Later On

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

Archive for October 2015

Arbitration Everywhere, Stacking the Deck of Justice

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I have blogged against forced arbitration (no right to legal recourse) multiple times. The arbitrator is hired by the corporation, and arbitrators who find against a corporation are blackballed: the game is totally rigged. Jessica Silver-Greenberg and Robert Gebeloff report in the NY Times:

On Page 5 of a credit card contract used by American Express, beneath an explainer on interest rates and late fees, past the details about annual membership, is a clause that most customers probably miss. If cardholders have a problem with their account, American Express explains, the company “may elect to resolve any claim by individual arbitration.”

Those nine words are at the center of a far-reaching power play orchestrated by American corporations, an investigation by The New York Times has found.

By inserting individual arbitration clauses into a soaring number of consumer and employment contracts, companies like American Express devised a way to circumvent the courts and bar people from joining together in class-action lawsuits, realistically the only tool citizens have to fight illegal or deceitful business practices.

Over the last few years, it has become increasingly difficult to apply for a credit card, use a cellphone, get cable or Internet service, or shop online without agreeing to private arbitration. The same applies to getting a job, renting a car or placing a relative in a nursing home.

Among the class actions thrown out because of the clauses was one brought by Time Warner customers over charges they said mysteriously appeared on their bills and another against a travel booking website accused of conspiring to fix hotel prices. A top executive at Goldman Sachs who sued on behalf of bankers claiming sex discrimination was also blocked, as were African-American employees at Taco Bell restaurants who said they were denied promotions, forced to work the worst shifts and subjected to degrading comments.

Some state judges have called the class-action bans a “get out of jail free” card, because it is nearly impossible for one individual to take on a corporation with vast resources.

Patricia Rowe of Greenville, S.C., learned this firsthand when she initiated a class action against AT&T. Ms. Rowe, who was challenging a $600 fee for canceling her phone service, was among more than 900 AT&T customers in three states who complained about excessive charges, state records show. When the case was thrown out last year, she was forced to give up and pay the $600. Fighting AT&T on her own in arbitration, she said, would have cost far more.

By banning class actions, companies have essentially disabled consumer challenges to practices like predatory lending, wage theft and discrimination, court records show.

“This is among the most profound shifts in our legal history,” William G. Young, a federal judge in Boston who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan, said in an interview. “Ominously, business has a good chance of opting out of the legal system altogether and misbehaving without reproach.”

More than a decade in the making, the move to block class actions was engineered by a Wall Street-led coalition of credit card companies and retailers, according to interviews with coalition members and court records. Strategizing from law offices on Park Avenue and in Washington, members of the group came up with a plan to insulate themselves from the costly lawsuits. Their work culminated in two Supreme Court rulings, in 2011 and 2013, that enshrined the use of class-action bans in contracts. The decisions drew little attention outside legal circles, even though they upended decades of jurisprudence put in place to protect consumers and employees.

One of the players behind the scenes, The Times found, was John G. Roberts Jr., who as a private lawyer representing Discover Bank unsuccessfully petitioned the Supreme Court to hear a case involving class-action bans. By the time the Supreme Court handed down its favorable decisions, he was the chief justice.

Corporations said that class actions were not needed because arbitration enabled individuals to resolve their grievances easily. But court and arbitration records show the opposite has happened: Once blocked from going to court as a group, most people dropped their claims entirely.

The Times investigation was based on thousands of court records and interviews with hundreds of lawyers, corporate executives, judges, arbitrators and plaintiffs in 35 states. . .

Continue reading. It’s an important issue, and one that reflects how corporations increasingly exert control our lives.

Written by Leisureguy

31 October 2015 at 10:36 am

A non-antagonistic use of technology to improve quality of service

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Here’s a neat one: A bank takes the comments people have made about their contact with their customer service agents. The information system identifies comments by the service agent, so the system can look at all comments for a particular agent and make a word cloud from the comments, and then displays the word cloud next to the bank’s internal on-line directory with rep’s name, title, photo, etc.

The agent’s name is always largest in the word cloud, since the system treats agent name as being part of the text in each comment. Next in prominence will be words like “helpful” and “pleasant” and “happy.” Obviously the words “churlish” and “hostile” may occur, but rarely (since customer service agents really are trying to help you). Since such words are rare, in the word cloud they will simply vanish—such responses are extreme outliers and in the word cloud if they appear at all they will be tiny, and rightly so: comments like these are basically noise in the system and may well have causes outside the system (e.g., certain types of personality disorders, or some temporary mood swing—they are not necessarily due to the interaction with the service agent. (If the cause is the service agent, such words will appear more often, of course, but sometimes it’s really not the service agent.)

Naturally enough, the customer service agents will be interested in the word clouds (their own clouds and the clouds of colleagues). I would imagine that they will inevitably compare word clouds and start to compete in various ways. For example, some will try to produce a well-rounded word cloud. One might also see some mild gambling: “Okay, I say I can make the biggest word (besides my name) be ‘helpful.’ By Friday. Ten bucks.”

I’m assuming that the word cloud is computed at least daily but why not hourly? Once a hour take the words from each agent’s most recent 1000 transactions, say: a number that will include roughly transactions for the past 30 days. The idea is to establish habits, and since it takes a while to alter the cloud, it’s most productive to work steadily at itsteady work is needed since it takes a while to influence the feedback.

Of course, any tool can be used destructively, and I can imagine some bosses might use the information inappropriately. Better is for the boss to convey, “This is about you. This is how people actually see you, from their own words.”

As Robert Burns wrote, “O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us / To see oursels as ithers see us!” The word cloud is exactly such a giftie.

It really does seem that the result might be a virtuous circle.

Written by Leisureguy

31 October 2015 at 9:36 am

A rose-fragranced shave: Fine, QED, iKon, and Saint Charles Shave

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SOTD 31 Oct 2015

I very much like a good rose fragrance in my shaving soap and aftershave. In my mind, a rose fragrance is somehow connected with the Cavaliers. Or perhaps the connection is somehow to the War of the Roses. Whatever the reason, the fragrance of rose resonates with manly for me.

This QED shave stick exudes the essence of the fragrance of roses fresh in the garden. It really is one of the best rose soaps I’ve encountered, and the Fine Accoutrements angel-hair synthetic make a fine lather.

This is the companion to the iKon head I used yesterday: the comb-guard version, which I had gold plated, along with the handle. I had no problems at all in getting a fine BBS result.

A splash of Saint Charles Shave Dark Rose, and the weekend begins.

Written by Leisureguy

31 October 2015 at 9:14 am

Posted in Shaving

Reading list free association

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I just came across “12 Great Books (And The Perfect Kind Of Mood To Read Them In),” by Koty Neelis. I was misled at first. My guess for each category after reading just the category title:

  1. When it’s late at night and you want to go on a dark, twisted journey. I immediately thought of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Pretty dark and twisted if you look closely. In a lighter vein, A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole. In movies, Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, definitely.

  2. When you want to buy a one way ticket and never look back. My immediate thought was the Odyssey, but on reflection Gulliver’s Travel might be better in new of Gulliver’s longing to return to the land of the Houyhnhnms.

  3. When you hate everyone in your family. Oedipus Rex, but really that’s a man hating himself. I’m thinking theater, Eugene O’Neill.

  4. When it feels like no one understands you. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or perhaps Don Quixote (to which much reference is made in Tom Sawyer as well as Huckleberry Finn.

  5. When you’re not sure if you’re doing that great at this whole adult thing. Hamlet.

  6. When you’re waiting for that person to text you back but they haven’t texted back and now you’re re-examining everything. Waiting for Godot.

  7. When there’s a soft rain outside and you’re all introspective about life and love. Jane Austen, without a doubt. Anthony Trollope as well?

  8. When you’re thinking of saying “fuck it” and wandering off into the Alaskan wilderness like some type of modern day Thoreau. Well, Walden, obviously, but it’s been interesting to discover how little empathy it expresses and the strong racism.

  9. When it feels like no one else has ever felt alone as you feel right now. Achilles grieving for Patroclus? The protagonist of John Barth’s The Floating Opera.

  10. When your day job sucks and you want to figure out how to do something, anything else with your life. A big biography of Gaughin, lushly illustrated with excellent reproductions of his paintings. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge.

  11. When you’re questioning absolutely everything right now. The first choice would be the complete Dialogues of Plato, but one has to admit that the Meditations of Descartes have a certain relevance.

  12. When all you want is your best friend. Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corners.

Your own free associations with the titles are welcome in comments.

Written by Leisureguy

30 October 2015 at 6:22 pm

Posted in Books

Outlook of traditional automakers hard to distinguish from one that’s hidebound

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Interesting post. There may be a tipping point approaching. Of course, for Google and Apple to take on the established auto industry would require that the “invaders” be comfortable with disrupting existing technologies and, ideally, have prior experience with doing so. If you get my drift.

Written by Leisureguy

30 October 2015 at 1:15 pm

Question for NRA: What if you have two good guys with guns, facing each other?

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It happens. Guns are really dangerous, and in many ways.

Written by Leisureguy

30 October 2015 at 1:08 pm

Posted in Guns

Perhaps it’s TMI, but: Why Animals That Died Scared Taste Bad

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Trigger warning: Vivid.

Motherboard reports:

If you’re ever locked in a cage in a gingerbread house, screaming in terror as you’re menaced by a wicked witch, take heart: she isn’t planning to eat you.

At least, not if she wants you to taste good. That’s because when animals (and presumably humans) have been frightened or stressed out before death, it actually affects the quality of their meat.

The scientific basis for the phenomenon is well-established, and it’s frequently been discussed as a reason to make slaughterhouse practices more humane. The key ingredient here is lactic acid: in an unstressed animal, after death, muscle glycogen is converted into lactic acid, which helps keep meat tender, pink, and flavorful. Adrenaline released by stress before slaughter uses up glycogen, which means there’s not enough lactic acid produced postmortem. This affects different kind of meat in different ways, but in general it’ll be tough, tasteless, and high in pH, and will go bad quicker than unstressed meat. (Lactic acid helps slow the growth of spoilage bacteria.)

In pigs, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

30 October 2015 at 1:04 pm

Posted in Business, Food, Health, Science

Krugman on Brooks—and he’s onto him as well

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From Brooks’s panegyric to Mark Rubio in the NY Times today:

. . . While other candidates are repeating the formulas of the 1980s and 1990s, Rubio is a child of this century. He understands that it’s no longer enough to cut taxes and say bad things about government to produce widespread prosperity. In a series of major policy speeches over the past two years (he’s one of the few candidates who actually gives them), Rubio has emphasized that newstructural problems threaten the American dream: technology displacing workers, globalization suppressing wages and the decline of marriage widening inequality.

His proposals reflect this awareness. At this stage it’s probably not sensible to get too worked up about the details of any candidate’s plans. They are all wildly unaffordable. What matters is how a candidate signals priorities. Rubio talks specifically about targeting policies to boost middle- and lower-middle-class living standards.

For example, Rubio’s tax policy starts where all Republican plans start. He would simplify the tax code, reduce rates and move us toward a consumption-based system by reducing taxes on investment.

But he understands that overall growth no longer translates directly to better wages. He adds a big $2,500 child tax credit that is controversial among conservative economists, but that would make life easier for working families.

His antipoverty programs are the biggest departure from traditional Republicanism. America already spends a fair bit of money aiding the poor — enough to lift most families out of poverty if we simply wrote them checks. But the money flows through a hodgepodge of programs and creates perverse incentives. People are often better off over all if they rely on government rather than getting an entry-level job. As Oren Cass of the Manhattan Institute has pointed out, there are two million fewer Americans working today than before the recession and two million more receiving disabilities benefits. . . [and so on – LG]

Continue reading.

And, a little later (it’s time-stamped at 7:58 a.m., so early in the morning, probably just after reading it), Paul Krugman posts in his NY Times blog:

David Brooks writes a pro-Marco-Rubio column, and in passing says this:

At this stage it’s probably not sensible to get too worked up about the details of any candidate’s plans. They are all wildly unaffordable. What matters is how a candidate signals priorities.

It won’t surprise you to learn that I disagree deeply. My experience is that the best way to figure out a candidate’s true priorities — and his or her character — is to look hard at policy proposals.

My view here is strongly influenced by the story of George W. Bush. Younger readers may not know or remember how it was back in 2000, but back then the universal view of the commentariat was that W was a moderate, amiable, bluff and honest guy. I was pretty much alone taking his economic proposals — on taxes and Social Security — seriously. And what I saw was a level of dishonesty and irresponsibility, plus radicalism, that was unprecedented in a major-party presidential candidate. So I was out there warning that Bush was a bad, dangerous guy no matter how amiable he seemed.

How did that work out?

So now we have candidates proposing “wildly unaffordable” tax cuts. Can we start by noting that this isn’t a bipartisan phenomenon, that it’s not true that everyone does it? Hillary Clinton isn’t proposing wildly unaffordable stuff; Bernie Sanders hasn’t offered details about how he’d pay for single-payer, but you can be sure that he would propose something. And proposing wildly unaffordable stuff is itself a declaration of priorities: Rubio is saying that keeping the Hair Club for Growth happy is more important to him than even a pretense of fiscal responsibility. Or if you like, what we’ve seen is a willingness to pander without constraint or embarrassment.

Also, his insistence that the magic of supply-side economics would somehow pay for the cuts is a further demonstration of priorities: allegiance to voodoo trumps all.

At a more general level, I’d argue that it’s a really bad mistake to wave away policy silliness with a boys-will-be-boys attitude. Policy proposals tell us a lot about character — and the history of the past 15 years says that journalists who imagine that they can judge character from the way people come across on TV or in personal interviews are kidding themselves, and misleading everyone else.

Krugman’s own column today, “Springtime for Grifters” (getting into Godwin’s Law territory there), is also worth reading:

At one point during Wednesday’s Republican debate, Ben Carson was asked about his involvement with Mannatech, a nutritional supplements company that makes outlandish claims about its products and has been forced to pay $7 million to settle a deceptive-practices lawsuit. The audience booed, and Mr. Carson denied being involved with the company. Both reactions tell you a lot about the driving forces behind modern American politics.

As it happens, Mr. Carson lied. He has indeed been deeply involved with Mannatech, and has done a lot to help promote its merchandise. PolitiFact quickly rated his claim false, without qualification. But the Republican base doesn’t want to hear about it, and the candidate apparently believes, probably correctly, that he can simply brazen it out. These days, in his party, being an obvious grifter isn’t a liability, and may even be an asset.

And this doesn’t just go for outsider candidates like Mr. Carson and Donald Trump. Insider politicians like Marco Rubio are simply engaged in a different, classier kind of scam — and they are empowered in part by the way the grifters have defined respectability down.

About the grifters: Start with the lowest level, in which marketers use political affinity to sell get-rich-quick schemes, miracle cures, and suchlike. That’s the Carson phenomenon, and it’s just the latest example of a long tradition. As the historian Rick Perlstein documents, a “strategic alliance of snake-oil vendors and conservative true believers” goes back half a century. Direct-mail marketing using addresses culled from political campaigns has given way to email, but the game remains the same.

At a somewhat higher level are marketing campaigns more or less tied to what purports to be policy analysis. Right-wing warnings of imminent hyperinflation, coupled with demands that we return to the gold standard, were fanned by media figures like Glenn Beck, who used his show to promote Goldline, a firm selling gold coins and bars at, um, inflated prices. Sure enough, Mr. Beck has been a vocal backer of Ted Cruz, who has made a return to gold one of his signature policy positions.

Oh, and former Congressman Ron Paul, who has spent decades warning of runaway inflation and is undaunted by its failure to materialize, is very much in the business of selling books and videos showing how you, too, can protect yourself from the coming financial disaster.

At a higher level still are . . .

Continue reading.

Kevin Drum has a very good set of posts that, though brief, make notable points:

Ben Carson’s paid shilling for Mannatech and his total denial of what he did

Carly Fiorina’ outright lie regarding Obamacare: for it to be true, time-travel is required

How the Republicans were very upset by how bad they looked in their Wednesday debate

Written by Leisureguy

30 October 2015 at 11:55 am

Posted in Election, GOP, Politics

A stunning visualization of our divided Congress

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Christopher Ingraham has a very interesting article in the Washington Post:

Political polarization is on the rise, and with it come lots of clever new ways to visualize that polarization. I’ve even taken a crack at it myself. A group of researchers recently gave it another go in a paper published in PLOS One, and while it doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know, it’s nonetheless one of the more effective visualizations of rising partisanship that I’ve seen. Take a gander.


You’ll see that they’ve created network diagrams for each House of Representatives from 1949 to 2011. They’ve drawn dots for each representative, and lines connecting pairs of representatives who vote together a given number of times. Finally, the dots for each representative are placed according to how frequently the Representatives vote together overall.

What we’re left with is a picture of political mitosis. Similar voting between Democrats and Republicans was fairly common up through the 1980s. But starting in the 1990s the parties began pulling apart from each other, like a single cell dividing into two.

Not only that, but within parties Representatives are voting more similarly too — that’s illustrated with the dots in each party’s cluster becoming more tightly packed together over time. Starting in the 2000s, there are hardly any links between the parties at all.

Again: this is nothing we don’t know. In fact, historically our current era of polarization may just be a return to historic norms. And while this visualization is effective at showing the parties peel away from each other, it misses some other nuances about polarization — for instance, that current trends are largely driven by Republicans moving away from the center.

Continue reading.

The PLOS paper is worth looking at: “The Rise of Partisanship and Super-Cooperators in the U.S. House of Representatives.” The abstract:

It is widely reported that partisanship in the United States Congress is at an historic high. Given that individuals are persuaded to follow party lines while having the opportunity and incentives to collaborate with members of the opposite party, our goal is to measure the extent to which legislators tend to form ideological relationships with members of the opposite party. We quantify the level of cooperation, or lack thereof, between Democrat and Republican Party members in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1949–2012. We define a network of over 5 million pairs of representatives, and compare the mutual agreement rates on legislative decisions between two distinct types of pairs: those from the same party and those formed of members from different parties. We find that despite short-term fluctuations, partisanship or non-cooperation in the U.S. Congress has been increasing exponentially for over 60 years with no sign of abating or reversing. Yet, a group of representatives continue to cooperate across party lines despite growing partisanship.

Written by Leisureguy

30 October 2015 at 10:48 am

Border Patrol turned to Tasers to reduce deadly shootings — only to create new problems

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Joseph Tanfani, Brian Bennett, and Matt Hansen report in the LA Times on how the US Border Patrol continues to use excessive force, even with non-lethal weapons:

Searching for a way to curb fatal border shootings, Border Patrol leaders decided in 2008 that their agents needed a new weapon on their belts.

The agency began to supply Tasers, a hand-held device that delivers a paralyzing electric charge, as a way to end confrontations quickly and safely.

But in scores of cases along the border, the Tasers became instruments of excessive force, a Los Angeles Times analysis found.

The Times examined 450 uses of Tasers from 2010 to 2013 that were documented by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents.

Screen Shot 2015-10-30 at 10.32.37 AM

At least 70 times, agents fired the devices at people who were running away, even though there was no struggle or clear indication that agents were in danger, according to use-of-force reports. At least six times, agents used the weapons against people who were trying to climb over the border fence back into Mexico.

Two people were shocked while they were handcuffed. Two were hit with five cycles of the weapon, even though the agency’s policy says no one should receive more than three.

Three people died after being hit by Tasers wielded by border agents or customs officers. In one episode, 24-year-old Alex Martin, who had led agents on a car chase, burned to death after a border agent smashed his car window and fired a Taser inside. The device ignited an explosion and fireball.

Others were seriously hurt. Jose Gutierrez Guzman, a 45-year-old Mexico native who grew up in Los Angeles, was struck with a Taser in 2011 as he sprinted away from officers at an Arizona border station. He fell on his head and suffered permanent brain damage, according to a pending lawsuit he filed against the federal government.

Investigations found no wrongdoing in either case. [They never do. And generally the “investigation” is done by the US Border Patrol itself, an obvious conflict of interest. – LG]

The Times’ analysis found that most of the people subjected to Tasers had been caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border or were suspected of being in the country illegally, not fleeing arrest on more serious charges.

“When you put that weapon out there and they have access to it, they’re going to use it,” said Ralph Basham, the former Customs and Border Protection commissioner who authorized the use of Tasers seven years ago. “Having spent my life in law enforcement, I know you hate to see someone getting away.”


Questions about fatal encounters with suspects have bedeviled Customs and Border Protection, the nation’s largest law enforcement agency, mirroring the national debate over police use of force.

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

30 October 2015 at 10:34 am

A new way of ranking colleges: By the value they add

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James Fallows discusses in this post a new report released by the Brookings Institution, ranking colleges in a different way. Worth reading. Here’s the report.

Written by Leisureguy

30 October 2015 at 10:27 am

Posted in Education

Fine shave from an early iKon, along with Brushguy and QED

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SOTD 30 Oct 2015

This brush is a pure badger, and a very nice one. It has more texture on the face, but not sharp pricklies, and the handle comfortable.

A decade ago QED soaps were quite popular and came in many great scents, but the soapmaker who did the work has retired, so these are now legacy soaps. I am annoyed that I did not keep a Mocha Java, a chocolate-and-coffee fragrance that was wonderful. I do have some left, including Special 218, which I bring out every February 18. This QED Vanilla shave stick gave a very fine lather—in terms of performance, all the QED soaps were good.

The head on this razor is the highly-polished version of iKon’s second razor. The first iKon was too harsh to be usable for me, but the second, available in either a comb guard or a bar guard, was wonderful and established iKon’s status as a highly comfortable and highly efficient razor, which has been the rule ever since (except for the Tech). I had the comb-guard head gold plated, along with the handle. This one I left with its highly polished finished and here it appears on a Tradere handle. It game an excellent shave.

A splash of Krampert’s Finest Bay Rum finished the job. Krampert’s is somewhat moisturizing and certainly more moisturizing than I expect from a splash.

Fine shave. I think I’ll use the mate to this iKon tomorrow.

Written by Leisureguy

30 October 2015 at 10:20 am

Posted in Shaving

American drone assassinations may violate international law

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Murtaza Hussain reports in The Intercept:

The standards governing America’s drone assassinations may violate the Geneva Conventions and other international norms, legal experts say.

U.S. forces routinely classify bystanders felled in its Afghanistan drone strikes as “enemies killed in action,” even when they are not the intended targets of the strikes, according to a source and to documents obtained by The Intercept published earlier this month. But the Geneva Conventions specify that when someone’s status is not clear, they should be classified as a civilian. Article 50 of Additional Protocol I, which dates to 1977 and was ratified by 174 countries, says that “in case of doubt whether a person is a civilian, that person shall be considered to be a civilian.”

A landmark document from the International Committee of the Red Cross in 2009 expands on this rule:

All feasible precautions must be taken in determining whether a person is a civilian and, if so, whether that civilian is directly participating in hostilities. In case of doubt, the person must be presumed to be protected against direct attack. … In case of doubt as to whether a specific civilian conduct qualifies as direct participation in hostilities, it must be presumed that the general rule of civilian protection applies.

The U.S. failed to ratify Protocol I after signing it, and the Red Cross’ legal guidance has been controversial, at least within elements of the U.S. defense establishment. But until now it’s been unclear to what extent the U.S. would depart from treaties and other influential documents related to classifying casualties whose civilian status is unclear.

“The [ICRC] teaches the presumption of civilian status in cases of doubt, and its teaching is consistent with the purpose of international humanitarian law, which is to protect civilians from attack unless they are taking a direct part in hostilities,” says Hina Shamsi of the ACLU’s National Security Project. “What the U.S. is essentially presuming is that the people it has killed were taking a direct part in hostilities. In other words, in assessing the lawfulness of its lethal force, it’s turning the exception into the rule.”

The United States Special Operations Command has previously declined to comment on The Intercept’s revelations about its drone strikes in Afghanistan.

This controversial U.S. posture toward possible civilians is not confined to its drone wars or to the documents obtained by The Intercept; it’s also explicitly outlined in a landmark law-of-war manual issued by the Department of Defense in June. The manual, the first ever such department-wide manual in the DoD’s history and the culmination of years of legal deliberation by military and civilian lawyers, directly addresses Additional Protocol I, but argues that customary international law does not require classifying people as civilians by default.

“A legal presumption of civilian status in cases of doubt may demand a degree of certainty that would not account for the realities of war,” the document states. It also claims that “under customary international law, no legal presumption of civilian status exists for persons or objects.”

While the Defense Department claims that a presumption of civilian status is not part of “customary international law,” at least one member of the defense establishment has said the opposite.  Michael Schmitt, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College and 20-year veteran of the Air Force, endorsed the presumption of civilian status as a key part of “customary international law” in the course of arguing against strict Red Cross legal guidance on which members of a hostile group may be attacked in combat. As he wrote in his article in the Harvard National Security Journal: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

29 October 2015 at 1:50 pm

Mongrel Microbe Tests Story of Complex Life

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Emily Singer writes in Quanta:

In September 2014, Christa Schleper embarked on an unusual hunting expedition in Slovenia. Instead of seeking the standard quarry of deer or wild boar, Schleper was in search of Lokiarchaeota, or Loki, a newly discovered group of organisms first identified near deep-sea vents off the coast of Norway. The simple, single-celled creatures have captured scientists’ interest because they are unlike any other organism known to science. They belong to an ancient group of creatures known as archaea, but they seem to share some features with more complex life-forms, including us. link

Though little is known about Loki, scientists hope that it will help to resolve one of biology’s biggest mysteries: how life transformed from simple single-celled organisms to the menagerie of complex life known as eukaryotes — a category that includes everything from yeast to azaleas to elephants. “Next to the origins of life, there’s probably no bigger mystery in the history of life,” said John Archibald, an evolutionary biologist at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia.

The jump from single cells to complex creatures is so puzzling because it represents an enormous evolutionary gulf. “How do you make a eukaryote, that’s a big question,” said Schleper, a microbiologist at the University of Vienna in Austria. “It’s a huge transition.”

Though single-celled organisms blanket the Earth and are capable of impressive biochemistry — some can eat nuclear waste, for example — their structure and shape remain simple. Cells from animals, plants and fungi, which make up the eukaryotes, are much more sophisticated. They possess a suite of features lacking in their simpler brethren: a nucleus that houses DNA; an energy-producing device known as the mitochondrion; and molecular architecture, known as the cytoskeleton, that controls cell shape and movement.

Most biologists agree that at some point around two billion years ago, one featureless cell swallowed another, and the two began to work together as one. But the details of this process — whether this symbiosis jump-started an evolutionary process, or whether it happened midway along the path to eukaryotes — continue to drive huge disputes in the field. One group theorizes that eukaryotes emerged in a rapid burst, driven by the acquisition of the cellular energy factories known as mitochondria. Others propose a slower, stepwise process. They say that mitochondria couldn’t have developed in simple cells; some level of complexity must have evolved before mitochondria came onboard. The debate has grown so heated that members of each camp no longer attend the other’s conference sessions.

Since biologists [unlike other specialists? – LG] can’t travel back in time, they search surviving life-forms for clues. But no detectable intermediates between ancient, single-celled life and early eukaryotes exist, making it nearly impossible to reconstruct the order of evolutionary events. “When something only happens once, it’s hard to grapple with the problem,” Archibald said. “We’re left studying the DNA sequence of modern organisms and trying to piece it together.”

Enter Loki, which some scientists have dubbed a microbial missing link. It is descended from an ancient lineage and is a simple organism with patches of apparent complexity. Genetic analysis places Loki squarely within the single-celled archaea. But it possesses an intriguing collection of genes that look as though they would be more at home in eukaryotes, rather like modern words dotting a medieval manuscript. In fact, Loki’s genetic machinery suggests that the organism might be able to engulf other cells, the first step in the creation of mitochondria. “These genes could have provided a starter kit for eukaryogenesis, the emergence of eukaryotes,” said Thijs Ettema, a microbiologist at Uppsala University in Sweden who first described Loki in collaboration with Schleper in Nature last May.

Loki thus outlines a new potential origin story for eukaryotes, one that walks a middle path between the two extremes. Mitochondria may have been born early in the evolution of eukaryotes. But that first mitochondrial host may have already possessed some sophisticated features, most notably the ability to engulf other cells. “It hints that [the Loki] are stepping-stones to eukaryotic complexity,” Archibald said.

Schleper, Ettema and others are now searching for new varieties of Loki, hoping to find some that are even closer to eukaryotes on the evolutionary tree. Schleper’s expedition to Slovenia was part of this ongoing hunt.

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

29 October 2015 at 1:47 pm

Posted in Evolution, Science

What Libraries Can (Still) Do

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James Gleick has an interesting article in the NY Review of Books:

Of the many institutions suffering through the world’s metamorphosis from analog to digital (real to virtual, offline to online), few are as beleaguered as that bedrock of our culture, the public library. Budgets are being slashed by state and local governments. Even the best libraries are cutting staff and hours. Their information desks are seemingly superseded by Google, their encyclopedias are gathering dust. And their defining product, the one that lines their shelves, now arrives in the form of a weightless doppelgänger that doesn’t require shelves.

In the technocracy, all the world’s information comes to us on screens—desk, pocket, wrist, goggles—and no one trudges through wind and rain with library card in hand to find a single worn object. After all, when you want the text of Magna Carta, you don’t track down the original. Same with books? “Libraries are screwed,” said Eli Neiburger, a Michigan library director, in a much-quoted presentation at a Library Journalconference in 2010. “Libraries are screwed because we are invested in the codex, and the codex has become outmoded.”

So is the library, storehouse and lender of books, as anachronistic as the record store, the telephone booth, and the Playboy centerfold? Perversely, the most popular service at some libraries has become free Internet access. People wait in line for terminals that will let them play solitaire and Minecraft, and librarians provide coffee. Other patrons stay in their cars outside just to use the Wi-Fi. No one can be happy with a situation that reduces the library to a Starbucks wannabe.

Perhaps worst of all: the “bookless library” is now a thing. You can look it up in Wikipedia.

I’m an optimist. I think the pessimists and the worriers—and this includes some librarians—are taking their eyes off the ball. The library has no future as yet another Internet node, but neither will it relax into retirement as an antiquarian warehouse. Until our digital souls depart our bodies for good and float away into the cloud, we retain part citizenship in the physical world, where we still need books, microfilm, diaries and letters, maps and manuscripts, and the experts who know how to find, organize, and share them.

In the midst of an information explosion, librarians are still the most versatile information specialists we have. And the purest. In his new book, BiblioTech, a wise and passionate manifesto, John Palfrey reminds us that the library is the last free space for the gathering and sharing of knowledge: “Our attention cannot be bought and sold in a library.” As a tradition barely a century and a half old in the United States, it gives physical form to the principle that public access to knowledge is the foundation of democracy.

The problem of libraries now—and it is a problem—involves some paradoxes, which need to be sorted out. For one thing, as Palfrey says, librarians will need to cherish their special talent as “stewards” while letting go of the instinct to be “collectors.” Knowledge in physical form needs to be handled carefully, preserved, and curated. But with digital information pouring into iPhones and Kindles in petabytes—via Twitter and Instagram and YouTube, not to mention Amazon’s self-publishing factories—libraries need to rethink old habits. They cannot collect everything, or even a small fraction of everything. “That model is already too hard to keep up,” Palfrey says. “A network of stewards can accomplish vastly more than a disconnected (even sometimes competitive) group of collectors ever can.”

The packrat instinct is hard to shed. Five years ago the Library of Congress began a project that collects every utterance on Twitter, in the name of preserving the nation’s digital heritage. That is billions weekly, sucked up for storage in secure tape archives, and the Library has yet to figure out how to make any of it available to researchers. Divorced from a human curator, the unfiltered mass of Twitter may as well be a garbage heap. Meanwhile, onward streams the continually vanishing conversation in Facebook and Snapchat and whatever next year’s channels will be, along with the email of the great and small, preserved haphazardly or not at all, to the presumed dismay of future historians. What’s an archivist to do?

There is no escaping the tension between real and virtual space, between the shelf and the cloud. “Librarians well know that the discovery of information is moving out of physical locations and into distributed spaces”—i.e. screens everywhere—says Palfrey, and this is an understatement. He recalls an afternoon in his town library in Andover, Massachusetts, when he heard a thirteen-year-old shouting into his iPhone, “Siri, what does ‘terminal velocity’ mean?” Evidently the feckless genius of the cloud had nothing to offer. Palfrey took comfort from that, knowing that any reference librarian could do better: “I realized that all will be well in the world of libraries, at least for a while.”

Alas—all too predictably—in the time it took for Palfrey’s book to reach physical form, Siri has mastered terminal velocity. Wikipedia continues to evolve, the one great holdout from the commercial Internet, refusing to charge money or sell its users’ information, crowd-sourcing the expertise of a thousand reference librarians. It is an effective online realization of the vision of a network of stewards. Still, it is not and does not aspire to be a library.

People continue to gather in libraries, with or without their laptops and pocket devices. They sit at the old wooden tables and consult real documents and cherish the quiet aura of the books that surround them. Is this merely a nostalgic dream? Palfrey is technologically savvy and looking toward the future, and the fundamental point applies: “In a digital era, spaces where people can come to study, read, and think are essential for communities and individuals to thrive. We already have too few such open, public spaces.” The library remains a sacred place for secular folk.

The toughest question for libraries may be . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

29 October 2015 at 10:08 am

Brushguy, Connecticut Yankee, and the ATT R1

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SOTD 29 Oct 2015

An extremely smooth shave today. The brush is by and is quite pleasant, and it made a terrific lather from Connecticut Yankee (made from the original 1840 formula for the soap that, after many reformulations, became Williams Mug Soap—and using the original formula shows that the soap today is but a shadow of its former self). It’s a tallow based soap that creates a particularly thick, creamy lather.

My Above the Tie R1 razor with an Atlas handle did a superb job. Once you find your best ATT baseplate, the shaves are wonderful. Three passes to a totally BBS result.

A good splash of Bathhouse Soapery’s aftershave, and the day begins.

Written by Leisureguy

29 October 2015 at 9:13 am

Posted in Shaving

How One Air Force Captain Saved the World From Accidental Nuclear War 53 Years Ago Today

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Jon Schwarz has a very interesting story in The Intercept. A narrow escape indeed.

Written by Leisureguy

28 October 2015 at 4:53 pm

Posted in Military

The smoke point of various fats

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The smoke point is important because when a fat has been heated beyond its smoke point, it’s no longer good for consumption. I’ve known that extra-virgin olive oil has a relatively low smoke point (320ºF), so when I cook foods with olive oil I don’t crank up the heat. (Virgin olive oil has a smoke point of 420ºF.)

Peanut oil is often recommended for high-temperature frying; according to this chart it has a smoke point of 440ºF. I have used coconut oil, butter, and bacon fat (lard, in effect) for sautéing. The smoke point for coconut oil and butter is 350ºF, and bacon fat has a smoke point of 370ºF.

The big surprise for me was avocado oil, which I happen to have on hand: it has a smoke point of 520ºF.

More at the link.

Written by Leisureguy

28 October 2015 at 1:50 pm

Posted in Food

The House science committee is even worse than the Benghazi committee

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David Roberts reports in Vox:

Benghazi committee spent 11 hours grilling Hillary Clinton on a bizarre farrago of issues, many of which bore only tangential connection to the Benghazi attack.

Over the past few weeks, the political narrative seems to have shifted from “Clinton in trouble” to “congressional witch hunt seeks to take down Clinton.” Between McCarthy’s accidental truth telling, an ex-staffer confirming the worst reports about the committee, and another House Republican conceding the obvious, it has become clear that the Benghazi committee is a thoroughly partisan political endeavor. Opinion has turned, but Republicans are trapped.

The thing is: The Benghazi committee is not even the worst committee in the House. I’d argue that the House science committee, under the chairmanship of Lamar Smith (R-TX), deserves that superlative for its open-ended, Orwellian attempts to intimidate some of the nation’s leading scientists and scientific institutions.

The science committee’s modus operandi is similar to the Benghazi committee’s — sweeping, catchall investigations, with no specific allegations of wrongdoing or clear rationale, searching through private documents for out-of-context bits and pieces to leak to the press, hoping to gain short-term political advantage — but it stands to do more lasting long-term damage.

In both cases, the investigations have continued long after all questions have been answered. (There were half a dozen probes into Benghazi before this one.) In both cases, the chair has drifted from inquiry to inquisition. But with Benghazi, the only threat is to the reputation of Hillary Clinton, who has the resources to defend herself. With the science committee, it is working scientists being intimidated, who often do not have the resources to defend themselves, and the threat is to the integrity of the scientific process in the US. It won’t take much for scientists to get the message that research into politically contested topics is more hassle than it’s worth.

This year, Smith was one of the committee chairs granted sweeping new subpoena powers by his fellow House Republicans, what one staffer called “exporting the Issa model.” No longer is the chair required to consult with the ranking member before launching investigations or issuing subpoenas. A spokesperson for Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said, “This change will inevitably [lead] to widespread abuses of power as Republicans infect the other committees with the poisonous process that Issa has so abused during his chairmanship.”

That turned out to be pretty prescient, at least in the case of the science committee. No chair has taken to his new role with as much enthusiasm as Smith. Here are just three of his recent exploits.

Hassling a scientist for unwelcome results

In June, a scientist named Thomas Karl, along with colleagues, published a peer-reviewed paper in the journal Science called “Possible artifacts of data biases in the recent global surface warming hiatus.” It cast doubt on the global warming “pause” that has become the latest cause célèbre for climate change, er, doubters.

That did not sit well with Smith, who is a doubter himself, like many of the Republicans on his committee and more than half of all House Republicans. And it was the subject of much heated attack in the denial-o-sphere.

So Smith has gone after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, where Karl works as the director of the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI). For a play-by-play, I recommend this scorching letter to Smith from committee ranking member Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX).

In it, she notes that Smith made three written requests for information about Karl’s study, all of which NOAA responded to in writing and in personal briefings. “Moreover,” she writes, “NOAA attempted to explain certain aspects of the methodology about which the Majority was apparently confused.” (Imagine how that meeting went.)

Among Smith’s repeated demands: access to the data and methods behind NOAA’s work on climate. Except, as NOAA and Democratic members of the committee kept trying to explain, those data and methods are posted on the internet. Anyone can access them. Yet Republicans kept demanding them.

Unsatisfied with the total cooperation and untrammeled access his committee received, Smith issued a subpoena:

On October 13, the committee subpoenaed nearly seven years of internal deliberations and communications among scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, including “all documents and communications” related to NOAA’s measurement of our climate.

“All documents and communications” would presumably include emails, preliminary drafts, peer review comments, notes, audio recordings, and a treasure trove of other material. This would mean thousands upon thousands of records for employees to identify and go through and analyze for no clearly stated purpose.

NOAA was given two weeks to comply.

(Coincidentally, the very following day, longtime climate skeptic blogger Bob Tisdale published a long post calling into question the very adjustments to temperature data that were mentioned in Smith’s subpoena.)

To be clear, Smith has not alleged any corruption, wrongdoing, or even bad science. He hasn’t alleged anything. Nor has he offered any justification for why he needs access to NOAA internal communications. The new rules mean that he no longer has to explain or justify himself to anyone. He’s just hoping to find something he can use.

Here’s the most pointed part of Johnson’s letter:

The baseless conflict you have created by issuing the October 13 subpoena is representative of a disturbing pattern in your use of Congressional power since your Chairmanship began. In the past two years and ten months that you have presided as Chairman of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology you have issued more subpoenas (six) than were issued in the prior 54 year history of the Committee. That prior Committee history is filled with extensive legitimate oversight concerning consequential events — oftentimes quite literally matters of life and death. Yet none of the prior eleven Chairs of our Committee exercised their authority with the degree of partisan brashness as is now the case in our Committee.

Hassling a scientist for unwelcome politics

Recently, political pressure on Exxon and the oil industry has been growing.

In May, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) gave a speech and penned an op-ed on the possibility of a RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) case against the energy industry, arguing that the “parallels between what the tobacco industry did and what the fossil fuel industry is doing now are striking.”

On September 1, a group of about 20 climate scientists sent a letter to President Obama, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and OSTP Director John Holdren recommending that they look into a RICO case. Holdren replied, deferring any legal decisions to the Department of Justice but writing that “the Administration shares the concern expressed in the letter about the seriousness of the threat posed by climate change.”

On September 21, InsideClimate News published the first in what would become a blockbuster series of stories that made clear just how much Exxon knew about the dangers of climate change, and how soon, well before it spent millions of dollars deliberately obscuring the issue. In early October, the LA Times followed up with its own investigation.

On October 15, Reps. Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Mark DeSaulnier (D-CA) wrote Lynch asking the Department of Justice to investigate whether the company violated the law. On October 20, Bernie Sanders joined the call for a federal investigation.

None of this sat well with Smith, either. So he’s going after one of the scientists who signed the letter to Obama.

Apparently the letter was (inadvertently, the organization says) posted on the website of George Mason University’s Institute of Global Environment and Society (IGES), a nonprofit research institution led by one of the scientists who signed the letter, Jagadish Shukla.

Science journalist Warren Cornwall tells what happened next: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

28 October 2015 at 8:59 am

Satin Tip and RazoRock Angel Hair, plus Eufros and the Standard

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SOTD 28 Oct 2015

A very fine shave today, with a brush comparison: the Satin Tip and RazoRock’s angel-hair synthetic, both used with JabonMan’s Eufros shaving soap.

Both brushes easily generated a fine lather—it’s a very good soap—and both brushes felt good on the face. Indeed, there was little to choose between them. I could detect that the Satin Tip’s loft was a bit shorter, since the RazoRock could expand a bit more, but both brushes felt quite soft on my face and both did a fine job of lathering. I believe you can just choose the brush whose looks appeal more to you without worrying about feel and performance, since both brushes were quite satisfactory in that regard.

The Standard head on a heavier handle—in this case a UFO handle—improves the agility of the razor, and with three passes I had no problems arriving at a BBS result. A splash of Klar Seifen Klassik aftershave, and the day is launched.

Written by Leisureguy

28 October 2015 at 8:46 am

Posted in Shaving

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