Later On

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

Archive for September 2015

The Norman Rockwell idea of a physician is fading fast

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Gina Kolata reports in the NY Times:

A well-to-do cancer patient is nearing the end of her treatments. During an office visit, she says to her doctor, “I can’t thank you enough for the care you provided.”

Should the doctor simply accept the patient’s gratitude — or gently suggest a way for her to show it: “Perhaps you might consider making a donation?”

More and more these days, development offices at major cancer centers are teaching doctors to seize such opportunities to raise money for the medical center or for their own research.

In an unprecedented survey of more than 400 oncologists at 40 leading cancer centers, nearly half said they had been taught to identify wealthy patients who might be prospective donors. A third had been asked to directly solicit donations — and half of them refused. Three percent had been promised payments if a patient donated.

The study, which was published online Monday in The Journal of Clinical Oncology, was conducted by Dr. Reshma Jagsi, a radiation oncologist and ethicist at the University of Michigan, who had grown concerned about the practice and wanted to know more.

Dr. Jagsi said she had sat in on workshops, seminars, training sessions and department meetings that discussed how to identify good prospects for gifts, how to direct grateful patients to the development office, and how to ask them directly if they wanted to donate.

She was uncomfortable with the idea, but she also knew some patients want to donate and are grateful for guidance on how to do it. And she knew medical centers needed money now more than ever. What was the ethical way for doctors to help, she wondered? Or should they stay out of the donation business completely?

She searched the medical literature for studies on the subject and found pretty much nothing, so she decided to conduct her own research.

The issue is “extraordinarily important,” said Arthur L. Caplan, head of the division of medical ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center, adding that he had never seen a paper that examined the issues as thoroughly as Dr. Jagsi’s. “Hopefully, this paper will start a long overdue discussion,” he said.

He ticked off some ethical pitfalls: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 September 2015 at 5:36 pm

The House That Could Save the World

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Sara Solovitch describes housing done right:

In July, when Portland was sweltering at upwards of 100 degrees, the tenants of The Orchards wondered if they had air conditioning. The temperature in their apartments never rose above 70.

They had all just moved into the newly opened affordable housing project in Hillsboro, a Portland suburb that over the last decade replaced thousands of fruit trees with silicon chip factories. Some of the tenants were workers in those factories. Others were clerks at Costco and nearby supermarkets. As they knew all too well, affordable housing didn’t come with air conditioning. So why were their new homes so comfortable?

The Orchards is an L-shaped building with bare bone apartments that overlook the light rail station. Its lobby is small with two striking features: a glassed display of tree trunks, cross sections of those cut down from those eponymous orchards and marked by fruit typology (Orenco apple, Green Gage plum, Royal apricot) and a five-foot TV screen prominently mounted, with a readout that monitors the minutiae of each apartment’s energy consumption, alerting tenants to the nuances of their neighbors’ electric budgets.

But it’s what you don’t see that makes it so unique. The Orchards is a “Passive House,” currently the largest one in North America. It’s a high performing energy-efficient complex whose 57 apartments stay cool on the hottest days and can be comfortably heated with a hand-held hair dryer on the coldest. Its windows are triple-paned. Its walls and floors are stuffed 11 inches deep with insulation. The ventilation system in the attic acts as the building’s lungs—continually pulling exhaust from every kitchen and bathroom, sucking stale air through a heat exchanger before carrying it to the outside and returning with fresh air.

“Every day I find a new reason to love it,” gushes Georgye Hamlin, whose one-bedroom apartment is as noiseless as a recording studio. “It’s cool, it’s quiet, and I don’t even hear the train. During the heat wave, my girlfriend came over to sleep because it was so cool. Yay for German engineering!”

Passivhaus, a building method developed in Germany in the early 1990s, relies on an airtight envelope—the roof, exterior walls and floors, literally, the physical barrier that separates in from out—to create a building that consumes 80 percent less energy than a standard house.

As translated into English, the term is almost a misnomer. It implies single-family housing, when in fact the approach can be applied to any size building. In Europe, supermarkets, schools, churches, factories and hospitals have been built to passive house standards. The number of certified buildings there exceeds 25,000.

The American market is tiny by comparison. There are about 150 certified houses nationwide and most people, on hearing the term, assume it refers to solar panels. That is now starting to change, along with concern about climate change and a growing understanding that, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, houses and other buildings account for 40 percent of all energy consumption and a third of carbon emissions nationally. Widely applied, passive construction could fundamentally alter the world’s carbon balance, but only if it can get over the internecine fights that have torn the concept’s European and North American backers apart.

With the virtuous equation in mind, hundreds of passive houses are now going up around the country—from bland, boxy cubes (like those at The Orchards) to elegant condos and Victorian retrofits. Volunteers for Habitat for Humanity have constructed passive townhouses in Washington, D.C. An ambulance dispatch center in Brooklyn was last year retrofitted to passive standards. An affordable housing project, built for youths aging out of foster care, just opened in Pittsburgh.

Last September, New York Mayor Bill De Blasio released a 35-year plan, One City: Built To Last, for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the city’s buildings. The report named Passive House construction as a pathway for achieving the city’s goal of 80 percent reduction. It was the only building standard specifically identified in the report, a fact that made architects, builders and public policy experts take notice. In Europe, where all new construction must comply with “Nearly Zero-Energy Buildings” by 2020, passive building is a best building practice.

Then came the news that ground was being broken for the world’s biggest passive house—a 350-unit apartment house, owned by Cornell University on Roosevelt Island in New York City, to be completed by 2017. “This is going to open people’s eyes about what’s possible,” says Ken Levenson, a Brooklyn-based architect who will be working on the Cornell project. “It’s a huge building and it’s significant in terms of its breaking out of a stereotypical low-rise building. And it’s a blue chip customer, with all the associations of Cornell University—plus the fact that it’s being embraced by New York City and the mayor’s office. It changes the conversation in a big way.”

Despite all the talk of “r factors,” kBTUs and “air changes per hour” that breaks out whenever Passive House engineers and designers assemble, the approach’s appeal is its simplicity: Orient a building to . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 September 2015 at 12:33 pm

FBI’s Anti-Encryption Campaign Is a Big Lie

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Jenna McLaughlin reports in The Intercept:

To hear FBI Director James Comey tell it, strong encryption stops law enforcement dead in its tracks by letting terrorists, kidnappers and rapists communicate in complete secrecy.

But that’s just not true.

In the rare cases in which an investigation may initially appear to be blocked by encryption — and so far, the FBI has yet to identify a single one — the government has a Plan B: it’s called hacking.

Hacking — just like kicking down a door and looking through someone’s stuff — is a perfectly legal tactic for law enforcement officers, provided they have a warrant.

And law enforcement officials have, over the years, learned many ways to install viruses, Trojan horses, and other forms of malicious code onto suspects’ devices. Doing so gives them the same access the suspects have to communications — before they’ve been encrypted, or after they’ve been unencrypted.

Government officials don’t like talking about it — quite possibly because hacking takes considerably more effort than simply asking a telecom provider for records. Robert Litt, general counsel to the Director of National Intelligence, recently referred to potential government hacking as a process of “slow uncertain one-offs.”

But they don’t deny it, either. Hacking is “an avenue to consider and discuss,” Amy Hess, the assistant executive director of the FBI’s Science and Technology branch, said at an encryption debate earlier this month.

The FBI “routinely identifies, evaluates, and tests potential exploits in the interest of cyber security,” bureau spokesperson Christopher Allen wrote in an email.

Hacking In Action

There are still only a few publicly known cases of government hacking, but they include examples of phishing, “watering hole” websites, and physical tampering.

Phishing involves an attacker masquerading as a trustworthy website or service and luring a victim with an email message asking the person to click on a link or update sensitive information.

When a high school student made repeated bomb threats in Lacey, Washington, in 2007 — disguising his identity by routing his web traffic through Italy — FBI agents launched a phishing attack using the bureau’s in-house malware by sending a link to a fake news article to his MySpace inbox. When he clicked, he unknowingly installed the malware, which revealed his identity.

This was controversial and received widespread media attention because of the FBI’s choice of a faked news article as their vector of attack. But it also told us two things about FBI hacking: that the FBI has been using that particular kind of malware attack since at least 2007, and that it took the public until 2014 to find out.

A watering hole attack infects a website with malware, so that anyone who visits it is also infected, potentially allowing the attackers to identify and control the visitor’s devices.

In 2013, as part of a child-porn investigation, the FBI seized a large number of web servers and installed malware that reveals personally identifying information of online visitors to several different popular websites, including an email provider. The sites were “Tor hidden service sites,” or sites that reroute web traffic around the globe to cloak their destination. The FBI snuck in a piece of code on every single website hosted by the Freedom Hosting service, directing information about hacked visitors back to a server in northern Virginia.

This watering hole attack landed a large number of people in the FBI’s trap, most of them innocent people who hadn’t committed any crimes. And the FBI never told them about it, because it never subpoenaed their identities — even though their computers had been compromised.

The earliest reported case of the FBI using physical tampering . . .

Continue reading. Lots more.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 September 2015 at 11:47 am

Chicken thoughts: Brining and roasting

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The Wife had dinner with three friends at the Zuni Cafe in San Francisco this past Saturday, and she and one friend chose a Zuni specialty, their roasted chicken (for two—and the other two made the same choice). It’s very tasty—I’ve also had it—and it put me in mind of roasting a chicken.

Zuni brines the chicken, so first I looked at a couple of guides to brining—this one and also the first way (wet brine) mentioned here—and will use ideas from those to brine my chicken, probably overnight. For aromatics I’m thinking garlic, lemon, thyme, and peppercorns.

Then I’ll follow Thomas Keller’s advice to remove the wishbone and truss the chicken well, as seen below. (There was a much better video of how to truss the chicken, but Scripps complained and the video has been taken down. Poo on Scripps.) Note his point on tempering the chicken—i.e., bringing it to room temperature before putting it into the oven so that it will cook evenly. However, I don’t think I’ll be cooking the vegetables with the chicken as he suggests. Instead, I’ll follow Ina Garten’s recipe.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 September 2015 at 11:19 am

Posted in Food, Low carb, Recipes

Learning shaving products

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SOTD 28 Sept 2015

User cgdntx asked an interesting question on Wicked Edge this morning: “When you try a new product, how long do you give it?” He was specifically asking about Mitchell’s Wool Fat shaving soap, which initially some find hard to lather.

I immediately thought of my Apollo Mikron, which initially would give me a lot of nicks. But since I loved the look of the razor, I continued using it, and soon the nicks ceased and now it shaves easily, comfortably, and reliably, never giving me a nick. I was not conscious of whatever changes I made in technique, but it’s quite common for practical skills to be a matter of unconscious learning through practice.

The brush in the photo is another example. I bought it for the beauty of the snakewood handle, and when I got it I was disconcerted by the softness of the knot, and initially was disappointed. But then I reflected that the knot is what it is, and I should learn to use it. It turned out that with very little practice I learned how to load the brush well, and the knot’s soft feel has made it a favorite brush. I knew from the start there had to be a change, but it turned out that what needed changing was not the brush but my attitude toward it. Once I accepted it as a soft brush and learned to use it, the brush became a favorite because of its fine performance and great feel.

So this morning I was planning the use the brush already, and after reading the post, decided that today’s soap would be MWF. I wet the knot well, gave it a good shake, and brushed the soap briskly but (given the brush’s softness) not much firmness. Brisk did the job, though as the brush loaded, the puck seemed too dry, so I added a small driblet of water to the brush and loaded a bit longer.

Ample lather—and a very good lather—and the Merkur white bakelite slant did its usual marvelous job: perfectly BBS in three passes with no problems at all. This razor really is one of the all-time great slants.

A couple of drops of D.R. Harris After Shave Milk, and the week awaits.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 September 2015 at 8:31 am

Posted in Shaving

Pope drops ball on clergy’s sexual abuse of children

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He’s trying to recover, but to view (and explicitly state) that the suffering victims of this scandal are the priests and bishops shows an amazing disregard for the actual victims: the children who were raped.

The NY Times has a story on the Pope’s fumble and his belated (and inadequate) attempt at recovery, a story worth reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 September 2015 at 3:26 pm

Amazon Fire TV Stick fix for Netflix

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I have an Amazon Fire TV Stick and over the past couple of days I’ve had buffering problems: about every 2-4 minutes the picture will pause, and I’ll see the little percentages flash by until it’s recaptured the signal or refilled the buffer, then it resumes and repeats.

It makes the picture unwatchable. My speed test showed that I get a 14.5 Mbps download speed, which should be ample. I tried the usual stuff: unplugging the Fire TV Stick for 30 seconds, then plugging it back in, and doing the same thing on the router. I finally called Netflix, and was quickly directed to this page.

I followed the steps and the problem cleared immediately. I’m passing along the fix in case any of you encounter such a problem.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 September 2015 at 1:59 pm

Posted in Technology

Interesting brief discussion about God and how we should relate to God

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Short but insightful: Darin Strauss talks with Erik Kolbell, a writer, psychotherapist, Yale Divinity School graduate, and ordained minister, and the first Minister of Social Justice at Riverside Church in New York City. Kolbell wrote What Jesus Meant: The Beatitudes and a Meaningful Life.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 September 2015 at 12:45 pm

Posted in Books, Religion

Baltimore police officer in what I would say is a justified shooting

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The Baltimore PD has released a surveillance video (without sound) that shows a white police officer shooting an unarmed black man, who died. In looking at the video and reading what witnesses said, this shooting seems justified: the man who was shot was behaving in a threatening manner and even mimicked drawing a gun (with his hand hidden by his body) and then whipping that hand around to point it at the officer, who (according to witnesses) continually tried to get the suspect to cooperate.

If the police officer had been equipped with a body camera, I imagine the video, shot from the POV of the officer, would show clearly how the suspect’s response looked to the officer: as though the suspect were drawing a weapon.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 September 2015 at 10:14 am

Posted in Law Enforcement

A good potted history of how the VW fraud played out

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What seems to be a quartet of writers (but might be a trio with an extra comma), Danny, Hakim, Aaron Kessler, and Jack Ewing, tell a good account of the origins and discovery of the VW fraud. Well worth reading. From the article:

. . . It is not Volkswagen’s first run-in with regulators over emissions. When the United States began regulating tailpipe pollutants in the 1970s, Volkswagen was one of the first companies caught cheating. It was fined $120,000 in 1973 for installing what became known as a “defeat device,” technology to shut down a vehicle’s pollution control systems. This time, it equipped its vehicles with software that was programmed to fake test results, an action the E.P.A. rebuked in 1998, when it reached a $1 billion settlement with truck-engine manufacturers for doing the same thing.

Over the last year, when confronted with evidence that its system was not performing as promised, Volkswagen aggressively pushed back, saying that regulators were not doing the testing properly. . .

And, later in the article:

. . . In 2013, a nonprofit group, the International Council on Clean Transportation, proposed testing on-road diesel emissions from cars in the United States — something never done before.

California regulators decided to team up with the group. They had an attractive chip to offer: the state’s laboratory, where vehicles were tested for California emissions compliance.

The transportation council, staffed by a number of former E.P.A. officials, did not expect to catch Volkswagen, or anyone else, cheating. In fact, it assumed that American diesel cars would run much cleaner than their European counterparts, thanks to stricter United States emissions rules. The group felt that by promoting a success story for diesel, it could pressure — and perhaps shame — automakers in Europe into improving their own emissions.

“We thought we would be seeing some clean vehicles,” said John German, one of the project leads at the council. “That was the whole point when we started.”

It was only by chance that the group’s testing of three vehicles began with two Volkswagens. The researchers already had a BMW X5 and aVolkswagen Jetta — and then a Passat owner happened to see an ad seeking cars for the project and offered up his.

Researchers hit the road, traveling five routes with varying terrain and traffic. Almost immediately, the two Volkswagens set themselves apart from the BMW.

“If you’re idling in traffic for three hours in L.A. traffic, we know a car is not in its sweet spot for good emissions results,” said Arvind Thiruvengadam, a research professor at West Virginia University, which was hired to conduct the tests. “But when you’re going at highway speed at 70 miles an hour, everything should really work properly. The emissions should come down. But the Volkswagens’ didn’t come down.”

It was difficult to know what was going on: When the two Volkswagens were placed on a “car treadmill” known as a dynamometer, they performed flawlessly.

“It just didn’t make sense,” Mr. German said. “That was the real red flag.”

Coming Clean

By 2014, the California regulators determined what to do next. First, they alerted their federal counterparts at the E.P.A. Then, they opened an investigation. “We brought in Volkswagen and showed them our findings,” said Stanley Young, a spokesman for the California Air Resources Board. “We asked them, ‘How do you explain this?’ ”

Volkswagen fired back. “They tried to poke holes in our study and its methods, saying we didn’t know what we were doing,” Mr. Thiruvengadam said. “They were very aggressive.”

The company offered many explanations: Weather conditions. Driving styles. Technicalities that it claimed the researchers and regulators did not understand.

“There was always some story, some reason they’d come up with each time,” Mr. Young said. “Meeting after meeting, they would try to explain it away, and we’d go back to the lab and try again. But we’d get the same results.”

The back-and-forth lasted for months. Finally, in April, Volkswagen made an offer: It would conduct a voluntary recall, or service campaign, to fix the problem in certain model year 2010 to 2014 diesel vehicles.

Regulators got the software update for their test vehicles and returned to the lab. The results were not good. “It didn’t solve the problem,” Mr. Young said.

Confronted again, Volkswagen continued to maintain that there was a problem with the testers, not the vehicles.

California regulators changed tack, examining the company’s software. Modern automobiles operate using millions of lines of computer code. One day last summer, the regulators made a startling discovery: A subroutine, or parallel set of instructions, was secretly being sent by the computer to what seemed to be the emissions controls.

Regulators were floored. Could Volkswagen be trying something similar to what the heavy-truck industry did to manipulate emissions tests in the 1990s?

Regulators set out to cheat the cheat, tweaking lab test parameters to trick the car into thinking it was on the road. The Volkswagens began spewing nitrogen oxide far above the legal limit. . .

Read the whole thing.


Written by LeisureGuy

27 September 2015 at 9:55 am

Francis, the perfect Pope for the 19th century

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Maureen Dowd has an excellent column today, and the comments to the column are well worth perusing. The column begins:

After attending a canonization Mass at Catholic University with the pope who rails against the excesses of capitalism, I walked off campus to a festival of capitalism.

Vendors were hawking pope bracelets, buttons and T-shirts.

Excited by seeing the humble black Fiat in person and infused with Papa’s warning against the numbing effects of the “culture of prosperity,” I resisted all sales pitches. Until I got to the last guy.

He was selling blue-and-white T-shirts for $10 with the declaration “Coolest Pope Ever.”

Francis is undeniably cool. He once worked as a nightclub bouncer in Buenos Aires. He got a serenade to “Frank, baby,” from his fan Stephen Colbert. He spurred nuns to have a tailgating party at Catholic U. before his Mass, inspired the Internet to erupt in photos of dogs sporting miters and persuaded a blubbering John Boehner that he would never have a day that good again.

Though Friday was dry, Francis got a rainbow before his triumphant tour of Central Park. And he felicitously leaves the country before the super blood moon Monday morning — considered by some Christians to be a sign of the apocalypse.

Cleaving closer to the teachings of Jesus, a carpenter from Nazareth, Francis rejected the fancy red slippers of predecessors in favor of plain black shoes. He scorned the papal palace for a suite in the Vatican guesthouse. He ended the fixation on divisive social issues and refocused the church on healing social justice and the Golden Rule.

On Friday, Rolling Stone premiered a single called “Wake Up! Go! Go! Forward!,” from the coming pop-rock album Francis is dropping in November, sort of a “Shake It Off” for apathy and selfishness.

Yet his very coolness is what makes his reign so hazardous. Watching the rapturous crowds and gushing TV anchors on his American odyssey, we see “the Francis Effect.” His magnetic, magnanimous personality is making the church, so stained by the vile sex abuse scandal, more attractive to people — even though the Vatican stubbornly clings to its archaic practice of treating women as a lower caste.

Pope Francis would be the perfect pontiff — if he lived in the 19th century. But how, in 2015, can he continue to condone the idea that women should have no voice in church decisions?

In a scandal that cascaded for decades with abuses and cover-ups, the church was revealed to be monstrously warped in its attitudes about sex and its sense of right and wrong.

Yet shortly after he was elected, Francis flatly rejected the idea that the institution could benefit from opening itself to the hearts and minds of women. Asked about the issue of female priests, he replied, “The church has spoken and says no,” adding, “That door is closed.”

Francis preaches against the elites while keeping the church an elite boys’ club.

Cleaving closer to the teachings of Jesus, a carpenter from Nazareth, Francis rejected the fancy red slippers of predecessors in favor of plain black shoes. He scorned the papal palace for a suite in the Vatican guesthouse. He ended the fixation on divisive social issues and refocused the church on healing social justice and the Golden Rule.

On Friday, Rolling Stone premiered a single called “Wake Up! Go! Go! Forward!,” from the coming pop-rock album Francis is dropping in November, sort of a “Shake It Off” for apathy and selfishness.

Yet his very coolness is what makes his reign so hazardous. Watching the rapturous crowds and gushing TV anchors on his American odyssey, we see “the Francis Effect.” His magnetic, magnanimous personality is making the church, so stained by the vile sex abuse scandal, more attractive to people — even though the Vatican stubbornly clings to its archaic practice of treating women as a lower caste.

Pope Francis would be the perfect pontiff — if he lived in the 19th century. But how, in 2015, can he continue to condone the idea that women should have no voice in church decisions?

In a scandal that cascaded for decades with abuses and cover-ups, the church was revealed to be monstrously warped in its attitudes about sex and its sense of right and wrong.

Yet shortly after he was elected, Francis flatly rejected the idea that the institution could benefit from opening itself to the hearts and minds of women. Asked about the issue of female priests, he replied, “The church has spoken and says no,” adding, “That door is closed.”

Francis preaches against the elites while keeping the church an elite boys’ club. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 September 2015 at 9:14 am

Posted in Religion

Virtual reality helps one walk in another’s shoes: cf. street harassment

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Kari Paul reports at Motherboard:

The constant barrage of verbal harassment that women endure day-to-day is difficult to explain to anyone who hasn’t experienced it, but a new virtual reality program seeks to simulate exactly how pervasive it can be.

Through Compliment, a new immersive VR adventure created by Parsons MFA student Lucy Bonner, anybody can walk down the street as a woman and experience the harassment that ensues firsthand. Bonner was inspired to create the project after she moved to Brooklyn and was confronted with an overwhelming amount of daily catcalls.

She found that when she simply explained what was happening to friends, many were incredulous––it was clear they had never experienced anything similar for themselves.

“They were surprised by the regularity, pervasiveness, and severity of my harassment experiences, and wanted to dismiss it as just something that has to be dealt with,” she wrote of the project on her site. “Perhaps if they experienced it themselves they would be a little less quick to dismiss this constant and pervasive intrusion on women’s lives.”

She taught herself 3D development tool Unity for the project, which was her first in virtual reality. The project is uncannily realistic. When I tried on the Oculus and walked through Bonner’s Compliment world, I felt like I was reliving my walk to work that day.

“I wanted to make it as realistic as possible,” she told Motherboard. “Every piece of harassment that is in Compliment is something that has been said to me.”

Bonner replicated an endless parade of men shouting lewd comments, grunting, smacking, or whistling, and purposely made the point of view of the simulation from a relatively short person’s perspective.

“I designed the point of view to be small so you get a sense of the vulnerability you often feel in those situations,” she said. “A lot of men said the height thing really got to them, because that is something you can’t really experience as a six foot tall guy.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 September 2015 at 9:04 am

Posted in Daily life, Technology

Making a database, early 19th Century British Navy

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From The Hundred Days, by Patrick O’Brian, Vol. 19 in the series, page 47, where Jack Aubrey, still post-captain but named commodore in charge of a six-ship squadron given a specific mission in the Mediterranean following Napoleon’s escape from Elba:

There were no more than six ships or vessels in the squadron, but their books and papers already overflowed the Commodore’s desk: not much more than a thousand men were concerned, but all those of real importance in the running of the squadron had to be entered on separate slips together with what comments he had so far been able to make on their abilities; and to house these slips he had called upon his joiner to make temporary tray-like wings to his desk, so that eventually he should have all the elements at his disposal laid out, to be re-arranged according to the tasks the squadron might be called to undertake. In these quite exceptional circumstances, with no settled ships’ companies apart from those in Surprise and to some extent Briseis, he would have an equally exceptional free hand.

Very interesting description of how a practicing database worked back in that day. O’Brian does a lot of research, assiduously reading old logs and reports, so I would be his description is accurate. I’m trying to think what database I would use for this. Lotus Agenda comes to mind, for example.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 September 2015 at 1:25 pm

Why the CEO of Peanut Corporation of America got 28 years for killing 9 people and no one at GM received any punishment for killing 124

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In the NY Times Joe Nocera explains how the prosecutor in the GM case bungled so badly. (The “why” is still unreported, but it may be relevant that GM has considerably more money and thus influence than does the Peanut Corporation of America.)

Salmonella poisoning is an awful affliction. It is marked by diarrhea, abdominal cramps, dehydration and fever that can last as long as a week. Many people wind up in the hospital. Others develop something called reactive arthritis. And in a small number of cases, the victims die.

A major outbreak of salmonella poisoning took place in America in 2008 and 2009, when nine people died and over 700 others were reported ill. The outbreak was traced to a peanut processing plant in Georgia, owned by the Peanut Corporation of America, a $30 million company whose chief executive was a man named Stewart Parnell.

The plant was soon shuttered and the company liquidated. Eventually, Parnell, 61, was indicted and prosecuted. Found guilty, the former C.E.O. received a stunning sentence earlier this week: 28 years in prison.

A serious auto accident is also a terrible thing to endure. We know now that the faulty ignition switch installed in General Motors-made Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other cars manufactured between 2003 and 2007 resulted in at least 124 deaths. In addition, 275 people were injured badly enough to be awarded compensation — some in the millions — by Kenneth Feinberg, the well-known lawyer G.M. hired to run its victims’ compensation fund. At least 20 of the injured, including a young boy, will require 24-hour care for the rest of their lives.

And yet, a few days before Parnell’s sentencing, Preet Bharara, the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan, announced a settlement with G.M. that included a $900 million fine and a three-year deferred prosecution agreement — but not a single indictment of a G.M. employee. (Several remain under investigation.)

How can this be? How is it possible that the executive of a company whose product killed nine people gets a lengthy jail sentence yet the executives of a company whose product killed 124 people get off scot free?

Bharara’s explanation — and there is some truth to it — is that it is unusually difficult to prosecute auto industry executives. It is not a crime “to put into the stream of commerce a defective automobile that might kill people,” he said during his briefing with the media. What’s more, thanks to auto industry lobbying, the nation’s auto safety laws generally call for punishing corporate, rather than individual, malfeasance.

Another reason is specific to the ignition issue: For years, G.M. executives didn’t realize that when the ignition shut down, the airbags also lost power. Thus, G.M. officials didn’t view the problem as a safety issue. In winning cases against individuals, prosecutors have to show criminal intent.

But here’s one of the big surprises about the Parnell case, which was brought by Mike Moore, a federal prosecutor in Georgia. Moore relied as much or more on plain old fraud charges as he did on food safety laws, which do allow for individual prosecutions. The fact that the salmonella outbreak caused nine deaths wasn’t even part of the trial. Instead, the focus was on whether Parnell committed fraud by knowingly introducing tainted peanut butter paste into interstate commerce. The fraud conviction is what brought that eye-popping sentence.

There are plenty of people — people who genuinely understand the law — who believe that Bharara could have done the same thing with G.M. executives who knew about the faulty ignition but said nothing to the government, even though they were required to do so within five days of learning about a safety problem. In their view, Bharara’s cautious reading of the law is far too narrow. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 September 2015 at 11:21 am

Shave #16 with the Meißner Tremonia sample

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The photos were all out of focus—no idea why—but the photo is familiar: the white bowl, the brush (my Plisson synthetic), the aftershave (Penhaligon’s Blenheim Bouquet), and the razor, in this case a rodium-plated Gillette President. I’ll use the razor again next week so you can see it. It’s a handsome thing, resembling the 1940s Gillette Aristocrat.

No problems at all in getting an excellent and plentiful lather. I still have a few more shaves left in the sample, but the degree to which it lasts shows how greatly oversupplied I am with soap.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 September 2015 at 11:17 am

Posted in Shaving

One big reason Congress ignores the poor: they don’t vote

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Of course, the GOP has devoted a lot of time and effort to prevent the poor from voting: shorter hours, fewer polling places, fewer voting stations, photo-ID requirements, no same-day registration, etc. And it seems to work (in the sense that the poor vote at lower rates). But if you look at this article, the US voting rate is not all that good for any group. From the article:


More charts at the link.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 September 2015 at 1:59 pm

Posted in Election

The VW fraud may reshape the auto industry

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Very interesting article in The Economist:

Herbie, a Volkswagen Beetle with a mind of its own in a series of Disney films launched in the 1960s, had its share of misadventures. But things had a way of ending up happily for both the car and its passengers. The German carmaker’s more recent attempts to give its cars the gift of thought have things headed in an altogether grimmer direction. Its use of hidden software to deceive American regulators measuring emissions from diesel-engined cars has plunged VW into crisis. And as the scandal provokes further investigations it seems likely to throw into question a wider range of claims about emissions and fuel efficiency. It could thus be a blow to much of the industry—one that might be large enough to reshape it.

The damage to VW, the world’s biggest carmaker, is cataclysmic. The company’s shares have collapsed by a third since its chicanery surfaced (see chart 1). It faces billions of dollars in fines and other financial penalties. Lawsuits will be flying their way to its headquarters in Wolfsburg. Its strategy for the crucial American market is ruined; its reputation is in tatters. Its boss, Martin Winterkorn—who in 2009, when the misleading “defeat” software made its first appearance, was also directly responsible for the company’s R&D—resigned on September 23rd.Chart 1The company’s home country is in shock. Germany’s environment minister, Barbara Hendricks, spoke for many when she declared herself “more than astonished”—though the Greens, an opposition party, say that in its response to a parliamentary question earlier this year the government admitted that it knew manipulating emissions data was technically possible. Mixed in with this is some embarrassment that, as with the scandals over FIFA and the World Cup, it is falling to America to enforce rules that Europeans have been breaking.

There is also a certain apprehension. Sigmar Gabriel, the vice-chancellor and economics minister, said on September 21st that he hoped the export brand of Germany as a whole would not be tarnished. Germany’s economic strength rests in large part on the idea that anything stamped “Made in Germany” will offer a high level of reliability, trustworthiness and engineering prowess. Much of that reputation rests on the broad shoulders and sturdy tyres of the car industry, which directly or indirectly employs one in seven of the country’s workers; and with a stable of marques that includes Porsche and Audi, VW is that industry’s leader. Industrialists fret that consumers worldwide could exact reputational Sippenhaft—collective punishment, but literally “kin liability”—on all German engineering.

As well as being a threat to Germany’s export earnings, the scandal also menaces the brainchild of one of its most eminent engineers, Rudolf Diesel—at least as far as its future in cars is concerned. Diesel engines use fuel more efficiently than engines with spark plugs, and better efficiency reduces both drivers’ expenses and carbon-dioxide emissions. Those advantages have endeared diesel engines to thrifty Europeans with green governments; none too popular elsewhere in the world, they power half of Europe’s cars (see chart 2).Chart 2

Unfortunately, the benefits come with costs. Diesel cars’ efficiency comes from burning their fuel at a higher temperature, and that means they turn more of the nitrogen in the air they use for burning into various oxides of nitrogen, collectively known as NOx. This does not have global climate effects on the same scale as those of carbon dioxide, which is the most important long-lived greenhouse gas. But it has far worse local effects, generating smogs and damaging plants and lungs. To make matters worse, the catalytic technologies used to deal with the NOx emitted by petrol engines are not well suited for use with diesels, requiring engine makers to deploy more complex and expensive alternatives. That is not a big problem for large engines like those of trucks and ships. But it is for small engines like those of cars.

In America NOx standards are more demanding than they are in Europe. Mazda and Honda, both accomplished producers of diesel engines, have had trouble complying with them. It now appears that VW, which has put a lot of effort into persuading Americans that diesels can be clean and green, would also have failed to comply if it had not cheated. The campaign to convince Americans of the merits of diesel may thus well be at an end. And if it turns out that under real-life conditions many diesels also break Europe’s less stringent NOx standards then the future of diesel cars worldwide will be bleak.

Nothing seems right

The scandal broke on September 18th, . . .

Continue reading. Lots more, good stuff.

Later in the article:

. . . It is possible that some companies are using software trickery to cheat on Europe’s tests on fuel efficiency. But as Nick Molden of Emission Analytics, a consulting firm in Britain, argues, the European testing regime is so out of date and open to abuse that carmakers do not have to bother with such subtlety. The companies test their own vehicles under the auspices of independent testing organisations certified by national governments. But these organisations are commercial enterprises that compete for business. Although obliged to put the vehicles through standard activity cycles both in a laboratory and on a test track—neither of which is remotely realistic—they are aware that their ability to “optimise” the test procedures is a way to win clients. In practice this means doing everything possible to make the test cars perform far better than the versions punters drive off the forecourt.

The cars that are tested have generally been modified to be as frugal as possible. Things that add weight, such as sound systems, are left out. Drag is reduced by removing wing mirrors and taping up cracks between panels. Special lubricants make the engines run more smoothly. Low-resistance tyres are overinflated with special mixtures of gas. Alternators are disconnected, which gives more power to the wheels but guarantees a flat battery in the end. The cars may be run in too high a gear, and conducting tests at the highest allowed ambient temperature—another efficiency booster—is commonplace.

Stable for days

Worst of all, though, is that once this charade has produced a claim as to the car’s efficiency, no one checks whether it is true or not. In America, too, carmakers are responsible for their own tests. But there the EPA goes on to acquire vehicles at random for testing at a later date, to see if the cars on sale to the public live up to the claims. If the numbers do not match up substantial fines can follow. In 2014 Hyundai-Kia was fined $300m for misstating fuel-economy figures. Europe has no such system for punishing those who transgress. As a result more than half Europe’s claimed gains in efficiency since 2008 have been “purely theoretical”, says T&E. And the industry as a whole has developed a gaming attitude to tests and regulations that it should take seriously. As Drew Kodjak of the ICCT observes, VW’s activities in America are part of a pattern of behaviour that the “European system created”. . .

Written by LeisureGuy

25 September 2015 at 12:31 pm

Very smooth result, with the fragrance of a Rusty Nail

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SOTD 25 Sept 2015

A very nice shave, and Essence of Scotland’s Sweet Gale responded extremely well to the HJM, giving me as creamy a lather as it’s ever offered—and with the scotch whisky plus heather honey fragrance of the Rusty Nail cocktail.

This is the second scotch whisky shaving soap this week. I once had other shaving soaps with spirits-based fragrances: dry martini, gin and tonic, and piña colada all come to mind, though they were sold off in previous cullings of the collection (and speaking of culling the collection, I have now two final boxes of soaps from the most recent culling, a good way to get a variety of excellent soaps: $40 for 10, including shipping). Previous purchasers feel free to comment. 🙂

With a well-lathered and luscious-smelling beard, I set to work with the Edwini Jagger razor shown, and soon enjoyed once more the pleasure of a BBS result.

A big splash of Aquarius, and we can see the weekend, lying in wait for us just ahead.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 September 2015 at 10:08 am

Posted in Shaving

Anyone have a favorite Welsh rabbit recipe?

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I’m sort of in the mood for a good Welsh rabbit. You sure don’t see it much in restaurants, though we did see it in a restaurant in Victoria BC.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 September 2015 at 7:49 pm

Posted in Food

Problems at Volkswagen Start in the Boardroom

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James Stewart reports in the NY Times:

There is a long tradition of scandal and skulduggery in the auto industry, but few schemes appear as premeditated as Volkswagen’s brazen move to use sophisticated software to circumvent United States emissions standards.

That such a thing could happen at Volkswagen, Germany’s largest company and the world’s largest automaker by sales — 202.5 billion euros last year — has mystified consumers and regulators around the world. But given Volkswagen’s history, culture and corporate structure, the real mystery may be why something like this didn’t happen sooner.

“The governance of Volkswagen was a breeding ground for scandal,” said Charles M. Elson, professor of finance and director of the John L. Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware. “It was an accident waiting to happen.”

The company, founded by the Nazis before World War II, is governed through an unusual hybrid of family control, government ownership and labor influence. Even by German standards, “Volkswagen stands apart,” said Markus Roth, a professor at Philipps-University Marburg and an expert in European corporate governance. “It’s been a soap opera ever since it started.”

Volkswagen’s recent history — a decades-long feud within the controlling Porsche family, a convoluted takeover battle and a boardroom coup — has dominated the German financial pages and tabloids alike. This week, the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung compared Volkswagen’s governance to that of North Korea, adding that its “autocratic leadership style has long been out of date.” It said “a functioning corporate governance is missing.”

Until a forced resignation this spring, the company was dominated by Ferdinand Piëch, 78, the grandson of Ferdinand Porsche and the father of 12 children. He reigned over Volkswagen’s supervisory board and directed a successful turnaround at the luxury brand Audi before taking the reins at its parent, Volkswagen, in 1993. Mr. Piëch set the goal of Volkswagen’s becoming the world’s largest automaker by sales, a goal the company achieved this past year. He stepped down as chairman in April after unsuccessfully trying to oust the company’s chief executive, Martin Winterkorn, who himself was forced out this week.

One measure of Mr. Piëch’s influence: In 2012, shareholders elected his fourth wife, Ursula, a former kindergarten teacher who had been the Piëch family’s governess before her marriage to Ferdinand, to the company’s supervisory board.

Although many shareholders protested her lack of qualifications and independence, they have little or no influence. Porsche and Piëch family members own over half the voting shares and vote them as a bloc under a family agreement.

Labor representatives hold three of the five seats on the powerful executive committee, and half the board seats are held by union officials and labor.

Of the remaining seats, two are appointed by the government of Lower Saxony, the northwestern German state that owns 20 percent of the voting shares. Two are representatives of Qatar Holding, Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund, which owns 17 percent of Volkswagen’s voting shares. Members of the Piëch and Porsche families hold three more seats, and a management representative holds another.

Outside views rarely penetrate. “It’s an echo chamber,” Professor Elson said. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 September 2015 at 4:22 pm

Posted in Business

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