Later On

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

Archive for March 17th, 2018

“I went to prison for disclosing the CIA’s torture. Gina Haspel helped cover it up.”

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John Kiriakou, a former CIA counterterrorism officer and a former senior investigator with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes in the Washington Post:

I was inside the CIA’s Langley, Va., headquarters on Sept. 11, 2001. Like all Americans, I was traumatized, and I volunteered to go overseas to help bring al-Qaeda’s leaders to justice. I headed counterterrorism operations in Pakistan from January to May 2002. My team captured dozens of al-Qaeda fighters, including senior training-camp commanders. One of the fighters whom I played an integral role in capturing was Abu Zubaida, mistakenly thought at the time to be the third-ranking person in the militant group.

By that May, the CIA had decided to torture him. When I returned to CIA headquarters that month, a senior officer in the Counterterrorism Center asked me if I wanted to be “trained in the use of enhanced interrogation techniques.” I had never heard the term, so I asked what it meant. After a brief explanation, I declined. I said that I had a moral and ethical problem with torture and that — the judgment of the Justice Department notwithstanding — I thought it was illegal.

Unfortunately, there were plenty of people in the U.S. government who were all too willing to allow the practice to go on. One of them was Gina Haspel, whom President Trump nominated Tuesday as the CIA’s next director.

Putting Haspel in charge of the CIA would undo attempts by the agency — and the nation — to repudiate torture. The message this sends to the CIA workforce is simple: Engage in war crimes, in crimes against humanity, and you’ll get promoted. Don’t worry about the law. Don’t worry about ethics. Don’t worry about morality or the fact that torture doesn’t even work. Go ahead and do it anyway. We’ll cover for you. And you can destroy the evidence, too.

Described in the media as a “seasoned intelligence veteran,” Haspel has been at the CIA for 33 years, both at headquarters and in senior positions overseas. Now the deputy director, she has tried hard to stay out of the public eye. Mike Pompeo, the outgoing CIA director and secretary of state designee, has lauded her “uncanny ability to get things done and inspire those around her.”

I’m sure that’s true for some. But many of the rest of us who knew and worked with Haspel at the CIA called her “Bloody Gina.”

The CIA will not let me repeat her résumé or the widely reported specifics of how her work fit into the agency’s torture program, calling such details “currently and properly classified.” But I can say that Haspel was a protege of and chief of staff for Jose Rodriguez, the CIA’s notorious former deputy director for operations and former director of the Counterterrorism Center. And that Rodriguez eventually assigned Haspel to order the destruction of videotaped evidence of the torture of Abu Zubaida. The Justice Department investigated, but no one was ever charged in connection with the incident.

CIA officers and psychologists under contract to the agency began torturing Abu Zubaida on Aug. 1, 2002. The techniques were supposed to be incremental, starting with an open-palmed slap to the belly or the face. But the operatives where he was held decided to start with the toughest method. They waterboarded Abu Zubaida 83 times. They later subjected him to sleep deprivation; they kept him locked in a large dog cage for weeks at a time; they locked him in a coffin-size box and, knowing that he had an irrational fear of insects, put bugs in it with him.

Rodriguez would later tell reporters that the torture worked and that Abu Zubaida provided actionable intelligence that disrupted attacks and saved American lives. We know, thanks to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA torture and the personal testimony of FBI interrogator Ali Soufan , that this was false.

I knew what was happening to Abu Zubaida because of my position in CIA operations at the time. I kept my mouth shut about it, even after I left the CIA in 2004. But by 2007, I had had enough.

President George W. Bush had steadfastly denied to the American people that there was a torture program. I knew that was a lie. I knew torture didn’t work. And I knew it was illegal. So in December 2007, I granted an interview to ABC News in which I said that the CIA was torturing its prisoners, that torture was official U.S. government policy and that the policy had been personally approved by the president. The FBI began investigating me immediately. . . .

Continue reading. There’s a lot more and it’s significant.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 March 2018 at 9:48 pm

In a first, Veterans Affairs centers use genetic testing to treat depression

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Catherine Ho reports in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Kewchang Lee, a psychiatrist who oversees mental health consultations at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center, is not used to being studied.

But in recent weeks, Lee signed up to be part of a first-of-its-kind experiment that is playing out in 21 VA health centers around the country, including San Francisco and Palo Alto.

For the first time since he began practicing medicine in 1992, Lee is asking a small number of his patients to take a cheek swab for a genetic test analyzing their ability to metabolize commonly prescribed antidepressants. Lee uses the information to help decide which and how much of an antidepressant to prescribe. And he’s allowing other psychiatrists to observe, during the course of the two-year VA study, whether his knowledge of the genetic information will ultimately lead to better recovery and remission rates among his patients with major depressive disorder.

It is the first study in the VA health system to examine whether doctors gaining knowledge of their patients’ genomic composition can help shape more precise treatment plans for depression.

“Different people for genetic reasons metabolize things differently,” said Lee, who is also a clinical professor of psychiatry at UCSF. “With fast metabolizers, I might not necessarily change the antidepressant, but might target a higher dose. If a patient is a slow metabolizer, I might consider changing the antidepressant itself depending on the side-effect profile of that drug.”

Depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health disorders are prevalent among combat veterans. Up to 25 percent of returning troops experience depression — compared to 8 percent among the U.S. adult population. In one recent survey of 700 San Francisco veterans, 58 percent had probable depression, based on their answers to a health questionnaire, according to a 2017 report by the USC Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans & Military Families, part of the university’s Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.

The recent tragedy at Yountville’s Pathway Home, where Army infantryman Albert Wong fatally shot two Pathway staff members, a VA clinical psychologist and himself, highlights the need to advance research to improve mental health treatment.

Wong had been undergoing PTSD treatment at Pathway, a treatment center for troubled veterans of the post-Sept. 11 wars, and had been asked to leave the program two weeks before the shooting.

“When things like this happen, we all think about ways that we can improve mental health care and access to mental health care,” Lee said. “It does speak to the need for funding for research and studies to improve the treatment of conditions like PTSD and depression.”

The VA depression study, funded by $12 million from the Department of Veterans Affairs, seeks to enroll 2,000 pairs of doctors and veterans who have not responded well to previous treatment for depression. . .

Continue reading. More at the link.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 March 2018 at 8:02 pm

The plot thickens: Lawyer who worked for NRA said to have had concerns about group’s Russia ties

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Any thicker and we’ll be able to walk on it. Peter Stone and Greg Gordon report in McClatchy:

Congressional investigators are examining information that an ex-National Rifle Association board member who had done legal work for the group had concerns about its ties to Russia and its possible involvement in channeling Russian funds into the 2016 elections to help Donald Trump, two sources familiar with the matter say.

Cleta Mitchell, who represented the NRA for years, is on a newly disclosed list of people whom Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee are seeking to interview. Democratic investigators for that committee’s Senate counterpart also are interested in what she may know about relationships between the NRA or its allies and wealthy Russians, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Mitchell told McClatchy in an email that any suggestion she has concerns about the NRA’s Russia connections is a “complete fabrication.”

The sources declined to detail the specific nature of the information prompting investigators’ interest in Mitchell, a prominent gun rights champion, election law specialist and veteran conservative operative.

The nation’s leading gun rights lobby was the biggest backer of Trump’s presidential campaign, spending $30 million to help propel him to his upset victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton, a strong advocate of gun control laws. But in January, the NRA was drawn into the furor over Russian interference in the election when McClatchy reported that the FBI was investigating whether Russian banker and “lifetime” NRA member Alexander Torshin, who hosted a high-level NRA delegation in Moscow in late 2015, funneled funds to the NRA to help Trump.

It’s illegal for foreign funds to be spent in American elections.

“Whether there was an effort by Russia to create a back channel or assist the Trump campaign through the NRA or gun-rights groups is an open question the committee’s minority has endeavored to answer for the past year,” California Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement to McClatchy. “Much work remains to be done concerning that thread of our investigation, including conducting witness interviews and receiving relevant documents from several organizations and individuals.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 March 2018 at 7:38 pm

Here Is Andrew McCabe’s Full Statement. Everyone Should Read It.

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Kevin Drum in Mother Jones introduces McCabe’s statement thusly:

Donald Trump fired former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe today. Technically, of course, it was Jeff Sessions who did the firing, but I don’t think anyone believes that it was anybody but Trump who was really at the controls. After all, it’s Trump who made up the inane conspiracy theory that McCabe was a Hillary Clinton mole during the 2016 campaign. It was Trump who panicked when McCabe testified that he could corroborate James Comey’s incriminating account of his conversations with Trump. And firing McCabe two days before his retirement in order to attack his pension—well, that kind of petty vengefulness has Trump written all over it, doesn’t it?

This whole affair has been contemptible from the start. Trump knows perfectly well that he won the election solely because of the FBI’s interference. This is something he finds intolerable, so he has invented a fantasy in which that never happened. In fact, he’s spent the entire past year spreading the preposterous lie that the FBI actually helped Hillary. Then he went about defaming and firing all the people whose very existence was a continuing rebuke to his election triumph. McCabe is one of them.

It’s possible, of course, that McCabe actually did something wrong and deserved to be fired for it. But the rushed nature of the whole thing, combined with the default assumption that Trump lies about everything, suggests otherwise. Speaking for myself, I don’t believe it for a second. This is a plain old Trump vendetta, pure and simple.

Under the circumstances, it’s worth giving McCabe’s full statement wide and prominent publication.

And here is Andrew McCabe’s statement:

I have been an FBI Special Agent for over 21 years. I spent half of that time investigating Russian Organized Crime as a street agent and Supervisor in New York City. I have spent the second half of my career focusing on national security issues and protecting this country from terrorism. I served in some of the most challenging, demanding investigative and leadership roles in the FBI. And I was privileged to serve as Deputy Director during a particularly tough time.

For the last year and a half, my family and I have been the targets of an unrelenting assault on our reputation and my service to this country. Articles too numerous to count have leveled every sort of false, defamatory and degrading allegation against us. The president’s tweets have amplified and exacerbated it all. He called for my firing. He called for me to be stripped of my pension after more than 20 years of service. And all along we have said nothing, never wanting to distract from the mission of the FBI by addressing the lies told and repeated about it.

No more.

The investigation by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) has to be understood in the context of the attacks on my credibility. The investigation flows from my attempt to explain the FBI’s involvement and my supervision of investigations involving Hillary Clinton. I was being portrayed in the media over and over as a political partisan, accused of closing down investigations under political pressure. The FBI was portrayed as caving under that pressure, and making decisions for political rather than law enforcement purposes. Nothing was further from the truth. In fact, this entire investigation stems from my efforts, fully authorized under FBI rules, to set the record straight on behalf of the Bureau and to make it clear that we were continuing an investigation that people in DOJ opposed.

The OIG investigation has focused on information I chose to share with a reporter through my public affairs officer and a legal counselor. As Deputy Director, I was one of only a few people who had the authority to do that. It was not a secret, it took place over several days, and others, including the Director, were aware of the interaction with the reporter. It was the same type of exchange with the media that the Deputy Director oversees several times per week. In fact it was the same type of work that I continued to do under Director Wray, at his request. The investigation subsequently focused on who I talked to, when I talked to them, and so forth. During these inquiries, I answered questions truthfully and as accurately as I could amidst the chaos that surrounded me. And when I thought my answers were misunderstood, I contacted investigators to correct them.

But looking at that in isolation completely misses the big picture. The big picture is a tale of what can happen when law enforcement is politicized, public servants are attacked, and people who are supposed to cherish and protect our institutions become instruments for damaging those institutions and people.

Here is the reality: I am being singled out and treated this way because of the role I played, the actions I took, and the events I witnessed in the aftermath of the firing of James Comey. The release of this report was accelerated only after my testimony to the House Intelligence Committee revealed that I would corroborate former Director Comey’s accounts of his discussions with the President. The OIG’s focus on me and this report became a part of an unprecedented effort by the Administration, driven by the President himself, to remove me from my position, destroy my reputation, and possibly strip me of a pension that I worked 21 years to earn. The accelerated release of the report, and the punitive actions taken in response, make sense only when viewed through this lens. Thursday’s comments from the White House are just the latest example of this.

This attack on my credibility is one part of a larger effort not just to slander me personally, but to taint the FBI, law enforcement, and intelligence professionals more generally. It is part of this Administration’s ongoing war on the FBI and the efforts of the Special Counsel investigation, which continue to this day. Their persistence in this campaign only highlights the importance of the Special Counsel’s work.

I have always prided myself on serving my country with distinction and integrity, and I have always encouraged those around me to do the same. Just ask them. To have my career end in this way, and to be accused of lacking candor when at worst I was distracted in the misty fo chaotic events, is incredibly disappointing and unfair. But it will not erase the important work I was prevailed to be a part of, the results of which will in the end be revealed for the country to see.

I have unfailing faith in the men and women of the FBI and I am confident that their efforts to seek justice will not be deterred.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 March 2018 at 2:48 pm

People are dying because we misunderstand how those with addiction think

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Brendan de Kenessey, a fellow-in-residence at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University and (as of this fall) a member of the faculty of the philosophy department at the University of Toronto, writes in Vox:

The American opioid epidemic claimed 42,300 lives in 2016 alone. While the public policy challenge is daunting, the problem isn’t that we lack any effective treatment options. The data shows that we could save many lives by expanding medication-assisted treatments and adopting harm reduction policies like needle exchange programs. Yet neither of these policies has been widely embraced.

Why? Because these treatments are seen as indulging an addict’s weakness rather than “curing” it. Methadone and buprenorphine, the most effective medication-assisted treatments, are “crutches,” in the words of felony treatment court judge Frank Gulotta Jr. [see note below – LG]; they are “just substituting one opioid for another,” according to former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.

And as county Commissioner Rodney Fish voted to block a needle exchange program in Lawrence County, Indiana, he quoted the Bible: “If my people … shall humble themselves … and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin.”

Most of us have been trained to use more forgiving language when talking about addiction. We call it a disease. We say that people with addiction should be helped, not blamed. But deep down, many of us still have trouble avoiding the thought that they could stop using if they just tried harder.

Surely would do better in their situation, we think to ourselves. We may not endorse the idea — we may think it is flat-out wrong — but there’s a part of us that can’t help but see addiction as a symptom of weak character and bad judgment.

Latent or explicit, the view of addiction as a moral failure is doing real damage. The stigma against addiction is “the single biggest reason America is failing in its response to the opioid epidemic,” Vox’s German Lopez concluded after a year of reporting on the crisis. To overcome this stigma, we need to first understand it. Why is it so easy to see addiction as a sign of flawed character?

We tend to view addiction as a moral failure because we are in the grip of a simple but misleading answer to one of the oldest questions of philosophy: Do people always do what they think is best? In other words, do our actions always reflect our beliefs and values? When someone with addiction chooses to take drugs, does this show us what she truly cares about — or might something more complicated be going on?

These questions are not merely academic: Lives depend on where we come down. The stigma against addiction owes its stubborn tenacity to a specific, and flawed, philosophical view of the mind, a misconception so seductive that it ensnared Socrates in the fifth century BC.

Do our actions always reflect our preferences?

In a dialogue called the Protagoras, Plato describes a debate between Socrates and a popular teacher named (wait for it) Protagoras. At one point their discussion turns to the topic of what the Greeks called akrasia: acting against one’s best judgment.

Akrasia is a fancy name for an all-too-common experience. I know I should go to the gym, but I watch Netflix instead. You know you’ll enjoy dinner more if you stop eating the bottomless chips, but you keep munching nevertheless.

This disconnect between judgment and action is made all the more vivid by addiction. Here’s the testimony of one person with addiction, reported in Maia Szalavitz’s book Unbroken Brain: “I can remember many, many times driving down to the projects telling myself, ‘You don’t want to do this! You don’t want to do this!’ But I’d do it anyway.”

As pervasive as the experience of akrasia is, Socrates thought it didn’t make sense. I may think I value exercise more than TV, but, assuming no one is pressuring me, my behavior reveals that when it comes down to it, I, in fact, care more about catching up on Black Mirror. As Socrates puts it: “No one who knows or believes there is something else better than what he is doing, something possible, will go on doing what he had been doing when he could be doing what is better.”

Now, you might be thinking: Socrates clearly never went to a restaurant with unlimited chips. But he has a point. To figure out what a person’s true priorities are, we usually look to the choices they make. (“Actions speak louder than words.”) When a person binges on TV, munches chips, or gets high despite the consequences, Socrates would infer that they must care more about indulging now than about avoiding those consequences — whatever they may say to the contrary.

(He isn’t alone: Both the behaviorism movement in 20th-century psychology and the “revealed preference” doctrine in economics are based on the idea that you can best learn what people desire by looking at what they do.)

So for Socrates, there’s no such thing as acting against one’s best judgment: There’s only bad judgment. He draws an analogy with optical illusions. Like a child who thinks her thumb is bigger than the moon, we overestimate the value of nearby pleasures and underestimate the severity of their faraway consequences.

Through this Socratic lens, it’s hard not to see addiction as a failure. Imagine a father, addicted to heroin, who misses picking up his children from school because he’s shooting up at home. In Socrates’s view, the father must be doing what he believes to be best. But how could the father possibly think that?

I see two possibilities. As Socrates’s illusion analogy suggests, the father could be grievously mistaken about the consequences of his actions. Perhaps he has convinced himself that his kids can get home on their own, or that he’ll be able to pick them up while high. But if the father has seen the damaging effects of his behavior time and again — as happens often to long-term addicts — it becomes harder to see how he is not complicit in this illusion. If he really believes his choice will be harmless, he must be willfully, and condemnably, self-deceived.

Which leads us to the second, even more damning possibility: Perhaps the father knows the consequences shooting up will have on his children, but he doesn’t care. If his choice cannot be ascribed to ignorance, it must reveal his preferences: The father must care more about getting high than he cares about his children’s well-being.

If Socrates’s model of the mind is right, these are the only available explanations for addictive behavior: The person must have bad judgment, bad priorities, or some combination of the two.

Our philosophy of addiction shapes our treatment of it — whether we realize it or not

It’s not exactly a sympathetic picture. But I suspect it underlies much of our thinking about addiction. Consider the popular idea that someone with addiction has to hit “rock bottom” before she can begin true recovery. In the Socratic view, this makes perfect sense. If addiction is due to a failure to appreciate the bad consequences of getting high, then the best route to recovery might be for the person to experience firsthand how bad those consequences really are. A straight dose of the harshest reality might be the only cure for the addict’s self-deceived beliefs and shortsighted preferences.

We could give a similar Socratic rationale for punishing drug possession with decades in jail: If we make the consequences of using bad enough, people with addiction will finally realize that it’s better to be sober, the thought goes. Once again, we are correcting their flawed judgment and priorities, albeit with a heavy hand.

Socrates’s view also makes sense of our reluctance to adopt medication-assisted treatment and needle exchange programs. These methods might temporarily mitigate the damage caused by addiction, but on the Socratic view, they leave the underlying problem untouched.

By giving out clean needles or substituting methadone for heroin, we may prevent some deaths in the short term, but we won’t change the skewed priorities that caused the addictive behavior in the first place. Worse, we may “enable” someone’s bad judgment by shielding her from the worst effects of her actions. In the long run, the only way to save addicts from themselves is to make it harder, not easier, to pursue the lifestyle they so clearly prefer.

Is Socrates right? Or can we find a better, more sympathetic way of thinking about addiction?

To see things differently, we need to question the fundamental picture of the mind on which Socrates’s view rests. It is natural to think of the mind as a unified whole and identify ourselves with that whole. But this monolithic view of the mind leads to the Socratic view of addiction. Whatever I choose must be what my mind wants most, and so what want most. The key to escaping the Socratic view, then, is to realize that the mind has different parts — and that some parts of my mind are more me than others.

The “self” is not a single, unitary thing

This “divided mind” view has become popular in both philosophy and psychology over the past 50 years. In psychology, we see it in the rise of “dual process” theories of the mind, the most famous of which comes from Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, who divides the mind into a part that makes judgments quickly, intuitively, and unconsciously (“System I”) and a part that thinks more slowly, rationally, and consciously (“System II”).

More pertinent for our purposes is research on what University of Michigan neuroscientist Kent Berridge calls the “wanting system,” which regulates our cravings for things like food, sex, and drugs using signals based in the neurotransmitter dopamine. The wanting system has powerful control over behavior, and its cravings are insensitive to long-term consequences.

Berridge’s research indicates that addictive drugs can “hijack” the wanting system, manipulating dopamine directly to generate cravings that are far stronger than those the rest of us experience. The result is that the conscious part of a person’s mind might want one thing (say, to pick his kids up from school) but be overruled by the wanting system’s desire for something else (to get high). . .

Continue reading.

Note: I wonder whether Judge Gulotta wears glasses (an obvious “crutch”). If he breaks his leg, will he refuse to use a crutch because it’s just a crutch? I wear hearing aids—obviously a crutch. I think Judge Gulotta is a moron.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 March 2018 at 1:48 pm

Will Trump pull a Palin?

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David Atkins in the Washington Monthly looks at the possibility that Trump will resign after getting a guarantee that Pence will pardon him (as Ford did Nixon):

These are dark days for the White House. Worse, there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel.

The President is reported to be isolated and in a foul mood amid utter chaos, lashing out at all and sundry. The Mueller inquiry is taking an increasingly wide scope and threatening to ensnare his immediate family. His son-in-law has been stripped of his security clearance, his surrogate daughter and emotional support is leaving the White House, he mistrusts his Chief of Staff and is at war with his own Attorney General. Republicans in Congress are doing all they can to block inquiries and investigations, but they’ve also let Trump know that they might let the dam break if he fires Sessions or Rosenstein, so he feels locked in a box from which there is no escape. His policy agenda is in tatters. He is beset by multiple infidelity and payoff scandals, leaving his marriage so tattered that he jokes about his wife leaving him. His approval ratings are in the toilet, and Republicans downballot are taking a beating in almost every election leading up to what may be a disastrous midterm for the president’s party.

Trump has been in these dire straits before in his life, make no mistake–and his reaction at every step was to run from the damage, welsh on his obligations, let fixers handle the mess and never look back. Donald Trump has declared bankruptcy no less than six times, leaving creditors holding the bag each and every time. His building deals frequently go up in smoke. His fraudulent “university” went belly up and ended in settlements. He routinely stiffs his subcontractors. Most banks refuse to deal with him, and because he refuses to release his or his organization’s tax returns, we have no idea if he has the sort of money he claims to have, or is instead deeply in hock to foreign mafia cartels. Without his father’s money he would be just another two-bit white collar criminal from Queens, either in jail on tax evasion or running a ponzi scheme.

Trump is a classic grifter. And the modus operandi of the grifter is to play the con as long as he can, then pack up and run when the water gets hot and the bill comes due.

It is remarkable that we as a nation allowed such a person to become president. But nations do make mistakes. The question is what the Grifter-in-Chief will do now.

The standard play would be to simply step away. Even the most narcissistic con artist is rarely fool enough to choose dire consequences over an easy escape route just out of ego alone. As the walls begin to close in on him, his friends and family, it is difficult to see how he lasts another year in the job, much less three. If he were a man of greater intelligence and discipline, he could theoretically negotiate subordinates to take the fall for him and right his ship of state. But Trump lacks the wherewithal and the command of loyalty to accomplish either one.

He could try to start a war to escape his predicament, but it’s not at all clear that Americans would rush to his side as they once did to George W. Bush. An incompetent rush to war might actually deepen his troubles. He could wait for the 2018 midterms, but leaving office after a Democrat wave election would be a far less pleasant prospect. He could try to ride out the next three years hobbled and miserable, surfing from scandal to scandal and hoping to somehow survive both the consequences of the midterms and the Mueller investigation.

But by far the easiest play would simply be to step away. The Mueller investigation hasn’t yet seriously touched Vice President Pence (so far as we know.) Pence could pardon Trump as Ford did Nixon. Trump would still face state charges, but those would be easier to deal with when not under the intense glare of the White House lights and multiple federal investigations. Moreover, Trump would still be the darling of the right-wing base, and he could then move on to the grift he reportedly planned from the beginning of his campaign; losing the presidency only to make money off of impressionable right-wing rubes as their deplorable standardbearer.

The problem, of course, is Trump’s monumental ego. Could his pugilistic self-image bear to accept defeat and take that fateful helicopter ride away from the White House lawn? There’s the rub. But while his narcissism might be his undoing, the likeliest scenario is that the grifter in him will win out: he will become increasingly chaotic and dangerous in the days before the end, only to sign some bizarre executive actions, declare victory on twitter under the premise that he had fulfilled his promise to make America great again, and fly off to Mar-A-Lago to go golfing and negotiate a new TV channel or Fox News contract.

Having dealt with my share of sociopaths and con artists in the past, my sense is that  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 March 2018 at 1:28 pm

2 “good guys with guns” accidentally fired them in schools on Tuesday

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Gun accidents happen only if guns are present.

Emily Stewart reports in Vox:

As the Trump administration advocates for more guns in schools and allowing teachers to carry firearms, two separate incidents in Virginia and California on Tuesday in which trained school employees accidentally fired their weapons highlight the dangers of such a proposal.

A teacher who is also a reserve police officer trained to use a gun accidentally discharged a firearm at Seaside High School in Monterey County, California, on Tuesday. According to the local outlet KSBW, Dennis Alexander’s gun went off around 1 pm while he was teaching a course about gun safety. He was pointing his gun at the ceiling when it went off, and pieces of the ceiling hit the ground.

The local police department said no one suffered serious injuries, but one 17-year-old boy was harmed when fragments from the bullet hit his neck, the boy’s father, Fermin Gonzales, told KSBW. The boy’s parents only figured out what had happened when he returned home from school with blood on his shirt and bullet fragments on his neck.

“He’s shaken up, but he’s going to be okay. I’m just pretty upset that no one told us anything and we had to call the police ourselves to report it,” the father told the TV station.

In a separate incident in Alexandria, Virginia, on Tuesday, a school resource officer — a five-year veteran of the Alexandria Police Department — accidentally discharged his weapon while inside George Washington Middle School. No one, including the officer, was injured.

“I just think it was an accident that happened, and we’re going to investigate it and find out, and we’re going to move forward,” Capt. D.C. Hayes told NBC Washington. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 March 2018 at 12:05 pm

Posted in Education, Guns

Facebook quietly hid the webpages where it bragged that it offered the ability to influence elections

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Hiding the pages shows awareness of guilt, obviously. Sam Biddle reports for the Intercept:

WHEN MARK ZUCKERBERG was asked if Facebook had influenced the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, the founder and CEO dismissed the notion that the site even had such power as “crazy.” It was a disingenuous remark. Facebook’s website had an entire section devoted to touting the “success stories” of political campaigns that used the social network to influence electoral outcomes. That page, however, is now gone, even as the 2018 congressional primaries get underway.

 In the wake of a public reckoning with Facebook’s unparalleled ability to distribute information and global anxiety over election meddling, bragging about the company’s ability to run highly effective influence campaigns probably doesn’t look so great.Facebook’s “success stories” page is a monument to the company’s dominance of online advertising, providing examples from almost every imaginable industry of how use of the social network gave certain players an advantage. “Case studies like these inspire and motivate us,” the page crows. Current examples include CoverGirl (“promoting a beauty brand makeover with video ads on Facebook and Instagram”) and Tropicana (“Facebook video ads elevate fruit juice brand awareness”). Not so controversial.

The case studies that Facebook used to list from political campaigns, however, included more interesting claims. Facebook’s work with Florida’s Republican Gov. Rick Scott “used link ads and video ads to boost Hispanic voter turnout in their candidate’s successful bid for a second term, resulting in a 22% increase in Hispanic support and the majority of the Cuban vote.” Facebook’s work with the Scottish National Party, a political party in the U.K., was described as “triggering a landslide.”

The “success stories” drop-down menu that once included an entire section for “Government and Politics” is now gone. Pages for the individual case studies, like the Scott campaign and SNP, are still accessible through their URLs, but otherwise seem to have been delisted.

Asked about the delisting, . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

17 March 2018 at 11:20 am

Hackers, fed up with Twitter bots, are hunting them down themselves

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Yael Grauer reports in the Intercept:

ONCE A MERE nuisance for Twitter, accounts created by software programs pretending to be human — “bots” — have become a major headache for the social network. In October, Twitter’s general counsel told a Senate committee investigating disinformation that Russian bots tweeted 1.4 million times during the run-up to the last presidential election, and such bots would later be implicated in hundreds of tweets that followed a school shooting in Florida. In January, the New York Times detailed how U.S. companies, executives, journalists, and celebrities often purchase bots as followers in an attempt to make themselves seem more popular.

The fallout for the company has been withering. In Vanity Fair last month, writer Nick Bilton, who has tracked the company closely as an author and journalist, accused Twitter of “turning a blind eye to the problem” of bots for years in order to artificially inflate its count of active users. Meanwhile, disgruntled former Twitter executives told Maya Kosoff, also in Vanity Fair, that the social network was throwing too many humans and too little technology at the problem of bots and other misbehavior. “You had this unsophisticated human army with no real scalable platform to plug into,” one said.

Even if Twitter hasn’t invested much in anti-bot software, some of its most technically proficient users have. They’re writing and refining code that can use Twitter’s public application programming interface, or API, as well as Google and other online interfaces, to ferret out fake accounts and bad actors. The effort, at least among the researchers I spoke with, has begun with hunting bots designed to promote pornographic material — a type of fake account that is particularly easy to spot — but the plan is to eventually broaden the hunt to other types of bots. The bot-hunting programming and research has been a strictly volunteer, part-time endeavor, but the efforts have collectively identified tens of thousands of fake accounts, underlining just how much low-hanging fruit remains for Twitter to prune.

Autodidacts at Automaton Detection

Among the part-time bot-hunters is French security researcher and freelance Android developer Baptiste Robert, who in February of this year noticed that Twitter accounts with profile photos of scantily clad women were liking his tweets or following him on Twitter. Aside from the sexually suggestive images, the bots had similarities. Not only did these Twitter accounts typically include profile photos of adult actresses, but they also had similar bios, followed similar accounts, liked more tweets than they retweeted, had fewer than 1,000 followers, and directed readers to click the link in their bios.

One of the first accounts Robert looked at, which is now suspended, linked to the site, which was registered with a Russian email address also connected to,,, and Robert said it looked like various phishing sites had an identical schema and were likely operated by the same person.

So, Robert decided to create a proof-of-concept bot to show his followers that finding these accounts is pretty easy. After determining a set of similarities between the bots, he used advanced Google queries and Google reverse image search to find more of them. He then wrote a few hundred lines of code in the programming language Python to create a bot to hunt down and expose fake accounts. “It took less than one hour to write the first version of @PornBotHunter,” Robert said. “The first idea was to show how easy it was to find these bots by just using Google search.” The bot hunter tweets information on porn bots it has detected every hour, including Twitter handles, profile pictures, number of followers, longevity of the profile, biographical links, and whether Twitter has suspended the account. It also posts lengthier reports about its activities to Pastebin, a text hosting site popular among security researchers. Robert also allows people to report false positives to his regular Twitter account.

Robert is quick to admit that the software is just a proof of concept. He is planning on rewriting it to catch other types of bots as well, ranging from cryptocurrency bots to political bots. He also hopes to create a framework that’ll help people see how many bots are following them on Twitter. Once the project is stable and reviewed, he plans to open source the source code.

Still, it’s fascinating that a tool put together in just an hour is catching bots before Twitter does itself. As of March 1, @PornBotHunter has listed 197 spammy, apparently fake accounts in Pastebin, and 66, roughly a third, have yet to be suspended by Twitter. The others were suspended soon after being indexed by Google or after Robert reported them to Twitter. (A handful of the remaining active accounts, which may have only been compromised temporarily, do not appear to be spam accounts run by bots.) . . .

Continue reading.

It seems obvious that Twitter doesn’t want to close down the bots because bots increase the number of apparent users, a conflict between what is good for Twitter (at least in the short run) and what is good for the community.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 March 2018 at 11:16 am

Biased science: Researchers ask liquor industry to fund a study showing that moderate drinking is beneficial to health

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Roni Caryn Rabin reports in the NY Times:

It was going to be a study that could change the American diet, a huge clinical trial that might well deliver all the medical evidence needed to recommend a daily alcoholic drink as part of a healthy lifestyle.

That was how two prominent scientists and a senior federal health official pitched the project during a presentation at the luxurious Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Fla., in 2014. And the audience members who were being asked to help pay for the $100 million study seemed receptive: They were all liquor company executives.

The 10-year government trial is now underway, and Anheuser Busch InBev, Heineken and other alcohol companies are picking up most of the tab, through donations to a private foundation that raises money for the National Institutes of Health.

The N.I.H., a federal agency, is considered one of the world’s foremost medical research centers, investing over $30 billion of taxpayer money in biomedical research each year. The vast majority of the funding goes to scientists outside the N.I.H., which manages the grants and provides oversight.

The alcohol study is overseen by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, one of 27 centers under the N.I.H. The lead investigator and N.I.H. officials have said repeatedly that they never discussed the planning of the study with the industry. But a different picture emerges from emails and travel vouchers obtained by The New York Times under the Freedom of Information Act, as well as from interviews with former federal officials.

The documents and interviews show that the institute waged a vigorous campaign to court the alcohol industry, paying for scientists to travel to meetings with executives, where they gave talks strongly suggesting that the study’s results would endorse moderate drinking as healthy.

An N.I.A.A.A. official, now retired, said she followed up after the presentations with appeals for money, telling industry executives the research could not be done without their support.

The meetings in late 2013 and early 2014 included a “working lunch” at the Beer Institute convention in Philadelphia, and two meetings at the Washington headquarters of the Distilled Spirits Council, a liquor industry trade group, as well as the presentation at The Breakers.

Dr. Kenneth J. Mukamal, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and now the lead investigator of the study, and Dr. John Krystal, a Yale University neuroscientist, argued that a long-term randomized controlled trial could dispel lingering doubts about the benefits of moderate daily drinking.

“A definitive clinical trial represents a unique opportunity to show that moderate alcohol consumption is safe and lowers risk of common diseases,” said one slide in the scientists’ presentation at The Breakers. “That level of evidence is necessary if alcohol is to be recommended as part of a healthy diet.”

“We have strong reason to suspect so,” said another slide, referring to the large number of studies suggesting that moderate alcohol may be linked to reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.

The fund-raising may have violated N.I.H. policy, which prohibits employees from soliciting or suggesting donations, funds or other resources intended to support activities. At the least, the campaign is bound to raise more questions about the independence of the investigators and the scientific integrity of the huge trial.

The presentations gave the alcohol industry an opportunity to preview the trial design and vet the investigators. Indeed, the scientist leading the meetings was eventually chosen to head the huge clinical trial.

They also made the industry privy to pertinent details, including a list of clinical sites and investigators who were “already on board,” the size and length of the trial, approximate number of participants, and the fact that they could choose any beverage. By design, no form of alcohol — wine, liquor or beer — would be called out as better than another in the trial.

Dr. Michael Siegel, a professor of community health sciences at Boston University School of Public Health who was shown slides from the scientists’ presentation at The Breakers by The Times, said the study “is not public health research — it’s marketing.”

“This must have seemed like a dream come true for industry. Of course they would pay for it,” he said. “They’re admitting the trial is designed to provide a justification for moderate drinking. That’s not objective science.”

Asked about the meetings, Dr. Mukamal did not deny he had participated, but said the slides did not convey the full complexity of his presentation.

Last year, Dr. Mukamal told The New York Times that he had had “literally no contact with anyone in the alcohol industry in the planning of this.” He defended that statement saying the presentations took place long before the N.I.H. announced the funding grant in late 2015.

The description of the trial that he gave at the meetings was just a “boilerplate,” he said.

“My job there wasn’t to raise money,” Dr. Mukamal added. “It was to educate.”

A Vexing Question

The N.I.H. awards most research funds on a competitive basis, and grant applications undergo a two-tier review of the scientific merit and public import of a project, as well as the scientific integrity.

At a cost of $100 million, the new trial aims to resolve a persistent medical conundrum. Though excessive drinking is harmful and problem drinking is on the rise in the United States, many observational studies have found that moderate drinkers outlive abstainers and have less heart disease.

These studies don’t prove that moderate drinking is the reason these people live longer, however. The new trial, called the Moderate Alcohol and Cardiovascular Health Trial (M.A.C.H.), is intended to answer that question.

In January, Dr. Mukamal and his colleagues started recruiting volunteers ages 50 and older who are at high risk for heart disease; eventually there are to be 7,800 participants at 16 sites worldwide. Half will be told to abstain from alcohol. The rest, including both men and women, will be told to have one serving of alcohol a day.

No other long-term trial has ever asked participants to drink, much less drink every day. Scientists will track the two groups for six years on average to see whether daily drinkers have fewer heart attacks and strokes, and lower odds of diabetes and death.

The research will attempt to track the risks of drinking, but critics say it may not fully capture the harms. For one thing, the study will be too short to detect an increase in cancers linked to alcohol consumption, which may take decades to develop.

In addition, two servings has long been considered moderate drinking for men. Lowering the threshold may reduce falls, car accidents and alcohol abuse among the subjects; but one drink daily also may not reflect real-life habits.

Moreover, many people whose health might be compromised by light drinking — anyone with a history of addiction, psychiatric, liver or kidney problems, certain cancers or a family history of breast cancer — will not be allowed to participate. People who have never drunk alcohol also are excluded.

“You’re picking off the people who are most likely to have the harms,” said Dr. Richard Saitz, chair of the Department of Community Health Sciences at Boston University School of Public Health, after reviewing the parameters of the study.

But if the study finds even a modest cardiovascular benefit to light drinking, he added, “You can be sure that the way it will be understood by the general public is that this applies to everybody.”

Despite its shortcomings, M.A.C.H. may well be the last word on the subject of moderate drinking, since trials like these are both expensive and logistically complicated to carry out.

Dr. Mukamal, who has published nearly a hundred scientific papers on the relationship between moderate drinking and cardiovascular disease. emphasized in an interview that he was committed to reporting the results accurately based on the data.

“If anyone has any doubt whatsoever that our intent is to provide the most accurate and precise description of our findings, they are sorely mistaken,” he said.

‘They’d Be Happy’

Private contributions for the study from the alcohol industry are being channeled through the Foundation for the N.I.H., a nongovernmental entity that raises money for N.I.H. research and manages the partnerships established to direct private donations. . .

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. . . On Sept. 30, 2013, Dr. Gunzerath sent an email headed “URGENT! Response needed ASAP!” to Dr. Mukamal, inviting him to Philadelphia to address the annual meeting of the Worldwide Brewing Alliance, to get the brewers’ “buy in” and “extra overall funding potential as well.”

“I can make it,” Dr. Mukamal responded. “I could do any version or part or the whole day, night before or drive down that day etc. whatever works best for you.”

Dr. Gunzerath and Dr. Warren also arranged meetings between the scientists and industry representatives at the Distilled Spirits Council’s Washington headquarters on Nov. 21, 2013, and Jan. 28, 2014. . .

Written by LeisureGuy

17 March 2018 at 11:05 am

Posted in Business, Health, Science

Why the real defenders of the Second Amendment oppose the NRA

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Corey Brettschneider, a political science professor at Brown and a visiting professor at Fordham Law School, writes in the Guardian:

n any debate about guns in America, there’s one aspect that’s seemingly inescapable: the moment when the National Rifle Association (NRA) or other defenders of an anything-goes gun policy recite the second amendment from memory.

Perhaps no subsection of a political movement is so passionately animated by a clause of the US constitution. As many a gun enthusiast is eager to say, gun regulation is a non-starter; the second amendment is the law of the land, so the government can’t tell me what to do with my guns.

But those seeking sensible gun regulation – like the 83% of Americans who support a mandatory waiting period for buying a gun and the 67% of Americans who agree with a ban on assault weapons – should not just accept the distortion of the second amendment as fact. Instead, they should loudly respond that gun regulation’s proponents, not the NRA, are the true defenders of the second amendment. In fact, both supreme court case law and the text of the second amendment itself support reasonable regulations on guns. As written, the constitution and the second amendment permit precisely the kind of regulation Congress should enact.

In 1991, former Chief Justice Warren Burger, a Republican appointee, explained why the text of the Second Amendment affirms the importance of gun regulation. The first words of the amendment, Burger pointed out, are “a well regulated Militia.” This language presupposes the idea that the militias should be regulated. So, Burger reasoned, if the amendment rests on the assumption that well-trained state armies could be regulated, then it is sensible to think it also allows Congress to regulate guns among the general citizenry.

The constitutional argument for gun regulation also goes beyond the Second Amendment. The Constitution’s preamble speaks of the need to “insure domestic Tranquility”—a fundamental task of any government that can be aided by regulating deadly weapons. The recent tragedy in Florida—merely the newest in a line of one numbing bloodbath after another, a crisis that no other developed country on earth suffers from—has made it clear that our schools, hospitals, and military are anything but tranquil. In places where they once would have thought themselves safe, citizens fear another attack.

This is not only unacceptable, but it also demonstrates how far our country has strayed from a central constitutional principle. The preamble’s call for “domestic Tranquility” and the Second Amendment’s embrace of regulation do not merely allow Congress to act to regulate guns; they impel Congress to do so.

What about the worry that some forms of regulation still violate the second amendment? As Burger said in 1991, the idea that the second amendment prohibits gun regulation is “one of the greatest pieces of fraud – I repeat the word fraud – on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.” And Burger’s view of the amendment squares with what the supreme court has said more recently.

In the landmark case District of Columbia v Heller, Justice Scalia ruled for the first time in American history that the second amendment protected individual gun rights. He held that a Washington, DC police officer with extensive firearms training had a right to own a gun and store it in his home. The Court ruled that the amendment protected individuals, not just members of a militia. Scalia, however, made it clear that the DC gun law restricting almost all gun ownership was an extreme on the spectrum of regulation—but also that such as spectrum existed. He argued that many other types of regulation did not conflict with the Second Amendment—even as it was first understood in our young nation: bans on assault weapons, Scalia wrote, are “fairly supported by the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of ‘dangerous and unusual weapons.’”

All of the regulation proposals now on the table would clearly fit within the definition of “well-regulated,” and thus are completely compatible with a robust Second Amendment. These proposals include bans on assault weapons, increased waiting periods for purchases, and more comprehensive and widespread background checks. These are the definition of reasonable gun regulations—the types of protective measures that the Constitution not only enabled but called for the government to enact.

In fact, Scalia said explicitly in his decision that “nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”

Indeed, the supreme court recently refused to even consider a case in which a plaintiff asked the court to overturn a ten-day waiting period; his argument was that such an inconvenience was a violation of the Second Amendment. It seemed obvious to the court that such sensible gun legislation does not violate the second amendment.

This pro-regulatory reading of the Constitution is historically and textually accurate, but it is far from the NRA’s reading. In fact, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 March 2018 at 8:50 am

Posted in Government, Guns, Law

Today and tomorrow: Free digital download of the Senate report on the US program of torture

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The description of the book:

This is the complete official summary report of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation of Central Intelligence Agency interrogation and detention programs launched in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

Based on over six million internal CIA documents, the report details secret prisons, prisoner deaths, interrogation practices, and cooperation with other foreign and domestic agencies. It also examines charges that the CIA deceived elected officials and governmental overseers about the extent and legality of its operations.

Over five years in the making, and withheld from public view since its declassification in April, 2014, this is the full summary report—fully searchable in digital format—as finally released by the United States government on December 9th, 2014.

It’s particularly relevant now that one of those who administered the program of torture will be considered for head of the CIA.

Download the book here.

Torture is, of course, illegal under both US law and international law (including treaties the US has signed). The “Nuremberg defense” (“I was just following orders”), which the US rejected at the Nuremberg trials as an invalid defense if the orders themselves were illegal, has be brought forward now to defend our own war criminals: Gina Haspel was “just following orders.” Like an automaton. Do we want an automaton heading the CIA?

Vincent Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, writes in the Guardian:

We’re on the brink of a full-throttled return to officially sanctioned US torture. Our impulsive president has said he wants to bring back waterboarding “and a hell of a lot worse” and has now named Gina Haspel as the new CIA chief. Haspel personally oversaw torture at a CIA black site in Thailand, and she even seemed to relish the role.

Haspel also oversaw George W Bush’s rendition to torture program and, unsurprisingly, many in the intelligence community that are connected to the US torture program are now leaping to her defense, saying that she shouldn’t be penalized now for just following orders back then.

Former CIA Director John Brennan, who supported rendition to torture and famously said, “we do have to take the gloves off in some areas,” this week vouched for Haspel’s “integrity” and told an interviewer, “don’t forget that the detention-interrogation program was authorized by the president of the United States and deemed lawful by the Department of Justice.”

Former CIA chief General Michael Hayden said in defense of Haspel, that she did “simply everything that the agency, the agency’s directors and the nation asked her to do.”

While it is certainly not unusual for people who’ve overseen and participated in crimes against humanity like torture and genocide to be recast by their supporters as dutiful public servants, there are, in addition, two deeply disturbing trends – one old, one new – embedded both in the naming of Haspel to the position and her defenders’ characterizations of her.

Torture is illegal under US and international law in all circumstances, and human rights organizations like mine have been strongly pushing for those who ordered or committed torture after 9/11 – including the president – to be held accountable in US and international courts.

Yet Haspel’s defenders are loathe to admit that the practice she participated in was concerning, much less illegal. So defending Haspel as a duty-bound functionary when it comes to torture but a vibrant leader with great integrity when it comes to everything else seeks to erase the illegality and the depravity of the practice of torture as well as the well-deserved disgrace that must always travel with those who have practiced it.

But beyond that, there is another, more current problem, and that is the president himself. Trump, who is lining up with authoritarian rulers and tin-pot dictators around the world, has no use for the rule of law. He is impulsive, reckless, and astonishingly self-focused. A very healthy subset of high-level White House staff have been running for the exits when he’s not looking, precisely because they recognize that he demands fealty to whim rather than to the national good.

He is known for firing people because they contradict his social media exhortations. Given that our nation is being run by Donald J Trump, at least for the time being, the very last thing we need is a CIA chief who dutifully implements everything that this president authorizes. In fact, we need the exact opposite. Someone who opposes torture, doesn’t have running a torture program on their resume, and who will say no to the president when, as seems to be the case daily, he gets an urge to make his mark on the news cycle.

It is true that people who say no to Donald Trump don’t stay in their jobs for long regardless of whether they’re seen as enablers or stabilizing forces in his administration. But when it comes to dutiful public servants in the Trump administration, history will look kindly upon those who said no and were fired and those who said no and left under their own steam.

The unsung heroes of the age will be those who said no to a Trump administration job offer in the first place. But Gina Haspel will not be in that number because of her horrific record. The Center for Constitutional Rights recently submitted a filing with the International Criminal Court that brought Haspel to their attention. We wanted to highlight her impunity for torture and the heightened risk for a return to torture given her position as deputy CIA director.

Impunity breeds repetition. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 March 2018 at 8:40 am

St. Patrick’s Day shave: Creed’s Green Irish Tweed, what else?

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I cheated a bit to get a green-handled brush: the handle is in the colors of the Italian flag (green, white, and red), and I positioned it to give the green side center stage.

Creed’s Green Irish Tweed shaving soap is really excellent, but you can find soaps just as good (as shaving soaps) for a tenth the price. I bought this long ago, just to find out why so many soapmakers were making “Green Irish Tweed style” shaving soaps, and I find I really like both the fragrance and the lather it produces. The lather this morning was particularly nice: thick and creamy (much like the lather from a D.R. Harris shaving soap).

The wonderful RazoRock Baby Smooth cleared off the stubble effortlessly, and a splash of GIT EDT finished the shave. What a great way to start a weekend!

Written by LeisureGuy

17 March 2018 at 8:34 am

Posted in Shaving

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