Later On

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

Archive for June 2nd, 2021

At least sobering, and more likely depressing: Does the U.S. Senate Resemble Ancient Rome?

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James Fallows quotes some readers, who agree that things look bad:

Over the weekend, this space held the third installment in the “Lessons of Rome” chronicles by my friend Eric Schnurer. This one went into the comparison between the Roman Senate, in the era of Cicero and the Catiline conspiracy, and the current one in Washington.

If you haven’t read it yet, please give it a try—among other reasons, for the speechwriter’s view of classic Latin rhetoric. This third piece also updated the “doomsday sundial”—a Roman Empire twist on the famous “doomsday clock” of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists—and set its time to “a year before midnight.”

Now, some reader reactions. First, from a reader with extensive experience in national government:

Thank you for conveying the very thoughtful observations of Eric Schnurer comparing our situation to that of late republican Rome.

One striking element is the complacency highlighted by Schnurer at the time of Cicero, and so evident now in the mistaken belief that “it” can’t happen here because we’re “exceptional.”

As political scientist David Faris observed in a recent interview on “Vox,” we could not be more wrong. Republicans are working to deprive the majority of its ability to control the agenda or to change the leadership. If they succeed, the result will be undramatic but definitive: “People are going to wake up the next day and go to work, and take care of their kids, and live their lives, and democracy will be gone.”

For all their failures (which have become ever more obvious), the Founders did not have this outlook. They had a lively fear that “it” could indeed happen here, and they constructed the government they made to preclude that outcome.

Our misfortune is that, partly because of the deficiencies of that design (owing largely to several forced compromises) and partly because of later developments (such as the emergence of parties and of the filibuster), we face the reverse of one of their fears: a dictatorship not of the mob but of an entrenched minority. And we don’t seem to be coping with that danger any better than did Ciceronian Rome. So we come to where Faris placed himself in his interview: “My current level of concern is exploring countries to move to after 2024.”

He did not quite despair, nor evidently does Schnurer. But the hour is indeed late, and time by our “atomic clock” is swiftly passing.

Race against time,” from another reader:

Reading your précis of Schnurer’s articles (thanks for bringing this to a wider audience), and the lead in of O Tempora! O Mores! my mind did a sort of leap to the smart Alec translation as Oh Times, Oh Daily Mirror ! [JF note: this was from the fabulous mid-20th century British comedy duo Flanders and Swann, whose records I loved listening to as a boy.]…

Schnurer is bang on, about the corruption (I think it’s way beyond cynicism) at the heart of the not-so-grand old party.

I sometimes find it ironic that ‘conservatives,’ who should be conserving our institutions, so often slide into radicals’ intent on destroying those institutions. Their focus on ends by any means would make Machiavelli blush. [JF note: compare the different approaches to considering a Supreme Court nominee in an election year applied by Mitch McConnell in 2016, when the nominee was Merrick Garland, and 2020, when it was Amy Coney Barrett.]

It is a race against time in my view. Will they succeed in subverting American democracy before people wake up to the con trick. I suspect they will.


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Storm Before the Storm”—a reading tip:

I read with interest the excellent article comparing Rome with today’s political situation. It immediately brought to mind a book called The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic by Mike Duncan, written in 2017 about Rome between 146-78 BC, starting with the Gracchi brothers. He reached a similar conclusion to Eric Schnurer at the end of the book. You might know Duncan from his history podcast “The History of Rome,” the granddaddy of history podcasts on the net.

In the book he wrote about,“rising economic inequality, dislocation of traditional ways of life, increasing political polarization, the breakdown of unspoken rules of political conduct” as well as “a set of elites so obsessed with their own privileges that they refused to reform the system in time to save it.” The parallel between that and what you wrote caught my attention.


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Looking Across the Atlantic (Ocean), 
from a reader in Texas:

This article is very well-taken. Reading Gibbon even 20 years ago felt like reading the news … now we can even go back to ancient Greek experience of demagogues.

I wonder if you would ask conservative Republicans you know, not whether they agree with those of us who fear a reprise of 1933 Germany, but if they could say at what point in German political history it would NOT have been wildly premature and hyperbolically alarmist to raise a cry that would bring developments to a halt. (Were that possible.)


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Ecocide
—the most sobering of the responses:

In these last four years of our own personal Catiline, I did read up on ancient Rome, and read Gibbon. I also wondered about the validity of democracy in this country, and now, with this article, the validity of democracy in Rome before Caesar.

It would seem to me that if there is a decline and fall of an American Empire, I agree that it would happen more quickly than the centuries it took Rome to splinter and disappear.

But I think the outside forces that will eliminate us will be natural in origin, and not a sleepy Chuck Grassley, Visigoths or Sandinistas pouring across the border at Brownsville. Argument by analogy may be the only tool historians have to predict the future, but it is still invalid.It isn’t hard to see that our highly interconnected world is dependent on resources that are nearly magically acquired and brought to life, and that have a limited abundance and existence. Yet our lives are increasingly dependent on them. So, just soothsayer-wise, I would predict that industry will be chewing holes in the Congo in search of the latest element needed for the most advanced iPhone in 2050, when the world population will hit 10 billion and the oil will run out.

That while Bangladesh is awash with the Bengal Sea, the Musk Ox, Polar Bear and Caribou go extinct, Mar-al-Lago builds a wall around itself and starts pumping, and LA burns back into the desert it once was.

Those natural phenomena are actually predictable and I think, regardless of what surprises democracy has in store for us, will be the end of us.

Because we still solve problems like the Romans did, after all is said and done. By killing them. Yet we are far more destructive, given our machines, than they ever were. Rome never had the ability to kill the biosphere. Everyone in America, and indeed, on planet Earth, is participating in that execution right now.

These are bad times.

Written by Leisureguy

2 June 2021 at 7:03 pm

Ragnarok: Absorbing series on Netflix

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Ragnarok is a modern reincarnation of Norse epic myths and is well worth watching. Two seasons now available on Netflix. I watched Season 1, and I’m now rewatching it before watching Season 2. Terrific series.

Written by Leisureguy

2 June 2021 at 5:58 pm

Posted in Movies & TV

A Military Drone With A Mind Of Its Own Was Used In Combat, U.N. Says

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Highly recommended: Kill Decision and also influx, by Daniel Suarez (and I would also highly recommend his other books, including the duology Daemon and Freedom™). Joe Hernandez reports for NPR:

Military-grade autonomous drones can fly themselves to a specific location, pick their own targets and kill without the assistance of a remote human operator. Such weapons are known to be in development, but until recently there were no reported cases of autonomous drones killing fighters on the battlefield.

Now, a United Nations report about a March 2020 skirmish in the military conflict in Libya says such a drone, known as a lethal autonomous weapons system — or LAWS — has made its wartime debut. But the report does not say explicitly that the LAWS killed anyone.

“If anyone was killed in an autonomous attack, it would likely represent an historic first known case of artificial intelligence-based autonomous weapons being used to kill,” Zachary Kallenborn wrote in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

The assault came during fighting between the U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord and forces aligned with Gen. Khalifa Haftar, according to the report by the U.N. Panel of Experts on Libya.

“Logistics convoys and retreating [Haftar-affiliated forces] were subsequently hunted down and remotely engaged by the unmanned combat aerial vehicles or the lethal autonomous weapons systems such as the STM Kargu-2 … and other loitering munitions,” the panel wrote.

he Kargu-2 is an attack drone made by the Turkish company STM that can be operated both autonomously and manually and that purports to use “machine learning” and “real-time image processing” against its targets.

The U.N. report goes on: “The lethal autonomous weapons systems were programmed to attack targets without requiring data connectivity between the operator and the munition: in effect, a true ‘fire, forget and find’ capability.”

“Fire, forget and find” refers to a weapon that once fired can guide itself to its target.

The idea of a “killer robot” has moved from fantasy to reality

Drone warfare itself is not new. For years, military forces and rebel groups have used remote-controlled aircraft to carry out reconnaissance, target infrastructure and attack people. The U.S. in particular has used drones extensively to kill militants and destroy physical targets.

Azerbaijan used armed drones to gain a major advantage over Armenia in recent fighting for control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Just last month, the Israel Defense Forces reportedly used drones to drop tear gas on protesters in the occupied West Bank, while Hamas launched loitering munitions — so-called kamikaze drones — into Israel.

What’s new about the incident in Libya, if confirmed, is . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by Leisureguy

2 June 2021 at 3:34 pm

A good batch of Other Veg centered on asparagus, mushrooms, broccoli, …

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The dish has a large center. I used the 4-qt All-Clad d3 Stainless. I started with Field Company #10, but it wasn’t big enough, though the #12 may have been. But I chose the All-Clad because I wanted to cook it covered part of the time.

Put into the pan:

• 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
• 2 bunches thick scallions, chopped
• 1 Anaheim pepper, chopped
• 1/4 bulb fennel, chopped
• pinch of salt
• freshly ground black pepper
• about 2 tablespoons dried mint

Sauté over medium heat (4 on my Max Burton 18XL) until onions wilt and soften. Add:

• chopped cloves from one head of garlic (having let the garlic rest 15 minutes after chopping)

Cook that for a couple of minutes, stirring, then add (and you should have prepared this before even beginning):

• 10-12 meidum to large domestic white mushrooms, sliced thick or chopped large
• 1 large bunch asparagus, chopped
• about 3 cups steamed broccoli florets
• [1 lemon, diced after ends cut off and discarded — I forgot this, but it would have been good]
• good shaking of crushed red pepper flakes
• several dashes fish sauce

Cook for several minutes, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms start to soften. Turn heat to low (2 or 3), cover, and cook for about 5-10 minutes more.

I think I might add

• a dash of sherry vinegar.

Written by Leisureguy

2 June 2021 at 2:59 pm

Democracy at risk

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Heather Cox Richardson writes:

Today, more than 100 scholars who study democracy issued a letter warning that “our entire democracy is now at risk.” The letter explains that the new election laws in Republican-led states, passed with the justification that they will make elections safer, in fact are turning “several states into political systems that no longer meet the minimum conditions for free and fair elections.”

If we permit the breakdown of democracy, it will be a very long time before we can reverse the damage. As a nation spirals downward, the political scientists, sociologists, and government scholars explain, “violence and corruption typically flourish, and talent and wealth flee to more stable countries, undermining national prosperity. It is not just our venerated institutions and norms that are at risk—it is our future national standing, strength, and ability to compete globally.”

The scholars called for federal action to protect equal access to voting and to guarantee free and fair elections. Voting rights should not depend on which party runs the state legislature, and votes must be cast and counted equally, regardless of where a citizen lives. They back the reforms in the For the People Act, which protects the right to vote, ends partisan gerrymandering, and curbs the flood of money into elections.

They urged Congress “to do whatever is necessary—including suspending the filibuster—in order to pass national voting and election administration standards that both guarantee the vote to all Americans equally, and prevent state legislatures from manipulating the rules in order to manufacture the result they want. Our democracy is fundamentally at stake.”

“History,” they wrote, “will judge what we do at this moment.”

But in Tulsa, Oklahoma, today, President Joe Biden noted that the events that transpired in the Greenwood district of that city 100 years ago today were written out of most histories. The Tulsa Massacre destroyed 35 blocks of the prosperous Greenwood neighborhood, wiping out 1100 homes and businesses and taking hundreds of Black lives, robbing Black families of generational wealth and the opportunities that come with it.

Biden pointed out that he was the first president to go to Tulsa to acknowledge what happened there on May 31 and June 1, 1921. But, he said, “We do ourselves no favors by pretending none of this ever happened or doesn’t impact us today, because it does.” He drew a direct line from the terrorism at Greenwood to the terrorism in August 2017 at Charlottesville, Virginia, to the January 6 insurrection. Citing the intelligence community, he reminded listeners that “terrorism from white supremacy is the most lethal threat to the homeland today. Not Isis. Not al-Qaeda. White supremacists.”

Victims’ trauma endures, too, and it eventually demands a reckoning when “what many people hadn’t seen before, or simply refused to see, cannot be ignored any longer.” Today, Americans are recognizing “that for too long, we’ve allowed a narrowed, cramped view of the promise of this nation to fester, the view that America is a zero-sum game, where there’s only one winner. If you succeed, I fail. If you get ahead, I fall behind. If you get a job, I lose mine. And maybe worst of all, if I hold you down, I lift myself up. Instead of if you do well, we all do well.” Biden promised to invest in Black communities extensively to unlock creativity and innovation.

Then the president took on the elephant in the room: . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by Leisureguy

2 June 2021 at 2:44 pm

America Has a Drinking Problem

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I have gradually come to recognize that alcohol undermines constancy of purpose. A recovering alcoholic warned me when I was still in college, “Alcohol is sneaky.” He meant that you can think things are going well, but if alcohol is part of one’s daily diet, I would say that person is at serious risk. In recent years my consumption of alcohol has been minimal. I am not a teetotaler, but I drink very little and most weeks not at all.

Kate Julian writes in the Atlantic:

Few things are more American than drinking heavily. But worrying about how heavily other Americans are drinking is one of them.

The Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock because, the crew feared, the Pilgrims were going through the beer too quickly. The ship had been headed for the mouth of the Hudson River, until its sailors (who, like most Europeans of that time, preferred beer to water) panicked at the possibility of running out before they got home, and threatened mutiny. And so the Pilgrims were kicked ashore, short of their intended destination and beerless. William Bradford complained bitterly about the latter in his diary that winter, which is really saying something when you consider what trouble the group was in. (Barely half would survive until spring.) Before long, they were not only making their own beer but also importing wine and liquor. Still, within a couple of generations, Puritans like Cotton Mather were warning that a “flood of RUM” could “overwhelm all good Order among us.”

George Washington first won elected office, in 1758, by getting voters soused. (He is said to have given them 144 gallons of alcohol, enough to win him 307 votes and a seat in Virginia’s House of Burgesses.) During the Revolutionary War, he used the same tactic to keep troops happy, and he later became one of the country’s leading whiskey distillers. But he nonetheless took to moralizing when it came to other people’s drinking, which in 1789 he called “the ruin of half the workmen in this Country.

Hypocritical though he was, Washington had a point. The new country was on a bender, and its drinking would only increase in the years that followed. By 1830, the average American adult was consuming about three times the amount we drink today. An obsession with alcohol’s harms understandably followed, starting the country on the long road to Prohibition.

[Hypocrisy is a serious accusation that should not be lightly made. If an automobile manufacturer — or a typical driver — made a statement opposing speeding or reckless driving, I would not see that as hypocrisy. For a brewer or distiller to state that drinking excessively is bad does not seem hypocritical to me, any more than a restaurateur or grocer stating that gluttony is bad. It seems to me that the author did not think through that accusation. – LG  Postscript: It occurs to me that perhaps people nowadays do not understand how bad hypocrisy is. Perhaps the term has weakened through being used too frequently and/or inappropriately. But hypocrisy is a serious failing indeed, and a hypocrite weakens the social fabric though a basic dishonesty.]

What’s distinctly American about this story is not alcohol’s prominent place in our history (that’s true of many societies), but the zeal with which we’ve swung between extremes. Americans tend to drink in more dysfunctional ways than people in other societies, only to become judgmental about nearly any drinking at all. Again and again, an era of overindulgence begets an era of renunciation: Binge, abstain. Binge, abstain.

Right now we are lurching into another of our periodic crises over drinking, and both tendencies are on display at once. Since the turn of the millennium, alcohol consumption has risen steadily, in a reversal of its long decline throughout the 1980s and ’90s. Before the pandemic, some aspects of this shift seemed sort of fun, as long as you didn’t think about them too hard. In the 20th century, you might have been able to buy wine at the supermarket, but you couldn’t drink it in the supermarket. Now some grocery stores have wine bars, beer on tap, signs inviting you to “shop ’n’ sip,” and carts with cup holders.

Actual bars have decreased in number, but drinking is acceptable in all sorts of other places it didn’t used to be: Salons and boutiques dole out cheap cava in plastic cups. Movie theaters serve alcohol, Starbucks serves alcohol, zoos serve alcohol. Moms carry coffee mugs that say things like this might be wine, though for discreet day-drinking, the better move may be one of the new hard seltzers, a watered-down malt liquor dressed up—for precisely this purpose—as a natural soda.

Even before COVID-19 arrived on our shores, the consequences of all this were catching up with us. From 1999 to 2017, the number of alcohol-related deaths in the U.S. doubled, to more than 70,000 a year—making alcohol one of the leading drivers of the decline in American life expectancy. These numbers are likely to get worse: During the pandemic, frequency of drinking rose, as did sales of hard liquor. By this February, nearly a quarter of Americans said they’d drunk more over the past year as a means of coping with stress.

Explaining these trends is hard; they defy so many recent expectations. Not long ago, Millennials were touted as the driest generation—they didn’t drink much as teenagers, they were “sober curious,” they were so admirably focused on being well—and yet here they are day-drinking White Claw and dying of cirrhosis at record rates. Nor does any of this appear to be an inevitable response to 21st-century life: Other countries with deeply entrenched drinking problems, among them Britain and Russia, have seen alcohol use drop in recent years.

Media coverage, meanwhile, has swung from cheerfully overselling the (now disputed) health benefits of wine to screeching that no amount of alcohol is safe, ever; it might give you cancer and it will certainly make you die before your time. But even those who are listening appear to be responding in erratic and contradictory ways. Some of my own friends—mostly 30- or 40-something women, a group with a particularly sharp uptick in drinking—regularly declare that they’re taking an extended break from drinking, only to fall off the wagon immediately. One went from extolling the benefits of Dry January in one breath to telling me a funny story about hangover-cure IV bags in the next. A number of us share the same (wonderful) doctor, and after our annual physicals, we compare notes about the ever nudgier questions she asks about alcohol. “Maybe save wine for the weekend?” she suggests with a cheer so forced she might as well be saying, “Maybe you don’t need to drive nails into your skull every day?”

What most of us want to know, coming out of the pandemic, is this: Am I drinking too much? And: How much are other people drinking? And: Is alcohol actually that bad?

The answer to all these questions turns, to a surprising extent, not only on how much you drink, but on how and where and with whom you do it. But before we get to that, we need to consider a more basic question, one we rarely stop to ask: Why do we drink in the first place? By we, I mean Americans in 2021, but I also mean human beings for the past several millennia.

Let’s get this out of the way: Part of the answer is “Because it is fun.” Drinking releases endorphins, the natural opiates that are also triggered by, among other things, eating and sex. Another part of the answer is “Because we can.” Natural selection has endowed humans with the ability to drink most other mammals under the table. Many species have enzymes that break alcohol down and allow the body to excrete it, avoiding death by poisoning. But about 10 million years ago, a genetic mutation left our ancestors with a souped-up enzyme that increased alcohol metabolism 40-fold.

This mutation occurred around the time that a major climate disruption transformed the landscape of eastern Africa, eventually leading to widespread extinction. In the intervening scramble for food, the leading theory goes, our predecessors resorted to eating fermented fruit off the rain-forest floor. Those animals that liked the smell and taste of alcohol, and were good at metabolizing it, were rewarded with calories. In the evolutionary hunger games, the drunk apes beat the sober ones.

But even presuming that this story of natural selection is right, it doesn’t explain why, 10 million years later, I like wine so much. “It should puzzle us more than it does,” Edward Slingerland writes in his wide-ranging and provocative new book, Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization, “that one of the greatest foci of human ingenuity and concentrated effort over the past millennia has been the problem of how to get drunk.” The damage done by alcohol is profound: impaired cognition and motor skills, belligerence, injury, and vulnerability to all sorts of predation in the short run; damaged livers and brains, dysfunction, addiction, and early death as years of heavy drinking pile up. As the importance of alcohol as a caloric stopgap diminished, why didn’t evolution eventually lead us away from drinking—say, by favoring genotypes associated with hating alcohol’s taste? That it didn’t suggests that alcohol’s harms were, over the long haul, outweighed by some serious advantages.

Versions of this idea have recently bubbled up at academic conferences and in scholarly journals and anthologies (largely to the credit of the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar). Drunk helpfully synthesizes the literature, then underlines its most radical implication: Humans aren’t merely built to get buzzed—getting buzzed helped humans build civilization. Slingerland is not unmindful of alcohol’s dark side, and his exploration of when and why its harms outweigh its benefits will unsettle some American drinkers. Still, he describes the book as “a holistic defense of alcohol.” And he announces, early on, that “it might actually be good for us to tie one on now and then.”

Slingerland is a professor at the University of British Columbia who, for most of his career, has specialized in ancient Chinese religion and philosophy. In a conversation this spring, I remarked that it seemed odd that he had just devoted several years of his life to a subject so far outside his wheelhouse. He replied that alcohol isn’t quite the departure from his specialty that it might seem; as he has recently come to see things, intoxication and religion are parallel puzzles, interesting for very similar reasons. As far back as his graduate work at Stanford in the 1990s, he’d found it bizarre that across all cultures and time periods, humans went to such extraordinary (and frequently painful and expensive) lengths to please invisible beings.

In 2012, Slingerland and several scholars in other fields won a big grant to study religion from an evolutionary perspective. In the years since, . . .

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

Written by Leisureguy

2 June 2021 at 12:29 pm

Two vintage shaving products I like a lot

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Yardley was a big name back in the name — still somewhat big, but lessened in my view because of not having a shaving soap (or shaving cream) or an aftershave. So it goes. But this tub of vintage soap, several decades in age, does a fine job of making a fragrant lather, thanks in part to that Maggard Razors 22mm synthetic brush..

The Rockwell 6S (“S” for “superb”) easily stripped away the stubble, and a splash of Italian Stallion aftershave milk from the belated Mickey Lee Soapworks finished the job in fine style. As I’ve previously commented, I would never have purchased this had I not received (and tried) a sample in an order from them.

Altogether, a fine start to the day, somewhat making up for a tempeh failure: using some of the previous batch as a starter did not work. I’ll have to use the packets of tempeh starter culture — which means to get the best bang for the buck, batches will become big.

Written by Leisureguy

2 June 2021 at 11:02 am

Posted in Shaving

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