Later On

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Archive for April 27th, 2018

Ideological purge reminiscent of the Soviet Union: Trump critics fired at conservative site RedState

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Just as in Stalinist USSR, no dissenting opinions allowed. (At least the Red State apostates were not murdered or sent to the Gulag.) Joe Concha reports in The Hill:

Conservative outlet RedState fired most of its staff Friday while its owner, Salem Media, froze the site, citing an inability to “no longer support the entire roster of writers and editors.”

“The site name will linger, but RedState is all but dead now. I have invited the fired writers here,” Erick Erickson, a RedState founder who left the site in 2015, wrote in a blog post.

Fired staffers said the cuts focused on writers who have been critical of President Trump. RedState had often distinguished itself since 2016 as a home for Trump critics within the GOP.

RedState staffers were reportedly locked out of their accounts on a temporary or permanent basis, depending on job status, while the firings were being carried out.

Patrick Frey, a RedState blogger who goes by the name of “Patterico” online, wrote on Twitter that “those let go are all Trump critics” while “his supporters remain.”

Erickson also echoed Frey’s sentiment in his Friday blog post, stating the dividing line was drawn between supporters of the president while “those insufficiently loyal to the President were fired.”

“My understanding from the writers is that there were two contracts, one more expensive than the other. Most of those on the expensive contracts were tossed, though some very good ones will stay,” wrote Erickson, himself a critic of the president.

“Of those under the cheaper contracts, it seems the dividing line was loyalty to the President. In fact, among those under the expensive contracts, I’m aware of some writers having near equal traffic generation, and those insufficiently loyal to the President were fired,” he added. . .

Continue reading.

This seems to be the way the entire Republican part is going, based on the fearfulness and timidity of Republicans in Congress.

Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin, United States. Mitch McConnell is showing the direction.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 April 2018 at 2:24 pm

Posted in GOP, Media

Game over: The impact of a computer program’s “solving” a game

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Tom Whipple writes in 1843 Magazine:

IN THE YEARS following the publication of J. Sturge’s canonical “Guide to the Game of Draughts” in 1800, the world of serious players was wracked by argument. Number 105 of Sturge’s “140 Striking Situations” had asked readers to demonstrate that with the pieces in a given position white could always win. An expert claimed in a rival publication that Sturge was wrong: the position was a draw. Another countered that it was a win for white – but not for the reasons Sturge suggested. Arguments would continue for the entire reign of Queen Victoria until a consensus was finally reached: it was a win for white.

This most controversial conundrum in the history of draughts became known as the Hundred Years Problem. The name was a little premature.

In 1997, a grandmaster showed the Hundred Years Problem to Jonathan Schaeffer, professor of computer science at the University of Alberta, who is by his own admission a rather mediocre player. Minutes later, Schaeffer announced that the result was a draw. This time, there was no controversy, because although Schaeffer is a mediocre draughts player he is an excellent computer scientist who had spent the previous decade working on a program, Chinook, designed to “solve” draughts.

It so happened that in the same year the computer Deep Blue defeated Gary Kasparov at chess – an event that Newsweek dubbed, “The Brain’s Last Stand”. In the battle of man versus machine, machine had won a great victory.

In draughts, though, the brain’s defeat has been much more comprehensive. By 1994 Chinook was already good enough to draw a championship match 6-6 with the world number one draughts player, Marion Tinsley. Three years later, it conquered the Hundred Years Problem. Ten years after that, it defeated the game itself: a paper published in the journal Science showed that Schaeffer’s program could play a “perfect” game of draughts. Whatever its opponent did, it would respond with the strongest possible play. While in theory a better computer program than Deep Blue could come along, the best any future human or computer could hope to do against Chinook was to draw. The game contained no further mysteries.

To many players, Chinook’s victory was the game’s loss. Before a game is solved a skilled player can be considered an artist, driven by inspiration and creativity as much as by cold logic. Afterwards the player is a fallible human – imperfectly striving to do what a computer has already done. The success of Chinook was as if overnight portrait painters had to cope with the invention of photography, calligraphers with the printing press.

Tinsley was untroubled. He said the program made him feel young again: for decades he had been unbeatable and at last he had a worthy opponent. But some draughts players took it badly. “They said I was going to destroy the game, to ruin it – that no one was going to play,” says Schaeffer. He received hate mail. Some players argued that the computer’s ability to draw on a database of moves, rather than computing best play each time, was cheating. Others considered Schaeffer had besmirched the name of Tinsley, who over a 40-year career lost fewer than ten games. In particular, they objected to the fact that the program won against him by default, because he discovered he had terminal cancer halfway through. “Chinook couldn’t hold a candle to Tinsley,” complained one angry player in a letter to Schaeffer. Another accused him of “trumpeting an unjustified victory against a sick old man”, a third of “engaging in intellectual dishonesty”. A fourth just called him “despicable”.

This upset Schaeffer, who in the course of developing the program had formed a friendship with Tinsley. “He was as close to perfection as you could imagine a human being. What some human players were upset about is we now were better than him.” Schaeffer uses the collective noun a couple of times when referring to him and Chinook. “He was truly outstanding, but he wasn’t quite perfect. He would make a mistake. It may have been only once every 10-15 years, but he would make a mistake.”

Schaeffer is one of a small group around the world trying to solve the world’s games. Last year, a colleague of his published a paper in which he solved a simplified version of poker. It ended by quoting Alan Turing: “It would be disingenuous of us to disguise the fact that the principal motive which prompted the work was the sheer fun of the thing.”

THERE ARE AROUND 26,830 days in the average life. If you walked 26,830 miles you would cover the entire circumference of the equator, and still have enough distance left to go from Paris to Moscow. There are also 26,830 possible permutations in the first major game to be solved by a computer. That sounds like a lot, but this is a game so simple that in America there is a family of animal trainers that raises chickens to play it against humans as a casino attraction: noughts and crosses.

Most humans have solved noughts and crosses, and the solution is a draw. Writing a program to play a perfect game of noughts and crosses is now a basic undergraduate assignment.

A bigger number is 4,531,985,219,092. There have been roughly 4.5 trillion seconds since humans evolved. When Victor Allis, a computer-science student, contemplated the number in 1988, he realised it was too big for any computer to handle. It is, however, the number of possible permutations in Connect 4. “Computers then were pretty small,” says Allis.

Allis now runs Quintiq, a large Dutch software company. But he still enjoys talking about Connect 4. Unlike Schaeffer and draughts,  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 April 2018 at 11:01 am

Breaking bad news

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Sally Williams writes in 1843 Magazine:

ONE WINTER EVENING in 1986, a police officer stood outside a home in north London, knowing he had to tell the woman inside that her husband was dead. Just 23, Jason Clauson was the newest recruit at the station, and therefore, by tradition, the one pushed into delivering the “death message”. “They’d say, ‘Come on lad, you’ve got to go and do it.’ If you objected, the governor would have gone, ‘Don’t be so stupid’.”

A few hours earlier, Clauson had been called to a roadside where a man in his late 50s had been found dead at the wheel of his car. It transpired that the man had taken early retirement and was on his way home from his last half-day at work, when he had apparently stopped because he felt unwell. Seconds later, he had a massive heart attack; the engine was still running when he died.

“He was sat there for three hours with the car overheating before someone noticed and started banging on the window, thinking he was asleep,” Clauson remembers. “By the time I got to the house, his wife was panicking because she’d called his office and they’d told her he’d left hours ago. So as soon as she opened the door and saw me, she knew something was wrong and she staggered on the doorstep. I reached out to grab her and her daughter got hold of her and said, ‘What’s wrong?’ And now they’re both saying, ‘What’s up? What’s wrong?’ Just bombarding me with the same question.

“I remember being told, ‘try and get them to sit down because if they faint [while standing up] they’ve got further to fall’, so eventually I got them to sit down. Basically I said, ‘I’m afraid I’ve got some terrible news for you. Your husband has passed away in his car.’ And you could see her world collapse. And you could see her daughter’s world collapse too. And I was sitting with my arm on the shoulder of two ladies thinking, what do I do now?”

Breaking bad news might seem straightforward. “It’s not rocket science,” said one surgeon I spoke to, “you’ve just got to be a half-decent person and give them the facts.” But common sense tells us that those facts are an emotional bomb waiting to go off. And medical thinking now recognises this: receiving bad news, according to the Western Journal of Medicine, “results in cognitive, behavioural, or emotional deficit in the person receiving the news that persists for some time after the news is received.” News of a sudden death can prompt intense crying, anger or guilt. Some people appear calm and controlled; others are seized by a need to be busy—faced with overwhelming pain, some of us block it by going and doing the washing-up. But no one in such a predicament can be considered normal. We go into shock, which means we are unbalanced mentally and physically. Distress impairs circulation, makes us cold, disrupts the endocrine, immune and cardiovascular systems, upsets rational thought, disturbs sleep.

Every year, 1.17m people die in road accidents around the world. As of January 2011, 7,066 soldiers from coalition forces had been killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with an estimated 110,000 civilians; in 2007, the last year for which there are full figures, 521,303 people died of cancer in western Europe. Behind all these statistics are families who need to be informed and someone whose job it is to inform them. There is now a widespread belief that the way the news is delivered has a profound effect on the way the dead person is remembered and the way the survivors heal.

There are some textbook examples of what not to do. Putting a note through the letterbox; getting the victim’s name wrong; using euphemisms such as “lost” or “passed on” (confusing at a time when someone is trying hard not to believe it); and turning up in shorts and flip-flops, like the British diplomats who greeted one woman as she arrived in Bahrain in 2006 after her husband’s death in a boat disaster. A vision that has stuck in her mind, rather than anything that was said.

And what of the bearers of bad news? What is it like to knock on a door knowing you are about to instigate the worst moment in someone’s life, and then have to confront the ways in which they do or do not deal with the fact that a life has ended? We live in an age where death has been largely exiled offstage. Families used to see it up close, at home; it did not typically involve hospital wards or dual carriageways or a stranger breaking the bad news. And there has been a slow realisation that unless the psychological particulars of that moment are addressed, unless the many challenges of grief and shock are dealt with competently, there can be unwelcome consequences. Which is why a number of fields have begun to wrestle with the problem: how do you break bad news in a good way?

ROB COCKBURN SITS in his office in London, opens his laptop, inserts a DVD and shows me how best to tell someone they’re dying. Cockburn manages Connected, a nationwide British programme to train oncologists in “difficult consultations”.

Launched in 2008, and funded by the Department of Health, it has so far trained 9,000 clinicians working with cancer on three-day courses using experts, actors and role play. The course is not voluntary: all cancer specialists in Britain are now expected to attend. This is the legacy of a shift in medical thinking. Thirty years ago, doctors believed that the dying didn’t want or need to know how ill they were. They disguised the truth in euphemisms (“just a little growth”) or restricted it to the patient’s family. Telling the patient, they believed, would take away all their hope. Even a decade ago, doctors felt quite anxious about telling people they had cancer and were going to die, so that news was often withheld from them.

In 2000, a report entitled Open Space was published by Macmillan Cancer Relief. “If only the surgeon would talk to me properly,” one patient said to the researchers. “They arrived in a group of five round my bed in hospital—and he talked quickly to me—he discussed something with them and moved on—I had no chance to ask questions…the surgeon gave me the impression he was busy big-time in front of his juniors—and not caring about my feelings…he is a clever surgeon but has a bad way with patients.”

Also in 2000, the Blair government launched a Cancer Plan to upgrade services and start a new drive informed by an increasing awareness of patients’ psychological needs. Some patients, the plan said, were “being given bad news in a deeply insensitive way, being left in the dark about their condition and badly informed about their treatment and care…By 2002 it will be a pre-condition of qualification that they [hospital consultants] are able to demonstrate competence in communication with patients.”

The ability to communicate is now seen as an essential clinical skill. The DVD in Cockburn’s laptop is some homework for his trainees. It features Dr Pauline Leonard, a consultant medical oncologist and trainer on the course, who is in her 40s and has long blonde hair, along with two fictional characters—“Sylvia Braithwaite”, a meek woman in her early 50s, suffering from bowel cancer, and her domineering husband “Harry”. The couple are played by actors, but the scenario is based on a real case. Sylvia has had surgery to remove a tumour and part of her bowel, followed by six months of chemotherapy, and she thinks the worst is over. But this is the moment when Dr Leonard has to tell her the treatment hasn’t worked: the cancer has spread to her liver and lungs and she has only 12 to 14 months to live.

Cockburn goes through the DVD, stopping and rewinding to discuss Dr Leonard’s methods. He picks out the way she starts by asking Sylvia how she is: “she’s allowing the patient to express feelings.” The trouble is that Sylvia says she’s feeling a lot better and looking forward to having her colostomy bag removed. She smiles, hopefully. We fast-forward.

Dr Leonard pauses, then takes a deep breath. “There was never a guarantee that six months of chemotherapy would stop the cancer.”

Cockburn points at the screen, “That’s the warning shot,” he says. “ ‘No guarantee’—now if you were hearing that, you would subconsciously or consciously think: hang on a minute, that doesn’t sound so good.”

He presses play: Dr Leonard gives the facts, and then says,  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 April 2018 at 10:52 am

Posted in Daily life, Medical, Science

Non cogito, ergo sum

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Ian Leslie writes in 1843 Magazine:

IT WAS THE fifth set of a semi-final at last year’s US Open. After four hours of epic tennis, Roger Federer needed one more point to see off his young challenger, Novak Djokovic. As Federer prepared to serve, the crowd roared in anticipation. At the other end, Djokovic nodded, as if in acceptance of his fate.

Federer served fast and deep to Djokovic’s right. Seconds later he found himself stranded, uncomprehending, in mid-court. Djokovic had returned his serve with a loose-limbed forehand of such lethal precision that Federer couldn’t get near it. The nonchalance of Djokovic’s stroke thrilled the crowd. John McEnroe called it “one of the all-time great shots”.

Djokovic won the game, set, match and tournament. At his press conference, Federer was a study in quiet fury. It was tough, he said, to lose because of a “lucky shot”. Some players do that, he continued: “Down 5-2 in the third, they just start slapping shots …How can you play a shot like that on match point?”

Asked the same question, Djokovic smiled. “Yeah, I tend to do that on match points. It kinda works.”

Federer’s inability to win Grand Slams in the last two years hasn’t been due to physical decline so much as a new mental frailty that emerges at crucial moments. In the jargon of sport, he has been “choking”. This, say the experts, is caused by thinking too much. When a footballer misses a penalty or a golfer fluffs a putt, it is because they have become self-conscious. By thinking too hard, they lose the fluid physical grace required to succeed. Perhaps Federer was so upset because, deep down, he recognised that his opponent had tapped into a resource that he, an all-time great, is finding harder to reach: unthinking.

Unthinking is the ability to apply years of learning at the crucial moment by removing your thinking self from the equation. Its power is not confined to sport: actors and musicians know about it too, and are apt to say that their best work happens in a kind of trance. Thinking too much can kill not just physical performance but mental inspiration. Bob Dylan, wistfully recalling his youthful ability to write songs without even trying, described the making of “Like a Rolling Stone” as a “piece of vomit, 20 pages long”. It hasn’t stopped the song being voted the best of all time.

In less dramatic ways the same principle applies to all of us. A fundamental paradox of human psychology is that thinking can be bad for us. When we follow our own thoughts too closely, we can lose our bearings, as our inner chatter drowns out common sense. A study of shopping behaviour found that the less information people were given about a brand of jam, the better the choice they made. When offered details of ingredients, they got befuddled by their options and ended up choosing a jam they didn’t like.

If a rat is faced with a puzzle in which food is placed on its left 60% of the time and on the right 40% of the time, it will quickly deduce that the left side is more rewarding, and head there every time, thus achieving a 60% success rate. Young children adopt the same strategy. When Yale undergraduates play the game, they try to figure out some underlying pattern, and end up doing worse than the rat or the child. We really can be too clever for our own good.

By allowing ourselves to listen to our (better) instincts, we can tap into a kind of compressed wisdom. The psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer argues that much of our behaviour is based on deceptively sophisticated rules-of-thumb, or “heuristics”. A robot programmed to chase and catch a ball would need to compute a series of complex differential equations to track the ball’s trajectory. But baseball players do so by instinctively following simple rules: run in the right general direction, and adjust your speed to keep a constant angle between eye and ball.

To make good decisions in a complex world, Gigerenzer says, you have to be skilled at ignoring information. He found that a portfolio of stocks picked by people he interviewed in the street did better than those chosen by experts. The pedestrians were using the “recognition heuristic”: they picked companies they’d heard of, which was a better guide to future success than any analysis of price-earning ratios.

Researchers from Columbia Business School, New York, conducted an experiment in which people were asked to predict outcomes across a range of fields, from politics to the weather to the winner of “American Idol”. They found that those who placed high trust in their feelings made better predictions than those who didn’t. The result only applied, however, when the participants had some prior knowledge.

This last point is vital. Unthinking is not the same as ignorance; you can’t unthink if you haven’t already thought. Djokovic was able to pull off his wonder shot because he had played a thousand variations on it in previous matches and practice; Dylan’s lyrical outpourings drew on his immersion in folk songs, French poetry and American legends. The unconscious minds of great artists and sportsmen are like dense rainforests, which send up spores of inspiration. . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

On that last point—having to learn soething so well that you no longer have to think about the mechanics, you just do it—is something I’ve likened to learning a skill as one learns a language: you do not have to search for and assemble the individual words/actions, you just automatically use them to express your thought. Your focus becomes your goal, which you achieve without thought. For example, a skilled fencer n launching an attack is not thinking analytically/thoughtfully about what s/he’s doing, but is reading the opponent and engaging in a series of practiced moves (without really thinking about them) to achieve the touch. And I believe jazz improvisation is much like this as well: the ideas flow through without the musician having to consider fingerings or individual notes. Those who learn Morse code, no longer hear dots and dashes nor even letters, but words and sentences.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 April 2018 at 10:44 am

Posted in Daily life

Light through the Fog: Translations of the “Odyssey”

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Colin Burrow writes in the London Review of Books:

  • The Odyssey translated by Peter Green
    California, 538 pp, £24.00, April, ISBN 978 0 520 29363 2
  • The Odyssey translated by Emily Wilson
    Norton, 592 pp, £30.00, December 2017, ISBN 978 0 393 08905 9
  • The Odyssey translated by Anthony Verity
    Oxford, 384 pp, £7.99, February, ISBN 978 0 19 873647 9

Sausages and sneezes both have small but significant parts to play in Homer’s Odyssey. Sausages (or blood-puddings, or ‘paunches full of blood and fat’ as more literal translators call them) figure occasionally as food. But they also pop and fizzle their way into a simile that describes Odysseus’ behaviour the night before he slaughters his wife Penelope’s suitors, which Peter Green translates like this:

As a man cooking a paunch chockful of fat and blood
on a fierce blazing fire will turn it to and fro,
determined to get it cooked through as fast as he can,
so Odysseus tossed this way and that, trying to work out
how he was going to lay hands on the shameless suitors,
one man against so many.

This simile was much reviled by neoclassical critics. In his translation of 1726 Alexander Pope couldn’t bring himself to mention the sausage, and produced instead one of his prissiest euphemisms: ‘As one who long with pale-ey’d famine pin’d,/The sav’ry cates on glowing embers cast.’ Odysseus has returned to Ithaca and is still disguised as a beggar, which is the reason he can be compared to a humble cooker of sausages. He is trying at this moment to do what The Odyssey as a whole attempts to do: to make deliberative inaction into something heroic. He has just overheard the slave girls of his household giggle as they head off to assignations with the suitors, who are eating all the prime cuts of his pigs and cattle. Should he kill the slave girls immediately or allow them one more gaudy night? He tells himself to swallow his anger. As Emily Wilson has it in her sprightly rendering:

      ‘Be strong, my heart. You were
hounded by worse the day the Cyclops ate
your strong companions. But you kept your nerve,
till cunning saved you from the cave; you thought
that you would die there.’

And so, having reached a decision not to kill the slave girls, Odysseus lies writhing like a man impatient for his sausage to be cooked. It’s an unusually extended example of the way the author of The Odyssey (whom we call Homer, but who probably dates from at least half a century after the person or persons who wrote The Iliad) does interior psychology. Two options are clearly stated (kill now, or kill later). The hero decides, and bides his time. But all the energy of the resisted option fizzles and spits within him.

The sneeze in The Odyssey is a bit different, but it also indicates how complicated the psychology of this poem can appear to be. Odysseus’ son, Telemachus, sneezes immediately after Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, has (in Peter Green’s literal translation) said this:

      ‘there is no man here
such as Odysseus once was, to keep ruin from our house.
But were Odysseus to come back home, then he and his son
would at once exact vengeance for these men’s violent acts.’
So she spoke. Tēlemachos now sneezed, loudly. The whole
house echoed ringingly round them. Penelopē laughed,
and at once addressed Eumaios with winged words, saying:
‘Please go now and bring the stranger [the disguised Odysseus] here before me!
Don’t you see how my son just sneezed at everything I said.’

A footnote in Green’s translation tells us that sneezes were regarded as omens in antiquity, and so, implicitly, Telemachus does not ‘sneeze at’ Penelope’s speech in the modern sense of regarding it as nothing, but rather as a sign that it will all come true. Odysseus will indeed return and wreak vengeance on the suitors. This historical explanation for the sneeze has been common at least since Eustathius’s commentary from the 12th century. But Telemachus’ sneeze also invites other kinds of explanation. His mother has just said in public and in front of him that there is no man around like his father, Odysseus. But she has also said that when Odysseus returns his son will join him in vengeance. Attention is turned on Telemachus in a way that both makes him big and belittles him. Then he sneezes. Does the sneeze express awkwardness or embarrassment as well as being a portent?

The sneeze is a kind of reprise of an earlier outburst from the youthful Telemachus, who doesn’t quite know if he is a man or not, or if he can take control of his father’s household or not. In Book 1 Penelope tells the bard Phemius to stop singing about the return of the heroes from Troy because it makes her weep. This prompts Telemachus to give his mother a dressing-down, which concludes (this time in Anthony Verity’s careful and unshowy translation):

‘Go back to your rooms and take charge of your own tasks,
the loom and the distaff, and order your women servants
to go about their work. Talk must be men’s concern, all of
them, and mine especially, for the power in the house is mine.’

The anxious young man asserts himself here in a remarkable way. He virtually quotes an earlier hero, and that makes it particularly hard to assess the tone of his speech. In Book 6 of The Iliad Hector told his wife, Andromache, to go back to her weaving and leave war to men. Telemachus uses the same phrases as Hector, but substitutes the word ‘talk’ or ‘speech’ (muthos) for ‘war’ (polemos). Aristarchus, one of Homer’s earliest editors, regarded this as a sign that Telemachus’ rebuke to his mother was an interpolation by a later author. More recent editors have shared his suspicion because the same form of words is repeated much later in the poem in a context that seems more appropriate. But along with the sausage and the sneeze, Telemachus’ attempt here to sound like the hero Hector – a man uncompromisingly in control of his household, and who is talking to his wife, rather than to a mother who may be about to remarry – shows something significant about the psychological and poetic methods of The Odyssey, as well as demonstrating how difficult it is to be sure about what is going on in the poem. A sneeze or a quotation from The Iliad can convey power and awkwardness at once. Lines from The Iliad repeated in a new context may show a young man trying to replicate earlier heroism by quoting it, or the Odyssey-poet making a slightly clumsy use of the tradition inherited from the Iliad-poet, or they might have been added by an enthusiastic scribe or editor. Being a hero after or before the battlefield, in the close environment of a household or – worst of all – in front of your mum, isn’t easy. And describing behaviour in a household in an oral formulaic idiom fashioned principally to represent action on the battlefield can simultaneously generate enigmas, awkwardness of tone, and suggestions of psychological depth.

All of this makes The Odyssey much harder to translate than The Iliad. One person’s interpolation or historical curiosity will be another person’s moment of deep psychological insight. That problem is compounded by . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 April 2018 at 10:36 am

Posted in Books

The Obstinacy of Mitch McConnell

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David Leonhardt writes in the NY Times:

“We’ll not be having this on the floor of the Senate.”

That’s Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, describing a billmeant to protect Robert Mueller from being fired by President Trump.

McConnell has been forced to take this stand because — in a rare display of Republican independence from Trump — the Senate Judiciary Committee moved the bill forward yesterday. The vote was 14-7, with four of the 11 Republicans on the committee joining all 10 Democrats in support. “It’s not about Mr. Mueller, it’s not about Trump,” Senator Lindsey Graham, who cast one of the yes votes, said. “It’s about the rule of law.”

And yet the bill will not pass — will not even get a vote — because of the obstinacy of McConnell.

Or at least that’s the story that you may have read in virtually every media outlet yesterday. The full truth is a bit different.

McConnell does not have the power to block a bill from being voted on. No senator does, not even the majority leader. Any senator can propose that a bill receive a vote. And if 51 senators want it to receive a vote, they can ensure that it does. Senate custom, however, has become that senators from both parties forfeit that power to the majority leader: The majority leader now decides what does and doesn’t get a vote.

James Wallner, a senior fellow at the R Street Institute in Washington and a former Republican Senate staffer, gave me a history lesson yesterday about Senate procedure, and I think it’s an important one. The practice of yielding to the majority leader began in the late 1940s, Wallner explains. Lyndon Johnson took it to a new level as the Senate majority leader in the 1950s, persuading even committee chairmen from not putting bills forward for a vote.

Senators have kept up the practice because it helps keep their party unified, rather than enduring votes that divide it. But this centralization of Senate power has an enormous downside. It makes bipartisan compromise harder to achieve. Coalitions that could pass a bill — but that don’t include the majority leader — don’t get the chance to form. As Wallner says, the practice makes our political system less freewheeling and open. “By stopping the legislative process before it starts,” he told me, “it makes compromise harder.”

So when you read about McConnell preventing a vote on the bill that could protect the Russia investigation, go ahead and be angry at him. He is protecting his partisan interests — or at least he thinks he is — at the expense of the rule of law. But don’t blame only McConnell.

Any senator can put forward a bill for a vote. Any 51 can make sure the bill gets a vote. The Senate has 47 Democrats, two independents and four Republicans who just voted for the bill on the Judiciary Committee. And 47 + 2 + 4 = 53. . .

Continue reading.

Will the Senate step up to its responsibilities? Probably not. And the GOP leadership continues its defense (and enabling) of President Trump.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 April 2018 at 10:28 am

The original maraschino cherry and the US industrial imitation

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Robert Lamb writes is Gastro Obscura:

THE MENTION OF A MARASCHINO cherry usually conjures up one of two images: Either a bright red bead atop a scoop of ice cream, or a dark, liqueur-preserved globule submerged in a cocktail. There’s no confusing one of these cherries for the other, though. Each represents a distinctive food culture, a unique preservation method, and even a different plant species. Yet consumers and manufacturers alike refer to them both as maraschino cherries.

The story of how two wildly different fruits became known by the same name begins with the maraschino cherry’s Croatian roots. The craftspeople in Croatia’s Dalmatia region first began preserving their cherries in liqueur roughly two or three centuries ago. According to Christopher J. Jolly’s Science, Service, and Specialized Agriculture: The Re-Invention of the Maraschino Cherry, major historical sources agree that its birthplace was the town of Zadar. Here, in this ancient city on the coast of the Adriatic Sea, locals enjoyed access to traditional maraschino cherries’ key ingredients: The dark cherry Prunus cerasus var. marasca—which they brined in seawater—and the clear maraschino liqueur derived from its fermentation.

The Girolamo Luxardo company, founded in Zadar in 1821, is the best-known maker of both maraschino liqueur and maraschino cherries. The First and Second World Wars forced many Croatian farmers to relocate to Italy—so Luxardo has operated as an Italian company since 1945. There, those with a sweet tooth can still find jars of their maraschino cherries in liquor stores, with their dark contents immersed in a thick, sweet crimson syrup.

Still, these original maraschino cherries aren’t what many people, especially in the United States, have come to expect atop a banana split, or speared through with a plastic sword. So where did the contemporary maraschino cherry arise?

Cherry liqueur and preserved cherries already had a place in American cuisine as far back as 1742. That’s when The Compleat Housewife cookbook, replete with recipes for sugar-preserved cherries, cherry wine, and cherry brandy, first made its way across the pond. So when maraschino liqueur and cherries made the voyage across the Atlantic, palates were ready. As Jolly points out, confectionary stores likely peddled these imports alongside their various sweets, nuts, and liquors. Maraschino ice cream popped up in 19th-century American restaurants and, by the early 20th century, had solidified their place as a cocktail favorite. They were also ingredients in popular candies, such as the chocolate-covered cherry. . .

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Luxardo maraschino cherries are divine, and The Eldest also recommends Fabbri maraschino cherries (which I have on order now that she recommended them).

Written by LeisureGuy

27 April 2018 at 10:23 am

Posted in Daily life, Drinks, Food

ICE held an American man in custody for 1,273 days. He’s not the only one who had to prove his citizenship

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The ICE is increasingly like the Gestapo. Paige St. John and Joel Rubin report in the LA Times:

Immigration officers in the United States operate under a cardinal rule: Keep your hands off Americans.

But Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents repeatedly target U.S. citizens for deportation by mistake, making wrongful arrests based on incomplete government records, bad data and lax investigations, according to a Times review of federal lawsuits, internal ICE documents and interviews.

Since 2012, ICE has released from its custody more than 1,480 people after investigating their citizenship claims, according to agency figures. And a Times review of Department of Justice records and interviews with immigration attorneys uncovered hundreds of additional cases in the country’s immigration courts in which people were forced to prove they are Americans and sometimes spent months or even years in detention.

Victims include a landscaper snatched in a Home Depot parking lot in Rialto and held for days despite his son’s attempts to show agents the man’s U.S. passport; a New York resident locked up for more than three years fighting deportation efforts after a federal agent mistook his father for someone who wasn’t a U.S. citizen; and a Rhode Island housekeeper mistakenly targeted twice, resulting in her spending a night in prison the second time even though her husband had brought her U.S. passport to a court hearing.

They and others described the panic and feeling of powerlessness that set in as agents took them into custody without explanation and ignored their claims of citizenship.

The wrongful arrests account for a small fraction of the more than 100,000 arrests ICE makes each year, and it’s unclear whether the Trump administration’s aggressive push to increase deportations will lead to more mistakes. But the detentions of U.S. citizens amount to an unsettling type of collateral damage in the government’s effort to remove illegal or unwanted immigrants.

The errors reveal flaws in the way ICE identifies people for deportation, including its reliance on databases that are incomplete and plagued by mistakes. The wrongful arrests also highlight a presumption that pervades U.S. immigration agencies and courts that those born outside the United States are not here legally unless electronic records show otherwise. And when mistakes are not quickly remedied, citizens are forced into an immigration court system where they must fight to prove they should not be removed from the country, often without the help of an attorney.

The Times found that the two groups most vulnerable to becoming mistaken ICE targets are the children of immigrants and citizens born outside the country.

Matthew Albence, the head of ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations, declined to be interviewed but said in a written statement that investigating citizen claims can be a complex task involving searches of electronic and paper records as well as personal interviews. He said ICE updates records when errors are found and agents arrest only those they have probable cause to suspect are eligible for deportation.

“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement takes very seriously any and all assertions that an individual detained in its custody may be a U.S. citizen,” he said.

But The Times’ review of federal documents and lawsuits turned up cases in which Americans were arrested based on mistakes or cursory ICE investigations and some who were repeatedly targeted because the government failed to update its records. Immigration lawyers said federal agents rarely conduct interviews before making arrests and getting ICE to correct its records is difficult.

A big mistake

Sergio Carrillo had already been handcuffed in the Home Depot parking lot in Rialto on a July morning in 2016 when an officer in Homeland Security uniform appeared.

“Homeland Security?” Carrillo asked. “What do you want with me?”

Ignoring Carrillo’s demands for an explanation, the officer ordered the 39-year-old landscaper taken to a federal detention facility in downtown Los Angeles.

“You’re making a big mistake,” Carrillo recalled saying from the back seat to the officers driving him. “I am a U.S. citizen.” . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

27 April 2018 at 10:18 am

Stunning song performance

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As you can see, I’ve been on a video kick lately. Check this out:

Written by LeisureGuy

27 April 2018 at 10:09 am

Posted in Music, Video

Lego-style home construction

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It’s also sort of Japanese in that it doesn’t use any nails (or glue): just interlocking wooden pieces. Video is better without sound.


Written by LeisureGuy

27 April 2018 at 10:07 am

The RazoRock Mamba (with Halo handle) and Phoenix Artisan Solstice

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I broke down and got Italian Barber’s new stainless steel Mamba razor, which arrived last night. I loaded it with an Astra Keramik Platinum blade. On this razor (as on a few others, like the Pils) the alignment studs are on the baseplate and not the cap. Since you load the blade onto the alignment studs, that means for this razor you load the blade on the baseplate, as the description at the link points out.

As you see, I got the Halo handle—the ribbed Stealth and Baby Smooth handles work very well—grippy even when wet—and this is the same idea.

Phoenix Artisan Solstice is a favorite shaving soap, both for its fragrance and for its lather, and I used their redoubtable Green Ray synthetic brush to make the lather. Totally satisfactory in every respect.

Then I set to work with the Mamba. The Halo handle currently has a curious feature: the base of the handle is threaded, so you can remove the base entirely, making the handle a bit shorter if you want. However, the difference in handle length is negligible, and I found the feature not useful (and IB said I am not alone, and that feature will be discontinued). The threads were very smooth there, but initially the threads at the other end, cap and handle, were a bit rough, but that was easily overcome and I imagine will be no further problem. It is probably just caused by a small burr, and once that is gone (and I could lubricate with a little mineral oil), I expect no further problem, especially since it is machined to a tolerance of 0.002″.)

The shave is very like the Black Mamba predecessor, though perhaps this stainless Maba is a bit more efficient (with no loss of comfort). Based on my shave today, I would put it in my top razor category (very comfortable and very efficient), and paying just $50 for a CNC-machined stainless steel razor strikes me as a great bargain. I would note that Father’s Day is in June, and I think most men would be delighted to receive this razor. (If they don’t already shave with a DE razor, a copy of my Guide might be useful, but don’t take my (possibly biased) word for that—check out the reader reviews.)

Written by LeisureGuy

27 April 2018 at 9:47 am

Posted in Shaving

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