Later On

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Archive for July 10th, 2017

666 Fifth Avenue: Yet Another Massive Conflict of Interest for the Trump White House

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Kevin Drum points out how the United States government is possibly being used to play a role in the business interests of the Trump organization:

The Intercept has a story about young Jared Kushner and his catastrophically bad 2007 purchase of a New York skyscraper. Kushner has basically lost his entire $500 million investment, and the only way to turn things around is to demolish the building and put up a bigger, more valuable one in its place. But that requires a huge amount of money, and it turns out that Kushner was hoping to get a big chunk of it from a Qatari zillionaire:

Not long before a major crisis ripped through the Middle East, pitting the United States and a bloc of Gulf countries against Qatar, Jared Kushner’s real estate company had unsuccessfully sought a critical half-billion-dollar investmentfrom one of the richest and most influential men in the tiny nation, according to three well-placed sources with knowledge of the near transaction

Qatar is facing an ongoing blockade led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and joined by Egypt and Bahrain, which President Trump has taken credit for sparking. Kushner, meanwhile, has reportedly played a key behind-the-scenes role in hardening the U.S. posture toward the embattled nation.

….The revelation of the half-billion-dollar deal raises thorny and unprecedented ethical questions. If the deal is not entirely dead, that means Jared Kushner is, on the one hand, pushing to use the power of American diplomacy to pummel a small nation, while on the other, his firm is hoping to extract an extraordinary amount of capital from there for a failing investment. If, however, the deal is entirely dead, the pummeling may be seen as intimidating to other investors on the end of a Kushner Companies pitch.

There’s no way to know what’s really going on based solely on the information in the story. The problem is a very broad one: Jared Kushner runs a company that routinely needs to raise large sums of money, and one of the most common sources for large sums of money is foreign investors in places like China, the Middle East, and Russia. At the same time, Kushner is also a close advisor to the president of the United States, who routinely conducts foreign policy in places like China, the Middle East, and Russia. Conflicts of interest would be inevitable even if everyone involved were as pure as Caesar’s wife.

Is Trump helping out his son-in-law by putting pressure on Qatar? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 July 2017 at 7:22 pm

U.S. Agency Moves to Allow Class-Action Lawsuits Against Financial Firms

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At last consumers are protected from forced arbitration (which the banks love: they get to pick the arbitrators, so small wonder 99% of arbitrations are decided in favor of the banks). Jessica Silver-Greenberg and Michael Corkery report in the NY Times:

The nation’s consumer watchdog is adopting a rule on Monday that would pry open the courtroom doors for millions of Americans, restoring their right to bring class-action lawsuits against financial firms.

Under the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau rule, banks and credit card companies could no longer force customers into arbitration and block them from banding together to file a class-action suit.

The change would deal a serious blow to Wall Street and could wind up costing financial firms billions of dollars.

More immediately, its adoption is almost certain to set off a political firestorm in Washington, where both the Trump administration and House Republicans have pushed to rein in the consumer finance agency as part of a broader effort to lighten regulation on the financial industry.

Continue reading the main story

Under the Congressional Review Act — a 1996 law that had been rarely used before the current Congress employed it to reverse 14 rules from the Obama administration — lawmakers have 60 legislative days to overturn the rule blocking mandatory arbitrations. The rule could take effect next year.

The Chamber of Commerce and other pro-business groups have belittled the rule as nothing more than a gift to class-action lawyers, who tend to be Democratic donors.

But as much as Republicans deplore the consumer protection agency, they may find it difficult to kill a rule that could have wide populist appeal. Across the country, judges, prosecutors and regulators have decried arbitration clauses for allowing corporations to circumvent the courts and for taking away the only tools citizens have to fight illegal or deceitful business practices.

The rule is one of the signature efforts of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which was created in 2010 as part of the Dodd-Frank regulatory overhaul to safeguard the rights of millions of Americans in the aftermath of the mortgage crisis.

At a time when Dodd-Frank has come under attack, the arbitration initiative from the consumer finance agency — which operates independently from the Trump administration — is a provocative stand against the prevailing political tide in Washington.

Indeed, the rule is largely unchanged from when it was issued in draft form in May 2016 and the agency began soliciting comments from industry.

It is that kind of independence that has drawn particular ire from Republicans.

Last month, the Treasury Department issued a report recommending that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau be neutered, accusing it of regulatory overreach and calling for the president to be able to remove its director, Richard Cordray.

Supporters of the agency say arbitration is exactly the kind of issue that requires independence from corporate interests.

The rule will unwind a series of brazen legal maneuvers undertaken by major American companies to block customers from going to court to fight potentially harmful business practices.

“These clauses allow companies to avoid accountability by blocking group lawsuits and forcing people to go it alone or give up,” Mr. Cordray said in a statement.

Over decades, financial institutions, led by credit card companies, figured out a way to use the fine print of their contracts to force consumers into private arbitration, a secretive process where borrowers have to go up on their own against powerful companies with deep pockets.

Prevented from banding together in a class and pooling their resources, most people simply abandon their claims entirely, never making it to arbitration at all.

The new rules could change all that when it comes to consumer finance. While the protections would not apply to existing accounts, consumer could pay off old loans and get new accounts that would fall under the new rules.

The new rules do not explicitly outlaw arbitration, but industry lawyers say that they will effectively kill the practice. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 July 2017 at 4:42 pm

What happened when Walmart left

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In the Guardian Ed Pilkington reports from West Virginia:

When Walmart left town, it didn’t linger over the goodbyes. It slashed the prices on all its products, stripped the shelves bare, and vanished, leaving behind only the ghostly shadow of its famous brand name and gold star logo on the front wall of a deserted shell.

The departure was so quick that telltale signs remain of the getaway, like smoldering ashes in the fireplaces of an evacuated town. Notices still taped to the glass entranceway record with tombstone-like precision the exact moment that the supercenter was shuttered: “Store closed at 7pm, Thursday 28 January 2016.”

Ten years. That’s all the time it took for the store to rise up in a clearing of the lush forest of West Virginia’s coal country and then disappear again, as though it had never been there.

But for the people of McDowell County – proud country folk laboring under the burdens of high unemployment, low income and endemic ill health – even such a fleeting visit to this rural backwater by the world’s largest retailer had a profound impact. Both in the arrival, and in the hasty leaving.

Wanda Church was present for both of these book-ends of the Walmart story – one of a few workers who helped set up the store in October 2005 and then gut it 10 years, three months and two days later. She remembers the feeling of excitement and expectation as they stocked the supercenter for the very first time, turning it in just 20 days from an empty building into a teeming cathedral of retail capitalism.

“It was amazing what we were able to do, stocking the shelves from nothing to full in such a short time,” she said, talking as she waited for her car to be repaired at a gas station over the road from the disused store. As if to underscore her enduring attachment to the corporation, she was wearing one of her old Walmart T-shirts.

She was there at the supercenter, too, on that fateful day last year when she and her fellow Walmart workers walked out of the store for the last time. “We were all crying. It was a sad day for a lot of people. It was a sad day for me – I spent more of those 10 years at Walmart than I did at my own home.”

Much has been written about what happens when the corporate giant opens up in an area, with numerous studies recording how it sucks the energy out of a locality, overpowering the competition through sheer scale and forcing the closure of mom-and-pop stores for up to 20 miles around. A more pressing, and much less-well-understood, question is what are the consequences when Walmart screeches into reverse: when it ups and quits, leaving behind a trail of lost jobs and broken promises.

The subject is gathering increasing urgency as the megacorporation rethinks its business strategy. Rural areas like McDowell County, where Walmart focused its expansion plans in the 1990s, are experiencing accelerating depopulation that is putting a strain on the firm’s boundless ambitions.

Hit hard by the longterm decline in coal mining that is the mainstay of the area, McDowell County has seen a devastating and sustained erosion of its people, from almost 100,000 in 1950 when coal was king, to about 18,000 today. That depleted population is today scattered widely across small towns and in mountain hollows (pronounced “hollers”), accentuating the sense of sparseness and emptiness.

The Walmart supercenter is located about five miles from the county seat, Welch, which still boasts imposing brick buildings as a memory of better times. But the glow of coal’s legacy has cooled, as the boarding up of many of the town’s shops and restaurants attests.

When you combine the county’s economic malaise with Walmart’s increasingly ferocious battle against Amazon for dominance over online retailing, you can see why outsized physical presences could seem surplus to requirements. “There has been a wave of closings across the US, most acutely in small towns and rural communities that have had heavy population loss,” said Michael Hicks, an economics professor at Ball State University who is an authority on Walmart’s local impact.

On 15 January 2016, those winds of change swept across the country with a fury. Walmart announced that it was closing 269 stores worldwide, 154 of them in the US. Of those, 14 were supercenters, the gargantuan “big boxes” that have become the familiar face of the company since the first opened in Missouri in 1988.

One of those supercenters was in McDowell County.

“It was a big thing for people round here when Walmart pulled out. People didn’t know what to do. Young people started leaving because there’s nothing for them here. It’s like we’re existing, but not existing.”

The words are spoken by Henrietta Banks, 60, who lives just up the hill from the mothballed supercenter. We’re sitting in her front room where she spends much of her time in a hospital bed that has been set up for her as she is treated for congenital heart disease.

She remembers the excitement when the supercenter opened. “People welcomed it with open arms, we needed the jobs,” she said.

But in the end the expectation that Walmart would usher in a new, better era for McDowell County proved illusory. Her late husband Arthur, a former sharpshooter in the US Army who died in 2010, worked as a greeter at Walmart for a few years. He took the job largely in the hope of securing healthcare insurance for Henrietta, but he was told that coverage wasn’t part of the package, and the couple had to make do with Medicaid.

Their daughter Nicole, 25, is sitting beside her mother holding her hand. She works as a corrections officer in a nearby prison, but her dream is to become a therapist.

Given her mother’s health issues, Nicole Banks tries to compensate for Walmart’s departure by seeking out fresh fruit and vegetables in the surrounding area. But it’s not easy. The nearest replacement store, Goodsons, is too expensive, she says, and other Walmarts are an hour’s drive away along Appalachian roads that are as tightly coiled as the copperhead snakes that live in the local forest.

Already, she spends half her $1,200 post-tax monthly salary on car insurance and repayments, and gas for the long drive for groceries eats into the little that is left. So she and her mom grab food where they can, opting for less pricey meals of hamburgers or spaghetti rather than fresh salad that takes another big chunk out of her income.

t’s not great for her mother’s health, but then Nicole thinks that’s typical for McDowell County people since Walmart left town. She has noticed that processed foods seem popular again; there are long lines again at the local McDonald’s.

“There’s a lot of people getting sick since the store closed because they’re not getting the right diet. It’s sad to me, but bad food is cheap.”

Nicole Banks is the first person in her family to go to college. With a degree in sociology, how would she sum up the impact of Walmart leaving?

She pauses to think for a while, and when she replies, she does so with unexpected vehemence. “It’s ridiculous,” she says. “People round here can’t get healthcare, they can’t get jobs and now the good food has gone. We are not getting our basic needs met. People are dying young.”

Banks is not exaggerating. Of the 3,142 counties in the US, McDowell County comes in at No 3,142 in terms of life expectancy. For men, that’s 64 years, a statistic that, as Bernie Sanders likes to point out, is the same for men in Namibia.

Clearly, such endemic health problems cannot be laid exclusively at the door of Walmart. But for Sabrina Shrader, a community organizer who was born and bred in the area, it provides the context for understanding the effect of the corporation’s decision, and that of its controlling family, to pack its bags and quit.

“The Walton family are billionaires,” she said (also no exaggeration – their collective worth is put at about $150bn). “They developed a system that just made us worse off, and then they took even that away from us.”


McDowell County forms part of the largest mixed mesophyte forest in the world, a relic of the ancient woodland that once covered much of North America. Wherever you look, majestic sugar maples, hickory, oaks and tulip trees tower overhead, hugging the steep slopes of the Appalachians.

It was into this stunning setting that Walmart descended in 2005 on the site of an old Kmart, like the spacecraft of alien botanists that lands in the forest at the start of the movie ET. And there it sat: a massive gash of concrete encircled by nature’s abundance.

Peep into the glass doors of the front of the store and you can start to appreciate the brutal simplicity of the Walmart concept. There is nothing inside its windowless walls, just 103,000sq ft of air. A Walmart supercenter is no more, no less than the name implies: a big box, an empty stage on which to wave a magic wand and summon up a million retail dreams.

Pack it with 80,000 products, and the people will come. Not just from all over McDowell County, but from far beyond. Over the 10 short years of the supercenter’s existence, many of those people grew dependent on it in so many ways.

Top of the list of dependencies: jobs.

“It’s all about jobs,” says Melissa Nester, publisher of the local newspaper, The Welch News, which sells 4,500 copies three times a week and doggedly refuses to have a website. “Dollar stores have picked up some of the trade left by Walmart, but they haven’t created many jobs.”

At its peak, Walmart employed 300 people in the McDowell County supercenter. That was down to about 140 by the end, but it still made it the largest employer in the area.

Wanda Church has been unemployed since that day when she cried as Walmart’s doors were closed for the last time; the company offered her a night shift at the next store along, but she couldn’t stomach the hour’s drive either way and wasn’t prepared to leave her home. Other employees felt they had no choice and are either commuting long distances or have relocated to work at other Walmart outlets, some as far off as Myrtle Beach in South Carolina, some 375 miles away.

There were knock-on effects, too, for local businesses that used to tender to workers and shoppers drawn into the area by the supercenter. Restaurants in a radius of several miles from the store complain of empty tables, while houses and shops in its close vicinity are now up for sale.

“It has affected this place real much, nobody stays here no more,” says Jessie Swims, 67, sitting on a bench at the Big Four motel across the road from the supercenter, drinking a soda. Swims has lived in one of the motel’s 15 rooms for the past five years, paying $600 a month out of his retirement money. Big Four used to be full, he says, now most of the rooms are empty and it too has been put on the market.

After jobs, taxes are the next things to go. . .

Continue reading.

A little portrait of modern America.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 July 2017 at 2:12 pm

Posted in Business, Daily life

US priorities: Pumping up military (and military contractors) vs. healthcare for citizens

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From a friend in the Netherlands (which, like Austria, Belarus, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, Moldova, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom., enjoys universal healthcare):

The Lockheed Martin Lemon.

The helmets, which must be custom made for each pilot, cost $400,000 each.

There’s more:

New stealth bomber’s cost is under the radar.”

From the article: “It was disclosed that the B-21’s per-plane cost is expected to come in at roughly $560 million . . . ”

The plan is to buy 80 to 100 of them. And if the F-35 requires $406 billion more, then you can bet that the B-21 will cost billions more than the initial estimate.

Priorities?

The priorities of the US are clear. And most seem okay with it—certainly the GOP likes it that way, and they are the majority party.

UPDATE: See also “Why the F-35 is a sitting duck for the Flankers.” That story begins:

Built to be the deadliest hunter killer aircraft of all time, the F-35 has quite literally become the hunted. In every scenario that the F-35 has been wargamed against Su-30 Flankers, the Russian aircraft have emerged winners. America’s newest stealth aircraft – costing $191 million per unit – is riddled with such critical design flaws that it’s likely to get blown away in a shootout with the super-maneuverable Sukhois.

Stubby wings (that reduce lift and maneuverability), a bulbous fuselage (that makes it less aerodynamic) low speed and a super hot engine (which a half decent radar can identify) are just a few of the major flaws that will expose its vulnerability during air combat.

With more than 600 Flankers (Sukhoi-27s and its later iterations such as the Su-30, Su-34 and Su-35 Super Flanker) flying with air forces around the world, the fate of the fifth generation F-35 seems decidedly uncertain. Aerospace experts across the world are veering around to the view that America’s most expensive fighter development programme (pegged at $1.5 trillion) will be a sitting duck for the flankers. . .

Read the whole thing.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 July 2017 at 1:30 pm

Short Answers to Hard Questions About Climate Change

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Justin Gillis reports in the NY Times:

The issue can be overwhelming. The science is complicated. Predictions about the fate of the planet carry endless caveats and asterisks.

We get it.

So we’ve put together a list of quick answers to often-asked questions about climate change. This should give you a running start on understanding the problem.

1. How much is the planet warming up?

2 degrees is actually a significant amount.

As of early 2017, the Earth had warmed by roughly 2 degrees Fahrenheit, or more than 1 degree Celsius, since 1880, when records began at a global scale. That figure includes the surface of the ocean. The warming is greater over land, and greater still in the Arctic and parts of Antarctica.

The number may sound low. We experience much larger temperature swings in our day-to-day lives from weather systems and from the changing of seasons. But when you average across the entire planet and over months or years, the temperature differences get far smaller – the variation at the surface of the Earth from one year to the next is measured in fractions of a degree. So a rise of 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the 19th century is actually high.

The substantial warming that has already occurred explains why much of the world’s land ice is starting to melt and the oceans are rising at an accelerating pace. The heat accumulating in the Earth because of human emissions is roughly equal to the heat that would be released by 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs exploding across the planet every day.

Scientists believe most and probably all of the warming since 1950 was caused by the human release of greenhouse gases. If emissions continue unchecked, they say the global warming could ultimately exceed 8 degrees Fahrenheit, which would transform the planet and undermine its capacity to support a large human population.

2. How much trouble are we in?

For future generations, big trouble.

The risks are much greater over the long run than over the next few decades, but the emissions that create those risks are happening now. This means the current generation of people is dooming future generations to a more difficult future.

How difficult?

Over the coming 25 or 30 years, scientists say, the climate is likely to resemble that of today, although gradually getting warmer, with more of the extreme heat waves that can kill vulnerable people. Rainfall will be heavier in many parts of the world, but the periods between rains will most likely grow hotter and drier. The number of hurricanes and typhoons may actually fall, but the ones that do occur will draw energy from a hotter ocean surface, and therefore may be more intense. Coastal flooding will grow more frequent and damaging, as is already happening.

Longer term, if emissions continue to rise unchecked, the risks are profound. Scientists fear climate effects so severe that they might destabilize governments, produce waves of refugees, precipitate the sixth mass extinction of plants and animals in the Earth’s history, and melt the polar ice caps, causing the seas to rise high enough to flood most of the world’s coastal cities.

All of this could take hundreds or even thousands of years to play out, but experts cannot rule out abrupt changes, such as a collapse of agriculture, that would throw civilization into chaos much sooner. Bolder efforts to limit emissions would reduce these risks, or at least slow the effects, but it is already too late to eliminate the risks entirely.

3. Is there anything I can do about climate change?

Fly less, drive less, waste less.

You can reduce your own carbon footprint in lots of simple ways, and most of them will save you money. You can plug leaks in your home insulation to save power, install a smart thermostat, switch to more efficient light bulbs, turn off the lights in any room where you are not using them, drive fewer miles by consolidating trips or taking public transit, waste less food and eat less meat.

Perhaps the biggest single thing individuals can do on their own is to take fewer airplane trips; just one or two fewer plane rides per year can save as much in emissions as all the other actions combined. If you want to be at the cutting edge, you can look at buying an electric or hybrid car, putting solar panels on your roof, or both.

If you want to offset your emissions, you can buy certificates, with the money going to projects that protect forests, capture greenhouse gases and so forth. Some airlines sell these to offset emissions from their flights. You can also buy offset certificates in a private marketplace, from companies such as TerraPass; some people even give these as holiday gifts. In states that allow you to choose your own electricity supplier, you can often elect to buy green electricity; you pay slightly more, and the money goes into a fund that helps finance projects like wind farms.

Leading companies are also starting to demand clean energy for their operations. You can pay attention to company policies, patronize the leaders, and let the others know you expect them to do better.

In the end, though, experts do not believe the needed transformation in the energy system can happen without strong state and national policies. So speaking up and exercising your rights as a citizen matters as much as anything else you can do.

4. What’s the optimistic case?

Several things have to break our way.

In the best case that scientists can imagine, several things happen: Earth turns out to be less sensitive to greenhouse gases than currently believed; plants and animals manage to adapt to the changes that have already become inevitable; human society develops much greater political will to bring emissions under control; and major technological breakthroughs occur that help society to limit emissions and to adjust to climate change.

Some technological breakthroughs are already making cleaner energy more attractive. In the United States, for instance, coal has been losing out to natural gas as a power source, as new drilling technology has made gas more abundant and cheaper; for a given amount of power, gas cuts emissions in half. In addition, the cost of wind and solar power has declined so much that they are now the cheapest power source in a few places, even without subsidies.

Unfortunately, scientists and energy experts say the odds of all these things breaking our way are not very high. The Earth could just as easily turn out to be more sensitive to greenhouse gases as less. Global warming seems to be causing chaos in parts of the natural world already, and that seems likely to get worse, not better. So in the view of the experts, simply banking on rosy assumptions without any real plan would be dangerous. They believe the only way to limit the risks is to limit emissions.

5. Will reducing meat in my diet really help the climate?

Yes, beef especially.

Agriculture of all types produces greenhouse gases that warm the planet, but meat production is especially harmful — and beef is the most environmentally damaging form of meat. . .

Continue reading.

There’s a lot more information. Later in the article:

Perhaps the greatest fear is a collapse of food production, accompanied by escalating prices and mass starvation. It is unclear how likely this would be, since farmers are able to adjust their crops and farming techniques, to a degree, to adapt to climatic changes. But we have already seen heat waves contribute to broad crop failures. A decade ago, a big run-up in grain prices precipitated food riots around the world and led to the collapse of at least one government, in Haiti.

Another possibility would be a disintegration of the polar ice sheets, leading to fast-rising seas that would force people to abandon many of the world’s great cities and would lead to the loss of trillions of dollars worth of property and other assets. In places like Florida and Virginia, towns are already starting to have trouble with coastal flooding.

Scientists also worry about other wild-card events. Will the Asian monsoons become less reliable, for instance? Billions of people depend on the monsoons to provide water for crops, so any disruptions could be catastrophic. Another possibility is a large-scale breakdown of the circulation patterns in the ocean, which could potentially lead to sudden, radical climate shifts across entire continents. . .

The risk is that the rate [of sea level rise] will accelerate markedly. If emissions continue unchecked, then the temperature at the Earth’s surface could soon resemble a past epoch called the Pliocene, when a great deal of ice melted and the ocean rose by something like 80 feet compared to today. A recent study found that burning all the fossil fuels in the ground would fully melt the polar ice sheets, raising the sea level by more than 160 feet over an unknown period. Many coastal experts believe that even if emissions stopped tomorrow, 15 or 20 feet of sea-level rise is already inevitable.

The crucial issue is probably not how much the oceans are going to rise, but how fast. And on that point, scientists are pretty much flying blind. . .

Written by LeisureGuy

10 July 2017 at 12:23 pm

A cooking interlude: Low-carb ketchup and Soy-sauce-pickled egg yolks

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And a family pack of chicken thighs are in the oven, sprinkled well with Penzey’s Bicentennial Rub.

I made this ketchup recipe. I like the looks of it because not only no high-fructose corn syrup but also no sugar. I skipped the bay leaf because I can never taste the difference a bay leaf makes. And of course I used 3 garlic cloves rather than 1.  It did turn out to require 40 minutes of simmering, not 20, before the consistency looked right. The instruction to use a non-stick skillet is nuts: this doesn’t stick. I used my 2-qt stainless steel sauté pan, but I think next time I’ll use the 1.5-qt stainless saucepan, which has a smaller diameter and will enable the immersion blender to work more easily, though I may have to extend the simmering time to an hour since there is less surface area from which the water can evaporate.

I wanted to make the ketchup now because I bought some oysters and wanted to eat them with cocktail sauce: (good) ketchup, horseradish, lemon juice, and a dash of Worcestershire sauce. A dash of hot sauce is optional and since the ketchup recipe I used includes cayenne, the hot sauce will probably be redundant.

And I made this recipe for soy-sauce-pickled eggs. I use Eden Organics Mirin, which seems pretty good. It does not have sugar added, a dead giveaway of low-quality mirin and low-quality rice vinegar. Seeing “sugar” or “high-fructose corn syrup” in the list of ingredients for mirin or rice vinegar is like seeing “food coloring” in the list of ingredients in a red wine. Both rice vinegar and mirin are sweet, but the proper ingredients list is rice, koji, and water. The action of koji is what produces the sweetness. The six egg whites I scrambled with a spring shallot for lunch.

UPDATE: More on mirin and rice vinegar. I use Eden Foods mirin and brown-rice vinegar (and shoyu sauce and tamari). Here’s their description of their brown-rice vinegar:

Patiently made using a 1,000 year old method. Organic brown rice, koji, and spring water are blended and fermented outdoors in clay crocks and aged eight months. . . Eden Organic Brown Rice Vinegar is made from organically grown, cooked brown rice Oryza sative, koji Aspergillus oryzae, a small amount of seed vinegar from a previous batch and pure water. These ingredients are blended and placed in earthenware crocks that are partially buried outside in the earth, covered and fermented for about eight months. The enzymes in the koji break down the complex starches in the rice converting them to simple sugars, then alcohol, and finally acetic acid or vinegar. We bottle it in amber glass to protect nutrients, flavor and bouquet. 4.5 percent acidity.

A vinegar that is labeled ‘rice vinegar’ does not assure its quality. Many commercial vinegars are synthetic products made from glacial acetic acid, a petroleum product. Others are made from alcohol produced for industrial use. Please avoid any vinegar labeled ‘distilled,’ as it is a most highly refined chemical, not food.

Their comment on mirin:

‘Ajino-haha’ Mirin is traditionally made in Japan of U.S.A. Lundberg™ organic short grain brown rice, brewed in cedar kegs. . .

Eden Mirin is made by first washing and steaming California grown Lundberg Family Farm organic brown rice for several hours. After cooling it is mixed with a bit of rice koji (Aspergillus oryzae) called seed koji. The rice mixture is placed in a temperature and moisture controlled koji room for three days where it is stirred daily to ensure proper growth of the koji enzymes. The rice koji is then placed in cedar kegs and mixed with more steamed rice and water. This rice mixture is called ‘moromi,’ or rice wine mash, that is allowed to ferment for two months. At this time sea salt is added, as well as more steamed rice, koji and water. It is allowed to ferment for another three months. After fermentation is complete, the mixture is pressed through cotton sacks and filtered to remove rice residue. It is heated to 85°C. for 3 to 4 seconds. Mirin’s alcohol content, about ten percent, quickly evaporates when cooked with food or may be removed by heating it to the boiling point, and allowed to cool before adding to uncooked foods.

Mirin originated in Japan during the 15th century and was initially made by simply mixing cooked sweet rice together with sake, a traditional Japanese rice wine. In the 16th century mirin brewers began distilling this sweet wine in an effort to prolong its shelf life. This distilled wine called ‘shochu’, or ‘fire spirits,’ had a very high alcohol content. Over the next several centuries brewers further experimented with shochu by adding cooked sweet rice and rice koji enzymes and eventually sea salt to further reduce the alcohol content. Originally mirin was very expensive and not affordable to the general public. Eventually its virtue as a seasoning was discovered and mirin began to be used in Japan’s highest, most elegant form of cooking, ‘Kaiseki,’ or tea ceremony cooking. Over the years mirin’s popularity as a seasoning increased among the general public as it became more affordable, but the quality of most mirin sharply declined.

Today most commercial mirin is made from molasses, glucose, artificially produced koji enzymes (many of which are genetically engineered), cornstarch, ethyl alcohol, preservatives and other additives that are simply mixed with water and fermented very quickly. Chemical denaturing additives are used instead of sea salt to reduce the alcohol content. The results are less healthful and inferior in quality and flavor. Eden Mirin is of superior quality containing no artificial ingredients.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 July 2017 at 12:14 pm

Posted in Daily life

Spyware Sold to Mexican Government Targeted International Officials

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The Mexican government seems actively hostile to its citizens and actively supportive of drug cartels and their murders. Indeed, the Mexican government seems to have become a criminal gang itself. Azam Ahmed reports in the NY Times:

A team of international investigators brought to Mexico to unravel one of the nation’s gravest human rights atrocities was targeted with sophisticated surveillance technology sold to the Mexican government to spy on criminals and terrorists.

The spying took place during what the investigators call a broad campaign of harassment and interference that prevented them from solving the haunting case of 43 students who disappeared after clashing with the police nearly three years ago.

Appointed by an international commission that polices human rights in the Americas, the investigators say they were quickly met with stonewalling by the Mexican government, a refusal to turn over documents or grant vital interviews, and even a retaliatory criminal investigation.

Now, forensic evidence shows that the international investigators were being targeted by advanced surveillance technology as well.

The main contact person for the group of investigators received text messages laced with spyware known as Pegasus, a cyberweapon that the government of Mexico spent tens of millions of dollars to acquire, according to an independent analysis. The coordinator’s phone was used by nearly all members of the group, often serving as a nexus of communication among the investigators, their sources, the international commission that appointed them and the Mexican government.

Beyond that, the investigators say they received identical text messages on their own phones, too, luring them to click on links that secretly unlock a target’s smartphone and turn it into a powerful surveillance device. Calls, emails, text messages, calendars and contacts can all be monitored that way. Encrypted messages become worthless. Even the microphone and camera on a smartphone can be used against its owner.

The effort to spy on international officials adds to a sweeping espionage offensive in Mexico, where some of the country’s most prominent journalists, human rights lawyers and anticorruption activists have been the targets of the same surveillance technology. But the new evidence shows that the spying campaign went beyond the nation’s domestic critics.

It also swept up international officials who had been granted a status akin to diplomatic immunity as well as unprecedented access to investigate a case that has come to define the nation’s broken rule of law — and the legacy of its president, Enrique Peña Nieto.

Surveillance under Mexican law can be conducted only with the authorization of a federal judge, and only if the government can show cause to do so. But the kind of diplomatic immunity the investigators received meant that it was extremely unlikely that a federal judge would have been allowed to sign off on such a warrant, the investigators said.

“You are not just hacking anyone’s phone, you are hacking the phone of someone who has been granted immunity,” said Francisco Cox, one of the investigators and a prominent Chilean lawyer. “They couldn’t even search my bags in the airport.”

“If this can happen to an independent body that has immunity and that is invited by the government, it is a bit scary to think of what could happen to a common citizen in Mexico,” he said.

Since 2011, Mexico has purchased at least $80 million worth of the spyware, which is sold exclusively to governments, and only on the condition that it be used against terrorists and criminals. But an investigation by The New York Times and forensic cyberanalysts in recent weeks determined that the software had been used against some of the country’s most influential academics, lawyers, journalists and their family members, including a teenage boy.

The government has denied responsibility for the espionage, adding that there is no ironclad proof because the spyware does not leave behind the hacker’s individual fingerprints. It has promised a thorough investigation, vowing to call on specialists from the United Nations and the F.B.I. for help. One of the surveillance targets, the forensic analysis showed, was a United States lawyer representing victims of sexual assault by the Mexican police.

But the United States ambassador to Mexico, Roberta S. Jacobson, said the United States was not involved in the investigation. Opposition lawmakers and international officials are now calling for an independent inquiry into the spying scandal, declaring Mexico unfit to investigate itself.

“This case just on its face — and presuming the veracity of the allegations — is serious enough to warrant the creation of an international commission,” said James L. Cavallaro, a commissioner on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which appointed the group of experts. “The commission shares the concerns of others: How can the government be trusted to investigate its own alleged violation of citizen rights given its track record in this matter?”

Another commissioner, Esmeralda Arosemena de Troitiño, backed the idea of an independent inquiry. “This investigation should find both the material and intellectual authors of the alleged spying,” she said.

Top officials from the nation’s main opposition party have come forward to say that they, too, have been targeted, raising the pressure on the government. The head of the National Action Party, Ricardo Anaya, says his party is pushing for a congressional committee to conduct its own inquiry and will also formally demand an international investigation into the spying.

“The grand tragedy of Mexico is impunity. Horrible things occur, and nothing happens,” he said. “This time, we will not let that happen.”. . .

Continue reading.

I have to admit that I am not optimistic. The rot seems too deep, too entrenched, and backed by forces that have too much power.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 July 2017 at 10:39 am

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