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Archive for April 2016

Death from the Sky: Searching for Ground Truth in the Kunduz Hospital Bombing

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May Jeong reports in The Intercept:

When the Taliban overran Kunduz last September after a monthlong siege, the northern Afghan city became the first to fall to the insurgency since the war began in 2001. A week earlier, many Kunduz residents had left town to observe Eid al-Adha, the sacrificial feast honoring Abraham’s act of submission to God. The heavy fighting sent the remaining Kunduzis fleeing as dead bodies littered the streets.

On Friday, October 2, the city lay quiet, with just one building lit up against the dark sky. Most other international organizations had evacuated when the fighting began, but the Kunduz Trauma Center run by Médecins Sans Frontières remained open throughout the battle for the city. It was one of the few buildings with a generator. Throughout the week, violence seemed to lap against the walls of the hospital without ever engulfing it. All around the 35,620-square-meter compound, the site of an old cotton factory, fighting ebbed and flowed. Doctors and nurses marked the intensity of battle by the freshly wounded who arrived at the gate. According to MSF, the hospital treated 376 emergency patients between September 28, when the city fell, and October 2.

The last week had seen much bloodshed, but Friday was uncharacteristically calm: no fighting nearby, no gunshots, no explosions. “I remember seeing a child flying a kite,” recalled Dr. Kathleen Thomas, “and thought to myself, today is a calm day.” That evening, while more than 100 MSF employees and caretakers slept in a basement below the hospital, several staff members remained awake, preparing for what the night might bring. There were 105 patients in the hospital, including three or four Afghan government soldiers and about 20 Taliban fighters, two of whom appeared to be of high rank. Hospital staff stepped outside to take in the bracing autumn air, something they’d lately refrained from doing for fear of stray bullets. The night sky was open and clear.

Some 7,000 feet above, an AC-130 gunship was preparing to fire. At 2:08 a.m., on October 3, a missile began its descent, gliding through a cloudless sky.

About two hours earlier,

nurse Mohammad Poya lay down on the concrete floor of the hospital’s administrative office. Poya had a few hours for sleep, but instead dead bodies were on his mind. In the morning he had visited the morgue to find its refrigerators full. Earlier in the week, Poya had asked the orderlies to pack the dead in as tight as possible. When there was no more space, he asked the cleaners to scrub the front porch of the morgue so that the excess corpses could be stacked there. What Poya hated most was carelessness. Many died undignified deaths in Afghanistan; the least the hospital could do was to show the dead the respect that had eluded them in life.

Poya was especially worried about the fighting that had ensnarled the streets around the compound. With all major roads blocked, the hospital was running low on supplies. Corridors overflowed with the wounded, and a decision was made to triage patients earlier than usual to avoid wasting resources on those least likely to survive. The last thought Poya remembers having before finally falling asleep was that they would have to start turning away patients.

Earlier that Friday, at 1 p.m., Guilhem Molinie, the head of MSF in Afghanistan, sat at his desk in Kabul to write an email to a contact in the U.S. 3rd Special Forces Group, which had been deployed to Kunduz after the fall of the city. “Questions in case things go bad,” the subject line read. It wasn’t the first time that week he had taken precautions. On Monday, when a Taliban victory seemed certain, Molinie called an insurgent contact to reaffirm the hospital’s neutral position. He did the same with the other side, sending a letter with GPS coordinates of the hospital to the Afghan National Security Council, Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Public Health, the U.S. Embassy, USAID, and the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the agency’s body tasked with responding to complex emergencies. The U.N. forwarded Molinie’s email to Col. Paul Sarat, the deputy commander of NATO’s mission in the north, as well as to Maj. Gen. Abdul Hamid, who headed the 209th Corps of the Afghan National Army, which is responsible for the country’s northern nine provinces. Molinie tried to reach out to Freedom’s Sentinel, the U.S. counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan, but was not successful; he assumed he had done enough.

Andres Romero, MSF’s head liaison with the U.S. government, forwarded the coordinates to Carter Malkasian, an old Afghan hand and an adviser to top U.S. military officer Joseph Dunford of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Malkasian emailed Romero to inquire whether the hospital had been overrun by the Taliban. Romero told him no, but this information appeared not to have traveled back to the special operations forces on the ground, since on Friday, according to the Associated Press, a senior officer with the 3rd Special Forces Group wrote in his daily report that the hospital was under Taliban control and that he planned to clear the grounds in the coming days.

Among the units accompanying the 3rd Special Forces Group were Afghan commandos and the 6th Special Operations Kandak, reporting to the Ministry of Defense; 222 and 333 national mission units, reporting to the Ministry of Interior; and a police special unit already based out of Kunduz. The men had not worked together before, and they were now in charge of leading the battle to take back Kunduz city. “They just got thrown up there, into an environment they didn’t know much about,” said a security analyst based in northern Afghanistan, who was formerly an adviser to the U.S. special operations forces in Afghanistan. The security analyst asked not to be identified by name, as did many of the dozens of individuals who were interviewed for this article in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Some were not authorized to speak on the record; others, including residents of Kunduz and Afghan security personnel, feared retaliation for doing so.

The picture that emerges from these firsthand accounts, as well as from interviews with several high-ranking Afghan officials, is one of remarkable chaos and uncertainty, even by the standards of war. Those on the ground said it was not clear who was in charge, and those in charge seemed not to have had a clear understanding of what was happening on the ground at any given point before, during, and after the fall of the city.

At 10:00 p.m.Molinie returned to his office to speak with Heman Nagarathnam, who was in charge of the hospital in Kunduz. It was a quiet night and Nagarathnam stepped out for a cigarette to take the call. The nightly check-ins had allowed Molinie to keep updated on the goings-on around the hospital. Molinie knew, for instance, that on Tuesday a local Taliban representative visited Nagarathnam to give his reassurance. He knew that the hospital lay in a Taliban-controlled area, but that Afghan soldiers were still crossing the front line to bring in patients. By Wednesday, however, worries of a Taliban takeover had pushed soldiers to the provincial hospital, which was in an area controlled by government forces.

At one point that week, government forces had regained the city’s central square, before losing it again to the Taliban. On Friday night, Nagarathnam relayed his concerns that the hospital was now located in an area vulnerable to counterattack. They discussed the 2,000 sandbags that he had ordered to defend the hospital against stray bullets. A little after 1:30 a.m., he went to bed.

For some time, Molinie told me, something had been bothering him. “It was never clear who was in charge of what,” he said, in reference to the metastasizing 15-year-old conflict. The current war in Afghanistan was being run by two distinct commands: NATO’s Operation Resolute Support (RS) and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan’s Operation Freedom’s Sentinel. Resolute Support was a non-combat mission with a limited mandate to train, advise, and assist Afghan security forces. Freedom’s Sentinel, successor to Operation Enduring Freedom, was the latest version of America’s so-called war on terror. It was meant to hunt down al Qaeda remnants, but without the rigor of public scrutiny, Freedom’s Sentinel seemed to have spiraled beyond its already vague mandate.

Despite President Barack Obama’s 2014 announcement that America’s combat mission in Afghanistan would end in 2015, Molinie had noticed that many military operations seemed to be outside the bounds of both Resolute Support and Freedom’s Sentinel. It was never clear where one mission ended and another began. Long before January 2016, when President Obama expanded the counterterrorism mission of Freedom’s Sentinel to include the fight against the Islamic State, for instance, there were already airstrikes targeting ISIS in the eastern province of Nangarhar.

When I asked Col. Michael Lawhorn, spokesperson for both NATO and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, to explain the differing missions of the two commands, he said: “Think of it as a big box marked RS and inside that you have a small box marked Freedom’s Sentinel but inside that box you have two smaller boxes marked Resolute Support and another one marked counterterrorism.” When I inquired how we might tell all these different boxes apart, Lawhorn conceded, “It’s not always clear under what authority an action is taken.” The same was true, he said, of what happened in Kunduz. . .

Continue reading.

It would be very interesting to know what an in-depth independent investigation would reveal, but I’m sure the US military will never allow an investigation that they cannot control that might draw conclusions the military wishes to exclude. With the military doing its own investigation of itself, it can conceal the identities and roles of the perpetrators and limit the “punishment” to harsh words and hard looks.

Written by Leisureguy

30 April 2016 at 11:42 am

Southerners Weren’t ‘Lazy,’ Just Infected With Hookworms

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Sarah Emerson reports in Motherboard:

Stereotypes are almost always the conclusions of lazy science—they’re just empirical generalizations that are stripped of their variances and encoded as fact into the collective consciousness of a general population. They’re the tools of propagandists, xenophobes, and oppressors, and tend to stick around through the ages like a bad smell.

However, sometime a stereotype will reveal a hidden truth that provides an origin to the myth.

The trope of the “lazy Southerner” dates back to America’s postbellum period following the end of the Civil War. No one really knew where it came from, but the image of a lethargic, filthy, drawling farmer has pervaded art, literature, and popular culture up until this very moment.

One argument, recently published by Rachel Nuwer for PBS Nova Next, presents some compelling evidence for the theory that a hookworm epidemic was responsible for this rural stereotype.

The hookworm (Necator americanus) is a parasite that’s been called “the germ of laziness,” due to the exhaustion and mental fogginess it tends to inflict upon its victims. Historical evidence shows the parasite ravaged the American South throughout the early 20th century, as a result of poor sanitation and a lack of public health programs among the poor.

By 1905, the parasitologist Charles Stiles estimated that 40 percent or more of the Southern population was infected with hookworms. The parasite thrives in fecal matter, and the combination of shoddy waste disposal and the rarity of shoes allowed hookworm larvae to enter people’s bodies through the webbing between their toes.

Once hookworms have penetrated the skin, they’ll travel through their host’s lungs and into their intestines, where they’ll survive on a diet of blood they suck out from the intestinal wall. A female hookworm can lay up to 10,000 eggs in a single day, which gives you an idea of how rampant a localized infestation can become in a very short time.

The “laziness” that’s synonymous with hookworm infections is a symptom of iron deficiency anemia, due to blood loss. . .

Continue reading.


Written by Leisureguy

30 April 2016 at 11:34 am

Posted in Daily life, Science

Van Yulay shaving soap, along with the ATT S1

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SOTD 2016-04-30

The brush is RazoRock’s synthetic badger, a very nice brush indeed, and the soap is a sample of one of the (many) Van Yulay shaving soaps. This brand is new to me, but the range of fragrances is large—their “Aquarius” shaving soap, for example, is available in 350 fragrances—and samples are nicely packaged and cost $2 each for most. Many of the fragrances seem to be knockoffs of commercial fragrances. For example, the sample shown is Shaving Soap of the Gods Bacchus, and the fragrance is described:

A very unique [sic] scent with blackberry, cognac, suede, musk, Canadian balsam, Mexican chocolate, woodsy notes, Tonka bean, amber and leather. This is scent is like the Keith Urban type fragrance cologne

I don’t get the connection between the Greek god Bacchus and a cowboy hat and boots, however. There is a tag line, “Through the eyes of: Blaine Mire!“, but that means nothing to me and a search on Blaine Mire turned up an MD, an internist in Natchez MS. So I don’t get it, and no explanation is offered.

The soap’s ingredients:

· Cocoa Butter – Cocoa butter used in shave soap is the best salvation for people who have sensitive skin. Cocoa butter moisturizers are good at protecting skin from heat, healing such diseases as eczema and other problems. A cocoa butter cream will definitely help you keep your skin soft and supple.

· Calendula – is used to disinfect minor wounds and to treat infections of the skin. The antibacterial and immunostimulant properties of the plant make it extremely useful in treating slow-healing cuts and cuts in people who have compromised immune systems. The herb stimulates the production of collagen at wound sites and minimizes scarring. Natural moisturizer that has powerful emollients and protective properties which makes a wonderful addition to our shave soap.

· Babassu Oil – is considered to be a superior emollient that is beneficial for either dry or oily complexions. In our shave soap It gently moisturizes the skin without leaving an oily sheen.

Vegan Formula

Made with Stearic Acid, Aloe Vera, Coconut Fatty Acid, Glycerin, Coconut-Castor-Olive-Oils, Cocoa Butter, Calendula, Extracts, Poly Quats, Sodium Lactate, BTMS,Allantoin, Silica, Kaolin Clay, EO’s and Fragrance.

The lather was fine, and I liked the fragrance, though I don’t know Keith Urban from a bale of hay.

Well lathered, I picked up my Above the Tie S1 on the UFO handle and made quick and comfortable work of the stubble, leaving my face perfectly smooth and unharmed. I chose Stetson because of the cowboy hat and boots, though I’m still puzzled by the Bacchus connection. Still, the Stetson did the job—Keith Rural, perhaps.

And now I have a nice weekend, and I hope you do as well.


Written by Leisureguy

30 April 2016 at 8:13 am

Posted in Shaving

Could Psychedelic Drugs Help Keep Ex-Inmates Out Of Jail?

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That was certainly Timothy Leary’s hope: he was convinced that LSD trips with good guidance could significantly reduce recidivism, and he did indeed drop acid with imprisoned convicts. He confided to one, while they were tripping, that he was somewhat fearful, and the convicted laughed. “Hell, I’m terrified, in here with this crazy doctor and I don’t know what he’s going to do.”

I actually met Leary at a party held at Trip Hawkins house. Hawkins was then the CEO of Electronic Arts and I was working on a program (never published), so was at the party. I also met at the same party Thomas Disch, the science-fiction writer. Disch really wanted to meet Leary, but seemed a bit shy, so I took him over and introduced them. Leary knew Disch’s work and had been impressed, so it was sort of interesting to see the two, each impressed by the other and a little in awe, start to converse.

But to the issue: Joshua Rapp Learn writes in Motherboard:

Psychedelic drugs might actually help reduce incidents of domestic violence among men with substance abuse problems.

That’s the implication of a new study, which found that 42 percent of US inmates whohadn’t taken psychedelic drugs before doing time were arrested within six years of their release for domestic battery—compared to 27 percent of those who had taken drugs like acid, mushrooms and ecstasy.

It’s a small, observational study, and a lot more research is needed. Even so, “it adds to growing evidence that these substances may have positive effects,” Zachary Walsh told me. Walsh is a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia Okanagan, and the lead author of the study in The Journal of Psychopharmacology.

He and his coauthors interviewed 302 adult inmates at a county jail in Illinois. All of them had a history of substance disorders, and 72 percent had past histories of violent crime (though not necessarily domestic violence). After they were released from jail, these researchers monitored the men through FBI records and other sources for an average of six years, checking for any domestic violence arrests.

Most of the men—about 56 percent—had tried hallucinogens before, while another 13 percent had a disorder relating to psychedelic drugs, according to Walsh. Most had used “classic psychedelics” like LSD, magic mushrooms and to a lesser extent mescaline and DMT. This study was initiated in the early 2000s, and the date may be a sign of the times: only 45 percent had tried what researchers classified as “a-typical,” or less common, psychedelics, including ecstasy, special k (ketamine) and angel dust (PCP).

“Maybe there are some personal health benefits to these substances,” Walsh said.

The reason why the inmates who have tried hallucinogens tended less towards domestic violence than other drug users is difficult to say based on these results, but Walsh said that it may have to do with the nature of the experiences the drugs afford.

“The experiences of unity, positivity, and transcendence that characterize the psychedelic experience may be particularly beneficial to groups that are frequently marginalized and isolated, such as the incarcerated men who participated in this study,” he explained in a release.

He also says . . .

Continue reading.

As I recall, Leary found that using LSD reduced recidivism by about 40%. Taking the drug seemed to relax the rigidity of outlooks and assumptions, allowing one to find a new and less unpleasant mindset.


Written by Leisureguy

29 April 2016 at 8:26 pm

Posted in Daily life, Drug laws, Law

Texas believes that it is very important that the government control what you’re allow to say or publish in social media

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In The Intercept Jordan Smith has an article that shows how the government—in this case, the Texas government—is getting fed up with people speaking their minds and is taking steps to stop that. From the article (definitely worth reading):

. . . BY THE TIME Hartwell arrived at the Crowne Plaza for the meeting, she was mad; she felt forced by the TDCJ to take offline the Facebook page she had long maintained. And that quickly turned into frustration when a board coordinator approached to deliver a bit of confounding news. Because there were so many people signed up to speak during the public comment period (including three who wanted to speak about the social media rule), the board’s chair had decided to chop in half each speaker’s normal allotted time of three minutes. How many people were signed up? The board rep didn’t know; this is what the chairman has decided, she said.

But throughout the comment period, the rules kept changing, and not everyone got the promised 1 1/2 minutes. First, Chair Dale Wainwright, a former jurist on the Texas Supreme Court, announced that individuals who’d signed up to speak on the same topic would have to coordinate among themselves to figure out who would abridge and deliver comments on behalf of the group — regardless of whether the individuals had similar comments to make. For social media comments, he would offer a total of two minutes. Midway through the meeting, Wainwright changed the rules again, offering each speaker just 60 seconds to communicate their complaints and concerns.

After the comment period — during which board members did not respond to questions (Wainwright promised each speaker would later receive a written response) — Hartwell was quick to link the chair’s actions to concerns about the social media rule. If the board so easily bent its rules for citizen communications, what was to keep the agency from bending its social media rule too? “They’re very arbitrary,” she told The Intercept. “They do what they want to do, and this is what scares me about this stuff.”

The new rule first made news on April 12, when a reporter for the local FOX station in Houston essentially took credit for its creation. According to the reporter, the rule followed from a story he did back in January that drew attention to a Facebook page maintained for a prisoner named Elmer Wayne Henley Jr., who in the early 1970s, was an accomplice to the sexual assault and murder of more than two dozen teenage boys. In addition to written posts, Henley’s page was apparently displaying jewelry for sale and other art that he made in prison.

Although he didn’t mention Henley directly, TDCJ spokesperson Jason Clark later said the rule was necessary because some inmates had misused their accounts. “Offenders have used social media accounts to sell items over the internet based on the notoriety of their crime, harass victims or victims’ families, and continue their criminal activity,” he told Fusion in an email. Of course, trying to sell so-called murderabilia or threatening or harassing victims is already prohibited under TDCJ rules. Given that the content for Facebook and other internet sites must be transmitted from prison via mail, phone, or in-person visit, all of which are heavily monitored, it is hard to see how banning social media for all prisoners would be necessary to ferret out such violations.

When asked to provide details on incidents that prompted adoption of the rule, Clark referred The Intercept to the agency’s Office of the Inspector General, suggesting we file an open records request for the information. In a follow-up email, he said there was “not one specific incident related to an offender that prompted the new rule.” Rather, he wrote, it was that “it had become more difficult to have an offender’s social media account take down because the agency had no policy that specifically prohibited it.”

AS IT TURNS OUT, Facebook, at least, has been censoring prisoner pages for a number of years — despite its stated goal of giving “people the power to share and to make the world more open and connected.” According toreporting by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, from at least 2011 through early 2015, prison officials and Facebook shared a “special arrangement” whereby a prison could provide Facebook with links for prisoner pages it wanted removed, and Facebook would then suspend those profiles, “often [with] no questions asked, even when it wasn’t clear if any law or Facebook policy was being violated.” . . .

By all means read the whole thing.

Written by Leisureguy

29 April 2016 at 6:44 pm

Another look at the Pentagon report that clears the military of any crimes

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Ryan Devereaux and Cora Currier report in The Intercept:

Nearly seven months after the first shots were fired, the Pentagon has released its full report detailing the night of chaos and horror that left 42 patients and staffers dead at a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan. In publishing the highly anticipated account, the military concluded that its attack did not amount to a war crime because its effects were not intentional, a view at odds with certain interpretations of international law.

In the wake of the attack, Doctors Without Borders, also known by its French name, Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF, described the October 3 raid as “abhorrent and a grave violation of international humanitarian law,” adding, a “war crime has been committed.”

In announcing the report today, Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command, argued that was not the case.

“The label ‘war crimes’ is typically reserved for intentional acts — intentional targeting [of] civilians or intentionally targeting protected objects or locations,” the general said. The Americans “had no idea,” they were targeting the hospital, Votel said, and once they recognized what was happening, they called off the attack.

In a statement, MSF said it had not had an opportunity to review the military report before it was posted online, though the organization did receive a two-hour verbal briefing from Votel on Thursday. The humanitarian group fired off a set of unanswered questions, and repeated its call for an independent inquiry into the attack by the International Humanitarian Fact Finding Commission.

“MSF and other medical care providers on the front lines of armed conflicts continually experience attacks on health facilities that go uninvestigated by parties to the conflict,” the statement read. “However, MSF has said consistently that it cannot be satisfied solely with a military investigation into the Kunduz attack.”

While Votel stressed that the conclusions of the report were subjected to legal review by military lawyers, the general’s argument that the absence of intentionality meant the attack on the MSF could not be a war crime wades into complex legal territory. According to the International Red Cross definition, “war crimes are violations that are committed willfully, i.e., either intentionally…or recklessly…The exact mental element varies depending on the crime concerned.” Following the release of the report, Patricia Gossman, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher in Afghanistan, tweeted, “It is established principle of customary international law that war crimes can be committed through recklessness.”

What’s more, Votel’s claim appeared inconsistent with the military’s own law of war manual, which states, “In some cases, the term ‘war crime’ has been used as a technical expression for a violation of the law of war by any person; i.e., under this usage, any violation of the law of war is a war crime. This has been longstanding U.S. military doctrine.” According to the findings of their report, the investigators looking into the Kunduz attack noted violations of the rules of engagement, and also breaches of the laws of war.

MSF president Meinie Nicolai said that “a grave breach of international humanitarian law” is not determined solely by whether or not the act was intentional.

“With multinational coalitions fighting with different rules of engagement across a wide spectrum of wars today, whether in Afghanistan, Syria, or Yemen, armed groups cannot escape their responsibilities on the battlefield simply by ruling out the intent to attack a protected structure such as a hospital,” Nicolai added.

The Kunduz report comes in the context of a disturbing trend of attacks on medical facilities. This week, an MSF-supported hospital was bombed in Syria, killing three doctors. MSF says seven medical facilities that it works with in Syria have been hit this year, while four have been bombed in Yemen.

Votel, who was the head of U.S. Special Operations Command at the time of the Kunduz raid, confirmed that more than a dozen U.S. service members were disciplined for their roles in the airstrike — they would not, however, face criminal charges in connection with the ordeal. Repeating much of what the military has already claimed with respect to the attack — an account that has changed multiple times — Votel framed the tragedy as the result of overlapping human and technological errors. . .

Continue reading.

Later in the report (but read the whole thing):

. . . Donna McKay, executive director for Physicians for Human Rights, slammed the military’s punishments as insufficient. “The decision to dole out only administrative punishments and forego a thorough criminal investigation of October’s deadly strike in Kunduz is an affront to the families of the more than 40 men, women, and children who died that night, punished merely for being in a hospital, a supposed safe haven in a time of war,” McKay said in a statement.

The military’s response does not assure the future of MSF’s work in one of Afghanistan’s most volatile regions.

“We can’t put our teams – including our colleagues who survived the traumatic attack – back to work in Kunduz without first having strong and unambiguous assurances from all parties to the conflict in Afghanistan that this will not happen again,” Nicolai, the MSF president, said.

The Pentagon has approved a $5.7 million effort to rebuild the facility it destroyed, and as “a gesture of sympathy,” more than 170 individuals have received condolences for loved ones injured or killed, Votel said. “$3,000 for wounded and $6,000 for killed,” he said.

On Thursday, The Intercept published a months-long investigation into the attack on the hospital, based on dozens of interviews with American and Afghan officials, witnesses, regional experts and survivors of the air raid. The picture that emerged was one of remarkable confusion about who was in charge, and of a divergence between how American and Afghan forces viewed the situation.

Afghan authorities claimed that the Taliban were using the hospital to launch attacks — despite fervent denials from MSF that there were armed fighters in the compound, and a lack of evidence to back up the Afghan officials’ claims. A senior Western official told The Intercept that the Afghans’ “biggest fear after the strike was that this would put a chill on their being able to request U.S. air support when shit hits the fan.” . . .

Written by Leisureguy

29 April 2016 at 6:35 pm

Strange form of lying from the Obama administration: Say something (repeatedly), and then deny having said it

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Zaid Jilani and Alex Emmons have a report (with video) in The Intercept that begins:

After President Obama announced on Monday that he would deploy 250 additional special operations troops to Syria, State Department spokesperson John Kirby tried to deny that Obama had ever promised not to send “boots on the ground” there.

“There was never this ‘no boots on the ground,’” said Kirby. “I don’t know where this keeps coming from.”

[WordPress has lost—temporarily, I hope—the ability to insert YouTube videos. Click the link to the article to see the video in the article, and also this 3-minute video is of interest. – LG]

The problem for Kirby was that Obama has repeated the promise at least 16 times since 2013:

For instance, on August 30, 2013, Obama said: “We’re not considering any boots-on-the-ground approach.”

On September 10, 2013, he said: “Many of you have asked, won’t this put us on a slippery slope to another war? One man wrote to me that we are ‘still recovering from our involvement in Iraq.’ A veteran put it more bluntly: ‘This nation is sick and tired of war.’ My answer is simple: I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria.”

On September 7, 2014, he said: “In Syria, the boots on the ground have to be Syrian.”

After reporters pointed out the mistake, Kirby tried to walk back his claim by defining the phrase “boots on the ground” to exclude special forces.

“When we talk about boots on the ground, in the context that you have heard people in the administration speak to, we are talking about conventional, large-scale ground troops,” said Kirby. “I’m not disputing the fact that we have troops on the ground, and they’re wearing boots.”

The new deployment will result in a six-fold increase to the 50 U.S. special forces troops already in Syria. There are also 4,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. The White House has insisted that its forces “do not have a combat mission,” and are deployed in an “advise and assist” capacity only, helping to train local militias that engage ISIS directly.

There is, as Kirby indicated, a distinction between a large-scale ground invasion and, say, a small group of advisers hanging back from the front. But the line between “combat” and “assist” missions is not always so clear.

In Iraq, when a U.S. special forces soldier was killed during a raid on an ISIS-held prison, the White House insisted that U.S. forces were only flying helicopters carrying Kurdish commandos, and that it was a “unique circumstance.” They refused to call the exchange “combat,” prompting outrage from veterans groups.

A second American soldier was killed in a rocket attack in northern Iraq last month, while guarding a U.S. base near Mosul. The White House calledit “an enemy action,” not “combat.”

“Advise and assist” may also include providing targeting intelligence for U.S. airstrikes, according to Dan Grazier, a former Marine in Afghanistan and Iraq who is now a fellow with the Center for Defense Information at the Project on Government Oversight. “With a force the size they’re talking about, they’re probably there to help provide fire support,” Grazier said.

Some veterans are outraged by the administration’s semantics.

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

29 April 2016 at 6:15 pm

For Nebraska’s Poor, Get Sick and Get Sued

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Paul Kiel reports in ProPublica:

Two years ago, the president of Credit Management Services, a collection agency in Grand Island, Nebraska, presented a struggling local family with the keys to a used 2007 Mercury Grand Marquis. To commemorate the donation, the company held a ceremony that concluded outside its offices, where the couple and their two young girls could try out their new car.

The family’s story was dire: their eight-year-old daughter’s failing kidney had led to multiple surgeries and a deluge of medical bills, according to an article in the local newspaper.

But CMS played another role in the family’s life, one the article didn’t mention. The company had previously sued the couple eight times over unpaid medical bills and garnished both of their wages. As recently as two weeks earlier, CMS had seized $156, a quarter of the girl’s father’s paycheck.

Shortly after the ceremony, CMS released the family from further garnishment, court records show. But just four months later, the company filed a motion to start up again. The couple, who did not respond to attempts by ProPublica to contact them, has since declared bankruptcy.

In almost any other state, such a barrage of lawsuits against a family in desperate financial straits would be remarkable. Not in Nebraska. There, debt collectors frequently sue over medical debts as small as $60 and a simple missed doctor’s bill can quickly land you in court.

Filing suit is one of the most aggressive ways to collect debt, but no one tracks how frequently it happens or to whom. An examination of Nebraska’s courts, however, shows that where debtors live can have an enormous, and unexpected, impact on the quantity and types of lawsuits.

Nebraska’s flood of suits isn’t merely a reflection of residents’ inability to pay their bills. About 79,000 debt collection lawsuits were filed in Nebraska courts in 2013 alone, according to a ProPublica analysis. In New Mexico, a state with a population, like Nebraska’s, of around two million, about 30,000 suits were filed. Yet by virtually any measure, households in Nebraska are significantly better off than those in New Mexico: Income is higher. Poverty is lower. And fewer families fall behind on their bills.

The reason for the difference is simple. Suing someone in Nebraska is cheaper and easier.

The cost to file a lawsuit in Nebraska is $45. In New Mexico, where suits are filed at about one-third the rate as in Nebraska, the fee for smaller debts starts at $77.

Nebraska lawmakers, of course, didn’t set out to turn the Cornhusker State into the Lawsuit State. Instead, it appears no one understood the consequences of having cheap court fees: Suing became an irresistible bargain for debt collectors. It’s a deal collectors have fought to keep, opposing even the slightest increase.

For debtors, unaffordable debts turn into unaffordable garnishments, destroying already tight budgets and sending them into a loop. “It’s just been a vicious cycle,” said Tanya Glasgow, a single mother in Lincoln, Nebraska who’s been sued several times. “It’s been horrible.”

“I resent the stereotype that these are not hard-working people” said Katherine Owen, managing attorney in Legal Aid of Nebraska’s Omaha office. “Truly the majority of them simply cannot afford it. That’s it.”

Lawsuits over medical debts are, of course, filed in other states, usually by hospitals. What makes Nebraska unusual is that almost all the suits are brought by locally owned collection agencies that pursue debts on behalf of medical providers. Although ProPublica found collection agencies filing suits in large numbers in other states, particularly Indiana and Washington, none could match the sheer volume in Nebraska.

It’s a difference that came as a surprise to researchers, consumer advocates, and collection professionals both in and outside of Nebraska. . .

Continue reading.

There’s lots more. It’s a long article.

Written by Leisureguy

29 April 2016 at 5:51 pm

A Chess Renaissance in the Midwest

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Charles Bethea reports in the New Yorker:

Last month, in Moscow, Fabiano Caruana played chess for two weeks at the Candidates Cup, whose winner, each year, goes on to face the sitting world champion. By the end, the twenty-three-year-old American—born in Miami, raised in Brooklyn, with no formal education after middle school other than chess-studying stints in Madrid, Budapest, Lugano, and elsewhere—was one game away from earning the right to challenge Magnus Carlsen, the twenty-five-year-old Norwegian who has been the best chess player in the world for much of the past six years, and who, in 2014, achieved the highest chess rating in history.

“Had Fabiano won that game,” Yasser Seirawan, a four-time U.S. champion, former world top ten, and chess commentator, told me recently, with characteristic ebullience, “chess in America would have gone under a renaissance almost overnight, because we’ve got skin in the game. He would have played a match in November, in the Big Apple, against Carlsen, for the world championship. Chess in coffee shops and parks would have swollen.” Caruana lost the deciding match to the twenty-six-year-old Russian player Sergey Karjakin, who is ranked eighth in the world, six spots below Caruana. “Americans gravitate towards champions—full stop, end of story. You don’t need Bobby Fischer,” Seirawan said, referring to the greatest American chess player of all time, whose heyday was the nineteen-sixties and seventies. “You just need a champion.”

“It would have been a big deal,” Caruana, a sparrow-like, bespectacled young man, quietly confessed over coffee this week, after winning the U.S. Chess Championship, in St. Louis. “The last time an American was playing for a world championship was in 1972: Fischer against Spassky. The rivalry isn’t the same now: there isn’t the clash of nations or Cold War. But it would still be a big deal. Because I would have had a chance to become world champion and it would also have been the youngest world-championship match in history. It would have been cool.”

Fifty thousand dollars richer from last week’s win, but not much more famous, Caruana considered this alternate universe, which may still come to pass a few years hence. Caruana recently bought a house in St. Louis. “I like to invest in real estate,” he said. (He also owns homes in Florida.) “I’m not really looking for flashy cars.” But the location was key: while New York, and Manhattan, in particular, has long been America’s foremost incubator of chess players, it has been eclipsed in the past few years by the Midwestern city best known for its professional baseball team, its tornadoes, and its barbecue. “Nobody had any idea St. Louis could become a chess hub,” Caruana told me. Seirawan, who retired as an active tournament grand master in 2003, agreed. “If you had said back then, ‘Since your retirement, the center of chess has moved to the Midwest,’ I’d go, ‘Really? Chicago?’ ”

The unlikely shift can be attributed almost entirely to the efforts of a deep-pocketed retired financial executive named Rex Sinquefield, best known, previously, for helping create the first S. & P. index funds, in 1973, and for leading what Bloomberg Businessweek has called “a crusade against the income tax.” Raised in a St. Louis orphanage, Sinquefield didn’t learn to play chess until the ancient age of thirteen, when his uncle Fred taught him. “The second time we played,” he told me, “I beat him. I always felt a little guilty.” He went on to play in high school and college, still in St. Louis. These days, he plays some twenty online games at a given time, he says, describing himself as a “decent club player” with “a healthy addiction.” After moving back to Missouri, more than a decade ago, he decided to start a chess club. He believes that the game represents “everything valued by Western civilization, and maybe Eastern civilization: intelligence, judgment, study, hard work, intuition, calmness under pressure—all of that is on the line with chess.”

The amount of money that Sinquefield has since invested in Missouri chess is difficult to calculate, but estimates are well into the tens of millions. Sinquefield describes it simply as “a lot.” “The family joke,” his wife, Jeanne Sinquefield, told me, “was I let Rex do chess because ‘How expensive could it be?’ ” She, incidentally, has since helped persuade the Boy Scouts of America to create a chess merit badge, which more than a hundred thousand scouts have earned.

Thanks to Sinquefield’s efforts, there is now a “chess campus” in St. Louis, near Forest Park.* There, a visitor will find the largest chess piece in the world (a fourteen-foot-and-seven-inch-tall queen), sitting outside the World Chess Hall of Fame, which moved to St. Louis in 2011, three years after the opening of the six-thousand-square-foot Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis,  which has more members than New York’s famed Marshall Chess Club. (The St. Louis club works with more than a hundred Missouri schools, mostly in the St. Louis area.) For eight years running, the U.S. Chess Championship has been held at the club, as has the Sinquefield Cup, an international tournament whose online broadcast had 1.5 million viewers last year. Congress declared St. Louis the nation’s “chess capital” in 2013. Even the St. Louis Cardinals had a chessboard installed in their locker room, just last week: the team’s manager, Mike Matheny, loves the game, and his players are learning.

“Imagine that this city would become the most noticeable spot, chess spot, on the world map,” Garry Kasparov, arguably the greatest chess player ever, alongside Fischer, told the crowd gathered at the U.S. Championship award ceremony. Kasparov declared that “now, here in St. Louis, we are facing the renaissance of the great game of chess.” Maurice Ashley, a chess grand master and the first black player inducted into the Hall of Fame, is similarly bullish about chess in America. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

29 April 2016 at 5:39 pm

Posted in Games

Similar to police department investigations that always find shootings “justified,” DoD finds no serious wrongdoing in its one-hour attack on a hospital

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The Department of Defense has carefully done its own investigation of its own war crime (an egregious and sustained attack on a Doctors Without Borders hospital that killed 24 patients, 14 staff members, and four caretakers. The Pentagon’s defense is that, while the incident was regrettable, mistakes will happen, and those involved have been spoken to sharply. But no one was actually held responsible, as the report in the LA Times and the report in the NY Times say: reprimands were issued, but (says the Pentagon) surely no need for an independent investigation. The Pentagon investigates (and protects) its own. No outsiders need to get involved, since they might fail to understand the special burdens of the military and take a hard look at what actually happened and hold people accountable for their actions. That’s not the Pentagon way.

It seems perfectly evident that an independent investigation is absolutely needed, but the military will never agree to that, and the Obama administration has been particularly protective of governmental wrong-doers (e.g., the CIA war criminals and those who gave them their orders), so I imagine the Obama administration will reject any independent investigation, much as it rejects any lawsuit by an innocent person who has been kidnapped and tortured by the CIA.

I find this new attitude by the US, holding itself above the law and above accountability, a bad development. If the terrorists do in fact hate us for our freedoms, as George W. Bush said, I think freedom from any accountability is probably high on that list of freedoms.

From the NY Times story:

. . . After the announcement, Médecins Sans Frontières, the French name of Doctors Without Borders, reiterated its calls for an independent investigation, saying in a statement “that it cannot be satisfied solely with a military investigation.”

“Today’s briefing amounts to an admission of an uncontrolled military operation in a densely populated urban area, during which U.S. forces failed to follow the basic laws of war,” said Meinie Nicolai, the group’s president. “It is incomprehensible that, under the circumstances described by the U.S., the attack was not called off.”

John Sifton, the Asia policy director of Human Rights Watch, disputed General Votel’s assertion that the airstrike did not constitute a war crime because it was the unintentional result of mistakes and equipment failures, not an intentional attack.

The failure to bring any criminal charges was, “simply put, inexplicable,” Mr. Sifton said.

“General Joseph Votel’s assertion that a war crime must be deliberate, or intentional, is flatly wrong.” Mr. Sifton added. He said that there are legal precedents for war crimes prosecutions based on acts that were committed with recklessness, and that recklessness or negligence do not necessarily absolve someone of criminal responsibility under the United States military code. . .

UPDATE: It should be obvious to everyone that there is a serious conflict of interest in having the military investigate itself: they are investigating their colleagues and friends and acquaintances, and the military has a well-documented history of lying to cover up problems—cf. the Pat Tilman incident. Or Jessica Lynch.

Plus the military is a highly hierarchical and authoritarian organization, in which crossing the wishes of a superior can be hazardous to one’s career. The Catholic church is another such organization, and the Catholic church’s self-investigations of the pedophiles in their midst was abysmal: minimization, lies, and cover-ups. I would expect that the military would tend to do the same when it investigates its own misdeeds.

I think there is an obvious reason that the military is so strongly resisting an independent investigation: it’s because the military loses control of the findings.

Written by Leisureguy

29 April 2016 at 2:54 pm

An all-citrus shave, including Meißner Tremonia’s Pink Grapefruit shaving paste

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SOTD 2016-04-29

As promised, I shaved today using Meißner Tremonia’s Pink Grapefruit (which includes eucalyptus) shaving paste, which is of a pretty firm consistency—”paste” is definitely a better word for this than “cream,” which sounds much softer. You can readily use one of the Meißner Tremonia shaving pastes as a shaving soap.

And you’ll notice that it is definitely made for someone who understands how to load a brush: absolutely no “training wheels” (high sidewalls extending above the soap to help novices avoid making an absolute mess as they struggle to load the brush): the shaving paste comes exactly to the brim, which seems to be seen a little more often in European soaps than in those made in the US (though the Catie’s Bubbles soaps I have are sold in full containers).

Loading is quite easy—the shaving paste seems to hug the brush—and it was easy to load the H.L. Thäter brush fully without any trace of a mess, a satisfying little ritual and exercise.

The paste has a very nice fragrance, and the pink grapefruit is much modified and subdued by the additional of the eucalyptus: this is not so much a fruit fragrance as an interesting fragrance. “Fruity, tangy, memorable. Grapefruit and eucalyptus smoothed out with fine cananga oil and finest white porcelain clay.”

Three passes with the Dorco PL-602 to achieve a trouble-free BBS result, to a which a good splash of Geo. F.  Trumper West Indian Extract of Limes aftershave fulfilled the citrus theme.

Written by Leisureguy

29 April 2016 at 11:07 am

Posted in Shaving

One minute a day of strenuous exercise has same health and fitness benefit as 45 minutes of moderate exercise

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Very interesting article in the NY Times by Gretchen Reynolds. The core:

. . . One group was asked to change nothing about their current, virtually nonexistent exercise routines; they would be the controls.

A second group began a typical endurance-workout routine, consisting of riding at a moderate pace on a stationary bicycle at the lab for 45 minutes, with a two-minute warm-up and three-minute cool down.

The final group was assigned to interval training, using the most abbreviated workout yet to have shown benefits. Specifically, the volunteers warmed up for two minutes on stationary bicycles, then pedaled as hard as possible for 20 seconds; rode at a very slow pace for two minutes, sprinted all-out again for 20 seconds; recovered with slow riding for another two minutes; pedaled all-out for a final 20 seconds; then cooled down for three minutes. The entire workout lasted 10 minutes, with only one minute of that time being strenuous.

Both groups of exercising volunteers completed three sessions each week for 12 weeks, a period of time that is about twice as long as in most past studies of interval training.

By the end of the study, published in PLOS One, the endurance group had ridden for 27 hours, while the interval group had ridden for six hours, with only 36 minutes of that time being strenuous.

But when the scientists retested the men’s aerobic fitness, muscles and blood-sugar control now, they found that the exercisers showed virtually identical gains, whether they had completed the long endurance workouts or the short, grueling intervals. In both groups, endurance had increased by nearly 20 percent, insulin resistance likewise had improved significantly, and there were significant increases in the number and function of certain microscopic structures in the men’s muscles that are related to energy production and oxygen consumption.

There were no changes in health or fitness evident in the control group. . .

The research was done by scientists at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.

Written by Leisureguy

27 April 2016 at 4:18 pm

Hillary Clinton, the most hawkish of the candidates, with an aggressive foreign-policy stance

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Hillary Clinton is in all likelihood going to be the next US president, and her willingness if not eagerness for military action dismays me: Iraq, Libya, Honduras—her positions and actions seem strikingly bad to me, and (in my mind) show poor judgment. The US does not need to expand its attacks on various peoples.

Mark Landler reports in the NY Times:

Hillary Clinton sat in the hideaway study off her ceremonial office in the State Department, sipping tea and taking stock of her first year on the job. The study was more like a den — cozy and wood-paneled, lined with bookshelves that displayed mementos from Clinton’s three decades in the public eye: a statue of her heroine, Eleanor Roosevelt; a baseball signed by the Chicago Cubs star Ernie Banks; a carved wooden figure of a pregnant African woman. The intimate setting lent itself to a less-formal interview than the usual locale, her imposing outer office, with its marble fireplace, heavy drapes, crystal chandelier and ornate wall sconces. On the morning of Feb. 26, 2010, however, Clinton was talking about something more sensitive than mere foreign affairs: her relationship with Barack Obama. To say she chose her words carefully doesn’t do justice to the delicacy of the exercise. She was like a bomb-squad technician, deciding which color wire to snip without blowing up her relationship with the White House.

“We’ve developed, I think, a very good rapport, really positive back-and-forth about everything you can imagine,” Clinton said about the man she described during the 2008 campaign as naïve, irresponsible and hopelessly unprepared to be president. “And we’ve had some interesting and even unusual experiences along the way.”

She leaned forward as she spoke, gesturing with her hands and laughing easily. In talking with reporters, Clinton displays more warmth than Obama does, though there’s less of an expectation that she might say something revealing.

Clinton singled out, as she often would, the United Nations climate-change meeting in Copenhagen the previous December, where she and Obama worked together to save the meeting from collapse. She brought up the Middle East peace proc­ess, a signature project of the president’s, which she had been tasked with reviving. But she was understandably wary of talking about areas in which she and Obama split — namely, on bedrock issues of war and peace, where Clinton’s more activist philosophy had already collided in unpredictable ways with her boss’s instincts toward restraint. She had backed Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s recommendation to send 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan, before endorsing a fallback proposal of 30,000 (Obama went along with that, though he stipulated that the soldiers would begin to pull out again in July 2011, which she viewed as problematic). She supported the Pentagon’s plan to leave behind a residual force of 10,000 to 20,000 American troops in Iraq (Obama balked at this, largely because of his inability to win legal protections from the Iraqis, a failure that was to haunt him when the Islamic State overran much of the country). And she pressed for the United States to funnel arms to the rebels in Syria’s civil war (an idea Obama initially rebuffed before later, halfheartedly, coming around to it).

That fundamental tension between Clinton and the president would continue to be a defining feature of her four-year tenure as secretary of state. In the administration’s first high-level meeting on Russia in February 2009, aides to Obama proposed that the United States make some symbolic concessions to Russia as a gesture of its good will in resetting the relationship. Clinton, the last to speak, brusquely rejected the idea, saying, “I’m not giving up anything for nothing.” Her hardheadedness made an impression on Robert Gates, the defense secretary and George W. Bush holdover who was wary of a changed Russia. He decided there and then that she was someone he could do business with.

“I thought, This is a tough lady,” he told me.

A few months after my interview in her office, another split emerged when Obama picked up a secure phone for a weekend conference call with Clinton, Gates and a handful of other advisers. It was July 2010, four months after the North Korean military torpedoed a South Korean Navy corvette, sinking it and killing 46 sailors. Now, after weeks of fierce debate between the Pentagon and the State Department, the United States was gearing up to respond to this brazen provocation. The tentative plan — developed by Clinton’s deputy at State, James Steinberg — was to dispatch the aircraft carrier George Washington into coastal waters to the east of North Korea as an unusual show of force.

But Adm. Robert Willard, then the Pacific commander, wanted to send the carrier on a more aggressive course, into the Yellow Sea, between North Korea and China. The Chinese foreign ministry had warned the United States against the move, which for Willard was all the more reason to press forward. He pushed the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen, who in turn pushed his boss, the defense secretary, to reroute the George Washington. Gates agreed, but he needed the commander in chief to sign off on a decision that could have political as well as military repercussions.

Gates laid out the case for diverting the George Washington to the Yellow Sea: that the United States should not look as if it was yielding to China. Clinton strongly seconded it. “We’ve got to run it up the gut!” she had said to her aides a few days earlier. (The Vince Lombardi imitation drew giggles from her staff, who, even 18 months into her tenure, still marveled at her pugnacity.)

Obama, though, was not persuaded. The George Washington was already underway; changing its course was not a decision to make on the fly.

“I don’t call audibles with aircraft carriers,” he said — unwittingly one-upping Clinton on her football metaphor.

It wasn’t the last debate in which she would side with Gates. The two quickly discovered that they shared a Midwestern upbringing, a taste for a stiff drink after a long day of work and a deep-seated skepticism about the intentions of America’s foes. Bruce Riedel, a former intelligence analyst who conducted Obama’s initial review on the Afghanistan war, says: “I think one of the surprises for Gates and the military was, here they come in expecting a very left-of-center administration, and they discover that they have a secretary of state who’s a little bit right of them on these issues — a little more eager than they are, to a certain extent. Particularly on Afghanistan, where I think Gates knew more had to be done, knew more troops needed to be sent in, but had a lot of doubts about whether it would work.”

As Hillary Clinton makes another run for president, it can be tempting to view her hard-edged rhetoric about the world less as deeply felt core principle than as calculated political maneuver. But Clinton’s foreign-policy instincts are bred in the bone — grounded in cold realism [?? says who? – LG] about human nature and what one aide calls “a textbook view of American exceptionalism.” It set her apart from her rival-turned-boss, Barack Obama, who avoided military entanglements and tried to reconcile Americans to a world in which the United States was no longer the undisputed hegemon. And it will likely set her apart from the Republican candidate she meets in the general election. For all their bluster about bombing the Islamic State into oblivion, neither Donald J. Trump nor Senator Ted Cruz of Texas has demonstrated anywhere near the appetite for military engagement abroad that Clinton has.

“Hillary is very much a member of the traditional American foreign-policy establishment,” says Vali Nasr, a foreign-policy strategist who advised her on Pakistan and Afghanistan at the State Department. “She believes, like presidents going back to the Reagan or Kennedy years, in the importance of the military — in solving terrorism, in asserting American influence. The shift with Obama is that he went from reliance on the military to the intelligence agencies. Their position was, ‘All you need to deal with terrorism is N.S.A. and C.I.A., drones and special ops.’ So the C.I.A. gave Obama an angle, if you will, to be simultaneously hawkish and shun using the military.”

Unlike other recent presidents — Obama, George W. Bush or her husband, Bill Clinton — Hillary Clinton would assume the office with a long record on national security. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

27 April 2016 at 1:23 pm

Slime molds and slant razors

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I periodically get into a discussion about whether slant razors work—well, obviously they work, but whether the slant of the blade has anything to do with the ease of cutting and the high efficiency of a good slant. I think it does, and the main counter-argument (so far as I can understand it) is “The slant cannot make a difference in cutting ease because the slant is too small to make a difference.” I interpret this to mean that the person making the statement is, in effect, “I don’t see how such a small slant could make a perceptible difference.”

But of course we fairly often observe phenomena that we can explain how they’re happening even though it is obvious that they are happening. Indeed, that’s one common way for science to advance. As Isaac Asimov commented, the statement that accompanies a major scientific discover is not “Eureka!” but “Huh! That’s odd.”

For example, if one were told that a one-celled lifeform without a brain or nervous system was capable of learning, he would probably deny it. And if it were demonstrated that, yes, the single cell can indeed learn, I think most would say, “I don’t see how.” But the demonstration is fairly solid, and even though we don’t (yet) understand exactly how, we have to recognize that learning does occur. And (so far as I’m concerned) even though we don’t see how a small slant in the blade can make a razor better, it is my experience that it does—that is, with equally well-designed razors, the one with a slanted blade cuts more easily and efficiently, in my experience.

Regarding the observation that slime molds learn, read this article in the LA Times by Amina Khan:

You don’t need a brain to learn something new – not if you’re a slime mold, anyway. Scientists who watched Physarum polycephalum search for food found that the slime mold could learn to ignore certain chemical threats.

The findings, described in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, contradict the idea that learning always requires neurons, and may shed light on the early evolution of learning in living things.

Learning and memory are essential tools in this critter-eat-critter world; they allow animals to use information from their past experiences to make better decisions in the present. And for a long time, scientists thought only creatures with nerves and noggins truly had access to these special skills.

“We usually think of learning as a trait that is limited to organisms with brains and nervous systems,” the study authors wrote. “Indeed, learning is often equated with neuronal changes such as synaptic plasticity, implicitly precluding its existence in non-neural organisms.”

But that view has been changing in recent years as scientists have been confronted with the astounding abilities of brainless creatures. Take the slime mold, for example. It’s an amoeba-like, single-celled organism filled with multiple nuclei, part of a primitive lineage that’s been munching on bacteria, fungi and other forest detritus for hundreds of millions of years. And yet, this very simple living thing manages all kinds of intellectual feats. . . . [examples in article of surprising slime-mold feats. – LG]

Cunning as the slime mold may seem, can it actually learn? To find out, scientists at Toulouse University in France tested slime molds’ behavior in the lab, focusing on a very basic form of learning: habituation, when a living thing’s behavioral response decreases to a repeated stimulus — whether good or bad — over time.

The researchers placed the slime molds near a bridge; across the bridge, they placed a delicious pile of oats. Some of the bridges were made of plain agar gel, and the slime molds crossed those with ease. But for other slime molds, the scientists left an unpleasant surprise: bitter-tasting quinine or caffeine, which in large amounts can be toxic for some creatures.

At first, there was a clear difference between the slime molds with a bitter bridge and those without. With a plain agar bridge, the slime molds sped across and pounced on the oats in about an hour. With quinine, slime molds entered the bridge only after two and a half hours, and it took them four hours in all to cross. On caffeine-covered bridges, the slime molds took almost five hours to enter the bridge but then quickly sped across.

For both bitter bridges, the slime mold didn’t simply move its body across; it extended a long, thin tendril across the bridge, minimizing the area that touched the surface, as if it were trying to tiptoe over hot sand. When it reached the oats, it quickly moved the rest of its body over through that tendril and over to the oats. Once the slime mold had consumed the food source, the scientists connected it to another bridge, with a fresh food source at the other end. If the slime mold wanted its next meal, it would have to brave the bridge again.

Here’s the strange thing: The slime molds dealing with the alarmingly bitter compounds seemed to get used to it, realizing that it wasn’t a threat. With every bitter bridge they crossed, they moved more quickly and easily and seemed less concerned with minimizing their “footprint” that touched the surface. By the sixth day, Boisseau said, the slime molds were acting essentially as if the bitter compounds were not there.

So had the slime molds learned anything in the first place? Or was it simply that their receptors became dulled to the chemical onslaught, or that they grew too tired to keep their bodies away from the bitter compounds?

To make sure, the scientists took slime molds that had learned to cross a quinine bridge without flinching and exposed them to caffeine. After all, if the slime molds were simply just tired from the effort of carefully crossing the bridge, they should react to the caffeine the same way they did to the quinine, with nonchalance. But no dice: Slime molds that had been habituated to the quinine reacted with extreme prejudice to the caffeine. The slime molds, it seemed, really had learned a specific reaction to a specific chemical.

The researchers also gave the slime molds a couple of days of rest, allowing them to potentially “forget” this lesson. Sure enough, after a couple of days away from the bitter compounds, the slime molds reacted to a quinine or caffeine-laced bridge as if they had never touched one before. They had forgotten that the bitter bridges were safe.

“They were behaving as if it was the first day they had ever encountered the bitter compound,” Boisseau said.

How these critters manage this feat is still a great mystery to scientists, Boisseau said, and will have to await future study. But it does show that we may have to start thinking about the nature of this particular aspect of intelligence in a very different light. . .

Continue reading.

More in these articles:

In Motherboard, by Sarah Emerson: “Scientists Think Intelligent Life Could Have Evolved Before Brains

In the Washington Post, by Fred Barbash: “Slime mold: The next wet thing in computing?

In the NY Times, by Andrew Adamatzky and Andrew Ilachkinski: “The Wisdom of Slime

I sure don’t see how the slime mold does it, but I can see that it does. And I don’t understand how the slight slant adds a perceptible advantage, but I experience that it does—and so do others.

Written by Leisureguy

27 April 2016 at 1:13 pm

Posted in Science, Shaving

A Study on Fats That Doesn’t Fit the Story Line

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Aaron Carroll reports in the NY Times:

There was a lot of news this week about a study, published in the medical journal BMJ, that looked at how diet affects heart health. The results were unexpected because they challenged the conventional thinking on saturated fats.

And the data were very old, from the late 1960s and early 1970s.

This has led many to wonder why they weren’t published previously. It has also added to the growing concern that when it comes to nutrition, personal beliefs often trump science.

Perhaps no subject is more controversial in the nutrition world these days than fats. While in the 1970s and 1980s doctors attacked the total amount of fat in Americans’ diets, that seems to have passed. These days, the fights are over the type of fat that is considered acceptable.

Most of our fat comes from two main sources. The first is saturated fats. Usually solid at room temperature, they’re in red meat, dairy products and partly in chicken. The second is unsaturated fats, usually softer and more liquid at room temperature. They’re in fish, nuts and vegetable oils. Many doctors and nutritionists still argue, quite strongly, that the key to health is to emphasize the unsaturated fats. Others believe that’s misguided.

This week’s news came to us by way of a randomized controlled trial, which I’ve argued repeatedly is the best kind of study to determine how one thing causes another.

The Minnesota Coronary Experiment was a well-designed study that was conducted in one nursing home and six state mental hospitals from 1968 to 1973. More than 9,400 men and women, ages 20 to 97, participated. Data on serum cholesterol were available on more than 2,300 participants who were on the study diets for more than a year.

At baseline, participants were getting about 18.5 percent of their calories from saturated fat, and about 3.8 percent from unsaturated fats. The intervention diet was considered a more “heart healthy” one. It encouraged a reduction in the amount of calories from saturated fats (like animal fats and butter) and more from unsaturated fats, particularly linoleic acids (like corn oil). The intervention diet lowered the percent of calories from saturated fats to 9.2 percent, and raised the percent from unsaturated fats to 13.2 percent.

Continue reading the main story

The average follow-up for these participants was just under three years. In that time, the total serum cholesterol dropped significantly more in those on the intervention diet (-31.2 mg/dL) than in those on the control diet (-5 mg/dL).

There was, however, no decreased risk of death. If anything, there seemed to be an increased mortality rate in those on the “heart healthy” diet, particularly among those 65 years and older. More concerning, those who had the greater reduction in serum cholesterol had a higher rate of death. A 30mg/dL decrease in serum cholesterol was associated with a 22 percent increase in the risk of death from any cause, even after adjusting for baseline cholesterol, age, sex, adherence to the diet, body mass and blood pressure.

Of course, this is only one study. It involved only institutionalized patients. Only about a quarter of the participants followed the diet for more than a year. The diets don’t necessarily look like what people really ate, then or now. But this is still a large, randomized controlled trial, and it’s hard to imagine we wouldn’t at least discuss it widely.

Moreover, the researchers conducted a meta-analysis of all studies that looked at this question. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

27 April 2016 at 9:07 am

Former Tax Lobbyists Are Writing the Rules on Tax Dodging

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Congress too often shrugs off its responsibilities to the public in favor of getting money from wealthy donors and corporations. So it is with tax policy, as reported by Lee Fang in The Intercept:

The secret tax-dodging strategies of the global elite in China, Russia, Brazil, the U.K., and beyond were exposed in speculator fashion by the recent Panama Papers investigation, fueling a worldwide demand for a crackdown on tax avoidance.

But there is little appetite in Congress for taking on powerful tax dodgers in the U.S., where the practice has become commonplace.

A request for comment about the Panama Papers to the two congressional committees charged with tax policy — House Ways & Means and the Senate Finance Committee — was ignored.

The reluctance by congressional leaders to tackle tax dodging is nothing new, especially given that some of the largest companies paying little to no federal taxes are among the biggest campaign contributors in the country. But there’s another reason to remain skeptical that Congress will move aggressively on tax avoidance: Former tax lobbyists now run the tax-writing committees.

We researched the backgrounds of the people who manage the day to day operations of both committees and found that a number of lobbyists who represented world-class tax avoiders now occupy top positions as committee staff. Many have stints in and out of government and the lobbying profession, a phenomenon known as the “reverse revolving door.” In other words, the lobbyists that help special interest groups and wealthy individuals minimize their tax bills are not only everywhere on K Street, they’re literally managing the bodies that create tax law: . . .

Continue reading.

The way that Congress now serves the wealthy and not the public is another sign of the decline of the US, IMO.

Written by Leisureguy

27 April 2016 at 8:59 am

Obamacare’s Competitive Markets Are Starting to Work Pretty Well

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Some good news, reported in Mother Jones by Kevin Drum:

The decision last week by United Healthcare to drop out of Obamacare got a lot of attention, but the truth is that UH was a pretty small player in the exchanges. What’s more important—but hasn’t gotten much attention—is the fact that more and more Obamacare insurers are getting close to profitability. Richard Mayhew comments:

2014 was a year where there were only guesses about both the Exchange population, the market structure, and federal policy structure (specifically the risk corridor revenue neutrality restrictions. 2015 had a bit more clarity on who was coming into the market, what was working and what was not working, and what federal policy on risk corridors would actually be. 2016 is the first year where the policies are priced on functionally decent real information and some of the amazingly dumb strategic decisions have been unwound through either course changes or through exiting the market.

As a simple reminder, competitive markets should see some companies make money and some companies that offer more expensive and less attractive products lose money. I would be extremely worried if everyone was making money after three years, just like I would be extremely worried that everyone was losing money after three years of increasingly better data.

Obamacare critics have spent a lot of energy trying to pretend that premiums on the exchanges have skyrocketed, but that’s never been true. What is true is . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

27 April 2016 at 8:27 am

A whistle-blower behind bars

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Eyal Press has a follow-up to his story (blogged earlier) on how Florida Department of Corrections abuses mentally ill prisoners:

On January 24, 2013, the Florida Department of Corrections received a grievance letter from an inmate named Harold Hempstead, who was imprisoned at the Dade Correctional Institution. The letter was brief and its tone was matter-of-fact, but the allegations it contained were shocking, raising troubling questions about the death of a mentally ill inmate named Darren Rainey, who had collapsed in a shower seven months earlier, on June 23, 2012—a case that I wrote about in the magazine this week. According to Hempstead’s letter, the death had been misrepresented to disguise the abuse that preceded it. The reason Rainey collapsed in the shower, Hempstead alleged, was that he had been locked in the stall by guards, who directed scalding water at him. Hempstead’s cell was directly below the shower. That night, he had heard Rainey yelling, “I can’t take it no more,” he recalled. Then he heard a loud thud—which he believed was the sound of Rainey falling to the ground—and the yelling stopped. Hempstead concluded his letter by calling for an investigation.

A week after receiving this information, the Florida D.O.C. sent Hempstead a terse response. “Your grievance appeal is being returned without action,” it stated. In the months that followed, Hempstead continued to file grievances with the D.O.C. He also wrote to the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner Department and to the Miami-Dade police. At first, nothing appears to have been done in response to the letters, which is perhaps not surprising: prisoners routinely level false accusations at guards. Hempstead’s allegations might have carried more weight if an employee at Dade had backed them up. However, as I noted in my article, the psychiatrists in the mental-health ward at Dade feared (reasonably) that reporting even minor misconduct could trigger harsh retaliation from the guards, putting their own safety at risk. When Hempstead turned to some counsellors for support and guidance, they urged him to keep his accusations vague and to stop “obsessing” about Rainey. But Hempstead, who has been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, was determined to get the word out. With the help of his sister, Windy, he eventually contacted the Miami Herald, which on May 17, 2014, published a front-page story on Darren Rainey, called “Behind bars, a brutal and unexplained death.”
The literature on whistle-blowers is full of stories about moral crusaders who risk everything to expose misconduct and succeed only in upending their own lives. (This is one of the themes of my own book on the subject, “Beautiful Souls.”) At first glance, Hempstead’s story appears to veer dramatically from this script. Prompted in part by the revelations he made, the Justice Department has launched an investigation to determine whether Rainey’s death was part of a broader pattern of abuse. Some of the guards in the mental-health ward at Dade have been reassigned. The Florida D.O.C. has adopted a series of reforms, including crisis-intervention training for corrections officers and other steps that may deter future violence.
But it is also possible that Hempstead’s story will end less happily, particularly when it comes to the question of whether justice will be done. Although investigations are ongoing, none of the guards who allegedly took Rainey to the scalding shower have been charged with any crimes. (They have since resigned, and their files included no indication of wrongdoing.) Earlier this year, an autopsy of Rainey that was forwarded to state prosecutors ruled the death “accidental,” and did not recommend criminal prosecution.
Meanwhile, Hempstead has paid a steep price for exposing the circumstances under which Rainey died. After the reporter Julie Brown, of the Miami Herald, interviewed him, several corrections officers threatened him with solitary confinement. Hempstead has since been transferred to another prison and placed in “protective management” status by the D.O.C., but his reputation as a whistle-blower (“Miami Harold,” as some now put it) has not been forgotten, and will follow him as long as he remains behind bars.
That will be a long time: specifically, until 2161, the year Hempstead will be released, if he somehow lives long enough to serve the hundred-and-sixty-five-year sentence that Judge Brandt Downey handed him, in 2000, for his involvement in dozens of house burglaries. Hempstead, who is now forty, was twenty-two at the time. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

27 April 2016 at 8:21 am

The idiot’s guide to low-carb high-fat eating

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I keep my net carbs (total carbs minus dietary fiber) below 50g/day, and it has put my type 2 diabetes into remission. The calories lost by restricting carbs to that extent are replaced by eating more fat— protein intake stays the same. The high-fat diet staves off hunger quite well—fat in general is more slowly digested than carb and in particular more slowly than refined carbs (sugar, flour products such as bread, pasta, pastries, boxed breakfast cereals, and the like). And the slow digestion prevents insulin spikes.

One still must watch caloric intake, of course, but the absence of hunger pains makes it easier to keep calorie intake reasonable. I’ve lost 20 lbs since the beginning of the year, which amounts to 5 lbs/month, a reasonable rate of loss.

Marika Sboros at has a post introducing LCHF to those unfamiliar with it:

Some doctors and dietitians still say a low-carb, high-fat (LCHF) diet is dangerours. That’s despite compelling evidence to show both safety and efficacy of LCHF for weight loss, diabetes, heart disease, cancer and even dementia. Some specialists call dementia type 3 diabetes because of its links with diet.

LCHF is a global phenomenon. In South Africa there are three million “Banters”, as fans of LCHF regimens are known in that country. Banting pioneer is UCT emeritus professor Dr Tim Noakes, a world-renowned scientist rated A1 by the National Research Foundation for expertise in both sports science and nutrition. He documented his theories in the best selling The Real Meal Revolution, co-authored with chef Jonno Proudfoot and nutrition therapist Sally Ann Creed that is known as the “Tim Noakes Diet”. Here, in a Q&A, Noakes gives the basics and an Idiot’s Guide to getting started on the LCHF path. First question:

Is LCHF a diet?

No, it’s a lifestyle.

Do you say your diet’s right for everyone – a one-size-fits-all?

There’s no such thing. No diet is right for everyone. LCHF is best for people who have insulin resistance (the inability to tolerate carbohydrate).

Is it correct to call it “Banting”?

It’s probably more correct to call it Ebstein – after German physician Dr Wilhelm Ebstein who first made it high-fat. That was the diet Sir William Osler promoted in his monumental textbook: The Principles and Practices of Medicine published in the US in 1892.

Is LCHF a fad?

Anyone who claims Banting or Ebstein diets are fads knows nothing about medical nutrition history. Nutrition did not begin in 1977 as our students seem to be taught.

Is LCHF the same as Paleo?

The Paleo diet is slightly different; it promotes consumption of only those foods that would have been available to Paleolithic man from about 2.5 million years ago to the Agricultural Revolution starting about 12 000 years ago.  Foods allowed on Banting but excluded on Paleo  are dairy;  fruits are allowed on Paleo but excluded on Banting.

What about Atkins?

The Atkins diet is similar to Banting. Perhaps Banting promotes the use of low-carb vegetables rather more than Atkins did, but the differences are trivial. This shows that (i) first priority, and the commonality of all these diets, is to cut carbs and sugar (and vegetable oils) and (ii) whether you go Paleo or Banting or Atkins is determined by how you respond to the different options in the different diets.  To find the ideal low-carb diet you need to experiment to see how you respond.

Is LCHF extreme?

It depends what you mean by extreme. Moderation is a smug, puritanical word. No mammal eats in moderation. In nature all diets are extreme: lions eat only meat, polar bears mainly fat, panda bears only bamboo shoots, giraffes only acacia leaves.

Is it balanced?

Balance is what has worked for each of these species for millions of years. LCHF can be extremely low in carbohydrate – the one nutrient for which humans have absolutely no essential requirement, but that depends on how sick you are. In 1977, when we were told to eat diets extremely high in carbohydrates, human health started to fail on a global scale.

Your recommended carb range is <200g to <25g, correct? What are the indications?

It depends how insulin resistant you are and how much exercise you do. If you are completely insulin sensitive (that is, you tolerate carbohydrates well, have low fasting blood glucose, insulin and triglyceride concentrations, low small LDL particle numbers; low HbA1c; high HDL-cholesterol concentrations; and absence of fatty liver) and exercise regularly a few hours a week, then it is can be safe to ingest up to 200g carb per day, or at least until your HbA1c rises above 5.5% . That’ll be time to start reducing the carbs.

On the other hand, if you are profoundly insulin resistant with type 2 diabetes, morbidly obese, or with heart disease, cancer or dementia, you’ll probably do best on a very low-carb  diet of about 25 grams carbs per day. This won’t  change even if you do more exercise. Exercise is helpful but doesn’t obviate the need to eat very few carbs, even if you exercise for many hours a week.

What carb-fat-protein ratio is best?

It depends how sick you are. If you’re diabetic, we say 20% to 30% protein, 60% to 70% fat, 5% carbs. The sicker you are, the more fat you need because fat is insulin-neutral. The more insulin resistant you are, the more fat you can eat, because even when the pancreas fails, fat is the only fuel you can metabolise safely without requiring insulin. It’s perfect for blood sugar control.

Any weighing of food on your diet? . . .

Continue reading.

I highly recommend Nina Teicholz’s The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet and/or Gary Taubes’s Why We Get Fat and What to Do About It.

Written by Leisureguy

27 April 2016 at 7:59 am

A bay rum morning with Meißner Tremonia and Krampert’s Finest

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SOTD 2016-04-27

A very fine shave this morning, all bay rum. The tub of Meißner Tremonia’s Natural Bay Rum is new, and you can clearly see the logo printed/embossed directly on the soap. After a few uses it’s gone, of course, but it makes a very nice presentation.

The Satin Tip brush did a fine job, and I got the usual excellent lather from the soap, this time with a strong and pleasant bay rum fragrance.

The Fine slant did its usual great job, and now the right angle comes easily to me. Focusing on keeping the cap touching the face helps, since it encourages moving the handle a bit farther from the face, making the angle perfect.

Three passes, perfect BBS without nicks, and a good splash of Krampert’s Finest Bay Rum to finish the job.

I will be out of town tomorrow. The SOTD will resume on Friday. My shave tomorrow I already know will be with the 102 since I have to get up at 4:30 a.m. to catch a flight. If I’m going to shave half-asleep, I want a razor I can trust.

Written by Leisureguy

27 April 2016 at 7:35 am

Posted in Shaving

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