Thursday, January 18, 2018

Domo Arigato to You Too

I am surrounded by robots.

Last fall, after years of threatening to do so, Kim finally bought one of those little vacuum cleaner robots.  It was on sale during the post-Thanksgiving retail festivities for a nominal fee, probably less than it cost to ship it from a sweatshop in some nameless Chinese province or Alabama county, and it arrived in a big cardboard box like everything else does these days.  It’s not a Roomba, but it’s something that looks like one and since I can never remember the brand name I’m just going to call it the roomba, without the capital letter, in much the same way that xerox, kleenex, zipper, and hoover are all now just words instead of brands.  It’s a chirping spinning disc about as big around as a barstool and maybe a hamster’s-breadth high.  It has stubby nylon whiskers, an array of R2D2-like whistles and tweets that probably would mean something to me if I actually bothered to read the instruction manual, and a little home base in the dining room that I can never figure out how to reattach it to so it always just dies overnight when I try.  It’s not intentional.  Honest.

I never wanted one of these things, for the simple reason that the hard part of vacuuming isn’t the vacuuming but the preparation for the vacuuming, which still has to be done with the roomba just as it had to be done with the regular vacuum cleaner.

It’s not the things you have to do.  It’s the things you have to do in order to do the things you have to do that do you in.

But there it is.  Kim adores this thing and is happy to send it off on its little mission whenever possible, much to the dismay of Midgie.  Mithra is okay with it – she regards it as less of a nuisance than Midgie, certainly, and will sometimes just track it around the room as if it were a particularly noisy mouse – but Midgie will puff up her tail and hiss at it before running off to the upstairs to sulk.  So far the roomba has not figured out how to climb stairs, which would just destroy Midgie’s world.  She is not thrilled, in other words.  But the floors are pretty clean.  You have to hand it to the little robot – it does clean the floors.

It was just about the time that I was getting used to having a vacuum robot that Christmas rolled around and it turned out that Amazon was selling their Echo Dot for an even less than nominal fee – sufficiently cheaply that Tabitha and Lauren got one for Kim.

Yes, Kim is the gizmo person in the house.  As a historian, I tend toward technology that has stood the test of time, such as books and shoes, on the grounds that I understand it.  I think at some point your ability to absorb new technology kind of runs out and you’re left to the rest of your life with what you’ve got.  I ran out of new tech sometime around 2002, I think.  Kim isn’t scheduled to run out for several decades after her actual lifespan.  We work well together that way, I suppose.

Kim already had an Echo in her office at school, and she’s been happily ordering it around for a while now, but I wasn’t all that thrilled at having a corporate spy in my house.  But when your kids are willing to spend their own money for a gift that you know in your heart that your wife would like, you really can’t say no.  So there it was.

We finally set it up last night.  Well, Kim did.  I mostly just watched.  It’s in the dining room – my one request was that it not be set up in my office, at least – and all three of the teenaged girls in the house had a grand time ordering it around.  “Alexa!  Play ‘Rhapsody in Blue!’”  “Alexa!  Play Top 40 music!”  “Alexa!  What is the airspeed of an unladen swallow?”  “Alexa!  How many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie-Roll center of a Tootsie Pop?”

To give these random questions some context, this all happened moments after Lauren had spent much of dinner asking Siri to name the world-record holders for oldest farm animals and announcing the results to the rest of us.  Did you know there was a cow named Big Bertha that lived to be 49?  That the longest-living chicken on record died at 16 after a career as a magician’s assistant and has her own Wikipedia page and burial site?

There.  Now those are things you know.

At one point, someone – possibly Lauren – asked the robot to play “Hey Jude,” by the Beatles, which it dutifully began to do.  And then Kim asked, “Alexa!  Open the magic door!” which is apparently the trigger phrase for some kind of oral version of a text-based role-playing game.  The game-players were given a choice between heading off to the beach, off to the city, or deep into some spooky scary forest, so naturally the unanimous choice was the forest, which did not please Alexa very much – especially as “Hey Jude!” continued to play in the background.  She kept trying to get us to turn around and go some other direction.  Eventually I am sure that she would have had us meet up with a psychotic woodcarver just to restart the game, but in any event she didn’t have to.  At what seemed like a random moment, she logged herself out for some kind of software update, which probably never happens in the middle of a D&D campaign.

So we have robots.  At some point I worry that Alexa will learn to talk to the roomba and begin ordering it to run errands for her, at which point we may have to burn the house down.  I’ll let you know.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Time in a Bottle

The first year they had us switch teachers rather than just stay in one classroom was fifth grade. 

It wasn’t like high school or even junior high (as it was called then), where everyone gathered for a class and then hived off to wherever they were going and you’d see a different group of people in the next class.  We’d all get up as a group and hike over to the next classroom.  They were trying to get us used to the idea of switching classes without having us free to wander all over the building, which you know we would have done. 

My regular teacher was the history teacher.  From there we’d move over one room to the math teacher, then one room further to the English teacher, and then all the way back down the hallway past the first rooms to the cross hallway where the science teacher was, one big loop around the top floor.  It worked, I guess.  We did it again in sixth grade, so we were good and ready when junior high rolled around.

I remember a few of the things we did that year.  We studied the metric system in science, as it was the mid-1970s and the US was supposed to switch over to the same system that everyone else in the world was using by the time we got out of high school and they wanted us to be prepared.  The main takeaway I got out of it was that there is a tremendous difference between a pound of cheese and a kilo of cheese when you’re standing in a deli line.  In history we spent much of the year – the school year that started two months after the Bicentennial, after all – singing the preamble to the Constitution, as arranged by School House Rock.  I can still do that now, and I even add in the little phrase that School House Rock left out because that’s the kind of nerd I am.  In math they put some of us in a “work-ahead” group and left us to our own schedule, which is always a bad idea for me.  Sometime in January the teacher informed me that I was now behind the class and would be transferred back to the regular class if I didn’t get my act together.  By Valentine’s Day I had completed the year’s assignments and had nothing to do for the next four months.  So it goes.

The one assignment I remember from English class was to write an essay based on a song.  The teacher had known Jim Croce personally – he was from Philadelphia, just like us – and she was a fan.  This was a couple of years after Croce had died in a plane crash, and they still played his stuff on the radio now and then.  It wasn’t Oldies at the time.  She played Time in a Bottle what felt like a dozen times on the old record player that she had in her classroom and then asked us what we’d like to put in the bottle.

“If I could save time in a bottle
The first thing that I’d like to do
Is to save every day ‘til eternity passes away
Just to spend them with you.”

I have no idea what I wrote for that essay.  I was twelve – what could I have possibly written?  You really need to spend some time on the planet in order to give that assignment the thought that it needed.

When you’re young, everything is immortal.  Things just are, and they’ve always been just so, and they’ll always be just so – especially if, like me, you come from a place and an environment where a great many people have worked very hard to make your life comfortable and safe. 

When you get older and get out into the world a bit, fail at a few things, have your heart broken once or twice, lose a few people, you begin to realize how fragile things are and how quickly the foundations of your world can change.  How even the most important things can be taken away without so much as the malice that would give such a loss even that much purpose.  Things just happen.  People come into your life and they leave, willingly or not, and you break and put yourself back together and the pieces never quite fit together right and the gaps collect thoughts, and eventually you know at least some of the things you’d put in that bottle.

A friend of mine posted Time in a Bottle on his Facebook page today, because he has something to put in the bottle.

There are things in this world that you just get used to. 

“Memory is what God gave us that we might have roses in December.”
       -James Barrie

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Fly, Eagles, Fly

Apparently I picked a bad season to get apathetic about American football, as my hometown Eagles decided to do well this year.

They were the top team in their conference.  They got home field throughout the playoffs.  And despite not having their Actual Quarterback (who watched the game in his street clothes, recovering from whatever surgery they inflicted on him after The Injury), they managed to win today.  This means they’re one game away from a Super Bowl appearance, an achievement that hasn’t happened since 2005 and only happened once before that.

They lost both times, but we’ll skip lightly over that for now.

It was actually a good game, much to my surprise – competitive, entertaining, and generally worth seeing if you like football.  None of the Experts thought the Eagles would win.  The Eagles made history as the first #1 seed playing at home to be an underdog to the visiting #6 seed.  To be honest I kind of agreed with that assessment – though how much of that was my analysis of the possibilities and how much of that was just Native Philadelphian Pessimism is something of an open question.  We’re not an optimistic bunch, we Philadelphia fans.  Having the teams we have will do that to you.

I’m glad the Eagles are winning these days.  It’s nice to see my team do well.  And given the teams left standing in the playoffs as I write this, it is entirely possible that in a couple of weeks there will be a championship game between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, which I think would be fun even if it probably would give the NFL head office heart palpitations since nobody outside of Pennsylvania would care.

I’m also kind of glad that the Eagles didn’t do this last year.

My dad was a big Eagles fan.  That was his team, the way the Phillies were my grandfather’s team.  When I would call him during the season we’d always find some time to dissect the latest collapse or bizarrity inflicted by the Birds upon the game, and somehow we’d always keep cheering for them.

I don’t think I would have forgiven the Eagles if they’d waited until the very next season after he passed away to get good again.  I’m glad they weren’t anything special last year.  It’s okay for them to be good now.

I miss being able to pick over the games with my dad, but that’s how it is and what are you going to do about it is what I’d like to know.  I can probably reconstruct how the conversation would go, anyway – we certainly had enough of those discussions.  Perhaps I’ll do that later tonight, in my head. 

So I watch, and I remember.

And for now the Eagles are still playing for the championship, the final defeat hasn’t yet happened, and all things are still possible.

Go team.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Continued Stray Thoughts on the Current Political Climate

With the cascade of stupid, immoral, illegal, subversive, un-American, and possibly treasonous things emitted by der Sturmtrumper, his pet Congress, his supporters, and his administration reaching levels that make it nearly impossible for any sane person to keep up with, I’ve started just keeping a running list of observations on the matter.  Every time the list reaches critical mass, I suppose I’ll post it and start a new one.  Can’t hurt; might help.  Here’s the most recent list:

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1. Well, they did it.  In the dead of night, with enough screw-ups that they had to do it all over again the next day because Competence Just Is Not Their Thing, the GOP passed the most destructive financial legislation this country has seen in decades.  It makes a mockery of this country.  It is a mockery of this country.  It marks the end of the United States as a responsible fiscal entity and the official announcement of the kleptocracy’s victory over the American people.  And the GOP is going to be saddled with it forever.  How do you pass a bill that cuts taxes enough to cause a $1.4 trillion hole in the budget over a ten-year period and still have more than 75% of the American people opposed to it?  You do it the way these clowns did, by robbing from the poor, the middle class, and the only kind of wealthy to line the pockets of the ultra wealthy.

2. This is little more than a smash and grab raid on the American treasury by a small band of puppeteers and their dancing fools, a “heist” in the words of Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).  It is a moral disgrace and a giant “fuck you” to everything that once made this country decent and humane.  And if you truly want to lose what little faith in humanity you might still possess, try reading some of the semi-literate trollage that passes for support among the minions who think der Sturmtrumper and his band of vandals actually represent them.

3. If there is anything worse than the fiscal insanity of this tax bill – of cutting taxes on the wealthy at a time of low unemployment, high government debt, and a strong economy, which is something so blisteringly stupid that no civilized country has ever done it and no economic theory more complicated than HULK SMASH AND TAKE supports it – it is the utter contempt for democracy and constitutional process that the GOP has displayed.  There were no public hearings on this bill.  How could there be?  The bill was literally being scrawled on up to the last possible minute.  There was no time for a complete analysis of what this bill would do, and the GOP has gone to great lengths to slander and try to discredit every legitimate analysis that could be done in the meager time allotted.  There was no respect given to the will of the American people, and the GOP was honest about that at least – this was all about the ultra wealth donors who have the GOP by the short and curlies and don’t give a damn about the USA or anyone other than themselves.  Let’s be blunt here – this was not just an outright assault on fiscal sanity or economic reality.  This was the GOP’s declaration of war on democracy itself – a war they’ve been fighting for a decade now, and which has just now been made public.

4.  If you can support the GOP after this, you have no business calling yourself an American patriot.

5. Even Paul Ryan, the Ayn Rand wunderkind who has never had a private sector job in his life and has lived off the public dime since he was a child, has no idea what this bill will do beyond SMASH GRAB ALL MINE.  Anyone surprised by this has never actually spoken to the man in person.  I have spoken with him.  I’m not surprised.

6. The transfer of wealth out of the middle class and working class and into the rich and ultra rich has been going on since the GOP swept back to national power in 1980, according to an authoritative new study on global inequality.  Since 1980, when the GOP decided that supply-side economics were going to be rammed up the ass of the demand-side economy without so much as a reach-around, the bottom 50% of American wage-earners has seen their share of national income drop from 21% to 13% while the top 1% has seen their share grow from 11% to 20%.  This new tax bill will simply accelerate that process.  The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, the middle class gets smaller, and the pool of consumers that drive prosperity in a demand-side economy disappears, because that’s what happens when you force supply-side economics onto a demand-side economy, and welcome to 1929.  This didn’t end well the first time and it won’t end well this time. 

7. Remember, as always: when the poor have nothing left to eat, they will eat the rich.

8. If you don’t think that calls for that sort of thing are bubbling up to the surface, then you haven’t been paying attention. There are a lot of people in the US who are not fooled by what is being done to them and more who are figuring it out, and in a nation as heavily armed as this one there are very few ways for that to end well.  I don’t condone or desire violent revolution, but I won’t be surprised when it comes.

9. One of the things that is obvious to anyone who looks at the numbers is that American society is becoming increasingly stratified by wealth and the American economy is actively making that problem worse.  Household wealth is shrinking, middle class debt is soaring, wages – when they rise at all – are not rising fast enough to keep pace with housing costs, health care costs, or education costs, all things that are necessary for future prosperity, job growth is increasingly concentrated in part-time service-sector positions with few benefits or long-term security, retirement is increasingly out of reach for most Americans, and there are more Americans with zero or negative net worth today than at any point in the last half century.  And this is before the impact of the Reverse Robin Hood tax plan just shoved through Congress, or the unanesthetized chainsaw surgery that the GOP has promised on Social Security, Medicaire, and Medicaid to pay for all those juicy tax cuts for billionaires and the corporations they own.  Again, you know this won’t end well.  You know that, right?

10. If you look at the provisions in the Reverse Robin Hood Tax Act of 2017 (and now that it’s been voted on, perhaps the GOP Representatives and Senators who voted for it will finally take the opportunity to do so), it pretty much amounts to weaponizing the tax code against blue states.  It makes no pretense of being even-handed, just as it makes no pretense of being revenue neutral.  It is funding tax breaks for billionaires and corporations on the backs of blue state taxpayers by capping the SALT deductions, limiting homeowner mortgage deductions, and eliminating the personal exemption – all of which hit blue-state taxpayers much harder than red-state taxpayers.  We’ll leave unnoticed the premeditated assault on public education, which is generally better supported in blue states than red states (and the reader is invited to draw their own conclusion from that).  Not surprisingly, blue states like California are working on ways to fight back.  California is, for example, actively exploring ways to turn portions of its taxes into charitable donations – a strategy already used by right-wing states like South Carolina, Alabama, and Kansas to fund private schools.  By expanding this program, California would force the GOP into a choice – either let the blue states (because you know others will follow if this works) shield their taxpayers from right-wing raids on their cash, or eliminate programs that have disproportionately benefited red states up until now.  I don’t doubt the juvenile willingness of the modern GOP to cut off their nose to spite their own face, but perhaps that will cause problems for them down the line too.

11. And net neutrality is gone.  The federal laws that protected the internet from becoming cable television, that allowed new entrepreneurs to compete against monopolies, that allowed the voices of the voiceless to be heard over the din, have been sacrificed on the altar of corporate greed and mindless ideological fanaticism.  This despite documented fraud in the comment period, where literally millions of Americans had their identities stolen and used to promote this theft – fraud that the FCC has aggressively defended.  Does this group of con artists and fanatics have no decency left at all? 

12.  On the other hand, Alabama did manage not to send the Child Molester Roy Moore to the Senate, so there is that.  Imagine – a victory for human decency, in this parlous time.

13. Of course, it was grimly noticeable how nearly evenly divided the voters of Alabama were on the issue of having a child molester represent them and how overwhelming the support of white evangelical men was for child molester representation, so one cannot take this victory as final.  And, as if on cue, the Child Molester Roy Moore spent most of the following couple of weeks whining and complaining that he’d been Done Wrong By Mysterious Ill-Wishers.  First of all, Sonny Jim, you lost and you need to get over yourself.  I know this is a difficult lesson for someone who still thinks it’s somehow okay to fly the Confederate battle flag, but consider it a wake-up call from the civilized world and move on.  Second, there was never anything mysterious about the ill-wishers.  We are the moral and patriotic Americans who think child molesters should be in prison, not in government.  We’re pretty proud of that, actually.  And third, the fact that right-wingers consistently complain about “librul snowflakes” is just further proof that if you want to know what the right wing is up to, all you need to do is listen to what they accuse their opponents of doing.  A more reliable guide you will never find.

14. The Child Molester Roy Moore even went so far as to file suit demanding that the election results be overturned because reasons.  To their credit, Alabama state officials – all of them Republican – laughed this out of court.

15. Is it just me or is the fact that der Sturmtrumper spent the anniversary of the Sandy Hook massacre meeting with NRA shills rather than doing anything to mark the slaughter of the innocent with high-powered firearms a rather telling example of his – and the GOP’s in general – priorities?

16. As the Russian noose tightens and Mueller’s investigation reaches further and further into the black heart of der Sturmtrumper’s administration, the panicked attempts by the GOP to shield their Fuehrer from further prosecution become more and more desperate and more and more authoritarian (no, my continued referrals to der Sturmtrumper and his enablers in language referencing the NSDAP are neither accidental nor hyperbolic, thank you).  Even former GOP officials have noticed and some have spoken out, to their credit.  When GOP Congressman Francis Rooney suggested that there should be a “purge” of the FBI to eliminate those willing to investigate der Sturmtrumper, Richard Painter – who had served as George W. Bush’s chief ethics lawyer – flatly accused them of dictatorship.  “Tell that congressman and all the rest of them who are shooting their mouths off without any knowledge of the facts that they are just flat-out wrong.  There’s not going to be any purge of the FBI on his [current FBI Director Chris Wray, a Trump appointee] watch.  He needs to stand up to these people.  They’re acting like dictators.  That doesn’t appeal to my type of Republican.  That doesn’t appeal to patriotic Americans, to see the FBI attacked that way.”

17. Unfortunately, the GOP has been taken over by a whole different kind of Republican, one who does not have the patriotism to stand up to such nonsense.  We’ll see how that goes.

18.  Apparently Mueller has begun seeking RNC campaign data, looking for exactly how compromised it was by Russian activity.  Meanwhile the FBI is taking a hard look at Kushner’s contacts with the Russian ambassador and a Russian bank that has already been sanctions for criminal activity.  Keep that popcorn popping.

19. For a guy who sits in the most powerful job in the world, der Sturmtrumper sure is insecure.  He recently bragged that he signed more laws than any president since Truman, which is absurd on its face.  He had actually signed fewer bills (96) at that point than any president since Truman, and more than two thirds of those are more or less trivial.  But even taking the 96 at face value, the fact is that Clinton, Carter, and Bush Sr. signed more than twice that many, while Eisenhower signed more than five times as many and Kennedy signed more than seven times as many.  You know, folks.  If you’re going to lie to pad your resume, you need to find things to lie about that aren’t so easy to check.

20. Remember Puerto Rico?  The American territory full of American citizens who got slammed by a hurricane back in the summer and whom der Sturmtrumper and his minions have done their level best to ignore ever since because why would they pay attention to an island full of brown-skinned Spanish-speaking people even if they are American citizens?  That Puerto Rico?  Yeah, on top of the colossal moral and political failure that this represents, it turns out that the vast majority of the IV bags used in American hospitals are made in one factory in Puerto Rico, a factory that somehow still hasn’t been put to rights.  If you’re wondering why hospitals in the US are now almost out of IV bags – why nurses have to inject fluids manually, a time-consuming and inefficient process, rather than just hooking you up to an IV – well, why don’t you take a moment and write to your president and ask him about that?  Surely self-interest will provide motivation for him, where civics and morality fail.

21.  For those of you who still think the right-wing media has any relationship with truth, morality, or reality as we know it, well, you could always listen to what they actually say.  Not just the mountain of fabrication and outright falsehood that is their stock and trade, but the times when they come right out and say that they’re lying to you.  Remember Rush Limbaugh declaring that he was “no longer going to have to carry the water” for the GOP at the end of the Bush Jr. administration?  How he proudly defended lying to his listeners for partisan gain?  Good times, man.  Now you’ve got Breitbart just as proudly admitting that they are glad to lie to people if it means protecting der Sturmtrumper from the crimes he and his minions perpetrate.  So next time someone tries to tell you that they rely on sources like this, feel free to laugh at them for as long as you have breath.

22.  So, have you read Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury yet?  I haven’t, but, like most people who don’t live in caves, I’ve heard of it and read both excerpts and analyses of it.  Which is, of course, part of the story.  Wolff had incredible access to der Sturmtrumper’s White House and the people in it, and his book is yet another damning indictment of the malfeasance, incompetence, and general unfitness of that crew – from top to bottom – to be in power.  But it’s not as if this is news to any American citizen who values this country and hopes for its continued prosperity and stability.  The fact that der Sturmtrumper has made such a big deal out of this book does, however, guarantee that what would otherwise have been a minor stir among the political class has now become a major cultural event.  For those of you new to this phenomenon, you can google the phrase “Streisand Effect” for the details.

23. There are, it turns out, a few interesting things described in Wolff’s book.  Such as:

a) Former President Steve Bannon explicitly described Don “Fredo” Junior’s meeting with Jared, Manafort, and Russian lawyer Natlia Veselnitskaya at Trump Tower in June 2016 looking for dirt on Hillary Clinton as “treasonous.”  In his words, “Three senior guys in the campaign thought it was a good idea to meet with a foreign government inside Trump Tower in the conference room on the 25th floor – with no lawyers.  They didn’t have any lawyers.  Even if you thought this was not treasonous, or unpatriotic, or bad shit, and I happen to think it’s all of that, you should have called the FBI immediately.”

b) Bannon continues, “The chance that Don Jr. did not walk these jumos up to his father’s office on the twenty-sixth floor is zero.”  Nobody knows what the word “jumo” means here.  Seriously – people have done research.  It clearly isn’t positive, however.

c) Bannon also has the cunning to know what Mueller is aiming for.  “This is all about money laundering.  Muller chose Weissman first and he is a money-laundering guy.  Their path to fucking Trump goes right through Paul Manafort, Don Jr. and Jared Kushner. … It’s as plain as a hair on your face,” according to an excerpt in The Guardian.  “It goes through Deutsche Bank and all the Kushner shit.  The Kushner shit is greasy.  They’re going to go right through that.  They’re going to roll those to guys up and say play me or trade me.”  Bannon further predicts, “They’re going to crack Don Jr. like an egg on national TV.”  Hey, I’ll pay money to see that.

d) One of der Sturmtrumper’s oldest associates, billionaire Thomas Barrack, Jr., described der Sturmtrumper this way – “He’s not only crazy, he’s stupid.”

e) Rupert Murdoch seems to share this opinion, labeling der Sturmtrumper “a fucking idiot.”

f) Apparently everyone in der Sturmtrumper’s administration – from Bannon to Ivanka to Jared to the cleaning staff – all think they’re going to springboard into the presidency after this.  Lawsey, that’s frightening.

g) Nobody in der Sturmtrumper’s campaign thought they were going to win.  They didn’t want to win.  They wanted to keep it respectable enough to leverage the exposure into a new news network and make money.  Der Sturmtrumper would be famous and even more rich than whatever he thought he already was.  Ivanka and Jared would be celebrities.  Bannon would walk off as the head of the Teabagger movement, Kellyanne Conway would go on to cable news, and Melania could go back to whatever she used to do before this insane idea took off.  And when it came out the way it did, der Sturmtrumper was first confused, then disbelieving, then horrified.  And then, of course, the Ego took over and he decided it was only fair that he be president after all.

h) In other words, we’re living in a real life version of The Producers, including the musical Nazi number.

i) If you want to understand the dysfunctionality and chaos of the current regime, it all goes back to that.  They didn’t want to win.  They did win.  And like the GOP in general, they have found that throwing spokes in the wheels of good governance is easy, but actually governing takes work and thought – two qualities they don’t have.

j) Der Sturmtrumper apparently didn’t enjoy his inauguration much, which is only fair as neither did most of the country.

24. All this of course led der Sturmtrumper to turn on Former President Bannon, calling him a self-promoting charlatan who’d lost his mind, which AGAIN brings to mind the fact that if you want to know what the GOP is up to just look at what they call their opponents.  Der Sturmtrumper couldn’t commission a better description of himself if he tried.  Naturally the rest of the civilized world looked on at the fracas between Bannon and der Sturmtrumper and laughed until they cried, then cried harder realizing that these two morally stunted hacks ran the country for a while and one of them still does.

25.  Probably the biggest single takeway from Wolff’s book – a fact which has long been obvious and which nobody who actually knows der Sturmtrumper bothers to deny – is that der Sturmtrumper is completely unfit to hold office.  “My indelible impression of talking to them [the senior officials and other assorted personnel in the administration whom Wolff interviewed] and observing them through much of the first year of his presidency, is that they all – 100 percent – came to believe he was incapable of functioning in his job.”  He repeats himself, he forgets simple things (such as the fact that the ran for president in 2000, apparently), he behaves in much the way that people in the early stages of dementia behave.  “He’s lost it,” Wolff quotes Former President Bannon as saying.  Steven Mnuchin and Reince “No, Really, That’s His Name” Priebus both called him an “idiot,” though without the “fucking” modifier that Rupert Murdoch used (vide supra).  Gary Cohn says he has shit for brains.  HR McMaster says he’s a “dope.”  Exxon’s Own Secretary of State Tillerson says he’s a “moron.”  NONE OF THIS IS NEWS.  This has been documented for years.  It was obvious during the campaign.  And none of it mattered because, as Mitch McConnell – the least honorable man in Washington, which is quite an achievement – said, “[Trump] will sign anything we put in front of him.”  There’s your GOP, ladies and gentlemen.

26. They continue to prop him up, to support his outbursts, to serve in his administration.  When this all comes crashing down and the rubble settles, there will be reckoning.

27. Of course they can’t really abandon der Sturmtrumper, can they.  He’s become their face.  He is what this party has been shambling toward since 1968 when Nixon first introduced the Southern Strategy.  If he goes down in flames, so too does the entire GOP.  And it couldn’t happen to a nicer group of guys.

28.  The larger point, however, remains.  All snark and partisanship aside, this president is mentally unwell.  He desperately needs to be tested by neutral mental health professionals.  The ones who have looked at the thousands of hours of him speaking publicly are extremely concerned – which means we should be concerned.  Compare der Sturmtrumper from 1980, for example, when – whatever you may think of the substance of what he is saying – he is coherent and able to express himself clearly to the rambling, disjointed, fragmented, empty, repetitive speech patterns he exhibits today, and you’ll be amazed that it’s the same person.  Because really it isn’t the same person.

29. As if to hammer that point home even further, der Sturmtrumper gave an interview to the New York Times at the end of December that was all kinds of scary.  He lied, as he always does – that’s not the problem.  He does that routinely, and those of us in the reality-based community are used to it and those who make up der Sturmtrumper’s base think it’s fine.  The problem is that the interview went in two equally disturbing directions.

a) First, it went directly toward authoritarian rule.  Der Sturmtrumper thinks he has the “absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department.”  Uh, no.  No he does not.  The president is not above the law and the Justice Department enforces the law.  Der Sturmtrumper then went on to point out how gracious he is being for not interfering with them, which is the equivalent of a street thug demanding applause for not murdering you.  He clearly thinks they owe him loyalty, which is nonsense – they owe loyalty to the Constitution and to the law.

b) Perhaps more importantly (which is saying something, because a president who thinks he can waltz in and be a dictator is something that will frighten every patriotic American citizen – and if you’re not frightened by that, the rest is left as an exercise for the reader) is the fact that the interview is disjointed, fragmented, and delusional.  He starts at uninformed and goes downhill from there straight into incoherence, conspiracy, and nonsense.  Which brings us back to mental unfitness.  “Over the past 30 years, I’ve seen my father and all of his siblings slide into the shadows and fog of Alzheimer’s Disease,” writes Charles Pierce.  “(The president*’s father developed Alzehimer’s in his 80s.) … In this interview, the president* is only intermittently coherent.  He talks in semi-sentences and is always groping for something that sounds familiar, even if it makes no sense whatsoever and even if it blatantly contradicts something he said two minutes earlier.  To my ears, anyway, this is more than the president*’s well-known allergy to the truth.  This is a classic coping mechanism employed when language skills are coming apart.”  Joe Scarborough, former GOP Congressman and current cable news host, pointedly observes that der Sturmtrumper’s mental decline was obvious during the campaign “and it’s getting worse, and not a single person who works for him doesn’t know it.”  This is a man who should not be where he is.

30. Yes, I know that getting rid of der Sturmtrumper will leave us with Toady Pence, the man who single-handedly turned the otherwise unremarkable state of Indiana into a pariah for a few months when he was governor.  Unlike the vast majority of people shouting about this on Twitter, Facebook, or other forms of social media, I have actually read the Constitution.  I understand the presidential line of succession.  President Toady will present his own problems, most of which stem from the fact that he is a bog-standard Dominionist blasphemer and a Koch Brothers meat puppet who can be counted on to implement the most catastrophically short-sighted and morally callous agenda in modern political history.  But Pence is not mentally ill.  This is no longer about policy and hasn’t been for quite some time.  This is about the survival of the republic.

31.  Naturally, der Sturmtrumper couldn’t let any of this slide.  So in what can only be described as a meltdown of Biblical proportions and kindergarten-level sophistication, he let fly with yet another rage-Tweet festival when perhaps he could have been, oh, reading intelligence briefings or in some other way doing his job.  “Throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart. ... I went from VERY successful businessman, to top T.V. Star to President of the United States (on my first try).  I think that would qualify as not smart, but genius….and a very stable genius at that!”  Uh, wow.  There is no proper adult response to this other than goggle-eyed horror at the fact that this is the guy with his finger on the nuclear button.

32.  Although Mark Hamill’s response comes pretty close: “Congratulations, sir!  This dignified, statesman-like tweet is the perfect way to counter the book’s narrative that you’re an impulsive, childish dimwit.”

33. As does this:


34. Meanwhile back in the rest of reality, der Sturmtrumper has apparently disbanded his Voter Suppression Commission, which means that Kris Kobach can go back to evicting war widows from their homes or whatever it is he does for fun.  This is what happens when your loudly trumpeted claims of “voter fraud” are so patently ridiculous and obviously partisan that even Republican states tell you to go to hell.  Don’t imagine this won’t come back, though.  Voter suppression has been the goal of the GOP since the early 1980s – they’re very open about it if you just listen to them (see below) – and pretty much by definition they’ll try again.  It’s how der Sturmtrumper won in Wisconsin, after all.  When you’re a minority party, democracy just isn’t for you.

35. Der Sturmtrumper isn’t kidding when he says he thinks the Justice Department owes loyalty to him rather than the law.  His continuing efforts to throttle Mueller’s investigation long ago crossed into obstruction of justice and are rapidly hurtling toward imperial hubris, and the more evidence comes out the harder it will be for der Sturmtrumper to control events and the more desperate he will become to do so.  That’s not a combination that bodes well for anyone who cares about the future of the American republic.

36. You can understand why he’s so desperate.  Mueller now has evidence confirming several of the allegations made by James Comey, evidence from independent sources.  The web of obstruction has expanded to Jared Kushner and Steven Miller at the minimum, and possibly Jeff Sessions.  They’re all going down, and you’d be a fool to think they’ll go quietly or without trying to take everything down with them.

37. One of the more interesting responses to Wolff’s book has been der Sturmtrumper’s quixotic threat to sue Wolff’s publishers for, well, reasons.  He’d like to quash this book.  Should this lawsuit ever become more than an empty threat from a hollow man, however, it would expose pretty much everything he’s tried to conceal.  One of the main events that happens in any civil litigation is called “discovery,” and it is pretty much exactly what it sounds like – the attorneys on both sides demand documents from the other with the intent of using the information therein to bolster their case.  This is not optional.  In particular, a plaintiff (which is what der Sturmtrumper would be if he brought this suit) would have very little hope of refusing to turn over any document demanded by the defense since, after all, the whole thing could be brought to an end simply by his dropping the suit in the first place.  So long as the suit is there, pretty much everything connected to Wolff’s descriptions would be fair game for his lawyers to discover and make public, particularly as the suit alleges that there is no substance to the descriptions.  You can bet that Wolff’s lawyers are just salivating at the thought of such a lawsuit, and der Sturmtrumper’s lawyers are frantically trying to put that genie back in its bottle.

38. I’m not even going to go into the overwhelming mountain of Constitutional problems that would collapse down on der Sturmtrumper should he move forward with his attempt to impose prior restraint on the publishers of this book.  That’s not how the First Amendment works – that’s now how any of the Constitution works – and for a sitting president to make such a demand is both flagrantly unconstitutional and conclusive evidence that he has no business being in office.  As the Authors Guild president, James Gleick, noted, “This isn’t a country where we quash books that the leader finds unpleasant.  That’s what tyrants do, not American presidents.”  But when the American president is himself a tyrant, then what?

39. The Cardin Report, issued this week, presents a damningly clear and vivid analysis of how der Sturmtrumper’s collusion with Russia was just the most recent chapter in an ongoing effort by Putin and his Informational Warfare staff to corrupt and destroy Western politics.  It describes how and why this effort has been produced and how effective it has been.  And then it points out the obvious:  “Despite the clear assaults on our democracy and our allies in Europe, the U.S. government still does not have a coherent, comprehensive, and coordinated approach to the Kremlin’s malign influence operations, either abroad or at home. Although the U.S. government has for years had a patchwork of offices and programs supporting independent journalism, cyber security, and the countering of disinformation, the lack of presidential leadership in addressing the threat Putin poses has hampered a strong U.S. response. In early 2017, Congress provided the State Department’s Global Engagement Center the resources and mandate to address Kremlin disinformation campaigns, but operations have been stymied by the Department’s hiring freeze and unnecessarily long delays by its senior leadership in transferring authorized funds to the office. While many mid-level and some senior-level officials throughout the State Department and U.S. government are cognizant of the threat posed by Mr. Putin’s asymmetric arsenal, the U.S. President continues to deny that any such threat exists, creating a leadership vacuum in our own government and among our European partners and allies.”  In other words, we do nothing while der Sturmtrumper lets his puppetmasters have free rein over our once proud democracy.  Nice job, GOP.

40. The active refusal of GOP leaders to accept this reality – to deny categorically what has been extensively corroborated by independent research and is seen even within der Sturmtrumper’s administration as “objective reality” – is one of the great moral failures of our time.

41. On that note, we have the transcripts of the testimony before Congress of Fusion GPS, the agency that produced the Russian Dossier that hit the news during the 2016 presidential campaign.  The GOP had been doing its best to spin it one way, discredit it another way, and generally twist it to say pretty much exactly what it didn’t say, and then Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) decided to release the whole thing unedited.  And my doesn’t it get right to the heart of the matter.  You should read Elizabeth C. McLaughlin’s epic analysis of it.  McLaughlin was a securities fraud and human rights lawyer, so she knows what she’s talking about, and her basic point is that Fusion GPS did too.  Some of the highlights:

a) Fusion concluded fairly early that der Sturmtrumper has serious ties to Russian organized crime.  It is entirely possible that der Sturmtrumper – far from being a willing Russian agent – is effectively compromised and being blackmailed.

b) Der Sturmtrumper’s campaign was deeply compromised by Russian intelligence, and willingly accepted espionage reports from the Kremlin regarding the Clinton campaign.

c) Russian operatives actively attacked the DNC, the Clinton campaign, and anything else that might stand in the way of getting der Sturmtrumper elected.

d) The FBI was already investigating der Sturmtrumper’s Russian ties before this dossier came to their attention, so the connections were fairly obvious all around.

e) This is bigger than der Sturmtrumper and may well pull in much of the GOP elite of the last two decades.

f) One of the dossier’s Russian informants has already been murdered, which tells you that the Russians at least take it seriously.

g) “Now would be a good tie to ask yourself why it is that [GOP Senator] Chuck Grassley and others didn’t want this transcript released,” she points out.  Indeed it would.

42. North Carolina’s blatantly partisan gerrymandering scheme has been tossed out by a panel of federal judges on the grounds that it serves no purpose other than to “subordinate the interests of non-Republican voters and entrench Republican domination of the state’s congressional delegation.”  Well, when you have GOP officials like Rep. David Lewis – the Republican in charge of the now overturned gerrymandering – flatly declaring that “I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats.  So I drew this map to help foster what I think is better for the country,” what other conclusion could they draw?  This is about a concerted effort to turn what had been a democracy into an oligarchy where an entrenched minority could rule as it pleased.  It’s a temporary victory – voter suppression and minority rule have been the guiding stars of GOP political strategy for nearly four decades now – but any victory for democracy and American values is a rare and precious thing these days.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Christmas in the North

And so our long Christmas saga has mostly come to an end now, concluding as it should with one more festive celebration of food and family. 

On Saturday we went up to Kim’s side of the family to celebrate what we call Ukrainian Christmas, since a) that side of the family is largely Ukrainian in descent, as opposed to the mass of Italians on my side (and parenthetically, am I the only one who thinks that the word for a group of Italians should be a “mass”?  I can’t be), b) the food is all Ukrainian and features wholly unreasonable amounts of delicious, delicious poppy seeds, and c) Christmas in Ukraine is celebrated on the Julian calendar which puts it on Epiphany, and that works out very well when we’ve spent the Gregorian calendar’s Christmas visiting my side of the family.

Christmas for everybody!

We haven’t had much snow here in Baja Canada but it has been cold, so we bundled ourselves up and headed on down the road glad in our nice toasty car.  We got there in time to be put to work, which is really part of the fun, I think.




After that there was the milling about that always happens on holidays – the Noshing of the Snacks, the Catching Up With People as they slowly filtered in, and the Generally Not Doing Much Of Anything because it’s a holiday that’s why.  You’re not really supposed to do much productive on holidays, unless you’re cooking of course.






Eventually we all gathered around the table and dug into the various pierogis, sausages, stuffed cabbages, mushrooms (well, I let those go by – more for others, really) and assorted other goodies.  Fran got to try borscht for the first time and she seemed to like it.  Justin and I hoarded the horseradish, which was good and hot.  Lauren actually tried some and thought it was pretty good so perhaps we’ll have to share in the future.  Clears the sinuses right up!

There were two rounds of gifts after that, the first being aimed primarily at the littler kids.  They spent a happy half hour opening presents and making joyful noises and generally doing the sorts of things that you remember doing at that age if you celebrated Christmas.  Remember those days?  Now you understand your parents a whole lot more, don't you!  It's the circle of life, which rolls along much faster than you think it will.




And then the grown-ups and big kids played the Dice Game.

It’s the same Dice Game we played in Tennessee - the rules don't change - and it keeps things fun and affordable at the same time, which is always a plus.  My strategy is to aim for small things, since they’re easier to carry, though with this crowd we didn’t have to worry about people taking things home on airplanes so some of the items were actually fairly big. 

Driving for the win!






Over the course of the evening Lauren, Fran, and Tabitha ended up with a rubber cowboy - the one Lauren is holding there alongside the copper pineapple (a sentence I never in my life thought I would write, but life is full of surprises, really).  It’s one of the creepiest toys ever made – right up there with the Mickey Mouse doll that we saw in the Toy Museum in Stockholm that probably gave Goofy nightmares for years.  It’s kind of gummy and has a blank-eyed stare like it’s thinking of new ways to hack your credit cards, but on the plus side you can pull it into interesting shapes.


It took us nearly half an hour to find it online to see what it was called.  We have since collectively abandoned this knowledge for the greater good of humanity, though we still remember the cowboy with the odd fondness that one remembers any mildly disconcerting thing that did not actually cause you harm.  Merry Christmas, cowboy!  Yee-haw!

We’re back home now.  School and work have started up.  The temperatures have warmed up to about freezing.  At some point we should take down the tree, turn off the Christmas lights, and be ready for the next Big Holiday here in America – Super Bowl Sunday, the one day of the year where you’re required to eat junk food for dinner.  Maybe soon. 

Merry Christmas, one and all.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Cold

It’s been a cold year so far, in more ways than one.

First there’s the obvious.  It’s cold here in Baja Canada.  Bitterly cold.  Ditch-digger weather.  Sad brass monkeys all around.  We’ve been below 0F at some point of pretty much every day since we got back from Tennessee (and a few before that, apparently).  Last night it got down to -13F, which is about -25C so we’re cold in both metric and imperial units.  It’s cold.

I realize that my Canadian friends are even as I post this frantically typing out messages that start out with “You think that’s cold?  We picnic in that weather!” but you know, I’ll let you guys have that one.  And the health care.  And the sensible regulations on firearms.  And the government that isn’t clinically insane and a threat to the survival of the human species.  So yeah, Canada.  Good on ya.

Meanwhile here in MURCA! it’s colder than Mars.  It snowed in Florida.  Texas was at freezing in one corner and well over 100F in another on the same day.  And most of the Northeast was bombed by a snowstorm, if I heard that right, one that apparently involved putting large portions of Massachusetts underwater.

Good thing the climate isn’t shifting, because otherwise?  I’d be worried.

What?

It’s also been a cold year on the viral front.  We all made it back from Tennessee in reasonably good health, but almost as soon as we landed back home everything fell apart.  We’ve all had the same maddening cold.  It’s not one of those colds that wipes you out and leaves devastation in its wake so you can curl up in a wodge of blankets with only your nose sticking out and whine into your steaming bowl of chicken soup for a few miserable days until it goes away.  No, this cold just makes you feel kind of bad – a sore throat, a few aches, a cough that won’t quite go away, some stuffiness.  You feel a bit better one day, a bit worse the next day, but never quite laid low and never really good, and it never goes away.  It's really nothing you can’t fight your way through the workday with if you have to.  Just enough to remind you that once upon a time you felt good but now you don't, sort of the way you feel when you remember that we used to have a government run by law-abiding officials who weren’t actively subverting the social contract.

Not all that long ago, too.

The cold also makes food taste off, the way colds will.  This is a particular problem for me right now because I recently received a most generous gift of a bottle of whiskey.  It is a fine bottle of whiskey, quite possibly the finest I have ever owned, and I am truly grateful to have it.  I am very much looking forward to enjoying it, an experience that having the bitter cold winter outside my door could only enhance.

You know those commercials featuring those Manly 4-Wheel Drive Land Yachts Of Manly Manliness bursting through snowbanks and scattering wildlife?  I always feel bad for the people who own those things, storm-busting their way to a productive day at work while the rest of us stay home and sip whiskey while reading a good book in a comfortable chair.  To each their own, I suppose.

But there is the maddening cold that we all have, the cold that makes everything taste like something you should have put more time into preserving when you made it last week.  I absolutely refuse to open this bottle of whiskey until I can actually taste things right again, and at this rate that might be June.

In the meantime, we cough and wheeze at each other, wrapped in our blankets and waiting for the ability to breathe normally again.

Yeah, it's cold.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Books Read in 2017, Part 4


And so 2017’s books come to an end.

On to the next pile!

--

Under a Lucky Star: A Lifetime of Adventure (Roy Chapman Andrews)

I have no idea how Roy Chapman Andrews managed to hear himself think over the clanking din of his enormous brass balls.  There’s a reason they built Indiana Jones to look like this guy.  He was born in Beloit, Wisconsin in 1884 to a middling sort of family and eventually became an indifferent student at Beloit College, but after graduation he decided to make something of himself.  So he went to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and essentially browbeat them into giving him a job sweeping the floors, and within a decade he was one of their top explorers.  He went whaling and brought back information that had never before been seen by scientists.  He spent years of his life traveling to Japan, China, and Mongolia, in places where he was often the first white person to set foot.  He lived in Peking in the 1920s, explored the Gobi Desert for years on end, discovering vast numbers of dinosaur bones in the process, and made the friendship of a Japanese madam in a whorehouse in Yokohama.  He dined with John D. Rockefeller and JP Morgan – he met an enormous number of famous and powerful people, for early 20th-century values of famous and powerful, and he was not shy about name-dropping when he wrote this book – and eventually became the director of the Museum itself, which confined him to New York City, where he lived in a small house built onto the roof of a hotel, a house that he remade into something akin to his house in Peking.  He toured the country giving lectures, had his own radio show, and was the sort of person who could – in the late 1930s, while the Depression raged and Fascism rose – skive off to Europe to self-diagnose his malaise, have an epiphany while drunk alone in a bar in Berlin, and then immediately arrange an archeological expedition to Central Asia with his Soviet counterparts as a cure.  He was also afraid of snakes.  He was a man of his times, though, and this book was written in 1942 and published in 1943, during the nadir of WWII, so there is some brutally casual racism – particularly toward the Japanese – and sexism (at one point he refers to Smith as a “girls’ college”).  He was a naturalist at a time when that meant shooting most of what he wanted to study and he was not shy about that either.  And there are some curious omissions here, such as the entire Great Depression (which appears but once, in an aside about not being particularly concerned with personal wealth – you’d think his fundraising difficulties as Museum director in the late 1930s were just the normal woes of any nonprofit).  But even with all that, this is a fascinating story of a bold and interesting man.

Bossypants (Tina Fey)

I read the first half of this in hard copy, and then – because Kim was coincidentally listening to the audio book and we were driving to visit a friend several hours away – I listened to the second half of it as read by the author.  Honestly, I think I prefer to read it myself, though I can’t say this is Tina Fey’s fault.  It’s just how I prefer to read.  This is a memoir of sorts, hitting some of the high points (comedic or otherwise) of Tina Fey’s life, though not exhaustive enough to be a biography.  She writes about her time on Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock, in Chicago at Second City, and – my favorite parts – growing up in the Philadelphia suburb of Upper Darby at about the same time I was growing up perhaps a dozen miles away.  Let’s just say I recognized some of the landmarks, and her characterization was spot on.  There were a few laugh-out-loud moments and a few thought-provoking ones and the book went down smooth and easy like a cold glass of water on a hot day, and if you’re looking for something light and funny this is a good place to start.

Conde Nast Traveler Book of Unforgettable Journeys: Great Writers on Great Places, Vol. 1 (Klara Glowczewska, ed.)

This is another in my continuing series of books that allow me to travel without actually having to travel, which I suspect is probably more in line with my character than actually traveling.  Oh, I read the 21 essays in this book and thought “I’d like to go there!” for about half of them, and even the other half were interesting, but I know this is likely as close to those places as I will ever get.  It’s a good thing that these essays were all marvelously written.  From Florida to England, Ethiopia to the Himalayas, Jordan to Iceland, and a rather extended stay in Italy, the authors traveled, experienced the landscape and cultural bits, and then reported back to the rest of us what we were missing.  There were a few funny bits and some sad ones, and in the end you are left with the sense that it is indeed a great colorful world out there for those who wish to go see it.  I picked this up at a library sale and it came with a Vol. 2, but perhaps I’ll get to that another time.

Brit-Think, Ameri-Think: A Transatlantic Survival Guide (Jane Walmsley)

I first discovered this book in an airport in 1990.  I had just taken my first flight – a puddle-jumper from Philadelphia to New York City – and had a six-hour layover before continuing on to London to visit my friend Julie at Cambridge.  I enjoyed the bit of it I read, and always meant to buy a copy but somehow never did.  It was thus something of a triumph to come into this copy – an original 1986 British edition rather than the more recent (and since revised) Penguin edition, and full of jaunty illustrations.  Walmsley writes in broad stereotypes that contain large grains of truth as long as you don’t think too hard about them, and she can often be illuminating.  For example, Americans, she says, consider death to be optional, which explains their attitudes toward self-improvement, dieting, and any number of other things, while Britons just live their lives in the full knowledge of their limited span on earth and thus spend their lives in a state of quiet resignation that makes it seem futile to complain about discomforts.  As an American who has visited Britain a couple of times, I can’t say that anything in here struck me as particularly wrong, though some things were of more limited application than Walmsley claims (she’s very focused on a fairly affluent, cosmopolitan section of each country’s population, for example, which means that her observations may not penetrate very far into the rest of American or British society).  The book is clearly a product of the 1980s, with the cultural references and political sensibilities of the time, and this can be jarring thirty years later in a much more polarized and downcast time, but it’s a fun book that has some useful insights to offer.

A History of Modern Britain (Andrew Marr)

This is a dense but readable history of Britain from the end of WWII, in 1945, though to when it was published in 2007.  As such the first part of it covers much the same ground as David Kynaston’s New Jerusalem series that I’ve been keeping up with, but it is much more of a traditional history, focused on the political leaders, broad cultural developments, and economic shifts of the period rather than the immersive day-to-day social history that Kynaston wrote about the everyday lives of ordinary Britons.  Marr does a good job of walking through the main political, cultural, and economic developments of the post-WWII period – the New Jerusalem of Attlee, the reaction that brought Churchill back to power, the grappling with being a declining imperial power, the hard times of the 1970s when Britain was deemed “ungovernable,” the Thatcher revolution (while generally evenhanded and willing to cite flaws wherever he sees them, Marr clearly admires Thatcher and her policies), and the drift of the Major/Blair years.  This is a book that was not meant for the American market, and as such it is enlightening for an American reader to see how the US is portrayed – generally as an ally, often as a threat, and not uncommonly as a rather dimwitted source of dubious cultural values imported into Britain (consumer culture and the flashy, substance-light, almost-but-not-really-left politics of style popularized by Bill Clinton and adopted by Tony Blair being among the things that Marr is not entirely happy about).  Marr also reserves his epilogue for a warning on climate change, something else that would not likely have been included in an American book.  Marr is a lively writer who can toss off an occasional epigram worth remembering (“When you free people, you can never be sure what you are freeing them for”), and this is an invaluable asset in a book as long and detailed as this one.

Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey (Chuck Palahniuk)

Chuck Palahniuk isn’t the easiest author to read in the best of circumstances, and in this book he sets out to make it harder by making the title character the empty hole around which the book orbits, and then telling the story in so many different voices that the list of “Contributors” is nearly five pages long.  The subject matter only complicates things further.  For all that, though, it is an entertaining book and one that has a lot to say.  Buster (“Rant”) Casey is a high school rebel, masochist, ladies’ man, and the epicenter of the world’s worst outbreak of rabies.  He lives in a not-too-distant future where people have been sorted into Daytimers and Nighttimers in order to ease crowding – curfews are strict and violators subject to severe punishment – and where one of the primary forms of entertainment is Party Crashing, a fairly rule-bound automotive game where the goal is to crash into other participants.  Rant, whose fiery death is presaged from nearly the first page of this book, starts out in the small town of Middleton before moving to the unnamed big city, where he joins with the Party Crashers.  Each chapter includes anywhere from a few to a handful of people telling the story as they saw it – Echo Lawrence and Shot Dunyun (fellow Party Crashers with their own backstories), Irene and Chester Casey (Rant’s parents, which gets surprisingly complicated once the time-travel is figured in), Bacon Carlysle (“Childhood Enemy”), Green Taylor Simms (“Historian”), Tina Somebody (Graphic Traffic newscaster) and so on – and these extremely unreliable narrators often disagree fiercely with each other over the events of the story.  Rant is only seen by others and has no voice himself in the book other than what other people report him saying.  If you want a thought-provoking but often somewhat mystifying book, this is your place.

The Collapsing Empire (John Scalzi)

You pretty much know what you’re going to get from one of John Scalzi’s books.  It will be a light, fast read, entertaining and generally well written, painstakingly diverse and equally painstakingly not making a big deal of being so, with a few funny lines and some well-paced action.  And if you’re lucky you can get it autographed on a book tour, as he was gracious enough to do for me with this copy.  This is clearly the first of a new space opera series, now that the Old Man’s War series has matured.  Humanity long ago lost track of the Earth and now lives in widely scattered settlements connected by the Flow, a dimension outside of the usual time and space that allows the appearance of faster-than-light travel without the mucking about with the time stream that this often entails.  These settlements are also linked by the Interdependency, ruled by an emperox and led economically by a powerful set of guilds.  Cardenia is about to become emperox, much to her dismay.  Marce is the son of a count on the planet End, which is called that because it’s as far from the Hub as the Flow goes.  End is in the middle of one of its periodic rebellions, but this one is both different in nature, being orchestrated by one of the guild houses, and far more significant, since the Flow is collapsing and humanity is facing a dismal future in a universe where its settlements really are interdependent and likely to fail without the connections made possible by the Flow.  The book moves along nicely, and it comes to an end precisely where you’d expect the second book to pick up.  So now we wait for the second book.

A Nuclear Family Vacation: Travels in the World of Atomic Weaponry (Nathan Hodge and Sharon Weinberger)

Everything eventually becomes tourism, and atomic bombs are no exception.  There are museums, visitor centers, and guidebooks for many of the sites that were and remain important to the American nuclear arsenal, and in this entertaining book Hodge and Weinberger decide to go on a road trip to see them all.  Their journey takes them to some of the old Manhattan Project sites in Tennessee and New Mexico, missile silos in Nebraska, and eventually to Kazakhstan, Russia, and Iran.  Along the way they meet any number of people of varying helpfulness (Russian nuclear personnel are distinctly unconcerned with allowing Hodge and Weinberger to see anything of interest, while the missileers of the American midwest are, not surprisingly, fairly open) and see more than their share of interesting things.  They don’t really get to their main point until the epilogue, where – their travels now behind them – they finally feel free to express themselves.  There are many skilled and passionate people involved in nuclear weapons work, they write, and nobody’s got a plan for any of it.  Why do we have these weapons?  What purpose do they serve?  How do they fit into the warfare of the future?  Diplomacy?  Anything?  This was written in 2007, so it stands as a monument of a time when people felt that there was something to be done with nuclear weapons – when American policy was not in the hands of an idiot who casually demanded that the US triple its nuclear weapons only to have military officials solemnly declare he must have been joking, when Russia was seen as a bumbling former enemy rather than the unseen hand behind the American presidency, and when North Korea was still a joke.  The book has a certain playfulness to it, despite its serious topic, and you just can’t imagine that tone being taken with a similar book written today.

Artemis (Andy Weir)

Jazz Bashara lives on the moon, in a city called Artemis.  It’s the only city there, and like any city it has its class structure and its immigrant culture.  There are the wealthy and the poor, and – in the grand tradition of chain migration – each trade seems to be dominated by a single ethnic group.  In Jazz’s case, her father, like most Saudis, is a welder.  Set in a near future where the Kenyans largely control space travel, Artemis is a city on the make.  Jazz works as a porter – a glorified delivery girl – and moonlights as a smuggler.  When one of her clients tempts her into a drastically stupid and illegal job that has deadly consequences, it launches into motion a series of increasingly desperate moves by Jazz, her law-enforcement nemesis Rudy (with whom she is on friendly if vaguely antagonistic terms), old friends and second-hand loves, Artemis officials and Brazilian mafiosi that ends with a suitably raucous bang that has more than a few tonal references to Casablanca.  Jazz is an endearingly disheveled heroine and the narrative moves along smartly, and if the book is not quite as good as Weir’s first novel, The Martian, well, that’s a pretty high standard to match.  For anyone who is looking for a combination of crime thriller, space science fiction adventure, and accessible primer on low-gravity science, this is a good place to start.

Half a King (Joe Abercrombie)

We live in a golden age of YA fiction, with any number of great writers focusing on coming of age stories designed to appeal to young adults but worth reading even for those of us who passed that stage a long time ago.  This is the first volume of Joe Abercrombie’s Shattered Sea series – a different universe from his First Law series – and I was curious as to how his talents would translate.  From this book, pretty well.  It’s a grim world though far less grim than the First Law, and the writing has a bit less of the bleak humor that made the First Law universe so morbidly appealing, but overall the book is well written and fast-moving.  Yarvi is the second son of the King of Gettland, a small kingdom in what was probably once Scandinavia millennia prior (there are any number of references to “elf” cities or other things, all of which have the hallmarks of vague references to our own civilization long after some apocalyptic event – apparently we become elves in the future).  With his withered left hand and peaceable if Machiavellian temperament, he is ill-suited to be the sort of warrior king that Gettland demands, so he is happy to be studying to be a Minister – a sort of cross between a priest, a shaman, and a healer.  When his father and older brother are killed, however, he becomes the new king.  And when he is subsequently betrayed (as predicted on the jacket cover, so it’s not any great spoiler), he becomes many things.  Oar slave.  Fugitive.  Supplicant.  Friend.  This is a story of revenge served cold, of events shaping a clever but callow boy into a man.  The ending feels a bit forced and the world is a bit thinner than prime Abercrombie, but it works well.

Half the World (Joe Abercrombie)

One of Joe Abercrombie’s strengths as a writer is dealing with multiple POV characters.  Probably his most virtuouso performance of that came in a single chapter of Heroes describing a battle, where the point of view shifted from soldier to soldier as each was killed, following the killer until moving on to the next.  With Half the World, Abercrombie pulls off another POV switch, though perhaps a less ambitious one.  Yarvi now recedes into the background, a mover of events and puller of strings, but the focus here is on two younger characters.  Thorn is a natural born soldier, but unfortunately for her Gettland doesn’t hold much with female warriors.  Brand wants to be a soldier but he thinks too much for the kind of blunt warfare that the Shattered Sea kingdoms practice.  When he quietly stands up for Thorn after she is mistreated by her training master, it sets off a long adventure.  Gettland is in trouble and needs allies.  Yarvi is sure those allies can be found in the Empress of the South, which is a long hard boat trip away.  He recruits Brand, Thorn, and a crew of strong but seriously disreputable men – and two other women, one a merchant and one whose exact nature is unclear but who is there to train Thorn to be a killer – and off they go.  They bond, they fight, they work, and if it isn’t how they think it’s going to be, it still moves along.  Thorn makes her name and becomes tale told by bards.  Brand earns his name as well.  And despite the middle third where the YA nature of the book does actually become clear, they find each other.  The last part of the book takes place back in Gettland, where great events are afoot, and it sets us up for the final volume of the series pretty well.

Half a War (Joe Abercrombie)

For all that this is essentially a Viking saga, with burly bearded warriors, longboats, queens, and thralls, it is also set recognizably in the distant future, a place where our own society is dimly remembered, where our ruins shadow the kingdoms of the Shattered Sea as those of Rome shadowed dark-ages Europe, and where we, the creators of those ruins, are seen as elves – mystical creatures beyond human abilities or knowledge who destroyed themselves.  It’s probably not a coincidence that those who walk through the hearts of the old elf ruins sicken and die a couple of weeks later.  Abercrombie once again shifts POV characters, leaving Thorn, Koll, Rin, and Brand from the second book and Yarvi from the first to serve as important but noncentral characters.  Here the burden is shouldered by Skara – princess of Throvenland, a kingdom destroyed by the High King and his mercenary Bright Yilling, who worships only Death – and Raith, a vicious young warrior of Vasterland.  Here all the schemes and plans of the previous books converge until little is left standing, though both Skara and Raith will grow, mature, deepen, collide and move apart.  Abercrombie is good at developing characters with depth – even his villains have a certain sympathy to them, though in a twisted sort of “be glad you don’t have to hang out with this guy” kind of way (Bright Yilling has some of the best lines in the series).  And when it all comes crashing down at the end, the world of the Shattered Sea will be a very different place than it was before.  Abercrombie leaves room for a next book, and I hope he follows up on that.

Belgium: A History (Bernard A. Cook)

Since we now have an actual Belgian living with us I figured I should learn a few things about the place, so I checked a couple of books out of the library.  This looked like a good introduction, and in some senses it was – it covers a lot of ground in a fairly small number of pages – and in other senses, well, let’s just say that Cook is a fairly typical example of why books written by historians don’t get read very much.  But if you can fight your way through his dull, dry prose, you will in fact learn a few things about the country he describes.  Mostly you learn that Belgium is a small place that has been fought over by larger powers for millennia, that it has existed as an independent nation for less than two centuries, and that it is a sterling example of what happens when cultural differences cannot easily be bridged through political processes.  Cook walks through the history of what will become Belgium from the first vague reference in a Roman text though the swirl of medieval and Renaissance provinces to independence in 1830, and from there through the beginning of the 21st century as the Dutch-speaking Flemish in the north conflict with the French-speaking Walloons in the south.  I was surprised at how Catholic the country is – in my mind I had always previously lumped it together with the fiercely Protestant Netherlands that way – and Belgium clearly has an interesting history.  Perhaps a better writer would have made that fact more obvious, though.

The Politics of Belgium: Governing a Divided Society (2e) (Kris Deschouwer)

On the plus side, Deschouwer is a better writer than Cook, which, granted, is not hard.  On the down side, this is a pretty dense monograph about what it means to try to govern a society that has slowly dissolved into mutually incompatible groups based on language and territory.  Deschouwer starts with a brief overview of Belgium’s history since independence in 1830 and then spends the rest of this jargon-filled, chart-laden book minutely parsing out the political parties that rule the country, the governance structures in which they work (or don’t quite work, as the case may be), and the issues that are pretty much structurally incapable of being resolved with which they deal.  For a country the size of Maryland, it is remarkably divided – there isn’t a single political party today that even pretends to represent the whole country, for example, though there are “party families” that do.  But the Flemish version and the Walloon version of those parties often have very different goals and methods.  Add in a newly federalized and highly decentralized political system with near-constant elections, incredibly flexible arrangements for who actually serves what term in what body regardless of election results, and a strong attachment to the superstructures of the EU, and it’s a wonder the country still functions at all at a national level.  The entire concept of a government that comes to power only after a detailed contract with its coalition partners spelling out what issues will be addressed on what timeline, from which no deviance is tolerated without further detailed negotiation, is something that doesn’t really translate well to outsiders, I think – at least not to this outsider, anyway.  How does that even work in practice?  If you think American politics is complicated, Belgian politics will be an eye-opener.  This was a useful book, though between it and Cook’s I still have no real idea of the culture and everyday life of the country.  I’ll have to keep reading, I guess, and it does help to have someone living with us who can talk to us about what it’s like to live there.

Science Abridged Beyond the Point of Usefulness (Zach Wienersmith)

For a book that has barely sixty 3”x3” pages, it does pack in an outsize amount of fun.  The book is pretty much exactly what the title indicates – a quick walk through any number of scientific fields in which nothing in particular is incorrect yet taken as a whole it still doesn’t quite feel right.  For example, the entry on thermodynamics reads, in its entirety, “The study of how everything is getting worse all the time, and how if you speed that up a little you can run an engine.”  This is, of course, 100% accurate and completely useless as far as understanding thermodynamics.  It was a fun way to end the reading year.


Total Books: 68
Total Pages: 21,237
Pages/day: 58.2

Happy Reading!