Later On

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

Archive for September 9th, 2020

Great political TV series on Netflix

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Borgen.

Written by Leisureguy

9 September 2020 at 6:34 pm

The Trump administration is a threat to national security

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Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Nicholas Fandos report in the NY Times:

Top officials with the Department of Homeland Security directed agency analysts to downplay threats from violent white supremacy and Russian election interference, a Homeland Security intelligence official said in a whistle-blower complaint released on Wednesday.

Brian Murphy, the former head of the Homeland Security Department’s intelligence branch, said in the complaint that he was ordered this spring by Chad F. Wolf, the acting secretary of the department, to stop producing assessments on Russian interference and focus instead on Iran and China. That request, Mr. Murphy said, was routed through Mr. Wolf from Robert C. O’Brien, the White House national security adviser.

Mr. Wolf later told him not to disseminate a report on a Russian disinformation campaign to denigrate Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s mental health because it “made the president look bad,” said Mr. Murphy, who warned that the actions in their totality threatened national security.

In other instances, the department’s second-highest ranked official, Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, ordered Mr. Murphy to modify intelligence assessments to make the threat of white supremacy “appear less severe” and include information on violent “left-wing” groups and antifa, according to the complaint, which was filed on Tuesday but released Wednesday by the House Intelligence Committee.

In Mr. Murphy’s account, the two top officials at the department — both appointees of President Trump who have not yet been confirmed by the Senate — appeared to shape the agency’s views around the president’s language and political interests in ways that stretched the law and their authority.

Mr. Trump has ignored or downplayed Russian election interference since 2016

And while Mr. Trump’s distaste for the intelligence agencies is not new, Mr. Murphy’s complaint provided some of the most graphic claims yet that career, nonpartisan analysts had been muzzled or shoved aside to downplay the threat posed specifically by Russia as it sought to sow discord and bolster Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign.

READ THE WHISTLE-BLOWER COMPLAINT HERE.

Mr. Murphy was demoted from his post in August to the Homeland Security Department’s management division after his office compiled intelligence reports on protesters and journalists in Portland, Ore. But he asserted in the complaint that his real offense was raising concerns to superiors about the directions he was given and for cooperating with the department’s inspector general. He asked the inspector general to investigate and reinstate him as the intelligence chief.

“Mr. Murphy followed proper, lawful whistle-blower rules in reporting serious allegations of misconduct against D.H.S. leadership, particularly involving political distortion of intelligence analysis and retaliation,” Mark S. Zaid, Mr. Murphy’s lawyer, said in a statement.

Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee asked Mr. Murphy to testify in private on Sept. 21, a possible precursor to a public hearing in the weeks before Election Day.

“We will get to the bottom of this, expose any and all . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

9 September 2020 at 5:10 pm

Two amazing counterattacks by Ronnie O’Sullivan

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Down 50-0 in one, 51-0 in the other.

Written by Leisureguy

9 September 2020 at 4:24 pm

Posted in Games

The revolutionary Thoreau

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It’s often observed that the goods we have possess us as much as (and sometimes more than) we possess them. R. H. Lossin writes in the NY Review of Books:

What most people know about Henry David Thoreau comes down to this:

In 1845, he retreated from civilized life for two years and two months and “lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor… on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts.” He was in his late twenties. The land was owned by his benefactor, the transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. Several years after the experiment ended, he published a version of the journals he kept during this time. The book was called Walden.

People might also know that he did not, in fact, spend the entire year alone and that he had some occasional help sustaining himself. His mother, for example, did his laundry.

“Walden” has entered the American English vocabulary as a synonym either for voluntary isolation, self-sufficiency, and harmonious co-existence with Nature, or for hypocrisy and entitlement, depending upon whom you ask, but the popular use of the word has less to do with the book than is generally assumed. Of course, it is the record of voluntary isolation and relative self-sufficiency, but Thoreau also has much to say about things that are decidedly not a part of the nineteenth-century pastoral imagination.

Although it is a narrative of withdrawal, Walden is better understood as a reflection on industrial progress and how an individual inhabits a society increasingly defined by its economic relations. Writing in the middle of the nineteenth century, Thoreau was observing the ever-more complex entanglements of modern life even as he tried to imagine a way out. His later, more explicitly political writings have their origins in the thinking worked out in his account of his social seclusion.

His answer to the question of how to live in a world that demands unacceptable moral compromises and how a citizen should resist systemic oppression was decided, in large part, by the experiment in living that is Walden. And so, exhibiting all of the virtues and all of the problems of American liberalism, Thoreau came to encapsulate their central contradiction in this desire to solve structural social and economic problems through heroic individualism and moral rigor.

*

When it became clear, back in March, that our habitual patterns of production and consumption would be severely constrained and that those of us with the means to do so would be spending a lot of time in our homes, many people started casting about for texts that might explain, or at least describe in even approximate terms, the physical, psychological, and political terrain of a quarantine. Among the myriad references to apocalypse movies and plague novels, Walden, too, began to appear in editorials and social media posts as a way to brighten the long stretch of isolation that lay ahead of us. These invocations were generally insipid, but Walden might not be as irrelevant as these self-help style citations made it seem. It certainly isn’t as sunny. Given that “Walden” is popularly reduced to the biographical conditions of its writing, it might also be noted that Thoreau may still have been in mourning when he embarked on his woodland adventure. His brother John had died, suddenly, of tetanus in 1842.

Thoreau understood that he was not so geographically remote. He received visitors (there is a chapter called “Visitors”) and took trips to the nearby village (there is also a chapter called “The Village”). He was, of course, interested in living off of the land and having a regular and intimate relationship with Nature. But he was equally interested in what he was leaving behind: the “fool’s life” of perpetual debt, in which men have “no time to be anything but a machine.” This other existence—this place where “a stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements”—is an indispensable, if negative, narrative and philosophical presence in the woods. Walden is not a summary rejection of quotidian reality: reminders of human society and industry do not violently intrude upon the landscape but comfortably inhabit the margins of his vision: “I have my horizon bounded by woods all to myself; a distant view of the railroad where it touches the pond on the one hand, and of the fence which skirts the woodland road on the other.”

The reason, perhaps, that Thoreau is not put off by the proximity of trains and farms is that he was not seeking solitude for solitude’s sake. He was attempting to extract himself from a society that he found deeply troubling. Thoreau does not begin his record of life alone with the naturalist observations that we have come to associate with him (and at which he excelled). Instead, Walden begins with trenchant critique of “progress.” Thoreau’s aversion to the rapid technological changes brought about by industrialization did not issue from a Romantic attachment to unspoiled Nature. In fact, he quite likes the sound of the trains, or is, at the very least, resigned to their permanent integration into the landscape. In the chapter on “Sounds,” he describes train whistles as well as birdcalls. “I watch,” he writes “the passage of the morning cars with the same feeling that I do the rising of the sun.”

Nature, for Thoreau, was never an abstract or idealized entity. It was concrete, material, specific. In its nineteenth-century manifestation, therefore, it always appears circumscribed by culture, and this seems to have been acceptable, not objectionable, to the author. What mattered was not his literal, physical distance from civilization or the purity of the landscape. What Thoreau wanted was a spiritual or philosophical distance from society—and the retreat to Walden facilitated a modicum of non-participation.

Generations of critics and readers have chosen to emphasize the spiritual communion with Nature described by Thoreau and, of course, this was important to him. But we would do better to shift our attention to what Thoreau was withdrawing from. In this alternate light, one senses that Nature’s value lies primarily in this contrast to the social world—that its true value to him is as a means of retreat. Read in this way, Walden is not primarily a record of the so-called “natural” world but a social commentary.

There are, to be sure, birdcalls as well as disquisitions on the pointlessness of telegraphs, but the beginning of Walden is taken up with an all-too-familiar, particularly modern form of discomfort that we have, a hundred and fifty years on, learned to live with but have yet to fully dispel: the knowledge that we are trapped in a social and economic system that was not of our making, that we have in no real way chosen to inhabit, and that we cannot hope to escape from. Or, put another way, a system that we often fantasize about quitting for good. This is, I suspect, the appeal of apocalypse narratives—wishes disguised as fears. It is also a more plausible or at least interesting explanation for the perennial return to Walden. The idea of our own private Walden is less a desire to be “in nature” than a desperate longing to get out of this awful place. We don’t want to live serenely by a pond rather than a city park so much as we want to stop contributing to a system that requires others suffer so that we might enjoy what we suspect are merely compensatory amusements.

*

Thoreau delivered his famous essay Resistance to Civil Government as a lyceum lecture in January of 1848. It was published roughly a year later. The title by which it is most often referred to, “Civil Disobedience,” was bestowed by Thoreau’s sister Sophia, who also oversaw the publication of a posthumous 1866 edition of his reform papers and anti-slavery writings. Given the current use of the word “civil,” the 1866 title is slightly misleading. The main argument advanced in Resistance was that a person had not only a right but also a moral obligation to flout the authority of an unjust government. This resistance may have been passive, in the sense that Thoreau did not advocate armed rebellion—though he came close to doing so—but it was not simply the nonviolent protest of our understanding. He went further than suggesting that a citizen should disobey unjust laws. The very legitimacy and authority of civil government as a whole was at issue here. Thoreau did not . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

9 September 2020 at 3:47 pm

America is trapped in a pandemic spiral of 9 conceptual errors

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Ed Yong writes in the Atlantic:

rmy ants will sometimes walk in circles until they die. The workers navigate by smelling the pheromone trails of workers in front of them, while laying down pheromones for others to follow. If these trails accidentally loop back on themselves, the ants are trapped. They become a thick, swirling vortex of bodies that resembles a hurricane as viewed from space. They march endlessly until they’re felled by exhaustion or dehydration. The ants can sense no picture bigger than what’s immediately ahead. They have no coordinating force to guide them to safety. They are imprisoned by a wall of their own instincts. This phenomenon is called the death spiral. I can think of no better metaphor for the United States of America’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The U.S. enters the ninth month of the pandemic with more than 6.3 million confirmed cases and more than 189,000 confirmed deaths. The toll has been enormous because the country presented the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus with a smorgasbord of vulnerabilities to exploit. But the toll continues to be enormous—every day, the case count rises by around 40,000 and the death toll by around 800—because the country has consistently thought about the pandemic in the same unproductive ways.

Many Americans trusted intuition to help guide them through this disaster. They grabbed onto whatever solution was most prominent in the moment, and bounced from one (often false) hope to the next. They saw the actions that individual people were taking, and blamed and shamed their neighbors. They lapsed into magical thinking, and believed that the world would return to normal within months. Following these impulses was simpler than navigating a web of solutions, staring down broken systems, and accepting that the pandemic would rage for at least a year.

These conceptual errors were not egregious lies or conspiracy theories, but they were still dangerous. They manifested again and again, distorting the debate around whether to stay at home, wear masks, or open colleges. They prevented citizens from grasping the scope of the crisis and pushed leaders toward bad policies. And instead of overriding misleading intuitions with calm and considered communication, those leaders intensified them. The country is now trapped in an intuition nightmare: Like the spiraling ants, Americans are walled in by their own unhelpful instincts, which lead them round and round in self-destructive circles.

“The grand challenge now is, how can we adjust our thinking to match the problem before us?” says Lori Peek, a sociologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder who studies disasters. Here, then, are nine errors of intuition that still hamstring the U.S. pandemic response, and a glimpse at the future if they continue unchecked. The time to break free is now. Our pandemic summer is nearly over. Now come fall, the season of preparation, and winter, the season of survival. The U.S. must reset its mindset to accomplish both. Ant death spirals break only when enough workers accidentally blunder away, creating trails that lead the spiraling workers to safety. But humans don’t have to rely on luck; unlike ants, we have a capacity for introspection.

The spiral begins when people forget that controlling the pandemic means doing many things at once. The virus can spread before symptoms appear, and does so most easily through five P’s: people in prolonged, poorly ventilated, protection-free proximity. To stop that spread, this country could use measures that other nations did, to great effect: close nonessential businesses and spaces that allow crowds to congregate indoors; improve ventilation; encourage mask use; test widely to identify contagious people; trace their contacts; help them isolate themselves; and provide a social safety net so that people can protect others without sacrificing their livelihood. None of these other nations did everything, but all did enough things right—and did them simultaneously. By contrast, the U.S. engaged in …

1. A Serial Monogamy of Solutions

Stay-at-home orders dominated March. Masks were fiercely debated in April. Contact tracing took its turn in May. Ventilation is having its moment now. “It’s like we only have attention for only one thing at a time,” says Natalie Dean, a biostatistician at the University of Florida.

As often happens, people sought easy technological fixes for complex societal problems. For months, President Donald Trump touted hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 cure, even as rigorous studies showed that it isn’t one. In August, he switched his attention to convalescent plasma—the liquid fraction of a COVID-19 survivor’s blood that might contain virus-blocking antibodies. There’s still no clear evidence that this century-old approach can treat COVID-19 either, despite grossly misstated claims from FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn (for which he later apologized). More generally, drugs might save some of the very sickest patients, as dexamethasone does, or shorten a hospital stay, as remdesivir does, but they are unlikely to offer outright cures. “It’s so reassuring to think that a magic-bullet treatment is out there and if we just wait, it’ll come and things will be normal,” Dean says.

Other strategies have merit, but are wrongly dismissed for being imperfect. In July, Carl Bergstrom, an epidemiologist and a sociologist of science at the University of Washington, argued that colleges cannot reopen safely without testing all students upon entry. “The gotcha question I’ve handled most from reporters since is: This school did entry testing, so why did they get an outbreak?” he says. It’s because such testing is necessary for a safe reopening, but not sufficient. “If you do it and screw everything else up, you’ll still have a big outbreak,” Bergstrom adds.

This brief attention span is understandable. Adherents of the scientific method are trained to isolate and change one variable at a time. Academics are walled off into different disciplines that rarely connect. Journalists constantly look for new stories, shifting attention to the next great idea. These factors prime the public to view solutions in isolation, which means imperfections become conflated with uselessness. For example, many critics of masks argued that they provide only partial protection against the virus, that they often don’t fit well, or that people wear them incorrectly. But some protection is clearly better than no protection. As Dylan Morris of Princeton writes, “X won’t stop COVID on its own is not an argument against doing X.” Instead, it’s an argument for doing X along with other measures. Seat belts won’t prevent all fatal car crashes, but cars also come with airbags and crumple zones. “When we layer things, we give ourselves more wiggle room,” Dean says.

Several experts I’ve talked with have been asked: What now? The question assumes that the pandemic lingers because the U.S. simply hasn’t found the right solution yet. In fact, it lingers because the familiar solutions were never fully implemented. Despite claims from the White House, the U.S. is still not testing enough people. It still doesn’t have enough contact tracers. “We have the playbook, but I think there’s a confusion about what we’ve actually tried and what we’ve just talked about doing,” Dean says. A successful response “is never going to be one thing done perfectly. It’ll be a lot of different things done well enough.” That resilience disappears if we create…

2. False Dichotomies

A world of black and white is easier to handle than one awash with grays. But false dichotomies are dangerous. From the start, COVID-19 has been portrayed as a disease that mostly causes mild symptoms in people who quickly recover, and occasionally causes severe illness that leads to hospitalization and death. This two-sided caricature—severe or mild, sick or recovered—has erased the thousands of “long-haulers” who have endured months of debilitating symptoms at home with neither recognition nor care.

Meanwhile, as businesses closed and stay-at-home orders rolled out, “we presumed a trade-off between saving lives and saving the economy,” says Danielle Allen, a political scientist at Harvard. “That was foolishness of the most profound degree.” The two goals were actually aligned: Epidemiologists and economists largely agree that the economy cannot rebound while the pandemic is still raging. By treating the two as opposites, state leaders rushed to reopen, leading a barely contained virus to surge anew.

Now, as winter looms and the pandemic continues, another dichotomy has emerged: enter another awful lockdown, or let the virus run free. This choice, too, is false. Public-health measures offer a middle road, and even “lockdowns” need not be as overbearing as they were in spring. A city could close higher-risk venues like bars and nightclubs while opening lower-risk ones like retail stores. There’s a “whole control panel of dials” on offer, but “it’s hard to have that conversation when people think of a light switch,” says Lindsay Wiley, a professor of public-health law at American University. “The term lockdown has done a lot of damage.” It exacerbated the false binary between shutting down and opening up, while offering …

3. The Comfort of Theatricality . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

9 September 2020 at 11:34 am

The Department of Justice takes on role as Trump’s personal lawyers

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Read the entire column by Heather Cox Richardson. Here’s part of it:

Trump’s apparent tendency to treat women as subject to the whims of others was in the news today as his attempt to get rid of E. Jean Carroll’s defamation lawsuit is threatening the rule of law. In 2019, Trump denied he had raped Carroll, a journalist, more than 20 years ago, saying he had never met her and suggesting she was making up the story for publicity to sell a forthcoming book “or carry out a political agenda.” In November 2019, she sued him in New York for defamation.

Trump tried to stall Carroll’s lawsuit, arguing that a president was immune from civil lawsuits in state court, but in August, a federal judge rejected his bid and allowed the case to proceed. Carroll’s lawyers have asked for a DNA sample to match against material on clothing she was wearing when she says he assaulted her.

Today, lawyers from the Department of Justice asked to take over the case, arguing that Trump was acting in his official capacity as president when he denied knowing Carroll and thus should be defended by the DOJ, which is funded by taxpayer dollars. CNN legal analyst Elie Honig called this “a wild stretch by DOJ…. I can’t remotely conceive how DOJ can argue with a straight face that it is somehow within the official duties of the President to deny a claim that he committed sexual assault years before he took office.” He continued: “This is very much consistent with Barr’s well-established pattern of distorting fact and law to protect Trump and his allies.”

According to University of Texas Law Professor Steve Vladeck, the argument that Trump was acting “within the scope of his employment” when he defamed E. Jean Carroll is an attempt to get the suit dismissed altogether, because the government itself cannot be sued for defamation. Slate’s legal writer Mark Joseph Stern called the move “shocking and profoundly disgusting… and appalling and irredeemable debasement of the Justice Department, a direct threat to the very legitimacy of an agency that is responsible for enforcing federal law.”

The corruption of the DOJ was in the news in another way today, too, as White House chief of staff Mark Meadows told Fox News Channel personality Maria Bartiromo that he has seen “additional” documents from John Durham’s investigation that spell “trouble” for former FBI officials who began the inquiry into the ties between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia. Attorney General William Barr appointed Durham to investigate the FBI after the agency’s independent inspector general reported that the Russia investigation was begun legitimately (the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee agreed). “Additional documents that I’ve been able to review say that a number of the players, the Peter Strzoks, the Andy McCabes, the James Comeys, and even others in the administration previously are in real trouble because of their willingness to participate in an unlawful act and I use the word unlawful at best, it broke all kinds of protocols and at worst people should go to jail as I mentioned previously,” Meadows said.

But observers were quick to note that the White House chief of staff should not have seen any documents in a pending DOJ criminal investigation. Meadows might be making up the story that he has seen such documents. He has been in the news before for a loose relationship with facts: he represented that he earned a four-year college degree when, in fact, he earned a degree equivalent to two years at a community college. Or his comments might mean the DOJ is coordinating with the White House. Neither is good news.

Three drafts of a report from the Department of Homeland Security reviewed by Politico today give some insight into the upcoming election. They warn that  . . .

Written by Leisureguy

9 September 2020 at 9:40 am

Georgia and double voting — not really an issue

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The whole idea is laying groundwork for President Trump to refuse to accept his defeat in the election (if he should be defeated, as seems possible). Judd Legum has a column in Popular Information that is very much worth reading. It begins

Donald Trump is trying to systematically undermine confidence in mail-in voting, which is the only way for many Americans to vote safely during a pandemic. On Tuesday, he got a major assist from Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R).

At a press conference, Raffensperger “announced…that 1,000 Georgians voted twice in the state’s June 9 primary, a felony that he said will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.” In Georgia, a person who “fraudulently votes more than once at the same primary or election shall be guilty of a felony and, upon conviction thereof, shall be sentenced to imprisonment for not less than one nor more than 10 years or to pay a fine not to exceed $100,000, or both.”

But Raffensperger’s dramatic claims do not hold up to scrutiny.

First, there were 1.15 million absentee ballots cast in Georgia’s primary election. If 1,000 people voted twice, that represents 0.086% of all absentee votes cast. Raffensperger acknowledged that double votes did not change the outcome of any primary election.

Raffensperger said that the voters were trying to cheat. “A double voter knows exactly what they’re doing, diluting the votes of each and every voter that follows the law. Those that make the choice to game the system are breaking the law,” Raffensperger claimed. But it’s far from clear that the double voting is intentional or if anyone is guilty of a felony. Raffensperger is not a law enforcement officer and “will hand the findings over to the state attorney general and local district attorneys for possible prosecution.”

It is not illegal to show up a polling place in Georgia after requesting an absentee ballot. 150,000 Georgians did so, according to Raffensperger. People can request an absentee ballot and decide to vote in person. Others might have returned their absentee ballot but were unsure if it was received in time to be counted.

In that situation, . . .

Continue reading. And read the whole thing.

Later in the column:

Near the end of his press conference, Raffensperger was pressed on how he knew that these 1,000 voters had intentionally attempted to cast two votes. He acknowledged that he had not actually completely an investigation to establish the intent of any voter. But he insisted that didn’t matter. “Intentionality is not an excuse under the law,” Raffensperger said.

Raffensperger is a civil engineer, not a lawyer. The relevant Georgia law . . .

Do read the whole thing. There’s much more. And, as Legum points out, these voters were doing exactly what President Trump told voters to do: to vote by mail and then show up at polling places to vote again.

Written by Leisureguy

9 September 2020 at 9:35 am

Miss Molly comes to visit

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Fumigators at The Wife’s apartment today, so Miss Molly is spending a day with me. After a certain amount of obligatory sniffing around the apartment, she found a sunny spot on a comfortable chair and settled down for a nap. (She’s now snoozing.)

Written by Leisureguy

9 September 2020 at 9:12 am

Posted in Cats, Molly

The lovely Omega 21762 and an avocado morning

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This boar brush by Omega, the 21762, has a wondrously soft knot — the whole knot, not just the tips. It’s a finer bristle and, I once read, the tips are uncut. For a while it seemed too soft, but then I found my pace — and focused on its excellence (what it is rather than on what I would have it be) — and now I enjoy it a lot.

It easily worked up a good lather from Phoenix Artisan’s Avo Nice Shave, and the redoubtable RazoRock MJ90A did a wonderful job. A splash of the aftershave, and the morning’s well begun.

Written by Leisureguy

9 September 2020 at 8:41 am

Posted in Shaving

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