Later On

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Archive for February 2018

Trump’s refusal to protect our election system suggests corrupt motives

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Jennifer Rubin writes in the Washington Post:

The Post reports:

For months, it’s been acknowledged — often quietly — that the Trump administration isn’t doing much to deter further Russian interference in U.S. elections. The Washington Post reported extensively in December about how President Trump doesn’t even like to talk about Russian interference — much less act to prevent it — and White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders struggled last week to name concrete steps he had taken.

But we may have just seen our most high-profile admission yet that the U.S. government is asleep at the wheel — from the government itself.

Adm. Michael S. Rogers, the head of the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command, made some pretty blunt statements Tuesday to the Senate Armed Services Committee. Rogers acknowledged that Russian President Vladimir Putin probably believes he’s paid “little price” for the interference and thus hasn’t stopped. He also said flatly that Trump has not granted him any new authorities to strike at Russian cyber-operations.

This was not new information, but it was delivered with extraordinary bluntness and a smidgen of frustration with Trump’s lack of urgency. (“When combined with his saying ‘we’re probably not doing enough’ and that Putin hasn’t paid enough of a price to change his behavior, it’s clear that Rogers sees something missing from the effort to prevent a repeat: willpower.”)

On the Senate floor today, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), the minority leader, blasted the president: “According to several reports, Kremlin-linked bots continue to stoke political divisions in the U.S. via misinformation on social media. . . . [Rogers] is absolutely right. It is extraordinary, confounding, and dangerous, how little the Trump Administration is doing about Putin’s campaign to undermine our grand democracy,” he said.

The Democratic leader continued:

“President Trump refused to punish Putin after he took office, despite the consensus view of 17 American Intelligence Agencies that Putin interfered in our elections. President Trump has still refused to fully implement the package of sanctions that passed by this Congress with only five dissenting votes combined between both House and Senate. . . .

A hostile foreign power interfered in our elections, continues to interfere with our democracy, and is planning to interfere in our next elections — and the president of the United States is hardly lifting a finger. It’s as if they were preparing for war and tanks were lining up or planes and we decided to do nothing. Cyberattacks, manipulation of news media is another way that hostile powers attack us.”

He concluded with this statement: “People have to wonder why President Trump is so soft on Russia, so unwilling to criticize President Putin, and so slow to stand up for America and protect our democracy.”

Actually, we need not wonder. Trump should provide an explanation. Congress — the four leaders in the House and Senate — can write a joint letter. They can, in the course of oversight, ask senior intelligence officials whether they have requested additional authority, and whether they can explain the president’s inactivity. And finally, the Senate can refuse to confirm additional nominees for national-security posts unless and until the president presents a complete plan to defend our election process and to root out Russian manipulation of social media.

Trump might have any number of reasons for refusing to proceed. First, he really, really doesn’t want to acknowledge just how much effort the Russians — on his behalf — have put in their plan to destabilize our democracy.

Second, he might fear Putin’s wrath, maybe a revelation of embarrassing information, if he acts to intensify sanctions or to address election interference. This would be consistent with the theory that there was either an explicit or implicit quid pro quo arrangement between Russia and the Trump team. Just to be clear, this has not yet be proven. However, sometimes the best evidence is the proverbial dog that does not bark.

Finally, it may be that Trump, fearing huge losses for the Republicans, shares Putin’s aim to cast doubt on the credibility of our elections. Perhaps he wants to sow doubt about the legitimacy of the Democratic victories he anticipates, thereby undermining the legitimacy of any Democrat-led impeachment proceeding. This would be a horrible repudiation of his oath of office, and a sign that he is sabotaging a core tenet of our democracy — free and fair elections — for personal gain. But let’s not forget he did precisely this during the run-up to the 2016 election, suggesting that if he lost he might not accept the results.

Maybe there are more benign explanations for Trump’s actions, but the onus is on him to explain why he’s neglecting his duties. And if there is  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

28 February 2018 at 4:56 pm

How ICE works to strip citizenship from naturalized American citizens

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Full disclosure: The Wife is a naturalized US citizen. Eoin Higgins reports in The Intercept:

FOR 10 YEARS, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s investigative office has worked to keep its internal handbook out of American courts. The handbook could have been used in court to show how ICE’s push to lead on denaturalization cases stands in contrast to the language of federal law governing the process, an immigration lawyer said. “We could have used it as an exhibit in a motion to dismiss” in previous denaturalization cases, said Philip Smith, an immigration attorney from Portland, Oregon, noting the contrast.

The handbook, which was issued on January 15, 2008, and published Wednesday by the independent media outlet Unicorn Riot, makes clear that the priority for ICE’s investigative division, Homeland Security Investigations, or HSI, in denaturalization proceedings is to use the most efficient means possible to fulfill a single-minded goal: leveraging the bureaucratic process to strip citizenship from naturalized Americans.

“It’s a manual for the worst outcome” with respect to investigation targets, said Alaska immigration lawyer Margaret Stock in an interview on Tuesday. That’s not unique to ICE, Stock added — it’s how the entire U.S. justice system operates. “Their objective is to inflict the most pain as possible, as efficiently as possible,” Stock said. “They feel they’re doing their job correctly if the government wins — not if justice is done.”

The 20-page manual instructs agents on the particulars of denaturalization investigations. Documents obtained by the Freedom of Information Act-driven clearinghouse Government Attic indicate that the denaturalization investigations handbook was used through at least 2016; the handbook appears in the table of contents for HSI’s 2016 Special Agent’s Manual, sandwiched between chapters on cybercrime and fraud. “There’s no reason to believe the document is not authentic,” said Matthew Bourke, a public affairs officer with ICE. “ICE-HSI does manage a special agent handbook on denaturalization investigations.”

Last year, The Intercept obtained and reported on HSI’s guidelines for asset forfeiture.

The denaturalization handbook shows how the federal government pursues denaturalization against naturalized citizens and has instructions on how to prosecute cases efficiently to strip citizenship as quickly as possible.

Smith, the immigration lawyer, said the language of the manual — where ICE plays a chief role in pushing denaturalization — stands in contrast to the civil statute that allows for stripping Americans’ citizenship. “It shall be the duty of the United States attorneys for the respective districts, upon affidavit showing good cause therefor, to institute proceedings in any district court of the United States in the judicial district in which the naturalized citizen may reside at the time of bringing suit,” the statute reads.

The handbook, said Smith, shows how ICE is taking the power of instituting procedures away from federal prosecutors assigned to those geographic areas. “We believe Congress meant to have the case evaluated by prosecutors in the jurisdiction, the community,” Smith said. ICE declined to respond on the purported disconnect between its manual’s emphasis on ICE-led denaturalization, and the statute’s emphasis on letting federal prosecutors take the lead.

DESPITE THE NATIONAL debates that have arisen with President Donald Trump’s approach to immigration, denaturalization receives scant attention. It’s one of the many tools available to the immigration enforcement bureaucracy, but because it strips citizenship through a slow and deliberative process — and not the surprise raids by armored law enforcement officers — denaturalization isn’t synonymous with much of the reporting around ICE’s behavior.

Foreign nationals can become naturalized citizens through processes defined by the Immigration and Nationality Act. The prerequisites include filling out a number of forms, proving good moral character, passing a citizenship test, and other requirements. “In general,” the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ Policy Manual Citizenship and Naturalization Guidance reads, “an applicant files a naturalization application and then USCIS grants citizenship after adjudicating the application.”

Denaturalization uses case law and the bureaucratic process to methodically take that citizenship away and then, when possible, deport those whose status has been reverted to that of a visa holder. As a tactic, denaturalization is often politically motivated, said Stock, and targeted toward particular nationalities. “You don’t see a lot of, say, Canadians or Brits being denaturalized,” said Stock. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

28 February 2018 at 4:53 pm

How Defective Guns Became the Only Product That Can’t Be Recalled

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The subhead:

Taurus sold almost a million handguns that can potentially fire without anyone pulling the trigger. The government won’t fix the problem. The NRA is silent.

Michael Smith and Polly Moldenz write in Bloomberg:

Thomas “Bud” Brown makes his way out the back door and stops a few steps to the right, raising a trembling arm, pointing at something. It’s where he found his boy slumped against the cold back wall of the house around 7:15 a.m. on the last day of 2016, bleeding out.

Brown is telling the story now, about how he was sitting in his chair in the living room when he heard the shot. His son Jarred, 28, had just picked up Bud’s Taurus PT-145 Millennium Pro pistol and headed out to do some shooting near the house in Griffin, Ga., with his best friend, Tyler Haney. Bud figured Jarred had fired at something for the fun of it, like he did sometimes. “I was thinking I’d better go out there and tell him to be careful or something,” Bud, 54, says, his voice trailing off. But what he’d heard was the pistol going off without anyone pulling the trigger, sending a .45-caliber slug through Jarred’s femoral artery. “Oh shit, my leg, my leg,” Jarred yelled, loud enough for his father to hear. Haney, 26, rushed into the house in a panic, pleading for help. When Bud got out there, the pistol was still in the holster, tucked into Jarred’s waistband.

The rest is a blur for Bud. His wife, Sonie, recalls running out of the house in her nightgown. She’d grown close to Jarred since he moved into their home a year or so earlier, taking him to the stables to feed her two horses, cooking for him, and just talking with him. And now Jarred was on the ground, his father kneeling over him, applying pressure to the wound. Sonie wrapped Jarred’s belt around his leg as a tourniquet. It was hard to tell how bad the bleeding was because Jarred was wearing thick waterproof hunting pants. Sonie worked on Jarred, alternating between chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth, using the training she’d gotten during a career as a Georgia state parole and probation officer. Haney paced back and forth until Sonie ordered him to call 911. “Jarred was trying to say something, but then the words wouldn’t come out, and he stared,” Sonie says. By the time paramedics got there, she knew her stepson was gone. “I wasn’t going to say anything, because Bud was so torn up, but I knew,” she recalls today. “I can still taste the cigarettes on his breath.”

In the days after his son’s death, Brown couldn’t get his head around how that Taurus pistol went off. He’d spent his career in law enforcement, first as a Spalding County Sheriff’s Department deputy, then as a cop in Jackson, a little town nearby, and finally with a Drug Enforcement Administration task force in Macon. (He retired 10 years ago before having surgery to remove a softball-size cancerous tumor from his esophagus.) For years, Brown was a police shooting instructor. He started teaching Jarred how to shoot with a .22 rifle when he was 7 and drilled safety into his head on hunting trips and at the shooting range.

Sonie also knows guns, down to the .38 revolver she’s licensed to use and carry in her purse for work as a probation officer. Sonie and Bud have 12 firearms in their small brick home—seven rifles and five handguns—and Bud is a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association. The Browns refused to accept that Jarred had accidentally shot himself. “Jarred knew his way around guns and safety better than I did,” Bud says. “He never would have done anything that would have made that gun go off.”

Those doubts were gnawing at Haney, too. He watched Jarred come out of the house with the Taurus safely in a holster and swears his best friend didn’t touch the pistol when it fired. “I knew there was something wrong with that gun,” Haney says. “So I Googled it.” He found a curious announcement on Taurus’s website: The company was offering to fix or replace nine of its handguns. The pistol that killed his friend was on the list.

Haney kept Googling. He learned that the repair-or-replace offer was the result of the 2016 settlement of a class-action lawsuit brought by Chris Carter, a deputy in the Scott County, Iowa, sheriff’s department, against Brazilian gunmaker Forjas Taurus SA and two of its Florida-based units. In July 2013, Carter’s suit claimed, he was running down a suspected drug dealer when his Taurus PT-140 Millennium Pro pistol fell out of the holster at his hip, hit the ground, and fired, sending a slug into a nearby car. The suit further asserted that because of defects of design and manufacturing, nine different models of Taurus handguns can fire unintentionally when bumped or dropped or when the safety is on and the trigger is pulled. Taurus agreed to repair or buy back, for as much as $200, any of those models owned by people in the U.S. and its territories—an estimated 955,796 guns, according to the settlement. (The cut-off date for the offer was Feb. 6.) The company denied any negligence, wrongdoing, or defects in its firearms and also denied that its offer to fix its guns was a recall.

Haney sat Jarred’s dad and stepmother down in their living room to show them what he’d found. Sonie took down the name and number of Todd Wheeles, a state trooper turned lawyer in Birmingham, Ala., who’s handled 16 lawsuits against Taurus, including the class action in Iowa.

Two days later, Wheeles and another Birmingham lawyer, David Selby, were sitting at the Browns’ kitchen table. Wheeles showed them how the Taurus gun that killed Jarred would fire, even with the safety on. “In about 10 seconds he showed us three different ways that gun could go off on its own,” Sonie says.

Bud couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He’d never heard of any problem with Taurus guns. He never saw a notice at the pawnshop where he paid $250 for the gun that killed Jarred or at Walmart when he bought his ammunition. Before the kitchen table meeting was over, the Browns had hired Wheeles and Selby to sue Taurus for negligence and manufacturing defects. “I couldn’t believe that no one had warned us that those guns were bad,” Bud says. “Why didn’t Taurus warn us? Why did the government let them sell those guns?”

The simple answer is that no government entity has the power to police defective firearms or ammunition in America—or even force gunmakers to warn consumers. The Consumer Product Safety Commission can order the recall and repair of thousands of things, from toasters to teddy bears. If a defective car needs fixing, the U.S. Department of Transportation can make it happen. The Food and Drug Administration deals with food, drugs, and cosmetics. Only one product is beyond the government’s reach when it comes to defects and safety: firearms. Not even the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives can get defective guns off the market. If a gunmaker chooses to ignore a safety concern, there’s no one to stop it.

To understand how firearms makers escaped government oversight of the safety of their pistols, revolvers, and rifles, you need to go back to 1972, when Congress created the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Four years earlier, President Lyndon B. Johnson had signed the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, which regulated several aspects of firearm sales, and advocates of gun control hoped to give this new agency oversight of defective weapons. Representative John Dingell, a Democrat from Michigan and a hunter with an A-plus rating from the ascendant NRA, blocked them. In 1975 he did it again, when a colleague introduced a bill making a second run at giving the CPSC firearms authority. “We put in there an express prohibition against them getting their nose into the business of regulating firearms and ammunition,” Dingell said in debate in Congress. That second bill was crushed, 339-80, and the issue has never been seriously considered again. . .

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Written by Leisureguy

28 February 2018 at 1:08 pm

Trump: Investigate the FBI, not the Russians

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President Trump is failing—utterly—in his duty to protect the US and the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Kevin Drum points out two things that make one consider why Trump avoids confronting Russia:

Inae Oh passes along the testimony of Admiral Mike Rogers, head of the NSA, on whether anyone has asked him to fight back against Russian election meddling:

In a response to questioning by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Rogers said “I believe that President Putin has clearly come to the conclusion that there’s little price to pay here…and that therefore I can continue this activity.”…Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) asked Rogers whether he had received orders to go after the Russian meddling operation where it originated: “Have you been directed to do so given the strategic threat that faces the United States and the significant consequences you recognize already?”

“No I have not,” Rogers responded.

Here is Rogers’ boss today:

Is Trump concerned about the Russian hacks? No he is not. He’s concerned that the FBI is trying too hard to investigate the Russian hacks. He’s concerned that the FBI is interested in a guy who was explicitly recruited by the Russians a few years ago. He’s concerned with “potentially massive FISA abuse” by the FBI when they requested a wiretap on this guy.

There was, of course, no FISA abuse. It’s an entirely invented conspiracy theory. But Trump still wants that fake scandal investigated, and not just by some powerless inspector general. He wants it investigated using DOJ lawyers with the power to prosecute. And he’s once again pissed off at his own attorney general for not being enough of a lackey.

So it’s not surprising that Rogers has gotten no orders to do anything about the Russians. After all, who knows just what skullduggery that might accidentally uncover? It’s the last thing in the world that Trump wants.

Written by Leisureguy

28 February 2018 at 11:26 am

Did Homo erectus speak?

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Daniel Everett, dean of arts and sciences and professor of global studies and professor of sociology at Bentley University in Massachusetts, has an interesting article in Aeon, which I imagine is an extract from his latest book, How Language Began. The article begins:

What is the greatest human technological innovation? Fire? The wheel? Penicillin? Clothes? Google? None of these come close. As you read this, you are using the winning technology. The greatest tool in the world is language. Without it there would be no culture, no literature, no science, no history, no commercial enterprise or industry. The genus Homo rules the Earth because it possesses language. But how and when did we build this kingdom of speech? And who is ‘we’? After all, Homo sapiens is just one of several species of humans that have walked the Earth. Does ‘we’ refer to our genus, Homo, or to our species, sapiens?

To discover the answers to these questions, we need to travel back in time at least 1.9 million years ago to the birth of Homo erectus, as they emerged from the ancient process of primate evolution. Erectus had nearly double the brain size of any previous hominin, walked habitually upright, were superb hunters, travelled the world, and sailed to ocean islands. And somewhere along the way they got language. Yes, erectus. Not Neanderthals. Not sapiens. And if erectus invented language, this means that Neanderthals, born more than a million years later, entered a world already linguistic.

Likewise, our species would have emerged into a world that already had language. In spite of the fact that many paleoanthropologists view erectus as little more than a skinny gorilla, of few accomplishments, far too stupid to have language, and lacking a vocal apparatus capable of intelligible speech, the evidence seems overwhelming that they had language. Erectus needed language. They were capable of language. And, though often denied in evolutionary studies, the ‘leap’ to language was little more than a long series of baby steps, requiring no mutations, nor any complex grammar. In fact, the language of erectus would have been every bit as much a ‘real language’ as any modern language.

Erectus was an imposing creature. Males stood between 173 cm (5′ 8″) and 180 cm (5′ 11″). Their immediate ancestors, the Australopithecine males, were only about 137 cm (4′ 6″) tall (their immediate ancestors might have been Homo habilis, but only if we accept that habilis were not Australopithecines, or that they were a separate species from Homo erectus, neither of which is clear). The brains of these early humans averaged around 950 cubic centimetres in volume, double the size of the Australopithecines, though smaller than those of male Neanderthals (1,450 ccs) and sapiens (1,250-1,300 ccs), but still within the range of modern sapiens females. The vocal apparatus of erectus might not have been much more advanced than that of a modern gorilla or it might have been more similar to ours. But whether their speech sounded different than ours or not, it was nevertheless adequate for language.

Evidence that erectus had language comes from their settlements, their art, their symbols, their sailing ability and their tools. Erectus settlements are found throughout most of the old world. And, most importantly for the idea that erectus had language, open oceans were not barriers to their travel.

Erectus settlements show evidence of culture – values, knowledge structures and social structure. This evidence is important because all these elements enhance each other. Evidence from the erectus settlement studied at Gesher Benot Ya’aqov in Israel, for example, suggests not only that erectus controlled fire but that their settlements were planned. One area was used for plant-food processing, another for animal-material processing, and yet another for communal life. Erectus, incredibly, also made sea craft. Sea travel is the only way to explain the island settlements of Wallacea (Indonesia), Crete and, in the Arabian Sea, Socotra. None of these were accessible to erectus except by crossing open ocean, then and now. These island cultural sites demonstrate that erectus was capable of constructing seaworthy crafts capable of carrying 20 people or more. According to most archaeologists, 20 individuals would have been the minimum required to found the settlements discovered.

Because the stone tools of erectus were simple and slow to evolve, some have rushed to conclude that they lacked intelligence for language. But stone-cutting implements are simply not the whole story. The evidence for erectusisland settlements means that they built water-transport craft. Erectus seem to have had art as well, as exemplified in the 250,000-year-old Venus of Berekhat Ram.

Further, archaeologists have discovered 400,000-year-old wooden thrusting and throwing spears in lower Saxony (called the ‘Schöningen spears’), which suggest a robust hunting culture. Thrusting spears, for example, require at least one member of a group to get close enough to the prey, such as mastodons, to pierce them with the weapon. Hunting culture entails cooperation and planning with others. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

28 February 2018 at 11:19 am

Posted in Evolution, Science

NBC’s questioning of Ivanka Trump was more than appropriate—it should be just the start.

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Margaret Sullivan was the best Public Editor the NY Times ever had. She listened to readers and bedeviled editors and journalists when they strayed into slackness. She now works for the Washington Post as their media columnist, and her report today is spot-on:

In the Harry Potter books, there was the evil Lord Voldemort — “he who must not be named.”

In Donald Trump’s world, there are Ivanka Trump and John F. Kelly — they who must not be questioned.

The operative word in this latter world, we learn, is “inappropriate.”

“I think it’s a pretty inappropriate question to ask a daughter if she believes the accusers of her father when he’s affirmatively stated that there’s no truth to it,” Ivanka Trump said, scolding the NBC News correspondent Peter Alexander in an interview on “Today.”

Alexander wanted to know whether the women who have accused the president of sexual misconduct should be believed.

After all, Ivanka Trump bills herself as a champion of women and is a close adviser to her father and a frequent representative of the United States abroad.

Uncomfortable, yes. Inappropriate, no. (And yes, I thought a similar question to Chelsea Clinton about her father’s accusers during the 2016 presidential campaign was fair game, even though — unlike Ivanka Trump — she was not a government representative.)

The Ivanka Trump episode echoed White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s response to journalists about Kelly, the White House chief of staff, last October. Kelly got the facts wrong — or lied, if you will — when he tried to discredit Rep. Frederica S. Wilson, a Florida Democrat who had criticized the president for the insensitive way he spoke to a soldier’s widow in a condolence phone call.

“If you want to go after General Kelly, that’s up to you, but I think that — if you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that’s something highly inappropriate,” Sanders said.

There’s that word again.

Sorry, but being a first daughter, or a general, doesn’t let anyone off the hook here.

The question to Ivanka Trump might have been inappropriate if she had no role in government or no voice on women’s issues, but that’s far from the case.

As for Kelly, Sanders’s claim was silly on its face, and merely a way to avoid the real question — a perfectly legitimate one.

Far from backing off, journalists should hone their questioning skills and find new ways to pin down this particularly slippery administration.

“The immediate news cycle rewards speed, but the most effective questions require an almost lawyerly precision, along with careful honing and preparation,” said Frank Sesno, author of “Ask More: The Power of Questions to Open Doors, Uncover Solutions, and Spark Change” and the director of the journalism school at George Washington University.

Sesno added, “Especially with this coached class of public officials, every question has to be outcome-driven — strategic about what you are looking for.”

We need more of that.

Journalists have pretty much given up on asking about President Trump’s tax returns, for example — a matter of great public interest.

Is there a better way to ask?

Instead of questioning Trump — or his spokeswoman — on when he’s going to release his returns or if he’s ever going to release them, what if the query went something like this: “Do you think Americans are entitled to know how tax reform has affected you personally and how it affects your businesses?”

What if, instead of merely fact-checking Trump or tallying up his false statements, he — or his spokeswoman — were asked about them directly:

“Fact-checkers have found more than a thousand examples of your saying things that are simply untrue. These are often simple matters of fact, for example, your repeated statements that the United States is the highest-taxed nation in the world. Why do you — or why does the president — say so many things that aren’t true?” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

28 February 2018 at 9:20 am

Simpson Duke 3, The Dead Sea, ATT R1, and Barrister & Mann Classic

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Yesterday’s Himalayan Heights included Himalayan salt as an ingredient, so that reminded me of the Dead Sea, a very nice shaving soap. As noted previously, this soap does not tolerate a wet brush, so after wetting the Duke 3 Best, I gave it three good shakes, which turned out to be a little too much. I dipped the tip of the brush into water and resumed loading and that worked well.

Once I had applied a layer of soap over all my beard, I ran a driblet of water into the center of the brush and immediately worked up a very nice lather—and I do like the fragrance of this soap.

I’ve not used my Above the Tie R1 for a while, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. In my list of favorite DE razors, I ended the list at $100, but if I had increased the limit to $200, the ATT R1 would definitely have a place on the list. Three comfortable passes without a problem produced a totally smooth result.

A good splash of Barrister & Mann Reserve Classic, and we’re already at the middle of the week.

Written by Leisureguy

28 February 2018 at 8:57 am

Posted in Shaving

Despicable: Ben Carson’s HUD, Planning Cuts, Spends $31,000 on Dining Set for His Office

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“Misplaced priorities” doesn’t touch it. Glenn Thrush reports in the NY Times:

Department of Housing and Urban Development officials spent $31,000 on a new dining room set for Secretary Ben Carson’s office in late 2017 — just as the White House circulated its plans to slash HUD’s programs for the homeless, elderly and poor, according to federal procurement records.

The purchase of the custom hardwood table, chairs and hutch came a month after a top agency staff member filed a whistle-blower complaint charging Mr. Carson’s wife, Candy Carson, with pressuring department officials to find money for the expensive redecoration of his offices, even if it meant circumventing the law.

Mr. Carson is also facing questions on another front. Under pressure earlier this month, he requested that HUD’s inspector general investigate his son’s involvement in a department-sponsored listening tour of Baltimore last summer. Department lawyers had warned Mr. Carson that including Ben Carson Jr., an entrepreneur who does business with the federal government, could create a conflict of interest.

Mr. Carson “didn’t know the table had been purchased,” but does not believe the cost was too steep and does not intend to return it, said Raffi Williams, a HUD spokesman.

“In general, the secretary does want to be as fiscally prudent as possible with the taxpayers’ money,” he added.

Department officials did not request approval from the House or Senate Appropriations Committees for the expenditure of $31,561, even though federal law requires congressional approval “to furnish or redecorate the office of a department head” if the cost exceeds $5,000.

Continue reading the main story

Mr. Williams said department officials did not request congressional approval because the dining set served a “building-wide need.” The table is inside the secretary’s 10th-floor office suite.

The decision was made by a “career staffer” who selected the company, Sebree and Associates, which is based in Mr. Carson’s longtime hometown, Baltimore, from a list of preapproved federal contractors, Mr. Williams said.

Neither Mr. Carson nor his wife — who expressed a strong interest in sprucing up the drab, wood-paneled, 1960s-era secretary’s suite, according to several current and former department staff members — requested that the 50-year-old table be replaced, Mr. Williams said.

But he had remarked how the previous table was covered in scratches, scuff marks and cracks. Mr. Williams emailed several pictures of the old table, which looks polished and not visibly scarred, during events held by Mr. Carson’s predecessor, Julián Castro.

The new table, listed as “household furniture” in federal procurement documents, has not yet arrived.

About a month before it was ordered, Helen G. Foster, a former top HUD official, filed a complaint with the Office of Special Counsel, a federal whistle-blower agency, claiming that she had been demoted and transferred after resisting Mrs. Carson’s attempts to get around the $5,000 redecoration law.

The pressure began in January 2017, before Mr. Carson was even confirmed, when HUD’s interim secretary, Craig Clemmensen, told Mrs. Foster to help secure redecorating funds for Mrs. Carson, a frequent visitor to the department’s Washington headquarters who serves as an informal adviser to her husband, the complaint said.

Mr. Clemmensen, acting on Mrs. Carson’s behalf, told Mrs. Foster to “find money” to purchase better furniture for the office — and he quipped that “$5,000 will not even buy a decent chair,” according to the complaint, which was reported by The Guardian newspaper.

Mrs. Foster refused to comply, and said she then sent HUD officials the text of the law requiring congressional approval for the purchases. After she was removed from her position as the department’s chief administrative officer, she was made head of the agency’s unit overseeing Freedom of Information Act requests, which she viewed as an act of retribution. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

27 February 2018 at 3:38 pm

Good example of government agency being more efficient than private corporations: Boston’s Airport Bounced Back From the Storm That Crippled J.F.K.

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Patrick McGeehan reports in the NY Times:

The winter storm that caused chaos at Kennedy International Airport in January roared up the Eastern Seaboard, dumping more than a foot of snow on Boston Logan International Airport and sending water from Boston Harbor flooding onto the airport’s grounds.

The high winds and swirling snow caused Logan, like Kennedy, to shut down for nearly an entire day. But Logan reopened the next morning and operated normally through the weekend — except for having to accommodate six planeloads of passengers diverted there from Kennedy, which remained paralyzed.

The first storm of 2018 created such a disaster at Kennedy that a former federal transportation secretary is investigating all that went wrong. At Boston’s international airport, the storm was a one-day event soon to be forgotten.

At Logan, there were no inbound planes stranded on the tarmac for hours, helpless and awaiting rescue. No scheduled overseas arrivals had to turn around in the air or reroute to other airports. Hordes of travelers were not separated from their luggage for days or weeks.

Why were the experiences at these two major American airports, separated by only about 200 miles, so dramatically different? The answer may be that, though both airports are run by public authorities, they are managed in far disparate ways. At Logan, the Massachusetts Port Authority, known as Massport, maintains near-complete control; at Kennedy, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has shifted much of the management of its terminals to airlines and other private companies, leaving the bulk of the responsibility for dealing with emergencies out of the agency’s hands.

The contrasting approach is evident at a daily gathering in a packed room tucked into one of Logan’s four terminals. Every morning, dozens of airport officials meet there with representatives of airlines and a roster of state and federal agencies to share information that might affect operations: everything from the weather to runway maintenance.

Each of the airport’s 43 airlines has customers to serve and a schedule to keep, but there is no doubt who has the ultimate authority. Ed Freni, the director of aviation for Massport, leads the meetings. Each of the four terminals at Logan has its own manager who reports to Mr. Freni.

“Ask anyone at the airport who’s in charge, they’ll say Ed Freni,” said Thomas P. Glynn, the chief executive of Massport.

The daily meetings also foster a spirit of cooperation among airlines that are typically the fiercest of rivals, said Norbert P. Strissel, director of airport operations at Logan for JetBlue Airways. An airline will make one of its gates available to a competitor in a pinch, especially if it is in danger of violating the time limit for keeping passengers in a plane on the ground, Mr. Strissel said at a recent meeting.

“We’ve been in that situation in years past, as well as other carriers here at Logan,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, we’re saying go ahead and get that plane to a gate and at least get the customers off of it.”

That is not what happened at Kennedy on the first weekend in January.

Some passengers on a flight from France that landed late on Jan. 5 said they were still aboard when dawn broke the next morning, more than a full day after the storm had swept through the New York area. It was one of several international flights that landed and could not find a gate for hours.

The storm, which had been described as a bomb cyclone, dropped several inches of snow at Kennedy, but the runways had been cleared by Friday morning. Removing the snow was the Port Authority’s business. But sorting out the growing chaos in Terminal 1 was not.

Under Kennedy’s operating model, management of just about everything that happens inside the six terminals is left to the tenants, either airlines that have their own terminals or companies that manage terminals occupied by several airlines. Terminal 1 at Kennedy handles 21 foreign airlines but is operated by a consortium consisting of four of them: Air France, Japan Airlines, Korean Air and Lufthansa.

After the airport reopened on that Friday, the airlines, eager to deliver their delayed and detoured passengers to New York, started sending flights to Kennedy. It was up to the terminal’s managers to schedule access to its 11 gates, but they were quickly overwhelmed by the influx of jets.

The experience of Aeroflot, the Russian airline and a tenant at Terminal 1, illustrates how dysfunctional the situation became.  . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

27 February 2018 at 3:21 pm

Posted in Business, Government

Wow: Foreign officials have discussed manipulating White House adviser Jared Kushner via his business arrangements, U.S. officials say

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Shane Harris, Carol D. Leonnig, Greg Jaffe, and Josh Dawsey have a blockbuster report in the Washington Post. Add to this the fact that President Trump has done NOTHING to protect the US against future Russian cyberwarfare and disinformation campaigns in US elections, and it seems that the US is becoming functionally weak at the highest levels. This new report begins:

Officials in at least four countries have privately discussed ways they can manipulate Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, by taking advantage of his complex business arrangements, financial difficulties and lack of foreign policy experience, according to current and former U.S. officials familiar with intelligence reports on the matter.

Among those nations discussing ways to influence Kushner to their advantage were the United Arab Emirates, China, Israel and Mexico, the current and former officials said.

It is unclear if any of those countries acted on the discussions, but Kushner’s contacts with certain foreign government officials have raised concerns inside the White House and are a reason he has been unable to obtain a permanent security clearance, the officials said.

Kushner’s interim security clearance was downgraded last week from the top-secret to the secret level, which should restrict the regular access he has had to highly-classified information, according to administration officials.

H.R. McMaster, President Trump’s national security adviser, learned that Kushner had contacts with foreign officials that he did not coordinate through the National Security Council or officially report. The issue of foreign officials talking about their meetings with Kushner and their perception of his vulnerabilities was a subject raised in McMaster’s daily intelligence briefings, according to the current and former officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

Within the White House, Kushner’s lack of government experience and his business debt were seen from the beginning of his tenure as potential points of leverage that foreign governments could use to influence him, the current and former officials said.

They could also have legal implications. Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has asked people about the protocols Kushner used when he set up conversations with foreign leaders, according to a former U.S. official.

Officials in the White House were concerned that Kushner was “naive and being tricked” in conversations with foreign officials, some of whom said they wanted to deal only with Kushner directly and not more experienced personnel, said one former White House official.

Kushner has an unusually complex set of business arrangements and foreign entanglements for a senior White House aide, experts have said. But his behavior while in office has only drawn more scrutiny and raised concerns that he would be unable to obtain a final security clearance, which he needs to perform the many jobs Trump has entrusted to him, from negotiating foreign trade deals to overseeing a Middle East peace process.

“We will not respond substantively to unnamed sources peddling second-hand hearsay with rank speculation that continue to leak inaccurate information,” said Peter Mirijanian, a spokesman for Kushner’s lawyer.

White House officials said McMaster was taken aback by some of Kushner’s foreign contacts.

“When he learned about it, it surprised him,” one official said. “He thought that was weird…It was an unusual thing. I don’t know that any White House has done it this way before.”

The official said that McMaster was “not concerned but wanted an explanation. It seemed unusual to him.”

In the months since, McMaster and Kushner have worked to coordinate so that the National Security Council is aware of Kushner’s contacts with foreign officials and so Kushner has access to the council’s country experts to prepare for meetings. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

27 February 2018 at 2:33 pm

The impact of a free press and good investigative journalism: Top Lawmakers Call for Investigation of DEA-Led Unit in Mexico

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Ginger Thompson reports in ProPublica:

Powerful Democrats in both the House and Senate called Tuesday for an investigation into Drug Enforcement Administration-led operations in Mexico that played a role in triggering violent drug cartel attacks. These attacks left dozens, possibly hundreds, of people dead or missing, including many who had nothing to do with the drug trade.

The call was issued in a letter signed by ranking members of the committees that oversee America’s foreign law enforcement operations and draws heavily on two stories last year by ProPublica and National Geographic that documented the attacks and the DEA’s role. One storyreconstructed a 2011 massacre by the Zetas cartel in the Mexican state of Coahuila. It revealed that the wave of killings was unleashed after sensitive information obtained during a DEA operation wound up in the hands of cartel leaders, who ordered a wave of retaliation against suspected traitors.

second story investigated a 2010 cartel attack on a Holiday Inn in Monterrey, Mexico, and found that it, too, was linked to a DEA surveillance operation. Four hotel guests and a hotel clerk, none of whom were involved with the drug trade, were kidnapped and never seen again.

In both cases, the DEA never revealed its involvement or helped in the investigation of the slaughter of Mexican citizens. Until contacted by ProPublica, the family members of the victims never knew why their loved ones had been targeted.

Both operations involved a Mexican federal police unit that is specially trained and vetted by the DEA to work with U.S. law enforcement. ProPublica’s reporting found that despite that scrutiny, the Sensitive Investigative Unit had a record of leaking information to violent and powerful drug traffickers. The DEA, ProPublica found, had long been aware of this corruption and failed to address it, even when innocent lives were lost. The agency has similar units in 12 other countries.

“These operations raise serious questions about the practices of DEA-trained and funded SIU’s,” the congressional letter said, “and point to the need for greater accountability for these vetted units.”

The letter was signed by Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, who has long pursued accountability for the DEA’s operations abroad, as well as Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and one of the country’s leading authorities on national security matters, Rep. Eliot L. Engel, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the leading Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee. The two representatives are from New York, and their committees oversee the State and Justice departments.

The legislators asked the inspectors general at the Justice and State departments to investigate the attacks in Monterrey and Coahuila, as well as the DEA’s overall work with vetted units. They asked eight detailed questions about the two deadly incidents, including  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

27 February 2018 at 1:59 pm

Distraction as a tactic in the school shooting debat

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A friend sent me an email, which he says he cobbled together from various sources:

The proposal to arm teachers is a classic example of agenda-setting by the NRA, and it is having its intended effect.  While some NRA leaders (and the President) may actually favor arming teachers, that is far from the purpose of the proposal.  The proposal is designed to redirect attention away from gun control policies that the NRA opposes.

Modern propaganda has become far more sophisticated than most citizens realize.  Trump himself–whether by a kind of intuitive cunning or by design–has perfected agenda-setting techniques.  Agenda setting preys upon a population that has been shaped by modern media in negative ways that we are only now beginning to understand.  The so-called “liberal” networks are just as easy to manipulate in this way as the conservative press.  See for example this Vox article on how MSNBC and CNN focused most of their coverage on arming teachers–even if it was negative coverage of the proposal: MSNBC and CNN took the NRA’s bait on arming teachers

Manipulators of the media hardly care if their bombshells and tweets are serious, likable, or even in conformity with their own ideology.  What counts is that they absorb the public space so that opposing ideas have no opportunity to gain a foothold.  In this case, every moment discussing the pros and cons of teachers carrying arms is a moment spent on the NRA agenda and not on the agenda of gun control advocates.

The focus on mental health is a similar NRA agenda-setting technique, and one that is insidious because most liberals who support gun control really do care about improving mental health care.  But see this article, for example, to get an idea of how a focus on the role of mental health in gun violence drastically distorts the issues and improperly stigmatizes mentally ill people as violent: “Mass Shootings and Mental Illness” (PDF).

The PDF begins with a list of misconceptions followed by a list of facts:

Common Misperceptions

  • Mass shootings by people with serious mental illness represent the most significant relationship between gun violence and mental illness.
  • People with serious mental illness should be considered dangerous.
  • Gun laws focusing on people with mental illness or with a psychiatric diagnosis can effectively prevent mass shootings.
  • Gun laws focusing on people with mental illness or a psychiatric diagnosis are reasonable, even if they add to the stigma already associated with mental illness.

Evidence-Based Facts

  • Mass shootings by people with serious mental illness represent less than 1% of all yearly gun-related homicides. In contrast, deaths by suicide using firearms account for the majority of yearly gun-related deaths.
  • The overall contribution of people with serious mental illness to violent crimes is only about 3%. When these crimes are examined in detail, an even smaller percentage of them are found to involve firearms.
  • Laws intended to reduce gun violence that focus on a population representing less than 3% of all gun violence will be extremely low yield, ineffective, and wasteful of scarce resources. Perpetrators of mass shootings are unlikely to have a history of involuntary psychiatric hospitalization. Thus, databases intended to restrict access to guns and established by guns laws that broadly target people with mental illness will not capture this group of individuals.
  • Gun restriction laws focusing on people with mental illness perpetuate the myth that mental illness leads to violence, as well as the misperception that gun violence and mental illness are strongly linked. Stigma represents a major barrier to access and treatment of mental illness, which in turn increases the public health burden.

There’s a lot more in that paper. The above is just the introduction.

Written by Leisureguy

27 February 2018 at 1:35 pm

If You Want to Know How to Stop School Shootings, Ask the Secret Service

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Jeff Daniels writes in Scientific American:

While President Donald Trump has not shied away from offering suggestions on how to prevent school shootings—including one controversial idea to arm teachers—what often gets overlooked in the conversation is research on the subject that has already been done.

This research includes one major study of school shootings conducted in part by the very agency charged with protecting the president of the United States himself—the U.S. Secret Service.

Has this research been ignored or just forgotten? I raise the question as one who has studied averted school shootings and the news coverage that followed.

Two months after the Columbine tragedy in 1999, experts from the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Secret Service collaborated to study the “school shooter” phenomenon. They published the study on their findings in 2002. The study focused on examining the thinking, planning and other behaviors of students who carried out school attacks. Particular attention was given to identifying pre-attack behaviors and communications that might be detectable—or “knowable”—and could help prevent future attacks.

The team studied 37 school shootings involving 41 attackers that took place from December 1974 through May 2000. Data included investigative, school, court and mental health records. In addition, 10 school shooters were interviewed to gain their perspectives from “conceptualization to execution” of the attacks. A series of findings emerged. In light of the Florida school shooting massacre and the fact that the alleged shooter drew a lot of attention prior to carrying out the shooting, those findings bear repeating here.

  1. “Incidents of targeted violence at school rarely were sudden, impulsive acts.” Most attackers progressed through a process that started with an idea, to a plan, to accessing weapons and ending with the attack. If noticed, this process may be interrupted at any time before the attack.
  2. “Prior to most incidents, other people knew about the attacker’s idea and/or plan to attack.” The implication is that schools must develop a culture that promotes student sharing of concerns about others. In studying schools that averted a shooting, I and other researchers found that a key factor was establishing trusting relationships with students. We also found that the notion of “snitching” needed to be reframed to being helpful. Unfortunately, it seems that in the case of the Parkland shooting, multiple people did come forward with concerns. The alleged shooter was on several different radars, but unless he was posing an imminent danger to himself or others, he couldn’t be jailed or forced to receive psychological services. It therefore becomes an issue of individual versus collective rights. Unless we are ready as a society to lock people up for disturbing communications, there will be some individuals who will fall through the proverbial cracks.
  3. Along similar lines, most attackers “engaged in some behavior prior to the incident that caused others concern or indicated a need for help.” Some of these behaviors included talking about bringing a gun to school, or warning friends to avoid a certain area of the school on a given day. The Parkland shooter had a history of violent and aggressive behavior, including Instagram posts about becoming a “professional school shooter.”
  4. While most attackers—96 percent—were male, the report found that there “is no accurate or useful ‘profile’ of students who engaged in targeted school violence.” Three-quarters of the attackers were white; one-quarter of the attackers came from other racial and ethnic backgrounds, including African-American (12 percent), Hispanic (5 percent), Native Alaskan (2 percent), Native American (2 percent) and Asian (2 percent). Most came from intact families, were doing well in school and were not loners, according to the report.
  5. “Most attackers had difficulty coping with significant losses or personal failures. Moreover, many had considered or attempted suicide.” Knowing the students and what they are dealing with in their lives, such as parental divorce, ending of a relationship or other failures is important for getting help in a timely manner. The Parkland shooter’s adoptive mother died of pneumonia just three months prior to his deadly attack. And at age 5, he also witnessed his father die of a heart attack.
  6. “Many attackers felt bullied, persecuted or injured by others prior to the attack.” Almost two-thirds reported being targeted by others prior to the attack, with some claiming to have withstood severe bullying for a long time. There is evidence that Nikolas Cruz was often mocked for his odd behavior.

Following the publication of the Secret Service study on school shootings, my research on averted school shootings found that schools that prevented a shooting had done some of the things recommended by the Secret Service. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

27 February 2018 at 1:18 pm

Interesting state pattern on gun deaths, traffic deaths, and Trump voters

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Paul Krugman writes in the NY Times:

On Wednesday, after listening to the heart-rending stories of those who lost children and friends in the Parkland school shooting — while holding a cue card with empathetic-sounding phrases — Donald Trump proposed his answer: arming schoolteachers.

It says something about the state of our national discourse that this wasn’t even among the vilest, stupidest reactions to the atrocity. No, those honors go to the assertions by many conservative figures that bereaved students were being manipulated by sinister forces, or even that they were paid actors.

Still, Trump’s horrible idea, taken straight from the N.R.A. playbook, was deeply revealing — and the revelation goes beyond issues of gun control. What’s going on in America right now isn’t just a culture war. It is, on the part of much of today’s right, a war on the very concept of community, of a society that uses the institution we call government to offer certain basic protections to all its members.

Before I get there, let me remind you of the obvious: We know very well how to limit gun violence, and arming civilians isn’t part of the answer.

No other advanced nation experiences frequent massacres the way we do. Why? Because they impose background checks for prospective gun owners, limit the prevalence of guns in general and ban assault weapons that allow a killer to shoot dozens of people before he (it’s always a he) can be taken down. And yes, these regulations work.

Take the case of Australia, which used to experience occasional American-style gun massacres. After a particularly horrific example in 1996, the government banned assault weapons and bought such weapons back from those who already had them. There have been no massacres since.

Meanwhile, anyone who imagines that amateurs packing heat can be counted on to save everyone from a crazed killer with a semiautomatic weapon — as opposed to shooting one another or third parties in the confusion — has seen too many bad action movies.

But as I said, this isn’t just about guns. To see why, consider the very case often used to illustrate how bizarrely we treat guns: how we treat car ownership and operation.

It’s true that it’s much harder to get a driver’s license than it is to buy a lethal weapon, and that we impose many safety standards on our vehicles. And traffic deaths — which used to be far more common than gun deaths — have declined a lot over time.

Yet traffic deaths could and should have fallen a lot more. We know this because, as my colleague David Leonhardt points out, traffic deaths have fallen much more in other advanced countries, which have used evidence-based policies like lower speed limits and tightened standards for drunken driving to improve their outcomes. Think the French are crazy drivers? Well, they used to be — but now they’re significantly safer in their cars than we are.

Oh, and there’s a lot of variation in car safety among states within the U.S., just as there’s a lot of variation in gun violence. America has a “car death belt” in the Deep South and the Great Plains; it corresponds quite closely to the firearms death belt defined by age-adjusted gun death rates. It also corresponds pretty closely to the Trump vote — and also to the states that have refused to expand Medicaid, gratuitously denying health care to millions of their citizens.

What I’d argue is that our lethal inaction on guns, but also on cars, reflects the same spirit that’s causing us to neglect infrastructure and privatize prisons, the spirit that wants to dismantle public education and turn Medicare into a voucher system rather than a guarantee of essential care. For whatever reason, there’s a faction in our country that sees public action for the public good, no matter how justified, as part of a conspiracy to destroy our freedom.

This paranoia strikes both deep and wide. Does anyone remember George Will declaring that liberals like trains, not because they make sense for urban transport, but because they serve the “goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism”? And it goes along with basically infantile fantasies about individual action — the “good guy with a gun” — taking the place of such fundamentally public functions as policing.

Anyway, this political faction is doing all it can to push us toward becoming a society in which individuals can’t count on the community to provide them with even the most basic guarantees of security — security from crazed gunmen, security from drunken drivers, security from exorbitant medical bills (which every other advanced country treats as a right, and does in fact manage to provide). . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

27 February 2018 at 10:48 am

Interesting contrast: Law enforcement’s selective indignation

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And this, too, is pretty good:

Written by Leisureguy

27 February 2018 at 10:33 am

A racist government is a blight: How Chicago Ticket Debt Sends Black Motorists Into Bankruptcy

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Melissa Sanchez and Sandhya Kambhampati report in ProPublica:

BY LAST SUMMER, Laqueanda Reneau felt like she had finally gotten her life on track.

A single mother who had gotten pregnant in high school, she supported her family with a series of jobs at coffee shops, restaurants and clothing stores until she landed a position she loved as a community organizer on Chicago’s West Side. At the same time, she was working her way toward a degree in public health at DePaul University.

But one large barrier stood in her way: $6,700 in unpaid tickets, late fines and impound fees.

She had begun racking up the ticket debt five years earlier, in 2012, after a neighbor who saw her riding the bus late at night with her infant son sold her her first car, a used Toyota Camry, for a few hundred dollars. She was grateful for the shorter commute to work but unprepared for the extra costs of owning a car in Chicago.

That year alone, Reneau got 15 tickets, including seven $200 citations for not having a city sticker. Later, she received a dozen tickets for license plate violations on another used car that couldn’t pass emissions testing, a state requirement to renew her plates.

“Those tickets have followed me until this freaking day,” said Reneau, who is 25.

Because of the unpaid tickets, the city garnished her state tax refunds. Her car was impounded and she couldn’t pay for its release. Her driver’s license was suspended. Unable to come up with $1,000 to enter a city payment plan, Reneau did what thousands of Chicago drivers do each year: She turned to Chapter 13 bankruptcy and its promise of debt forgiveness.

“I know I’m putting a Band-Aid on the problem,” she said. “But right now, my immediate need is to get a car so I can get to work and get my son to school.”

For Chicago’s working poor, and particularly for African Americans, a single unpaid parking or automated traffic camera ticket can quickly spiral out of control and threaten their livelihoods. Bankruptcy offers a temporary reprieve, giving these motorists the chance to resume driving without fear of getting pulled over or losing their vehicles to the city pound.

The problem has gotten worse over the past decade, ProPublica Illinois found in an analysis of bankruptcies filed in the Northern District of Illinois, which includes Chicago and its suburbs.

In 2007, an estimated 1,000 Chapter 13 bankruptcies included debts to the city, usually for unpaid tickets, with the median amount claimed around $1,500 per case. By last year, the number of cases surpassed 10,000, with the typical debt to the city around $3,900. Though the numbers of tickets issued did not rise during that time, the city increased the costs of fines, expanded its traffic camera program and sought more license suspensions.

The result: more debt due to tickets.

Legal experts say what’s happening in Chicago’s bankruptcy courts is unique. Parking, traffic and vehicle compliance tickets prompt so many bankruptcies the court here leads the nation in Chapter 13 filings.

It’s a problem fueled both by the city’s increasingly aggressive ticketing to boost revenue — tickets brought in nearly $264 million in 2016, or about 7 percent of the city’s $3.6 billion operating budget — and a handful of law firms that pitch bankruptcy protection as a cheap solution to drivers’ woes.

Advocates for the poor say the bankruptcy statistics are symptoms of a broken city system that unfairly burdens those least able to afford tickets, much less late fees and other penalties. Motorists with crushing ticket debt who want to get back behind the wheel are stuck choosing between a city payment plan they often can’t afford or a bankruptcy plan that’s cheaper to enter but likely to fail.

When bankruptcy cases are dismissed, drivers risk losing their cars and licenses again, setting up a cycle of more debt and potentially more bankruptcies.

“If you’re a city government that has a policy of basically balancing the budget by issuing huge numbers of traffic tickets, you have to expect this response,” said John Rao, an attorney who specializes in bankruptcy at the nonprofit National Consumer Law Center. “There’s obviously a market for consumers who are in need of relief, and while it’s not the perfect form of relief, the other options aren’t that great either.”

Debt That Lasts Forever

EACH YEAR, the City of Chicago issues more than 3 million tickets for a wide range of parking, vehicle compliance and automated traffic camera violations, from $25 citations for broken headlights to $250 tickets for parking in a disabled zone. . .

Continue reading.

Any government requires money to function, and if taxes are too low, then the government will seek revenue in other ways. The powerful are able to resist, so the powerless bear the burden. That is how an oppressive government works: catering to the powerful, crushing the powerless.

Written by Leisureguy

27 February 2018 at 9:29 am

Copper Hat silvertip, MT Himalayan Heights, Rockwell R3, and Anthony Gold Red Cedar

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This is the last of the Meißner Tremonia shaving soap series, since I currently don’t own any more of their shaving soaps (though I do have two of their shaving pastes, which also are excellent). Today’s soap, Himalayan Heights contains clay, just as did the previous MT soaps:

Aqua, Stearic Acid, Cocos Nucifera oil*, Glycerin*, Potassium Hydroxide, Cedrus Deodora oil, Orbignya Oleifera oil*, Sodium Hydroxide, Macadamia terifolia oil, Kaolin, Talc, Citric Acid, Simmondsia chinensis oil*, Maris sal, C.I. 77007. Eugenol


The Rockwell 6S system is, IMO, wonderful, and the R3 easily provided a smooth finish in 3 passes. Because Himalayan Heights has a slight cedar fragrance, I chose Anthony Gold’s Red Cedar aftershave and once again thoroughly enjoyed it: it smells good and it feels good on the skin.

A great shave is always a pleasure.

Written by Leisureguy

27 February 2018 at 9:24 am

Posted in Shaving

The Simple Algorithm That Ants Use to Build Bridges

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Kevin Hartnett has an interesting brief (and non-technical) article in Quanta. The algorithm has two simple rules. ]The first tells the ant that when it feels other ants walking on its back, it should freeze. “As long as someone walks over you, you stay put.”

Also two great short videos.

I love emergence. See The Emergence of Everything: How the World Became Complex.

Written by Leisureguy

26 February 2018 at 4:36 pm

Posted in Books, Science

The town that’s found a potent cure for illness – community

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George Monbiot reports in the Guardian:

It could, if the results stand up, be one of the most dramatic medical breakthroughs of recent decades. It could transform treatment regimes, save lives, and save health services a fortune. Is it a drug? A device? A surgical procedure? No, it’s a newfangled intervention called community. This week the results from a trial in the Somerset town of Frome are published informally, in the magazine Resurgence & Ecologist. (A scientific paper has been submitted to a medical journal and is awaiting peer review). We should be cautious about embracing data before it is published in the academic press, and must always avoid treating correlation as causation. But this shouldn’t stop us feeling a shiver of excitement about the implications, if the figures turn out to be robust and the experiment can be replicated.

What this provisional data appears to show is that when isolated people who have health problems are supported by community groups and volunteers, the number of emergency admissions to hospital falls spectacularly. While across the whole of Somerset emergency hospital admissions rose by 29% during the three years of the study, in Frome they fell by 17%. Julian Abel, a consultant physician in palliative care and lead author of the draft paper, remarks: “No other interventions on record have reduced emergency admissions across a population.”

Frome is a remarkable place, run by an independent town council famous for its democratic innovation. There’s a buzz of sociability, a sense of common purpose and a creative, exciting atmosphere that make it feel quite different from many English market towns, and for that matter, quite different from the buttoned-down, dreary place I found when I first visited, 30 years ago.

The Compassionate Frome project was launched in 2013 by Helen Kingston, a GP there. She kept encountering patients who seemed defeated by the medicalisation of their lives: treated as if they were a cluster of symptoms rather than a human being who happened to have health problems. Staff at her practice were stressed and dejected by what she calls “silo working”.

So, with the help of the NHS group Health Connections Mendip and the town council, her practice set up a directory of agencies and community groups. This let them see where the gaps were, which they then filled with new groups for people with particular conditions. They employed “health connectors” to help people plan their care, and most interestingly trained voluntary “community connectors” to help their patients find the support they needed.

Sometimes this meant handling debt or housing problems, sometimes joining choirs or lunch clubs or exercise groups or writing workshops or men’s sheds(where men make and mend things together). The point was to break a familiar cycle of misery: illness reduces people’s ability to socialise, which leads in turn to isolation and loneliness, which then exacerbates illness.

This cycle is explained by some fascinating science, summarised in a recent paper in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology. Chemicals called cytokines, which function as messengers in the immune system and cause inflammation, also change our behaviour, encouraging us to withdraw from general social contact. This, the paper argues, is because sickness, during the more dangerous times in which our ancestral species evolved, made us vulnerable to attack. Inflammation is now believed to contribute to depression. People who are depressed tend to have higher cytokine levels.

But, while separating us from society as a whole, inflammation also causes us to huddle closer to those we love. Which is fine – unless, like far too many people in this age of loneliness, you have no such person. One study suggests that the number of Americans who say they have no confidant has nearly tripled in two decades. In turn, the paper continues, people without strong social connections, or who suffer from social stress (such as rejection and broken relationships), are more prone to inflammation. In the evolutionary past, social isolation exposed us to a higher risk of predation and sickness. So the immune system appears to have evolved to listen to the social environment, ramping up inflammation when we become isolated, in the hope of protecting us against wounding and disease. In other words, isolation causes inflammation, and inflammation can cause further isolation and depression.

Remarkable as Frome’s initial results appear to be, they shouldn’t be surprising. A famous paper published in PLOS Medicine in 2010 reviewed 148 studies, involving 300,000 people, and discovered that those with strong social relationships had a 50% lower chance of death across the average study period (7.5 years) than those with weak connections. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

26 February 2018 at 4:31 pm

Federal Watchdog Identifies New Workplace Safety Problems at Los Alamos Lab

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Rebecca Moss reports in ProPublica:

Los Alamos National Laboratory has failed to keep track of a toxic metal used in nuclear weapons production, potentially exposing workers to serious health consequences, a federal watchdog has found.

The New Mexico lab’s failure to adequately track beryllium — small amounts of which can cause lung disease and cancer — violates federal regulations put in place to prevent worker overexposure, according to a report last week from the Department of Energy’s inspector general.

The report is the latest example of serious workplace safety violations that have occurred at Los Alamos — which gave birth to the atomic bomb during World War II — including radioactive contamination and other injuries to workers.

In October, for example, an independent federal safety board said the lab was ill equipped to respond to emergencies and found recurring flaws in emergency preparedness dating back to 2011. Soon after, the Department of Energy launched an investigation following a “near-miss” incident in which a worker responded to an alarm and entered an oxygen-deprived room, which could have resulted in asphyxiation.

This year, The Santa Fe New Mexican and ProPublica are examining workplace safety issues at Los Alamos and other national laboratories that develop nuclear weapons for the Department of Energy.

In a response included in the inspector general report, the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees numerous lab programs, including nuclear facilities, national security, radioactive waste and safety, said it is not aware of any workers who have been exposed to beryllium as a result of the deficiencies identified by the inspector general.

In addition, the agency’s Los Alamos field office told the inspector general that oversight was “insufficient” because of staffing issues as well as the number of health and safety programs it is responsible for overseeing at the lab, which employs more than 11,000 workers.

“We are committed to the improvement of our Beryllium program at Los Alamos National Laboratory and are addressing the recommendations outlined in the Inspector General’s report,” Matt Nerzig, chief spokesman for the Los Alamos lab, said Friday in an email.

The latest report from the inspector general found longstanding issues in the lab’s record-keeping involving the Energy Department’s Chronic Beryllium Disease Prevention Program, established in 1999. The lab did not keep a proper inventory of the amount of beryllium on site, it found, and could not assure contaminated areas were safe before allowing work to continue.

Beryllium is used in the production of a variety of items, from cellphones to nuclear weapons. A lightweight, silvery metal, its strength and ability to hold high temperatures are valued by manufacturers. But when inhaled, even small quantities of the fine dust can settle into the lungs — scarring tissue and potentially leading to chronic beryllium disease and lung cancer.

The disease, whose symptoms include a persistent cough and shortness of breath, can appear soon after exposure or take up to a decade or more to show up, according to the Cleveland Clinic and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Over the last decade, the inspector general has found issues with beryllium protections at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. Los Alamos has shared contractors with both Lawrence Livermore and Y-12.

According to the report, Los Alamos couldn’t account for the dangerous metal on a number of occasions, including misplacing beryllium-contaminated equipment and a beryllium container (which couldn’t be located at the time of the report). The report also found that . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

26 February 2018 at 2:57 pm

Posted in Government, Health, Medical

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