Later On

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

Archive for September 2017

A day of unpacking and Canada discoveries

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We’re slowly unpacking and, of course, discovering things and thinking, “Why on earth did we move this?” Arranging things conveniently takes thought and then must be revised by experience, but I am making some progress on the kitchen, where an Italian sort of sausage dish is cooking.

Some Canada discoveries: a relatively small priority mail shipping box, free in the US, costs $5 in Canada. And the postal service seems to be somewhat a mom-and-pop operation. I was not home for a package delivery, so a notice was left with the address of a postal station (in a drugstore) where I could pick up the package the next day after 13:00. I could not get there the next day or the day after, but went to pick it up. It wasn’t there. The postal clerk explained that this often happens, the package being taken to a different postal station than the one on the notice, and it can take a few days for them to notice that the package is in the wrong place. I asked whether I should just come back in a couple of weeks in the hope that it would be there then. She took my phone number and said she would call me.

UPDATE: The following crossed-out information is false. The Bank of America employee who gave me the information was just making it up, probably because he didn’t want to say “I don’t know.” Wire transfers are NOT charged fees by the banks along the way.

What actually happened is this: I have a US-dollar account at my Canadian bank. I had Bank of America do a wire transfer to that account. I assumed that, it being a US-dollar account, BofA would transfer US dollars, but they did not. They converted the US dollars to Canadian dollars before the transfer, and my Canadian bank then converted the Canadian dollars back to US dollars for that account. The double conversion worked like using Google translate to translate an English passage to (say) Chinese, and then using Google translate to translate the Chinese version back into English: you do not end up with the original passage. And the double conversion of the money resulted in noticeable shrinkage. It had nothing at all to do with fees charged by banks along the way.

When I finally was able to talk to the person directly responsible for wire transfers, I learned the truth.

Wire transfers, it turns out, are very insecure in terms of protecting the money you’re transferring. I did a wire transfer from BofA to my Canadian bank, with no currency conversion (the money going into a US dollar account at the Canadian in). BofA charged me $35 to make the transfer and my Canadian bank charged me $15 to accept the transfer, but the amount that landed in my account was short by $300, even taking the $50 in fees into account.

I called BofA and they explained as the money moves through the wire transfer through various banks, the banks just help themselves to as much of the money as they can (through fees), and that’s just the way it is. I pointed out that, depending on the transfer route, it seem theoretically possible that all the money being transferred could be siphoned off through such fees.

I asked whether I could instead do a Billpay check, sent to me. No, BofA said, because they use the US Postal Service to send those checks and the USPS cannot send mail to Canada. This is plainly false—I regularly have sent mail to Canada via the USPS—so they changed the story and said that they could not because it would be against regulations.

As a workaround, I can PayPal the money to my daughter, have her write the check and send it to me (via USPS), and then deposit the check (for which my Canadian bank charges no fee). So that may be the answer. I also have looked at, and that might also serve, but that involves a fee.

I’ve applied for a credit card here, and due to the limited number of banks and their cooperative arrangements (i.e., little or no competition), the interest rate on charges if not paid within 21 days of billing is 19.99%. That’s common across all banks. (The interest rate at BofA is 9.9%, at least for the card I have.)

Gasoline prices are given in cents rather than dollars and cents, and of course the price is per liter. Weights at the supermarket are mostly metric, but some things are measured in pounds (bacon, at one store). The oven is in ºF rather than ºC, thank god, but weather is all Celsius.

People in general do seem more polite and pleasant, and to some extent that seems to be a matter of self-image: e.g., a current commercial plays on the fact that Canadians are polite to each other, so they seem to live up to that image. I’m sure that there are sullen, angry people, but so far I’ve not run into any.

I continue to follow US politics, which continues to be amazing.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 September 2017 at 7:36 pm

Posted in Daily life

Fake News on Twitter Flooded Swing States That Helped Trump Win

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Denise Clifton writes in Mother Jones:

Millions of tweets were flying furiously in the final days leading up to the 2016 US presidential election. And in closely fought battleground states that would prove key to Donald Trump’s victory, they were more likely than elsewhere in America to be spreading links to fake news and hyper-politicized content from Russian sources and WikiLeaks, according to new research published Thursday by Oxford University.

Nationwide during this period, one polarizing story was typically shared on average for every one story produced by a professional news organization. However, fake news from Twitter reached higher concentrations than the national average in 27 states, 12 of which were swing states—including Pennsylvania, Florida and Michigan, where Trump won by slim margins.

While it’s unclear what effect such content ultimately had on voters, the new study only deepens concerns about how the 2016 election may have been tweaked by nefarious forces on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. “Many people use these platforms to find news and information that shapes their political identities and voting behavior,” says Samantha Bradshaw, a lead researcher for Oxford’s Computational Propaganda Project, which has been tracking disinformation strategies around the world since 2014. “If bad actors can lower the quality of information, they are diminishing the quality of democracy.”

Efforts by Vladimir Putin’s regime were among the polarizing content captured in the new Oxford study. “We know the Russians have literally invested in social media,” Bradshaw told Mother Jones, referring to reports of Russian-bought Facebook ads as well as sophisticated training of Russian disinformation workers detailed in another recent study by the team. “Swing states would be the ones you would want to target.”

The dubious Twitter content in the new study also contained polarizing YouTube videos–including some produced by the Kremlin-controlled RT network, which were uploaded without any information identifying them as Russian-produced. All the YouTube videos have since been taken down, according to Bradshaw; it’s unclear whether the accounts were deleted by the users, or if YouTube removed the content.

The Oxford researchers captured 22 million tweets from Nov. 1-11, 2016, and have been scrutinizing the dataset to better understand the impact of disinformation on the US election. The team also has analyzed propaganda operations in more than two dozen countries, using a combination of reports from trusted media sources and think tanks, and cross-checking that information with experts on the ground. Their recent research has additional revelations about how disinformation works in the social-media age, including from Moscow:

Putin’s big investment in information warfare

In studying Russia’s propaganda efforts targeting both domestic and international populations, the Oxford researchers found evidence of increasing military expenditures on social media operations since 2014. They also learned of a sophisticated training system for workers employed by Putin’s disinformation apparatus: “They have invested millions of dollars into training staff and setting targets for them,” Bradshaw says. She described a working environment where English training is provided to improve messaging for Western audiences: Supervisors hand out topical talking points to include in coordinated messaging, workers’ content is edited, and output is audited, with rewards given to more productive workers.

The battle to identify bots

One telltale sign of bots stems from a group of accounts that tweet much more frequently than typical humans—or accounts that tweet on exact intervals, say, every five minutes. The bot-driven accounts may lack typical profile elements such as profile pictures (see also: the generic Twitter egg) and often don’t engage in replies with other social-media accounts. In addition to spreading fake news, “they can also amplify marginal voices and ideas by inflating the number of likes, shares and retweets they receive, creating an artificial sense of popularity, momentum or relevance,” the Oxford team reported recently.

While it’s difficult for researchers to untangle how many Twitter bots are Russian-controlled, they regularly see Russian accounts in the mix: For example, on Twitter, they found accounts following Donald Trump that tweeted most frequently during Russian business hours and switched regularly between English and Cyrillic.

On Facebook, it’s much more challenging to sort out which content is bot-driven, says Bradshaw. That’s in part because on Facebook, bots typically operate pages or groups, which can be even more opaque than individual accounts.

The presence of bots during the election homestretch

The Oxford researchers also found that bots infiltrated the core conversations among their Twitter data during the election period—and several of their analyses revealed that bots supported Trump much more than Hillary Clinton. A separate research effort by Emilio Ferrara at University of Southern California, cited in Oxford’s report, determined that about one fifth of campaign-related tweets during the month before the election likely was generated by bots. Ferrara’s team recorded 4 million tweets in that time period posted by about 400,000 bots.

How Germany fought off the Fake News scourge

In the days before the Sept. 24 parliamentary election, the Oxford researchers foundthat political bots were minimally active on Twitter in Germany. The most tweets tracked were in support of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party, which won 13 percent of the vote and became the first far-right party to earn a presence in Parliament in 60-plus years. The research also found that Germans were much less likely to share fake news stories than their American counterparts, sharing links from professional news organizations four times as often as links from sites pushing fake news. Researchers theorize that voters in Germany and other parts of Europe may have been inoculated to the effects of bot-driven fake news, thanks to the ongoing fallout from 2016. “I would speculate the Russians overplayed their hand in the US elections,” Bradshaw says. “Voters in the US weren’t really prepared, but that was part of the discourse in other countries like Germany.”

But the battle is only beginning. In the hands of bad operators “the bots get a bit smarter,” Bradshaw says. When those controlling them realize that the bots are being tracked, for example, they may . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 September 2017 at 3:01 pm

The Trump Administration Just Confirmed That It Is Sabotaging Obamacare

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Eric Levitz reports in New York magazine:

The Trump administration has spent much of its first year in office trying to sabotage America’s health-care system. In interviews with major publications, Donald Trump repeatedly threatened to destabilize the Affordable Care Act marketplaces — by abruptly halting subsidies to insurers — as a means of eroding popular support for the law. Meanwhile, his Health Department spread doubt about whether it would enforce the tax penalty for refusing to sign up for insurance; cut funding for the law’s outreach groups; slashed Obamacare’s advertising budget by 90 percent; spent a portion of the remaining ad budget on propaganda calling for the law’s repeal; cut the open-enrollment period by 45 days; and announced that it would be taking (where people can enroll in Obamacare online) offline for nearly every Sunday during that time period, for “maintenance” purposes.

These acts of sabotage were never subtle. But until this week, Health and Human Services employees at least tried to maintain a veneer of (implausible) deniability. Sure, Tom Price’s department would evince contempt for the ACA — and all Americans who rely on it for basic medical needs — with virtually everything it did. But the agency’s civil servants wouldn’t actually say, explicitly, “My colleagues and I are working to undermine a program that we are legally bound to administer to the best of our abilities.”

That changed Wednesday night. Earlier in the day, BuzzFeed News revealed that the Trump administration had instructed the Health Department’s ten regional directors not to participate in state-based events promoting ACA enrollment, as they had for each of the past three years. After multiple outlets asked the agency for a comment on the move, HHS press secretary Caitlin Oakley offered the following:

Marketplace enrollment events are organized and implemented by outside groups with their own agendas, not HHS. These events may continue regardless of HHS participation.

Obamacare has never lived up to enrollment expectations despite the previous administration’s best efforts. The American people know a bad deal when they see one and many won’t be convinced to sign up for ‘Washington-knows-best’ health coverage that they can’t afford. For the upcoming enrollment period, Americans are being hit with another round of double-digit premium hikes and nearly half of our nation’s counties are facing Obamacare monopolies. As Obamacare continues to collapse, HHS is carefully evaluating how we can best serve the American people who continue to be harmed by Obamacare’s failures. [Emphasis mine.]

So: Asked to respond to the allegation that it is deliberately undermining ACA-enrollment efforts — in defiance of its legal responsibilities — the Trump administration released a written statement explicitly discouraging Americans from enrolling in the program.

This is an expression of proud disdain for the president’s constituents, the most basic norms of good governance, and factual reality, all in one. Oakley is correct that Americans looking for coverage on the individual market will likely see double-digit premium hikes next year. But she neglects to mention that insurers — and the Congressional Budget Office — have said, repeatedly, that the primary cause of said hikes is the uncertainty generated by acts of sabotage like the one she is ostensibly defending.

If the Trump administration was worried about Obamacare’s rising premiums, it would be increasing investments in enrollment promotion, not slashing them. Sick people will tend to seek out health insurance, whether or not they’re exposed to advertising and events encouraging them to do so. But many healthy people will not. And the fewer healthy people who participate in the exchanges, the more expensive it will be for insurers to provide coverage for them — and, thus, the higher they will raise their premiums.

The administration’s handling of open enrollment is nearly as strategically incoherent as it is morally odious. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 September 2017 at 12:12 pm

Great shave with the Maggard synthetic, Colonial + Asylum Brush Works shaving soap, Fatip Testina Gentile, and Esbjerg aftershave gel

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Those who have been following the move saga can tell (a) we’ve started unpacking, and (b) the aftershaves haven’t yet been unpacked.

It was a great pleasure to get some variety, and the Colonial + Asylum Brush Works shaving soap makes a really excellent lather of muted fragrance. The Testina Gentile, for all its gentleness, is ruthlessly efficient at removing stubble, so I applied a small dab of Esbjerg to an unharmed face.

A great shave starts the day right.

In the Guide I comment on a variety of things, and one comment is on Fisher and Ury’s Getting to Yes, and their injunction “If you want a horse to jump a fence, make the fence as low as possible.” That is, if you want people to take some action, you work to remove all possible impediments to taking that action (and this leads to the “yessable proposition,” a proposition so well thought through and worked out that the person whose approval must be obtained has only to say “Yes,” there being no other work involved for her or him.

In our new apartment building, I saw a fine example of not understanding this principle. The room holding the dumpster for household garbage has several signs making severe threats of what will happen if anyone disposes of household items (e.g., a broken lamp) in the dumpster: lease will be revoked and tenant doing it will be evicted, with warnings that surveillance cameras are recording your every move.

All that, without a single word about where you can get rid of broken household items, the key bit of information that would help tenants do a proper disposal. You’d think that, if the building management doesn’t want people putting household items in the garbage dumpster, they would go to some lengths to make it easy for the tenants to dispose of household items properly. But nothing on that, just threats of eviction. :sigh:

Written by LeisureGuy

28 September 2017 at 10:10 am

Posted in Shaving

Trump and Puerto Rico

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Also, John Bowden of The Hill reports:

The Trump administration on Tuesday denied a request from several members of Congress to waive shipping restrictions to help get gasoline and other supplies to Puerto Rico as the island recovers from Hurricane Maria.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) declined the request to waive the Jones Act, which limits shipping between coasts to U.S.-flagged vessels, according to Reuters. DHS waived the act following hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which hit the mainland U.S.

The agency has in the past waived the rule to allow cheaper and more readily-available foreign vessels to supply goods to devastated areas [including Texas and Florida in recent days – LG]. But DHS said Tuesday that waiving the act for Puerto Rico would not help the U.S. island territory due to damaged ports preventing ships from docking.

“The limitation is going to be port capacity to offload and transit, not vessel availability,” a spokesperson for Customs and Border Protection told Reuters.

In a letter to the department on Tuesday, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) urged DHS to rethink the decision, citing the agency’s willingness to waive the Jones Act for relief efforts in the wake of hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

“The Department of Homeland Security has been given the ability to waive the Jones Act to accommodate national security concerns, and has done so twice in the last month,” McCain wrote. “These emergency waivers have been valuable to speed up recovery efforts in the impacted regions. However, I am very concerned by the Department’s decision not to waive the Jones Act for current relief efforts in Puerto Rico, which is facing a worsening humanitarian crisis following Hurricane Maria.”

McCain called the department’s decision “unacceptable” and warned that Puerto Rico faces a humanitarian crisis as the island’s 3.4 million people struggle to survive without power or clean water. . .

Continue reading.


Written by LeisureGuy

27 September 2017 at 11:16 am

How military outsourcing turned toxic

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Abrahm Lustgarten reports in ProPublica:

IN AUGUST 2016, an inspector from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency arrived at Barksdale Air Force base in Louisiana, a nerve center for the U.S. military’s global air combat operations, to conduct a routine look at the base’s handling of its hazardous waste.

Barksdale, like many military bases, generates large volumes of hazardous materials, including thousands of pounds of toxic powder left over from cleaning, painting and maintaining airplanes.

For years, Barksdale had been sending a portion of its waste to an Ohio company, U.S. Technology Corp., that had sold officials at the base on a seemingly ingenious solution for disposing of it: The company would take the contaminated powder from refurbished war planes and repurpose it into cinderblocks that would be used to build everything from schools to hotels to big-box department stores — even a pregnancy support center in Ohio. The deal would ostensibly shield the Air Force from the liabililty of being a large producer of dangerous hazardous trash.

The arrangement was not unique.

The military is one of the country’s largest polluters, with an inventory of toxic sites on American soil that once topped 39,000. At many locations, the Pentagon has relied on contractors like U.S. Technology to assist in cleaning and restoring land, removing waste, clearing unexploded bombs, and decontaminating buildings, streams and soil. In addition to its work for Barksdale, U.S. Technology had won some 830 contracts with other military facilities — Army, Air Force, Navy and logistics bases — totaling more than $49 million, many of them to dispose of similar powders.

In taking on environmental cleanup jobs, contractors often bring needed expertise to technical tasks the Pentagon isn’t equipped to do itself. They also absorb much of the legal responsibility for disposing of military-made hazards, in some cases helping the Pentagon — at least on paper — winnow down its list of toxic liabilities.

But in outsourcing this work, the military has often struggled to provide adequate oversight to ensure that work is done competently — or is completed at all. Today, records show, some of the most dangerous cleanup work that has been entrusted to contractors remains unfinished, or worse, has been falsely pronounced complete, leaving people who live near former military sites to assume these areas are now safe.

What the EPA inspector found when he visited Barksdale was an object lesson in the system’s blind spots.

Barrels of the waste hadn’t been shipped off and recycled, but rather were stored in a garage tucked away from the facility’s main operations. Further, shipping documents suggested that what waste had been sent off the base hadn’t gone to U.S. Technology’s recycling plant in Ohio, as an Air Force official first told the EPA, but instead had gone to company warehouses in at least two other states. Storing hazardous waste without a permit — and without immediately recycling it — can be illegal.

The inspection findings triggered an investigation to determine if the Air Force had been storing hazardous waste that it was supposed to have been recycling without a permit. It also suggested broader problems with U.S. Technology, which was already the subject of an inquiry in Georgia into whether it was illegally dumping waste — including material that could have come from Barksdale — near a residential neighborhood there.

Barksdale officials told ProPublica that the base “has never stored” hazardous materials at the request of U.S. Technology. The Air Force and the Pentagon declined to answer any specific questions about U.S. Technology’s work, except to say that the base had been working with the company for at least a decade.

ProPublica pieced together what happened at Barksdale using EPA records, including a 1,000-page document compiled by one of its lead investigators, as well as Air Force correspondence, court files, Pentagon contracts and other materials.

The documents make clear that officials at Barksdale should have been wary of doing business with U.S. Technology from the start. The head of one of its sub-contractors had been sent to prison in 2008 for illegally dumping hazardous waste under another Pentagon contract. U.S. Technology had been investigated for related wrongdoing — storing or dumping material it claimed to be recycling — in two other states. Indeed, a 2011 Pentagon report to Congress about contractor fraud included U.S. Technology on a list of companies that had criminal or civil judgments against them, but which still received millions of dollars in subsequent contracts.

Neither the Air Force nor the Pentagon would respond to questions about why the various military branches continued to award contracts to U.S. Technology despite its problems.

The EPA also would not say whether it was looking into U.S. Technology’s contracts with other bases — deals involving millions of pounds of toxic powder and tens of millions of taxpayer dollars — but such a step might well be prudent.

In April, U.S. Technology’s founder and president, Raymond Williams, was indicted in U.S. District Court in Missouri for trucking millions of pounds of its hazardous powder waste — from Defense and other types of contracts — over state lines, where, according to EPA documents, the company had been storing it instead of recycling it. In June, Williams was indicted in Georgia on federal charges related to bribing an Air Force official for recycling contracts. Williams has pleaded not guilty in both cases.

Asked about Barksdale and other contracts that have gone awry, one of the Pentagon’s top environmental officials told ProPublica that  . . .

Continue reading. There’s a lot more.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 September 2017 at 10:59 am

Edwin Jagger, D.R. Harris, Baili BR171, and Alt-Innsbruck

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Yesterday was a day of event: The Eldest arrived with a car after a brief bit of confusion at the border, which was finally straightened out with faxes of handwritten authorizations, copies of The Wife’s passport (car is in her name), and a revised customs form. Interesting that the US side, where everything was in order, offered surly and rude customs agents, and the Canadian side, where there really was a mixup that required the faxing, agents were affable and helpful.

The Eldest had to get the faxes in an Exxon station run by an Indian couple. After a first failed attempt and then a successful second attempt, she asked how much she owed for using the fax, and they would not take money. “We are immigrants ourselves,” they said, “and there are so many forms and steps. People were helpful, and we want to pay it forward.” Small daily kindnesses and courtesies make a big difference in quality of life.

And our own quality of life should improve today when our household goods get moved in. We are awaiting arrival of the mover now. I suspect little blogging today.

A great shave helps one sustain hope. 🙂

Written by LeisureGuy

27 September 2017 at 8:16 am

Posted in Shaving

Wee Scot, Nancy Boy, Baby Smooth, and Esbjerg aftershave gel

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No photo because my camera battery is dead and the charger is coming with the household goods. (It doesn’t seem to charge from the USB port.) But even without the photo, the shave was excellent: having very soft water is a very big positive.

And I continue to love Nancy Boy Signature shaving cream for all that I’m more a shaving soap kind of person. And the Baby Smooth did its usual smooth job: smooth in action, smooth in feel, smooth in result.

A little Esberg aftershave gel, and the day takes off: our household goods arrive today at the customs point of entry (the Victoria airport), and then is moved in tomorrow. I’ll be quite busy for a while, but things are looking up.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 September 2017 at 8:53 am

Posted in Shaving

Holy mackerel! At least six of President Trump’s advisers, including Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus, used private email accounts for government business

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Lock ’em up! All of them! At least, that’s the punishment they recommended for Hillary Clinton. Matt Apuzzo and Maggie Haberman report in the NY Times:

At least six of President Trump’s closest advisers occasionally used private email addresses to discuss White House matters, current and former officials said on Monday.

The disclosures came a day after news surfaced that Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and adviser, used a private email account to send or receive about 100 work-related emails during the administration’s first seven months. But Mr. Kushner was not alone. Stephen K. Bannon, the former chief White House strategist, and Reince Priebus, the former chief of staff, also occasionally used private email addresses. Other advisers, including Gary D. Cohn and Stephen Miller, sent or received at least a few emails on personal accounts, officials said.

Ivanka Trump, the president’s elder daughter, who is married to Mr. Kushner, used a private account when she acted as an unpaid adviser in the first months of the administration, Newsweek reported Monday. Administration officials acknowledged that she also occasionally did so when she formally became a White House adviser. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter with reporters.

Officials are supposed to use government emails for their official duties so their conversations are available to the public and those conducting oversight. But it is not illegal for White House officials to use private email accounts as long as they forward work-related messages to their work accounts so they can be preserved.

During the 2016 presidential race, Mr. Trump repeatedly harped on Hillary Clinton’s use of a private account as secretary of state, making it a centerpiece of his campaign and using it to paint her as untrustworthy. “We must not let her take her criminal scheme into the Oval Office,” Mr. Trump said last year. His campaign rallies often boiled over with chants of “Lock her up!”

The F.B.I. closed its investigation into Mrs. Clinton’s handling of classified information and recommended no charges. But even after becoming president, Mr. Trump has prodded the Justice Department to reinvestigate.

While the private email accounts spurred accusations of hypocrisy from Democrats, there are differences. Mrs. Clinton stored classified information on a private server, and she exclusively used a private account for her government work, sending or receiving tens of thousands of emails. The content and frequency of the Trump advisers’ emails remain unknown, but Trump administration officials described the use of personal accounts as sporadic. The emails have not been made public.

“All White House personnel have been instructed to use official email to conduct all government related work,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said Monday in response to questions about the emails. “They are further instructed that if they receive work-related communication on personal accounts, they should be forwarded to official email accounts.”

The acknowledgment of private email use came as the White House is responding to a wide-ranging Justice Department request for documents and emails as part of the special counsel investigation into Russian election meddling. The use of private emails has the potential to complicate that effort, but the White House said it was confident in its process. . .

Continue reading.

Indeed the hypocrisy is stunning, but that’s the GOP for you.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 September 2017 at 5:38 pm

These Professors Make More Than a Thousand Bucks an Hour Peddling Mega-Mergers

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Jesse Eisinger and Justin Elliott report in ProPublica:

IF THE GOVERNMENT ENDS UP approving the $85 billion AT&T-Time Warner merger, credit won’t necessarily belong to the executives, bankers, lawyers, and lobbyists pushing for the deal. More likely, it will be due to the professors.

A serial acquirer, AT&T must persuade the government to allow every major deal. Again and again, the company has relied on economists from America’s top universities to make its case before the Justice Department or the Federal Trade Commission. Moonlighting for a consulting firm named Compass Lexecon, they represented AT&T when it bought Centennial, DirecTV, and Leap Wireless; and when it tried unsuccessfully to absorb T-Mobile. And now AT&T and Time Warner have hired three top Compass Lexecon economists to counter criticism that the giant deal would harm consumers and concentrate too much media power in one company.

Today, “in front of the government, in many cases the most important advocate is the economist and lawyers come second,” said James Denvir, an antitrust lawyer at Boies, Schiller.

Economists who specialize in antitrust — affiliated with Chicago, Harvard, Princeton, the University of California, Berkeley, and other prestigious universities — reshaped their field through scholarly work showing that mergers create efficiencies of scale that benefit consumers. But they reap their most lucrative paydays by lending their academic authority to mergers their corporate clients propose. Corporate lawyers hire them from Compass Lexecon and half a dozen other firms to sway the government by documenting that a merger won’t be “anti-competitive”: in other words, that it won’t raise retail prices, stifle innovation, or restrict product offerings. Their optimistic forecasts, though, often turn out to be wrong, and the mergers they champion may be hurting the economy.

Some of the professors earn more than top partners at major law firms. Dennis Carlton, a self-effacing economist at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and one of Compass Lexecon’s experts on the AT&T-Time Warner merger, charges at least $1,350 an hour. In his career, he has made about $100 million, including equity stakes and non-compete payments, ProPublica estimates. Carlton has written reports or testified in favor of dozens of mergers, including those between AT&T-SBC Communications and Comcast-Time Warner, and three airline deals: United-Continental, Southwest-Airtran, and American-US Airways.

American industry is more highly concentrated than at any time since the gilded age. Need a pharmacy? Americans have two main choices. A plane ticket? Four major airlines. They have four choices to buy cell phone service. Soon one company will sell more than a quarter of the quaffs of beer around the world.

Mergers peaked last year at $2 trillion in the U.S. The top 50 companies in a majority of American industries gained share between 1997 and 2012, and “competition may be decreasing in many economic sectors,” President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers warned in April.

While the impact of this wave of mergers is much debated, prominent economists such as Lawrence Summers and Joseph Stiglitz suggest that it is one important reason why, even as corporate profits hit records, economic growth is slow, wages are stagnant, business formation is halting, and productivity is lagging. “Only the monopoly-power story can convincingly account” for high business profits and low corporate investment, Summers wrote earlier this year.

In addition, politicians such as U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren have criticized big mergers for giving a handful of companies too much clout. President-elect Trump said in October that his administration would not approve the AT&T-Time Warner merger “because it’s too much concentration of power in the hands of too few.”

During the campaign, Trump didn’t signal what his broader approach to mergers would be. But the early signs are that his administration will weaken antitrust enforcement and strengthen the hand of economists. He selected Joshua Wright, an economist and professor at George Mason’s Antonin Scalia Law School, to lead his transition on antitrust matters. Wright, himself a former consultant for Boston-based Charles River Associates, regularly celebrates mergers in speeches and articles and has supported increasing the influence of economists in assessing monopoly power. “Mergers between competitors do not often lead to market power but do often generate significant benefits for consumers,” he wrote in The New York Times this week.

A late Obama administration push to scrutinize major deals notwithstanding, the government over the past several decades has pulled back on merger enforcement. In part, this shift reflects the influence of Carlton and other economists. Today, lawyers still write the briefs, make the arguments and conduct the trials, but the core arguments are over economists’ models of what will happen if the merger goes ahead.

These complex mathematical formulations carry weight with the government because they purport to be objective. But a ProPublica examination of several marquee deals found that economists sometimes salt away inconvenient data in footnotes and suppress negative findings, stretching the standards of intellectual honesty to promote their clients’ interests.

Earlier this year, a top Justice Department official criticized Compass Lexecon for using “junk science.” ProPublica sent a detailed series of questions to Compass Lexecon for this story. The firm declined to comment on the record.

Even some academic specialists worry that the research companies buy is slanted. “This is not the scientific method,” said Orley Ashenfelter, a Princeton economist known for analyzing the effects of mergers. Referring to one Compass study of an appliance industry deal, he said, “The answer is known in advance, either because you created what the client wanted or the client selected you as the most favorable from whatever group was considered.”

In contrast to their scholarship, the economists’ paid work for corporations rests almost entirely out of the public eye. Even other academics cannot see what they produce on behalf of clients. Their algorithms are shared only with government economists, many of whom have backgrounds in academia and private consulting, and hope to return there. At least seven professors on Compass’s payroll, including Carlton, have served as the top antitrust economist at the Department of Justice. Charles River Associates boasts at least three.

“There are few government functions outside the CIA that are so secretive as the merger review process,” said Seth Bloom, the former general counsel of the Senate Antitrust Subcommittee.

ONE EVENING IN 1977, University of Chicago law professor Richard Posner hosted a colleague from the economics department and a young law student named Andrew Rosenfield at his apartment in Hyde Park. The leading scholar of the “Law and Economics” movement, Posner wanted to apply rigorous math and economics concepts to the real world. “Why not see if there are some consulting opportunities?” he mused. The three of them agreed to form a firm, throwing in $700 for a third each. They called it “Lexecon,” combining the Latin for law with “econ.”

The trio then shopped their services to a dozen law firms, which all turned them down. “If you had to value the firm at the end of the tour, you’d have to say it was zero,” said Rosenfield.

They went back to their academic work. Not too long after, AT&T called Posner to ask if he could consult on its antitrust defense. The government was trying to break up Ma Bell. Posner agreed. So began a long and mutually beneficial relationship between AT&T and Lexecon.

Soon after its founding, Lexecon hired one of Chicago’s most promising young economists: Dennis Carlton. He had grown up in Brighton, Mass., earning degrees from a trifecta of elite local institutions: Boston Latin High School, Harvard, and MIT, where he would later endow a chair. He played basketball in his spare time. “Backaches have temporarily sidelined me from embarking on my second career as a basketball player in the NBA,” he joked in a 40th reunion report to his Harvard classmates in 2012. (After a short interview with ProPublica, Carlton subsequently declined comment, citing client confidentiality.)

Ronald Reagan appointed Posner to the federal bench in 1981. Posner left Lexecon. “Andy and I were young,” Carlton said. “Gee, we wondered: Is the firm going to survive? Not only did it survive, but it did very well.”

Lexecon capitalized on the Eighties merger explosion. M&A was rising to cultural prominence as the domain of swashbucklers. Corporate raiders enlisted renegade lawyers and brash investment bankers to take on stalwart names of American industry.

Behind the scenes, the less-flamboyant economists gained influence. From the time antitrust laws began to be passed, in the late 19th century, until the 1970s, courts and the government had presumed a merger was bad for customers if it resulted in high concentration, measured at thresholds much lower than the market shares for the dominant companies in many sectors today.

Led by University of Chicago theorists, a new group of scholars argued that this approach was overly simplistic. Even if a company dominated its industry, it might lower prices or create offsetting efficiencies, allowing customers more choice or higher quality products. In 1982, William Baxter, Reagan’s first head of the Justice Department antitrust division, codified the requirement that the government use economic models and principles to forecast the effect of mergers.

Lexecon seized the opportunity. “We were not just going to talk about economic theory but show with data that what we were saying could be justified,” Carlton said. By the late 1980s, the top four Lexecon officers were each making $1.5 million a year, according to a Wall Street Journal article.

ANY MERGER OVER a certain dollar size — currently, $78 million — requires government approval. The government passes most mergers without question. On rare occasions, it requests more data from the merging parties. Then the companies often hire consulting firms to produce economic analyses supporting the deal. (Sometimes the government hires its own outside academic.) Even less frequently, the government concludes it can’t approve the merger as proposed. In such cases, the government typically settles with the two companies, requiring some concession, such as sale of a division or product line. Just a handful of times a year, the government will sue to block a merger. Recently, the Obama administration has filed several major suits to block mergers, as companies in already concentrated industries propose bigger and bigger deals. According to a tally from the law firm Dechert, the government challenged a record seven mergers last year out of a total of 10,250.

Recent research supports the classic view that large mergers, by reducing competition, hurt consumers. The 2008 merger between Miller and Coors spurred “an abrupt increase” in beer prices, an academic analysis found this year. . .

Continue reading. There’s a lot more.

The process is broken, Congress is too corrupt to act, and the US is being looted.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 September 2017 at 5:06 pm

How Airline Execs and Politicians Have Made Flying Even More Miserable

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Justin Elliott reports in ProPublica:

Three years ago, the Obama administration unleashed its might on behalf of beleaguered American air travelers, filing suit to block a mega-merger between American Airlines and US Airways. The Justice Department laid out a case that went well beyond one merger.

“Increasing consolidation among large airlines has hurt passengers,” the lawsuit said. “The major airlines have copied each other in raising fares, imposing new fees on travelers, reducing or eliminating service on a number of city pairs, and downgrading amenities.”

The Obama administration itself had helped create that reality by approving two previous mergers in the industry, which had seen nine major players shrink to five in a decade. In the lawsuit, the government was effectively admitting it had been wrong. It was now making a stand.

Then a mere three months later, the government stunned observers by backing down.

It announced a settlement that allowed American and US Airways to form the world’s largest airline in exchange for modest concessions that fell far short of addressing the concerns outlined in the lawsuit.

The Justice Department’s abrupt reversal came after the airlines tapped former Obama administration officials and other well-connected Democrats to launch an intense lobbying campaign, the full extent of which has never been reported.

They used their pull in the administration, including at the White House, and with a high-level friend at the Justice Department, going over the heads of staff prosecutors. And just days after the suit was announced, the airlines turned to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s first White House chief of staff, to help push back against the Justice Department.

Some lawyers and officials who worked on the American-US Airways case now say they were “appalled” by the decision to settle, as one put it.

“It was a gross miscarriage of justice that that case was dropped and an outrage and an example of how our system should not work,” said Tom Horne, the former state attorney general of Arizona, one of seven states that were co-plaintiffs with the federal government.

As a candidate in 2007, President Obama pledged to “reinvigorate antitrust enforcement,” calling that the “American way to make capitalism work for consumers.” Hillary Clinton has recently made similar promises.

But the reversal in the American-US Airways case was part of what antitrust observers see as a string of disappointing decisions by the Obama administration.

“I hoped they would be much more aggressive and much more concerned about increasing concentration and ongoing predatory conduct,” said Thomas Horton, a former Justice Department antitrust attorney now at University of South Dakota law school. “Too often they really took the business side.”

Obama’s antitrust enforcers have been somewhat more aggressive than the Bush administration in challenging mergers. But that has come in the face of a record-breakingwave of often audacious deals. Nor has the Obama administration brought any major cases challenging companies that abuse their monopoly power. It approved three major airline mergers, for example, leaving four companies in control of more than 80 percent of the market.

In the American-US Airways case, Emanuel emerged as one of the deal’s biggest champions. He was in regular contact with the CEOs and lobbyists for both airlines.

“The combination of American Airlines and US Airways creates a better network than either carrier could build on its own,” Emanuel wrote in an October 2013 letter to the Justice Department that other mayors signed onto. “American’s substantial operations throughout the central United States provide critical coverage where US Airways is underdeveloped.”

The letter was an uncanny echo of the airlines’ arguments – for good reason: It was actually written by an American Airlines lobbyist, emails obtained by ProPublica show.

The day after sending the missive, as government lawyers were racing to prepare for trial, Emanuel lunched with the CEOs of American and US Airways at a suite in the St. Regis hotel in Washington. The next stop on his schedule: the White House, for meetings with President Obama and Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. Later that day, Emanuel met with Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, whose agency also had a hand in reviewing the merger. (The White House and Department of Transportation declined to comment on the meetings.)

Meanwhile, the airlines dispatched another valuable asset: An adviser on the deal, Jim Millstein, was both a former high-level Obama administration official at Treasury and a friend of Deputy Attorney General James Cole, the No. 2 at the Justice Department.

Millstein said Cole told him that the government was open to settling the case – a position at odds with the Justice Department’s public stance. The two spoke about the case on social occasions, such as “after finishing a round of golf,” Millstein said in an interview.

The five meetings and phone calls between Millstein and Cole – all within two months in late 2013 – shocked Justice Department staff attorneys who worked on the case, with one describing them as a sign of “raw pressure and political influence.” Cole declined to comment in detail, but said in a statement that “nothing inappropriate occurred.”

As Millstein and Emanuel pressed the administration, the airlines spent $13 million on a phalanx of super-lobbyists, including Heather and Tony Podesta, to marshal support in Washington, records show. Another Democratic lobbyist, Hilary Rosen, also reached out to the White House.

There’s no direct evidence that the lobbying worked. The Justice Department denies the pressure affected its decision-making and the White House said it was not involved. “DOJ enforcement decisions are made independently,” a White House spokesperson said in a statement. “The White House does not play a role in those decisions.”

But the abrupt move to settle was met with a backlash among the team building the case, according to interviews with four lawyers and officials who worked on the case. . .

Continue reading.

Things have gone badly wrong.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 September 2017 at 4:57 pm

Russian operatives used Facebook ads to exploit divisions over black political activism and Muslims

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And you know who fell for it, hook, line, and sinker.

Adam Entous, Craig Timberg, and Elizabeth Dwoskin write in the Washington Post:

The batch of more than 3,000 Russian-bought ads that Facebook is preparing to turn over to Congress shows a deep understanding of social divides in American society, with some ads promoting African-American rights groups including Black Lives Matter and others suggesting that these same groups pose a rising political threat, say people familiar with the covert influence campaign.

The Russian campaign — taking advantage of Facebook’s ability to simultaneously send contrary messages to different groups of users based on their political and demographic characteristics — also sought to sow discord among religious groups. Other ads highlighted support for Democrat Hillary Clinton among Muslim women.

These targeted messages, along with others that have surfaced in recent days, highlight the sophistication of an influence campaign slickly crafted to mimic and infiltrate U.S. political discourse while also seeking to heighten tensions between groups already wary of one another.

The nature and detail of these ads has troubled investigators at Facebook, on Capitol Hill and at the U.S. Justice Department, say people familiar with the advertisements who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share matters still under investigation.

The House and Senate Intelligence committees plan to begin reviewing the Facebook ads in coming weeks as they attempt to untangle the operation and other matters related to Russia’s bid to help elect Trump in 2016.

“Their aim was to sow chaos,” said Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), vice-chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “In many cases, it was more about voter suppression rather than increasing turnout.”

The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, said he hoped the public would be able to review the ad campaign.

“I think the American people should see a representative sample of these ads to see how cynical the Russian were using these ads to sow division within our society,” he said, noting that he had not yet seen the ads but had been briefed on them, including the ones mentioning “things like Black Lives Matter.”

The ads which Facebook found raise troubling questions for a social networking and advertising platform that reaches two billion people each month and offer a rare window into how Russian operatives carried out their information operations during an especially tumultuous period in U.S. politics.

Investigators at Facebook discovered the Russian ads in recent weeks, the company has said, after months of trying in vain to trace disinformation efforts back to Russia. The company has said it had identified at least $100,000 in ads purchased through 470 phony Facebook pages and accounts. Facebook has said this spending represented a tiny fraction of the political advertising on the platform for the 2016 campaign. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 September 2017 at 2:47 pm

Posted in Election, Technology

Jared and Ivanka both used private email servers for official business

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Lock ’em up!!

Jared. Ivanka.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 September 2017 at 2:42 pm

Mueller haunts the West Wing

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Mike Allen and Jonathan Swan write at Axios:

Steve Bannon provoked lots of chatter for telling Charlie Rose on “60 Minutes” that President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey may have been the worst mistake in “modern political history.”

What’s intriguing is the reason he said it: the belief of some close White House allies that special counsel Bob Mueller, whose appointment was triggered by Comey’s ouster, could use events surrounding the firing to make an obstruction of justice case against Trump.

There’s a good reason that Vice President Pence has hired a lawyer, Bannon freaked out about the decision, and Mueller plans to interview a slew of current and former West Wing aides: They were with Trump during those frantic days, and know what he was saying and what was on his mind.

White House aides with legal exposure to these events have quickly reached four conclusions, according to conversations with Jonathan Swan and me:

  1. Mueller is burrowing in hard on the obstruction of justice angle.
  2. The “angry, meandering” draft White House justification for firing Comey — which was never released, but obtained by Mueller — could be used as evidence of Trump’s unvarnished thinking when venting to staff.
  3. Legal fees, with white-collar attorneys charging $1,000 an hour, get cripplingly expensive pretty quick. Watch for outside legal defense funds to pop up quickly.
  4. The investigation’s financial dimensions are worrisome. The focus on Michael Cohen, a Trump lawyer and confidant whose business dealings are intertwined with the president’s, has been particularly troubling for those in Trump’s close orbit. Cohen dealt with some colorful characters. And when plans for the Trump Tower in Moscow are fully picked apart, other questionable Russian characters may be drawn in.

Republicans close to the White House say every sign by Mueller — from his hiring of Mafia and money-laundering experts to his aggressive pursuit of witnesses and evidence — is that he’s going for the kill.

  • The Wall Street Journal reports on the front page today that outside Trump lawyers “earlier this summer concluded that Jared Kushner should step down … because of possible legal complications … and aired concerns about him to the president.” Kushner has since defended himself on Capitol Hill.

Be smart: Trump allies fret that . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 September 2017 at 1:00 pm

The story behind the lyrics of “The Star-Spangled Banner”

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Full disclosure: Francis Scott Key, who wrote the lyrics, is like me an alumnus of St. John’s College in Annapolis MD.

Meg Fairfax Fielding posts on Facebook:

To everyone sharing the video about the national anthem, please be aware that there are numerous inaccuracies in it. Actually, most of the main facts are flat out wrong.

1. It was the War of 1812, not the Revolutionary War — there were 15 states, not 13 colonies.

2. There was no ultimatum to Baltimore, nor to the U.S., as this fellow describes it.

3. Key negotiated for the release of one man, Dr. Beanes. There was no brig full of U.S. prisoners.

4. It’s Fort McHenry, not “Henry.” The fort was named after James McHenry, a physician who was one of the foreign-born signers of the Constitution, who had assisted Generals Washington and Lafayette during the American Revolution, and who had served as Secretary of War to Presidents Washington and Adams.

5. Fort McHenry was a military institution, a fort defending Baltimore Harbor. It was not a refuge for women and children.

6. The nation would not have reverted to British rule had Fort McHenry fallen.

7. There were 50 ships, not hundreds. Most of them were rafts with guns on them. Baltimore Harbor is an arm of Chesapeake Bay; Fort McHenry is not on the ocean.

8. The battle started in daylight.

9. Bogus quote: George Washington never said “What sets the American Christian apart from all other people in this world is he will die on his feet before he will live on his knees.” Tough words. Spanish Civil War. Not George Washington. I particularly hate it when people make up stuff to put in the mouths of great men. Washington left his diaries and considerably more — we don’t have to make up inspiring stuff, and when we do, we get it wrong.

10. The battle was not over the flag; the British were trying to take Baltimore, one of America’s great ports. At this point, they rather needed to since the Baltimore militia had stunned and stopped the ground troops east of the city. There’s enough American bravery and pluck in this part of the story to merit no exaggerations.

11. To the best of our knowledge, the British did not specifically target the flag.

12. There were about 28 American casualties. Bodies of the dead were not used to hold up the flag pole — a 42 by 30 foot flag has to be on a well-anchored pole, not held up by a few dead bodies stacked around it.

And note that the lyrics explicitly celebrate the “free” (i.e., not slaves), and includes the lines:

No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave . . .

Written by LeisureGuy

25 September 2017 at 12:30 pm

Posted in Daily life

Tagged with

Starting-the-week shave: Edwin Jagger synthetic, D.R. Harris Lavender, iKon 102, and Alpa 378

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I need my tripod, but you get the idea.

The Edwin Jagger synthetic brush grows on me, and D.R. Harris shaving soap is excellent in any format. I note that the local water is very soft, good for shaving but probably not sufficient justification in itself for a move.

The iKon 102, partially shown in the photo, did its usual superb job, and a splash of Alpa 378 finished the shave in style.

Things are moving along as I continue to get oriented to the new surroundings and possibilities. Side bacon, something I never saw in the US, is pretty good. (See “Types of Bacon” for more info.)

Written by LeisureGuy

25 September 2017 at 8:08 am

Posted in Shaving

Workers Have Finally Caught Up to 1974

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Kevin Drum has a good post. From the post:

. . . This is what makes the whole “economic anxiety” interpretation of the 2016 election so peculiar. In 1992, workers had been getting stiffed for over a decade, and winning a campaign by appealing to this hardship made sense.

But in 2016? Wages have bounced around a bit, but basically workers have been making steady gains for over two decades. In particular, between 2012 and 2016 wages rose a healthy 1.35 percent per year—one of the country’s best 4-year periods since the late 60s—and the unemployment rate dropped more than three points. It’s easy to argue—and I do!—that worker gains should have been even higher, but it’s hard to argue that ordinary workers have been in such dire straits that they were willing to vote for anyone who promised to look out for them.

At the same time,  . . .

Read the whole thing.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 September 2017 at 3:33 pm

Trump seems to believe he can order people fired

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President Trump acts as though he somehow thinks he is king and can order sports teams to fire or suspend players and order news companies to fire individual commentators. This is not a good sign.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 September 2017 at 3:29 pm

This morning a shower before shaving, and a much better shave

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With new shower curtain installed, this morning I resumed my regular morning routine and showered before shaving, then using MR GLO at the sink. The lather was Nancy Boy Signature shaving cream, using the Wee Scot, and the razor was the wonderful Baili BR171, a $6 marvel. Three passes to perfection, and a splash of Alt-Innsbruck to top it off.

Canadians have more varieties of bacon: not only back bacon (“Canadian bacon” as it’s called in the US) and belly bacon (“bacon” as it’s called in the US), but also side bacon, which I cooked this morning: meat-to-fat ratio higher than belly bacon, and nicely chewy.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 September 2017 at 7:53 am

Posted in Food, Shaving

We have landed!

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Living in a bare apartment, but now have internet (more important than furniture). Molly survived the trip with some discomfort and seems to be somewhat stiff for now, having had low mobility for a week.

Long list of things to do and get, starting with shower curtains. No shower curtains = no shower before shave, and it turns out to make a highly noticeable difference: tougher stubble, despite pre-shave stubble wash with MR GLO and a good lather from the D.R. Harris Lavender shave stick, thanks to Wee Scot. I used a new blade in the Baby Smooth, and although I got a fine result—totally smooth with no nicks—there was noticeably more cutting resistance.

Still, a smooth shave is nothing to sneeze at, and a splash of Alt-Innsbruck made me eager to explore the new environs. And to buy a shower curtain.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 September 2017 at 8:05 am

Posted in Daily life, Shaving

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