Arsenic And Old Cake

October 29, 2013

On October 28, 1922, a man named William Wrey Sterrett died at Bryn Mawr Hospital in Philadelphia. He seems to have been the quiet type in life; an accountant for Price Waterhouse, he lived an uneventful life with his wife, Martha Campbell Sterrett, in Devon, Pennsylvania. The couple had been married for eight years and had no children. Nor, apparently, did they have an extensive social life: the friends dredged up by newspaper reporters all had kind words to say about him but most of them centered around how unassuming he was. “A home type,” several friends told the Chester County Daily Local News. In an article printed on October 31, The Philadelphia Inquirer quoted more anonymous friends as having “nothing but praise for the dead accountant … while not a person of the kind that made idle boasts, he was always willing to enter into discussions of various sorts, and his advice was generally regarded as good.”

Apart from these modified raptures, the only other distinctive pieces of information about “the dead accountant” were that he and his wife had just bought a new house and that they also liked to go antiquing on the weekends. So far, so unremarkable — until Thursday, October 26, 1922. That afternoon, Mrs. Sterrett picked up the mail at the Devon post office and discovered that she had received a package “about the size of a pound candy box” (according to the October 29th Daily Local News), addressed with a typewritten label to Mrs. W.W. Sterrett. It had no return address but had been postmarked in Philadelphia. The postmistress, Mrs. (or Miss — the papers differ) Gillies, turned out to be happy to share Mrs. Sterrett’s reaction with newspaper reporters. Under the subheading “NERVOUS AT POST OFFICE,” we learn that Mrs. Sterrett, speaking in an “excited manner” speculated on the contents of the box and said that she would hurry home at once to see what it contained. However, “the box remained unopened until the arrival of Mr. Sterrett on a later train, and when the box was uncovered it was found to contain a piece of brown cake known as `devil’s food’ and it was covered with a pink icing. Mr. Sterrett partook freely of the cake, but Mrs. Sterrett, it is said, did not eat as much.” (Newspaper accounts of the cake would differ: according to The New York Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer, both publishing on October 29th, the cake was golden and, as the NYT stated, “had the appearance of having been cut from a large wedding cake.” Later, the Inquirer occasionally referred to the cake as having been devil’s food. One thing was certain: the Sterretts had between them eaten every crumb of it).

“What’s In The Box?”

No Redeeming Social Value

December 1, 2010

First, some background for those of you who have never lived in North Carolina: We have centralized state control over alcoholic beverage sales. Most “strong spirits” here are sold through official ABC stores. Apparently, all licensed liquor stores in NC get their supply from the state-controlled warehouse. All of which makes for the right conditions for this news story I heard on the radio yesterday afternoon. I have highlighted my favorite line.

North Carolina’s ABC Commission has decided that liquor stores in the state will no longer sell 95% grain alcohol. The state warehouse currently stocks two 190-proof brands, Everclear and Diesel. A recent study by the Mecklenburg ABC board found that most of its grain liquor is sold at stores near college campuses, where the potent spirits are especially popular. State ABC spokeswoman Agnes Stevens says the Commission decided the high-alcohol drinks had no redeeming social value.

Does anyone else get a feeling of time-warp from these sentiments? I mean, I do kind of agree, I have no personal use for high-proof alcohol, (or any alcohol, for that matter,) but do we really need this level of centralized regulation of it? But as the spokesperson went on to say:

Agnes Stevens: It’s really – it’s a decision that the Commission has made with regard to concern for public health, and with an eye toward being protective.

I feel very protected now.

Actually, what I most feel like doing now is making up a longer list of things I think have no redeeming social value. What do you think we should try to get banned next?

-posted by Dana

Judicial Review?

February 8, 2008

I have more respect for John McCain as a candidate than I have had for a major Republican candidate in pretty much living memory. He has risked political capital for principle on a number of occasions, most notably in his support for campaign finance reform, and that’s not easy to do in politics for as long as he has been it. I still disagree with most of his positions, but I respect him.

That’s why I felt such a chill down my spine during his remarks yesterday when he became the presumptive Republican nominee for president when he spoke of his enthusiasm for judges who “take as their sole responsibility the enforcement of laws made by the people’s elected representatives.”

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The Opening and Closing of European Borders

December 23, 2007

Lost under all the speculation about American shoppers and the failing U.S. economy in the weekend before Christmas is the news that Europe has finally reunited.

German/Polish Border

You are probably thinking back to a night almost two decades ago, when the Berlin Wall fell, Communism collapsed, and Europe, you thought, had already reunited? November 9, 1989, was most certainly a night to remember — the night the process of European unification began. [For the sticklers among you, it *really* began decades earlier with the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1950.] It took another step forward in 2004 when 10 countries, eight of them from the “East,” joined the European Union. This process neared further completion Friday when the Schengen zone expanded to include nine of those ten countries (Cyprus the lone holdout).

The photo above shows the German/Polish border at Frankfurt (Oder)/Slubice, the cities where I lived and filled my passport with crossing stamps for over two years. As of Friday, there are no longer guards stationed at that checkpoint, no one keeping you from (stereotypically) filling your shopping cart with low-priced cigarettes and heading West or riding back to the East on someone else’s bike.

If you’re like me with a U.S. passport and penchant for peace and travel, this news is cause for celebration. Once you enter the vast continent of Europe, you can travel around freely almost everywhere, crossing borders without ever needing to show your passport again until you leave. This is doubly good for Europeans who can leave home with nothing more than the equivalent of a driver’s license before flying off to France, Estonia or Hungary for the weekend. But if you’re Russian or Chinese, Indian or Kenyan, you can expect visits to Europe to become that much more difficult. It all comes back to that largely unknown and poorly understood Schengen Agreement.

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Just Say No

December 3, 2007

In further, and hopefully final, news on the Venezuelan constitutional reform front, (which I talked about earlier here,)  Chavez’s proposed reforms were defeated in the public referendum, 51% to 49%. Given his almost complete lack of opposition in the Venezuelan Congress, these reforms were starting to seem inevitable, so I was both surprised and relieved to hear that the public had voted them down.

The NPR story from this morning noted that the “No” campaign had been aided by some recent rather high profile “defections” from Chavez’s camp:

High-profile defections had strengthened the opposition in recent weeks. Among them was the former Chavez loyalist and Defense Minister Raul Baduel. He stepped down this summer and later condemned the constitutional package Chavez proposed as an undemocratic grab for power.

“The nature of the Constitution does not permit one side or another to compromise it,” Baduel said. “It is a contract … between the people and the state.”

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How Many Terms Should a President Serve?

October 2, 2007

Putin, FishingThe New York Times reported today on the possibility that Russian President Vladimir Putin, by adding his name to the parliamentary election list for December, may lead the legislature following the end of his second presidential term. The Russian Constitution prohibits members of the Federal Assembly from holding office in both the House (Duma) and Senate (Federation Council) concurrently, as well as from serving as local and federal deputies simultaneously. Apparently, and you legal types are welcome to comment here, this prohibition does not extend to two simultaneously-held federal offices — either that, or Putin would resign from office before assuming the other position to keep the move constitutional.

Furthermore, the Russian Constitution states, “No one person shall hold the office of President of the Russian Federation for more than two terms in succession.” This, as the article points out, would allow Putin or anyone to return to the presidency after a term hiatus. The speculation that Putin may simply stay for an unconstitutional third term or the new theory that he may obey the letter but not the spirit of the Constitution by remaining in a high-profile political position until he can legally resume the reins of federal power are used to point to the underdevelopment of democracy in Russia.

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That Made in China label

September 17, 2007

Don’t you just love vilifying China?

Growing economy? (Check) Massive trade imbalance? (Check) And Commie to boot? (Check!)

Were you really surprised when they started poisoning our puppies? It’s a vast, Chinese, pink-o commie conspiracy against the American way of life people! Wake up and smell the green tea!

Well, ok, no. It’s not. But when it comes to buying things, why are we so anti-China?

You have books such as A Year Without “Made in China” by Sara Bongiorni and massive fear-induced boycotts of all Chinese goods, so maybe we do think it is a commie plot.

Oh! But Jennie! They all work in sweat shops! And only make 57 cents an hour! And their pet food/toys/toothpaste ARE all being recalled for poison/lead paint/whatever… China’s cutting too many corners! Chinese products are bad!

Well, no. They’re not.

Why are we blaming China for something that is fundamentally the fault of industry? American industry?

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Scooters that stay where you put them

July 21, 2007

As an addendum to Kevin’s appraisal of the Scooter Libby commutation, I heard this short story on NPR’s All Things Considered yesterday: Quiz Show Draws US Attorney. Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, the man who actually prosecuted Scooter Libby and had him convicted, will be appearing on the NPR news quiz show, Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! He will be answering questions for the “Not My Job” segment, on the subject of… scooters.

My favorite part? They gave him a present for being on the show, (which they don’t normally do.) A child’s kick scooter, engraved with the words, “To Patrick Fitzgerald, USA: This one will stay where you put it.”

Listen to the segment, because there are several other amusing anecdotes. Or even better, try to catch the full show this afternoon.

-posted by Dana

A Belated Appraisal of the Scooter Libby Commutation

July 16, 2007

In this fine space just a few months ago, I offered my position on the presidential pardon and whether I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby should be a recipient of that presidential power. On Monday, July 2nd, President Bush commuted the 30-month prison term of Libby’s original sentence, which also included a $250,000 fine and a two-year probation. Libby has paid his fine and will soon begin the supervised release period.

Like many commentators, I disagree with President Bush’s decision, but for different reasons than many of those editorialists and columnists have offered. Those on the liberal end of the spectrum seem to argue either that the pardon of Mr. Libby removes incentives for Mr. Libby to testify against others who may have been involved in the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson or that the sentence of Mr. Libby was within federal sentencing guidelines and thus appropriate, directly contradicting President Bush’s position that the sentence was “excessive.” Liberals also complain that Bush went outside the standard Justice Department system for advising the president on matters of clemency. Those of a more conservative bent seem to be dissatisfied that Mr. Libby was not completely pardoned for the crime, as they believe that Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald over-reached in his investigation and that because there has not been an indictment for the theoretical underlying offense (the outing of a covert CIA operative), Mr. Libby’s crime is minor at best. Note: these summaries are my impressions of the general consensus and not necessarily applicable to every liberal or conservative commentator, respectively.

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Big Day for Arms Control

July 14, 2007

That President Bush, he just can’t get a break, can he?

On what should have been a positive day in the sea of negativity that is Bush’s second term, North Korea opened its nuclear facility in Yongbyon to IAEA inspectors. This is the first step in a lengthy disarmament process which, it is hoped, could ultimately normalize relations between DPRK and the U.S.

This good news, however, is likely to be overshadowed by Russia’s President Putin announcing that Russia is suspending the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, which has reduced the number of tanks, combat vehicles and fighter aircraft on the European continent. While this move seems drastic, Russia has not committed to withdrawl from the treaty; the primary foreseeable change is the halting of physical inspections of military installations. Changes to the treaty have been on hold since 1999: NATO countries have been delaying ratification of the Adapted CFE Treaty in response to Russia’s failure to withdraw forces from Moldova and Georgia.

Given these developments, where is arms control in the 21st century headed? Can we look forward to U.S-Russian cooperation again once Bush has left office? Or is Putin foreshadowing a chilling of East-West relations in military and security affairs? And has Korea indeed come around? Discuss.