Later On

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

Archive for May 2017

Trump moves to return Russian compounds that Obama ordered vacated punitively

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Trump is strangely eager to please the Russians. Notice that he asks for nothing in return for doing this. How did he get the idea that he’s great at making deals?

Written by Leisureguy

31 May 2017 at 7:48 pm

How Jared Kushner built a luxury skyscraper using loans meant for job-starved areas

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The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Shawn Boburg reports in the Washington Post:

Jared Kushner and his real estate partners wanted to take advantage of a federal program in 2015 that would save them millions of dollars as they built an opulent, 50-story residential tower in this city’s booming waterfront district, just across the Hudson River from Lower Manhattan.

There was just one problem: The program was designed to benefit projects in poor, job-starved areas.

So the project’s consultants got creative, records show.

They worked with state officials in New Jersey to come up with a map that defined the area around 65 Bay Street as a swath of land that stretched nearly four miles and included some of the city’s poorest and most crime-ridden neighborhoods. At the same time, they excluded some wealthy neighborhoods only blocks away.

The tactic — critics liken it to the gerrymandering of legislative districts — made it appear that the luxury tower was in an area with extraordinarily high unemployment, allowing Kushner Companies and its partners to get $50 million in low-cost financing through the EB-5 visa program.

The move was legal, and other developers have used similar strategies in recent years, often aided by state officials who welcome the infusion of cash. But it illustrates how Kushner, who ran his family’s real estate company before he became a senior adviser to President Trump, and his partners exploited a loophole in a federal program that prominent members of both parties say has been plagued by fraud and abuse. . .

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Written by Leisureguy

31 May 2017 at 3:38 pm

Another very interesting movie: Michael Moore’s “Where to Invade Next,” a comic documentary

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Where to Invade Next is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime. It came out in 2015, but I hadn’t seen it, so watching now for the first time. I have to say it’s quite enjoyable and contains more than a few surprises (at least to me).

Written by Leisureguy

31 May 2017 at 3:15 pm

In Washington state, a healthcare repeal lesson learned the hard way

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Noam Levey reports in the LA Times:

Republicans in the state of Washington didn’t wait long in the spring of 1995 to fulfill their pledge to roll back a sweeping law expanding health coverage in the state.

Coming off historic electoral gains, the GOP legislators scrapped much of the law while pledging to make health insurance affordable and to free state residents from onerous government mandates.

It didn’t work out that way: The repeal left the state’s insurance market in shambles, sent premiums skyrocketing and drove health insurers from the state. It took nearly five years to repair the damage.

Two decades later, the ill-fated experiment, largely relegated to academic journals, offers a caution to lawmakers at the national level as Republicans in the U.S. Senate race to write a bill to repeal and replace the federal Affordable Care Act.

“It’s much easier to break something,” said Pam MacEwan, who served on a Washington state commission charged with implementing the law in the mid-1990s and now oversees the state insurance market there. “It’s more difficult to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. … And that’s when people get hurt.”

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office echoed that warning last week, when it concluded that the healthcare bill passed by the House last month would destabilize insurance markets in a sixth of the country and nearly double the number of people without health insurance over the next decade.

Senate Republican leaders contend that their legislation will be different. “We’re working to lower the costs and give people more personal, individual freedom,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said last week.

Obamacare vs. Trumpcare: A side-by-side comparison of the Affordable Care Act and the GOP’s replacement plan »

There were similar assurances in the Washington statehouse when legislators there began to pull apart the Washington Health Services Act in the mid-1990s.

“We will do everything we can to stop the government healthcare bureaucracy that is now poised to limit personal choices,” Clyde Ballard, the Republican speaker of the Washington House of Representatives, said at the time.

The Health Services Act, which Democratic Gov. Mike Lowry signed in May 1993, was an ambitious effort to overhaul the state healthcare system by guaranteeing residents health insurance and putting new government controls on rising healthcare costs. It was designed to complement the national healthcare overhaul that President Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton were pursuing at the time.

Washington state prohibited insurers from denying coverage to consumers, even if they were sick, a revolutionary protection then.

A state commission was empowered to clamp down on insurance premiums to limit increases.

And to get all Washingtonians covered, the state became the first in the nation to both require residents to have coverage and to require employers to offer health benefits.

The law was controversial from its inception, as major business groups and insurers balked at its many new regulations. Just a few Republicans joined Democrats in the state Legislature to pass the legislation.

Within a few months, it became clear that there would be problems implementing it, in part because the state couldn’t secure necessary federal approval to require employers to provide coverage.

“We had to reform the reform,” said Phil Dyer, a Republican who would help lead the repeal effort as chairman of the Senate health committee.

GOP legislative candidates railed against the law on the campaign trail in 1994. And that fall, the party picked up 30 seats, taking control of the House and coming within one seat of taking the Senate.

When the new Legislature convened in 1995, GOP lawmakers set about pulling apart the law, bringing along Democrats who feared Republicans would repeal it through a ballot measure if they didn’t cooperate.

The hastily crafted repeal — which the Legislature sent to the governor in three months — kept some popular parts of the law such as the guarantee that everyone could get coverage, even if they were sick. It scrapped parts voters didn’t like, including the requirement that state residents have health insurance.

The state’s insurance market started teetering soon afterward.

First, health insurers sought a series of double-digit rate hikes in 1995 and 1996. The health plans warned that with no requirement to have coverage, people were signing up for insurance only when they got sick, sending costs skyrocketing.

Then, in November 1998, Premera Blue Cross, one of the state’s leading insurers, announced it would stop selling health plans, citing . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

31 May 2017 at 1:51 pm

Good science documentary on Amazon Prime: “Everything and Nothing: The Amazing Science of Empty Space”

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Everything and Nothing: The Amazing Science of Empty Space is a very well done documentary on abstruse topics of physics, using some ingenious visual effects to keep the viewer’s interest. Well worth watching, IMO.

Written by Leisureguy

31 May 2017 at 12:52 pm

Posted in Movies & TV, Science

Would a spy for Russia act any differently?

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Jennifer Rubin, a conservative columnist at the Washington Post, asks an uncomfortable question:

I’ll posit that President Trump is not a Manchurian candidate, prepped and lodged in the highest office to betray America. That said, his behavior is really no different from what one would expect — or Russia would expect — from a planted agent. It does not mean Trump is a planted agent; it means Russia has been so successful in getting the results it wants without accomplishing any cinematic-worthy spy escapade as to mark this as among the most successful intelligence schemes in history.

Former FBI special agent Clint Watts, whose testimony in March laid out the most comprehensive look at the array of tools Russia used to influence our election, has a handy chart that explains a spectrum of individuals who may be of use to Russia’s intelligence services. The continuum ranges from “natural ally” (“Trump’s alignment with nearly every Russian foreign policy objective grew in increments, eerily coinciding with the entrance of key aides and advocates into his campaign, not through his own study”) to “useful idiot” (“Russian intelligence for decades identified and promoted key individuals around the world ripe for manipulation and serving their interests. Trump, similar to emerging alternative right European politicians, spouts populist themes of xenophobia, anti-immigration, and white nationalist pride that naturally bring about a retrenchment of U.S. global influence”) to “compromised” (this would match the latest news leak that Russians thought they had compromising information on Trump’s finances) to “Manchurian candidate” (“a deliberate plant commanded by the Russian government, aided during the campaign with both a hacking-influence campaign – equipped with key Russian advisors – and funding to help him take the White House”).

Just in the last couple of weeks we saw:

  • Trump create a flap by lecturing our European allies and refusing to confirm our Article 5 obligations in public.
  • Trump attack Germany for its trade (which is entirely legitimate and benefits both countries), a practice he continued after he returned from Europe.
  • Trump give Russian officials code-word classified intelligence, thereby creating doubt among our allies as to our reliability and impairing information sharing.
  • No one in the Trump administration deny the basic outline of the blockbuster story, namely that he had not disclosed secret contacts with Russians that involved the potential for a secret channel, which Russia, but not U.S. intelligence services, could monitor.
  • Trump’s chummy interchange with Russian officials in the White House, which could not have been more different than his awkward, frosty meetings with European allies.

The more help Trump extends to Russia’s interests and the more inexplicable conduct comes to light (e.g., Jared Kushner looking for a Russian-secured channel) the harder it is to believe Trump isn’t, at the very least, a useful idiot. Months before the revelations over the last two weeks or so, Watts wrote: “Trump’s loose style of alliances and tactical actions make him ideally suited for the “Useful Idiot” scenario of Russian influence as he takes on advisors and positions based on perceived loyalty, yet without a clear understanding of his advisors connections to Russia. Any traditional politician would have sensed the danger implicit in surrounding oneself with people so closely connected to Putin’s intelligence agents.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

31 May 2017 at 8:03 am

Chiseled Face brush, Colonia/Asylum shaving soap, the Baili BD171, and Hâttric Classic

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I really like this Chiseled Face brush, though I think this model is extinct now. With it, I got an excellent lather for the multi-named soap shown in the photo above: a very creamy lather that felt good, smelled good, and worked well in the shave.

The Baili BD171 is really an excellent razor: very comfortable, disinclined to nick, and very efficient. Three smooth and easy passes left a BBS result, onto which I splashed some Hâttric Classic aftershave.

It’s a simple routine, but satisfying and makes the day feel as though it will go well.

Written by Leisureguy

31 May 2017 at 7:40 am

Posted in Shaving

How to converse

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Conversation is a skill, and thus it requires practice. At one time conversation was a valued skill and saying of someone, “S/he has no conversation” was damning. But times move on, and people forgot to teach conversational skills, and so we text. Take a look at this:

The 10 tips/rules/practices:

  1. Don’t multitask.
  2. Don’t pontificate.
  3. Use open-ended questions.
  4. Go with the flow.
  5. If you don’t know, say that you don’t know.
  6. Don’t equate your experience with theirs.
  7. Try not to repeat yourself.
  8. Stay out of the weeds.
  9. Listen.
  10. Be brief.

Again: it is a skill, so it must be learned through practice.

Written by Leisureguy

30 May 2017 at 8:14 pm

Posted in Daily life, Video

Before European Christians Forced Gender Roles, Native Americans Acknowledged 5 Genders

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Duane Brayboy writes at Indian Country Today:

“The New World.” This romanticized term inspired legions of Europeans to race to the places we live in search of freedoms from oppressive regimes or treasures that would be claimed in the name of some European nation.

Those who arrived in the Native American Garden of Eden had never seen a land so uncorrupted. The Europeans saw new geography, new plants, new animals, but the most perplexing curiosity to these people were the Original Peoples and our ways of life. Of all of the foreign life ways Indians held, one of the first the Europeans targeted for elimination was the Two Spirit tradition among Native American cultures. At the point of contact, all Native American societies acknowledged three to five gender roles: Female, male, Two Spirit female, Two Spirit male and transgendered. LGBT Native Americans wanting to be identified within their respective tribes and not grouped with other races officially adopted the term “Two Spirit” from the Ojibwe language in Winnipeg, Manitoba, 1989. Each tribe has their own specific term, but there was a need for a universal term that the general population could understand. The Navajo refer to Two Spirits as Nádleehí (one who is transformed), among the Lakota is Winkté (indicative of a male who has a compulsion to behave as a female), Niizh Manidoowag (two spirit) in Ojibwe, Hemaneh (half man, half woman) in Cheyenne, to name a few. As the purpose of “Two Spirit” is to be used as a universal term in the English language, it is not always translatable with the same meaning in Native languages. For example, in the Iroquois Cherokee language, there is no way to translate the term, but the Cherokee do have gender variance terms for “women who feel like men” and vice versa.

The Jesuits and French explorers told stories of Native American men who had “Given to sin” and “Hunting Women” with wives and later, the British returned to England with similar accounts. George Catlin said that the Two Spirit tradition among Native Americans “Must be extinguished before it can be more fully recorded.” In keeping with European prejudices held against Natives, the Spanish Catholic monks destroyed most of the Aztec codices to eradicate traditional Native beliefs and history, including those that told of the Two Spirit tradition. In 1530, the Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca wrote in his diary of seeing “soft” Native Indian males in Florida tribes dressing and working as  women. Just as with all other aspects of the European regard for Indians, gender variance was not tolerated. Europeans and eventually Euro-Americans demanded all people conform to their prescribed two gender roles.

The Native American belief is that some people are born with the spirits of both genders and express them so perfectly that it is if they have two spirits in one body. Some Siouan tribes believed that before a child is born its soul stands before The Creator, to either reach for the bow and arrows that would indicate the role of a man or the basket that would determine the role of a female. When the child would reach for the gender-corresponding hand, sometimes The Creator would switch hands and the child would have chosen the opposite gender’s role and therefore casting its lot in life.

Native Americans traditionally assign no moral gradient to love or sexuality; a person was judged for their contributions to their tribe and for their character. It was also a custom for parents to not interfere with nature and so among some tribes, children wore gender-neutral clothes until they reached an age where they decided for themselves which path they would walk and the appropriate ceremonies followed. The Two Spirit people in pre-contact Native America were highly revered and families that included them were considered lucky. Indians believed that a person who was able to see the world through the eyes of both genders at the same time was a gift from The Creator. Traditionally, Two Spirit people held positions within their tribes that earned them great respect, such as Medicine Men/Women, shamans, visionaries, mystics, conjurers, keepers of the tribe’s oral traditions, conferrers of lucky names for children and adults (it has been said that Crazy Horse received his name from a Winkte), nurses during war expeditions, cooks, matchmakers and marriage counselors, jewelry/feather regalia makers, potters, weavers, singers/artists in addition to adopting orphaned children and tending to the elderly. Female-bodied Two Spirits were hunters, warriors, engaged in what was typically men’s work and by all accounts, were always fearless.

Traditional Native Americans closely associate Two Spirited people with having a high functioning intellect (possibly from a life of self-questioning), keen artistic skills and an exceptional capacity for compassion. Rather than being social dead-enders as within Euro-American culture today, they were allowed to fully participate within traditional tribal social structures. Two Spirit people, specifically male-bodied (biologically male, gender female) could go to war and have access to male activities such as the sweat lodge. However, they also took on female roles such as cooking, cleaning and other domestic responsibilities. Female bodied (biologically female, gender male) Two Spirits usually only had relationships or marriages with females and among the Lakota, they would sometimes enter into a relationship with a female whose husband had died. As male-bodied Two Spirits regarded each other as “sisters,” it is speculated that it may have been seen as incestuous for Two Spirits to have a relationship with each other. Within this culture it was considered highly offensive to approach a Two Spirit for the purpose of them performing the traditional role of their biological gender.

Osh-Tisch, also known as Finds Them and Kills Them, was a Crow Badé (Two Spirit) and was celebrated among his tribe for his bravery when he attacked a Lakota war party and saved a fellow tribesman in the Battle of the Rosebud on June 17, 1876. In 1982, Crow elders told ethnohistorian Walter Williams: “The Badé were a respected social group among the Crow. They spent their time with the women or among themselves, setting up their tipis in a separate area of the village. They called each other ‘sister’ and saw Osh-Tisch as their leader.” The elders also told the story of former B.I.A. agents who tried to repeatedly force him to wear men’s clothing, but the other Indians protested against this, saying it was against his nature. Joe Medicine Crow told Williams: “One agent in the late 1890’s…tried to interfere with Osh-Tisch, who was the most respected Badé. The agent incarcerated the Badés, cut off their hair, made them wear men’s clothing. He forced them to do manual labor, planting these trees that you see here on the B.I.A. grounds. The people were so upset with this that Chief Pretty Eagle came into Crow agency and told the agent to leave the reservation. It was a tragedy, trying to change them.”

Pressure to change also came from Christian missionaries. In 1903 a Baptist minister arrived on the reservation. According to Thomas Yellow Tail, “He condemned our traditions, including the Badé. He told his congregation to stay away from Osh-Tisch and other Badés. He continued to condemn Osh-Tisch until his death. That may be the reason no others took up the Badé role after Osh-Tisch died.”

On February 11, 1712, Colonel Barnwell of South Carolina attacked the Tuscaroras at Narhantes, a Tuscarora fort on the Neuse River, North Carolina. Barnwell’s troops were surprised to find that the most fierce of the Tuscarora warriors were women who do not surrender “until most of them are put to the sword.” It was an Iroquois custom to put Two Spirits on the front lines to scare the enemy. A warrior woman and man in women’s clothes were as frightening to Euro-Americans then as they are now. John Lawson wrote of the Tuscarora: “During . . .

Continue reading.

On the whole, the two-spirit idea seems much more healthful and helpful than the forced binary division favored in the Christian tradition. Some good photos in this summary of the article.

See also the book Two-Spirit People: Native American Gender Identity, Sexuality, and Spirituality.

Written by Leisureguy

30 May 2017 at 5:07 pm

Posted in Daily life, Memes

A Puzzle of Clever Connections Nears a Happy End

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A very interesting article for the math-inclined by Kevin Hartnett in Quanta. It begins:

One measure of a good math problem is that, in trying to solve it, you will make some unexpected discoveries. Such was Esther Klein’s experience in 1933.

At the time, Klein was 23 years old and living in her hometown of Budapest, Hungary. One day she brought a puzzle to two of her friends, Paul Erdős and George Szekeres: Given five points, and assuming no three fall exactly on a line, prove that it is always possible to form a convex quadrilateral — a four-sided shape that’s never indented (meaning that, as you travel around it, you make either all left turns or all right turns).

Erdős and Szekeres eventually found a way to show that Klein’s statement was true (she had worked out the proof before bringing it to them), and it got them thinking: If five points are enough to guarantee that you can always connect four to form this kind of quadrilateral, how many points are needed to guarantee that you can form this same kind of shape with five sides, or 11 sides, or any number of sides?

By 1935 Erdős and Szekeres had solved this problem for shapes with three, four and five sides.  They knew it took three points to guarantee you could construct a convex triangle, five points to guarantee a convex quadrilateral, and nine points to guarantee a convex pentagon.

In the same paper in which they presented these solutions, Erdős and Szekeres proposed an exact formula for the number of points it would take to guarantee a convex polygon of any number of sides: 2(n–2) + 1, where n is the number of sides. But their proposal was just that — a well-aimed conjecture. Erdős, as he did with many problems, offered a cash bounty of $500 to anyone who could prove the formula was correct.

The puzzle was given a memorable nickname, the “happy ending” problem (or “happy end” problem as originally dubbed by Erdős), for reasons that had nothing to do with math. Instead, it reflected the primary nonmathematical consequence of their discussion of points, lines and shapes: Esther Klein and George Szekeres fell in love and married on June 13, 1937. . .

Continue reading.

Photos of the happy couple at the link, along with a discussion of the solution.

Written by Leisureguy

30 May 2017 at 4:31 pm

Posted in Math

Silence can speak volumes

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Kevin Drum notes:

The State Department held a briefing today. Dave Clark, a reporter for Agence France Presse, asked acting assistant secretary Stuart Jones a pointed question about President Trump criticizing Iranian democracy while standing next to officials of Saudi Arabia—not exactly a beacon of democracy itself. “How do you characterize Saudi Arabia’s commitment to democracy?” he asked. Is democracy a barrier against extremism? Here’s the reply:

It’s worth noting that almost all the terrorists of 9/11 (15 of the 19) came from Saudi Arabia, not Iran.

Written by Leisureguy

30 May 2017 at 4:09 pm

An evolutionary account of humans as cells in the body politic

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I don’t recall Hobbes as being a bottom-up thinker. His Leviathan, pictured above, is a great composite creature consisting of a state and its inhabitants, with the monarch as its head, directing the enterprise. Still, the idea of the people as cells, industriously working separately and as an unintended and unforeseen outcome creating cumulatively a human culture, came to me as I read this passage in The Evolution of Everything, by Matt Ridley:

[T]he diagnostic feature of life is that it captures energy to create order. This is also a hallmark of civilisation. Just as each person uses energy to make buildings and devices and ideas, so each gene uses energy to make a structure of protein. A bacterium is limited in how large it can grow by the quantity of energy available to each gene. That’s because the energy is captured at the cell membrane by pumping protons across the membrane, and the bigger the cell, the smaller its surface area relative to its volume. The only bacteria that grow big enough to be seen by the naked eye are ones that have huge empty vacuoles inside them.

However, at some point around two billion years after life started, huge cells began to appear with complicated internal structures; we call them eukaryotes, and we (animals as well as plants, fungi and protozoa) are them.

Nick Lane argues that the eukaryotic (r)evolution was made possible by a merger: a bunch of bacteria began to live inside an archeal cell (a different kind of microbe). Today the descendants of these bacteria are known as mitochondria, and they generate the energy we need to live. During every second of your life your thousand trillion mitochondria pump a billion trillion protons across their membranes, capturing the electrical energy needed to forge your proteins, DNA and other macromolecules.

Mitochondria still have their own genes, but only a small number – thirteen in us. This simplification of their genome was vital. It enabled them to generate far more surplus energy to support the work of ‘our genome’, which is what enables us to have complex cells, complex tissues and complex bodies. As a result we eukaryotes have tens of thousands of times more energy available per gene, making each of our genes capable of far greater productivity. That allows us to have larger cells as well as more complex structures. In effect, we overcame the size limit of the bacterial cell by hosting multiple internal membranes in mitochondria, and then simplifying the genomes needed to support those membranes.

There is an uncanny echo of this in the Industrial (R)evolution. In agrarian societies, a family could grow just enough food to feed itself, but there was little left over to support anybody else. So only very few people could have castles, or velvet coats, or suits of armour, or whatever else needed making with surplus energy. The harnessing of oxen, horses, wind and water helped generate a bit more surplus energy, but not much. Wood was no use – it provided heat, not work. So there was a permanent limit on how much a society could make in the way of capital – structures and things.

Then in the Industrial (R)evolution an almost inexhaustible supply of energy was harnessed in the form of coal. Coal miners, unlike peasant farmers, produced vastly more energy than they consumed. And the more they dug out, the better they got at it. With the first steam engines, the barrier between heat and work was breached, so that coal’s energy could now amplify the work of people. Suddenly, just as the eukaryotic (r)evolution vastly increased the amount of energy per gene, so the Industrial (R)evolution vastly increased the amount of energy per worker. And that surplus energy, so the energy economist John Constable argues, is what built (and still builds) the houses, machines, software and gadgets – the capital – with which we enrich our lives. Surplus energy is indispensable to modern society, and is the symptom of wealth. An American consumes about ten times as much energy as a Nigerian, which is the same as saying he is ten times richer. ‘With coal almost any feat is possible or easy,’ wrote William Stanley Jevons; ‘without it we are thrown back into the laborious poverty of early times.’ Both the evolution of surplus energy generation by eukaryotes, and the evolution of surplus energy by industrialisation, were emergent, unplanned phenomena.

But I digress. Back to genomes. A genome is a digital computer program of immense complexity. The slightest mistake would alter the pattern, dose or sequence of expression of its 20,000 genes (in human beings), or affect the interaction of its hundreds of thousands of control sequences that switch genes on and off, and result in disastrous deformity or a collapse into illness. In most of us, for an incredible eight or nine decades, the computer program runs smoothly with barely a glitch.

Consider what must happen every second in your body to keep the show on the road. You have maybe ten trillion cells, not counting the bacteria that make up a large part of your body. Each of those cells is at any one time transcribing several thousand genes, a procedure that involves several hundred proteins coming together in a specific way and catalysing tens of chemical reactions for each of millions of base pairs. Each of those transcripts generates a protein molecule, thousands of amino acids long, which it does by entering a ribosome, a machine with tens of moving parts, capable of catalysing a flurry of chemical reactions. The proteins themselves then fan out within and without cells to speed reactions, transport goods, transmit signals and prop up structures. Millions of trillions of these immensely complicated events are occurring every second in your body to keep you alive, very few of which go wrong. It’s like the world economy in miniature, only even more complex.

It is hard to shake the illusion that for such a computer to run such a program, there must be a programmer. Geneticists in the early days of the Human Genome Project would talk of ‘master genes’ that commanded subordinate sequences. Yet no such master gene exists, let alone an intelligent programmer. The entire thing not only emerged piece by piece through evolution, but runs in a democratic fashion too. Each gene plays its little role; no gene comprehends the whole plan. Yet from this multitude of precise interactions results a spontaneous design of unmatched complexity and order. There was never a better illustration of the validity of the Enlightenment dream – that order can emerge where nobody is in charge. The genome, now sequenced, stands as emphatic evidence that there can be order and complexity without any management.

I’m reminded of something I blogged earlier from a paper by Olivia Judson in Nature:

The history of the life–Earth system can be divided into five ‘energetic’ epochs, each featuring the evolution of life forms that can exploit a new source of energy. These sources are: geochemical energy, sunlight, oxygen, flesh and fire. The first two were present at the start, but oxygen, flesh and fire are all consequences of evolutionary events. Since no category of energy source has disappeared, this has, over time, resulted in an expanding realm of the sources of energy available to living organisms and a concomitant increase in the diversity and complexity of ecosystems. These energy expansions have also mediated the transformation of key aspects of the planetary environment, which have in turn mediated the future course of evolutionary change. Using energy as a lens thus illuminates patterns in the entwined histories of life and Earth, and may also provide a framework for considering the potential trajectories of life–planet systems elsewhere.

Free energy is a universal requirement for life. It drives mechanical motion and chemical reactions—which in biology can change a cell or an organism1,2. Over the course of Earth history, the harnessing of free energy by organisms has had a dramatic impact on the planetary environment3,​4,​5,​6,​7. Yet the variety of free-energy sources available to living organisms has expanded over time. These expansions are consequences of events in the evolution of life, and they have mediated the transformation of the planet from an anoxic world that could support only microbial life, to one that boasts the rich geology and diversity of life present today. Here, I review these energy expansions, discuss how they map onto the biological and geological development of Earth, and consider what this could mean for the trajectories of life–planet systems elsewhere. . .

The evolution of human culture (as I repeatedly mention, and as described by Susan Blackmore in The Meme Machine—and indeed in Ridley’s book quoted above) follows the same undirected, bottom-up process as evolution of lifeforms. No great leader says, “Now let’s find a better source of energy—coals would work. Go development machines and processes to use coal” just as no leader says, “We need new musical instruments and styles: invent the pianoforte and write sonatas for it” (nor do some animals think, “We should now become able to fly”). Individual cells do things on their own, and natural selection harmonizes the efforts over time.

And I sort of like the idea that all us humans are in effect cells working hard to generate little bits of human culture. I do it by blogging (and by writing a book on shaving). We don’t really know quite how it will all fit together, but that’s what natural selection takes care of.

Update: Just as the cell makes proteins of various kinds, following the templates provided by DNA and RNA, so too do individual humans produce memes of various kinds, guided by the template of one’s culture. In this case, though, the creation from the culture will also change the culture (cultural evolution). Thus the template is always changing, unlike DNA and RNA which change only occasionally—i.e., mutations. And mutations generally don’t help; it’s the rare mutation that makes a significant positive difference, like the mutation that led to lactose-tolerance.

But the same is true of cultural creations: many of those go nowhere and never really serve as a template. They have a brief heyday and wither away. No Pet Rocks today. Hula hoops survive, barely. The Frisbee seems well-established in its cultural niche.

Another example of a meme almost extinguished: the two-spirit idea of the Native Americans, about which I blogged today. That seems a very valuable meme (in terms of memes matching reality), and I hope it returns.

Written by Leisureguy

30 May 2017 at 3:58 pm

Posted in Books, Evolution, Memes, Science

The Paris Climate Accord Is Superficial. That’s Why Trump Wants to Kill It.

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Kevin Drum has an extremely interesting post on the real reasons behind Trump’s pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord, reasons that make sense in the Trump scheme of things.

His post includes charts, always a plus.

Written by Leisureguy

30 May 2017 at 3:18 pm

How Congress dismantled federal Internet privacy rules

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More and more it seems that the GOP views the public as fodder for corporations. Kimberly Kindy reports for the Washington Post:

Congressional Republicans knew their plan was potentially explosive. They wanted to kill landmark privacy regulations that would soon ban Internet providers, such as Comcast and AT&T, from storing and selling customers’ browsing histories without their express consent.

So after weeks of closed-door debates on Capitol Hill over who would take up the issue first — the House or the Senate — Republican members settled on a secret strategy, according to Hill staff and lobbyists involved in the battle. While the nation was distracted by the House’s pending vote to repeal Obamacare, Senate Republicans would schedule a vote to wipe out the new privacy protections.

On March 23, the measure passed on a straight party-line vote, 50 to 48. Five days later, a majority of House Republicans voted in favor of it, sending it to the White House, where President Trump signed the bill in early April without ceremony or public comment.

“While everyone was focused on the latest headline crisis coming out of the White House, Congress was able to roll back privacy,” said former Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler, who worked for nearly two years to pass the rules.

The process to eliminate them took only a matter of weeks. The blowback was immediate.

Constituents heckled several of the lawmakers at town halls. “You sold my privacy up the river!” one person yelled at Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) — lead sponsor of the Senate bill — at a gathering in April. Several late-night comedians roasted congressional Republicans: “This is what’s wrong with Washington, D.C. I guarantee you there is not one person, not one voter of any political stripe anywhere in America who asked for this,” Stephen Colbert said.

The quick undoing of the Internet privacy rules has prompted lawmakers in more than a dozen states to propose local laws to restore privacy protections to their constituents.

The FCC privacy rules were among the first of more than a hundredregulations and laws being targeted for elimination or massive overhaul by Trump and Republican members of Congress who want to dismantle Obama-era regulations they view as burdensome.

How the privacy rules came to be undone helps to explain and inform the strategies behind the broader range of Republican initiatives in the works. The rollback of privacy, for example, was the first step by the Republican-led FCC to overhaul Obama-era net neutrality rules .

The rolling crises within Trump’s administration and Republican infighting has slowed Republican lawmakers’ work on Capitol Hill. But they remain positioned to capi­tal­ize on their control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, a power structure that has not existed in more than a decade.

“Trump and the Republicans are doing so many different things on parallel tracks, the news media and activists can’t follow it all,” said Trump adviser and former House speaker Newt Gingrich. “This is by design.”

The Internet privacy rules were adopted in October during the last days of the Obama administration after an intense battle that pitted large Internet service providers, the advertising industry and tech giants against consumer advocates and civil rights groups.

The rules required Internet service providers to get explicit consent before they gather their customers’ data — their browsing histories, the locations of businesses they physically visit and the mobile applications they use — and sell it to third parties. Proponents said the rules were necessary because consumers must use a provider to access the Internet.

The requirements were modeled after a law passed decades ago by Congress that prohibited telephone companies from collecting customers’ calling histories and selling the information to third parties. “There has been an expectation from the beginning of the telecommunications era that your privacy is not up for sale,” said Sen. Edward J. Markey, (D-Mass.) who fought to preserve the rules.

The industry, Republican FCC commissioners and lawmakers said the restrictions were too broad and should be limited to highly sensitive data, such as personal medical information, not data gathered from activities like online car shopping. The rules, they said, would cause consumers to miss out on customized promotions. And, opponents said, the threat to privacy was overstated — a provider might learn that a person visited a website but would not typically know what the person did while there.

Because the commission’s privacy rules passed on a party-line vote, three Democrats in favor and two Republicans opposed, the rules were viewed as extremely partisan. This made them vulnerable from the start, said Jon Leibowitz, co-chair of the 21st Century Privacy Coalition, a group financed by Internet providers, which led the effort to eliminate the requirements.

The campaign to kill the FCC rules began just a few weeks after Trump’s November victory.

Lobbyists from trade groups funded by large broadband companies — including Leibowitz’s group and the Consumer Technology Association — made phone calls and held small, private meetings with Republican congressional aides, according to Hill staff, consultants and lobbyists on both sides of the issue. They were shopping for bill sponsors and approached Flake and Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who had been vocal opponents of the rules when they were being crafted at the FCC. The two agreed to champion the cause. . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

30 May 2017 at 12:47 pm

Posted in Business, Congress, GOP, Law

The Bullshitter-in-Chief: Donald Trump’s disregard for the truth is something more sinister than ordinary lying.

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Matthew Yglesias writes in Vox:

Donald Trump says a lot of things that aren’t true, often shamelessly so, and it’s tempting to call him a liar.

But that’s not quite right. As the Princeton University philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt put it in a famous essay, to lie presumes a kind of awareness of and interest in the truth — and the goal is to convince the audience that the false thing you are saying is in fact true. Trump, more often than not, isn’t interested in convincing anyone of anything. He’s a bullshitter who simply doesn’t care.

In Trump’s own book, Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again, our now-president describes himself in a way that Frankfurt could hold up as the quintessential example of a bullshitter. Trump writes that he’s an “I say what’s on my mind” kind of guy. Pages later, he explains that doesn’t mean he’s necessarily an honest guy.

“If you do things a little differently,” he writes of the media, “if you say outrageous things and fight back, they love you.” The free publicity that results from deliberately provoking controversy is invaluable. And if a bit of exaggeration is what it takes, Trump doesn’t have a problem with that. “When,” he asks “was the last time you saw a sign hanging outside a pizzeria claiming ‘The fourth best pizza in the world’?!”

When Trump says something like he’s just learned that Barack Obama ordered his phones wiretapped, he’s not really trying to persuade people that this is true. It’s a test to see who around him will debase themselves to repeat it blindly. There’s no greater demonstration of devotion.

In his first and best-known book, The Art of the Deal, Trump writes a passage that is one of the most remarkable ever set to paper by a future American president. It’s deeply telling about Trump’s views on the distinction between integrity and loyalty. Trump sings the praises of Roy Cohn — Joe McCarthy’s infamous legal attack dog later turned Trump mentor:

Just compare that with all the hundreds of “respectable” guys who make careers out of boasting about their uncompromising integrity but have absolutely no loyalty. They only care about what’s best for them and don’t think twice about stabbing a friend in the back if the friend becomes a problem. What I liked most about Roy Cohn was that he would do just the opposite. Roy was the kind of guy who’d be there at your hospital bed long after everyone else had bailed out, literally standing by you to the death.

Trump, ironically, would not stand by Cohn’s deathbed as he perished of AIDS; instead, he disavowed his friend. For Trump, loyalty is a way to size up those around him, suss out friend from foe. It is not a quality he cares to embrace in his personal life. Now president, it’s the same in his political life.

The two passages taken together illuminate an important facet of Trump’s personality, and of his presidency. He’s a man who doesn’t care much about the truth. He’s a man who cares deeply about loyalty. The two qualities merge in the way he wields bullshit. His flagrant lies serve as a loyalty test.

Trump’s tactics, in a different context, would be understood as . . .

Continue reading.

And do read the whole thing. There’s a lot more. The conclusion:

. . . The upshot is a conservative movement and a Republican Party that, if Trump persists in office, will be remade along Trumpian lines with integrity deprecated and bullshit running rampant. It’s clear that the owners and top talent at commercial conservative media are perfectly content with that outcome, and the question facing the party’s politicians is whether they are, too.

The common thread of the Trumposphere is that there doesn’t need to be any common thread. One day Comey went soft on Clinton; the next day he was fired for being too hard on her; the day after that, it wasn’t about Clinton at all. The loyalist is just supposed to go along with whatever the line of the day is.

This is the authoritarian spirit in miniature, assembling a party and a movement that is bound to no principles and not even committed to following its own rhetoric from one day to the next. A “terrific” health plan that will “cover everyone” can transform into a bill to slash the Medicaid rolls by 14 million in the blink of an eye and nobody is supposed to notice or care. Anything could happen at any moment, all of it powered by bullshit.

Written by Leisureguy

30 May 2017 at 11:12 am

Turns out the Trump era isn’t ‘1984.’ It’s ‘King Lear.’

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Ron Charles makes a good point in the Washington Post:

We were wrong: The Trump era is not like George Orwell’s “1984.

But how striking those echoes sounded at first. Kellyanne Conway, the president’s spirit animal, seemed to borrow phrases directly from Big Brother when she posited the existence of “alternative facts.” Press secretary Sean Spicer sounded like an official from the Ministry of Truth when he contradicted witnesses and photographs to claim that President Trump’s inauguration crowd was record-setting.

Alarming as such dystopian comparisons were, they offered some deep satisfaction in the early days of our dark ages. Playing the Orwell card was not just a handy insult with a dash of literary sophistication, it also exercised a salutary effect on right-thinking people. To connect the day’s latest outrage to a classic novel suggested that we’d seen Trump’s behavior before, that literature had anticipated his linguistic abuses, that his appeal could be understood. Having on the breastplate of foreknowledge, we could withstand whatever further assaults might be coming.

By now it should be clear that the Trump administration is nothing like the ruling power of Orwell’s Oceania or — another common claim — like Margaret Atwood’s Gilead in “The Handmaid’s Tale.” The repressive governments of those imagined hellscapes are marked, primarily, not by their vast deception but by their absolute order. Flawless message control and meticulous image manipulation are the foundations of their sovereignty. Nothing could be further from the continuous upheaval that DonaldTrump wreaks.

For literary precedent, we should skip over the dystopian novels of the 20th century, which were predicated on terrifyingly invasive management. The most prominent characteristic of our era is not the monolithic power of one party, but the erratic personality of one man. Every morning, all sides of the political establishment — his family and friends, along with “the haters and losers” — must contend with Trump’s zigzagging proclamations, his grandiose promises, his spasmodic attachments.

Consequently, the best literary precedent for what we’re enduring now is not the static image of Big Brother but the turbulent eruptions of King Lear. In Shakespeare’s immortal tragedy, composed around 1605, we see a kingdom entirely in thrall to the fitful mentality of its leader with his “unconstant starts.” As one of Lear’s daughters says, “The best and soundest of his time hath been but rash.” Or, as Politico observed400 years later about our president: ­“Unpredictability . . . is not a quirk but a hallmark.”

Once you make the comparison between Lear and Trump, the similarities begin to line up like attendants at court. Most striking, the old king of Britain and the new president of the United States are rulers obsessed with personal devotion. Trump is, as he once noted in his typically Shakespearean way, “like, this great loyalty freak.”

Trump’s language may not pass muster in ninth-grade English, but that’s a pretty fair description of King Lear. In fact, the great crisis of Shakespeare’s tragedy hinges on the fact that Lear is, like, this great loyalty freak, too. How eerily familiar that opening scene must feel to the Cabinet members and advisers currying favor at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.:

“Which of you,” Lear demands, “shall we say doth love us most?”

Goneril and Regan dutifully deliver their unctuous praise, but principled Cordelia — played for us with touching poignancy by FBI Director James B. Comey — refuses to take the loyalty pledge and is summarily disinherited. (Lear doesn’t even wait for the Earl of Kent to compose a memo justifying the move.)

Now, like Lear’s subjects, we find ourselves experiencing the chaos that reigns “when majesty falls to folly.” As the Russian inquiry melds with the Michael Flynn scandal and the Comey investigation, the ludicrous denials and confusing qualifications keep spewing from the White House. Each day’s revelations are more disturbing than the last. We can take bitter comfort in Edgar’s gallows humor: “The worst is not, so long as we can say, ‘This is the worst.’”

How many of the president’s supporters have begged him — as Lear’s supporters implored him — “Check this hideous rashness” . . .

Continue reading.

And note that King Lear is currently playing DC—I mean in a theater, not just in the White House.

Written by Leisureguy

30 May 2017 at 10:13 am

The plot continues to thicken: Wall Street Funds Hold Hundreds of Millions in Sanctioned Russian Bank Subject to Kushner Probe

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Pam Martens and Russ Martens report in Wall Street on Parade:

The 2017 Memorial Day weekend will inevitably go down in history as the three-day span when remembrances of our military veterans took a media backseat to President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and everything Russian.

One of the key areas under multiple probes is a meeting Kushner held in December with Sergey Gorkov, the Chairman of Vnesheconombank (VEB), a Russian state-owned bank which has been under U.S. sanctions since July 2014 for Russia’s annexation of Crimea and aggression in Ukraine. What this meeting was about has yet to be officially determined.

Reuters reported on Saturday that “FBI investigators are examining whether Russians suggested to Kushner or other Trump aides that relaxing economic sanctions would allow Russian banks to offer financing to people with ties to Trump, said the current U.S. law enforcement official.”

Financial dealings with a Russian bank that remains under U.S. sanctions can result in serious penalties – or not. Wall Street On Parade conducted research into filings made at the Securities and Exchange Commission for fixed income securities issued by Vnesheconombank and found that some of the biggest names in Wall Street banking and mutual funds in the U.S. hold, cumulatively, hundreds of millions of dollars in notes and bonds issued by the Russian bank.

Fidelity Advisor’s Emerging Markets Income Fund shows it held more than $62 million in VEB fixed income securities as of December 31, 2016. Various Deutsche Bank mutual funds that operate in the U.S. own tens of millions of dollars of VEB debt securities. JPMorgan’s Emerging Markets Debt Fund shows that as of November 30, 2016, it held $20.5 million in VEB debt securities, although, curiously, it has the position assigned to its Ireland holdings. Other big mutual fund names showing VEB assets are PIMCO, Putnam, and Vanguard.

The U.S. mutual funds are apparently able to continue to hold these assets because of the wording of the U.S. Treasury’s sanction announcement that was issued on July 16, 2014. The sanction order prohibited “new financing” to VEB but was silent on what banks should do with the hundreds of millions of dollars of VEB securities already in their portfolios.

The U.S. Treasury defines VEB as follows: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

30 May 2017 at 9:36 am

U.S. Veterans Use Greek Tragedy to Tell Us About War

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Bruce Headlam has a good column in the NY Times, with video (at the link):

The ancient Greeks didn’t go to the theater just to be entertained. Aristotle believed that audiences saw themselves reflected in tragic characters and that the very act of watching a character’s downfall helped purge them of emotions like pity and fear, a process he called catharsis or, roughly, “purification.”

More than 2,500 years later, a young classics major named Bryan Doerries wondered whether he could help a growing and vulnerable population in need of catharsis: veterans of the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of whom come home from combat with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal thoughts.

His idea became a project he calls Theater of War, which has now staged more than 400 performances for veterans across the country. He asked high-profile actors, including Adam Driver, Frances McDormand and David Strathairn, to read from the war plays of Sophocles. After the reading, the veterans in the audience talk about their own trauma and their trouble readjusting to civilian life.

The project has attracted thousands of veterans and their families as they try to readjust to life away from the battlefield. It isn’t an easy process.

“You create a permissive enough environment where people can speak truth,” Mr. Doerries said. “The Greeks have a word which means ‘balanced-mindedness,’ which was the ideal of the fifth century. So how do you rebalance the mind of an Athenian? Part of the answer is to give them the opportunity to vent and purge these emotions that can’t be bottled up.”

Inspired by the example of Theater of War, we have created our own version of Sophocles’ poetry. We asked a dozen or so veterans to read passages from two of his war plays and to talk about what the passages meant to them. We turned their readings and their comments into two videos — one about a soldier’s suicide and the other about living with injury.

One, called “A Warrior’s Last Words,” is adapted from the play “Ajax” and shows Ajax and his wife, Tecmessa, as he contemplates suicide. The other video, “If Men Don’t Know My Story,” is a speech from the play “Philoctetes” (pronounced fill-ock-TEE-tees), in which a badly wounded soldier describes how the generals abandoned him on an island for nine years.

So instead of getting insights into themselves by listening to Greek poetry, these veterans are using the poetry to give us insight into their own experience.

“The first time I heard Ajax’s speech, it knocked me back in my chair,” said Jeff Hall, a retired Army commander from Oklahoma who struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts after returning from Iraq. “It was me. I could see how he was betrayed in the text.”

Mr. Hall’s wife, Sheri, is the voice of Tecmessa in the video — the long-suffering spouse of Ajax, who lives in fear of her husband’s dark thoughts.

“She was walking around on eggshells and so were we during our time of Jeff’s PTSD onset, and the things going on with his anger and his depression,” she said. “It really spoke to me, especially with what she was dealing with. I was going through the same things.”

While Sophocles is better remembered for writing “Antigone” and “Oedipus Rex,” he was also a general in the Athenian Army and lived during the decades-long Peloponnesian War. He wrote “Ajax” and “Philoctetes” for audiences that most likely included his army’s own soldiers.

“The theme that’s most prevalent in both plays is . . .

Continue reading.

See also the excellent book Achilles in Vietnam, by Jonathan Shay.

Written by Leisureguy

30 May 2017 at 9:32 am

Posted in Art, Books, Military

The Artist as Prophet

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Chris Hedges writes in Common Dreams:

The Israeli writer and dissident Uri Avnery asked an Egyptian general how the Egyptians managed to surprise the Israelis when they launched the October 1973 war. The general answered: “Instead of reading the intelligence reports, you should have read our poets.”

The deep malaise, rage and feelings of betrayal that have enveloped American society are rarely captured and almost never are explained coherently by the press. To grasp the savage economic and emotional cost of deindustrialization, the destruction of our democratic institutions, the dark undercurrent of nihilistic violence that sees us beset with mass shootings, the attraction of opioids, the rise of the militarized state and the concentration of national wealth in a tiny cabal of corrupt bankers and corporations, it is necessary to turn to a handful of poets, writers and other artists. These artists, who often exist on the margins of mass culture, are our unheeded prophets.

“What Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, and most other prophets have in common is a strong ethical outlook and a heightened sensitivity to attitudes and morals—the obvious ones as well as those that lurk beneath the surface,” the painter Enrique Martinez Celaya said in an essay. “They also share urgency. Prophets are not inclined to wait for the right time. Their prophetic vision demands action, leaving little room for calculation and diplomacy. Truth, for the prophets, is not merely a belief but a moral imperative that compels them to speak and act with little regard for convenience or gains. But prophets need to do more than speaking and acting, and it is not enough to be apocalyptic. Something must be brought forward.”

All despotisms, including our own, make war on culture. They seek to manipulate or erase historical memory. This assault on memory, Martinez Celaya said, is “philosophical violence.” It leaves us with a “sense of being a stranger, displaced, a sense of having no way to check where one comes from because something has been cut and removed.”

When I recently interviewed Russell Banks, the novelist said, “It’s remarkable to me, the speed which memory gets lost in America and perhaps elsewhere. The world has been so decentralized. No one lives with anyone older than they are, generally. It’s only through memory that we can compare the present to anything else, to take its measure.”

“If you can’t take its measure then you can’t judge it,” he said. “You can’t evaluate it. You can’t take a moral position with regards to it.”

Randall Jarrell in his essay “A Sad Heart at the Supermarket” calls our consumer culture “periodical.”

“We believe that all that is deserves to perish and to have something else put in its place,” he wrote. This belief, Jarrell said, is “the opposite of the world of the arts, where commercial and scientific progress do not exist; where the bone of Homer and Mozart and Donatello is there, always, under the mere blush of fashion, where the past—the remote past, even—is responsible for the way we understand, value, and act in, the present.”

“An artist’s work and life presuppose continuing standards, values stretched out over centuries of millennia, a future that is the continuation and modification of the past, not its contradiction or irrelevant replacement,” he went on.

“The past’s relation to the artist or man of culture is almost the opposite of its relation to the rest of our society,” Jarrell wrote. “To him the present is no more than the last ring on the trunk, understandable and valuable only in terms of all the earlier rings. The rest of our society sees only that great last ring, the enveloping surface of the trunk; what’s underneath is a disregarded, almost hypothetical foundation.”

In his novel “Cloudsplitter,” Banks tells the story of John Brown through the eyes of Owen, a son who survived the assault on Harpers Ferry and the aborted slave uprising. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

30 May 2017 at 8:31 am

Posted in Art, Books, Daily life

Mr Pomp, LA Shaving Soap Co., Above the Tie S1, and Lenthéric Tweed

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Mr Pomp is a good brush, and LA Shaving Soap company’s Vanilla/Eucalyptus/Mint shaving soap has a fragrance that gives a good wake-up assist. The lather was good, but this soap, like Dead Sea, requires that you use very little water.

Today I used ATT’s S1 slant, which rides on the UFO handle shown. This is a good slant, along the lines of the iKon X3, and it easily produced a smooth result with no problems.

A small splash of Lenthéric Tweed EDT served as the aftershave, and the work week at last arrives.

Written by Leisureguy

30 May 2017 at 7:15 am

Posted in Shaving

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