Later On

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Archive for November 2020

Five Books on Julius Caesar, genocidal maniac

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Peter Stohard recommends five books on Julius Caesar:

Julius Caesar was a populist politician and general of the late Roman Republic who immortalized himself not only by his beautiful writing about his military exploits, but also by the manner of his death. Here, British journalist and critic Peter Stothard, author of The Last Assassin, chooses five books to help you understand both the man and what motivated him and some of the people who have been inspired by him in the 2,000 years since he died.

Interview by Benedict King

Perhaps, before we discuss your selection of books about Julius Caesar, you might briefly outline who Caesar was. As a non-Classicist, I think he conquered Gaul and Britain, and brought the Roman Republic to an end by crossing the Rubicon. He was then assassinated and said: ‘Et tu, Brute?’

Yes, he did conquer Gaul—between 58 and 50 BC—killing maybe a million Gauls in the process, also getting too rich and too powerful for traditional Roman politics to cope with him. No, he didn’t conquer Britain—even though his skill as a self-propagandist has often led people to think that he did. He had two goes at invading Britain, 55 and 54 BC, and was knocked back both times—more by the weather than the Britons.

And yes, he did cross the Rubicon, which was a shallow stream between Gaul and Italy. By crossing it with his army, in January 49 BC, he broke the rules designed to keep victorious armies away from Rome, began a civil war and gave the world a new term for an act from which you couldn’t go back.

Four years later, he might have said something like, ‘Et tu Brute,’ when he saw that one of his assassins on the Ides of March was the much loved son of his mistress. But, if he did, it would have probably been in Greek. It was quite usual for educated Romans to speak Greek. More importantly, he was a great writer in plain and elegant Latin. With words he established his place in the minds of his fellow Romans and of millions of people later by saying what he’d done—just as his death defined him for other writers.

By being assassinated he set a standard for thinking about the motives and consequences of assassination. For Romans, how you died was a very important summation of how you had lived. His death cemented what he’d written about what he had done. And the consequences of his death meant that no one ever forgot him.

Your book, The Last Assassin, deals with the pursuit of Julius Caesar’s assassins by his supporters, most notably his adopted son, Octavian, who would go on to become Emperor Augustus. What does that campaign to get back at his assassins tell us about the early establishment of his myth and reputation?

Caesar had many friends, as people who get to the top always do. But it turned out that some of those friends, for various reasons, were also his greatest enemies, so much so that they were prepared to kill him.

They each had slightly different motives, some of which are related to aspects of Caesar’s own character. Some hated him because they hadn’t become as rich under his watch as they felt he’d promised them they would be, or they’d hoped to be. One of them didn’t like him because he’d slept with his wife. Some didn’t like him because he pardoned them and made them feel, by his famous clemency, that somehow he was holding that over them. They felt ashamed of having been pardoned.

Others killed him because they were jealous of other people who hadn’t been as close to Caesar in the hard days in Gaul, but who seemed to have done almost as well as they had. There were lots of different personal reasons. One of them was upset that Caesar had stolen some lions he had planned to put in a circus show.

But they all had this fear that Caesar, even if he wasn’t yet a tyrant in 44 BC, was going to become a tyrant and a single autocratic ruler of Rome. There had been brief periods in Roman history when there had been single autocratic rulers before, but the assassins had this idea that he was going to be different. They couldn’t know that, of course, but they thought he would become a kind of hereditary monarch and impose a different kind of tyranny that they wouldn’t be able to get rid of.

So, they argued amongst themselves, probably suppressing their personal motivations, as to whether it was the right thing to kill a man like Caesar, who had done a great deal for Rome, but who was now on the brink, or over the brink, of establishing a tyranny. Sophisticated arguments were brought to bear about whether they should kill him, or whether the civil war that would probably follow from his death would be even worse.

So, there were these discussions about the evil consequences of tyranny versus a civil war. That discussion was conducted at quite a high philosophical level, but was brought together with a whole lot of those personal motivations for killing him. The philosophical arguments and the individual personal motivations taken together address the issue of who Caesar was.

Let’s move on to the books you’re recommending about Julius Caesar. First up is Et Tu, Brute?: the Murder of Caesar and Political Assassination by Greg Woolf. Tell us about why you’ve chosen this one.

Having to choose five books about Julius Caesar has been a great challenge. Caesar is someone whom you have to look at through many different lenses and prisms. He is not an easy character to see straight up. Looking at him might be compared to looking at the sun. He wasn’t the sun, except to some of his most extreme admirers. But if you try to look at him from one sole direction, it is rather blinding. So, the books I’ve chosen—and Greg Woolf is a very good introduction to this—try to look around Julius Caesar, to look at the ways different people saw him at the time and have seen him since. Woolf’s is a good account of how Caesar got to the Ides of March and what happened on the day. It’s quick and short and a very good start. But there’s also a long section on how the assassination reverberated through history, across Europe and across the Atlantic.

If he didn’t say ‘Et Tu, Brute?’ what did he say?

Et tu, Brute?’ was one of Shakespeare’s many contributions. If he said something like it, it is more likely he said the Greek words, ‘kai su, teknon’, which means ‘and you, my child’ and has been variously interpreted to mean ‘even you, who I’ve loved so much’ and ‘even you, the son of my mistress’ or ‘you, too, are going to be assassinated in your turn.’ Maybe it meant ‘I’ll see you in hell’ or a version of ‘up yours, Brutus.’ The Greek phrase has been interpreted in many different ways and Shakespeare’s ‘Et Tu, Brute?’ was just a convenient way of Shakespeare saying what a Roman might have said.

And just before we get on to the next book: we all know how Caesar died, but where did he come from? Was he born into a senatorial Roman family or did he pull himself up by his bootstraps?

He was born into a good family. All the people we’re talking about in the story, all Caesar’s assassins, were part of the elite, if you like, although the man that I have recently become most interested in, Cassius Parmensis, the last surviving assassin, wasn’t one of the top ones, which in some ways made his eyes a good lens through which to watch the action.

Caesar was a member of one of the elite families which had been rivals, squabbled and cooperated with each other, and fought against each other for hundreds of years, and had made Rome the extraordinary conqueror of so much. Gradually, it turned out that the bigger Rome’s empire, and the bigger the army its generals had, the more impossible it was to control them from the centre. So, Caesar, out in Gaul, with a lot of legions, was a lot more powerful than the Senate, which was supposed to be his master. So the system risked toppling over under its own weight.

But there were still people who thought they could prop it up, that the problem was not the system but Caesar himself. These people were also within the elite—not among the people or the army, who largely loved Caesar, as the assassins found to their cost. These killers thought that, if they could just get rid of Caesar, they could go back to divvying up power in Rome between themselves, as they’d always done.

Let’s move on to American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880-1964 by William Manchester. This is the life of the American general Douglas MacArthur, who was the ruler of occupied Japan after the Second World War. Why have you chosen this book?

This book is a great example of . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

30 November 2020 at 3:49 pm

Posted in Books, History

Take a look at the effect of “rubber bullets”

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They’re obviously not Smurf bullets, but US police routinely shoot these at people who are protesting and at reports observing protests. Take look a look at what they do (1-minute video).

Written by Leisureguy

30 November 2020 at 12:48 pm

The GOP Is a Propaganda Party: Media parasites have taken control of the host.

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A clownfish with a Cymothoa exigua parasite functioning as its tongue. (Christian Gloor / Flickr [CC BY 2.0: creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/])

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Amanda Carpenter makes some insightful observations in The Bulwark:

Cymothoa exigua is a terrifying creature.

The parasite enters a fish through its gills, attaches to its tongue, consumes the tongue, and then becomes a sort of new tongue. For the rest of the fish’s life, it swims around with the “tongue-eating louse,” as the isopod is known, operating its mouth.

At first, seeing a photo of it made me recoil. Then, I realized it seemed oddly familiar: It reminds me of the relationship between what’s loosely defined as “conservative media” and the GOP.

For a long time, most influential right-leaning media figures were content to swim alongside the GOP, flowing along in the same general direction. Until Donald Trump came along. Then they saw an opportunity to burrow deep inside the GOP and wield real power.

It worked. So well that the GOP, as an institution, no longer controls its tongue and its craven media parasites are the only thing keeping it alive.

Ask yourself, “Who are the actual leaders of the GOP?” Who truly influences Republican voters?

It’s not whoever the Republican National Committee will nominate as its next chairman. It’s not Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell or House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, for God’s sake. It’s the Fox News primetime lineup, the large galaxy of radio and digital outlets clamoring to place their personalities and stories on Fox News, and their vast array of fringy lower-tier knockoffs.

All day, every day, these talkers, writers, producers, and editors set the party agenda. They act as the Republican party’s “war room.” They give favored politicians airtime to solicit donations from their viewers. They go negative on their political enemies. Their stars even headline campaign events to rev up the base and get out the vote.

The ones who are good at it get paid far more by the likes of the Murdoch and the Mercer families to carry out the political agenda than any mere senator or congressman. These talkers, not the elected officials stuck grubbing around shaking hands and campaigning in the streets, are the party’s real leaders.

Donald Trump is almost an afterthought in this context. After all, where is Trump without the glow of the TV camera and his Twitter handle? Nowhere. Long before he announced his candidacy in 2015, Fox primed the GOP base for a candidate like him; the network gave him more airtime than other candidates, including a longstanding call-in segment on Fox & Friends; no one blinked an eye when Fox head Roger Ailes, who had a quarter-century friendship with Trump, began advising the Trump campaign soon after Ailes’s ouster from the network. And beyond and before Fox, the media—news, talk, and entertainment—always have been and always will be Trump’s source of political strength. That will only become more true after he leaves office. He will continue to seek out ratings, somewhere, as sustenance for relevance and survival.

The only question is what channel and whether he appears on the network, owns it, or licenses his name.

Knowing this dynamic within the GOP, it’s no wonder that (to name just one ambitious pol) Sen. Ted Cruz has adopted the posture of an online Twitter troll instead of the constitutional scholar-turned-statesman of the most Republican of the big states. One doesn’t amass a rabid grassroots following by passing bipartisan legislation, delivering on constituent services, or even acting to protect the homeland during a pandemic. The demands of leading and governing in the public interest have never meshed well with the demands of winning and keeping office, but they have never before been so contradictory.

Propaganda Party rules dictate that “owning the libz” and generating likes, retweets, and reactions online are the key to success. In the absence of any policy platform, a new party operating philosophy has emerged among politicians and media figures alike: present Trump-friendly figures in the best light possible and depict anyone who stands in their way as some variation of a socialist, child-eating, Satan worshipper.


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Plenty of deep-pocketed investors are down for it; they’re looking to fund more media that will do exactly this. In a piece published last nightNew York Times media reporter Ben Smith found a healthy appetite among media investors eager to “convert Mr. Trump’s political profile into cash”:

“There are a lot of well-capitalized people circling,” said Michael Clemente, a former executive at ABC News and Fox News and former chief executive of Newsmax, who has been part of conversations as a potential leader of a new venture. . . . The noisiest effort is led by  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

30 November 2020 at 10:48 am

DeepMind’s AI makes gigantic leap in solving protein structures

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Artificial Intelligence has definitely come to pass — though not general AI. Still the specific uses of AI are delivering results at a level mere humans cannot match (though some of us can console ourselves with the thought that, however good these AI are, we created them. (I’m not one of those who can, though, and probably neither are you.) We (humans) find ourselves being spectators, either delighted or dejected depending on the impact on our personal lives, while the AI entity achieves heights of excellence beyond — sometimes far beyond — human capabilities (cf. AlphGo Zero).

This, of course, has been a general theme for a long, long time: a human creation humbling a human (cf. John Henry and the steam drill, Whitney and the cotton gin — and, on a broader scale, the locomotive and a team of strong draft horses.

That plot theme has now arisen in predicting protein folding. Ewen Calloway reports in Nature:

An artificial intelligence (AI) network developed by Google AI offshoot DeepMind has made a gargantuan leap in solving one of biology’s grandest challenges — determining a protein’s 3D shape from its amino-acid sequence.

DeepMind’s program, called AlphaFold, outperformed around 100 other teams in a biennial protein-structure prediction challenge called CASP, short for Critical Assessment of Structure Prediction. The results were announced on 30 November, at the start of the conference — held virtually this year — that takes stock of the exercise.

“This is a big deal,” says John Moult, a computational biologist at the University of Maryland in College Park, who co-founded CASP in 1994 to improve computational methods for accurately predicting protein structures. “In some sense the problem is solved.”

The ability to accurately predict protein structures from their amino-acid sequence would be a huge boon to life sciences and medicine. It would vastly accelerate efforts to understand the building blocks of cells and enable quicker and more advanced drug discovery.

AlphaFold came top of the table at the last CASP — in 2018, the first year that London-based DeepMind participated. But, this year, the outfit’s deep-learning network was head-and-shoulders above other teams and, say scientists, performed so mind-bogglingly well that it could herald a revolution in biology.

“It’s a game changer,” says Andrei Lupas, an evolutionary biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, Germany, who assessed the performance of different teams in CASP. AlphaFold has already helped him find the structure of a protein that has vexed his lab for a decade, and he expects it will alter how he works and the questions he tackles. “This will change medicine. It will change research. It will change bioengineering. It will change everything,” Lupas adds.

In some cases, AlphaFold’s structure predictions were indistinguishable from those determined using ‘gold standard’ experimental methods such as X-ray crystallography and, in recent years, cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM). AlphaFold might not obviate the need for these laborious and expensive methods — yet — say scientists, but the AI will make it possible to study living things in new ways.

The structure problem

Proteins are the building blocks of life, responsible for most of what happens inside cells. How a protein works and what it does is determined by its 3D shape — ‘structure is function’ is an axiom of molecular biology. Proteins tend to adopt their shape without help, guided only by the laws of physics.

For decades, laboratory experiments have been the main way to get good protein structures. The first complete structures of proteins were . . .

Continue reading. There’s more — but you knew that, didn’t you.

Written by Leisureguy

30 November 2020 at 10:36 am

Empire of fantasy: British colonialism in children’s literature

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In Aeon Maria Sachiko Cecire has a very interesting essay adapted from material published in Re-Enchanted: The Rise of Children’s Fantasy Literature in the Twentieth Century. The essay begins:

Much has changed in the fantasy genre in recent decades, but the word ‘fantasy’ still conjures images of dragons, castles, sword-wielding heroes and premodern wildernesses brimming with magic. Major media phenomena such as Harry Potter and Game of Thrones have helped to make medievalist fantasy mainstream, and if you look in the kids’ section of nearly any kind of store today you’ll see sanitised versions of the magical Middle Ages packaged for youth of every age. How did fantasy set in pseudo-medieval, roughly British worlds achieve such a cultural status? Ironically, the modern form of this wildly popular genre, so often associated with escapism and childishness, took root in one of the most elite spaces in the academic world.

The heart of fantasy literature grows out of the fiction and scholarly legacy of two University of Oxford medievalists: J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis. It is well known that Tolkien and Lewis were friends and colleagues who belonged to a writing group called the Inklings where they shared drafts of their poetry and fiction at Oxford. There they workshopped what would become Tolkien’s Middle-earth books, beginning with the children’s novel The Hobbit (1937), and followed in the 1950s with The Lord of the Rings and Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series, which was explicitly aimed at children. Tolkien’s influence on fantasy is so important that in the 1990s the American scholar Brian Attebery defined the genre ‘not by boundaries but by a centre’: Tolkien’s Middle-earth. ‘Tolkien’s form of fantasy, for readers in English, is our mental template’ for all fantasy, he suggests in Strategies of Fantasy (1992). Lewis’s books, meanwhile, are iconic as both children’s literature and fantasy. Their recurring plot structure of modern-day children slipping out of this world to save a magical, medieval otherworld has become one of the most common approaches to the genre, identified in Farah Mendlesohn’s taxonomy of fantasy as the ‘portal-quest’.

What is less known is that Tolkien and Lewis also designed and established the curriculum for Oxford’s developing English School, and through it educated a second generation of important children’s fantasy authors in their own intellectual image. Put in place in 1931, this curriculum focused on the medieval period to the near-exclusion of other eras; it guided students’ reading and examinations until 1970, and some aspects of it remain today. Though there has been relatively little attention paid to the connection until now, these activities – fantasy-writing, often for children, and curricular design in England’s oldest and most prestigious university – were intimately related. Tolkien and Lewis’s fiction regularly alludes to works in the syllabus that they created, and their Oxford-educated successors likewise draw upon these medieval sources when they set out to write their own children’s fantasy in later decades. In this way, Tolkien and Lewis were able to make a two-pronged attack, both within and outside the academy, on the disenchantment, relativism, ambiguity and progressivism that they saw and detested in 20th-century modernity.

Tolkien articulated his anxieties about the cultural changes sweeping across Britain in terms of ‘American sanitation, morale-pep, feminism, and mass-production’, calling ‘this Americo-cosmopolitanism very terrifying’ and suggesting in a 1943 letter to his son Christopher that, if this was to be the outcome of an Allied Second World War win, he wasn’t sure that victory would be better for the ‘mind and spirit’ – and for England – than a loss to Nazi forces.

Lewis shared this abhorrence for ‘modern’ technologisation, secularisation and the swiftly dismantling hierarchies of race, gender and class. He and Tolkien saw such broader shifts reflected in . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

30 November 2020 at 10:17 am

Posted in Books, Education, Memes, Politics

“My Shocking Discovery at 58 Years Old That I Have Autism”

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This Medium article by Kerry McAvoy struck me as very interesting (for obvious reasons). It begins:

Almost two weeks ago, someone challenged a fundamental assumption I’d held about myself. This revelation has upended my world. Suddenly I feel wobbly, tentative, and not quite sure who I am.

I’m undergoing a massive shift in self-understanding.

As a licensed psychologist with over twenty years of clinical experience, I’ve considered myself an expert on matters of the psyche and personality.

My scope of knowledge includes myself. I’m an avid believer in the power of therapy and have seen my fair share of specialists over the years. If a few weeks ago, you’d asked me if I think I know myself, I would have answered affirmatively and then described me as a “sensitive extroverted introvert.”

But two weeks ago, I saw a therapist I hadn’t seen in a while. She challenged my self-definition with something so stunning that I’ve done nothing for over a week except to try and take it in, to make sense of this piece of information.

I think I’m ready to share it now.

I’m autistic.

There. I said it.

Those two words have both transformed my reality and, at the same time, has scared the living shit out of me.

What does it exactly mean to be autistic?

I thought I knew. When I hear that diagnosis, I imagine a young boy lost in his own world. He’s sitting in the middle of the kitchen floor, spinning plates. He grunts and screams if anyone interferes with his repetitive play or tries to move him to another activity.

That’s what comes to my mind when I hear the word autism. I’d never imagined that someone like me — a formerly married psychologist with three grown sons — would be on the autistic spectrum.

Women and Autism

My confusion makes sense. Until a few years ago, women and autism were rarely mentioned in the same sentence. Older research speculated that the female-to-male ratio was anywhere between 1:4 and 1:10 for autism.

Now researchers and physicians believe that alongside the world’s one million autistic boys and men, there are also nearly one million autistic girls and women, most of whom have gone undiagnosed. In other words, the ratio of men to women is much closer to 1:1 than previously thought.

There is a myriad of reasons why autism in women and girls goes undetected. Typical symptoms manifest differently based on divergent gender neurology. When women experience hyper focusing, sensory stimulation sensitivity, and social awkwardness, these symptoms are often attributed to an emotional or mental problem rather than to neuroatypical differences. Misdiagnoses like ADD, Borderline Personality Disorder, and anxiety-related conditions are common among autistic women and girls.

Autism in women is harder to spot.

Women’s strength in social skills also makes autism harder to spot. Since fitting in is paramount, we are better at blending in, a technique often called masking.

We learn to imitate those around us as a way to camouflage our social struggles. According to Charlotte Egeskov at the Tiimo Blog, we know to use “social imitation strategies,” including:

“Making eye contact during conversation, using learned phrases or pre-prepared jokes in conversation, mimicking other’s social behaviour, imitating facial expressions or gestures, and learning and following social scripts”

We use these to hide our struggles. Social imitation strategies work exceptionally well during our younger years but become more difficult as we age, and the complexity of female socialization increases.

Such strategies, however, are stressful and fatiguing. In “The Cost of Camouflaging Autism,” Francine Russo points out:

“Camouflaging calls for constant and elaborate effort. It can help women with autism maintain their relationships and careers, but those gains often come at a heavy cost, including physical exhaustion and extreme anxiety.”

Looking back, I see the hefty price I’d paid hiding my neuroatypicalness. After a long day of counseling patients, I’d come home so physically exhausted that I had to take the next day off to recover.

How I Found Out

I had no idea I was autistic. None.

This diagnosis has come as a complete shock. One of my sons was diagnosed in his early twenties, and I suspect my father, an odd man, was on the spectrum. I never considered that this genetic condition might not have skipped me.

Two weeks ago, I saw an old therapist — someone I’d seen before. As we caught up, she stopped me and asked if I’d ever wondered if I might be neuroatypical. Stunned by her proposal, I emphatically said, “No, I’ve looked at the autism screening assessments (most based on stereotypical male symptoms). They clearly don’t fit me.”

She cocked her head, blinked, and then asked, “You sure about that?”

I stared back at her, speechless. I knew she was telling me something important, but she wasn’t going to push me. For two days, I did nothing. No research, nothing.

Slowly, I found the courage to turn to the Internet and research online the characteristics of adult women with autism. Two articles, in particular, caught my eye. . .

Continue reading. There’s more. And the two articles to which she links are good.

Written by Leisureguy

30 November 2020 at 9:51 am

Posted in Daily life, Medical, Science

Missed the window for the pumpkin-pie shaving soap — but it’s good anyway

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I should have used this on Thanksgiving, but forgot — now it’s in my calendar for the fourth Thursday of November each year.

And a very nice soap it is, too. I used another in the gentle-brush series, my Fine Classic, and the fragrance of the lather was right in the spirit of the holiday. (I think this was a one-off, but various good artisanal vendors will have seasonal fragrances available, so it’s easy enough to find a pumpkin-pie-spiced shaving soap.)

I used my Parker slant (which they call a “semi-slant,” perhaps to reduce the intimidation factor), an excellent razor. Three passes to perfection, and then a good splash of Ogallala’s Bay Rum + Sandalwood, an aftershave I like.

A new week begins as an old month ends. So it goes.

Written by Leisureguy

30 November 2020 at 8:38 am

Posted in Shaving

Short videos of wonderful local Chinese foods in Chaoshan, Yunnan, and Gansu

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I occasionally blog about some local food or drink I enjoy that distant readers cannot try — but it seems every locale has its own food specialties available only to those who live there or very nearby.

The Netflix series Flavorful Origins has short episodes — about 10 minutes each — on such local specialty foods three provinces in China: Chaoshan cuisine (Season 1), Yunnan Cuisine (Season 2), and Gansu cuisine (Season 3). Watching the first two episodes of Gansu cuisine, I long to eat the grilled lamb in Jiaguyuan city or the sheep herders’ mutton cooked in tripe using hot cobblestones, all in the open air in their Ganjian pastures. And I would love to eat Lanzhou lily bulbs, sweet and crisp, roasted in the oven or used in a stir-fry — and the lily blossoms from the same plant.

The episodes are beautifully shot and would be especially good if you speak Mandarin. I do not, but fortunately subtitles are used — and the main impact is from the images.

Written by Leisureguy

30 November 2020 at 8:30 am

Posted in Food, Movies & TV

Smoked Garlic, Dill, and Chilli Pepper Tofu

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This is really excellent as a snack. Only available locally, I fear, but perhaps something similar is near you since I see quite a few new small food enterprises emerging.

Written by Leisureguy

29 November 2020 at 4:29 pm

Some Victoria street art

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Just came across these while out shopping.

Written by Leisureguy

29 November 2020 at 4:25 pm

Posted in Art, Daily life

The New Wave of Fishless Fish Is Here

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If I like a food that is bad for my health, but I can have the same experience (taste, appearance, fragrance, and mouthfeel) from a nutritious simulacrum, the choice for me is obvious.

Others, I understand, really do not like choosing the simulacrum and will either eat the unhealthy food or abstain entirely. I’m not like that. For me, getting the good without the bad seems like a clear win and a good choice.

So I am intrigued by the fish-like foods, though you can be sure that I will cast a wary eye on the ingredients (which do look okay — see below). Beyond health benefits, there are environmental payoffs for these new foods.

Rowan Jacobsen reports in Outside:

Food scientists and marketers are creating healthy, plant-based, imitation tuna, crab, and shrimp that look and taste like the real thing. Better yet, switching to faux seafood will help curb our reliance on an international fishing industry that has become an environmental and human-rights disaster.

The year 2020 has not been good to many things, but it has been very, very good to the tuna melt. As the world got weird and we sheltered at home, many of us hankered for the familiar, the stable, the uncool. And there was the tuna melt waiting for us, as uncool as ever. 

References to the sandwich spiked on Reddit. New recipes (more or less indistin­guishable from the old recipes) flowed onto the internet. 

I, too, felt the allure. So, during the height of the pandemic, breaking away from the monotony of the keyboard, I made myself a lunch of soaring satisfaction: crispy bread and creamy tuna under a warm security blanket of cheese. What made it especially gratifying, however, was that it was the first tuna melt of my life that involved no fish at all. It was made with a new plant-based faux tuna called Good Catch, and while I can’t exactly say it changed my life, it definitely changed my lunch.

I swore off canned tuna last year, after reading The Outlaw Ocean, Ian Urbina’s wrenching account of human-rights abuses in the global fishing industry. For years, my list of morally acceptable seafoods had been narrowing as I learned about the environmental impacts of industrial fishing. Bluefin tuna, of course, went out the window long ago. Then it was Chilean sea bass, swordfish, and farmed salmon. Cod, gone. Shrimp, toast. But I clung to canned tuna, in part because of the convenience. A highly functional shot of protein, shelf-stable and cheap, it seemed morally defensible as long as it sported the logos certifying that it was dolphin-safe and sustainably fished.

But that changed when I plunged into Urbina’s book, the result of more than three years reporting on high-seas crime across 12,000 nautical miles, all five oceans, and 20 smaller seas. He shipped out on roach-infested, barely seaworthy trawlers, chased pirates and poachers, got caught in border wars, and uncovered a grainy cell-phone video of casual assassinations at sea. After all that, Urbina asked, did we really think “that it is possible to fish sustainably, legally, and using workers with contracts, making a livable wage, and still deliver a five-ounce can of skipjack tuna for $2.50 that ends up on the grocery shelf only days after the fish was pulled from the water thousands of miles away”?

Spoiler alert: it’s not. The average can of tuna drags behind it a tangled net of wrecked ecosystems, definned sharks, debt bondage, child labor, human trafficking, physical abuse, and murder. By the time I finished The Outlaw Ocean, I couldn’t open a can of tuna without imagining a trickle of human blood oozing out. And it’s not just tuna. Swordfish, snapper, mahi mahi, mackerel, sardines, squid, and anchovies are all tainted by slavery. So are farmed salmon, farmed shrimp, and cat food, which relies on meal made out of small fish caught in fisheries rife with human suffering. 

Many fishing boats are crewed by migrants from poor countries who are desperate for work. The boats can spend years at sea, periodically off-loading their catch to refrigerated mother ships and taking on fresh supplies. Oversight is almost nonexistent. Men are forced to work brutal hours in filthy conditions. Beatings are common. So are deaths.

A typical experience is that of Lang Long, a poor Cambodian man Urbina met in Thailand. Long was smuggled to the Thai coast by a trafficker who promised to get him a construction job, but the job never materialized. Instead, Long was sold to a fishing captain for $530, to cover his trafficking debt. Once on the boat, he didn’t see land again for three years.

During that time, Long was beaten regularly, forced to work up to 23 hours a day, and given insufficent food and water. After trying to escape, he was shackled by the neck and chained to the deck whenever his boat approached another ship.

But Long was relatively lucky. He survived, and was returned to land after a Catholic charity paid the boat’s captain $750 for his freedom. Other sea slaves have described sick deckhands being thrown overboard and intransigent ones being locked in the hold, whipped, or beheaded.

All this happens on the untraceable high seas. By the time a tender comes into port, it can carry a vast mix of legally and illegally caught fish. And that’s how a can of tuna gets to your grocery shelf for $2.50.

So I kissed tuna goodbye. Lunch became a little more inconvenient, but then Good Catch showed up in the grocery aisle. Instead of a can, the product came in an upmarket pouch featuring a photo of a plate heaped with extremely tuna-like shards. Fish-Free Tuna, the label advertised. Chunk Albacore Texture. The ingredients list revealed that it was made using a blend of six legumes—soybeans, peas, chickpeas, fava beans, lentils, and navy beans—with some algal oil and seaweed powder mixed in for “Real Seafood Taste.” At $5 for a 3.3-ounce portion, it was pricier than canned tuna, but not exactly a budget buster.

I’d written a lot about the battle for burger supremacy among fauxtein peddlers like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, and I knew the pattern those trailblazers had to follow: media campaigns to convince people their fake meats weren’t bizarre, slow rollouts of product in a handful of hipster restaurants, and then years of struggle to develop the production and distribution needed to reach the mainstream. I’d assumed alternative seafood would follow the same tortuous path. Yet here was Good Catch, already stocked by mainstream supermarkets like Whole Foods and Giant. Perhaps the trail had been blazed. And that made me wonder if the world of seafood was about to get pounded by a wave of fishless fish.

Second spoiler alert: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

29 November 2020 at 11:05 am

The Donut King: rags to riches, then back to rags — and once again to riches

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Amazing account reported by Vibeke Venema for the BBC:

If you walk into a doughnut shop in California, the chances are it’s owned by a Cambodian family. That’s because of a refugee who built up an empire, and became known as the Donut King, only to lose it all.

Ted Ngoy was a high school student in Phnom Penh when he first set eyes on Suganthini Khoeun, the daughter of a high-ranking government official.

“She was so beautiful,” he remembers. “You can’t find any prettier woman besides her.”

All the boys at his school were in love with her, and as a poor half-Chinese boy from a village near the Thai border he had no chance. “She was powerful, like your royal princess,” says Ted. And she was heavily chaperoned.

But then Ted discovered that the tiny room where he lodged, on the fourth floor of a walk-up apartment block, overlooked Suganthini’s villa. And he saw an opportunity. Every evening, he sat by his open window and played the flute. On hearing the music float across the quiet city, Suganthini’s mother remarked that whoever was playing must be in love.

One night, he saw Suganthini on her balcony, and decided it was time to make his move. He wrote a note, telling her that he lived in the building opposite and was the flute player. He wrapped the note around a stone, and threw it down.

His gesture went unreciprocated for days. But then one of Suganthini’s servants appeared at his door with a reply.

“The note said, ‘I appreciate you blowing the flute. It’s so amazing, so touching.’ And then we started communicating, bringing back and forth the messages,” Ted says.

“What happens if I decide to jump into your room?” Ted wrote one day.

Suganthini replied, “Well be careful, if you don’t jump into my room, you’ll jump into my mum’s room.”

She thought Ted was joking, but he was serious. Despite the villa’s armed security guards and guard dogs, one rainy night Ted climbed up a coconut tree and over the barbed wire and made his way in through a bathroom window.

He took a chance and opened a bedroom door – and there was Suganthini, fast asleep.

He woke her up and she was about to scream for help, when she realised it was her classmate.

“What are you doing here?” she asked.

“Well, it is because I’ve fallen in love with you,” Ted replied.

“But what shall we do in the morning? I have to go to school.”

“Don’t worry, I will hide under your bed,” said Ted. And that’s what he did.

Suganthini smuggled him food at night, and after many days she said she loved him too. They made a blood pact, promising to be forever faithful. He says he hid in her room for 45 days until he was discovered.

Suganthini’s family insisted Ted break it off by telling her he didn’t love her. He did as he was told, but then pulled out a knife and stabbed himself, declaring he would rather die than live without her. While he was recovering in hospital, Suganthini also made an attempt on her life. Faced with such determination, her family allowed the young lovers to be together.

“It’s a crazy story, but it’s true,” says Ted, now 78. “I had true love for her.”

But he admits he was also aware that conquering Suganthini’s heart held out the promise of a better life.

—————

They married and started a family, and life was good until civil war broke out in 1970, between the government and the communist Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

29 November 2020 at 10:51 am

The cost to me of animal-based foods

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Over the past month I’ve diverged from my whole-food plant-based diet somewhat. Perhaps that was due to the holiday season, perhaps it was just my natural inclination toward change and novelty. At any rate, I started having the occasional piece of steelhead trout, then that more frequently. Than an occasional pair of eggs (over easy, cooked in butter) atop a dish. A couple times, a little bacon. And then I got some pickled herring and an aged smoked cheddar and canned smoked sprats and enjoyed them with wine.

My recent morning blood glucose readings (in mmol/l — multiply by 18.018 to get mg/dl, commonly used in the US) tell the story. When I was eating strictly (and doing more walking), my morning readings ran around 5.8 (105) but dipped as low as 5.3 (95). My HbA1c was 5.2%, typically. (Most recent was 5.3%.)

This month with a more indulgent diet and much less walking they’ve been up around 6.x. And then the past few days turned ominous:

11/24 – 6.1 (110)
11/25 – 7.0 (126)
11/26 – 7.3 (132)

At that point I became scared and immediately resumed strict adherence to a whole-food plant-based diet (including minimizing the use of extra-virgin olive oil, cooking foods in (unsalted) vegetable stock or water). The result:

11/27 – 6.7 (121)
11/28 – 6.8 (123)
11/29 – 6.1 (110)

The readings come back in line quickly with a strictly whole-food plant-based diet. (With my doctor’s approval, I discontinued my medications in May 2019, relying solely on diet and exercise.) And when weather permits, I’ll also resume walking.

Given how common type 2 diabetes has become, I thought this evidence of the benefits of a whole-food plant-based diet (and the costs of veering from that diet) would be of interest to some readers.

It may well be that my blood glucose is more quickly affected by food because I don’t have medication to act as a buffer, but in general I would think that a whole-food plant-based diet can be helpful.

For more information, take a look at Dr. Michaeel Greger’s site NutritionFacts.org (note that the Video Library allows you to browse by topic) and/or read How Not to Die or How Not to Diet.

Written by Leisureguy

29 November 2020 at 8:30 am

3-D Printed Mathematical Constructs (as art)

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The photo shows an early iteration of the three-dimensional analogue of the two-dimensional Hilbert Curve, a space-filling curve defined by David Hilbert. This is one of a variety of 3-D printed mathematical constructs made by Henry Segerman.

I found this example and explanation of negatively curved surfaces interesting:

And this, too, is interesting:

Written by Leisureguy

29 November 2020 at 7:44 am

Esperanto Scrabble tiles

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At last. They also have sign language tiles (Australian, British, and US) and Aurebesh.

Written by Leisureguy

28 November 2020 at 9:08 pm

Posted in Esperanto, Games

Ross MacDonald and some of the origin story

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I found this article in CrimeReads quite interesting. Sarah Weinman writes:

One: The Accident

Three boys, best friends, went to dinner at the Santa Barbara Armory on the night of February 23, 1956. Ernest Dal Zuffo, Michael Perona, and Patrick Sheehan (not his real name) lived near one another and had known each other their whole lives. Ernest’s family, close-knit and Italian, owned a grocery store in town. His father, also Ernest—everyone called the boy Junior—and mother, Gia, were particularly protective of him and his younger brother. Mike’s family was also Italian, while Patrick was of Irish-American stock.

The event celebrated the end of a basketball tournament at which their school, Our Lady of Guadaloupe, had been the victor. When it was over, the three eighth-graders took sacks of popcorn and began the walk home.

It was dark. The streets were poorly lit. The road was still slick from the earlier evening rain. There were no sidewalks on Alisos Street, something residents had complained about for years. The boys ate the popcorn as they walked, venturing into the street because the muddy shoulder would ruin their shoes.

They didn’t hear or see the green Ford Tudor coming up behind them.

Junior and Mike were hit. Their bodies catapulted in the air, thrown seventy feet before landing. Junior was slammed, literally, out of his shoes. The Ford screeched its brakes and fled, but not before hitting a concrete wall. It left behind vicious, angry skid marks. Patrick, who’d only been grazed, ran for help.

The two boys were rushed to Cottage Hospital. Ernest dal Zuffo was dead on arrival. Michael Perona had a concussion and a fractured leg, and would stay in the hospital for weeks, remembering next to nothing about the whole ordeal, piecing information only from newspaper clippings and what his mother told him.

The green Ford Tudor kept on its mad, inebriated journey. A few miles away, at the intersection of Cota and Laguna, the car rear-ended a Buick, stopped with its parking lights on. The car, and its driver, spun more than sixty feet. The Tudor rolled left, then onto the roof, before resting on its right side.

A different boy witnessed what happened and ran into Mom’s Italian Village restaurant, shouting of an accident. A man, in the middle of a dinner for the city’s Safety Council, ran out. He found a sixteen-year-old girl sitting on a curb. Weeping and screaming and impossible to console.

Still, the man tried. He said car accidents could have happened to anyone.

“Yes,” said Linda Millar, “but God damn, what will I tell my parents?”

***

When the accident that killed Ernest dal Zuffo and injured Michael Perona happened in February 1956, Linda’s parents, Kenneth and Margaret Millar, were at professional inflection points. Margaret’s crime writing career began first, with the 1941 publication of The Invisible Worm, and found critical and financial success with the psychological thrillers The Iron Gates and Wall of Eyes. She’d most recently published Beast In View, a classic suspense chiller of madness and mendacity that would best Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mister Ripley for the Best Novel Edgar Award later that year.

As Maggie’s fortunes rose fast, Ken’s had taken longer to achieve liftoff. He’d been a frustrated novelist, before then a frustrated academic, teaching and toiling and reaping the benefits of his wife’s achievements. He published two non-crime novels under his real name and then the first Lew Archer detective novel, The Moving Target, in 1949, as John Macdonald. Subsequent Archers bore the name of “John Ross Macdonald” before a different crime writer, John D. got irritated at the confusion.

From then on it was just Ross. Dropping “John” also meant dropping the need to imitate hardboiled giants Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Ross Macdonald found his voice. From then on, his private eye novels focused more on family secrets, and the ensuing, multi-generational psychological damage, than on classic detective work. As Ross, Kenneth Millar would eclipse his wife by several orders of magnitude, endorsed by literary writers like Eudora Welty, emblazoned on the front page of Time and the New York Times Book Review, and given the multi-volume treatment by the Library of America.

But that was in the future. A future that owed in no small part to the troubles of their daughter, Linda Jane, born June 18, 1939, a year after the marriage of Kenneth Millar to Margaret Sturm in their native Kitchener, Ontario. Maggie had been bedridden for much of the pregnancy—a “heart ailment” of some kind—and the first months after birth. The official word was migraine. The more probable reason was a mixture of mounting debt and post-partum depression (Maggie had once been diagnosed with a “mild schizophrenic episode” and had, before her marriage, attempted suicide.)

Maggie had all these ideas about how to bring up a child. Namely, to withhold affection, ignore the girl’s need for love, to focus her attention on writing and on her husband. An exclusive love like hers for Ken simply didn’t have ample room for a third wheel. Unless that wheel could be mined creatively, as Linda discovered, to her detriment, when she started reading her mother’s books at a tender age.

For Ken, it was complicated, at times shameful, because life with Maggie was complicated and shameful. (It’s worth noting that he pronounced his last name as “Miller” and she went by “Mill-AR.”) Theirs was not a placid union. They shouted. They shoved and slapped one another. They competed for who had the worse temper of the two. Maggie once dropped a typewriter from a second-story window. Ken once threw one of Linda’s rubber dolls at his wife, and when the detachable head broke off, she accused him of deliberately breaking the toy. He hit her and cut her eye. Linda witnessed the whole thing.

As Tom Nolan wrote in his 1999 Ross Macdonald biography: “Millar sometimes shook or slapped Linda, in misplaced anger at her mother. Linda was the prize her parents fought for. The family was deranged somehow, and all three knew it.” Such a hothouse of anger, emotional neglect, competitive spirit, and manipulation could only end badly.

Most of all, for Linda, born and raised in the spotlight of two well-known authors, and whose existence was always eclipsed by them. Through details in Nolan’s biography, newspaper accounts, court records, and interviews—some of whom had never spoken to a reporter before—Linda’s story can finally stand on its own.

***

Sitting on the curb, the green Ford Tudor dented and damaged, Linda Millar continued to cry about what she would tell her parents. Another teenage boy had fetched a blanket from his house and draped it around Linda’s shoulders. She would not be calmed. Linda tried to get free, saying she would kill herself.

The boy put his arms around her and held her. Her sobs filled the air as the police arrived. The boy stayed with Linda in the patrol car, on its way to Cottage Hospital. He restrained her when she tried, unsuccessfully, to jump out of the car.

At the hospital, the same surgeon who had declared Ernest dal Zuffo dead examined Linda Millar. He gave her a dose of Luminal to calm her down. “It was all my fault,” Linda kept saying.

“What was?”

“The car,” she said. “It’s all smashed.”

But you’re lucky to be alive, said the doctor.

That didn’t register. Linda repeated that it was all her fault. That she was bringing shame upon her family. She’d already caused her parents so much trouble this month alone.

They’d gone on an out-of-state ski vacation and Linda, who’d never skied, melted down on the first try. Riding the chair lift caused her to freak out. Her father had slapped her on the last night of the vacation, when she’d gone out in the evening and returned wearing a coat that wasn’t her own. She responded by crying and running out, barefoot, into the snow.

On the long drive home, Linda’s mother let her take the wheel. She promptly headed in the direct path of a dust storm. They stopped off at Disneyland—still new in early 1956—where Linda terrified her father by going twice on Mister Toad’s Wild Ride, which emphasized driving recklessly. (He would later write witheringly of Disneyland’s “organized childishness and emptiness.”)

The last straw of the awful vacation happened in Long Beach, where they stayed overnight with relatives. Linda and a boy cousin around the same age went out for Cokes. They didn’t return home until 1 AM. Linda’s father had gone out searching for the pair. When she arrived back, he scolded her for her “indiscreet and dangerous behavior.” It’s not known if Linda’s father gave the same lecture to the cousin.

When the Millars returned to Santa Barbara, Linda’s father insisted to his friends that the vacation was a success. This was the kind of thing he did. Better to keep up appearances than let on how stressful it was to coexist with his wife and his daughter. Better to appear overprotective rather than alert people to his sense of hopelessness. Linda didn’t know what to do. She knew things weren’t working. She craved her parents’ attention and was livid at their inability to see how much trouble she was in.

Her father bragged that Linda never lied to him, but he had little clue of her smoking, her drinking, her sneaking off for secret sex with inappropriate boys, her crushing loneliness. He despaired of her long fingernails, short hair, and cheap makeup, failing to see that these appearance shifts, these premature vaultings into adulthood in look and in action, were a way for Linda to mask her own mounting despair.

It was easier to pretend they were a happy family. Linda was so smart, and kept up good grades at Santa Barbara High along with all the extracurriculars. But her need for love from those who withheld it was too consuming. She tried hard to make friends, only to be rebuffed, dismissed as too odd. Better to drink to escape, to forget. Better to discard thoughts of a terrible future, or any future at all.

Better to obliterate herself, and the car she drove, the green Ford Tudor that was her sixteenth-birthday present.

But she wasn’t obliterated. Linda Millar was still here. What would she tell her parents?

Two: The Court Case

At 9 PM, Linda was released into the care of her father and her aunt. . . .

Continue reading. There’s quite a bit more (Part 2 and Part 3). If you want to get started on Lew Archer (and Ross MacDonald really is quite good), begin with the first book in the series, The Moving Target.

Written by Leisureguy

28 November 2020 at 8:09 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life

Jewels of evolution: Division of Devil’s Flower Mantis

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Females are just over 5″ long — it’s a big bug. More here. The things that evolution comes up with are astonishing.

Written by Leisureguy

28 November 2020 at 5:26 pm

Posted in Evolution, Science

Pink Power Juice with immersion blender

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I’ve starting drinking Greger’s Pink Power Juice again (details and video at the link):

1 cup frozen cranberries
[1 peeled lemon — my own addition, and here’s how I peel it]
2 tablespoons erythritol
1/2 cup fresh mint leaves [though in winter I used dried mint]
water to cover [though lately I’ve been using room-temperature hibiscus tea instead]

Put in beaker of immersion blender (or in blender), blend to smoothness, then add water [or hibiscus tea] to bring to the consistency you want. (He recommends making it 2 cups total.)

In fact, the proportions are pretty much up to you. I like to use more than a cup of cranberries to make the drink slushier. And I often use dried mint instead of mint leaves (a summer thing). After I blend it well with the initial amount of hibiscus tea or water, I add enough more to get the consistency I want.

The key is the first step: in the initial blending, it’s important to add just enough water (or hibiscus tea) to cover. If you add too much, it’s impossible to blend the cranberries.

Obviously, you can substitute other frozen berries, but cranberries are particularly high in antioxidants. Using (room temperature) hibiscus tea in place of water substantially increases the antioxidant load.

I’ll note that I experimented with a smaller amount of cranberries, and the drink is still good, but 2 cups makes a loose slush that’s nice to drink. I now go with the full 2 cups of cranberries.

Written by Leisureguy

28 November 2020 at 2:43 pm

A.J. Liebling remembered

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Someone mentioned having to choose between two foods at Thanksgiving, and the following quotation from A.J. Liebling sprang to mind. It’s from his book Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris, which I read decades ago — but which, as you see, I still recall. (I didn’t remember the complete quotation, but the overall anecdote and the closing line, which was enough to find it.)

The primary requisite for writing well about food is a good appetite. Without this, it is impossible to accumulate, within the allotted span, enough experience of eating to have anything worth setting down. Each day brings only two opportunities for field work, and they are not to be wasted minimizing the intake of cholesterol. They are indispensable, like a prizefighter’s hours on the road…A good appetite gives an eater room to turn around in. For example, a nonprofessional eater I know went to the Restaurant Pierre, in the Place Gaillon, a couple of years ago, his mind set on a sensibly light meal; a dozen, or possibly eighteen, oysters, and a thick chunk of steak topped with bone marrow, which M. Pierre calls a Delice de la Vilette–the equivalent of a “Stockyards’ Delight.” But as he arrived, he heard M. Pierre say to his headwaiter, “Here comes Monsieur L. Those two portions of cassoulet that are left–put them aside for him.” A cassoulet is a substantial dish, of a complexity precluding its discussion here…M. Pierre is the most amiable of restaurateurs, who prides himself on knowing in advance what his friends will like. A client of limited appetite would be obliged either to forgo his steak or to hurt M. Pierre’s feelings. Monsieur L., however, was in no difficulty. He ate the two cassoulets, as was his normal practice; if he had consumed only one, his host would have feared that it wasn’t up to standard. He then enjoyed his steak. The oysters offered no problem, since they present no bulk.

Written by Leisureguy

28 November 2020 at 10:21 am

Posted in Books, Daily life, Food

Another gentle brush — and more bay rum

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After finding the right word for yesterday’s brush — “gentle” — I decide to work through the brushes I have to which the word applies, and first up is this Mühle badger with the striking handle.

And since bay rum has been the aftershave theme, I thought a bay rum soap would be appropriate, and this is a good one. Excellent lather and the Baby Smooth was, as always, superb.

To end the shave, a splash of Captain’s Choice, a good bay rum with quite a bit of witch hazel present and having a very fine fragrance.

Written by Leisureguy

28 November 2020 at 10:11 am

Posted in Shaving

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