Later On

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

Archive for September 2nd, 2017

Pretty good dinner for a 104ºF day: Chilled chicken salad

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Just made this up. The key is first to make Nigella Lawson’s Tarragon Chicken, using a 6-lb chicken as described in this post (includes lessons learned). We had a drumstick, thigh, and wing apiece for dinner, so the breast was left. I used 1/2 the breast to make a chicken salad tonight. Measures are approximate.

2 avocados, diced
1/2 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
4 thick scallions, sliced
1/2 cup walnuts
1/3 cup crumbled gorgonzola or blue cheese
1 cup finely chopped celery
1/2 breast from a 6-lb chicken cooked using Nigella Lawson’s recipe for Tarragon Chicken, diced
1 bunch cilantro, leaves chopped (or you could use tarragon)
1/3-1/2 cup homemade tarragon mayonnaise
2 tsp Maldon salt
1 Tablespoon freshly ground black pepper

Mix. Serve.

It’s really very tasty. The tarragon mayonnaise was my usual mayonnaise recipe with about 1/4 cup fresh tarragon leaves added at the beginning. This is with the optional two anchovy fillets, since they increase depth of taste by adding umami. I used Enzo Meyer Lemon Infused Extra Virgin Olive oil for the mayo.

The other 1/2 breast is destined for the same dish tomorrow.

Written by Leisureguy

2 September 2017 at 6:19 pm

Hamstrung by hubris: How bravado keeps the U.S. locked in a cycle of devastating mistakes

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Alan Freeman writes at iPolitics:

U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence visited the Houston region Thursday and vowed that the U.S. government will back the population as it recovers from the disastrous damage caused by Hurricane Harvey.

“We will be here every day until this state and this region rebuild bigger and better than ever before,” he told a crowd at a damaged church in Rockport, Texas.

Bigger and better. Not smarter. Not smaller. What Pence is promising Houston and Texas is a continuation of the calamitous policies that have helped create the situation in the first place.

This may have been a once in a 500-year event, or as some experts are now saying, the third such 500-year event in just three years to hit Houston. (Interesting arithmetic.) But it’s undeniable that the devastation caused by Harvey’s torrential rains was exacerbated by irresponsible land-use planning and flood mitigation measures that has accompanied Houston’s uncontrolled expansion in recent decades.

Like some sort of cancerous growth, the city has spread across hundreds of square miles of land in southern Texas, paving over the prairies that used to soak up the excess moisture that inevitably drenches the area, even before the impact of climate change. With these fields replaced by tracts of housing and multiple-laned highways, the water has nowhere to go, quickly clogging up canals and bayous and ending up in people’s living rooms. In 2009. In 2015. In 2016. And again this week.

Not as if Houston shouldn’t have seen this coming.

In a brilliant piece of investigative journalism entitled “Boomtown, Flood Town”, published last December, ProPublica and the Texas Tribune predicted that decades of irresponsible planning decisions would lead to a Harvey-like catastrophe.

“Climate change will bring more frequent and fierce rainstorms to cities like Houston,” the report said. “But unchecked development remains a priority in the famously unzoned city, creating short-term economic gain for some while increasing flood risks for everyone.” It noted that in Harris County, 30 per cent of fresh-water wetlands were lost to rampant development between 1992 and 2010.

In a truly frightening interview, the head of the local Flood Control District said he had no plans to study the impact of climate change and accused scientists and environmentalists of being “anti-development.”

Of course, it will cost the U.S. government tens-of-billions of dollars to rebuild public infrastructure and help desperate homeowners salvage their homes. But what are the chances that the U.S. will learn from the experience, accept the impact of climate change and adapt their policies and behaviours to face the new reality? Based on Pence’s comments, pretty slim.

Denial has become an essential trait of American political culture, epitomized by the Donald J. Trump, the denier in chief. Denial of climate change, denial of the impact of over-development, denial of the need for tax revenue to finance government. They have become hallmarks of a corrosive disease that threatens the America’s present and future prosperity.

With the U.S. government facing an unexpected expenditure of an estimated $75-billion in Harvey relief, what did President Trump do this week? He gave a speech pledging huge tax cuts. The mind boggles. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

2 September 2017 at 1:37 pm

I was born in poverty in Appalachia. ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ doesn’t speak for me.

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Betsy Rader is an employment lawyer at Betsy Rader Law LLC, located in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. She is running as a Democrat to represent Ohio’s 14th Congressional District in the U.S. House. She writes in the Washington Post:

J.D. Vance’s book “Hillbilly Elegy,” published last year, has been assigned to students and book clubs across the country. Pundits continue to cite it as though the author speaks for all of us who grew up in poverty. But Vance doesn’t speak for me, nor do I believe that he speaks for the vast majority of the working poor.

From a quick glance at my résumé, you might think me an older, female version of Vance. I was born in Appalachia in the 1960s and grew up in the small city of Newark, Ohio. When I was 9, my parents divorced. My mom became a single mother of four, with only a high school education and little work experience. Life was tough; the five of us lived on $6,000 a year.

Like Vance, I attended Ohio State University on scholarship, working nights and weekends. I graduated at the top of my class and, again like Vance, attended Yale Law School on a financial-need scholarship. Today, I represent people who’ve been fired illegally from their jobs. And now that I’m running for Congress in Northeast Ohio, I speak often with folks who are trying hard but not making much money.

A self-described conservative, Vance largely concludes that his family and peers are trapped in poverty due to their own poor choices and negative attitudes. But I take great exception when he makes statements such as: “We spend our way into the poorhouse. We buy giant TVs and iPads. Our children wear nice clothes thanks to high-interest credit cards and payday loans. We purchase homes we don’t need, refinance them for more spending money, and declare bankruptcy. . . . Thrift is inimical to our being.”

Who is this “we” of whom he speaks? Vance’s statements don’t describe the family in which I grew up, and they don’t describe the families I meet who are struggling to make it in America today. I know that my family lived on $6,000 per year because as children, we sat down with pen and paper to help find a way for us to live on that amount. My mom couldn’t even qualify for a credit card, much less live on credit. She bought our clothes at discount stores.

Thrift was not inimical to our being; it was the very essence of our being.

With lines like “We choose not to work when we should be looking for jobs,” Vance’s sweeping stereotypes are shark bait for conservative policymakers. They feed into the mythology that the undeserving poor make bad choices and are to blame for their own poverty, so taxpayer money should not be wasted on programs to help lift people out of poverty. Now these inaccurate and dangerous generalizations have been made required college reading.

Here is the simple fact: Most poor people work. Seventy-eight percentof families on Medicaid include a household member who is working. People work hard in necessary and important jobs that often don’t pay them enough to live on. For instance, child-care workers earn an average of $22,930 per year, and home health aides average $23,600. (Indeed, it is a sad irony that crucial jobs around caretaking and children have always paid very little.)

The problem with living in constant economic insecurity is not a lack of thrift, it is that people in these circumstances are always focused on the current crisis. They can’t plan for the future because they have so much to deal with in the present. And the future seems so bleak that it feels futile to sacrifice for it. What does motivate most people is the belief that the future can be better and that we have a realistic opportunity to achieve it. But sometimes that takes help.

Yes, I worked hard, but I didn’t just pull myself up by my bootstraps. And neither did Vance. The truth is that people helped us out: My public school’s guidance counselor encouraged me to go to college. The government helped us out: I received scholarships and subsidized federal loans to help pay my educational expenses. The list of helpers goes on. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

2 September 2017 at 1:34 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life, Education

Fear/Anger: Something I recently figured out

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It’s doubtless well known, but it just occurred to me as I wrote an answer on Quora: “Why does my fiancé get angry every time we run into a male I know from work or college who wants to talk to me?”

My answer:

I would guess that he feels insecure, fearful you are more interested in them than in him. Fear and anger have the same hormone profile—the “fight or flight” hormones—so switching between fear and anger is relatively easy: it’s just a matter of renaming the effect of those hormones. (Switching between fear and calm (or anger and calm) is difficult since the hormonal profiles are so different). Anger is a lot more comfortable than fear, so fear often is experienced and expressed as anger.

Or, possibly, he is so self-centered that anything that inconveniences him makes him angry. I suggest you discover which it is before you tie the knot.


Written by Leisureguy

2 September 2017 at 12:41 pm

Posted in Daily life

Learning to Learn: You, Too, Can Rewire Your Brain

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John Schwartz reports in the NY Times:

The studio for what is arguably the world’s most successful online course is tucked into a corner of Barb and Phil Oakley’s basement, a converted TV room that smells faintly of cat urine. (At the end of every video session, the Oakleys pin up the green fabric that serves as the backdrop so Fluffy doesn’t ruin it.)

This is where they put together “Learning How to Learn,” taken by more than 1.8 million students from 200 countries, the most ever on Coursera. The course provides practical advice on tackling daunting subjects and on beating procrastination, and the lessons engagingly blend neuroscience and common sense.

Dr. Oakley, an engineering professor at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., created the class with Terrence Sejnowski, a neuroscientist at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, and with the University of California, San Diego.

Prestigious universities have spent millions and employ hundreds of professionally trained videographers, editors and producers to create their massive open online courses, known as MOOCs. The Oakleys put together their studio with equipment that cost $5,000. They figured out what to buy by Googling “how to set up a green screen studio” and “how to set up studio lighting.” Mr. Oakley runs the camera and teleprompter. She does most of the editing. The course is free ($49 for a certificate of completion — Coursera won’t divulge how many finish).

“It’s actually not rocket science,” said Dr. Oakley — but she’s careful where she says that these days. When she spoke at Harvard in 2015, she said, “the hackles went up”; she crossed her arms sternly by way of grim illustration.

This is home-brew, not Harvard. And it has worked. Spectacularly. The Oakleys never could have predicted their success. Many of the early sessions had to be trashed. “I looked like a deer in the headlights,” Dr. Oakley said. She would flub her lines and moan, “I just can’t do this.” Her husband would say, “Come on. We’re going to have lunch, and we’re going to come right back to this.” But he confessed to having had doubts, too. “We were in the basement, worrying, ‘Is anybody even going to look at this?’”

Dr. Oakley is not the only person teaching students how to use tools drawn from neuroscience to enhance learning. But her popularity is a testament to her skill at presenting the material, and also to the course’s message of hope. Many of her online students are 25 to 44 years old, likely to be facing career changes in an unforgiving economy and seeking better ways to climb new learning curves.

Dr. Oakley’s lessons are rich in metaphor, which she knows helps get complex ideas across. The practice is rooted in the theory of neural reuse, which states that metaphors use the same neural circuits in the brain as the underlying concept does, so the metaphor brings difficult concepts “more rapidly on board,” as she puts it.

She illustrates her concepts with goofy animations: There are surfing zombies, metabolic vampires and an “octopus of attention.” Hammy editing tricks may have Dr. Oakley moving out of the frame to the right and popping up on the left, or cringing away from an animated, disembodied head that she has put on the screen to discuss a property of the brain.

Sitting in the Oakleys’ comfortable living room, with its solid Mission furniture and mementos of their world travels, Dr. Oakley said she believes that just about anyone can train himself to learn. “Students may look at math, for example, and say, ‘I can’t figure this out — it must mean I’m really stupid!’ They don’t know how their brain works.”

Her own feelings of inadequacy give her empathy for students who feel hopeless. “I know the hiccups and the troubles people have when they’re trying to learn something.” After all, she was her own lab rat. “I rewired my brain,” she said, “and it wasn’t easy.”

As a youngster, she was not a diligent student. “I flunked my way through elementary, middle school and high school math and science,” she said. She joined the Army out of high school to help pay for college and received extensive training in Russian at the Defense Language Institute. Once out, she realized she would have a better career path with a technical degree (specifically, electrical engineering), and set out to tackle math and science, training herself to grind through technical subjects with many of the techniques of practice and repetition that she had used to let Russian vocabulary and declension soak in.

Along the way, she met Philip Oakley — in, of all places, Antarctica. It was 1983, and she was working as a radio operator at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. (She has also worked as a translator on a Russian trawler. She’s been around.) Mr. Oakley managed the garage at the station, keeping machinery working under some of the planet’s most punishing conditions.

She had noticed him largely because, unlike so many men at the lonely pole, he hadn’t made any moves on her. “You can be ugly as a toad out there and you are the most popular girl,” she said. She found him “comfortably confident.” After he left a party without even saying hello, she told a friend she’d like to get to know him better. The next day, he was waiting for her at breakfast with a big smile on his face. Three weeks later, on New Year’s Eve, he walked her over to the true South Pole and proposed at the stroke of midnight. A few weeks after that, they were “off the ice” in New Zealand and got married.

Dr. Oakley recounts her journey in both of her best-selling books: “A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if You Flunked Algebra)” and, out this past spring, “Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential.” The new book is about learning new skills, with a focus on career switchers. And yes, she has a MOOC for that, too. . . .

Continue reading. The column includes four techniques that may be helpful:

Four Techniques to Help You Learn

FOCUS/DON’T The brain has two modes of thinking that Dr. Oakley simplifies as “focused,” in which learners concentrate on the material, and “diffuse,” a neural resting state in which consolidation occurs — that is, the new information can settle into the brain. (Cognitive scientists talk about task-positive networks and default-mode networks, respectively, in describing the two states.) In diffuse mode, connections between bits of information, and unexpected insights, can occur. That’s why it’s helpful to take a brief break after a burst of focused work.

TAKE A BREAK To accomplish those periods of focused and diffuse-mode thinking, Dr. Oakley recommends what is known as the Pomodoro Technique, developed by one Francesco Cirillo. Set a kitchen timer for a 25-minute stretch of focused work, followed by a brief reward, which includes a break for diffuse reflection. (“Pomodoro” is Italian for tomato — some timers look like tomatoes.) The reward — listening to a song, taking a walk, anything to enter a relaxed state — takes your mind off the task at hand. Precisely because you’re not thinking about the task, the brain can subconsciously consolidate the new knowledge. Dr. Oakley compares this process to “a librarian filing books away on shelves for later retrieval.”

As a bonus, the ritual of setting the timer can also help overcome procrastination. Dr. Oakley teaches that even thinking about doing things we dislike activates the pain centers of the brain. The Pomodoro Technique, she said, “helps the mind slip into focus and begin work without thinking about the work.”

“Virtually anyone can focus for 25 minutes, and the more you practice, the easier it gets.”

PRACTICE “Chunking” is the process of creating a neural pattern that can be reactivated when needed. It might be an equation or a phrase in French or a guitar chord. Research shows that having a mental library of well-practiced neural chunks is necessary for developing expertise.

Practice brings procedural fluency, says Dr. Oakley, who compares the process to backing up a car. “When you first are learning to back up, your working memory is overwhelmed with input.” In time, “you don’t even need to think more than ‘Hey, back up,’ ” and the mind is free to think about other things.

Chunks build on chunks, and, she says, the neural network built upon that knowledge grows bigger. “You remember longer bits of music, for example, or more complex phrases in French.” Mastering low-level math concepts allows tackling more complex mental acrobatics. “You can easily bring them to mind even while your active focus is grappling with newer, more difficult information.”

KNOW THYSELF Dr. Oakley urges her students to understand that people learn in different ways. Those who have “racecar brains” snap up information; those with “hiker brains” take longer to assimilate information but, like a hiker, perceive more details along the way. Recognizing the advantages and disadvantages, she says, is the first step in learning how to approach unfamiliar material.

See also Mindset, by Carol Dweck.

Written by Leisureguy

2 September 2017 at 11:44 am

Posted in Books, Education, Science

Alien lifeforms might be living right under our noses, but how can we find them

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Science has operated on the assumption that life on earth arose only once, and all current lifeforms are evolved from a single common ancestor. Sarah Scoles writes in Aeon about a search for alien life here on earth.

In the late 1670s, the Dutch scientist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek looked through a microscope at a drop of water and found a whole world. It was tiny; it was squirmy; it was full of weird body types; and it lived, invisibly, all around us. Humans were supposed to be the centre and purpose of the world, and these microscale ‘animalcules’ seemed to have no effect – visible or otherwise – on our existence, so why were they here? Now, we know that those animalcules are microbes and they actually rule our world. They make us sick, keep us healthy, decompose our waste, feed the bottom of our food chain, and make our oxygen. Human ignorance of them had no bearing on their significance, just as gravity was important before an apple dropped on Isaac Newton’s head.

We could be poised on another such philosophical precipice, about to discover a second important world hiding amid our own: alien life on our own planet. Today, scientists seek extraterrestrial microbes in geysers of chilled water shooting from Enceladus and in the ocean sloshing beneath the ice crust of Europa. They search for clues that beings once skittered around the formerly wet rocks of Mars. Telescopes peer into the atmospheres of distant exoplanets, hunting for signs of life. But perhaps these efforts are too far afield. If multiple lines of life bubbled up on Earth and evolved separately from our ancient ancestors, we could discover alien biology without leaving this planet.

The modern-day descendants of these ‘aliens’ might still be here, squirming around with van Leeuwenhoek’s microbes. Scientists call these hypothetical hangers-on the ‘shadow biosphere’. If a shadow biosphere were ever found, it would provide evidence that life isn’t a once-in-a-universe statistical accident. If biology can happen twice on one planet, it must have happened countless times on countless other planets. But most of our scientific methods are ill-equipped to discover a shadow biosphere. And that’s a problem, says Carol Cleland, the originator of the term and its biggest proponent.

The idea came to Cleland, a philosopher at the University of Colorado at Boulder, when she spent a sabbatical year at the Centro de Astrobiología in Spain. She was studying the scientists, who were studying microorganisms.

‘If you have a sample of soil,’ she asked them, ‘how will you recognise what’s in it?’ The scientists rattled off the usual answers: slide it under a microscope, put it in a Petri dish, make millions of DNA copies, catalogue the genes. But that party line disturbed Cleland. ‘You couldn’t detect anything that wasn’t almost identical to familiar Earth life,’ she said. Their methods assumed that all microbes have genetic material that works like ours. Isn’t it possible, Cleland wondered, that life arose more than once here? If so, organisms from a second (or third) genesis would never turn up in our tests, because our tests are only meant to turn up familiar life. ‘But these organisms, if they exist, would leave traces in the environment,’ Cleland says.

In 2007 in the journal Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Cleland wrote about just such a trace: desert varnish. It’s a strange sheen, like a hardened waterfall, that covers desert rocks all over the planet. The streaks run down rocks from the desert of El Azizia in Libya to Antartica’s Dry Valley. Desert varnish – into which people have scraped petroglyphs for thousands of years – appears layer by layer, growing only the width of a human hair each millennium. The varnish is replete with arsenic, iron and manganese, although the rocks it coats are not. No known geochemical or biological process can account for its ingredients. And yet there it is. Since that discovery, Cleland has urged scientists not to discount – but to seek out – such anomalies as the varnish, things that don’t quite seem to fit. Because maybe they don’t fit.

Science’s modern-day explorers have unearthed increasingly anomalous organisms that are technically ‘familiar life’ – familiar in that they do adhere to the Central Dogma of molecular biology which explains the flow of genetic information in a biological system. Toxitolerants can live in nuclear waste; acidophiles can live in battery acid; obligate anaerobes die in the presence of oxygen; thermophiles thrive around hot vents deep in the ocean. Life, as they say in the movie Jurassic Park, finds a way.

But even the most familiar forms of life can be difficult to find. According to the latest estimates, we’ve discovered just 14 per cent of the dogma-following species on the planet. Of those, we can make only 1 per cent grow in the lab. A shadow biosphere might help us understand why. ‘Although we have good theoretical reasons for believing that life could be at least modestly different … we don’t know how different it could be,’ Cleland wrote in the seminal paper ‘The Possibility of Alternative Microbial Life on Earth’ (2005), co-authored with the astrobiologist Shelley Copley, also of the University of Colorado at Boulder. Just as a hammer and a sledgehammer can both pound a nail, other chemical combinations could lead to organisms that grow, adapt, respond to stimuli, and reproduce – that live, in other words. But which chemicals? And how? To understand that requires going back to the beginning. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

2 September 2017 at 11:21 am

Posted in Evolution, Science

Trump is an ignorant bull in the china shop of international relations: Trump preparing withdrawal from South Korea trade deal

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Damian Paletta reports in the Washington Post:

President Trump has instructed advisers to prepare a withdrawal from the United States’ free-trade agreement with South Korea, several people close to the process said, a move that would stoke economic tensions with the U.S. ally at a time both countries confront a crisis over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

While it is still possible Trump could decide to stay in the agreement in order to renegotiate its terms, the internal preparations for terminating the deal are far along and the formal withdrawal process could begin as soon as this coming week, said the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

A number of senior White House officials are trying to prevent Trump from withdrawing from the agreement, including national security adviser H.R. McMaster, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, these people said.

A White House spokeswoman said “discussions are ongoing, but we have no announcements at this time.”

One reason top White House advisers are trying to stop Trump from withdrawing from the South Korea free trade agreement is because they do not want to isolate the government in Seoul at a time when North Korea has become increasingly adversarial with its missile program, testing nuclear weapons and firing missiles over Japan in a way that has alarmed the international community.

If Trump withdraws from the agreement, he could try to force South Korea to import more U.S. products with little to no import restrictions, something he believes will help U.S. companies and workers. South Korea could also decide to refuse any discussions with Trump, kicking off a trade war between the countries.

The trade agreement was signed in 2007 and went into effect in 2012. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

2 September 2017 at 11:12 am

Contradicting Trump, DOJ Admits There Is No Evidence Of Trump Tower Wiretaps

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One does get tired of Trump’s continual lying, particularly given that his supporters think that “he tells it like it is.” All too often, he tells it like it isn’t. Alice Ollstein reports at TPM Livewire:

In a brief filed late on Friday, the Department of Justice confirmed that it has no evidence to support President Donald Trump’s assertions this spring that he was the target of surveillance by the Obama administration while running for office last year.

The motion, filed in response to a lawsuit from the pro-transparency group American Oversight, notes that “both FBI and NSD confirm that they have no records related to wiretaps as described” by Trump.

After Trump took to Twitter in early March to accuse the Obama administration of “wire tapping” his phones at Trump Tower, a charge that then-FBI Director James Comey assured Congress was baseless, American Oversight filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking records of any wiretaps of Trump Tower.

The Trump administration at first asserted that it could neither confirm nor deny the existence of any wiretapping records. American Oversight challenged that response in court.

“Given that the president publicly confirmed the wiretaps (in his March tweets) and former FBI Director Comey publicly denied their existence (in his testimony to Congress), we have argued that FBI and DOJ ought to be able to provide a straight answer about whether any wiretap records do or don’t exist,” the organization’s spokesperson Clark Pettig told TPM.

On Friday, the DOJ released a motion acknowledging they have no evidence of any wiretaps.

“The FBI and Department of Justice have now sided with former Director Comey and confirmed in writing that President Trump lied when he tweeted that former President Obama ‘wiretapped’ him at Trump Tower,” American Oversight’s Executive Director Austin Evers said in a statement. “As the president and his legal team continue their smear campaign against Mr. Comey, Special Counsel Mueller and others investigating him, this filing confirms that even Trump’s own Department of Justice does not believe he has credibility on a key element of the Russia investigation.” . . .

Continue reading. It includes the text of the DOJ motion.

Written by Leisureguy

2 September 2017 at 11:08 am

No shave: Too hot

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Global warming comes to the Central Coast. Temperatures high (Santa Cruz was 106ºF yesterday), and home air conditioning in this neighborhood, right on the Bay, is nonexistent because it has never been needed. It’s needed now. But in three weeks I’ll be in our new apartment in BC on Vancouver Island. Hoping for cooler weather. They’re having a drought, but we have a lot of drought experience from the past few years and have our routines down pat, along with low-flow shower heads, etc.

Written by Leisureguy

2 September 2017 at 10:58 am

Posted in Daily life, Shaving

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