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Archive for December 14th, 2018

Michael Flynn continues lying

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I imagine his habit worsened through his association with Donald Trump, but Flynn’s now lying that he was “tricked” into lying to FBI agents. I would like to see his description of how that trick was done.

From a NY Times newsletter:

The special counsel’s office rejected a suggestion from Michael Flynn, President Trump’s former national security adviser, that he had been tricked into lying to F.B.I. agents investigating Russia’s election interference and ties to Trump associates.

Prosecutors laid out a pattern of lies by Mr. Flynn, above, to Vice President Mike Pence, senior White House aides, federal investigators and the media in the weeks before and after the presidential inauguration as he scrambled to obscure the truth about his communications with Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. at the time.

Neither Mr. Flynn nor his lawyers have explained why he lied. But in a memo this week asking for little or no prison time, they blamed the F.B.I. for not informing Mr. Flynn ahead of time that lying to agents is illegal.

In court papers, prosecutors repudiated the argument. “A sitting national security adviser, former head of an intelligence agency, retired lieutenant general and 33-year veteran of the armed forces knows he should not lie to federal agents,” they said.

Emphasis added, and I would include grabbing Gen. Flynn by the shoulders and shaking him as I shout that text at him, if I could.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 December 2018 at 3:25 pm

The Republican Party, completely corrupted by a lust for power

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George Packer has an interesting article in the Atlantic, which concludes:

. . . It took only 16 years, with the election of Ronald Reagan, for the movement and party to merge. During those years, conservatives hammered away at institutional structures, denouncing the established ones for their treacherous liberalism, and building alternatives, in the form of well-funded right-wing foundations, think tanks, business lobbies, legal groups, magazines, publishers, professorships. When Reagan won the presidency in 1980, the products of this “counter-establishment” (from the title of Sidney Blumenthal’s book on the subject) were ready to take power.

Reagan commanded a revolution, but he himself didn’t have a revolutionary character. He didn’t think the public needed to be indoctrinated and organized, only heard.

But conservatism remained an insurgent politics during the 1980s and ’90s, and the more power it amassed—in government, business, law, media—the more it set itself against the fragile web of established norms and delighted in breaking them. The second insurgency was led by Newt Gingrich, who had come to Congress two years before Reagan became president, with the avowed aim of overthrowing the established Republican leadership and shaping the minority party into a fighting force that could break Democratic rule by shattering what he called the “corrupt left-wing machine.” Gingrich liked to quote Mao’s definition of politics as “war without blood.” He made audiotapes that taught Republican candidates how to demonize the opposition with labels such as “disgrace,” “betray,” and  “traitors.” When he became speaker of the House, at the head of yet another revolution, Gingrich announced, “There will be no compromise.” How could there be, when he was leading a crusade to save American civilization from its liberal enemies?

Even after Gingrich was driven from power, the victim of his own guillotine, he regularly churned out books that warned of imminent doom—unless America turned to a leader like him (he once called himself “teacher of the rules of civilization,” among other exalted epithets). Unlike Goldwater and Reagan, Gingrich never had any deeply felt ideology. It was hard to say exactly what “American civilization” meant to him. What he wanted was power, and what he most obviously enjoyed was smashing things to pieces in its pursuit. His insurgency started the conservative movement on the path to nihilism.

The party purged itself of most remaining moderates, growing ever-more shallow as it grew ever-more conservative—from Goldwater (who, in 1996, joked that he had become a Republican liberal) to Ted Cruz, from Buckley to Dinesh D’Souza. Jeff Flake, the outgoing senator from Arizona (whose conservative views come with a democratic temperament), describes this deterioration as “a race to the bottom to see who can be meaner and madder and crazier. It is not enough to be conservative anymore. You have to be vicious.” The viciousness doesn’t necessarily reside in the individual souls of Republican leaders. It flows from the party’s politics, which seeks to delegitimize opponents and institutions, purify the ranks through purges and coups, and agitate followers with visions of apocalypse—all in the name of an ideological cause that every year loses integrity as it becomes indistinguishable from power itself.

The third insurgency came in reaction to the election of Barack Obama—it was the Tea Party. Eight years later, it culminated in Trump’s victory, an insurgency within the party itself—because revolutions tend to be self-devouring (“I’m not willing to preside over people who are cannibals,” Gingrich declared in 1998 when he quit the House). In the third insurgency, the features of the original movement surfaced again, more grotesque than ever: paranoia and conspiracy thinking; racism and other types of hostility toward entire groups; innuendos and incidents of violence. The new leader is like his authoritarian counterparts abroad: illiberal, demagogic, hostile to institutional checks, demanding and receiving complete acquiescence from the party, and enmeshed in the financial corruption that is integral to the political corruption of these regimes. Once again, liberals failed to see it coming and couldn’t grasp how it happened. Neither could some conservatives who still believed in democracy.

The corruption of the Republican Party in the Trump era seemed to set in with breathtaking speed. In fact, it took more than a half century to reach the point where faced with a choice between democracy and power, the party chose the latter. Its leaders don’t see a dilemma—democratic principles turn out to be disposable tools, sometimes useful, sometimes inconvenient. The higher cause is conservatism, but the highest is power. After Wisconsin Democrats swept statewide offices last month, Robin Vos, speaker of the assembly, explained why Republicans would have to get rid of the old rules: “We are going to have a very liberal governor who is going to enact policies that are in direct contrast to what many of us believe in.”

Read the whole thing.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 December 2018 at 2:35 pm

Posted in GOP, Government, Politics

Escape from the Trump Cult

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Alexander Hurst has a very interesting article in the New Republic:

On December 20, 1954, some 62 years before Donald Trump would be sworn in as president of the United States, Dorothy Martin and dozens of her followers crowded into her home in Chicago to await the apocalypse. The group believed that Martin, a housewife, had received a message from a planet named Clarion that the world would end in a great flood beginning at midnight, and that they, the faithful, would be rescued by an alien spacecraft.

Unbeknownst to the other “Seekers,” three of their group—Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter—were not there to be saved, but to observe. Anthropologists from elite institutions, they had infiltrated the pseudo-cult to study Festinger’s recently elaborated theory of “cognitive dissonance.” The theory predicted that when people with strongly held beliefs were presented with contrary evidence, rather than change their minds they would seek comfort and “cognitive consonance” by convincing others to support their erroneous views.

Festinger’s prediction was right. When neither the apocalypse nor the UFO arrived, the group began proselytizing about how God had rewarded the Earth with salvation because of their vigil. His subsequent book, When Prophecy Fails, became a standard sociology reference for examining cognitive dissonance, religious prophecy, and cult-like behavior. [It also served as a springboard for Alison Lurie’s wonderful novel Imaginary Friends, highly recommended – LG] What the three researchers probably never predicted, though, was that over half a century later Festinger’s theory would be applicable to roughly 25 percentof the population of the United States and one of its two major political parties. Nor could they have foreseen that the country’s salvation might well depend on its ability to deprogram the Trump cult’s acolytes—an effort that would require a level of sympathetic engagement on the part of nonbelievers that they have yet to display.

Personality cults are a hallmark of populist-autocratic politics. The names of the various leaders are practically synonymous with their movements: Le Pen, Farage, Duterte, Orbán, Erdogan, Chávez, Bolsonaro, Putin. Or if we were to dip farther back into history: Castro, Franco, Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin. Like religious cult leaders, demagogues understand the importance of setting up an in-group/out-group dynamic as a means of establishing their followers’ identity as members of a besieged collective.

Trump, like the populist authoritarians before and around him, has also understood (or, at least, instinctually grasped) how indispensable his own individual persona is to his ultimate goal of grasping and maintaining power. Amidst his string of business failures, Trump’s singular talent has been that of any con man: the incredible ability to cultivate a public image. Of course, Trump did not build his cult of followers—his in-group—ex nihilo; in many ways, the stage was set for his entrance. America had already split into two political identities by the time he announced his campaign for president in 2015, not just in terms of the information we consume, but down to the brands we prefer and the stores we frequent. And so with particularly American bombast and a reality TV star’s penchant for manipulating the media, Trump tore pages from the us-against-them playbook of the European far right and presented them to a segment of the American public already primed to receive it with religious fervor.

In an interview with Pacific Standard, Janja Lalich, a sociologist who specializes in cults, identified four characteristics of a totalistic cult and applied them to Trumpism: an all-encompassing belief system, extreme devotion to the leader, reluctance to acknowledge criticism of the group or its leader, and a disdain for nonmembers. Eileen Barker, another sociologist of cults, has written that, together, cult leaders and followers create and maintain their movement by proclaiming shared beliefs and identifying themselves as a distinguishable unit; behaving in ways that reinforce the group as a social entity, like closing themselves off to conflicting information; and stoking division and fear of enemies, real or perceived.

Does Trump tick off the boxes? The hatchet job he has made of Republican ideology and the sway he holds over what is now his party suggest he does not lack for devotion. His nearly 90 percent approval rating among Republicans is the more remarkable for his having shifted Republican views on a range of issues, from trade, to NATO, to Putin, to even the NFL. Then there are the endless rallies that smack of a noxious sort of revivalism, complete with a loyalty “pledge” during the 2016 campaign; a steady stream of sycophantic fealty (at least in public) from aides in the administration and its congressional Republican allies; and an almost universal unwillingness by Republican congressional leadership to check or thwart Trump’s worst instincts in any substantive way.

As for disdain, or disgust even, for nonmembers, who include “globalists,” immigrants, urbanites, Muslims, Jews, and people of color? “I suppose that Old Man Trump knows just how much racial hate / He stirred up that bloodroot of human hearts,” Woody Guthrie sang in 1950 about Fred Trump’s discriminatory housing practices. Those words could just as easily apply to Fred’s son Donald, as The New York Times details, about his birtherism, his view that dark-skinned immigrants come from “shithole countries,” his frequent classification of black people as uppity and ungrateful, his denigration of Native Americans, his incorporation of white nationalist thought into his administration, his equivocation over neo-Nazis. The “lock her up!” chants of his rallies are less about Hillary Clinton individually, and more about who belongs and who doesn’t, and what place exists for those who don’t. In perhaps the pettiest form of their disdain, Trump’s supporters engage in “rolling coal”—the practice of tricking out diesel engines to send huge plumes of smoke into the atmosphere—to “own the libs.”

Trump sold his believers an engrossing tale of “American carnage” that he alone could fix, then isolated them in a media universe where reality exists only through Trump-tinted glasses, attacking all other sources of information as “fake news.” In the most polarized media landscape in the wealthy world, Republicans place their trust almost solely in Fox News, seeing nearly all other outlets as biased. In that context, the effect of a president who lies an average of ten times a day is the total blurring of fact and fiction, reality and myth, trust and cynicism. It is a world where, in the words of Rudy Giuliani, truth is no longer truth. “Who could really know?” Trump said of claims that Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman had ordered the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. “It is what it is.”

Reason rarely defeats emotion—or, as Catherine Fieschi, an expert on political extremism, told me, gut instinct. If it did, right-wing populist movements from Brexit to Bolsonaro would be on the retreat, not in the advance. Those caught in the web of Trumpism do not see the deception that surrounds them. And if scandals too numerous to list have not dented faith in Trump, those holding out for an apocalyptic moment of reckoning that suddenly drops the curtain—the Russia investigation, or his taxes—will only be disappointed. In all likelihood, the idea that Trump is a crook has been “priced in.”

When presented with his actual record, which has often fallen short of what he promised on the campaign trail, Trump supporters time and again have displayed either disbelief or indifference. As a Trump supporter explicitly stated in reference to the president’s many, many lies, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 December 2018 at 2:21 pm

Swamp-draining failure: Trump’s Inauguration Paid Trump’s Company — With Ivanka in the Middle

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Indeed, Trump seems to have had ambitions to grow the swamp extensively.Ilya Marritz, WNYC, and Justin Elliott, ProPublica, report in ProPublica:

When it came out this year that President Donald Trump’s inaugural committee raised and spent unprecedented amounts, people wondered where all that money went.

It turns out one beneficiary was Trump himself.

The inauguration paid the Trump Organization for rooms, meals and event space at the company’s Washington hotel, according to interviews as well as internal emails and receipts reviewed by WNYC and ProPublica.

During the planning, Ivanka Trump, the president-elect’s eldest daughter and a senior executive with the Trump Organization, was involved in negotiating the price the hotel charged the 58th Presidential Inaugural Committee for venue rentals. A top inaugural planner emailed Ivanka and others at the company to “express my concern” that the hotel was overcharging for its event spaces, worrying of what would happen “when this is audited.”

If the Trump hotel charged more than the going rate for the venues, it could violate tax law. The inaugural committee’s payments to the Trump Organization and Ivanka Trump’s role have not been previously reported or disclosed in public filings.

“The fact that the inaugural committee did business with the Trump Organization raises huge ethical questions about the potential for undue enrichment,” said Marcus Owens, the former head of the division of the Internal Revenue Service that oversees nonprofits.

Inaugural workers had other misgivings. Rick Gates, then the deputy to the chairman of the inaugural, asked some vendors to take payments directly from donors, rather than through the committee, according to two people with direct knowledge. The vendors felt the request was unusual and concerning, according to these people, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they signed confidentiality agreements. It is not clear whether any vendors took him up on his request.

The revelations about the inauguration’s finances show how Trump blurred the lines between his political and business lives, as the real estate mogul ascended to the presidency.

On Thursday, The Wall Street Journal reported that federal prosecutors in New York have opened a criminal investigation into whether the inaugural committee misspent money and whether donors gave in return for political favors, citing people familiar with the matter. In addition, The New York Times reported that prosecutors are examining whether foreigners illegally funnelled money to the inauguration.

Peter Mirijanian, a spokesman for Ivanka Trump’s ethics lawyer, said: “When contacted by someone working on the inauguration, Ms. Trump passed the inquiry on to a hotel official and said only that any resulting discussions should be at a ‘fair market rate.’ Ms. Trump was not involved in any additional discussions.”

Mirijanian did not provide evidence that Ivanka Trump sought a fair market rate.

A spokeswoman for the inaugural committee said it “is not aware of any pending investigations and has not been contacted by any prosecutors. We simply have no evidence the investigation exists.” The White House and a lawyer for Gates did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for the Manhattan federal prosecutors’ office declined to comment. The Trump Organization did not comment. . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Jonathan Chait in New York also comments:

President Trump is facing so many criminal investigations it’s difficult to keep track of them all. The latest, revealed late Thursday by The Wall Street Journal, is that the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan is probing Trump’s Inauguration. The investigation reportedly centers on two alleged crimes: embezzlement and trading money for favors.

Trump’s inauguration looked fishy from before it even took place. Three days prior, the New York Times noted that Trump’s inauguration raised twice as much as the previous record, but “How much of that the committee will spend, and how, is less clear.” Nobody has managed to figure out where all the money went, especially given its relatively sparse attendance. “It’s inexplicable to me. I literally don’t know,” Greg Jenkins, who chaired George W. Bush’s second inaugural, told WNYC. “They had a third of the staff and a quarter of the events and they raise at least twice as much as we did,” he said. “So there’s the obvious question: Where did it go? I don’t know.”

Robert Mueller is reportedly investigating Russian businessmen gaining unusual access to the festivities. But the new investigation, which concerns misappropriation of funds and federal corruption laws, might not be related to that inquiry at all. The vice-chairman of the Inaugural Committee was Rick Gates, Paul Manafort’s former lobbying partner, who has pleaded guilty to financial crimes and is cooperating with Mueller. It would not exactly be a surprise if Gates did something shady with the vast unexplainable sums at his disposal.

Today’s Journal report also notes that . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 December 2018 at 1:57 pm

A devastating report details a ‘monumental’ assault on science at the Department of the Interior

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Michael Hiltzik writes in the LA Times:

Among the up-is-down, night-is-day practices of the Trump administration, one of the most dangerous and disturbing is its habit of turning America’s leading science agencies into hives of anti-science policymaking.

A new report lays out how this has produced a “monumental disaster” for science at the Department of the Interior. The report by the Union of Concerned Scientists details how Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and his minions have in the space of two years turned Interior from a steward of public lands and natural resources into a front for the mining and oil and gas industries.

“The intent in rolling back the consideration of science in decision-making is always to progress the development of fossil fuel interests,” Jacob Carter of the union’s center for science and democracy and lead author of the report told me.

This results in cascading negative effects on the agency’s mission. “Under Zinke’s watch, we see a lot of federal lands being opened for sale, which means a lot of endangered species will no longer be protected, and which has damaging consequences for climate,” Carter says.

Just last week, Zinke appeared before the National Petroleum Council, a government advisory panel plump with fossil fuel executives. There he crowed about how President Trump had made the U.S. “the No. 1 producer of oil and gas in the world.” That should show where his heart is.

Interior isn’t the only science agency that has been turned into a billboard for political and ideological propaganda. The Environmental Protection Agency has been similarly hollowed out, and the Department of Health and Human Services has all but abandoned its duty to advance Americans’ access to affordable healthcare.

Interior has taken a multifaceted approach to wiping science out of its policymaking. Zinke and his political appointees have terminated research projects or canceled them before they start. Among the affected studies was one to evaluate the health effects of coal strip mining in Appalachia. Interior shut down a study into how to improve inspections of offshore oil and gas development, which had been requested by Interior itself after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Another case cited by the report concerns an environmental impact assessment of sulfide ore mining near Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness, a hugely popular recreational area. The Obama administration put a two-year hold on the mining pending the study; the Trump administration shut down the study after only 15 months. By then, Interior already had renewed the mining leases that the Obama administration had put on hold. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 December 2018 at 1:48 pm

How a Dubious Forensic Science Spread Like a Virus

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Crackpot pseudo-science is dangerous in a court of law (cf. bite-mark analysis), particularly since few judges have any knowledge of science and how it works. Leora Smith reports in ProPublica:

THE PROSECUTION’S star witness — a forensics specialist named Herbert MacDonell — set out an array of props before the jury: a medicine dropper, a mirror hastily yanked from the wall of the courthouse bathroom and a vial of his own blood, drawn that day at a nearby hospital.

It was a strange sight in the 1985 Texas courtroom, and the jurors, the judge and even the defense attorneys watched, rapt, as MacDonell laid the mirror flat and then climbed up on a chair, holding the vial and dropper.

MacDonell’s expertise lay in an obscure discipline known as bloodstain-pattern analysis. He claimed he could reconstruct the events of a crime by reading the bloodstains left behind.

Like a professor performing a classroom demonstration, he dipped the dropper’s tip into the blood and, with a practiced hand, released a single drop onto the mirror. It landed with a muted thud, forming a perfect crimson circle.

Blood landing on a flat surface should not spatter, MacDonell told the jurors with satisfaction. He let another drop fall onto the white shirt he was wearing. Blood lands differently on fabric, he showed them.

A defense attorney shot up from his chair in protest. This was a murder trial. There was no mirror at the crime scene. No medicine dropper. The demonstration was not reliable science, he argued. The judge disagreed.

MacDonell’s testimony would be pivotal to proving the Fort Bend County prosecutor’s theory that 21-year-old Reginald Lewis had murdered his family, shooting his mother and two brothers, and setting his father on fire. MacDonell had identified dozens of minuscule blood spots on Lewis’ clothing, and he said they placed Lewis at the scene during the crime

The jurors gave Lewis four 99-year sentences.

“MacDonell kind of took over the courtroom,” Lewis’ attorney, Donald Bankston, recalled, his disbelief still fresh. “It was almost like having Mr. Wizard.”

But MacDonell’s testimony that day did more than mesmerize the jury. It gave bloodstain-pattern analysis its first toehold of legitimacy in Texas courts, spreading it quietly, but surely, further into the justice system.

Two years later, Texas’ 1st Court of Appeals ordered a retrial because of evidentiary flaws (two retrials ended in hung juries), but it expressly rejected Lewis’ argument that bloodstain-pattern analysis was a “novel technique” that should never have been admitted and was not “scientifically recognized” or reliable.

“MacDonell’s studies are based on general principles of physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics, and his methods use tools as widely recognized as the microscope; his techniques are neither untested nor unreliable,” Judge James F. Warren wrote for the court. To support his decision, Warren cited four other states — Tennessee, California, Illinois and Maine — that had already affirmed bloodstain-pattern analysis’ use at trial. Two of those states had based their decisions on court testimony by MacDonell.

Warren’s hearty defense of MacDonell and his methods percolated through Texas’ courts, reassuring hundreds of the state’s judges that bloodstain-pattern analysis was reliable enough to be admitted at trial. They would allow it, again and again.

Over time, a parade of spatter experts, often trained by MacDonell — or by someone he trained — dazzled juries across the country with their promise of scientific surety, often tying bows of certainty on circumstantial evidence. Judges in Minnesota, Idaho and Michigan would rely on the Texas court’s decision when deciding to admit blood spatter in their own states in the 1990s. Those decisions, in turn, would be relied upon by other states.

Blood-spatter testimony spread through courtrooms across the country like a superbug.

Its path — the steady case-by-case, decision-by-decision acceptance of a new forensic science by the justice system — is one that’s rarely, if ever, been retraced. But it reveals the startling vulnerability of judges, and juries, to forensics techniques, both before, and after, they’ve been debunked.

Although the reliability of blood-spatter analysis was never proven or quantified, its steady admission by courts rarely wavered, even as the technique, along with other forensic sciences, began facing increasing scrutiny.

In 2009, a watershed report commissioned by the National Academy of Sciences cast doubt on the whole discipline, finding that “the uncertainties associated with bloodstain pattern analysis are enormous,” and that experts’ opinions were generally “more subjective than scientific.”

Still, judges continued allowing spatter experts to testify.

Subsequent research, funded by the Department of Justice, raised questions about experts’ methods and conclusions. But little changed.

All along, attorneys like Bankston continued challenging the admission of bloodstain-pattern analysts. But they came to learn that a forensic discipline, once unleashed in the system, cannot easily be recalled.

The Birthplace of Blood Spatter

ABOUT A FOUR-HOUR drive northwest of New York City, down a quiet winding road, a house with bright red siding peeks through the trees, nondescript except for its fitting hue. At first glance, the home is typical. A side door opens into an overstuffed kitchen, where a stairwell descends to the lower level.

Down those steep stairs, in a sprawling warren of rooms, forensic history was launched more than a half century ago.

Modern American blood-spatter analysis didn’t originate in a federal crime laboratory or an academic research center. It started in Corning, New York, in MacDonell’s basement. Decades before blood-spatter analysis gained fame in TV series like “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” or “Dexter,” MacDonell spent countless hours in his home laboratory, incubating and refining the technique.

Then, he spent a lifetime helping it spread.

MacDonell built his first basement laboratory in 1935, when he was 7, setting up some test tubes on a marble slab by the furnace in his childhood home.

But it wasn’t until the 1950s, when he was pursuing a graduate degree focusing on analytical chemistry, that he got a firsthand taste of real forensics while working in a Rhode Island state crime laboratory. After graduating, MacDonell took a stable job as a chemist for the local corporate giant Corning Glass Works, best known for its CorningWare casserole dishes. But in his off hours, he taught forensics at a nearby community college and began moonlighting as a consultant. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, and it’s interesting.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 December 2018 at 8:20 am

Van Yulay’s wonderful Achilles shaving soap

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Van Yulay’s soap is very nice on the skin (an emu and tallow formula) and makes a fine lather, but what made me pick it this morning is the fragrance:

Tobacco with the perfect amount of Kentucky bourbon, hints of cherry, notes of vanilla, of rosewood, cedar, smoke, and sweet birch.

With my RazoRock synthetic fully loaded, the lather on my face was thick and creamy, making the job of my iKon 101 easy. It’s nice to use this razor again; it really is a gem.

Three passes, face smooth, shake and then splash on the aftershave. I am filled with contentment.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 December 2018 at 8:10 am

Posted in Shaving

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