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Well, I sure didn’t get a lot of reading done this month, did I? Blame it on the fact that I was on the road for the first half of the month, and the fact that I was often too tired at night to do much reading, and I didn’t get much reading done on the flights there and back either.

Oh well, here’s what I have for you.

Mortal EnginesMortal Engines by Stanisław Lem

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an anthology of selected robot stories by Lem that had not yet been translated into English at the time the volume was compiled. Most of them are from Lem’s Fables for Robots, and indeed they’re written as fables – foolish kings, noble knights, duplicitous court advisors, damsels, monsters, quests, etc, but all of them set in robot worlds. There’s also two robot-themed stories featuring two recurring Lem characters (Ijon Tichy, who visits a sanatorium for insane robots, and Pirx the Pilot, who gets roped into a mission to hunt a rogue robot on the loose somewhere on Luna), and a surrealistic story about a shapeshifting insectoid robot assassin that falls in love with its target. It’s all good, really –highly imaginative, satirical and often funny. I like Lem a lot, and I really enjoyed reading this.


Wind/ Pinball: Two NovelsWind/ Pinball: Two Novels by Haruki Murakami

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Technically this should count as two books towards my Reading Challenge, but then Haruki Murakami’s first two novels kind of go together as a single unit – partly because they predate what he considers the start of his pro career with A Wild Sheep Chase, and partly because they both follow the same trio of characters – the nameless narrator, the Rat and bar owner J. What readers make of them may depend on whether they prefer Murakami’s magic realism novels (Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, for example) or his relatively normal novels (like Norwegian Wood). These two are mainly the latter type, and for my money, Pinball, 1973 is the more satisfying of the two, mainly because of the pinball angle (though disappointingly there’s far less pinball than the title suggests). Hear The Wind Sing is alright but it's mostly the narrator and the Rat feeling alienated, drinking beer and talking about pop culture, with a doomed love affair mixed in. It’s hard to be too critical, since he was just starting out, and even then Murakami had style. But I tend to prefer his weirder books, and while Pinball, 1973 offers some surrealism by the third act, it’s such a shift in tone that it seems to come out of nowhere. Overall both books are okay, but I think they work better as bonus tracks than as an introduction to Murakami’s work.

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Sure plays mean pinball,

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Haven’t done one of these for awhile, and it features questions I haven’t answered before, so why not?

Senior year of high school

The year: 1983

1. Did you know your spouse?
No. 

2. Did you carpool to school?
If the school bus counts as carpooling, then yes.

3. What kind of car did you have? 
I had no car. I occasionally borrowed my mom’s AMC Rambler station wagon with unreliable brakes and required a screwdriver to open the doors.

4. It's FRIDAY night football, were you there?
No. And why is Friday in all caps?

5. What kind of job did you have?
I didn’t. I was generally unemployable. I mostly mowed lawns for pocket money.

6. Were you a party animal?
No. I was never invited to parties, and probably wouldn’t have gone if I had been.

7. Were you in band, orchestra, or choir? 
None of the above. I was in the Drama Club.

8. Were you a nerd?
Let’s just say I got beat up behind the portables a lot.

9. Did you get suspended or expelled? 
No.

10. Can you sing the fight/school song?
I don’t remember what it was. I’m not 100% sure we even had one.

11. Where did you eat lunch?
The cafeteria.

12. What was your school mascot? 
A commando.

13. If you could go back and do it again, would you?
Never.

14. Planning on going to your next high school reunion?
I haven't been to any of them, so why start now?

15. Are you still in contact with people from high school?
I’m in contact with a couple of people who I knew while I was in high school, but they didn't go to the same school as me.

16. Do you know where your high school sweetheart is today?
No idea.

17. What was your favorite subject?
Art.

18. Do you still have your High School Ring?
I never got one. That was for kids with money. Also, I’ve never been one for jewelry.

19. Do you still have your yearbook?
I don’t know. If I do, it’s in storage in my mom’s house somewhere, gathering dust, cobwebs and mold. I’m not in any hurry to dig for it.

School’s out completely,

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We just wrapped up the Team Frog Whirlwind Stateside Road Trip, which was a quicker-than-usual drive through the usual stops (Chicago! Carbondale! Paducah! Nashville! Maryville-Alcoa! Knoxville! Erlanger, Kentucky!) due to some tighter than usual work schedules at home. Random thoughts follow:

1. Be in my welcome video

I flew to Honolulu last January, about ten days before the inauguration, so Obama was still POTUS at the time. While I was standing in the passport control line, I noticed the TV monitors playing a welcome announcement from Presidente Obama welcoming visitors to the US. As I watched, I thought: “I wonder what the new video will be like?”

So I kept an eye out for it this time when I arrived at passport control in Chicago.

There was no welcome video.

Which speaks volumes, perhaps. Granted, D. Trump has been busy his first 13 weeks, what with making America great again and his busy golf schedule, so maybe he hasn’t had to film one. Still.

2. Signs O’ The Times, Side 1

I saw an awful lot of “now hiring” signs this trip. Seems just about every restaurant, café, retail store or any other place of business I entered was looking to hire more help. Which is surprising, considering what terrible shape America’s economy is supposed to be in, according to D. Trump. Guess he fixed it?

3. There’s only one thing worse than being talked about …

Naturally, it was tough to have a conversation without D. Trump coming up. I’ll qualify that by adding that (1) almost every state I drove through was a state he won (the exception being Illinois), and (2) I did not meet a single person who voted for him or even liked him – and I’m including Republicans. Even my mom – who adored Reagan and Thatcher in the 80s – literally couldn’t bring herself to address him as President Trump, saying (and I quote): “He doesn’t even deserve the mentioning of that title.”

Anyway, while the topic of Trump was inevitable, it was interesting that I didn’t hear a lot of extended rants about him. Most people agreed that the country was still in a state of shell-shock – the reality hasn’t quite settled in that this guy is actually in charge of the country and is making bad decisions about important things almost daily. It’s almost like everyone’s waiting for the episode where he finally gets voted off the island or something.

4. Signs O’ The Times, Side 2

Apart from the “Now Hiring” signs, once I got down to the Kentucky/Tennessee areas I also saw a lot of signs that were pointedly in support of the police. Sample billboard: “Welcome to [town name], where we fully support our police”. Which I guess is the 21st Century equivalent of “N*****, don’t let the sun set on you here.”

Okay, that’s unfair. But it’s pretty obvious that it’s intended as a statement against #BLM and a veiled warning for anyone who supports that movement, based on the false assumption that to support #BLM is to NOT support the police, because as we all know, Law And Order depends on supporting law enforcement 100% at all times no matter how many unarmed black guys they kill. Anyway, I didn’t see any signs like that when I drove through the same places in October 2015, and Trump happened between then and now, so it’s clear some of them felt the need to make that statement to the point of paying for billboard space (and that’s assuming the billboard owner didn’t waive the fee).

5. With the radio on

Our rental car was blessed with a free satnav this time around, but not free satellite radio. Which meant station-hopping from city to city again, and it seems the state of commercial radio programming hasn't improved in the last year and a half – at least not on our route. Granted, neither has the state of commercial music. So, as college radio is also dying, we kept it either on NPR or classic rock stations.

One thing I can confirm: Boston is still terrifically popular in the heartland.

6. Come McKay with me, punker

As usual, I stocked up on books, although not as many as I might have, since we skipped Books-a-Million this year (membership isn’t all it’s cracked up to be), and a couple of other places we usually hit have closed.

Still, there is always McKay’s, and we hit the ones in Nashville and Chattanooga. Here’s my haul from both.







Nice, eh?

Okay, that’s all I have.

There and back again,

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Late again, but you would be too if you flew 17 hours to pull off a five-city road trip in America. Which I am doing. The jet lag just wore off, so:

Very Good, Jeeves (Jeeves, #4)Very Good, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is my second time reading Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories, and the experience this time was pretty similar to the last one – it’s lightweight but fun. The stories are pretty formulaic – upper-class twit Bertie Wooster and his friends or relatives are presented with some sort of social dilemma (“social” as in high society), sometimes of their own making, to which Bertie’s valet Jeeves usually provides a clever solution that no one else thought of. But as the saying goes, what a formula! And really, it’s not about the formula so much as the presentation – in this case, vivid dialogue-driven characterization and fast-paced wit generously spiked with not-so-subtle social satire. I really should read more Wodehouse than I do, and this may inspire me to do so, although I’d like to try some of his other books besides the Jeeves stories next time out.


Why Is This Night Different from All Other Nights? (All the Wrong Questions, #4)Why Is This Night Different from All Other Nights? by Lemony Snicket

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the fourth and final installment of Lemony Snicket’s All The Wrong Questions series, in which 13-year-old Snicket wraps up his mission in Stain’d-by-the-Sea to stop the mysterious villain Hangfire and his equally mysterious plot – although as usual, things don’t go as planned. In fact, they take a pretty dark turn here – partly because it’s a locked-room murder mystery (on a train!) and partly because Snicket typically laces his stories with darkness. In this case, he’s been hinting throughout the series that he’s been asking the wrong questions – and here we find out just how wrong he was, and how much a wrong decision can cost, no matter how good yr intentions. Despite leaving a couple of loose ends, overall it’s a consistent conclusion to a consistent series – a dark yet entertaining adventure.


For Your Eyes Only: James Bond 007For Your Eyes Only: James Bond 007 by Ian Fleming

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the eighth Bond book and the first to be an anthology of short stories rather than a full-length novel. I tried revisiting the Bond books with Casino Royale and I found it didn’t quite work for me, but I came across a clearance-sale copy of this and thought I’d try Bond in a short-story format to see if it worked better. Result: yeah, kind of. Fleming still manages to spend too much time on detailed descriptions of people, places and stuff, and the frankly imperialist/misogynist mindset of Bondworld doesn’t play well in 2017 (not with me, anyway – others may find it refreshingly non-PC). On the other hand, Bond is more thoughtful in these stories as he ponders the nature of his job. Still, it says a lot that the two stories that work best are the ones that actually mess with the formula, particularly “Quantum Of Solace”, a Somerset Maugham tribute in which Bond listens to his host tell the story of a doomed marriage. Fleming knew how to tell a tale, but I can’t say I was inspired enough to revisit Bondworld again.


The SundialThe Sundial by Shirley Jackson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is my third time reading Ms Jackson, and at this rate I’d be forgiven for assuming that all of her books take place in elaborately large houses. However, there the similarity ends. This one is owned by the eccentric Halloran family, whose even more eccentric Aunt Fanny gets lost on the grounds one day and receives a prophetic vision from her late father: the world is going to end soon, and only those who stay inside the Halloran mansion will be spared. Once her sister, the matriarch Orianna Halloran, decides to take Fanny seriously (albeit for self-serving reasons), the novel essentially builds up the suspense around the central question (is the prophecy real, or is Aunt Fanny crazy?), but the real focus is on how the Hallorans, their two main servants – Essex and Miss Ogilvie – and a small number of houseguests make plans for the end, and how they relate to each other, as well as to the people in the nearby village. This being a Jackson novel, they don’t relate well. At all. It’s slightly confounding yet very compelling. It’s also unexpectedly funny, which helps to lighten what might otherwise be a grim family drama. Good characterization, good set-up, good suspense hook to keep you reading – I enjoyed it, yes.


The DoubleThe Double by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s been a long time since I last read Dostoyevsky, and I’ve seen some quotes of his floating around enough that I decided it was time to read some more of him. The Double may not have been the best place to revisit him – it’s a short but surreal tale about a government clerk named Goldyakin who is going mad (which here also seems to mean he’s a complete social maladroit whose tendency to commit faux pas is getting worse). As the title suggests, he encounters his doppelganger (also named Goldyakin) who is everything he’s not – confident, extroverted, etc – and ends up working in his department, and steadily taking over his life. That’s a simple synopsis of a scattered, jumbled narrative from the scattered, jumbled point of view of Goldyakin, which makes it a real challenge to read and understand – indeed, plenty of essays have been written about the book discussing what actually happens, what it all means, and whether the double is even real. Yet at the center of it all is a very strong character in Goldyakin – he may be crazy, but I ended up feeling sympathetic to him by the end. So while this was hard work, I didn’t come away empty-handed.

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Double down,

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Undoubtedly you know by now that Presidente Trump has proposed his first budget – and the NEA, the NEH and CPB ain’t on it.

The usual freakout has ensued, which I will now pointlessly attempt to calm with numbered comments.

1. Nothing has been defunded yet. It’s just a budget proposal (and a “skinny” one at that, which means it’s vague on details), and Congress still has to approve it.

2. The GOP has issues with this budget. The actual budget is expected to look much different by the time Congress gets through with it, and Trump won’t have the option of vetoing the budget they do pass. So even with the current balance of power, I wouldn’t say it’s a fait accompli just yet.

3. One key thing missing from all the ZOMG meme rhetoric is actual consideration and evaluation of the argument in favor of defunding the NEA, NEH and CPB that conservatives have usually advanced over the last 20+ years.

This piece in the NYT runs through them, and interestingly, it’s not ALL about Alleged Liberal Bias. There are also questions about why the federal govt should be funding arts, humanities and public broadcasting in the first place; the potential politicization of art funded with govt money; the quality of the art produced (political biases notwithstanding); and whether or not Middle America is getting as much bang for their buck as the art hubs in New York and California, say.

4. That said, let's not pretend that liberal bias isn’t the main motivation for conservatives. The NEA, NEH and CPB are easy low-hanging fruit for conservatives who whine about how unfair it is that artists use tax dollars to pick on them exclusively. If PBS and NPR were churning out stuff that Fox News churns out now, I seriously doubt funding them would be an issue for conservatives (though it almost certainly would be for liberals). Sure, they also claim it’s about wasteful govt spending, Small Govt® and budget deficits, but come on, even conservatives know that as a percentage of the budget, it’s chump change. 

5. The big question, of course, is what would happen to art and public broadcasting if Trump gets his wish? Can the free market preserve the status quo as effectively?

My own take: it’s probably worse news for public broadcasting than art.

Art is something artists are generally compelled to do, regardless of whether they can quit their day job or not. And there will always be people willing to fund art, whether it’s via Bill Gates or a Kickstarter-type model. Not everyone could find a patron, but that’s true now.

Public broadcasting could also turn to a Kickstarter model, perhaps – the problem is that running a TV station is a lot more expensive than the average art project. Without the CPB, a lot of smaller PBS affiliates will likely have to shut down. Or join The CW or something.

I suppose an argument could be made that in an age where the internet makes both funding and distribution easier than ever, YouTube and Vimeo are just as likely to create the next Sesame Street as PBS – so maybe CPB mattered more when there were just three TV networks on the air. Then again, most of the good programming is behind a paywall.

6. All of this raises the even bigger question framing the issue: is there a compelling government interest in subsidizing art and non-commercial broadcasting?

It’s an old debate, but I tend to side with the argument that culture, society and even the economy benefits from a thriving art community that isn’t purely driven solely by popular taste, the mass market, and what sells. I think that’s even more true for public broadcasting. It’s worth having television and radio programming that doesn’t have to concern itself with ratings or offending potential sponsors. When you listen to the homogenized formatted commercial radio landscape in America these days, the need for a non-commercial option seems pretty obvious to me.

And I don’t have a problem with tax money contributing to that effort, even if it results in art or TV shows I may not care for (or may never even see). It’s silly to defund the NEA just because artists are producing stuff you don't like or can’t use, just like it’s silly for me to demand that the government defund the entire military because I think Iraq War 2 was stupid, useless and counterproductive.

7. Which brings me to this article from FiveThirtyEight about the Trump budget, which points out that the proposal isn’t a solid blueprint of what the government will spend money on in the coming years – it’s more like a wish-list at this stage. Consequently, it’s a useful indicator of Trump’s priorities as POTUS.

Put simply, his priorities are hard power, a big-ass military and The Wall.

So if the budget is a reflection of what a given govt considers to be important foundational elements and values for the country, then in Trump’s America, the values that truly matter are bigoted xenophobic immigration policies and the ability to kick the ass of every single other country in the world combined with minimum conversation or negotiation. And not much else.

Artful dodger,

This is dF
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I’m late, I know. I have an original excuse, though: I was sequestered in Barcelona all week committing acts of tech journalism pretty much from dawn to midnight for four straight days.

A Crime in Holland (Maigret #8)A Crime in Holland by Georges Simenon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is one of the earlier Maigret novels, in which Maigret travels to the tiny Dutch town of Delfzijl to unofficially investigate the murder of a local professor, as one of the suspects is a French national. Maigret is handicapped not only by the fact that he speaks no Dutch, but also the town’s tight-knit community that looks after their own. In a way the story is somewhat pedestrian in terms of the small-town trope and the eventual solution to the crime (and a rather sexist one at that, although this was written in the early 1930s). And yet the way Simenon tells it that makes it captivating, with Maigret – always a fascinating character for me to watch – keeping it interesting as he tries to figure out what’s going on. It’s a bit slow at first, but once it kicks into gear it’s a page-turner.


The Case of the Counterfeit Eye (Perry Mason Mysteries)The Case of the Counterfeit Eye by Erle Stanley Gardner

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve read Erle Stanley Gardner once before but I’ve never read his Perry Mason books – which is remarkable since (1) I liked the TV show, and (2) my mom had a bunch of them on her bookshelf when I was a kid. Now that (somewhat hilariously) the American Bar Association is reprinting the Mason series, I decided it was time to try one. This is one of the earlier ones, which starts with a one-eyed client who claims someone stole his glass eye and he wants Mason to provide him with insurance in case the eye should be used to frame him – which is exactly what happens when wealthy businessman Harley Bassett is found dead with a glass eye in his palm and three guns near the body. The style is somewhat pulpish and occasionally cornball (such as when Mason introduces himself to people as “I'm Perry Mason, the lawyer”), and sometimes it’s unintentionally funny (honestly, almost everyone who comes to seek Mason’s services in this book seems to expect him to help them without confiding anything to him). And yet it’s pretty entertaining if you like dialogue-driven mysteries and courtroom drama (which I do) – it’s a fast-paced page-turner with solid characters, and while Mason’s strategy to win the case is pretty over-the-top, it’s an entertaining enough tale that it seems churlish to complain.


In the WetIn the Wet by Nevil Shute

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

My experience with Nevil Shute is limited to his post-apocalytic On the Beach, which I read ages ago and remember liking. So when I found this second-hand, I thought I’d try it. The jacket synopsis sounded promising: mysterious old man on his deathbed tells another man his life story which impossibly takes place 30 years in the future (circa 1983). But after about 100 pages I’d had enough. The “future” turns out to be concerned mainly with the political development of England and Australia and their subsequent relationship – and that’s it. It’s so mundane that if not for the jacket synopsis, at first you’d never know he was talking about future events unless you’re fairly well versed in Commonwealth political relations and democratic structures. And even then, you might think he was merely making things up, not talking about the future – it’s not until he mentions specific years that you realize something is up. And Shute’s fascination with political evolution comes at the expense of everything else – apart from democratic processes, societal norms and technologies seem to be the same in 1983 as they were in 1953. It doesn’t help that the old man – who is of mixed-race heritage – deliberately goes by a nickname that’s also a racial epithet (ostensibly to throw it in the face of anyone who might have a problem with his racial background, which is interesting, but still, it doesn’t translate well in 2017). Other people might get something out of this, but as speculative fiction goes, I found it both tedious and unconvincing.


The Moon Is DownThe Moon Is Down by John Steinbeck

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This short novel from John Steinbeck was actually written as WW2 propaganda for the victims of Occupied Europe. Which might normally be a turnoff for me, as I don’t have much patience for propaganda. But this is Steinbeck, who characteristically eschewed blatant patriotic stereotypes and guts-and-glory action in favor of a subtle humanist story about a small unnamed town taken over by an unnamed occupying force, and the psychological impact on both sides. There’s little action (most of it is “offstage”) and the basic message is two-fold: (1) when you take over a free country by force, the locals won’t thank you for it (apart from opportunists and traitors), and will inevitably fight back however they can, and (2) conversely, it’s no fun for the soldiers subjected to the paranoia of living in a town full of civilians that hate them and want to kill them. Steinbeck was pilloried by some American critics for the latter – what kind of propaganda portrays the enemy as humans with feelings? – but it's precisely what makes the story work, both as propaganda (it was a major underground success in occupied Europe, and even occupied China) and as a story that transcends its propagandist intentions with some uncomfortable truths about war, fascism, occupation and human nature. Which is also why the book (at least to me) resonates today. Most war propaganda is mired in the time and circumstances that produced it – at its core, The Moon Is Down is as relevant in 2017 as it was in 1942. I’d recommend this edition of the book, which includes an afterword about the backstory, the controversy and how it inspired underground movements throughout occupied Europe.

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Do the propaganda,

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And of course right after I post about Trump’s War On Media, he goes and escalates by having Sean Spicer cancel a scheduled press briefing and replace it with an informal off-camera briefing – for select media only. Among the not-invited: CNN, the New York Times, Politico, Buzzfeed and the BBC.

And of course everyone’s freaking out about the 1A and free press and democracy, and as usual the reaction – while understandable – seems overblown to me.

This Vox article has a good explanation of what’s going on here – namely, there’s a definite strategy in play here, but it may not be the one you think.

To sum up:

1. Informal off-camera press briefings with select media is nothing new.

2. Furthermore, while access is important, what those media outlets are mainly missing out on is an hour of Spiceworld spinning answers and saying something ridiculous. It’s not exactly the same thing as putting journalists in jail for reporting bad things about you (which is what actual dictators do).

3. That said, you don’t usually change from an official briefing to an informal one at the last minute – unless perhaps yr trying to make a point. Which is what Trump seems to be doing.

4. Trump’s war on the media is motivated by a number of things, starting with the vast number of leaks in his own admin. NO POTUS likes things leaking – President Obama didn’t like it either, and he was pretty harsh on whistleblowers – but Trump is taking it personally, and instead of blaming the leakers, he’s blaming the media – partly to discredit negative stories (or as Spicer calls them, “false narratives”), but also because he thrives on fighting with the media anyway. His fans eat it up and he enjoys giving them what they want. He needs a punching bag, red meat for the base, a distraction from his admin’s problems and someone to blame for them.

5. As Vox points out, the real problem with this strategy is that while it might help Trump please the fans, it won’t help him get anything done:

Picking random fights with the media won’t help the White House get anything through Congress. It won’t make FBI investigations go away. And it won’t help the administration’s arguments in the courts.

Another problem is that if the administration destroys its own credibility by waging a war on the press, it could have a hard time getting its message out later when it truly needs to — say, during a major crisis of some kind.

6. One thing I’d add is this: if the strategy of barring certain media outlets is intended to stop the “false narratives” and “fake news” that upset Trump, it’s kind of a stupid strategy. Those stories are already being written outside of the official-briefing context. Put another way, if these stories literally were “fake news”, then banning media outlets wouldn’t matter because they could just stay home and make up whatever crap they want – which he has already accused them of doing.

7. For all the dithering of this being the beginnings of dictatorship, I think that’s going to depend on what happens next. As I’ve said before, lack of govt transparency with the media has been a problem for a long, long time, and access to a spin-doctoring govt official isn't the same thing as access to the truth. And there’s no actual legal requirement for the POTUS to talk to the press. The real problems will begin if the Trump Dynasty starts actively pressuring media outlets not to run stories, or puts them in jail for doing so. The latter is a grey area when it comes to publishing classified material, but the former is a direct violation of the 1A. 

And sure, we don't want to wait until it comes to that, so it’s good to put pressure on the White House and warn people of where this could lead. I just think it’s important to explain the situation factually rather than resort to OMG hysterics. That’s just me.

I hear you knockin’ but you can’t come in,

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I can safely say that I have never seen a POTUS call up a press conference for the sole apparent purpose of telling the press that they suck.

Until now.

Anyway, between that, Sean Spicer’s debut briefing, the hilariously deranged online poll and Trump’s opening rally for his re-election campaign in Florida, it’s pretty clear to me what's going on here:

1. Trump’s criteria for “fake news”, apparently, is “any media report that criticizes him or anyone who works for him, or asks any question that he doesn’t want to be asked, or corrects him when he or someone in his admin says something that turns out to be not true”. In other words, any news story that doesn’t stick to the script or alternate reality in his head.

2. Trump is basically throwing red meat to the base that got him elected, because he knows they have the same criteria as he does for “fake news”, and that they hate the Biased LameStream Media as much as he does. I’m sure Trump fans absolutely love the spectacle of gathering all the media in one place just to have a go at them because they would totally do the same thing if they had that kind of power.

3. Trump has decided that if the media is just going to “lie” about him (even if that means reporting what he actually says and does, and correcting him when he says things that are false), then he’s going to do a workaround and talk to the American People™ directly without relying on the media as a go-between.

This one is actually kind of understandable in the sense that he’s not the first POTUS to prefer direct communication to get his ideas out to them, especially in the age of mass media. Sometimes Presidents want to get in front of the people and talk unedited, especially for major policy announcements, whether it’s a live TV broadcast, fireside chats, or town-hall meetings. Trump’s preferred communications media just happens to be 3am batshit tweetstorms and ego-fueled campaign rallies.

4. But it’s pretty clear there’s more to this than Trump wanting people to hear what he has to say without reading/seeing it second hand in the news. Trump’s real beef with the media is that he has no control over them and what they write about him, and it’s clearly driving him crazy – partly because his ego can’t stand it, and (I suspect) partly because – like his supporters (and, to be fair, a lot of his detractors) – he is convinced that his worldview is well-informed and correct and therefore only he knows The Truth About Everything, and therefore anything that deviates from that viewpoint is not only “fake”, but maliciously so.

Which might be less of a problem if Trump didn’t consider Fox & Friends, Hannity, Breitbart and Infowars to be good examples of objective and factual reporting –because of course they support his worldview rather than question it. Which is what he wants.

5. In a way, on a subconscious macro level, this is a public debate on the role of media in a democracy. Is it supposed to be the Fourth Estate – an unofficial extra set of checks and balances that curbs government power and corruption by exposing, questioning and criticizing government policies? Or is it meant to be a glorified steno pool that reports whatever politicians say without question?

Personally, I think it’s the former. There are people (like Trump, at the moment) who will argue the latter – that “objective” media should report the facts in front of you and nothing else. But I’ve noticed the people who support this view only tend to do so when it’s their party in control of the govt.

It doesn’t mean the media isn't above criticism when it does a bad job, and Trump fans may argue that Trump is doing exactly that. I could take that argument seriously if Trump was up there pointing out specific examples of where a news report outright made up a story or quote and then pointed out exactly why they’re false. But so far, all he’s really done is whine about how everyone is obsessed with unimportant off-message distractions – like Michael Flynn, other alleged Russia connections, the presence of Steve Bannon and his relations with white nationalist/supremacist/anti-Semitic groups, Trump’s tax returns, possible conflicts of interest involving his business dealings, Kellyanne Conway pimping Ivanka products, etc.

If Trump et al want to make the case that media is fake news, they need a better argument than “If they were doing their job, they wouldn’t report negative things about us, they would just report what we say” – especially when “what we say” tends to include things that literally did not happen (see: Bowling Green, Sweden).

6. But again, I don't think Trump is trying to make a case. He’s just saying what he thinks and playing to the base that already buys into both his “alternative facts” worldview and the Mainstream (i.e. Liberal) Media Lies About Everything meme in general – the same base that got him elected.

7. As for that rally in Florida, I’m sure Trump thought the purpose was to bypass the media and go direct to the people. But I’m also sure another purpose is so Trump can finally be in a room full of tens of thousands of people who love him and agree with everything he says. It’s pretty obvious he enjoys running for POTUS more than actually being POTUS – not least since part of the POTUS gig involves putting up with the media.

8. Speaking of which, it’s noteworthy that the major media outlets – NYT, WaPo, CNN, etc – have noticeably gone out of their way to call Trump on false statements in their ledes and even their headlines. Which is arguably what they should be doing as part of that role as the Fourth Estate.

That said, I think one reason it’s noticeable is because they haven’t done it for a very long time. I’m convinced that one of the reasons Jon Stewart became a more trustworthy source of news than actual news media was because part of his act was pointing out when politicians and “expert” media pundits were lying, passing on false information or contradicting their own statements. He did that primarily for comedy purposes, but the point was clear: the news media should be doing this (and was certainly capable of it – if a team of comedy writers had the resources to fact-check statements and dig out video clips to back up the jokes, surely CNN does), but isn’t.

Well, they’re doing it now. Here’s hoping they keep doing it long after Trump leaves office in just 47 more months.

Found my spine,

This is dF
defrog: (Default)
I’ve had a project in mind for awhile now to rank the presidents – specifically, the US Presidents that have served during my lifetime (which in my case would be from Lyndon Johnson up to Barack Obama). But of course I had to wait until Obama’s terms were up before I could add him to the list, which has given me a great excuse to procrastinate. So yr not going to see that list anytime soon, is what I’m saying.

But now that Barack Obama has left the building, I can at least get his entry out of the way and address the burning and traditional question every POTUS faces after leaving office:

So, how’d he do?

That’s not an easy question to answer – partly because most people rate POTUS performance along party lines and pet issues. And in these days of hyperpartisan polarization, too many people have emotionally invested themselves a particular extreme political narrative. For most liberals I know, Obama was the best President ever. For most conservatives I know, he was absolutely unequivocally the worst, most inept, dishonest and tyrannical POTUS ever, and probably not even an American, and pretty much wrecked the entire country so badly that they actually trust Trump to try and fix it.

As you might imagine, neither opinion holds much water with me. The liberal rating tends to be primarily based on select accomplishments (Obamacare and legal same-sex marriage, and Obama arguably should only get credit for the former) and the fact that Obama was charismatic and likeable (as was his whole family). Conservative assessments of Obama are generally based on vitriolic party-line batshit conspiracy nonsense.

Of course, my own assessment isn't necessarily objective either, so if you happen to fall into the above two camps, there’s no reason to take this post seriously.

For my money, rating Obama’s overall performance should take into account a few important caveats:

1. He inherited a terrible mess – the worst recession in decades and two foreign policy quagmires that made the Middle East in particular even harder to deal with than it already was. In terms of difficulty levels, Obama entered office with the bar raised considerably high.

2. He also faced one of the most obstructionist Congresses in history. Republicans simply hated him and refused to cooperate with him on just about every major issue. They blame that on him, because of course they do. But no, it’s pretty clear to me that the GOP demonstrated a public and unabashed determination to ensure that Obama got as little cooperation from them as possible.

3. The metrics of success shifted considerably before or during his presidency. On paper America’s economy is far stronger than it was when he took office, and yet almost half of voters seem convinced that it’s far worse. I suspect it's at least in part because the metrics don’t reflect the reality on the ground for many people. It’s great the unemployment rate is down, but if yr working three part-time jobs to make ends meet and you still can’t save money, you may not feel as though things are getting better. At a guess, this might be one of the consequences of the growing wealth inequality gap – those metrics tend to be better news for the rich than for everyone else who has to work for a living. Or it just might be the consequence of everyone being more poorly informed by hyperpartisan media bubbles. Point being, this has an influence on how Obama’s legacy will be assessed by many people.

4. Given that many liberals I know complained quite a bit about some of Obama’s decisions over his two terms (note: contrary to GOP propaganda, he was NEVER the socialist liberal that actual socialist liberals desperately wanted him to be, and they made that clear by channeling that disappointment into supporting Bernie Sanders), I’m reasonably sure that the people glowing over Obama’s legacy are being partly influenced by the horrific contrast of his successor. Next to the Trump Batshit Reality Show, even George W Bush looks reasonably good, so of course Obama is going to come off looking awesome.

So … given all that, I would rate the Obama admin thusly:

Overall I think Obama did okay with what he had to work with. But it is something of a mixed bag.

I don't have the time or space to go into the details, so you can read some good assessments at these links:

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jan/03/barack-obama-president-legacy-policy-issues-wins-fights

http://edition.cnn.com/2017/01/09/opinions/obama-legacy-opinion-roundup/

http://time.com/4632190/historians-obamas-legacy/

http://reason.com/blog/2017/01/12/obamas-foreign-policy-legacy-an-embrace

http://www.economist.com/news/christmas-specials/21712062-barack-obamas-presidency-lurched-between-idealism-and-acrimony-some-his

To summarize all this into some convenient oversimplified bullet points:

1. Obama’s economic policies generally worked, at least by traditional metrics. Even his unorthodox remedies (i.e. the temp auto industry takeover that Republicans offered as proof of his radical socialist agenda to destroy capitalism) ended up working. But that didn’t seem to translate into economic and employment security at street level, though I’m not sure how much of that is directly Obama’s fault. Either way, the growing wealth-inequality gap widened considerably under his watch, and that’s arguably at the root of some of the discontent.

2. Obamacare was a nice try, but it was also a long-term play, so if the GOP finally gets its wish to repeal and (maybe kinda who knows) replace, we'll never know if it was ultimately workable or not. I don't know enough about the healthcare sector to rate it fairly, though I can say I’ve heard healthcare professionals on both sides of the aisle say good and bad things about it.

3. Obama’s big weak spot has been foreign policy. He did have some successes – his dealings with Iran and Cuba, getting us out of Iraq, etc, and generally making the world not hate America as much as it did under GW Bush. He was less successful with Syria, Libya, ISIS, et al. And while he did end combat ops in Iraq and Afghanistan, he replaced them with drone warfare that isn't necessarily more ethical than boots on the ground (though I guess it is cheaper and ensures that only non-Americans die, so … great?). Again, though, I think his realistic options for action were limited to an extent by the policies of his predecessor.

4. Where Obama really went wrong for me was his failure (or unwillingness) to fix the civil liberties violations institutionalized under the Bush admin. Okay, he got rid of torture, and he only failed to close down Gitmo because Congress wouldn't let him. But in terms of mass surveillance, indefinite detentions, assassinations, etc, Obama turned out to be not so progressive. And I don’t think he should get a free pass on that, partly because I think they're important issues that speak to the core values that America is supposed to stand for, but also because look who has the same powers at his disposal now.

5. In terms of character, he was a pretty inspiring as a leader (at least for the choir – conservatives kept bringing up Lenin, and we all know about him) – he was smart, charismatic, gave great speech, and was a dedicated family man. Republicans will claim he was divisive, but given their outspoken unwillingness to cooperate with Demos under an Obama admin, I don’t take that claim seriously. He also got through eight years without a single major personal or political scandal, which is impressive. (If yr going to bring up Hillary’s emails and Benghazi, save yr breath – those are only Obama scandals in the alternate universe that Trump conservatives seem to live in.)

So yeah, overall I would rank Obama as one of the better presidents in my lifetime – again, within the context of the caveats stated above (and relative to the competition – when you look at the POTUS roster of the last 50 years, you’ve basically got three strong contenders, after which there’s a pretty big dropoff in quality). He didn’t get everything right, but then no POTUS ever has. But what he got wrong is also serious enough to overshadow a lot of what he did get right.

If nothing else, I’d say he was probably one of the most “presidential” presidents of my lifetime – someone who looked confident in the leadership role, put serious thought into his policies, and did his best to inspire.

Usually the key question in assessing any POTUS is: is America better off now than eight years ago? In some ways we are – in some ways we aren’t. But most of the latter has to do with the hyperpartisan Batshit Reality Schism and the general breakdown of civility in political discourse. And honestly that’s not on Obama. That’s on the American People™.

Done and dusted,

This is dF
defrog: (Default)
As you all know, Mary Tyler Moore is gone.

I don’t have much to say that hasn’t already been said – she was a TV staple of my childhood, and I do remember that final episode and what a big deal it was.

And with everyone talking about how revolutionary the show was in terms of featuring a female lead who wasn’t a housewife, I suppose it had some kind of background effect on me in terms of learning that women can be independent and have careers like anyone else. Which sounds obvious today, of course, but in 1970 this was still a new concept for many people. (So was the idea of putting a divorced female character on prime time TV, which was apparently the original premise, which CBS rejected.)

Anyway, among the tributes pouring in to MTM, some people have been posting covers of the show’s theme song.



The one I’ve known for years is, of course, the Husker Du version.



Then there’s the Joan Jett version.



You've probably heard both of those in the past week. 

But odds are you haven’t heard the Sammy Davis Jr disco version.



Or the Nashville Country version by Sonny Curtis (who. Incidentally, sang the original TV version).



Now that I’ve heard both, I still prefer the Husker Du/Joan Jett versions.

Yr gonna make it after all,

This is dF
defrog: (devo mouse)
I don’t care how okay people tell me it is – I’m not going to punch a Nazi.

Sorry.

Okay, there are exceptions to this. If, for example, I come across a Nazi in the act of terrorizing or beating up a Jew or Muslim or African American or anyone, really – then yeah, there will probably be Nazi-punching.

But if he/she is just talking trash? No.

Sorry.

To be 100% clear: I’m not saying Nazism is good, or even a valid point of view. Also, I fully understand why you'd want to punch a Nazi – especially if you happen to be one of the minority groups Nazis usually pick on, or if you happen to have close friends and loved ones who fit that description.

But the core issue here is whether it’s right to respond to someone expressing their views by beating them up. And I don’t believe it is.

Here’s why:

1. I can’t punch for crap.

2. I’m one of those awful useless people who think violence should be avoided whenever possible until all options have been exhausted.

3. It seems kind of hypocritical to say it’s okay to punch Nazis when I was very critical of Trump supporters beating up protesters at rallies simply for expressing a dissenting view. It seems to me that punching Nazis means stooping to the level of fascist thugs. I’m not really down with that. Certainly Michelle Obama wouldn’t approve

“When it gets down to having to use violence, then you are playing the system’s game. The establishment will irritate you – pull your beard, flick your face – to make you fight. Because once they’ve got you violent, then they know how to handle you. The only thing they don’t know how to handle is non-violence and humor.”

John Lennon said that. I agree with him. 

4. It doesn’t solve the problem. If you punch a Nazi for being a Nazi, I can pretty much guarantee that he’s not going to walk away from that thinking, “Gee, maybe I’m wrong – I ought to rethink my opinions.” He’s going to walk away feeling pissed off and even more justified in his hatred of people like the one who just punched him. You may get him to be quiet in public, but he’ll still believe in Nazi nonsense, and he’ll still share that nonsense with his Nazi friends online, and they will support him, and Nazis will remain a cancer in society.

5. If we say it’s okay to punch Nazis simply for being Nazis, the obvious question is: what counts as being a Nazi? It’s a fair question because the bar for qualifying as a Nazi has been lowered pretty much every election to the point that “Nazi” has become an all-purpose label for the political opposition. Many of my Left-wing friends have been calling Republicans Nazis at least a couple of decades – if that’s the case, then it’s a short path from “punch a Nazi” to “punch anyone who agrees with anything Republicans say”.

I’d go on, but this lengthy Vox article nicely covers all the important bases in terms of why some people think it’s okay to punch Nazis as an anti-fascist tactic, and the arguments against that view. As you might imagine, I side with the latter.

And yes, I know, no one cares. Everyone in America right now is ANGRY ANGRY ANGRY to the point where punching yr political opponent in the face seems the best and logical way to deal with them. That said, I suspect the “punch a Nazi” meme is driven at least partly by the fact that people would really rather punch Donald Trump in the face, but that’s both logistically impossible and guaranteed a minimum life sentence, so the next best thing is to punch his Nazi fanbase. 

And sure, as Vox points out, a lot of that is driven by the shock that Trump won on a campaign that, intentionally or not, elevated the profile of white nationalist/supremacist groups to the point that a character like Steve Bannon is now one of the most powerful and influential people in the country. This shouldn't have happened in a post-Obama world.

But I don't believe the response to extremism should be equal and opposite extremism – especially if it requires you to adopt (and in doing so justify) extremist tactics for yr own purposes.

Meanwhile, it’s hard not to wonder what kids will take away from this. You may think the message yr teaching the kids is, “We must oppose fascism, racism and other hateful ideas.”

That’s great. But if you can’t explain why they’re bad ideas without punching the people who espouse them, the message kids may actually be getting is: “It’s okay to counter someone’s opinion by repeatedly punching them in the face.”

That’s a road that I don’t see leading to anywhere good.

Let the unfriending frenzy begin

Hit me,

This is dF
defrog: (mooseburgers)
I grew up in Nashville, TN. As a result, I tend to associate Bowling Green, KY with either drag racing or Government Cheese.

Now I get to associate it with Kellyanne Conway.

It’s almost too obvious a thing to do a blog post on, and the jokes pretty much write themselves. But it’s one of those things that is simply breathtaking on so many levels. I mean, consider that there are two possible explanations for Conway defending a policy with an example that is blatantly untrue in every respect:

1. She made up an alternative fact off the top of her head for the single purpose of justifying her argument, and without really caring whether or not anyone would bother to verify it.

2. She made an honest mistake like she says, which would then mean that she honestly thinks the words “massacre” and terrorists” mean exactly the same thing to the point that they're practically interchangeable. Either that, or she was thinking of a haunted house and got her wires crossed.

(There’s also a third possibility being offered by Trump fans – she intentionally phrased it that way because her media strategy is not unlike 5D chess – she wants to trick the mainstream media into fact-checking the BGM so that they would report the story she really wanted them to tell – i.e. Obama let terrorists move to Bowling Green). I’m pretty sure we can safely discount that one.)

Option 1 seems the most likely to me, if only because her boss has the same tendency. But it’s also the least comforting explanation, because she didn't just make up a fictional terrorist attack – she also qualified that comment that if you’ve never heard of the Bowling Green Massacre, it’s because the media never reported it.

(Yes, because if there’s one thing the mainstream cable TV news channels always refuse to cover 24/7, it’s a major terrorist attack on US soil.)

Still, it's consistent with the Team Trump mantra that the media is a pack of biased lying liars who report fake news, which means (1) if we say something you’ve never heard about, it’s because the media refused to report it, and (2) if we say something untrue and the media reports what we said, then the media is the one guilty of lying to you, not us, because it’s their job to fact-check us. (Seriously: Conway actually criticized an NBC journalist for not asking her to clarify her BGM statement before reporting it – a slight variation on Trump’s mantra of “The media lies because it reports what I said, not what I meant to say,”)

Remarkable.

They can do this, of course, because trust in the media on both sides of the aisle isn’t that high right now. Team Trump seem keen to milk that.

It also seems to be something the media is keen to correct. I’ve noticed a considerably different tone in newspaper reporting since Trump took office – at least for the natonals. NYT, WaPo and others are now going to great pains to point out when Trump or any member of his admin says something that isn’t true or contradicts something they said earlier. 

Which is of course what they should be doing. I just wish they’d done that over the last 20 years or so – and not just with the POTUS, but every politician in America. Sure, we had Jon Stewart for that. But he only stepped up because the people who were supposed to be doing it weren't.

NOTE: Not every newspaper is keen to fact-check Trump. The ones owned by Rupert Murdoch, for example. 

Keep me honest,

This is dF
defrog: (Default)
I was in Honolulu a couple of weeks ago, and of course this was running through my head the entire time I was there.



Because come on, I’m in Jack Lord’s town.

Anyway, when I looked up the Hawaii Five-O theme, I was reminded that The Ventures did a great cover version of it.



Then, when I was looking for some Don Ho songs to post over on the Facebooks, I found out that Ho had actually done his own cover version – with added lyrics.



According to legend, when the TV show became a hit, someone decided to add lyrics to the theme to make a proper song out of it so they could release it as a single and cash in on the show’s popularity. Which is kind of odd, since the theme is awesome just as an instrumental, as the Ventures version demonstrated. I assume the decision was mainly due to the fact that you need lyrics if singers are going to do cover versions. Like Don Ho.

Or Sammy Davis, Jr.



Strangely, Sammy’s version has similar but different lyrics to the Don Ho version. I’ve no idea why. It’s probably to do with individual style. Don was strictly a crooner, and his version notably slows down for the lyrics about sweet lovin’ in Hawaii. Sammy was more Vegas showmanship, so he maintained the brisk tempo, while the lyrics are – kinda sorta – focused on Steve McGarrett’s character.

Something like that.

Anyway, it makes for good trivia and novelty, but you can’t beat the original.

FUN FACT: The Sammy Davis Jr version is from the 1976 album Song And Dance Man, which also features covers of five other TV theme songs.

BONUS TRACKS

There are other covers of the Hawaii Five-O theme out there, of course.

Here’s one of many punk versions.



And here’s a ska version.



And here’s a song by Radio Birdman that’s not a cover per se, but it’s about Hawaii Five-O, and the lead break does kind of use the theme as a reference point.



There's also a great version by a band called Furious George on this compilation of TV themes (which I have a copy of somewhere), but sadly it's not on the YouTubes.

Book ‘em Danno,

This is dF
defrog: (onoes)
And so we’re one week into the Trump Dynasty and everyone is still basically freaking out.

Granted, Trump has given them a lot to freak out about. You can follow the action at FiveThirtyEight’s TrumpBeat, but a basic overview could be summed up thusly:

All that batshit stuff he promised to do that we were hoping was just campaign rhetoric to rally the rubes? Turns out he wasn’t kidding.

Anyway, his actions of the past week has created an awful lot of batshit across my social media newsfeeds about how Trump is literally Hitler and literally a dictator. Which he isn’t – not in the sense that Hitler was, anyway. To be that kind of dictator, you need a totalitarian government – and America is nowhere close to that point. Take it from me – I live a one-hour train ride from an honest-to-God totalitarian one-party state. If America was a dictatorship right now, those protesters wouldn’t be on the streets – they’d be in jail, a detention camp or a mass grave. And the press would uniformly be praising Trump’s actions and denouncing the protesters as traitors.

Meanwhile, this article on Medium is making the rounds, suggesting that Trump may be orchestrating an actual coup de tat of the US govt. The basic argument is this: Trump’s immigration order was stayed by a federal judge, but the DHS and CBP have apparently opted to ignore it and obey Trump’s order. Meanwhile, Trump has reportedly purged most of the State Department and is consolidating power within a tight inner circle that will tell the various departments what to do. And he put two loyalists on the National Security Council and promoted them above the Joint Chiefs of Staff. 

Yonatan Zunger’s argument is that Team Trump is making a trial run for a coup, to see how far they can push the legal boundaries without breaking them. He’s vague on who might be responsible for this coup – maybe Trump, maybe Russia, who knows?

I don’t buy it. Here’s why:

1. First of all, on a semantic level this makes no sense. A coup is typically conducted by people who don't control the government and want to take over. Trump and the GOP already control all of it at the moment. But let’s go along with the terminology to smooth things along here.

2. I’ve heard this one before. Every POTUS from Clinton to Trump has been accused by fringe opponents and conspiracy theorists of planning a coup to take over America. It has never happened. It’s never even been attempted.

3. For the obvious response of “But Trump is different! We have EVIDENCE!” – well, no, we don’t, really. We mostly have a lot of unanswered questions (not least because of Trump’s lack of transparency in his business dealings, tax returns, etc) and suppositions. When you actually start trying to connect dots, it’s more suspicions and guesswork that actual smoking-gun evidence. These are questions we need answers to, but until we have them there’s no sense in panicking over what we don’t know.

4. I mention Russia because there’s a vague implication here that Russia is somehow connected with Trump in ways we don’t know about yet. That said, while it’s fairly certain Russia wants influence in how the US conducts its international affairs and isn’t above meddling in elections, I don’t know that Vlad Putin is interested in literally overthrowing the US govt. I’m sure he’d be happy to have a puppet installed, but I don’t think he’d want that puppet doing blatantly obvious stuff like turning the US into Russia.

5. Many of Trump’s actions can be explained as easily by gross incompetence and a failure to think things through rather than an actual plan for a coup.

6. On a related note, a coup of the kind this article suggests requires incredible attention to detail and relies on everything going exactly as planned and people responding exactly as planned. The more complex the plan, the more likely it is to fail. (And the more likely it is to leak to the media.) I seriously doubt Trump/Bannon/Giuliani/whoever et al have the intellectual chops to come up with such a plan, much less execute it. Team Putin might, but again, we have no solid evidence that Putin has anything to do with Trump’s actions.

7. As such, even if they WERE actually trying to plot a coup, odds are it will fail for the reasons given above. There’s just too many ways it could go wrong.

8. None of this means that a coup is impossible. Of course it is. The point is that it’s really, really hard to do in a country like the US, whether because of government structure, geography, ubiquitous media coverage (including social) and the simple fact that far too many people are invested in capitalism to see some yahoo billionaire come along and wreck it.

9. Also, none of this means Trump is not a bad president with bad ideas. He is. But I don’t see a coup – I see a doofus POTUS who lives in an alternate reality, has no idea what he’s doing or the consequences. He’s an authoritarian who seems to think he can run America the same way he runs his businesses – with a tightly controlled, loyal board of directors who will do whatever he says, and he can do anything he wants because he’s the CEO.

10. We had a POTUS like that once. His name was Richard Nixon. It didn’t work out so good for him in the end. I suspect Trump will meet a similar end if he keeps this up. If his admin is going to insist on defying the courts to enforce an order that is potentially illegal, sooner or later that’s going to backfire on him and he may just get himself impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors. And if it comes to that, there are suggestions that the GOP establishment won’t lift a finger to help him because who do you think they’d rather have as POTUS – Trump or Mike Pence?

11. Having said all that, the bigger worry for me isn't Trump but his hardcore fan base who have decided that everyone who disagrees with them is an enemy of the state – they won't take a Trump impeachment well. Which is no reason not to do it, but the fact remains. Equally worrisome is the fact that this is happening on the other side of the political spectrum as well. My worry is that we are headed for a point where the two-party system will become an either-or proposition with zero compromise and intolerance of dissenting views to the point that we won’t argue with people we disagree with anymore, we’ll just punch them in the face until they shut the fuck up. Take that far enough, and many people would welcome a coup – so long as it’s in their favor.

So basically, at this stage I’m not worried about a Trump coup because (1) I don’t think he’s planning one, (2) I don’t think he’s smart enough to plan one that would actually work, and (3) if it did work, it would only be because enough people in America would welcome it, in which case America’s days as a democracy were already numbered anyway.

Again, I don’t think we’re at that point yet. But we are headed there.

Talk about yr hostile takeovers,

This is dF
defrog: (Default)
See? One month into 2017 and I only managed to get through three books.

I cut down my Goodreads Reading Challenge down to 42 books, and I’m already wondering if maybe that was too ambitious a target. Oh well.

Nigerians in SpaceNigerians in Space by Deji Bryce Olukotun

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Debut novel from Deji Bryce Olukotun that isn’t quite what it seems at first glance. I found this in the science-fiction section of the bookstore, and the blurb suggests that it’s a fictional story about Nigeria attempting to kick off a space-flight program. In reality, it’s more of an international thriller with a few scientific elements. The narrative hops back and forth between 1993 and present day, following lunar geologist Wale Olufunmi, who steals a moon sample from NASA as a sign of commitment to the planned program, only to find himself stranded when his recruiter fails to show up, after which he discovers that other recruits are being killed. There are also subplots involving a not-so-smart South African abalone smuggler and a Zimbabwe woman with an unusual skin condition who searches for the man who betrayed her father and left her stuck in a Paris orphanage. So it’s not really about space at all –it’s more about the collision between dreams, good-intentioned idealism, and the hard reality of African political power struggles and corruption. The narrative framework that serves as the vehicle for this gets a bit clunky by the end and doesn't provide much resolution, leaving several unanswered questions. But there was still enough going on to keep me interested throughout.


The Annihilation Score (Laundry Files, #6)The Annihilation Score by Charles Stross

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the sixth installment of the excellent Laundry Files (i.e. British agents vs Lovecraftian horrors), and the first to shift the narrative focus from Bob Howard to his wife, Dr Dominique “Mo” O’Brien, another Laundry operative tasked with carrying an evil, possessed violin that serves as a weapon against occult enemies, but at the cost of her sanity and increasingly her marriage to Bob. This book explores another consequence of rising paranormal activity around the world – last time it was vampires, this time it's people discovering they have superpowers and doing ill-advised things with them. And Mo ends up in charge of creating a government superhero team for the Home Office. But it’s not a superhero tale so much as it is about how British govt bureaucracy would go about dealing with an outbreak of superpowers, as well as a story about Mo coping with a crumbling marriage, overwork and a mid-life crisis in general – and all that on top of having to carry a demonic violin that’s trying to take control of her life. Some fans have complained about this one – either because they don’t like superheroes, or the feelings stuff is boring, or because Mo complains a lot and why can’t she be nicer – but overall I liked it, and I like that Stross tried something different here. That said, working a superhero trope into the Laundry universe is a bit of a stretch, though he does pull it off.


The Man in the High CastleThe Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is Philip K Dick’s classic alternative history that imagines what life in America would be like if the Axis had won WW2. I read this sometime in the early 90s, but while I remember liking it, I didn't remember much about the story, and with many people taking a sudden interest in it these days – partly because of the TV adaptation, and partly because some people are citing it as a preview of the Trump admin (which I already discussed here, if yr interested) – I thought this was a good time to re-read it. I’m glad I did – this is one of PKD’s most coherent works that also provides a reasonably believable vision of America occupied by both Nazi Germany and Japan, as seen from the viewpoint of various characters. This being a PKD book, there’s also a lot of duplicity (agents, disguised Jews, political backstabbing, etc) and realities within realities, including a popular book that imagines what would have happened if the Allies won (albeit not in the way they did in real life), while there are hints here and there that none of what these people are experiencing is real at all. It's a challenging book at times, especially the ending, but I found it quite rewarding – not just in terms of the alternate history bits, but also how the story stays focused on the characters and their specific situations, and doesn't spend lots of time on the various atrocities and evils of the Nazi regime. He doesn't ignore them, but he doesn't exploit them in the name of melodrama, either.

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Even the losers,

This is dF
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Because you can’t possibly have enough “Best Of The Year” lists on the Internet.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: If yr favorite movie of 2016 isn’t here, it’s likely because (1) I didn’t get a chance to see it, (2) it hasn’t been released in Hong Kong yet, or (3) I did see it but didn’t like it as much as you did. Also, if some of these seem kind of old, it’s because their release date was 2015 for yr country, but 2016 for Hong Kong. See?

Also, I didn’t actually watch that many movies in 2016, due to the aforementioned change in work schedule. I’m hoping to change that this year.

TOP TEN DEF FILMS OF 2016

1. A Perfect Day
2. The Big Short
3. Rogue One
4. Ghostbusters
5. Eye In The Sky
6. Hail, Caesar!
7. Trumbo
8. The Hateful Eight
9. Zootopia
10. The Mermaid

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Star Trek: Beyond
Happiness
The Secret Life Of Pets
The Nice Guys


THE FILM I DIDN’T LIKE THAT EVERYONE ELSE DID

A Bigger Splash

MOST POINTLESS REMAKE

The Magnificent 7

MOST POINTLESS SEQUEL

Independence Day: Resurgence

MOST RIDICULOUSLY OVERPOLITICIZED FILM OF 2016 THAT I SAW

Ghostbusters

WORST FILM I SAW IN 2016

Independence Day: Resurgence

The long version, blah blah blah )

The balcony is closed,

This is dF

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Yes, I still do this.

And this year, we continued the trend of the last few years in which I’m buying a lot less new music than I used to. In fact, the releases you see below are pretty much every LP/EP I bought or acquired in 2016. So rather than do a Top 20, I’m going to do a Top 10 and categorize everything else under “Honorable Mentions”.

Ironically, there were plenty more new releases I was interested in this year, but thanks to the online preview ability we have these days (and I’m pretty sure that is what’s makes a huge difference in my buying patterns), I passed on them. Either I wasn’t that knocked out by what I heard, or it was okay but I just couldn’t imagine myself still listening to it a year from now. I don't think every album has to be an instant classic, of course – and indeed the majority of this list wouldn't qualify for that description. But there wasn’t enough incentive to click “buy”, I suppose.

The other thing I should address is the fact that three albums here were Obvious Candidates for every Best of 2016 list in the Western hemisphere. You’d be hard pressed to find a Top 10 list that doesn’t have David Bowie, Leonard Cohen and/or Nick Cave on it. Of course, there will probably always be debate on whether any of these albums would get as much critical acclaim if they had been made under different, less tragic circumstances (i.e. Bowie and Cohen dying shortly after the album's release, and the death of Cave’s son Arthur). But I feel pretty strongly that all three of them warrant the hype on their own merit, if only because (1) I liked the four Blackstar tracks I heard before Bowie died, and (2) I liked the lead-off single from Skeleton Tree before I even knew about Cave’s son.

Blimey, what a year, eh?

DISCLAIMER: Based on music I actually bought between December 2015 and November 2016, and therefore a useless metric for everyone else.

TOP 10 DEF LPs/EPs I BOUGHT IN 2016

1. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Skeleton Tree (Bad Seed Ltd)
2. David Bowie, Blackstar (ISO/Columbia)
3. The Claypool Lennon Delerium, Monolith Of Phobos (PIAS/Prawn Song/Chimera)
4. De La Soul, And The Anomymous Nobody (AOI)
5. Shonen Knife, Adventure (Damnably)
6. Bob Mould, Patch The Sky (Merge)
7. The Thermals, We Disappear (Saddle Creek)
8. Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker (Columbia)
9. Yello, Toy (Polydor/Island)
10. Fantastic Negrito, The Last Days Of Oakland (Blackball Universe)

HONORABLE MENTIONS

John Carpenter, Lost Themes II (Sacred Bones)
Jambinai, A Hermitage (Bella Union)
Lush, Blind Spot EP (Edamame)
Iggy Pop, Post Pop Depression (Caroline)
Dan Sartain, Century Plaza (One Little Indian)
Seratones, Seratones On Audiotree Live (Audiotree)
Tacocat, Lost Time (Hardly Art)
Tricot, Kabuku EP (Bakuretsu Records)
Underworld, Barbara Barbara, We Face A Shining Future (Caroline)
Tony Joe White, Rain Crow (Yep Roc)

BEST LIVE ALBUM

Kate Bush, Before The Dawn (Fish People)

BEST ALBUM FROM A MUSIC ARTIST I ACTUALLY KNOW

Richard Michael John Hall, Space Rock (Bandcamp)

BEST ALBUM FROM A BAND THAT I PLAY IN

Banäna Deäthmüffins, Political Songs For Miley Cyrus To Sing

BEST COVER ART



Extended play! The details! )

Up next: the films!

This is dF
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So this happened:
  • Trump is inaugurated.
  • Not a lot of people turn out for it.
  • People post tweets showing photos of empty stands during the parade and comparing the National Mall crowd to Obama’s 2009 inauguration.
  • The media report this.
  • Press Secretary Sean Spicer spends the first White House press conference scolding the media for reporting fake news on purpose, because in actual fact it was the biggest turnout in inauguration history, period, and why are you reporting divisive fake news like this when you could have been reporting Trump’s address to the CIA, and storms off without taking a single question.
Welcome to Trumpville, losers.

A few comments from the bullpen:

1. To be totally fair, when I saw the photos of empty stands on my Twitter feed, I took them with a grain of salt, because I’m aware that the anti-Trump crowd has a tendency to latch onto any meme that makes Trump look bad and/or evil and tweet the hell out of it as though it’s undeniable fact, even when it’s not. And let’s admit, it’s more than possible to take photos out of context and claim they represent something they don’t. And there’s always Photoshop.

2. However, the real issue isn’t whether the photos were faked – it's that this is what Trump decided to open with during the first-ever White House press conference: not with policy matters or plans or what he’s done with his first 24 hours in office (such as his executive orders regarding Obamacare), but with his PressSec slamming the media for reporting the lie that Trump isn’t that popular and then refusing to answer questions.

3. Which is as well since the first question (hopefully) would have been: “Do you have any evidence you can show us that the turnout was record setting? Perhaps actual photos showing stands packed with people at the parade or a photo of the National Mall jam-packed with supporters?”

All Spicer offered were some Metro stats that were debunked in less time than it took for Spicer to deliver his speech. Also, it’s amusing that he complained that the press should have focused on the CIA speech when Trump spent most of his speech saying what Spicer had just said.

4. All up, Spicer’s first press conference did seem designed to send the media a message – don't expect us to play ball if yr not going to cover us the way we want you to cover us.

5. People are already making comparisons to Goebbels, but I think that's both ridiculous and lazy, starting with the fact that Trump – like everyone else in the world – is under no legal obligation whatsoever to talk to the press if he doesn't want to. It might be politically inadvisable, but it’s not illegal, and it’s doesn't mean yr a fascist. Not talking to the press is not the same thing as literally controlling it and telling them what they can and cannot write.

Also, as I’ve said before, the WHPC is in many ways a glorified steno pool that reports whatever the POTUS or the press secretary say, to include their spin-doctored answers to questions. You get only what the POTUS wants you to get. I highly recommend this tl;dr article explaining how WH pressers work, and how some presidents dislike them because they prefer direct communication with the people (fireside chats, town hall meetings, talk shows, etc) over having the WHPC as a filter. The latter is interesting because Trump clearly prefers rallies and Twitter as his direct channel, for better or worse.

So honestly, I’m not too concerned over Trump’s refusal to play ball with the media on their terms. Even if Trump allowed CNN to ask questions at his press conferences, the answer he’d give would be the same self-aggrandizing bigly bebop blather he’s been spouting for the whole campaign (and really for much of his life as a public figure).

6. It’s also worth mentioning that despite my remark above that it’s politically advisable not to antagonize the media, Trump currently has no political incentive to heed that advice. His base is probably loving the sight of the LameStream Liberal Media having their ass handed to them, and they probably assume that the inauguration photos are all faked anyway. I get the feeling we’re going to be seeing a lot of this in the next four years, if only because it suits the Trump narrative that the mainstream media is all a bunch of biased lying liars who lie. Trump is already crowing over how he totally caught them lying and called them on it publicly, and his fans are eating that up.

7. That said, the real issue with the Spicer incident isn’t how Trump feels about the media, it’s how he’s reacting to it and why. The fact that he’s going to war with them over something relatively minor (and something that is also basically true, unless he can produce credible evidence to the contrary, which he hasn’t) speaks volumes about his motivations. So does Spicer’s performance.

Overall, the whole thing comes across to me as a thin-skinned egotistical blowhard who can't take criticism sending his press secretary out to throw a tantrum for him.

Looking forward to the next WH presser, in which Spicer will claim that the Women’s Marches were fake and only attended by a dozen lesbians. Ugly lesbians. Not the kind you’d fantasize a threesome with. Sad!

Beat the press,

This is dF

EDITED TO ADD [same day]: After writing that, I saw that Kellyanne Conway has introduced to us the concept of alternative facts. As in facts from the alternate world that Team Trump live in, I suppose?
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I don’t watch cable TV news, and I don’t spend much time on social media, so I do miss out on certain trends that are all the rage in American sociopolitical discourse.

Like the sudden popularity of the word “snowflake”.

Which – as most of you probably know, but it’s news to me – doesn’t refer to actual snow, but people who are emotionally sensitive and/or easily offended.

In other words: liberals, PC enforcers, SJWs, and other labels that conservatives – particularly Trump supporters – like to slap on anyone who says D.Trump is kind of a jerk, or that nuclear war isn't such a great idea.

The Guardian has a good write-up here on the emergence of the “snowflake” trend.

But while the article describes it as a recent thing that has sprung up during this particular election year, to me it’s really just another variation on a long-running conservative theme – that it’s a virtue to be tough, manly and invulnerable to insult.

Pansy, pussy, sissy, candy-ass, bleeding-heart, libtard, snowflake – it’s all the same, really.

Ironically, I do happen to agree – to a point – that political correctness and safe spaces are ultimately detrimental to both personal development and free speech. You can't really say you have an informed opinion about anything if you can’t rationally evaluate other points of view – and that means having to listen to them. It’s not enough to be able to say (for example), “racism is wrong”. You have to be able to explain why it’s wrong. And you have to be able to do that because actual racists have a long list of reasons why they believe their views are right. Screaming at them that they are evil stupid people may make you feel better, but it doesn't make the case against racism or solve the problem of racism. Neither does pretending they don’t exist, or denying racists a platform to speak.

The current furor over Milo Yiannopoulos and his upcoming new book is a good microcosmic example of how zero tolerance for the kind of stuff Yiannopoulos says all too easily leads to censorship and stifling of debate – and also tends to work in favor of the person being censored.

That said, however, the “snowflake” mentality isn't really about that. Conservatives who whip out the “political correctness” or “snowflake” label to defend what they say aren't interested in opening debate – they just want the right to offend people (intentionally or otherwise) without being criticized for it. It’s kind of the reverse mentality of the PC groups but with the same basic result: I get to say what I want, and you have no right to contradict me.

If a “snowflake” is someone so thin-skinned that they can’t take criticism or even a joke, then Donald Trump is President of the Snowflakes. Trump and his fans are basically arguing for the right to insult and mock groups of people they hate without getting crap for it.

Also, as this column points out, the term “snowflake” – much like the term “politically correct” – has already become so overused as to become meaningless. It started out as a specific reference to certain people who demand the right to not be offended – now it’s a catch-all term for anyone who criticizes Trump et al on any point whatsoever.

So the term is already both hypocritical and pointless name-calling.

But that’s how we debate things in 2017 I guess – say whatever you want and scream down anyone else who says things you disagree with.

(NOTE: Given what I’ve written previously about Yiannopoulos and his Twitter behavior, I should mention that I see a difference between abusive behavior on Twitter and expressing unpopular and/or offensive ideas. I realize that tends to be a fine line with Yiannopoulos and people like him, but Twitter is a different venue from writing a book or giving a speech. There are different rules of engagement in play. It's the difference between me writing a book about my political opinions and me coming up to you and screaming them in yr face and harrassing you for not agreeing with me until you cry.)

Let it snow,

This is dF
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Way back in the early 90s, I read Philip K Dick’s The Man In The High Castle, his classic alternative history that imagines what life in America would be like if the Axis had won WW2.

Nowadays, it seems a lot of people are taking a sudden interest in the book – or at least the TV adaptation of it – in part because they think it's a preview of the Trump admin.

While I remember liking the book, I didn't remember much about the story. So I decided to re-read it to see if it really is a vision of what Trump’s America will be like.

In a word, no. Here’s why.

1. For a start, of course, the America in TMitHC has been split up between Germany (east coast) and Japan (west coast) as a result of winning WW2. So it’s not the same scenario as a POTUS rising to power and implementing a nationwide fascist regime identical to Nazi Germany.

2. Also, the story takes place in either the Japan-run West Coast or the neutral buffer zone in the Rocky Mountain states. So it’s more of a depiction of life in those areas rather than the Nazi-controlled East Coast and the South.

3. The book does mention what life in the Nazi section is like, and it is what you’d expect – no Jews, no blacks (apart from slaves, as slavery is back in style, much to the delight of the South), secret police, banned books, totalitarian fascism in general, etc. It also mentions some of the atrocities the Nazis have committed with their insane ideology (such as literally wiping out every black person in Africa).

4. However, I seriously doubt that any of these things will come to pass under a Trump admin. The fact that actual Nazis (who would love to see these things implemented) voted for Trump doesn’t count. Whatever you think about Trump’s proposed policies regarding Muslims and immigrants, and whatever fascist tendencies he may have regarding the media, law enforcement, violence at rallies, people who criticize him, etc, I really don’t think that life in America under his command is going to become the fascist totalitarian state that Nazi Germany was and that the east coast of TMitHC’s America is said to be. It won’t even be close.

5. Sure, a Trump admin is not likely to be pleasant, especially for Muslims, LGBTs, racial minorities, etc. In fact, one slightly accurate comparison is that in TMitHC, some American characters express sympathy with the Nazis in terms of anti-Semitism, racism, establishment of public order, etc. Those attitudes aren’t as prevalent today as they were in 1962 when the book was published, but they do still exist, even though the targets of bigotry may have shifted.

But as I’ve said elsewhere, (1) Trump is no Hitler, (2) an authoritarian leader does not equal an authoritarian state and (3) the majority of the country did not vote for him, and doesn’t support his most extreme policy ideas. Granted, many people may be indifferent to them, but I think that’s in part because they didn’t take his rhetoric seriously in the first place.

6. So overall, no, TMitHC isn't what Trump’s America will be like. It’s a lazy comparison by people who think Trump is literally a Nazi (or at least actual Nazis voted for him, which apparently is the exact same thing).

7. I should add that I have not seen the TV version of TMitHC, so I don’t know to what extent they run with the “life under Nazis” aspect. I mention this because I suspect some people referencing TMitHC as a Trump preview may be thinking of the show, not the book.

Stranger than fiction,

This is dF

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