Later On

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

Archive for February 7th, 2020

The lernu.net course in Esperanto is excellent

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I’ve been brushing up my Esperanto by working through the (free) course at lernu.net. I’ve tried other online Esperanto courses, but they’ve not been nearly so good. This one includes audio so you learn listening skills as well as reading skills and (in responding to some questions that require writing) writing skills.

Since learning a foreign languaage requires learning all four communication skills (reading, writing, listening, and speaking) and since these pretty much have to be learned separately — even if you’re good at reading, your listening skills can be poor — it’s a sign of the quality of the course that they are working the skills. Not sure how they’ll cover speaking, but it really is an excellent course.

And it’s quite enjoyable. Recommended.

And recall: if you learn Esperanto as your first foreign language, it greatly facilitates learning another foreign language — for example, students who studied (in school) one year of Esperanto and two years of German learned more German and were more fluent in German than students who spent the full three years in studying German.

UPDATE: This post has my guide to using the Lernu.net course — things I wish I had known before I started it.

Written by Leisureguy

7 February 2020 at 7:39 pm

Posted in Education, Esperanto

At Embassies Abroad, Trump Envoys Are Quietly Pushing Out Career Diplomats

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The US will not, I believe, recover. Too much damage is being doing to government personnel and capabilities and the bond of trust has been broken. The pusillanimous Republican party is the Achilles heel that brought down the US. Robbie Gramer writes in Foreign Policy:

Lana Marks is a successful fashion designer and member of U.S. President Donald Trump’s private Mar-a-Lago club in Florida. Though she has no prior diplomatic experience, Marks is also Trump’s ambassador to South Africa, and last month she forced out her second in command, the veteran career foreign service officer David Young.

Multiple current and former officials familiar say issues at the embassy arose over disputed accounts of the ambassador pushing for her son to take on an elevated role with the embassy. A senior embassy official, speaking on condition of anonymity, vehemently denies these claims, calling them “totally inaccurate” and saying Young’s departure was a separate issue.

To some current officials, Young’s case illustrated a growing trend in the Trump administration. Already, several of Trump’s political allies-turned-ambassadors—he has appointed a higher percentage than most previous presidents—have sacked their deputies amid a culture of mistrust between politically appointed and career State Department officials.

Marks has also faced other criticism within the State Department over how she manages the embassy in Pretoria, although management problems at the embassy predate her arrival.

Several officials say concerns were raised over the conflicting accounts of whether her son would have a role at the embassy. The senior embassy official said the ambassador did not try to get her son a senior embassy job, but rather wanted to make him “chief of staff” of her household, under her personal employ. The idea, the official said, initially came at the suggestion of another senior State Department official, but then later the State Department reversed that suggestion.

Marks deleted a tweet on Nov. 8, 2019, referring to her son, Martin Marks, as her “chief of staff” on Twitter. She did so at the State Department’s request, the embassy official said.

The official stressed that the ambassador is committed to complying with all State Department rules and regulations.

Other U.S. Embassy staff have been pushed out or left their post early, including officials who worked on foreign aid and health programs in a country that is a major recipient of U.S. funds to tackle HIV and AIDS, according to several State Department officials familiar with the matter. Some officials attribute this to the ambassador, but the senior embassy official said the ambassador is working to fix them and that she “inherited” problems at the embassy that were “long-standing and had been brushed under the rug.”

An internal State Department watchdog report released last month on the U.S. diplomatic mission in South Africa detailed allegations of employees experiencing bullying and mismanagement, months before Marks assumed her role as ambassador.

Last month, the State Department dispatched several senior officials to South Africa to help manage tensions at the embassy, two officials said, including Deputy Undersecretary of Management William Todd and Geeta Pasi, the principal deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs.

It’s not the first time the State Department has had to respond to allegations of mismanagement at embassies abroad, nor is it unique to the current administration. But Trump’s politically appointed ambassadors are sacking their deputy chiefs of mission—an embassy’s second-in-command post held by foreign service officers—in unusually high numbers, officials say.

This story draws on interviews from over a dozen current and former U.S. officials and other people familiar with the matters in question. The State Department did not respond to five requests for comment for this story. The U.S. Embassy official who spoke to Foreign Policy said the State Department did not properly notify Marks in advance of the multiple requests for comment.

After publication, Marks issued the following statement to Foreign Policy: “David Young, my former DCM, is a wonderful man and a tremendously capable diplomat. I was and am personally very fond of him. Our management styles were quite different, and with his experience and ambition, I felt it far more appropriate for him to be in a chargé [d’affaires] position, which I arranged for him and was told was imminent. I only wish him the very best in the future.”

The State Department did not respond to a request for comment on Young’s next posting.

Along with South Africa, Trump’s envoys in Canada, France, Iceland, Romania, and the United Kingdom have all removed their deputy chiefs of mission, some ambassadors doing so just shortly before or after arriving at their new posts.

Ambassadors have full authority to remove their deputy chief of mission, even without cause, given how important the relationship between an ambassador and his or her deputy is to ensuring the smooth management of an embassy. But the high rate at which it’s happening now reflects how wide the gulf can be between politically appointed ambassadors and the diplomatic corps—an issue laid bare by Trump’s impeachment trial that dragged the State Department into Congressional impeachment investigations. Behind the scenes, some officials fear it is hampering embassies’ abilities to carry out their missions.

“We are deeply concerned by the number of removals of deputy chiefs of mission overseas, which are happening at way above the normal pace,” said Eric Rubin, a senior foreign service officer currently serving as president of the American Foreign Service Association, the union that represents U.S. diplomats. “It’s generally very rare for a DCM to be removed by the ambassador. It does happen. Sometimes it happens for a good cause. But it’s rare. And it is now becoming an epidemic.”

“It’s created a lot of turmoil in a lot of embassies even … if it’s hard to quantify,” said another senior U.S. diplomat.

In several cases where deputy chiefs of mission were forced out early, including the U.S. Embassy in France led by Ambassador Jamie McCourt, Trump’s ambassadors have cycled through two or three deputy chiefs during their tenure. The embassies where deputy chiefs are being sacked are all led by deep-pocketed Republican political donors whom Trump tapped to be ambassadors, despite some having no prior diplomatic or government experience.

The senior U.S. Embassy official in South Africa said Marks is “currently working with a very capable and excellent team of foreign service officers and a great DCM.”

Marks, who was born in South Africa, founded a highly successful luxury handbag company bearing her name. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

7 February 2020 at 3:09 pm

East to Eden: The Apple’s Origin

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Roger Deakin, with Robert Macfarlane, writes in Emergence magazine:

Introduction & Postscript

by Robert Macfarlane

In the summer of 2006, my friend the writer, forester, and naturalist Roger Deakin died of cancer, too fast and too young. A woodsman to the last, his pine coffin was decorated with a wreath of oak leaves, and his ashes were given to the earth in view of mature stands of cherry, oak, and silver birch. I was new to death then, but even had I not been, the loss of Roger would still have struck hard to my heart. “I want my friends to come up unstoppably, like weeds,” Roger wrote once in a journal entry, and our friendship, though only a handful of years old, was a weedy one, flourishing out of all proportion to its calendar.

Roger’s abrupt death felt most cruel to me in its lopping of future growth. We had made such plans! To stake out the badger setts in a wood near Roger’s Suffolk home at Walnut Tree Farm, with some infra-red goggles that Roger was confident he could source. To construct a coracle (birchwood frame, cowhide hull), and then paddle it across a meaningful stretch of ocean—or, failing that, across a good-sized pond. There were books to write together, conservation battles to fight, television programmes to make, jokes to tell, and all those unfinished—no, unstarted—conversations that, in the manner of conversations with Roger, would rapidly branch outwards, ending very far from where they had first taken root.

Roger was many things—a filmmaker, environmentalist, campaigner, poet, teacher—but he became best known for his trilogy of extraordinary non-fiction books about nature, people, and place: Waterlog (1999), his classic account of swimming through Britain’s rivers, lakes, estuaries, and lochs; Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees (2007), which describes his years spent travelling through forests and woodland cultures in Britain, Australia, Europe, and Central Asia, as well as chronicling his long family history of radical and community involvement with trees and forestry (“I am a woodlander,” he wrote in the opening pages of that book, “I have sap in my veins”); and Notes from Walnut Tree Farm (2008), which gathers decades of his writing about his home landscape in Suffolk. Roger travelled widely but always returned to that timber-framed farmhouse and the twelve acres of meadow, hedgerow, and copse that surrounded it. This was his fixed point, where one foot of his compass was planted, while the other roved and circled.

What follows here is a chapter from Roger’s Wildwood, to which I have written a short postscript essay that tells—by means of the story of a seed and a tree—how Roger continues to root and branch through my life and the lives of many others, long after his death.

East to Eden

Iam travelling to Kazakhstan, propelled by a story told to me by Barrie Juniper that is something between the Book of Genesis and the Just So Stories: How the Apple Began. Beside a black mulberry tree he planted thirty years ago outside the porters’ lodge at St Catherine’s College Oxford, I met Barrie, a don of the college, luminary of the Oxford Plant Sciences Department and apple guru. Ruby stains of the fallen mulberries smudged the paving stones. I had heard of Juniper’s pioneering work in tracking down the origins of the domestic apple to the Tien Shan Mountains of Kazakhstan and had come to sit at his feet and learn more. Over lunch, he outlined the long journey of the domestic apple from the wild fruit forests of the Tien Shan along the so-called Silk Road to the west. In the course of that journey, Juniper has discovered, the wild apple of the Tien Shan, Malus sieversus, evolved into the domestic apple, Malus domesticus, and eventually found its way to Britain with the Romans.

Barrie Juniper spent years searching for the ancestors of the domestic apple. He reckoned there were now some 20,000 varieties in the world including over 6,000 recorded in Britain. Many of the old varieties that haven’t died out altogether have become rarities, so Juniper realized that mapping out their genetic identities through DNA samples was a matter of urgency. In 1998 he travelled to Central Asia with some Oxford colleagues in search of the ur-apple. They went to Kazakhstan, to Alma-Ata, now known as Almaty. Alma-Ata is usually translated as ‘Father of all Apples’, although there is a school of thought in Kazakhstan that believes it is more accurately rendered as ‘Where the Apples Are’. It had taken Juniper over a year’s struggle with Kazakh official protocol to get permission to visit the outlying regions of the Tien Shan Mountains in search of wild apples, but eventually he and his companions set out from Almaty in the summer of 1998 under military escort to the remote mountain slopes known as the Djunguarian Alatau. Here they found forests of wild fruit: wild pears, plums, apricots, hawthorns, rowans and apples. The apples were all Malus sieversii, and their fruits varied enormously in size, shape and flavour, from the hard and the tart to apples that tasted and looked remarkably like our own familiar cultivated apples.

They collected apple specimens and took them home to Oxford, where they analysed their DNA and discovered that Malus sieversii shows a far closer affinity with the domestic apple than with any other wild species. But how could all the thousands of varieties of the domestic apple have descended from the wild fruit forests of the Tien Shan? To add to the mystery, Malus sieversii is reluctant to hybridize with other species. So how did all these variations on the theme of the eating apple arise? What makes the apple such a chameleon? The answer, in a word, is that apple trees are heterozygous. Plant the pips of a hundred apples from the same tree and the new generation of trees can differ, often dramatically, from their parents and from each other. This is how new kinds of apples have arisen by chance over the centuries: people taking a fancy to this or that new fruit, then propagating from that particular tree by taking cuttings from the shoots and grafting them on to other trees. All Bramley seedlings are descended from a single tree in someone’s back garden in Northampton. And so on, down thousands of years, so every single kind of eating apple in the world is a direct descendant of the apples that evolved in the forests of the Tien Shan.

After lunch, Barrie Juniper and I sat down in the fellows’ common room over coffee and the Times Atlas, which we opened at Central Asia. He began to explain how he thinks the domestic apple evolved; a story that ranged from the Yangtze Valley, to Neolithic Mesopotamia, to the orchards of Oxford. According to Juniper, Malus, the botanical family to which all apples belong, first evolved about twelve million years ago. To judge from the twenty-odd wild species that still exist in central and southern China, it probably bore a small fruit with hard but edible seeds not unlike those of its close relation, the rowan tree. The seeds would have been spread by birds. A small group of species penetrated north-west through the fertile country that is now Gansu Province into the area that was to become the Tien Shan Mountains as they arose in the same geological upheaval that created the Himalayas. Juniper believed that just one or possibly two of these ‘bird apple’ seeds was lifted over the rising hills to the Tien Shan and the valley of the Ili River, most likely in the crop or faeces of a migrating bird. The spread of the inhospitable Gobi Desert then prevented any migration of apple seed back to the east, and although they were walled in by glaciation to the west, the ice never reached these mountains.

In the foothills and valleys of the Tien Shan range, the new apple found itself in a genuine paradise. Bears, deer and wild pigs lived in the spreading woodlands, eating the wild fruit in autumn and selecting the sweeter, juicier apples while bees laboured in the pollination department of the same evolutionary project. The bears, living in the abundant caves of the Tien Shan, were avid fruit-eaters, and pips could pass through their guts unharmed to germinate in the dung. As Juniper pointed out, the baseball-glove claws of bears are perfectly suited to the grasping of apples. He had seen how enthusiastically they will vandalize a tree bearing a favourite sweet apple, dragging off whole branches in a kind of rough pruning. Out on the steppe, huge herds of wild horses and donkeys also browsed on the ripe apples and helped them spread westwards and south along the range towards what is now Almaty. Like the bears, they kept on selecting the larger, juicier, sweeter apples, so that as it spread west, the apple gradually became larger. At the same time this evolutionary pressure changed it from a ‘bird’ fruit with edible seeds to a ‘mammal’ fruit with poisonous seeds. The bitter taste of apple pips is cyanide, and the smooth, hard, teardrop seed coat evolved as the perfect streamlined vehicle to pass intact through an animal’s guts.

Juniper believed that by the time the ‘new’ apple had populated the northern slopes of the eastern Tien Shan and reached near Almaty, it had evolved into something like its present size and culinary appeal. Later, as human populations began to travel back and forth along the old animal migration routes between east and west, they helped to spread the new fruit. People call these routes ‘The Silk Roads’, but they were in use five or six thousand years before the discovery of silk, which lent its name to the route only during the period from ad 0 to 400. In the early days, said Juniper, camels would have been the means of transport along the routes, but, although they are as fond of apples as any other herbivore, their digestive system is so efficient that not even apple pips will survive it. Then, around 7,000 years ago, something momentous happened on the plains of Kazakhstan. The horse was domesticated, and soon started to travel the trading routes. The more direct northern trade routes led from Shanghai and Xian via Urumchi in north-west China to Almaty, Tashkent and Bokhara, then through Anatolia all the way to the Mediterranean coast. During winter the Tien Shan Mountains were impassable in the snow, so traders took the long way round to the south. But when the snows melted in July, the caravans turned north and until the first snows in November travelled through the Ili Valley and the Tien Shan range via Almaty, passing through fruit forests on the way. . .

Continue reading. There’s much, much more.

The story of the domestication of the horse (and of the invention of the wheel) is recounted in the fascinating book by David Anthony, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World. All domesticated horses are descended from the same stallion.

Written by Leisureguy

7 February 2020 at 2:55 pm

VA Secretary Looked for Dirt on a House Staffer Who Reported Sexual Assault in a VA Hospital

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The US now seems to have a third-world government: incompetent, corrupt, dishonest, and aggressive in its attacks on critics. Sad to see the country go. Isaac Arnsdorf reports in ProPublica:

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie personally sought damaging information about a congressional aide who said she was sexually assaulted in a VA hospital, according to an anonymous complaint to the House committee the woman works for.

The written complaint was obtained by ProPublica. In addition, a former senior official with direct knowledge of the matter said Wilkie discussed damaging information he collected about the aide and suggested using it to discredit her. Another person said he spoke with other officials who were in those discussions, and they corroborated the former senior official’s and the written complaint’s account. The people interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying they feared retaliation.

Wilkie denied inquiring into the aide’s past. “I never would do that to a fellow officer,” he said in a statement. “It is a breach of honor.”

The aide, Andrea Goldstein, is a Navy reserve intelligence officer and a senior policy adviser for the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s Women Veterans Task Force. In September, she said she was sexually assaulted at the VA medical center in Washington. According to Goldstein’s account reported in The New York Times, she was buying a snack in the cafeteria when a man slammed his body into hers, pressed against her and told her, “You look like you could use a good time.” Goldstein said she did not know who the man was, but he was not an employee.

As required by VA regulations, Goldstein’s allegation was turned over to the department’s inspector general to conduct an independent criminal investigation, working with federal prosecutors.

But the complaint alleges that while the inspector general and prosecutors investigated Goldstein’s allegation, Wilkie initiated what the complaint described as “his own investigation into Ms. Goldstein’s credibility and military record.”

The House committee said it is considering how to respond to the complaint, spokeswoman Jenni Geurink said. While the committee has oversight jurisdiction over the VA and often fields complaints from employees and patients, it is in an unusual position since this complaint relates to one of its staff members.

“We have been contacted about possible actions taken within VA which may have utilized government time and resources to attempt to tarnish a member of our staff’s character, discredit her and spread false information about her past in retaliation for her reporting of a sexual assault at VA,” Geurink said. “This ordeal has been draining and unfair to Ms. Goldstein.”

According to the complaint and the former senior official, Wilkie repeatedly shared the information he had gathered about Goldstein with his senior staff, including officials responsible for public relations, between October 2019 and January 2020. One of the officials present, Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs James E. Hutton, did not respond to requests for comment.

“Wilkie’s energies are directed toward attacking her character,” the complaint said.

Wilkie did not specify the source of his information but said he wished his findings could be used to undermine Goldstein’s account of the assault in the Washington VA, the complaint and the former senior official said. While Wilkie did not direct anyone to do anything with the information, he wondered aloud about how it might become public, according to the complaint and the former senior official.

Wilkie, through a spokeswoman, denied saying that.

Wilkie also met in his office with Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, who is a former Navy commando. After the meeting, Wilkie told his staff that Crenshaw agreed with the allegations that Wilkie made about Goldstein’s credibility, according to the complaint, the former senior official and the other person with knowledge of the meeting.

Wilkie denied discussing Goldstein with Crenshaw. Crenshaw, in a brief interview in the Capitol, confirmed that he met with Wilkie. “I had breakfast with him once,” Crenshaw said. “I know where this rumor’s coming from. So you have a bunch of Democrat staffers who are leading you guys down a really stupid path. I’ve never been asked about the case, never been told about the case.”

Wilkie and his staff have not publicized the information he collected about Goldstein’s past. But after the inspector general concluded its investigation and federal prosecutors declined to bring charges, Wilkie sent a Jan. 15 letter to Congress calling Goldstein’s complaint “unsubstantiated” and saying it “could deter our veterans from seeking the care they need and deserve.”

Wilkie’s letter prompted an objection from the VA’s inspector general, Michael Missal, who said calling Goldstein’s allegations “unsubstantiated” was “not an accurate description of the results of our investigation.” The Times reported that the criminal probe was hindered because video cameras that might have captured the incident at the hospital weren’t working.

“Neither I nor my staff told you or anyone else that the allegations were unsubstantiated,” Missal wrote to Wilkie. “Reaching a decision to close the investigation with no criminal charges does not mean the underlying allegation is unsubstantiated.”

Goldstein, in an op-ed published Monday on the website Jezebel, criticized Wilkie, saying that his letter to Congress was retaliation for her reporting the assault and that she had also faced retaliation from a military commander when she reported sexual harassment while on active duty. She said she receives treatment at the VA for conditions related to sexual trauma during her military service.

“He used coded language, but the words still stung,” Goldstein wrote. “The Secretary of the second largest federal agency knew how his words would resonate. He was implying that a fellow Navy veteran was a liar. He was implying that I was a liar.”

Asked about the subject at a post-State of the Union press conference on Wednesday, Wilkie said he was “not satisfied with the resolution of the Goldstein case” and wants to reexamine it.

“I met with the [inspector general] yesterday,” he said. “We’re going to make a renewed push to get answers.” . . .

Continue reading.

The hallmark of the US government under Trump: vindictive, petty revenge is a priority.

Written by Leisureguy

7 February 2020 at 12:41 pm

Sodium in the American diet

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I consume on average 1185mg sodium per day — and that’s undoubtedly why my doctor told me my hypertension was a thing of the past and I should discontinue the medication I had been taking. I thought this brief video was interesting:

Written by Leisureguy

7 February 2020 at 9:10 am

Lavender morning

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Barrister & Mann Reserve Lavender and the Yaqi Target Shot brush made a very nice lather — light on the water, adding just a little as I loaded to get it just right. Then three passes with the Yaqi double-open-comb to smooth perfection and a splash of Lavanda to finish the job, and Friday has started on a good note.

Written by Leisureguy

7 February 2020 at 7:58 am

Posted in Shaving

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