowsky, the “Queen of Torture”described here in The Intercept by Glenn Greenwald and Peter Maass.)

Foggo was until recently an inmate at a federal correctional facility in Pine Knot, Kentucky, after being charged with fraud, conspiracy, and money laundering in relation to his dealings with defense contractor Brent R. Wilkes and accepting a guilty plea on one of thirty counts. Foggo was a protégé of CIA director Porter Goss, a CIA agent turned Republican congressman appointed by George W. Bush to replace George Tenet. He had vaulted from a midlevel management position to the number three slot at the agency, where he wielded immense power over personnel and logistics. Among his signal accomplishments was the construction of a system of secret prisons used in extraordinary renditions, which were quickly scrapped after the CIA took stock of the track record of the program in 2006.

Ultimately Foggo was not tripped up by his wrongdoing in the clandestine service, expansive though that may have been, because it was effectively shielded by state secrecy. His problems were exposed in . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 January 2015 at 11:12 am

Diane Feinstein tailors the law depending on the individual who broke it

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Glenn Greenwald writes in The Intercept:

When WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange released his latest document trove—more than 250,000 secret State Department cables—he intentionally harmed the U.S. government. The release of these documents damages our national interests and puts innocent lives at risk. He should be vigorously prosecuted for espionage.

The law Mr. Assange continues to violate is the Espionage Act of 1917. That law makes it a felony for an unauthorized person to possess or transmit “information relating to the national defense which information the possessor has reason to believe could be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation.”

The Espionage Act also makes it a felony to fail to return such materials to the U.S. government. Importantly, the courts have held that “information relating to the national defense” applies to both classified and unclassified material. Each violation is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

The Hill, June 10, 2013 (“Feinstein Calls Snowden’s NSA Leaks an “Act of Treason”):

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) on Monday said the 29-year-old man who leaked information about two national security programs is guilty of treason. . . . “I don’t look at this as being a whistleblower. I think it’s an act of treason,” the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee told reporters.

The California lawmaker went on to say that Snowden had violated his oath to defend the Constitution. “He violated the oath, he violated the law. It’s treason.”

Ars Technica, November 3, 2013:

If it wasn’t already clear that the US government was unhappy with National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden—and the feds want him extradited, President Obama denounced him—it is now. Today, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and her House counterpart, Mike Rogers (R-MI), both emphasized there would be no mercy coming from Washington.

“He was trusted; he stripped our system; he had an opportunity—if what he was, was a whistle-blower—to pick up the phone and call the House Intelligence Committee, the Senate Intelligence Committee, and say I have some information,” Feinstein told CBS’ Face The Nation. “But that didn’t happen. He’s done this enormous disservice to our country, and I think the answer is no clemency.”

The New York Times, 3 days ago:

The F.B.I. and Justice Department prosecutors have recommended bringing felony charges against David H. Petraeus, contending that he provided classified information to a lover while he was director of the C.I.A., officials said, and leaving Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to decide whether to seek an indictment that could send the pre-eminent military officer of his generation to prison.

The Huffington Post, yesterday (“Dianne Feinstein Urges Government Not To Seek David Petraeus Indictment”):

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) urged the Department of Justice not to bring criminal charges against former CIA Director David Petraeus over his handling of classified information.

This man has suffered enough in my view,” Feinstein said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, explaining why she doesn’t think Attorney General Eric Holder should seek an indictment.

Petraeus “made a mistake,” added the senator, who is vice chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “But … it’s done, it’s over. He’s retired. He’s lost his job. How much does the government want?”

David Petraeus, the person whom Feinstein said has “suffered enough,” washired last year by the $73 billion investment fund KKR to be Chairman of its newly created KKR Global Institute, on top of the $220,000/year pension he receives from the U.S. Army and the teaching position he holds at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Let us all pause for a moment to lament the deep suffering of this man, and the grave injustice of inflicting any further deprivation upon him.

In 2011, I wrote a book, With Liberty and Justice for Some, that examined the two-tiered justice system prevailing in the U.S.: how the U.S. imprisons more of its citizens than any other country in the world (both in absolute numbers and proportionally) often for trivial transgressions, while immunizing its political and economic elites from even the most egregious crimes. Matt Taibbi’s book, The Divide, examines the same dynamic with a focus on the protection of economic elites and legal repression of ordinary citizens in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.

This latest example from Feinstein is one of the most vivid yet. She wanted Julian Assange – who isn’t even a U.S. citizen and never served in the U.S. Government – prosecuted for espionage for exposing war crimes, and demanded that Edward Snowden be charged with “treason” for exposing illegal eavesdropping which shocked the world. But a four-star general who leaked classified information not for any noble purpose but to his mistress for personal reasons should be protected from any legal consequences. . .

Continue reading.

Diane Feinstein simply does not believe that we are all equal in the eyes of the law. She will make exceptions depending on how well she likes a person, offering them de facto legal immunity. Fortunately, this is her last Senate term. She is occasionally right on the issues (as in releasing the summary of the Senate torture investigation), but quite often wrong (as in allowing the intelligence services, including the CIA, to run amok).

Written by LeisureGuy

12 January 2015 at 11:09 am

The drawback of arming our police forces as though they were military occupation forces in hostile territory: Grenades

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The police—particularly the paramilitary SWAT teams—seem to love their high-tech weaponry, and of course, what good is weaponry if you can’t use it? So the flash-bang grenade gets used a lot. Julia Angwin and Abbie Nehring describe in ProPublica some of the results:

It was just before dawn when 18 police officers poured out of an armored truck and an unmarked white van at the Laurel Park apartment complex on the outskirts of Atlanta. A few days earlier, a confidential informant reported seeing “a brown skinned black male” with “a small quantity of a green leafy substance.” The 22-year-old suspect, paroled for forging a check, lived in a small ground floor apartment with easy access. But the police didn’t plan on taking any chances.

Jason Ward and his high-school sweetheart Treneshia Dukes were asleep, naked, in the apartment when an explosion went off and their bedroom window shattered. Ward leapt up toward the broken glass. Dukes started running. In the dark, she crashed into a closet door before stumbling into the bathroom and balling up in the tub. “I just started crying and I’m praying like, ‘I’m not going to die like this, this is not how I want to die,’” she later testified. Seconds later, a man wearing a mask stormed the bathroom and held a gun to her face, instructing her to lie on the floor. “If you move I’m going to blow your fucking brains out,’” Dukes recalled him saying. It was then she noticed skin hanging off her arm and blistering patches of pink flesh on her brown legs. [At the link are cellphone photos of her grisly wounds. – LG]

The masked man noticed her skin, too. He told Dukes to sit up and signaled to a man in plainclothes to inspect her. “The guy came in there,” recalled Dukes, just starting to realize she was dealing with the police, not armed assailants, “and he looked at me and he looked back at the other guy and was like, ‘Y’all done fucked up.’”

Dukes had been hit by a flashbang, a $50 device used by the police to disorient suspects, often during drug raids. First designed nearly 40 years ago to help military special forces rescue hostages, flashbangs create a stunningly bright burst of light and an ear-splitting boom that temporarily blind and deafen anyone standing within a few feet of them. Last week, French special forces used flashbangs as part of a dramatic operation to free hostages held at a kosher supermarket in Paris. But when these modified hand grenades explode on the human body, they can cause severe injury or death. The flash powder burns hotter than lava. Dukes suffered second-degree burns across her body. When later asked to describe the pain she felt that morning on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the absolute greatest, Dukes said 100.The military-style assault on the Laurel Park apartment the morning of July 21, 2010, did not uncover a violent criminal’s drug lair. Although Dukes’ boyfriend grabbed a handgun when the window shattered, he tossed it aside as soon as he realized that the intruders were police. He threw himself down on the ground and surrendered immediately. In the end, after storming the apartment and throwing three flashbangs, the police found about a tenth of an ounce of marijuana.

Such aggressive use of flashbangs has become common among today’s militarized police forces. The Clayton County police, who burned Dukes, deployed flashbangs on about 80 percent of their raids in the year prior to her injury, according to police records. Police argue that flashbangs save lives because they stun criminals who might otherwise shoot. But flashbangs have also severed hands and fingers, induced heart attacks, burned down homes and killed pets. A ProPublica investigation has found that at least 50 Americans, including police officers, have been seriously injured, maimed or killed by flashbangs since 2000. That is likely a fraction of the total since there are few records kept on flashbang deployment.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit wrote in 2000 that “police cannot automatically throw bombs into drug dealers’ houses, even if the bomb goes by the euphemism ‘flash-bang device.’” In practice, however, there are few checks on officers who want to use them. Once a police department registers its inventory with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, it is accountable only to itself for how it uses the stockpile. ProPublica’s review of flashbang injuries found no criminal convictions against police officers who injured citizens with the devices. . .

Continue reading.

A sidebar to the article:

The Human Toll of Flashbangs

At least 50 Americans have been seriously injured, maimed or killed by flashbangs since 2000. Here are their stories.

Aiyana Jones
May 16, 2010, Detroit, MI

It was just after midnight on May 16, 2011, and seven-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones was asleep on a couch in her house when officers with the Detroit Special Response Team burst in with a reality television crew for the true-crime show, The First 48. The officers threw a flashbang that lit the girl’s blanket on fire. It was not the blaze that killed Aiyana, but a single shot from Officer Joseph Weekley’s gun that struck her in the head a few seconds later. See more.

Explore the full graphic

Written by LeisureGuy

12 January 2015 at 10:40 am

Great shave with #102 on Parker handle, MWF, and the Brushguy brush

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SOTD 12 Jan 2015

Extremely nice shave today. I continue to like the handles, but I would like a little more loft. I may order yet another….

The lather from Mitchell’s Wool Fat shaving soap was excellent—a good cold-weather soap, provided your skin does not react to lanolin.

The Parker 24C handle works great with the Shavecraft #102 head. Indeed, I find that I like the 24C better than the 26C overall, now that I’ve tried both.

I used the Saint Charles Shave EDT Sandalwood for a slightly greater fragrance hit. Very pleasant indeed.

Here’s a loft comparison between the brush and the Rooney Style 2 Finest, one of my favorite brushes:

Loft comparison

Update: I heard from Brushguy: the loft I have is as high a loft as he can get from the supplier. Too bad because it seems stubby to me: significant less lather capacity and not nearly so soft and nice on the face as the Rooney shown, for example. However, I can well imagine that longer lofts are harder to source because it’s a natural product and longer bristles are probably harder to find.

He did mention that a longer loft would not have so much ‘backbone’, but I find ‘backbone’ overrated. First, even a brush weak in the backbone department will still be resilient—it will deform more easily than a brush with lots of backbone (and thus feel softer), but it will still regain its shape when pressure is removed. Moreover, I find the brushes lacking backbone make excellent lather quickly and have noticeably more lather capacity than the stiffer, denser brushes that are said to have backbone.

Obviously this is personal preference, but in terms of performance and softness of feel, I think the brushes with lesser backbone are better. It’s a bit confusing because the connotation of “backbone” is quite positive, but in practice the fluffier softer brushes seem to work better—at least for me.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 January 2015 at 9:44 am

Posted in Shaving

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