Later On

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

Archive for August 2020

Without politics, conflict is resolved through violence

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Franklin Foer writes in the Atlantic:

After a caravan of Donald Trump’s supporters descended on Portland, Oregon, this weekend, aching to grapple, he praised them as “great patriots.” In cheering them on, Trump is pointing them, and others like them, toward a specific target. What he seeks to eliminate is politics itself.

Politics is such a ubiquitous term in the English language, such a seemingly fixed part of American life, that its existence is assumed and its definition rarely considered. Our concept of politics, descended from antiquity, is that society can peaceably settle its differences of opinion and interests. For politics to properly play its becalming role, citizens must agree on rules. Discussion, persuasion, and a willingness to accept temporary defeat are the political means by which a society adjudicates its inevitable conflicts. When a society discards politics, violence assumes its place. This threat is already evident in the deaths of two people protesting a police shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and that of a member of a right-wing group in Portland. Another president would make a show of easing tensions, but Trump deliberately escalates them.

Since Donald Trump first announced his presidential bid in 2015, he has promised to dispense with politics. At first, this promise seemed banal in its familiarity—so it initially struck many voters and journalists as more benign than it should have. Generations of rich men running for office, after all, had promised to replace the values of politics with the ethos of business. Besides, the art of the deal is what every great parliamentary leader claims to practice.

But over the course of his presidency—or perhaps from the moment he explicitly shunned the principle of compromise and declared, “I alone can fix it”—Trump has abundantly shown that he means his anti-political rhetoric. And as he stands for reelection, his strategy for victory amounts more and more to the subversion of politics.

Although he goes through the motions of pursuing an outright victory, much of his rhetoric is now focused on discrediting the political process itself. He disparages the rules that govern politics and the institutions that facilitate it. He seems to want his supporters to believe that their electoral participation will be rendered meaningless. Trump’s argument goes like this: Because their views will be censored by Facebook and Twitter, his followers won’t have access to the most important modern forums for persuasion and mobilization. (This argument played a starring role at the Republican convention.) On Election Day, their votes will be negated by fraud on a massive scale, in the form of mail-in voting. Because the probability of an unfair election is so high, the president declines to say that he will accept the outcome of the vote.

In the past, groups that have felt disenfranchised have turned to protest, a peaceful attempt to persuade well-meaning elites or beneficent institutions to expand democracy. But in the Trumpian worldview, those elites and institutions are conspiring against him. By delegitimizing the American political system, he has given his followers the impression that they have no choice but to assert themselves through nonpolitical means.

Throughout his presidency, he has offered his winking approval to supporters who have relied on menace and weaponry. He couldn’t bring himself to . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

31 August 2020 at 5:50 pm

Videos of police actions.

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Verge has a good report on how ubiquitous video cameras (i.e., smartphones) have changed the power dynamic in police encounters with the public. As one person says in the video below, an unfilmed encounter of a civilian with a police officer is not a matter of one says this and the other says that — it’s what the police officer says that is authoritative and what the civilian says is dismissed. But if the encounter is recorded, it’s a different story.

Do click the link. There’s much more in the report. This video is from that report:

Written by Leisureguy

31 August 2020 at 2:18 pm

The Loan Company That Sued Thousands of Low-Income Latinos During the Pandemic

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Yet another in the endless parade of bad acts by big corporations. Kiah Collier, Ren Larson, and Perla Trevizo report in ProPublica:

On an afternoon in mid-June, Analleli Solis was walking home from her brother’s house just down the street when she noticed someone she didn’t know retreating from the front door of her modest brick home.

Solis approached the woman, who handed her an envelope.

Inside was a lawsuit from Oportun Inc., a personal loan company Solis had turned to for years when she and her husband didn’t have enough cash to cover rent, fix their cars or take a vacation.

Now, the company was suing Solis to recoup some of that money, demanding $4,196.23 including fees and interest.

Solis’ shock quickly gave way to anger. Three months earlier, after she missed a few of her $130 bimonthly payments, she said she called Oportun to tell the company she had lost her jobs as a hotel housekeeper and fast food worker because of the coronavirus pandemic and needed some relief.

The 43-year-old mother of three expected the company would understand.

She was a longtime customer, after all. Her latest loan, which she took out to repair her aging SUV, was her fifth with Oportun since 2013, she said, and she had never missed a payment. Staffers were always friendly and helpful.

Silicon Valley-based Oportun, a subprime installment lender that operates in 12 states, also portrayed itself as a financial ally to the Latino immigrant community, its primary customer base, and had built a reputation as a more affordable and humane alternative to payday lenders. In its business filings and on its website, the company — whose name is short for “oportunidad,” Spanish for opportunity — claimed to work with borrowers grappling with cash-flow problems beyond their control. Just two weeks into the pandemic, it announced a special hardship program that postponed payment due dates as long as impacted customers notified the company in advance.

But over a series of phone calls, Solis said, Oportun agents told her there was nothing they could do to help her, even though her financial situation was particularly dire as her husband had also recently lost his job. She said they didn’t offer a payment plan or mention the hardship program.

“I feel powerless not being able to pay them,” Solis, who immigrated from Mexico as a teenager, said in Spanish.

Solis is among tens of thousands of Oportun borrowers who have found themselves in a similar predicament in recent years, according to a monthslong investigation by ProPublica and The Texas Tribune that drew on more than a million Texas court records, hundreds of pages of company financial filings, and interviews with more than a dozen consumer advocates, attorneys and industry experts.

Our reporting revealed a company that draws clients in by depicting itself as a benefactor of the Latino immigrant community yet charges high interest rates, keeps customers like Solis on the hook with repeated refinancing and routinely uses lawsuits to intimidate delinquent borrowers into paying again.

An analysis of court records in nine of Texas’ largest counties — home to the vast majority of the 80 kiosks and strip mall storefronts the company operates in the state — found that Oportun has sued borrowers after they fell behind on their payments more than 47,000 times from May 2016 through July of this year. That’s 30 lawsuits per day on average.

So far this year, Oportun has filed nearly 10,000 lawsuits against customers in those counties, with more than half of those coming after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic in mid-March.

That number of filings makes Oportun the most litigious personal loan company in Texas and one of the most litigious debt collectors in the state overall this year. It is rivaled only by larger companies like Conn’s HomePlusCapital One and a handful of firms that buy unrecovered debts from banks and other creditors.

Asked why it sues so many of its customers, particularly during a pandemic, Oportun referred ProPublica and the Tribune to a recent blog post from company CEO Raul Vazquez that said the company used lawsuits as “a mechanism of last resort to get the small minority of our customers who have fallen behind in their payments and not answered our calls, letters, texts or emails for several months to reengage with us.”

That was the case with Solis, according to a statement Oportun released after she gave the company permission to comment on her account.

“According to our records, this customer did not reach out to us and was unresponsive to our repeated attempts to reach them,” the statement said, adding that “if a customer tells us they are impacted by the pandemic, they are eligible for our emergency hardship programs.”

Vazquez defined the “small minority” of loans resulting in lawsuits as . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Notice how companies respond when their misdeeds become news. A free press is important.

Written by Leisureguy

31 August 2020 at 1:54 pm

Posted in Business, Daily life, Law, Media

The burden of Trump’s tariffs

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Although facts don’t seem to convince many people, this chart might at least give them pause:

That’s from this post by Kevin Drum.

Written by Leisureguy

31 August 2020 at 12:36 pm

Is Trump putting a putsch in place?

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Heather Cox Richardson writes:

Lots of folks are finally paying attention to the rise of authoritarianism here in the U.S. They are right to be concerned.

Scholars have seen worrisome signs all along. Trump has dismissed nonpartisan career officials and replaced them with loyalists. He has fired the independent inspectors general. He denies Congress’s right and duty to investigate members of the Executive Branch. He has used the Department of Homeland Security and other law enforcement officers of the Executive Branch as a private army. He has packed the courts. He has used the government to advance the interests of himself and his family, which he has installed into government positions. He has solicited help from foreign governments to get reelected. And he and his cronies are trying to undermine our election by preemptively saying the Democrats are committing fraud and by slowing down mail service when voters need to be able to mail in their ballots.

Now, Trump is clearly trying to change the national narrative from his disastrous response to the coronavirus and the economic crash to the idea that he alone can protect white Americans from their dangerous Black neighbors.

Stoking violence is a key tool in the authoritarian’s toolkit. The idea is to increase civil disorder. As violence increases, people will turn to a leader who promises “LAW & ORDER,” as Trump keeps tweeting. Once firmly in power, an authoritarian can then put down his opponents with the argument that they are dangerous criminals.

Trump is advancing just such a strategy. He and members of his administration refuse to condemn violence, and insist that legitimate protesters are all “Antifa.” They are blaming Democrats and “liberal politicians and their incompetent policies” for violent protests, although most of the injuries at the protests have been caused by police or by rightwing thugs. They are stoking white people’s fear of their Black neighbors, with Trump going so far as to talk of how he will keep low-income housing from the suburbs to protect the “Suburban Lifestyle Dream.”

And they are going on the offensive, demanding that Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden condemn the violence that they insist comes from protesters, while Trump is actually inciting it from rioters on the right. It is gaslighting at its finest.

America has seen this pattern before. Secessionist leaders before the Civil War needed badly to distract southern white farmers, who were falling behind in an economic system that concentrated wealth at the top, and they howled that northerners were assaulting white southerners and wanted to stamp out their way of life, based in human enslavement. They refused to permit any alternative information to reach their voters. And in the end, they succeeded in rallying their supporters to war.

But that does not have to happen here, now. We can see exactly what Trump is doing, and refuse to embrace it. Democratic leadership is calling out Trump for “willfully fanning the flames of this violence,” as Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA) put it today.

Today Biden released a statement saying “the deadly violence we saw overnight in Portland is unacceptable. Shooting in the streets of a great American city is unacceptable. I condemn this violence unequivocally. I condemn violence of every kind by anyone, whether on the left or the right. And I challenge Donald Trump to do the same…. We must not become a country at war with ourselves. A country that accepts the killing of fellow Americans who do not agree with you. A country that vows vengeance toward one another….”

“As a country,” he continued, “we must condemn the incitement of hate and resentment that led to this deadly clash…. What does President Trump think will happen when he continues to insist on fanning the flames of hate and division in our society and using the politics of fear to whip up his supporters? He is recklessly encouraging violence…. The job of a President is to lower the temperature. To bring people who disagree with one another together. To make life better for all Americans, not just those who agree with us, support us, or vote for us.”

In Wisconsin, still reeling from the shooting of Jacob Blake in the back by law enforcement officers, the Lt. Governor cited Trump’s “incendiary remarks” and attempts to create division and said that Trump should not come to Kenosha on Tuesday as he currently plans. Governor Tony Evers (D) agreed, as did Kenosha’s mayor. Evers wrote: “I, along with other community leaders who have reached out, are concerned about what your presence will mean for Kenosha and our state. I am concerned your presence will only hinder our healing. I am concerned your presence will only delay our work to overcome division and move forward together.”

It is important to remember that Trump’s apparent power play is a desperate move.

More than 180,000 Americans have died of Covid-19 on his watch. We have far more deaths per capita than other advanced countries, and we still have no national testing program. The White House is now apparently taking the position that we will all just have to live with the disease and that schools and businesses should simply reopen, but Americans are not happy about Trump’s handling of the coronavirus. Today he tried to help his numbers by retweeting a thread from a far-right website saying that, in fact, only around 9000 people have died in the U.S. of Covid-19, because the rest had co-morbidities and were going to die anyway. The argument is so far off the mark that Twitter flagged it for violating rules.

Polls show Trump  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

31 August 2020 at 11:53 am

Dr. Greger’s Daily Dozen Digest: A 12-part series

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Michael Greger just launched a newsletter series: 12 newsletters, each focused on one of his Daily Dozen. I received the first today, on Beans, and it looks good to me: some basic bean facts, links to some recipes, and links to informative videos — for example, the one below. The link takes you to the newsletter content so you can see for yourself, and from that page you can subscribe (free) for the rest of the series.

I found this video particularly interesting — I had no idea:


Written by Leisureguy

31 August 2020 at 9:27 am

Greek Orthodox Bishop in Cyprus: Masks Will Turn Children into Demons

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Sometimes it’s hard to be hopeful. And facts seem to be an ineffective way to convince to change beliefs, which leaves me not knowing what can be done. Gregory Pappas writes in

A Metropolitan of the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus encouraged his faithful to not allow their children to wear masks because they’d become demons.

Metropolitan Neophytos of Morphou, a member of the Holy Synod of the autocephalous Church of Cyprus suggested that kids would be better off staying home— even for a few years— instead of having to wear masks in school.

He simultaneously poked fun at the “European education” that kids were getting in school and encouraged parents to homeschool their kids.

Neophytos has been an outspoken critic of civil measures to control the spread of the Coronavirus in Cyprus.

In April, despite the government’s ban on religious celebrations, he celebrated a liturgy that was forced to stop by police. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

31 August 2020 at 9:02 am

Mystic Water Wild Lavender and Wild Coast Eau de Lavande, with Stealth and Starcraft

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I want more Mystic Waters shaving soap (scroll down at the link: long page) — that was my reaction after using this shave stick this morning. Great lather and fine fragrance, but not currently among her (numerous) offerings. Note the soap Sensitive Skin, formulated for those who have it. That one contains no lanolin (and no essential oils or fragrances). She writes:

All our shaving soap are made with tallow, which contributes to an exceptionally dense, slick lather.  Combined with stearic acid, unrefined shea butter, sustainably sourced organic palm oil, avocado oil, aloe vera, bentonite clay, silk protein, allantoin, and extra glycerin, Mystic Water shaving soap offers exceptional protection, glide and post-shave skin care, excellent for even sensitive skin and tough beards.  Most of my shaving soaps also include lanolin, and I use both botanical essential oils and high quality fragrances in my soap.

The Starcraft really is a nice brush. I had to get used to the size of the handle, but I liked the knot from the outset.

IMO the Stealth should never have been retired from production. It’s a terrific razor and one of the best incarnations of the Merkur bakelite slant.

I ended the shave with a splash of Wild Coast Perfumery’s Eau de Lavanade, whose fragrance of lavender, bergamot, and lemon is light and pleasing.

Great way to start the week.

Written by Leisureguy

31 August 2020 at 8:55 am

Posted in Shaving

Cooking today, greens tonight

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I cooked a new batch of intact whole grain, Red Fife this time, and i also cooked3 cups of soybeans for the next batch of tempeh, now in the oven with the oven light on. I went back to the zip-lock bag method, with quite a large zip-lock bag. Before adding beans to bag, I rolled it fairly tightly into a cylinder about 1″ in diameter, pressed it flat, and used my small-hole punch to punch a series of holes the length of the flattened cylinder, about 1″ apart. Then I punched in a few more holes in between.

I drained the beans, stirred them over medium-high heat to evaporate excess water, then let them cool to 95ºF. I stirred in 3 tablespoons brown rice vinegar (unsweetened) and a packet of tempeh starter, then scooped it up into the bag.

I put a wire cooling rack in a rimmed baking sheet, pressed beans into a uniform layer about 3/4″ thick, placed the bag on the rack, put another rack on top, and put that into the oven with a couple of cast-iron skillets (nested) on it for weight — probably not needed, but I’ll do that for 24 hours.

Finally I cooked a batch of greens, some of which I had for dinner — exceptionally tasty, it seemed, and topped with tempeh sausage.

Using the 6-qt All-Clad pot:

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 bunches thick scallions chopped

Once scallions had wilted and cooked down, I added:

chopped cloves of garlic from one head of garlic (allowed to rest 15 minutes after chopping)
2 large jalapeños, chopped small (core and seeds included)

After they cooked for a couple of minutes, I added

10 large domestic white mushrooms, chopped large
about 1.5 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper

I cooked that until the mushrooms started to give off their liquid, then added

1 Roma tomato, chopped
1 1/2 lemons, diced (with peel, ends discarded — the 1/2 was a leftover)
1 can diced tomatoes
about 1/3 cup Shaoxing wine (or sherry)

When that started to simmer, I added

2 bunches curly-leaf green kale, chopped
1 bunch rapini, chopped

I cover and simmered, stirring occasionally, for about 40 minutes.

That will be the greens (two servings a day) for the next little while.

Probably tomorrow I’ll cook up a mix of vegetables — two servings a day of that, as well. See how I do Dr. Greger’s Daily Dozen.

Written by Leisureguy

30 August 2020 at 7:51 pm

The US political and protest landscape

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Heather Cox Richardson takes a look at the continuing devolution of the US:

With the end of the Republican National Convention on Thursday, the race to the November election is in high gear.

Trump has made it clear he will run on the idea that he has defeated the coronavirus and rebooted the economy, while rioters from the “radical left” are destroying American cities, aided and abetted by Democrats. But the convention’s picture of the president and the nation America were so wildly untrue that fact-checkers have stayed busy ever since.

Vice President Mike Pence rewrote history to argue that Trump managed the pandemic wonderfully. “President Trump marshaled the full resources of our federal government from the outset,” Pence said. “He directed us to forge a seamless partnership with governors across America in both political parties.”

In fact, there is really no debate over the reality that Trump did not acknowledge the magnitude of the crisis for six to eight crucial weeks, despite warnings. He refused to invoke the Defense Production Act to speed up the production of critical medical supplies and instead told states they were on their own. When states then tried to buy their own supplies, the federal government often intercepted the shipments and handed them to private distribution systems to send to places the administration determined needed them most, redistributions that were often attributed to political favoritism.

Most attendees at the president’s speech did not wear masks, and speakers at the convention referred to the pandemic in the past tense. But coronavirus has not gone away. Although the overall number of new cases is declining, hot spots remain, especially as schools and universities have reopened over the past two weeks. At the University of Alabama, 1200 students have tested positive for Covid-19 since classes resumed less than two weeks ago; Florida has seen nearly 900 students testing positive in the same period. America is still suffering close to 1000 deaths a day from Covid-19, bringing our numbers over 180,000 people.

Pence also boasted that we have gained back 9.3 million jobs in the last three months, with no acknowledgement that it is Trump’s mismanagement of the pandemic that devastated the economy in the first place, or that we are still 13 million jobs down from where we were before the coronavirus.

Trump’s narrative that cities are in crisis, and the violence is caused by the “radical left,” is not supported by the evidence, either.

First of all, there is less violence than he suggests. Crime has actually been dropping in the U.S. for a decade, and protests are isolated. American cities are not in flames. On Twitter, a user claimed that: “There’s this creepy vibe in DC right now where it’s obvious how bad the city’s been destroyed by rioters, and yet people are almost afraid to point it out or oppose it. You almost have to whistle past the boarded up windows as if it’s all just normal.” Other users ridiculed him by posting photographs of peaceful city scenes, noting that a number of places closed early in the summer because of Covid, but that the only “creepy vibe” was the new fortified wall around the White House.

But Trump is likely aware that white Americans tend to associate Black Americans with crime, so he is hitting the idea that the Black Lives Matter protesters are violent. In fact, most of the violence occurring appears to be associated either with the police who, according to a new report published in The Guardian, have been infiltrated by white supremacists, or with far-right activists.

In June, ABC News obtained an intelligence bulletin from the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the National Counterterrorism Center warning that “anarchist extremists continue to pose the most significant threat of targeted assaults against police.” They singled out violent extremists such as members of the boogaloo anarchist movement. Indeed, the police officer Pence spoke of at the convention who was killed in Oakland, California, was allegedly killed by a boogaloo supporter, not by protesters, as Pence implied. And, of course, the two people murdered and one injured in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on August 23 were allegedly killed by Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old white man who came to town to face down the protesters.

To the extent there is unrest in the country, Trump has no interest in quelling it. He has refused to condemn the right-wing thugs, and his supporters have championed Rittenhouse as a hero. Fox News Channel personality Tucker Carlson said that Rittenhouse “had to maintain order when no one else would.”

In Portland, Oregon, today, . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, including links to reports.

Written by Leisureguy

30 August 2020 at 7:50 am

White supremacists and militias have infiltrated police across US, report says

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The US is undergoing a hostile takeover. Sam Levin reports in the Guardian:

White supremacist groups have infiltrated US law enforcement agencies in every region of the country over the last two decades, according to a new report about the ties between police and far-right vigilante groups.

In a timely new analysis, Michael German, a former FBI special agent who has written extensively on the ways that US law enforcement have failed to respond to far-right domestic terror threats, concludes that US law enforcement officials have been tied to racist militant activities in more than a dozen states since 2000, and hundreds of police officers have been caught posting racist and bigoted social media content.

The report notes that over the years, police links to militias and white supremacist groups have been uncovered in states including Alabama, California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Virginia, Washington and West Virginia.

Police in Sacramento, California, in 2018 worked with neo-Nazis to pursue charges against anti-racist activists, including some who had been stabbed, according to records.

And just this summer, German writes, an Orange county sheriff’s deputy and a Chicago policeman were caught wearing far-right militia logos; an Olympia, Washington, officer was photographed posing with a militia group; and Philadelphia police officers were filmed standing by while armed mobs attacked protesters and journalists.

The exact scale of ties between law enforcement and militias is hard to determine, German told the Guardian. “Nobody is collecting the data and nobody is actively looking for these law enforcement officers,” he said.

Officers’ racist activities are often known within their departments and generally result in punishment or termination following public scandals, the report notes. Few police agencies have explicit policies against affiliating with white supremacist groups. If police officers are disciplined, the measures often lead to protracted litigation.

Concerns about alleged relations between far-right groups and law enforcement in the US have intensified since the start of the protest movement sparked by the police killing of George Floyd. Police in states including California, Oregon, Illinois and Washington are now facing investigations for their alleged affinity to far-right groups opposing Black Lives Matter, according to the report.

This week, police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, faced intense scrutiny over their response to armed white men and militia groups gathered in the city amid demonstrations by Black Lives Matter activists and others over the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black father of three who was left paralyzed after being shot in the back. On Wednesday, Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old who appeared to consider himself a militia member and had posted “blue lives matter” content, was arrested on suspicion of murder after the fatal shooting of two protesters.

Activists in Kenosha say police there have responded aggressively and violently to Black Lives Matter demonstrators, while doing little to stop armed white vigilantes. Supporting their claims is at least one video taken before the shooting that showed police tossing bottled water to what appeared to be armed civilians, including one who appeared to be the shooter, the AP noted: “We appreciate you being here,” an officer said on loudspeaker.

Police also reportedly let the gunman walk past them with a rifle as the crowd yelled for him to be arrested because he had shot people, according to witnesses and video reviewed by the news agency.

The Kenosha sheriff, David Beth, has said the incident was chaotic and stressful.

German told the Guardian on Wednesday: “Far-right militants are allowed to engage in violence and walk away while protesters are met with violent police actions.” This “negligent response”, he added, empowers violent groups in dangerous and potentially lethal ways: “The most violent elements within these far-right militant groups believe that their conduct is sanctioned by the government. And therefore they’re much more willing to come out and engage in acts of violence against protesters.”

There is growing awareness in some parts of the government about the intensifying threat of white supremacy. The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have directly identified white supremacists as the most lethal domestic terrorist threat in the country. According to German’s report, the FBI’s own internal documents have directly warned that the militia groups the agency is investigating often have “active links” to law enforcement.

And yet US agencies lack a national strategy to identify white supremacist police and root out this problem, German warned. Meanwhile, popular police reform efforts to address “implicit bias” have done nothing to confront explicit racism.

The FBI did not . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

30 August 2020 at 6:55 am

Amazon’s sneaky way to dodge responsibility may be failing

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Matt Stoller writes in BIG:

A little over a year ago, the Wall Street Journal published a story on the thousands of unsafe or fraudulent products being sold on Amazon by third party merchants. If you talk to anyone who deals with branding and Amazon, counterfeit or defective products are a regular complaint. Defective products cause consumers harm and third party brand damage, and is the one area where Amazon actively and obviously harms consumers. Jeff Bezos even remarked on it in front of Congress during the antitrust hearings.

Last week, Amazon made an interesting political moves to tackle defective product sales, seeking to change not only its own business, but also the laws that governs liability for defective products. How the corporation acted, the flexibility of its political and legal strategy, goes a long way towards explaining why Jeff Bezos is the richest man in the world, far more so than anything Amazon has done in terms of business or technological innovation.

Here’s what happened.

Who Has to Pay for an Exploding Laptop Battery?

A few years ago, an Amazon Prime customer, Angela Bolger, bought a laptop battery from a third party merchant on Amazon. The battery exploded, injuring her. Bolger sued Amazon. She didn’t know she was buying from a third party merchant, she thought she was buying from Amazon. She also hadn’t known the battery came from a Chinese producer she couldn’t reach legally, and she had had no communication with the merchant.

Bolger lost the case at the lower court level, as most Amazon customers have until relatively recently. As Sean Bender wrote in a law review article reviewing Amazon and the doctrine that governs defective product sales, “Amazon’s customers are almost never successful in holding the company liable for defective products sold by its third-party vendors, even when those vendors cannot be sued directly because of insolvency, extraterritoriality, or both.”

Amazon’s ability to avoid liability for third party sellers who use its platform has given it a competitive advantage. While retailers like Walmart and Best Buy would certainly be liable for a defective battery sold in its store, Amazon, the lower court concluded, can simply offload that responsibility to third party merchants. Amazon, at least where its third party marketplace is concerned, is a mere online marketplace, not a retailer.

Amazon didn’t just argue that it lacks liability because it is merely a marketplace. It also argued that under the telecommunications law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (a law I have written about), it merely hosts ‘speakers’ on its platform. Even as it creates a massive logistics and payments empire all merchants must use, with detailed rules on packaging, customer service, prices, and insurance, legally speaking Amazon posed as an innocent match-making speech platform.

Such an aggressive legal approach is not new for the corporation. Amazon’s strategy has always been designed to take advantage of legal ways to avoid taxes, push costs onto others, and give itself advantages in the marketplace. It did this for years by avoiding sales taxes its competitors had to pay; product liability claims in its third party marketplace are yet another example.

The legal standard under which such claims occur in selling goods and services is known as ‘strict liability,’ which means that the party at fault can be held to account regardless of whether they meant harm. Someone making a defective product is liable for the harm that product causes. But the doctrine creates a problem if there are multiple actors in a sales chain – is a retailer responsible for selling a defective product, or just the manufacturer?

Generally speaking California courts have said, yes, retailers are responsible as well (though strict liability doctrine differs by state). “Beyond manufacturers,” said a California appeals court in 2008, “anyone identifiable as ‘an integral part of the overall producing and marketing enterprise’ is subject to strict liability.” Essentially, if you are a pivotal part of the “stream of commerce,” you are responsible for whatever is sold.

So far, so good for Amazon, they kept their advantage by somehow evading being made a part of the marketplace. But then something unexpected happened after the lower court ruled in Amazon’s favor. Bolger appealed, and a California appeals court took her side. In overruling the lower court, the appeals judges said Amazon is liable for the exploding laptop battery, even though it is not the party that directly transferred title of the good to the end buyer.

The California Appeals Court decision is firmly and aggressively anti-Amazon, as if the judges were annoyed at the premise Amazon portrays itself as a mere powerless vessel for commerce. The court noted Amazon took the product from the merchant, stored it, attracted the customer, offered the product listing, handled the payment and logistics, and even “shipped the product in Amazon packaging.” Amazon also controlled how the merchant could sell on its site, limited the merchant’s access to the customer’s information, forced the merchant to communicate with the customer through Amazon, and “demanded indemnification as well as substantial fees on each purchase.” Amazon was no powerless actor, the court concluded, but was, as common sense suggests, “pivotal” in the transaction. Thus, Amazon carries strictly liability for products its merchants sell.

Moreover, the argument about how Amazon merely hosted speakers, and was thus protection by Section 230, merited little more than a few paragraphs of the judges pointing out that putting things in boxes and selling them isn’t speech. In other words, the court carefully showed that without Amazon’s existence, the transaction wouldn’t have happened. Amazon’s importance in the marketplace, not that Amazon sees itself as an online marketplace, is the key element at work.

Such a loss, especially in the significant California market, is quite problematic for Amazon. Aside from the Bolger case, there are multiple attempts to challenge Amazon on the legal problem of who is liable when a faulty product is sold through its marketplace. There’s the Pennsylvania case Oberdorf v. Amazon involving a defective dog collar, the Arizona case State Farm v. Amazon regarding defective hoverboards, and the Tennessee case Fox v. Amazon, again with a defective hoverboard purchase.

It’s not just the courts beginning to rule against Amazon. The lack of product liability by Amazon is something California legislators, led by Assemblyman Mark Stone, have been attacking for some time with proposed legislation, AB 3262. There are Federal bills as well, and states are beginning to consider rules to equalize the playing field. With this California court case, Amazon seemed to realize its days of allowing defective products to be sold through its platform are likely over.

Amazon’s Jujitsu

What speaks to the savvy of Amazon is how the corporation reacted to its loss. After the court ruled, Amazon public policy lead (and former FTC and DOJ Antitrust official) Brian Huseman then swung into action. Last Friday, he published a blog post reversing Amazon’s position.

Not only did Amazon support legislative action to hold itself strictly liable for products sold on its platform, Huseman wrote, but it would support legislation to go beyond the court’s decision. Huseman said Amazon supported Stone’s bill on online marketplace liability, but Amazon wanted it to be even stronger and broader. Amazon, after being held liable in court for hurting someone by selling defective products, would pose in a legislative fight as the consumer’s biggest champion.

Huseman is an increasingly important player in the Amazon public policy shop, and as Amazon is a creature of public policy, it makes him one of the more important executives at the corporation. Former Obama press secretary Jay Carney, who ostensibly runs global affairs for Amazon, is a public relations guy and glad-handler of political VIPs, whereas Huseman, though behind the embarrassing HQ2 fiasco, does understand law.

The California bill, AB 3262 in its original form (which my organization endorsed in our report on Amazon), would have forced Amazon to take responsibility for what merchants sold on its platform, but the court decision essentially took care of this problem for the legislators. .

Huseman, recognizing that Amazon will have take responsibility for what it sold, in turned asked the legislature to apply strict liability to anyone remotely connected to selling things online. Not only should Amazon be held liable for products its merchants sell, wrote Huseman, but all online platforms or websites should be liable, not just for helping to place products into the marketplace but under any business model. The ultimate language of the legislation included not only placing products into the marketplace, but ‘facilitating’ the placing of such products into the marketplace.

With this broader standard, a whole host of other actors might become liable, from non-Amazon platforms like eBay to companies like Shopify, which is an infrastructure provider that sells online storefronts and logistics to companies that want to compete with Amazon. The changes Huseman requested, and Stone placed in the bill, might even make advertisers liable if their clients paid them to advertise goods that are defective. Amazon doesn’t just want to make Amazon safe for consumers, but the entire world.

Such a shift can sound like music to the ears of someone who wants to protect consumers. After all, if Amazon has conceded that it has to protect consumers and will support a law to do just that, isn’t that a victory? And isn’t it even better that Amazon wants the bill strengthened and applied to everyone? What kind of crusading consumer rights leader wouldn’t love a consumer protection bill as broad as that? And it worked. Here’s Stone, the sponsor of AB 3262.

“I never thought I’d be sitting down, seeing eye-to-eye, with Amazon,” said Assemblymember Mark Stone (D-Scotts Valley) in an interview Monday. “I figured they would always fight this. But they’re realistic. They know what’s coming and they know they are going to have to deal with it.”

From Stone’s perspective, consumers deserve to be protected, and if Amazon wants to take proactive measures to protect those who buy on its platform and eBay doesn’t, then eBay is the bad actor. After all, eBay has instances of fraud, certainly buying goods off of Craigslist has no guarantees of quality and trafficking in defective goods are a regular occurrence online, as they are offline. Paypal, though a payment network and not an online marketplace, is no saint. And certainly online marketplaces have sought to escape liability for dealing with defective goods, liability that offline retailers have to hold for the products they sell.

But the question here is not so simple as Amazon’s Huseman puts it, to create equal liability between all online marketplaces. Because the reality is that Amazon is not just an online marketplace, it is an extraordinarily powerful retailer, infrastructure provider, and online marketplace all at once, and that difference in market power matters. There are three reasons to be wary of a broadened legislative standard.

First, to make an analogy, what Amazon was asking for is the equivalent of making not only retailers and manufacturers for defective products, but also potentially the malls in which those stores are located, as well as the newspapers in which stores advertise their wares, the payment systems they use to take money, the decorator who helps arrange storefronts, or anyone else who ‘facilitates’ the commerce.

One might imagine this analogy is an exaggeration, and that not all these entities will be held liable. And that’s possible. You see, what’s powerful about the language Amazon recommended is that its meaning will have to be worked out by the courts, which is of course the point. The goal is to force anyone who might want to compete with Amazon to put themselves in legal jeopardy. Amazon essentially has imposed a lawyer tax on all its competitors and anyone who might consider selling to its competitors.

Second, and more importantly, . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

29 August 2020 at 7:51 pm

The Destructive Conspiracy Theory That Victoria Unleashed Upon the World

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I didn’t realize that this conspiracy theory/illusion had its roots in Victoria. Jen Gerson reports in The Capital:

his month, US president Donald Trump was asked an offhand question about QAnon. “I’ve heard these are people that love our country… so I don’t know, really anything about it, other than they do supposedly like me,” he said during a press briefing. “If I can help save the world from problems, I’m willing to do it.”

It may seem like an innocuous remark, but it’s hard to imagine it was genuine. QAnon is the purveyor of one of the wildest and most pervasive conspiracy theories running through American politics. Based on the cryptic ravings of an anonymous imageboard user named “Q,” the theory’s adherents believe that Donald Trump is working to ferret out a global satanic pedophilic sex ring secretly supported by elements of the Democratic Party and the “deep state” within the U.S. government.

The group is now holding rallies in numerous cities, ostensibly to combat child sex trafficking. At least one open QAnon believer, Marjorie Taylor Greene, has won a Republican primary in Georgia to run for the House of Representatives. Trump, of course, tweeted his support: “Marjorie is strong on everything and never gives up – a real WINNER!”

QAnon may sound like  something that could only have birthed in the darker corners of the internet. But QAnon predates president Donald Trump and even the internet itself;  It’s just the latest iteration of a moral panic that swept the highest levels of Western society only a generation ago. One  of the most polarizing and divisive social movements in modern history; it destroyed families, turned communities against one another, and sent numerous innocent men and women to prison.

And it all started in Victoria, BC.

It was known as the Satanic Panic; a conspiracy theory that convinced millions of well meaning and rational people that a secret cabal of Satanists had infiltrated the highest echelons of society in order to sexually molest children. The Satanists were accused of sacrificing animals and using women as “breeders” to create an endless supply of dead babies for use in their gory, bloody-fuelled rituals and orgies.

It destroyed lives and ripped apart families. Reports of ritualistic child abuse were reported across the English speaking-world. Almost all of them were eventually found to have been partially, or wholly fabricated, but not before dozens of innocent people were falsely accused, and sentenced to years and even decades in prison.

Born of a genuine historical injustice — society’s neglect of childhood sexual abuse — this was a panic that saw some of the world’s smartest minds taken in by accusations, that, at their root, were as preposterous as any raised during medieval European witch hunts. It  was legitimized by a professional class, captivated law enforcement and proved itself a lucrative grift for fraudsters and attention seekers. Worse, as the conspiracy grew under its own weight and influence, the hysteria inspired real and horrific crimes — usually by disturbed teenagers who claimed they were sacrificing humans to Satan.

This is a case study of how badly off the rails we can go when we allow our best intentions and passions to overwhelm us.

The story begins in 1980, with the publication of a book called Michelle Remembers. It detailed the fantastic claims of Michelle Proby, who recounted several months of gory and sadistic ritualistic abuse at the hands of a cabal of Satanists when she was a child in 1950s Victoria. The memories, she alleged, were repressed for decades, until she sought help from psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder. Under a state of hypnosis, Proby began to uncover a horrifying tale of murder, torture, abduction, and molestation. She claimed to have been taken from her willing family and groomed to take part in a ritual to call the devil — one in which she witnessed the murder of children, was forced to eat human remains, covered in dead baby parts, and locked in a cage with snakes.

An explosive bestseller. Michelle Remembers would become the folkloric template for countless other claims of Satanic Ritual Abuse ostensibly uncovered during therapy during the 80s and 90s.

On its face, the book seems too implausible to take seriously. But neither Michelle Proby nor Lawrence Pazder gave anyone the impression of being loony, hysterical, or liars. Proby was a married woman living an ordinary life in Victoria. Measured and even-tempered, with close cropped curly dark hair and a soft-spoken, feminine lilt to her speech.

Pazder, her psychiatrist, was by all accounts a brilliant family man, a respected professional psychologist and a devout Catholic.

In 1973, Proby began to visit Pazder to seek treatment for depression. After four years of regular therapy sessions, the pair had worked through Proby’s ordinary childhood issues and, it was clear, that their sessions were coming to a natural close. Then, in 1976,  Proby suffered a miscarriage and began to experience horrible nightmares. Pazder was called in to help.

“I had a bad dream last week,” she said in one of these first sessions, as described in Michelle Remembers.

“A bad dream?” replied Pazder.

“Yes … a very bad dream,” she said before describing a terrifying dream about scratching an itch on her hand only to have the skin rupture with spiders. “Little spiders, just pouring out of the skin on my hand. It was just –I can’t even tell you how it was.”

From there, the sessions began to delve into increasingly bizarre territory. Proby would slip into a kind of hypnotic trance, in which she began to recount long-forgotten events in the childlike voice of her five-year-old self.  . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

29 August 2020 at 10:54 am

A better Mazi en Gondolando: The original, a full feature — plus the sequel

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Earlier I blogged a  short Esperanto video, which turns out to be a small segment of this original, just enhanced with CGI. But the original has its own charms, plus it’s a full-length feature. And you actually can learn quite a bit of Esperanto just by watching the two (Mazi in Gondolando and the sequel Mazi revenas al Gondolando. So, for your edification and enjoyment, here they are:

And the eagerly anticipated sequel:

Written by Leisureguy

29 August 2020 at 10:25 am

Posted in Esperanto, Video

Cool chess win by Paul Morphy

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Written by Leisureguy

29 August 2020 at 9:43 am

Posted in Chess, Video

Mama Bear Spellbound Woods and the Rockwell 6S R3

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This limited run Plissoft brush from Chiseled Face seems to have a 22mm knot, but I can’t be sure. I do like the handle, shaped from treated and stained wood. And I do like Mama Bear’s Spellbound Woods — and the lather from Mama Bear soaps.

The Rockwell 6S is an “ultimate” razor: sturdy, well made and well designed, with a selection of baseplates to accommodate both a variety of beard types, from tough and thick to sparse and downy, and also changes in preference over time (or as one’s beard changes as one ages, from puberty to retirement). Three passes did a perfect job comfortably, and that’s all I want.

A dot of Saint Charles Shave Avocado Oil aftershave balm finished the job. This has a very nice and light fragrance like Phoenix Artisan’s avocado shaving soap or TOBS avocado shaving cream.

The weekend begins well. And today I’m making the tempeh “sausage” described in the previous post. I know that some people wonder why a person on a whole-food plant-based diet — or even just a vegan diet — would want to make an imitation sausage.

I figured it out, and it’s pretty simple. It’s because I like the taste and mouthfeel of sausage, but I don’t like some other parts of sausage: nitrites, antibiotics and hormones in the meat, saturated fat (which really hits blood glucose hard), IGF-1, and the way animals are treated in industrial meat production (so bad that the meat industries — beef, pork, chicken, eggs — work (often successively) to prevent to public from knowing what they do (through Ag-gag laws).

So it’s actually easy to understand: like the taste and mouthfeel, don’t like the unhealthy aspects. So if I can get the good without the bad, sounds like a good idea to me.

Written by Leisureguy

29 August 2020 at 8:55 am

Posted in Shaving

Tempeh breakfast sausage

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I found that the tempeh sausage patties were somewhat fragile and tended to break apart when turned. The problem worsened when I included minced mushrooms. I was thinking of trying one beaten egg mixed into the sausage to act as a binder when The Eldest suggested using a small amount of chia seed soaked in water.

When you do soak chia seed you get a kind of gelatinous paste. That might work to hold the sausage together. Moreover, I would then get the benefit of chia seeds (good fiber, good source of omega-3, an excellent protein profile, and high in nutrients) and also avoid the nutritional drawbacks of eggs.

I tried it, and it worked. I have modified the recipe, with modifications in bold. I am now going to try including 1=2 mushrooms in Batch 2 (which is processed to a paste).

Why not just eat pork sausage? Why bother with tempeh?

I know that some people wonder why a person on a whole-food plant-based diet — or even merely the less-restrictive vegan diet — would want to make imitation sausage.

It’s pretty simple. I like eating sausage because of its taste and mouthfeel, but I don’t like other parts of sausage — nitrites, antibiotics and hormones in the meat, saturated fat (which really hits blood glucose hard), IGF-1, and the way animals are treated in industrial meat production (so bad that the meat industries — producers of beef, pork, chicken, eggs — go to great lengths to keep the public from knowing what they do, to the extent that meat producers write Ag-gag laws and lobby hard (and often successfully) to get state legislatures to pass the laws).

It’s actually easy to understand. If you like the taste and mouthfeel of sausage and don’t like the unhealthy/distasteful aspects, then try the recipe. You then can get the good without the bad, which to me sounds like a win.

Tempeh breakfast sausage

I mentioned in a previous post that one easy way to cook tempeh is not to cut it into cubes but to cut a slab and cook it like hamburger patty.  (I still occasionally sauté some diced (large dice) tempeh with mushrooms to include in a salad, for example.) I mentioned the tempeh-patty idea to The Eldest, and she immediately thought of sprinkling the patty with sausage seasoning.

I make my own tempeh, and readers will recall that I ran into trouble when trying to mix curry powder into the beans along with the tempeh culture because curry powder includes spices that have anti-fungal properties — fungicides, in effect. The Eldest opined that sausage seasoning are likely to be the same in spades, since when you make sausage you want to preserve it, so spice choices would probably include those with anti-fungal properties — and indeed the first spice I checked, fennel seeds (a key ingredient in Italian sausage) contain fennel oil (of course), and fennel oil is definitely a fungicide.

But, as she pointed out, the spices could be added after the tempeh is made, perhaps sprinkled on before cooking. I started looking up sausage seasoning mix (there are a ton of them), and then she hit on the idea of search “tempeh sausage,” and voilà, there are a lot of those.

I immediately decided to try this recipe, though I modified it slightly (e.g., no salt). I prepare the ingredients using my 3.5-cup Kitchenaid food processor in two batches, adding each batch to a bowl as I process it:

Batch 1: process to finely chopped (like sausage) and then put in a bowl:

• 8 ounces tempeh

Batch 2: process to a paste and then add to the bowl containing the tempeh:

• 1/4 medium white onion (or about that volume of scallions or shallots)
• 4 cloves garlic, minced
• 1 tsp brown sugar
• 1 tsp ground black pepper
• 1 1/2 tsp dried sage
• 1 1/2 tsp dried thyme
• 1 1/2 tsp smoked paprika
• 1 1/2 tsp dried rosemary
• 1/2 tsp dried marjoram
• 1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
• 1/8 tsp ground fennel (or crush/chop/grind some fennel seeds)
• 1/4 tsp cayenne or ground chipotle
• 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
• 1 pinch allspice
• 2 Tbsp Worcestershire (or Red Boat fish sauce)
• dash of liquid smoke
• 1 Tbsp olive oil

Separately, mix and let sit for 10-15 minutes:

• 2 Tbsp chia seed
• 3 Tbsp water

The result with be a thick paste.

Mix together (using clean hands or a spatula to mix well) the two batches and the soaked chia seed, cover, and refrigerate for a day or two or three to develop the flavors. After the aging, prepare the patties. Line a 1/3 cup measuring cup with plastic wrap and fill with “sausage.” Fold plastic wrap over the top and pack down. Then gently remove and set on a clean work surface. Press down to form a 1/2-inch thick disc. Repeat until the mixture is used up – about 6 “sausage” patties. The original recipe made 5 exactly, but with the mushrooms, this time I got 6 exactly. — Later: I now usually make the sausage patties as I need them, since one is enough for a meal.

Since I usually cook only 1 patty for a meal, I keep the prepared patties in the fridge in a storage container separated by parchment paper cut to size. One patty is roughly one serving of beans, so for a meal I would use one patty (along with the other parts of the meal: whole intact grain, greens, other vegetables, etc. — see this post).

One nice thing about this sausage that differs from sausage made from pork (or venison): you can taste tempeh sausage as you make it to see whether you need to adjust the seasonings.


It’s very good: nice sausage taste and good crust.

I want to experiment including 1/4 cup finely chopped chopped walnuts. I did try using chopped mushrooms, but the mushroom version stuck more and was more fragile. I switched back to no mushrooms

update: Now that I know the chia-seed trick, I will revisit the mushrooms, which I think must be finely minced by including 1 or 2 mushrooms in Batch 2 and processing them to a paste. /update

Written by Leisureguy

28 August 2020 at 7:40 pm

They Know How to Prevent Megafires. Why Won’t Anybody Listen?

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Elizabeth Weil reports in ProPublica:

What a week. Rough for all Californians. Exhausting for the firefighters on the front lines. Heart-shattering for those who lost homes and loved ones. But a special “Truman Show” kind of hell for the cadre of men and women who’ve not just watched California burn, fire ax in hand, for the past two or three or five decades, but who’ve also fully understood the fire policy that created the landscape that is now up in flames.

“What’s it like?” Tim Ingalsbee repeated back to me, wearily, when I asked him what it was like to watch California this past week. In 1980, Ingalsbee started working as a wildland firefighter. In 1995, he earned a doctorate in environmental sociology. And in 2005, frustrated by the huge gap between what he was learning about fire management and seeing on the fire line, he started Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology. Since then FUSEE has been lobbying Congress, and trying to educate anybody who will listen, about the misguided fire policy that is leading to the megafires we are seeing today.

So what’s it like? “It’s just … well … it’s horrible. Horrible to see this happening when the science is so clear and has been clear for years. I suffer from Cassandra syndrome,” Ingalsbee said. “Every year I warn people: Disaster’s coming. We got to change. And no one listens. And then it happens.”

The pattern is a form of insanity: We keep doing overzealous fire suppression across California landscapes where the fire poses little risk to people and structures. As a result, wildland fuels keep building up. At the same time, the climate grows hotter and drier. Then, boom: the inevitable. The wind blows down a power line, or lightning strikes dry grass, and an inferno ensues. This week we’ve seen both the second- and third-largest fires in California history. “The fire community, the progressives, are almost in a state of panic,” Ingalsbee said. There’s only one solution, the one we know yet still avoid. “We need to get good fire on the ground and whittle down some of that fuel load.”

Yes, there’s been talk across the U.S. Forest Service and California state agencies about doing more prescribed burns and managed burns. The point of that “good fire” would be to create a black-and-green checkerboard across the state. The black burned parcels would then provide a series of dampers and dead ends to keep the fire intensity lower when flames spark in hot, dry conditions, as they did this past week. But we’ve had far too little “good fire,” as the Cassandras call it. Too little purposeful, healthy fire. Too few acres intentionally burned or corralled by certified “burn bosses” (yes, that’s the official term in the California Resources Code) to keep communities safe in weeks like this.

Academics believe that between 4.4 million and 11.8 million acres burned each year in prehistoric California. Between 1982 and 1998, California’s agency land managers burned, on average, about 30,000 acres a year. Between 1999 and 2017, that number dropped to an annual 13,000 acres. The state passed a few new laws in 2018 designed to facilitate more intentional burning. But few are optimistic this, alone, will lead to significant change. We live with a deathly backlog. In February 2020, Nature Sustainability published this terrifying conclusion: California would need to burn 20 million acres — an area about the size of Maine — to restabilize in terms of fire.
Mike Beasley, deputy fire chief of Yosemite National Park from 2001 to 2009 and retired interagency fire chief for the Inyo National Forest and the Bureau of Land Management’s Bishop Field Office, was in a better mood than Ingalsbee when I reached him, but only because as a part-time Arkansan, part-time Californian and Oregonian, Beasley seems to find life more absurd. How does California look this week? He let out a throaty laugh. “It looks complicated,” he said. “And I think you know what I mean by that.”

Beasley earned what he called his “red card,” or wildland firefighter qualification, in 1984. To him, California, today, resembles a rookie pyro Armageddon, its scorched battlefields studded with soldiers wielding fancy tools, executing foolhardy strategy. “Put the wet stuff on the red stuff,” Beasley summed up his assessment of the plan of attack by Cal Fire, the state’s behemoth “emergency response and resource protection” agency. Instead, Beasley believes, fire professionals should be considering ecology and picking their fights: letting fires that pose little risk burn through the stockpiles of fuels. Yet that’s not the mission. “They put fires out, full stop, end of story,” Beasley said of Cal Fire. “They like to keep it clean that way.”

(Cal Fire, which admittedly is a little busy this week, did not respond to requests to comment before this story published.)

So it’s been a week. Carl Skinner, another Cassandra, who started firefighting in Lassen County in 1968 and who retired in 2014 after 42 years managing and researching fire for the U.S. Forest Service, sounded profoundly, existentially tired. “We’ve been talking about how this is where we were headed for decades.”

“It’s painful,” said Craig Thomas, director of the Fire Restoration Group. He, too, has been having the fire Cassandra conversation for 30 years. He’s not that hopeful, unless there’s a power change. “Until different people own the calculator or say how the buttons get pushed, it’s going to stay that way.”

A six-word California fire ecology primer: The state is in the hole.

A seventy-word primer: We dug ourselves into a deep, dangerous fuel imbalance due to one simple fact. We live in a Mediterranean climate that’s designed to burn, and we’ve prevented it from burning anywhere close to enough for well over a hundred years. Now climate change has made it hotter and drier than ever before, and the fire we’ve been forestalling is going to happen, fast, whether we plan for it or not.

Megafires, like the ones that have ripped this week through 1 million acres (so far), will continue to erupt until we’ve flared off our stockpiled fuels. No way around that.

When I reached Malcolm North, a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service who is based in Mammoth, California, and asked if there was any meaningful scientific dissent to the idea that we need to do more controlled burning, he said, “None that I know of.”

How did we get here? Culture, greed, liability laws and good intentions gone awry. There are just so many reasons not to pick up the drip torch and start a prescribed burn even though it’s the safe, smart thing to do.

The overarching reason is culture. In 1905, the U.S. Forest Service was created with a military mindset. Not long after, renowned American philosopher William James wrote in his essay “The Moral Equivalent of War” that Americans should redirect their combative impulses away from their fellow humans and onto “Nature.” The war-on-fire mentality found especially fertile ground in California, a state that had emerged from the genocide and cultural destruction of tribes who understood fire and relied on its benefits to tend their land. That state then repopulated itself in the Gold Rush with extraction enthusiasts, and a little more than half a century later, it suffered a truly devastating fire. Three-thousand people died, and hundreds of thousands were left homeless, after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and attendant fires. The overwhelming majority of the destruction came from the flames, not the quake. Small wonder California’s fire ethos has much more in common with a field surgeon wielding a bone saw than a preventive medicine specialist with a tray full of vaccines.
More quantitatively — and related — fire suppression in California is big business, with impressive year-over-year growth. Before 1999, Cal Fire never spent more than $100 million a year. In 2007-08, it spent $524 million. In 2017-18, $773 million. Could this be Cal Fire’s first $1 billion season? Too early to tell, but don’t count it out. On top of all the state money, federal disaster funds flow down from “the big bank in the sky,” said Ingalsbee. Studies have shown that over a quarter of U.S. Forest Service fire suppression spending goes to aviation — planes and helicopters used to put out fire. A lot of the “air show,” as he calls it, happens not on small fires in the morning, when retardant drops from planes are most effective, but on large fires in the afternoon. But nevermind. You can now call in a 747 to drop 19,200 gallons of retardant. Or a purpose-designed Lockheed Martin FireHerc, a cousin of the C-130. How cool is that? Still only 30% of retardant is dropped within 2,000 yards of a neighborhood, meaning that it stands little chance of saving a life or home. Instead the airdrop serves, at great expense, to save trees in the wilderness, where burning, not suppression, might well do more good.

This whole system is exacerbated by the fact that . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more. Where there’s money to be made, there are corporations who will go to any lengths to make it.

Written by Leisureguy

28 August 2020 at 12:58 pm

Vivian Stephens Helped Turn Romance Writing Into a Billion-Dollar Industry. Then She Got Pushed Out.

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Mimi Swartz writes in Texas Monthly:

If it hadn’t been for the pandemic and the near impossibility of visiting Vivian Stephens in person, I’m not sure I would have been so attuned to her voice. It is gay and mellifluous; she always sounded delighted to hear from me, a reaction most reporters are not accustomed to. But there was something else: she answers questions about herself not in sentences or paragraphs but in pages, and sometimes even chapters, as if she’s been keeping the whole story of her life in her head, just waiting for someone to ask about it.

That voice matches an official photograph from her earlier days, when she was a star editor of romance novels at Dell, then a division of Doubleday, in New York. She was uncontestably beautiful, with a broad, toothy smile and a sly intelligence behind her eyes, a spray of freckles over her cheeks, and an Afro that, befitting the publishing world, was neither too corporately short nor too aggressively political. She is propped up on one elbow and leaning in toward the camera. She looks game for anything.

Stephens is 87 now, under self-imposed lockdown in one of those amenity-rich mid-rise apartment complexes that have sprouted all over Houston, this one just north of Hermann Park, in the Binz area. Her one-bedroom unit is cluttered with papers and stacks of books on nearly every surface. There are many romance novels, yes, as well as more-cerebral tomes such as A Nervous Splendor, a history of Vienna in the late 1880s. Family photographs, some dating back almost to that time, populate a small table in a living room corner.

The most captivating photo, though, is the black-and-white one Stephens has pushpinned to the wall above her computer. Taken in 1964, it shows her poised on the steps of New York’s Lincoln Center wearing a sleeveless sheath dress, hands on her hips, ready to take on the world. Even now, she is vibrant and active. She spends her days talking with friends all over the country. She looks forward to her 83-year-old sister Christina’s daily phone check-in (“Yes, I’m still here”), fixes vegan meals from scratch, meditates, coaches a few long-distance writing clients, watches televangelist Joel Osteen, thinks through that memoir she still intends to produce, makes notes on novels she hopes to write, and surfs the web for information on aging and nutrition for her blog. “Aging is the next great adventure,” she told me with an almost evangelical certitude.

But I was calling about the past, not the future. Specifically, an email she had received in May from Alyssa Day, the president of the Romance Writers of America, an organization based in northwest Houston, not too far from the white and wealthy exurb of Champions. Stephens had been instrumental in founding that group back in 1980.

What is this? Stephens thought to herself when she saw the email, which asked, politely and respectfully, if it would be okay to name the RWA’s highest writing award after her because her “trailblazing efforts created a more inclusive publishing landscape and helped bring romance novels to the masses,” as the press release would later put it.

Well, this is interesting, was Stephens’s next thought.

She wouldn’t put it this way, but it was kind of like getting an email from an old boyfriend who was now trying to make amends. It wasn’t that there was bad blood between Stephens and the RWA—she’d never admit to that, anyway—but there was some hurt that dated back to when she had felt disappeared by the organization.

The timing of Day’s email wasn’t incidental. The RWA had been embroiled in a bitter, and at times very public, racism scandal for much of the previous year. A skeptic might suggest that, good intentions aside—and there were good intentions—the Vivian award could be viewed as just another way to sanitize prior bad behavior on the part of the RWA. Stephens had to decide—again—whether to let bygones be bygones after a forty-year relationship that had been, in its way, a romance, albeit a difficult one.

So Stephens was uncharacteristically ambivalent about the RWA’s offer. After some thought, however, she wrote back to say that she would be honored. And then, being Vivian Stephens, she couldn’t resist adding a metaphorical flourish to the statement they requested. She cited an astrophysicist who explained that as stars explode, they produce the magical, mystical remnant that is stardust. “Since we all live in the universe it is well worth remembering that underneath the outer dressing of ethnicity, color and gender, we are all the same,” she wrote. “Showered with the gift of stars.”

Then she hit send.

Romance writing has always been easy to laugh at, at least for the uninformed. You might imagine that these stories mostly involve a castle on the Scottish Highlands, inhabited by a restless warrior wearing nothing under his kilt. Or maybe you picture the broad and bare-chested phenom Fabio, taking time out from piloting his Viking ship on the high seas to attend to a bŭom and bound captive down below.

But if this is your vision of the romance-writing world, you might have missed its evolution into a billion-dollar-a-year business. In 2016 romance made up 23 percent of the overall U.S. fiction market, and the net worth of some of its writers exceeds that of John Grisham (see Nora Roberts and Danielle Steel). According to Christine Larson, a romance expert and journalism professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, 45 percent of the romance writers she surveyed made enough to support themselves without a day job—“that is shocking for any group of writers,” she said—and thanks mainly to their embrace of digital publishing, 17 percent make more than $100,000 a year. Not Mark Zuckerberg money, but far more than the $45,000 median income of American working women.

That legitimacy is due in many ways to the vast social changes of the past several decades. Once upon a time, many romance writers—and their readers—were . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

28 August 2020 at 11:15 am

Posted in Books, Business, Writing

Vetiver morning

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The Fine Classic is a wonderful brush with a 20mm knot that feels soft, perhaps from the relatively long loft. It created a wonderful lather from this QED soap — the same type of high-glycerin soap Mama Bear now makes. (QED does make soap, but their soapmaker who made this soap retired and they no longer have those soaps available — a shame, since I’d love to get another stick of QED Mocha Java.)

After enjoying the lather and the pleasant vetiver fragrance for a while, I set to work with my Phoenix Ascension, a double-open-comb razor that I like quite a bit. Three passes left my face perfectly smooth and undamaged, and a splash of Saint Charles Shave’s Very V finished the shave. And I can see the weekend from here.

Written by Leisureguy

28 August 2020 at 7:56 am

Posted in Shaving

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