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.

View all my reviews

Even the losers,

This is dF
defrog: (Default)
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

defrog: (Default)
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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ITEM: Mark Hamill reads D.Trump’s gloating New Years tweet in his Joker voice.


The joke’s on you,

This is dF
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I have seen Rogue One. I will opinionize about it now. 

There may be spoilers .... )

War is hell,

This is dF
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And so 2016 is done.

Here’s how a lot of people feel about it.







Here’s how I personally feel about it:

1. I do think that on some kind of objective or non-partisan level, 2016 wasn’t a great year, particularly for the West. After all, it was the year of a particularly noxious US election – easily the most soul-sucking and joyless of any election I’ve ever followed – bookended by the deaths of major cultural icons like David Bowie and Carrie Fisher, and punctuated by hate-fueled mass shootings, terrorism, and a deterioration of race relations, among other things. And it was a year where politicians successfully exploited fear, loathing and xenophobia to gain power, stoking higher and higher levels of fear and distrust between groups of people.

2. However, it’s fair to say a lot of this was artificially amplified by hyperpartisan broadcast media, blog sites and social media feeds packed with hyperbolic batshit negativity memes (which in itself is an objective indicator that 2016 was a drag).

3. So it’s weirdly appropriate that the “Fuck You 2016” meme shooting around the internet is itself a hyperbolic batshit negativity meme – for far too many people, that was their default setting in terms of media consumption and online interaction.

4. But it is hyperbole. This article from NPR and this article from WaPo make a good case for this. Also, this article from the Smithsonian provides historical perspective on the “worst year ever” meme. 

5. Granted, the extent to which it is hyperbole will depend on yr specific circumstances. For example, if yr just sad that yr candidate lost the POTUS election, that's just post-election blues amplified by the emo/fear aspects of this specific election. However, if you live in Flint, MI, or if yr an African-American whose family member was killed by police despite being unarmed, or if yr a Muslim who just watched a guy win the presidency by promising to treat you as an enemy of the state, or if yr hometown is Aleppo – etc and so on – then absolutely you’ve earned the right to say that 2016 was a terrible year. 

(On the flip side, if yr a Trump fan, a member of the KKK and/or a Wall Street player – or if you were simply someone who was not directly impacted by any of the above trends and/or don't really care about those who were – then 2016 may have been good year for you, barring any personal circumstances.)

6. In terms of historical perspective, 2016 was lightweight compared to – say – the years that contained political assassinations, the Holocaust, the Inquisition or the Black Plague. And as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, in terms of pure statistics, 2016 actually showed promise in a lot of areas. So like the NPR article mentions above, a lot of the dithering over 2016 is more about perception than reality.

7. Others have pointed out – and I agree – that calendars are artificial constructs for tracking the passage of time, so it’s kind of silly to treat 2016 as a bad year that we need to get out of the way. It doesn't work that way.

8. On a related note, people made a lot of hay about 2016 being a bad year for celebrity icons. I think that’s a combination of the relevance of specific icons and also the age at which some of them passed on – Gene Wilder and Leonard Cohen (both in their 80s) were sad but not too surprising, compared to relatively younger people like Prince, Carrie Fisher, George Michael and possibly even Bowie.

But sorry to say, we’re going to see more of that in 2017 and every year from here on in. The actors, musicians, artists and other heroes whose work meant something to us when we were kids are mortal like everyone else, and sooner or later, it’s time for them to go. Knowing this doesn’t make it less painful when they do go, obviously. The point is that 2016 wasn’t some cursed year – it just seemed that way in the context of all the other crappy things going on.

9. By the way, for the people who have been joking that they hope 2017 is the year that Death stops killing the good celebrities and starts targeting people who “deserve it” (Trump being on the top of the list, followed by Ted Nugent, Scott Baio, Mike Pence, Ann Coulter, etc): not funny. Not to me.

Bring it on,

This is dF
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It’ll never fly,

This is dF 

defrog: (Default)


Get down,

This is dF
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And thanks to the holidays, I managed to catch up on my reading and my Goodreads Reading Challenge, in which I pledged to read 60 books in 2016.

I read 61. Goodreads says 62, but they’re counting that Borges book which I actually gave up on, so I don’t think it should count. And of course a couple of the “books” I read were actually short stories or novellas, so it’s all relative.

Which is why next year I’m going to lower the bar for the reading challenge – my reading schedule isn’t going to get any better this year, and a couple of the books in my to-read pile are pretty thick. And actually I dislike feeling pressured to get a book read because there’s a deadline involved. So I’m going to go easy on myself in 2017. I’m thinking 40 is a good safe number.

Anyway, here’s what I spent the last days of 2016 reading.

In Praise of DoubtIn Praise of Doubt by Peter L. Berger

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You’d be surprised the things you’ll find at a Christian bookstore clearance sale –like this book from a pair of sociologists (one of whom also has a PhD in philosophy) who essentially argue in favor of doubt as a necessary quality in religion, politics and culture. The book essentially argues that fundamentalism (religious or secular) and relativism are two sides of the same extremist coin, in which a person/group either claims a monopoly on truth/morality or declares that all truth/morality is subjective and therefore equally valid. Doubt is the middle ground that can strike the balance between these two extremes – and without sacrificing moral convictions. It’s hard to do the premise justice in a capsule review, but as someone who didn’t know that much about the sociological or philosophical aspects described here, I learned a lot. And in today’s polarized religious and sociopolitical climate, it’s one of the most sane arguments I’ve read in a long time. People who lean towards fundamentalism or relativism may be less receptive to this book (which is part of the problem, of course). And there are obvious paradoxes and limitations to practical application (which the authors fully admit). But it’s a thought-provoking conversation starter that I’d recommend to anyone with an open-enough mind and a tolerance for philosophical discussions.


The Continual Condition: PoemsThe Continual Condition: Poems by Charles Bukowski

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been a fan of Bukowski for decades, but for some reason I’ve always been a bit wary of his posthumous books – there’s always the worry that unpublished works won’t measure up. Which is silly, I know. And this collection (which is a mix of unpublished poems and previously published but never anthologized poems) proves it. Here, Bukowski covers all the usual bases – drinking, horse racing, crazy women, low-lifes, writing, misanthropy, alienation, loneliness, the perils of success, wry humor – to the point where I’m amazed that he was able to cover the same ground for 50 years and still make it seem fresh. That said, not everything here works, but even average Bukowski is better than the best work of many, and there are a number of real gems that shine through here. When he nails it, he nails it hard. It’s been ages since the last time I read Bukowski – it was a pleasure to read him again.


CountdownCountdown by Deborah Wiles

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Billed as a “documentary novel” set during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, this is the fictional story of Franny Chapman, an 11-year-old girl just trying to get on with her life as the world teeters on the brink of nuclear war and the country lives in fear of nuclear annihilation. The narrative is punctuated with collages, news photos and quotes, as well as quick bios of FDR, Pete Seeger and civil rights activist Fannie Lou Townsend Hamer (underscoring the racial and social issues also in play in America at the time) – and it’s a nice gimmick for what it is, but not all of it integrates smoothly with the story. And despite the book’s premise of documenting the fear that families lived under at the time, that didn't really come across for me – not until a little over halfway through the story when the Cuban Missile Crisis actually starts. Up to then, Franny spends more time dealing with standard pre-teen family/friends melodrama than worrying about nukes. Which may be realistic, of course, but pre-teen family/friends melodrama isn’t really my thing. So there wasn’t much here for me. That said, I can see this being a good and educational read for YA audiences (which is more the suitable audience, perhaps). So the two stars are more of a reflection of my personal taste than the book’s quality.


Fell, Volume 1: Feral CityFell, Volume 1: Feral City by Warren Ellis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Warren Ellis started this as an experimental comic in the sense of compacting a single-issue story into fewer pages to knock the cost down. Apart from that, it’s basically a police procedural comic set in Snowtown, a fictional slum on the other side of the bridge of a major city, where police detective Richard Fell has been assigned – apparently as a kind of punishment or exile. The story follows Fell as he adjusts to the corrupt realities of Snowtown case by case and refuses to compromise his sense of justice just because everyone else does. In a way it’s one of Ellis’ less imaginative works in terms of setting and situation – there are no SF/F or supernatural elements in it. But like a lot of his best work, it’s the characters and dialogue that draw you in, and somehow Ben Templesmith’s surreal haunting artwork serves to enhance them. Sadly, series production has stalled for whatever reason, so I don’t know how long we’ll have to wait for Volume 2. But as for Volume 1, I liked it.


The End of All ThingsThe End of All Things by John Scalzi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The sixth book in the Old Man’s War series, and the second to consist of shorter stories that form a continuous story arc, although this a slightly different format – while the previous book, The Human Division, was structured like a TV series bookended with a pilot and series finale, The End Of All Things is four connected novellas. The previous book focused chiefly on Lt Harry Wilson and his team of Colonial Union diplomats trying to deal with both the CU’s fallout from Earth and the alien alliance known as the Conclave – this one takes the spotlight off Wilson for three of the four stories as the CU finds itself dealing with a new menace: a mysterious group called Equilibrium that is secretly trying to turn the CU and the Conclave against each other in the hopes of destabilizing or destroying both. The End Of All Things is somewhat more focused on the political tactics and challenges presented in the situation, but there’s still plenty of space action to be had, and as always Scalzi is a skilled storyteller who knows how to keep the pages turning. It’s a good and entertaining addition to what has been a reasonably consistent and fun series.


BullittBullitt by Robert L. Pike

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Originally published as Mute Witness, this novel is of course the basis for the famous Steve McQueen film, and I was curious to read the source material. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s very little resemblance apart from the basic plot – when a gangster who plans to testify against his bosses is killed, the cop assigned to protect him must find the killer before the DA learns his star witness is dead. The novel is set in New York, not San Francisco (which of course means no iconic car chase), and Lt Clancy is almost the opposite of McQueen’s Frank Bullitt – hot-tempered, sleep deprived, prone to making bad decisions and not at all cool. Which at least makes it somewhat realistic. However, the same can’t be said for the key plot twist, the success of which relies on certain characters being incredibly dumb and/or lazy – which is not impossible, but still. Anyway, it’s an okay read, but it’s also one of those cases where the film version is an improvement on the book.


The Star DiariesThe Star Diaries by Stanisław Lem

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s been awhile since I read Lem, mainly because his books are not always easy to find and they’re often somewhat expensive when I do find them. This one is a classic collection of the interstellar voyages of his astronaut protagonist Ijon Tichy, as he embarks on random Gulliverian trips around the universe that satirize human society in general. Like other Lem books I’ve read, the stories here are fast-paced, wildly imaginative, philosophical and often quite funny – problems with time travel (to include Tichy’s stint heading a group whose mission is to renovate Earth’s past), a civilization that takes genetic engineering to insane lengths (which has a profound impact on religion), evolved potatoes, lost penknives, diplomatic faux pas, rebellious computers, hunting for squamp on a planet where people keep backups of themselves in case of meteorite storms – there’s a lot here, and while the philosophical parts can get a little heavy, it’s Lem’s sense of the absurd that keeps me engaged.

View all my reviews

That’s a wrap,

This is dF
defrog: (Mocata)
We have a new type of rule now. Not one man rule or rule of aristocracy or plutocracy, but of small groups elevated to positions of absolute power by random pressures and subject to political and economic factors that leave little room for decisions. They are representatives of abstract forces who have reached power through surrender of self. The iron-willed dictator is a thing of the past. There will be no more Stalins, no more Hitlers. The rulers of this most insecure of all worlds are rulers by accident; inept, frightened pilots at the controls of a vast machine that they cannot understand, calling in experts to tell them which button to push." – William S Burroughs, Interzone

Well, not so fast there, Bill.

It’s not clear when William Burroughs wrote that – it appeared in Interzone in 1989, but that book includes a lot of earlier work by Burroughs, so it could have been written any time between the late 50s and ’89.

Anyway, it’s a quote that’s stuck with me over the years – partly because he recorded it for Dead City Radio, and also because it struck me as the perfect description of how the US govt and Western democracy work. It helped that a college history professor I greatly admired gave a similar assessment – that the real power in Washington lies with the vast bureaucratic mechanism of government itself overseen by career politicians and experts who understand how it works. The President is really just a figurehead who surrounds himself with the experts who understand how the machine runs and how it will process whatever decisions are made. That doesn’t mean the POTUS has no power – just very limited power compared to a Stalin or Hitler. (Whether this is a good thing depends of course on how concerned you are about the balance of power between the elected POTUS and the appointed bureaucrats, the transparency of the process, etc.)

Anyway, it was this quote I found myself remembering when I came across this article on Quartz (written in March before Trump’s nomination, BTW) about the return of authoritarianism – not just in America, where D.Trump has risen to power on a strikingly authoritarian platform, but in other countries that have elected leaders with similar authoritarian qualities in recent years.

Theresa May (UK), Vladimir Putin (Russia) and Rodrigo Duterte (Philippines) are the obvious ones that you hear about the most because of (respectively) Brexit, Trump and Duterte’s policy that if you see someone dealing drugs, you have permission to execute them on the spot. But there’s also Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (Turkey), Shinzo Abe (Japan), Narendra Modi (India) and Benjamin Netanyahu (Israel). Meanwhile, in France, Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front has moved from the fringe to the mainstream,emboldened by Brexit and Trump’s victory. The same goes for Geert Wilders and his far-right PVV (Party For Freedom) in the Netherlands.

And even in countries where far-right populist parties aren’t leading the polls, their support is growing.  All of them are pushing the populist line that essentially aims to galvanize nationalist sentiment, kick out the foreigners (by which they mostly mean Muslims), selectively curtail civil liberties (particularly for their critics), and Make [Insert Country Name Here] Great Again.

It’s like Trump opened a franchise, although that would be giving him too much credit. Much of this – even the sentiments that his campaign successfully exploited – has been brewing for years and years. These politicians didn’t just show up out of nowhere and con people into buying xenophobic claptrap they didn’t know they needed. Those sentiments were already there.

The obvious question is: why? And the answer is a lot of complex and nuanced guesswork. You can read the Quartz article, this WaPo piece and this article here for an idea.

Personally, I would add that a lot of it comes down to the rise of fear, uncertainty and instability that many people feel as the world changes at a faster rate than people are prepared to deal with. There are specific things you can point to, like the wealth inequality gap, education quality, social upheavals of institutional norms that people haven't had time to process (gay marriage, transgender washrooms, etc), and the ability of both broadcast and social media to amplify all of these issues to wildly disproportionate levels of hysteria.

But on a macro level, I think it’s really down to people feeling afraid and uncertain about the future. I think this is also why we’re seeing a rise in fundamentalist ideologies – not just of the religious kind (Christian and Muslim), but also sociopolitical beliefs. Fundamentalism by definition does not tolerate any idea or opinion that contradicts its worldview. And I’ve written before about how this election more than any other in my lifetime has been characterized by political debates in which people on the other side of the sociopolitical aisle are branded not just misguided or wrong, but evil and dangerous criminals and traitors who will destroy the country and society as we know it unless they are stopped (preferably at the polls, although if that doesn’t work, well …).

In that kind of environment, it’s no wonder more voters are seeking some kind of strongman (at least a symbolic one) in charge to put everything in order the way they think it ought to be put (i.e. in their favor).

Having said that, I don’t think this necessarily signifies the return of Stalins and Hitlers – at least not to those extremes. As I’ve said before, Trump is no Hitler – at least not yet, and not as long as he stays confined by the constitutional framework, economic infrastructure and diverse media outlets that he has no control over. (Those of you tempted to bring up conspiracy theories about the corporate media being a willing tool of the Republican Wall street fat cat evil bastards who really run America, you go right ahead, but I will shake my head sadly at you and move on.)

If it helps, here are two things to keep in mind for perspective:

1. There’s a difference between an authoritarian state and a totalitarian state – both are dictatorships but the latter is the more extreme version where every aspect of society is controlled by the dictating power (see: Stalin, Hitler, Kim Jong-Un, etc).

2. Authoritarian leadership doesn’t equal an authoritarian state. The latter is a monopoly of political power that can be maintained even in a system that allows some form of democracy. So unless (and until) Trump restructures the political system to prevent anyone other than Trump (or the GOP) from controlling every branch of government (to include state level) permanently, the US cannot be called an authoritarian state. The same goes for other countries where authoritarian politicians have power or are closer to acquiring it.

So to come back to that Burroughs quote up there, I think it's true that there will be no more Stalins or Hitlers – in the traditional sense. Perhaps what we’re seeing now is a mutation of sorts – a new breed of iron-willed dictator who is able to dictate within the constitutional confines of a democratic system with a functional (if inefficient) bureaucracy without radically altering its structure. They don’t need to understand how the machine works – they just need to figure out how to get the machine to do what they want it to do without breaking it. It helps that in the last 50 years (or longer), the machine has already been stress-tested in terms of how far you can quietly erode freedoms and civil liberties (in the name of national security) within the constitutional parameters under which it operates.

Which, again, is probably giving Trump too much credit – it’s reasonably clear he’s in this for the ego boost rather than any actual power, and had no real plan for anything apart from winning the election. And I would argue that Trump isn’t an iron-willed dictator so much as a thin-skinned egotistical blowhard control freak.

Is there a difference? I think so, in the sense that the former generally wants ultimate power to transform the country to his/her ideological vision of purity and will do whatever it takes to achieve it. The latter wants power mainly to stroke his/her ego and make his/her life as easy as possible – if they can institute their policies without breaking the system, then great. If not, then it becomes a question of tradeoffs (as in: will abolishing Congress impact my stock options?).

I may be way off here, of course. I’m guessing like everyone else, and I’m drastically oversimplifying all this. My overall point is that I don’t think the rise of authoritarian leaders means that traditional dictators (i.e. Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, etc) are coming back into style.

What we may be seeing is a shift towards a quasi-authoritarian democracy under which people decide who gets to be dictator for the next term. Given the increased polarization and fundamentalist attitude of political parties, I think we're already at a point where a significant number of people will settle for nothing less than their favored political party achieving solid control over all three branches of govt and refusing to compromise an inch on any given policy idea or legislation. In short, they want a dictatorial govt that works in their favor – but they also want the mechanism in place to change dictators without resorting to a coup de tat (which would mean hard work and sacrifice).

To be sure, I’m reasonably certain those people who want an authoritarian version of democracy don’t think of it in those specific terms. And they are in the minority – for now. But their numbers are growing, and people like Trump are taking advantage of that. Put another way, the problem may not be Trump (or May, Erdoğan, Abe, Modi, Benjamin Netanyahu et al) so much as the voters that put them into positions of power in the first place.

Where this will lead to is anyone’s guess – again, I’m not convinced it will lead to Trump literally doing what Hitler did. But we are seeing a weakening of support for a loyal opposition that is essential for making democracy work. When you rebrand the loyal opposition en masse as the enemy of the state, yr asking for authoritarians to step in and fix them but good – maybe not in terms of purges and concentration camps, but certainly in terms of permanent disempowerment.

In which case perhaps democracy really will be a case of the winners getting the government they deserve – at the expense of everyone else.

We have met the enemy and he is us,

This is dF

REBEL GIRL

Dec. 28th, 2016 12:02 pm
defrog: (Default)
And now Carrie Fisher is gone.

And somehow this pic just seems appropriate.



I don’t know what I can add to everything else being said about her. Obviously she was part of my pop culture landscape with Star Wars – Leia was one of the first female characters I saw onscreen who wasn’t a frail damsel in distress. She was smart, tough and funny.

Fisher was also a good writer (I’ve only ever read Postcards From The Edge, but it’s a very funny book), and a funny person. I also loved the fact that she brought her dog Gary along to interviews.



It’s sad that she’s gone, but it’s good that she was here. Not only did she embody one of the great female icons of my generation, she also did a lot of good works offscreen by talking about her addiction and mental illness issues. (One of my family members is a recovering alcoholic who has also been diagnosed as bipolar, so I’m not a disinterested bystander in the that regard.)

In closing, I’ll honor her request to report that she died the way she wanted to go – drowned in moonlight and strangled to death by her own bra.

A princess in a world full of dragons,

This is dF

EDITED TO ADD [29 Dec]: And a day later, her mom Debbie Reynolds has also passed, because that's how 2016 rolls. 

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