The Thinker

The Democratic Party at the crossroads

By all indications, Trump is on a roll, if being on a roll means heading speedily downhill, like his ratings. His dismal 38% approval rating is unprecedented. Presidents have gotten lower ratings (most famously George W. Bush near the end of his administration) but not this soon after taking office. Trump can compare himself to Jimmy Carter, who also started his term with more disapproving him than approving him, but in Trump’s case it’s by larger margins.

As I said in my last post, I’d hand Trump an anvil but he doesn’t need it. He’s got one already, thank you and against all reasonable political instincts (which he is largely bereft of) he thinks it’s a hot air balloon instead. Trump is famously doubling down and playing to his base, but his base is pretty much his approval rating. This does not bode well for Republicans in 2018 and his reelection prospects in 2020. More savvy Republicans are already looking for ways to hang on and cut their losses. When not avoiding town halls they are subtly distancing themselves from him, at least in less red districts. Some are suggesting that repealing Obamacare maybe isn’t such a great idea after all.

Midterms are typically an assessment of the president and favor the party out of power. By that standard Democrats should do well in 2018 and the more Trump doubles down the better they will do. Taking back the Senate is still unlikely because Democrats have more seats to defend, and in redder states. Taking back the House is likely even with the existing extreme gerrymandering.

If you are a Democrat, things should be looking up even though things seem pretty bleak at the moment. Only 23% of Americans self identify as Republicans, a record low. This means the Republican Party’s lock on government is largely due to gerrymandering, which means it is artificial. It’s no surprise then that Republican states are working hard to further disenfranchise voters they don’t want voting. Their efforts were largely successful in 2016 so we should be no means count them out.

Unsurprisingly Democrats are craving a return to power. They would be wise not to expect it to be handed to them through Republican ineptness. That Hillary Clinton could lose to Donald Trump, clearly the worst major candidate for president in modern times, suggests they should be introspective right now. Many of us Democrats are mystified by our loss last year. I certainly was. I was right on the general dynamics (Hillary won by nearly 3 million votes) but she lost anyhow because of our biased Electoral College system. She lost principally because she could not persuade enough moderates in swing states to vote for her. Her approval rates during the campaign were always underwater, as were Trump’s.

Exactly why weren’t more of the right kinds of voters persuaded to vote for her, in spite of Trump’s numerous faults? Hillary had baggage and his name was Bill. This more than anything likely had to do with her lack of success when it mattered. For it was Bill Clinton that fundamentally changed the Democratic Party. The party lost its soul with his election and it’s still trying to recover it.

Bill Clinton was in many ways our first “Republican” Democratic president. He got through legislation that no Democrat would have dreamed of introducing, let alone passing. Bill thought he was being smart and the truth is Bill was and is devilishly smart. He invented the “triangulate your way to success” strategy that worked great for keeping him in office. Using it, he got legislation through Congress that likely would not have happened at all had George H. W. Bush been reelected. Consider:

  • Bill got the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) written into law. Independent candidate Ross Perot in 1992 predicted it would result in the loss of much of our manufacturing base and it did, and much more. In the process Democrats lost a lot of its voters who previously saw Democrats as working in their interest. NAFTA created a “you’re on your own” message to American workers. Previously Democrats were zealously protecting the working class.
  • Bill worked with Republicans to reform welfare. Benefits were time limited but in general turned out to be less generous than the old AFDC program. In doing so he lost much of the party’s poor base as well, or at least made them less eager to vote for Democrats.
  • Bill worked to deregulate the banks and Wall Street and brought in a whole new “corporate” wing of the party. It kept him in power but it didn’t really broaden the tent. By bringing in Wall Street, others found they had nothing in common with the party anymore but could find common cause with Ralph Nader and Jill Stein. It was hard to tell the fat cat Democratic Party from the similar Republican one.

Each of these was a major accomplishment that Republicans could probably not have done on their own. But Republicans working with a Republican-friendly Democratic president made these things to happen. In doing so Clinton fundamentally changed the Democratic Party.

It is certainly true that Clinton did many things that progressives liked. While these were not insignificant (Family Medical Leave Act, record expansion of jobs, high homeownership rate in history, increasing Pell grants) they really paled compared to these other actions as for its effect on the party. Clinton also gets credit for events that were outside of his control. Much of the prosperity of the 1990s was due to the tech revolution underway and the end of the Cold War. He did little to facilitate or shepherd the tech revolution. In any event, lots of jobs went overseas and many traditional Democrats did not feel the party represented them anymore.

Once in Congress, Hillary Clinton proved to be more like Bill than Bernie Sanders. She voted for two wars and took large amounts of money from wealthy Wall Street types. And she felt fine cashing in after leaving her Secretary of State position by giving speeches at inflated prices, often on Wall Street. No wonder then that so many thought she was not genuine. In any event there was little in her record that suggested she would really be a champion for the working class if elected. There was nothing in Trump’s record either, but his lack of a record was an asset. Clinton was a proven insider who had tuned out the working class. With Trump, at least you couldn’t say for sure he wasn’t.

With Trump’s foolishness comes opportunity for Democrats. Will Democrats figure it out this time? We’ll know soon, as the party will soon elect its next national chairman. We must win back these voters. If the next party chairman is another friend of Wall Street then gains will be fleeting at best for Democrats. In the eyes of many Americans, there is little difference between the two parties, as they will screw the working class either way.

However, if the Democratic Party returns to its roots and becomes a populist party again, it may recover its impressive historic strength. It looks like Rep. Keith Ellison will be the next DNC chair. This is a hopeful sign, because Keith seems to get this. If so the Democratic Party may be pulling away at last from the arguably disastrous Clinton years and back to representing the people that matter: the poor and working classes. We are the bulk of the country. Truly working in our interest and the party’s hold on power will be more predictable instead of ephemeral in the years ahead.

The Thinker

Four weeks in, a Trump update

At four weeks into the Trump Administration things are about as bleak as I expected them to be. And yet there are signs of hope. The Trump Administration so far has proven staggeringly inept. Moreover, the protests arising to his administration are passionate, largely organic and growing in intensity.

Trump’s stubbornness and dogged determination to prefer loyalists to insiders has had the predictable result of causing confusion and chaos, which amounts to little of his agenda getting worked on. You might say his ship of state is still in dry dock. A number of cabinet nominees have been approved. One was rejected, and one approved only due to an unprecedented vote in the Senate by his vice president. His administration is clearly divided given the crazy number of leaks coming out of the place. One of my guilty pleasures is reading the @RoguePOTUSStaff Twitter feed. Is this really one or more people inside the White House close to Trump? There is no way to know for sure but comparing the posts with events just some hours later, it has the whiff of being the real deal.

The more outrageous our president becomes, the more ineffectual and hated he becomes too. It’s proving to be his Achilles Heel. In some ways the best way to get rid of Trump is to let Trump be Trump. I’d hand him an anvil but he doesn’t seem to need one. This approach works provided he does not do something that seriously jeopardizes our national security while he is in office. Unfortunately, it’s hard to tell if he is or has, but it’s clear our intelligence agencies are leery about conveying too much to Trump, particularly their sources and methods. This reportedly has Trump irate and his CIA director proclaiming they are not doing this. Given that Trump said during the campaign that his campaign was in touch with the Russian government and that he approved of their hacking of the DNC, it’s completely reasonable to think he may be facilitating espionage, which is a crime BTW.

Just the other day six staffers were escorted out of the White House for failing to clear a background investigation. Trump would definitely fail one but none is required if you win the presidency. Meanwhile, Trump thinks that making war with the press is a good thing, when it simply makes the press dig in their heels more. It doesn’t take much press digging with leaks sprouting all over the place. These leaks paint a picture of an administration that is deeply dysfunctional and riven with political intrigue. Anyhow, to make himself feel better Trump scheduled a campaign event tonight in Florida. “Campaign event?” you might reasonably ask. Yes. He filed for the 2020 nomination the same day he was sworn in. I guess you can see where his priorities lie.

All this has congressional Republicans pretty miffed but for the moment they are largely sitting on their hands. They have been chomping at the bit to exercise power again but instead they are busy on other things, like endless hearings for nominated officials. That makes it hard to do things like repeal Obamacare. Meanwhile, protesters are busy making their feelings about the ACA and other things known to their legislators, going all Tea Party-ish, just in a leftward direction this time. Legislators are fleeing public events so they don’t have to deal with their anger. To the extent they meet with people it’s only with people they know are on their side. The ruckus though is enough to give some legislators pause, particularly many in the House who are forced to run for reelection every two years. Their tightly gerrymandered districts don’t look as safe anymore. Midterm elections usually favor the party out of power, although with so many Senate seats in Democratic hands up in 2018 the dynamics might not work out in the Senate. But clearly there is visceral anger on the left and for a change it’s pretty effective. It’s making some rethink the idea of repealing Obamacare, at least without a “replace” option that Republicans seem unable to create.

Still, it’s a period of high danger for the country. We have a new EPA administrator who wants to get rid of pollution laws and his agency and a new Secretary of Education who never attended a public school and who is so controversial she has to travel with U.S. marshals. And that’s just on the domestic side. No one can read the foreign policy tealeaves. Trump doesn’t want Israel to build more settlements but doesn’t want a two-state solution with Palestine. He’s been working the phone with China although he called them our biggest enemy. Oh wait, that’s the press. It’s so hard to keep up with it all. And most surprisingly, it’s apparently okay have ad hoc meetings on dealing with a North Korean missile test in his resort’s dining room at Mar-a-Lago.

Despite high profile appointments, a lot of these lofty goals will simply not be realized as long as Democrats retain forty-one seats in the Senate. That means the EPA and the Department of Education won’t be abolished, or really any other agency for that matter. These agencies can certainly be reorganized to be much less effective but they won’t be going away. Appropriation bills are the vulnerable spot since in the Senate they are not subject to filibuster. We can hope that the dynamics of dysfunction continue so that Republicans spend much of their energy fighting with each other instead of the country.

I doubt Trump will see out the end of his term. It seems likelier to me now than it did that if necessary Republicans in Congress will find ways to bring Trump down, particularly if it looks like he will be toxic to the party’s chances in 2018. There are plenty of paths to Trump’s impeachment and removal and doubtless more will surface. With only 39% of Americans approving of Trump, it may begin sooner than we think.

The Thinker

Two quick movie reviews

In this better late than never post, here are reviews of two movies I’ve seen lately, although lately means “some weeks ago”.

Fantastic beasts and where to find them

Fantastic beasts and where to find them should delight both those steeped in J.K. Rowling’s imaginary world as well as the rest of us. Count me in the latter camp. Even if you are not a Harry Potter fan, you will enjoy this finely crafted and inventive movie.

“Newt Scamander” (Rowling) published a book of the same name in 2001. It was short and not particularly noteworthy, more of an oddity for the obsessed Harry Potter fan. It discussed some obscure magical beasts unmentioned in other books. Fifteen years later Rowling turned it into a screenplay set in the bustling 1920s. Unsurprisingly, she proves adept writing screenplays. In the movie, Newt Scamander (played by Eddie Redmayne) arrives in the Big Apple and is hardly off the boat before some of his magical creatures stuffed in his suitcase begin wreaking mischief in the New World.

This causes considerable consternation because the wizards across the pond are much more buttoned down than their British peers. Thus begins a series of unfortunate events for Newt that quickly involves people he meets along the way. One woman he quickly encounters, Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) has already encountered misfortune from MACUSA (Magical Congress of the USA) and has been demoted, only to encounter more when she tries to muzzle Sean’s escaping magical creatures. The applecart tips even further when Newt accidentally swaps suitcases with an aspiring baker forced to work in a cannery and the muggle gets exposed to their wizardly world. Both Tina and Newt get the ultimate punishment (death) but of course events intervene that keep the execution from executing. These include the release of an Obscurus, a parasite that kills girls that don’t develop their magical talents.

There are many delights in this movie: a fine rendering of New York in the 1920s, understated but authentic-feeling characters, a rich magical ecosystem, a sweet but forbidden romance between wizard and muggle, and a whole new variant of wizardry practiced in the United States for Potter fans to delve into. There are also fine actors like Redmayne, Colin Farrell (playing Percival Graves) and Jon Voight (as a U.S. senator). What’s especially nice is how well the ensemble plays together, thanks to director David Yates. But it is mostly Rowling’s sharp vision of this earlier magical world that works so well. Without Voldemort, it has a lighter feel but it moves along at a happy but brisk pace, resulting in a highly engaging movie even for us muggles.

It’s thoroughly delightful and should push everyone’s buttons. So naturally it has no chance at the upcoming Academy Awards. Alas.

3.4 out of 4 points.

Rating: ★★★½ 

Hidden figures

Speaking of the Academy Awards, Hidden Figures is one of the movies nominated for Best Picture, and deservedly so, unlike the overrated La La Land. But it probably won’t win because it takes place in Virginia and it features black women. So many stories like this never get turned into movies, so perhaps we should be grateful this one did. The bonus is that it is done so well.

In 1962, Virginia was still an officially segregated state, which makes the story of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson even more surprising. They were pivotal in the success of America’s space program but they had the double whammy of being both black and women. Working for NASA at Langley Air Force Base, each were well-educated black women hired by NASA to help the USA win the space race. The movie mostly focuses on Katherine Johnson (Taraji Henson), a brilliant mathematician thrown into the white male scientist world of NASA. To say the least, she is a fish out of water. While America is not quite ready for a manned suborbital flight, the Soviets have already put Yuri Gagarin into orbit. The pressure is on the nerds at Langley to figure out an engineering solution to put an American astronaut into space and, the harder question, figure out how to return the astronaut home safely. Here Katherine will prove pivotal.

To say the least it’s awkward for Katherine in this white male domain, and it’s awkward for us viewers to confront the segregation of the time too. It means Kate has to walk half a mile to use a restroom, because she must use one for coloreds only. The Space Task Group’s director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) seems blind to her obstacles that also includes discomfort from the men in the group. For example, they won’t let her drink coffee from their coffee pot. Meanwhile across campus in the colored building, Dorothy (Octavia Spenser) has all the duties of supervisor but neither the title nor its pay as she and her group of black women work at solving various mathematical problems for NASA at a huge discount compared to white women. Her white supervisor Vivian (Kirsten Dunst) seems inured to her issues. Mary (Janelle Monáe) meanwhile wants to get an engineering degree, but finds she can’t. A course she needs is taught only at a whites-only school. They can at least share a car ride together to Langley and commiserate. Katherine, a widow with two daughters at home, finds an attractive officer at Sunday services, who becomes important in her life and heart (Jim Johnson, played by Mahershala Ali).

As someone who grew up during the space race, I do recall the heady feeling of those days. Competition between the Soviet Union and the USA brought out the best. It’s that need to succeed which allows Harrison to eventually put his own prejudices aside, as Kate becomes integral to the success of their mission. To say the least Kate is gifted, but all these women are. Dorothy has the good sense to learn their IBM mainframe, needed for rocket trajectory computations, and figures out how to program it using this language called FORTRAN. The white shirt guys can’t seem to figure it out and she wants to keep her team employed. Ironically, computer programming was considered women’s work back then, beneath men.

This movie has a combination of superb acting and a compelling story plus the thrill of watching some amazing women succeed despite the odds. If you missed the space race, this takes you into its heart. In 1962 the world was rapidly changing. All three women give terrific performances, as do Costner and Dunst. It took 55 years, but Hollywood finally gave these largely unknown black women their due. Of the Oscar nominees I have seen, this is my choice for Best Picture.

3.4 out of four stars.

Rating: ★★★½ 

The Thinker

The Trump “winging it” presidency

What a bizarre first two weeks we’ve had of the Trump “administration”. A blizzard of executive orders suggests that Trump is taking charge, but in reality there’s hardly anyone in the office, which is why the phones ring and ring. The normally bustling West Wing is eerily quiet with most of its offices empty. There is not much in the way of support staff because Trump hasn’t hired any. Meanwhile our new president reportedly retires around 6:30 p.m. Melania is in New York so he’s pretty much alone watching TV (mostly Fox News) or tweeting when the mood strikes. Outside the White House gates or on the mall there are often protesters. Spending the weekend at his resort in Florida brings more outside his gates there.

A more introspective president might take this as a clue that he’s unpopular. So far there’s no sign that Trump is becoming introspective. Any poll that suggests otherwise is faked. This would seem crazy but is not the least bit crazy if you consider that he has a classic case of narcissism. Convinced of his superiority and invincibility, the only possible explanations involve vast conspiracies, mostly by the media. So he is aggressively going after the media by not giving access to news outlets like CNN that he accuses of publishing fake news.

His administration is essentially winging it. Most of his cabinet nominees have yet to be approved. He’s fired most of the political appointees left over from the Obama Administration, who normally use their expertise to keep the lights on until the new guy takes over. This has led the White House to be disconnected from the agencies it is supposed to manage. With minimal staff at the White House it’s literally impossible to keep all communication channels open. Those many assistant and deputy assistant administrators in the White House simply aren’t there. Their role traditionally has been to listen, communicate relevant facts up the chain and work the human tree to make sure the president’s directives are followed. With one guy doing the work that would normally be distributed among ten or more staffers, stuff just isn’t happening. And with Trump’s White House staff still unclear about their roles, there’s a lot of musical chairs going on.

In fact, lots of weird stuff is going on. The many bizarre executive orders emanating from the White House have caused a true WTF reaction from the rest of government, the press and the public. Is there a lawyer on the staff? It’s popular to diss lawyers, but they exist for a reason. In the White House you hire lawyers to analyze existing law and regulation to keep you from doing stupid stuff. The Trump White House is doing all sorts of stupid stuff because most of these orders are not being vetted, sometimes not even with the cabinet members already confirmed. Most of these executive orders seem to be coming from Steve Bannon, the president’s policy adviser and apparently the Racist in Chief.

It seems that Trump is not bothering to read the orders he is signing or cannot retain the knowledge in them. It’s reported he was upset to learn that Steve Bannon was now on his National Security Council, and his Homeland Security chief and Defense department chief weren’t.They were demoted to mere advisers. Like Lt. Col Henry Blake on M*A*S*H, he’ll sign anything Radar puts in front of him. There is nothing illegal about doing this — the NSC is a pure executive branch thing — but it seems weird and bizarre when it comes to something as critical as managing our national security competently. Trump senses he did something wrong but with his narcissism and cognitive dissonance can’t seem to amend any of his mistakes. Maybe he figures it makes him look weak.

It’s a winging it presidency that is underway, driven by people who think that government should be run like a business, which in the business world is generally by edict of the CEO or board of directors. Wags tried to tell Trump that business and government were completely different spheres, but he seems to have not read the memo, probably because he rarely reads anything. The result is a government that seems more in paralysis than functioning. Moreover, it’s abundantly clear that Trump and most of those working for him have little idea about how our system of government functions. That a court can block his power seems to surprise him. That Congress may not roll over for his every request seems surreal. When he promotes ideas like maybe Putin is our friend, he can’t figure out why it upsets people.

With dogmatism, curiosity ebbs. With dysfunction comes the opportunity to take advantage of it. One of the most amazing things about the last two weeks has been the reaction from protesters. The Women’s March on Washington was a huge success. It is engaging women on all levels, including my wife who is typically disengaged. She has joined a local women’s club to figure out how to move the political needle. Scientists are planning a march on Washington. Democrats in the minority might just be able to block the nomination of the wholly unqualified nominee to run our Education department, Betsy DeVos. Wherever Trump goes protesters follow. This will probably be a persistent issue during his presidency.

Moreover, Trump looks like hell. He looks tired and hassled, like he is getting an endless high colonic. He looks like he’s added another twenty pounds. Maybe all those free White House chocolate chip cookies are too good to pass up. On some level he probably understands he is in way over his head, but it is on a very submerged level. Campaigning for president is fun; actually being president is rarely fun. You may live in a gilded cage, but a cage it is. Every action generates reaction. So many balls are in there air, but there is literally no way to catch them all. So things are done haphazardly when they are done at all. It is government by chaos and miscommunication.

Perhaps Trump will master all this in time, but the odds are he won’t. It’s hard to exercise the levels of power when you don’t know where the levers are. The result is more anarchy than government. Maybe anarchy is preferable to the reality he would unleash if he could actually manage change. However, it leaves the rest of us with a deep pit in our stomach, worried and waiting to see how this house of cards collapses. It is likely to be sooner rather than later.

The Thinker

Craigslist casual encounters weirdness: February 2017 edition

It’s the first weekend of the month and thus time for me to turn off my analytical brain and turn on my gawking brain. It’s that part of my brain that has me reading sites like People of Walmart and White Trash Repairs. In short, it’s that time of the month to revel in the gutter rather than shoot for the stars. Quite frankly it’s easier to get into the gutter than reach for the stars anyhow.

No place on the Internet though lies deeper in the gutter than Craigslist’s casual encounters section. I will confess it’s getting harder to find truly unique nuggets of gutter trash. Many posts run on similar themes. Still, I can usually find a couple every month, hopefully for your enjoyment.

Before I peer into the Craigslist gutter, I noted at least 192 web page hits for my Craigslist posts in January, out of 1015 total web page hits. My overall hit count has been trending down, but these Craigslist reviews still generate a significant amount of my traffic, at least 19% in January. Scanning the Hartford, Connecticut Craigslist Casual Encounters section on this cold but sunny Saturday on the first page of postings I find:

  • 31 men looking for a woman
  • 35 men looking for a man
  • 6 men looking for a couple
  • 2 men looking for a transgender person
  • 1 group of men looking for a man
  • 1 group of men looking for a couple
  • 13 women looking for a man
  • 2 couples looking for a man
  • 1 couple looking for a woman
  • 3 couples looking for another couple
  • 9 transgender people looking for a man
  • 3 transgender people looking for multiple men

Let’s see what the cat hasn’t dragged in yet:

  • She’s a woman looking for a dominant woman for daytime play. Why daytime? Because she’s got a husband and doesn’t want him to know. Still sounds pretty generic until you find the kink: she enjoys sniffing her own wet panties.
  • He’s a 45-year-old single man with red, white and black striped tights looking to get a woman pregnant, presumably the old fashioned way. Not sure what the motivation is here, unless he likes paying child support, as he is likely to do so if he succeeds in this quest. If I had to guess he’s had a vasectomy, isn’t actually single and this is his attempt to get some bits on the side.
  • Men, she says she’s from Enfield and wants nothing from you other than to give you head. Sound about perfect, but I’m betting there’s an exchange of some cash, a Mastercard or Visa in there somewhere.
  • This is likely to go wrong. “She” is actually a he (husband in this case I think) trying to find a woman to hit on his 26-year-old wife. Meet him at the bar and he’ll bring you home to meet his old lady who he claims loves lesbian porn. On the plus side, he’s unlikely to get any replies.
  • When you see four posts in a row from two men in Bristol, Connecticut looking for either a couple or another guy, it’s a good bet it’s all the same poster, or posters in this case. Also, they all have a picture of a guy’s hairy ass, which even if I were gay would be a turnoff for me. So I don’t expect this “couple” (I’m betting it’s just one guy) will be getting many inquiries. That’s probably why “they” have four different ads.
  • In case you are incredibly naïve, there are lots of ulterior motives for Craigslist posters, like blackmail. Case in point: a woman from Avon with New Jersey plates and driving a black Camaro. Run away!
  • For some women, size does matter and race does too. This 5’2”, 18-year-old woman needs 7 inches plus and black and rough.
  • He’s 23, from New Haven, a “cub” and looking for a “daddy” or “older bro” to spank him and (I swear I am not making this up) wash his mouth out with soap. Okay, there’s one kink I’ve never seen before on Craigslist.
  • So many of these ads from women look fake to me, but this one has the whiff of being legit. First, she’s black and is obviously taking her own selfie. Second it’s devoid of the more obvious signs of fakery: embedded phone numbers and inconsistent sentences. Third, she needs a man with extra between the legs, in the parlance a “bull” because she has a “cuck” of a man who needs to be humiliated. Dominant men, you could do a lot worse. Anyhow, the hotel room has been paid for and it would be a shame for it to go to waste.
  • He’s a 51-year-old single white male from Meriden looking for a female live in companion. No mention of the rent, so maybe it’s free and you put out instead of paying rent. Anyhow, must like dogs because he has one. Good luck poster but inviting some stranger to live with you sounds incredibly dangerous.
  • As you may recall there was a recent allegation that our president likes golden showers. This 44-year-old man from Newington is looking for a woman for this experience, but is hoping he doesn’t have to go to Russia and pay a high-class prostitute to get it.
  • Weaned too early and/or very giving and/or inclined toward your own sex? If you are a woman, this selfish 34-year-old woman from Manchester wants you to come over and nuzzle on her breasts while she takes a nap. She says it’s nonsexual. Hmmm.
  • I don’t understand the whole “daddy” thing, but I’m betting these “daddy” women read (and like) Shades of Grey. This one is more turned on if you are married too.

Okay, I think I’ve spent enough time in the gutter for February. Back to reading People of Walmart and see you in March.

The Thinker

Old man

The boundary between middle age and being an old man is increasingly fluid, but I figure I’m officially a geezer. Today I turn sixty. Which means I can’t realistically call myself middle age anymore. So geezer works, except it’s no big deal to be in your sixties these days. And since most of us will live into our eighties and maybe beyond, it’s hard to say you are old when you still have a lot of life ahead of you.

Unquestionably though most of my life is now behind me. Probably at least two thirds of it is in the past. From the perspective of being sixty, aging is a weird thing. Aging simultaneously feels both very fast and incredibly slow. The past reveals itself in brief snippets of memories but mostly it slipped by as a continuous stream that unfolded so fast you could not concentrate on its unfolding. Until I retired at age 57, most of life was like being on a treadmill. This is not necessarily bad. Living an engaged life keeps you from too much distraction or pondering things like your own mortality. For most of us, life is bountiful, not necessarily with happiness but certainly with events that we must surmount. Along the way we learn plenty of lessons. If we are smart and have the time, we focus on the lessons so we are unlikely to repeat them.

Much of my life has been really interesting. If forced to pick an optimal time to enter the world, 1957 would be about right. It has been sixty years of great change, great sorrow and awesome events. The other day my wife and I went to see Hidden Figures, the story of some amazing black women who were instrumental in the success of the American space program. The climax of the movie is John Glenn’s first flight in 1962, a successful but abbreviated three-orbit journey around the world, the first for an American. It’s one of my earliest memories. I was age five at the time and was watching the launch on TV with my mother and probably some siblings in Scotia, New York. I believe she was ironing through it.

Glenn was one of many luminaries that died in 2016. But I remember that day, as well as the first moon landing and many spaceflights before an after it. I remember coming of age during the civil unrest of the 1960s and the protests during the Vietnam War. I remember being outdoors clapping erasers when I learned of John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the moment at work when I heard that the space shuttle Challenger had exploded. I remember being caught in downtown D.C. on 9/11, smoke from the Pentagon rising against an otherwise deep blue western sky and a long trip home.

I remember punching cards to program a computer, the pre-Internet age when exploring cyberspace meant using a 1200-baud modem to dial into local electronic bulletin boards. I rode the crest of the information technology revolution into a successful career. I watched countless technologies rise and fall as we tried to perfect this Internet thing. I remember when using a web browser meant using Mosaic and using a PC meant typing commands from a DOS prompt.

Not bad for the first sixty years of life. Moreover, I never had to serve in any wars because I was never drafted, although I did have to register with the Selective Service. Life has been sometimes harsh, but in my case it was more kind than harsh. I was fortunate in many of life’s toughest decisions. Moving as a young adult to the Washington D.C. area proved very valuable for feeding a career and building wealth. We generally bought and sold houses at the ideal time. Stocks recovered just in time (thanks Obama!) for me to retire with some wealth in 2014. After a couple of years of reshuffling our lives we’ve retired, relocated and are primed to enjoy the geezer years right.

Things do change with age, and sometimes for the better. The impetuousness of youth is gone. The ability to savor life seems enhanced. The body doesn’t work quite the way it used to, but after six decades you would not expect it to. There is much to look forward to in this last stage of life. Research says this is the best time of life. So far I agree. I’ll really celebrate my birthday in March with a London theater tour. Waking up every day with the ability to do what I want and in financial security is a great blessing.

So I begin my seventh decade acknowledging that I am officially a geezer. I am doing my best to enjoy this time of life in the midst of national and international upheaval. Hope I can keep it going. I’m reminded of the words of the poet Robert Browning:

Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
the last of life,
for which the first was made.

The Thinker

Rise of the @alt_govs shows the true patriotism of federal workforce

Today begins the eighth day of the Trump presidency. What a whirlwind it has been! Trump has succeeded in keeping the focus on him by moving aggressively in many areas. So far it looks like more like chaos than management. Inside the White House at least a few aides were talking with the press about the new president, and what emerged was not flattering. A rogue Twitter account reputedly from inside the White House quickly was squelched but was archived. Meanwhile, a National Park Service employee retweeted a picture of crowd sizes on the Mall during the inauguration, comparing Trump’s unimpressive crowd size with Obama’s impressive crowd size in 2009.

This ill-advised action though turned out to be the opening salvo of the federal resistance to their new boss. Trump quickly noticed and as his fashion came down hard. The NPS and Department of Interior twitter feeds temporarily went down. Unfortunately for Trump, there is no master switch to turn off all the government’s Twitter feeds; it’s the nature of social media. Some employee at Badlands National Park in South Dakota tweeted some indisputable facts about the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere now compared to the pre-industrial age. The tweet was quickly deleted but Trump quickly sent out orders to many departments including the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency to freeze all public communications.

It quickly got Orwellian. During the campaign, Trump declared that climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese. Climate change data and reports started to disappear from federal websites. This is a realization of the exact fear that caused President Obama to encourage third parties to download this data before he left office.

As a retired federal employee last with the U.S. Geological Survey, I was alarmed yesterday when I learned that the USGS had removed some climate reports. Just nine days ago I had posted about this fear and what it would mean to USGS if it came to pass. It’s here already, on Day 8.

I have little doubt what is going on inside of USGS, a great place to work. Doubtless there is great alarm, as it is an institution chock full of scientists who were hired specifically because they would tell the truth to power through impartial scientific analysis. Thus I was not surprised to learn last night of an @alt_USGS Twitter account, so far with only 116 followers.

@alt_USGS is one of the newest newbies among these newbie @alt_gov Twitter accounts. In fact, they are all a direct response to Donald Trump’s bullying of federal agencies and their messages. Trump of course famously rose to power in part because of his use of Twitter. It’s looking that what’s good for Trump is also good for federal employees who don’t want to be muzzled. Pretty much every agency and department seems to have at least one @alt_gov Twitter feed.

These are logical but brave responses to the assault on federal agencies by the Trump Administration. It’s unclear how many of these feeds are actually managed by employees of these agencies. It’s not hard to guess that Trump is furious over these. Hopefully these feds are being very careful, posting from their own devices and only after official hours or when on breaks. It is likely that many of these feeds get a wink and a nod from the interim management in place, whose staff might be aiding and abetting these efforts.

Scanning @alt_USGS, it’s clear to me that these are actual USGS employees, or possibly retired USGS employees like me still connected with the organization. USGS allows scientists to retire with an emeritus status. I didn’t qualify as I am not a scientist, but those with emeritus status frequently volunteer part time at their old offices and may retain a small office. And they network, as I discovered first hand last November when I attended the USGS Retirees reunion in Nashville, which curiously ended on Election Day. Anyhow, having spent ten years with USGS, the feed is wholly consistent with the people I met there. So far at least it is largely nonpolitical, containing pictures that look like USGS employees might have taken them. When facts are mentioned they are scrupulously scientific.

There are dozens, if not hundreds of these Twitter feeds now doubtlessly drawing the wrath of Donald Trump. I expect he will try to find a way for his minions to crack down on these feeds. Given that he has no control over Twitter, it’s unlikely, but I expect he will try.

Federal employees are pretty good at watching behind their backs, but some are going to get caught and will be made examples of to intimidate others from trying. Providing there is no use of government time or resources, such attempts would not withstand a legal challenge, but bringing them would be intimidating. Despite federal whistleblower laws, any whistleblower in the federal government knows that they will likely be attacked punitively.

These @alt_gov actions really give lie to some myths about federal employees. The first one is that federal employees don’t care about their work. They clearly do and their work is so important that they will invest their own time and risk their careers to participate in these #resistance efforts. Second, they take their civil service oath seriously. While the president is their boss, they work for the people of the United States and swear an oath to be faithful to the constitution and its laws. The information being provided in these Twitter feeds are or should be part of public record.

Trump’s attempt to stifle information flow from federal agencies is likely to backfire, and this is the first overt sign that it already has. His orders to remove public access to areas like climate change data and reports are very likely illegal. Thus public employees fighting these efforts are true patriots, upholding the true spirit of the constitution and our law, providing of course that these tweets are faithful to their agency’s mission and the current law.

Barack Obama seems to agree. Rumor has it that he has subscribed to many of these @alt_gov accounts, tacitly giving them his endorsement. As he gets back from vacation it will be interesting to see how Obama will become part of this resistance.

The Thinker

Alternative facts and the puerile Trump Administration

I went to bed January 20th having largely succeeded in tuning out Donald Trump’s inauguration. Mission accomplished, at least in preserving my sanity that day. Instead I read brief snippets of online news summaries and went to my comfort zone. My comfort zone is to watch Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings on DVD, but I felt increasingly uneasy every time I saw Sauron’s eye of fire.

“Who knows what you have spoken to the darkness, alone, in the bitter watches of the night, when all your life seems to shrink, the walls of your bower closing in about you, a hutch to trammel some wild thing in?” spake Grima Wormtongue (Brad Dourif) to the lovely Lady Eowyn in The Two Towers which I watched that night. Around 4 a.m. I awoke to distant rumbling sounds that I could not place. In my fevered imagination it was the sound of nuclear weapons exploding and heading my way. Fortunately not even President Trump could act so rashly so quickly. My fears slowly faded, but I staggered through most of Saturday wondering if I was just unusually prescient. Time will tell.

Our newest president had bigger fish to fry on Saturday, mainly solving his huge case of cognitive dissonance. He had the biggest inauguration ever, the best! It was hugely huge but as usual the media were brazenly lying about it. Those must have been doctored photos of the Mall showing underwhelming crowds. Those many empty bleachers along Pennsylvania Avenue, must have been taken some time long before or after the parade:

Trump’s memories were completely different. After all he saw thousands of Muslims cheering as the Twin Towers went down on 9/11. On Saturday when up to a million protestors swarmed the Mall to protest Trump’s agenda, Trump sent out his newly minted press secretary Sean Spicer into the pressroom to tell the media they were lying about the crowd size at the inauguration. Sunday saw Trump’s advisor Kellyanne Conway telling NBC’s Chuck Todd that Spicer was presenting “alternative facts”, an opening oxymoron from an administration sure to be full of them. Monday found our new president fuming that he won the popular vote somehow because of three to 5 million votes that illegals cast for Hillary got counted, for which of course there is zero evidence.

Thankfully, at least at that moment, the press wasn’t having any of it. The media was rife with reports that this new administration was spewing lies. This of course only got Trump’s dander up more, which may explain why he wants to limit press briefings only to media friendly to him, as well as move the pressroom to the Old Executive Office Building. It’s much easier to believe in alternative facts when the press can’t confront you so easily.

This sure is plenty embarrassing, and it is likely to stay this way for the next four years, not to mention childish in the extreme. This is what happens when you put the crazies in charge, and when you populate your administration with “reporters” from, that’s what you get. No fact that doesn’t agree with their prejudices needs to be considered. You simply change the facts instead or invent new “facts” that are in fact not even facts. Problem solved!

Except of course this is totally crazy. Imagine going to the dentist to complain about a tooth pain and they decide to amputate a toe instead. That’s his “fact”. It won’t do anything to solve your tooth pain except maybe put you in such agony that you forget about it for a while. But, hey, it fits the narrative! That’s what counts.

I doubt our enemies will be so anti-fact based. Instead they will take action based on observed reality. When the administration takes action based on false information, the results are unlikely to be effective. But perhaps to Trump is doesn’t matter. No failure no matter how objectively provable matters. You just invent some alternative facts. Your supporters will follow like sheep … until possibly they hit that point where actual reality intercedes with these alternative facts and it causes them huge personal pain, such as when they lose their Obamacare for Trump’s new non-existent health plan. Then maybe they will wake the hell up.

Women were certainly awake on Saturday, protesting in the millions nationwide and across the world. As they plot a political comeback, don’t expect them to follow our foolish president. Expect them to use facts and a provable strategy to wrest political power from our anti-fact-based oligarchy and back to the people.

The Thinker

Can we skip 2017? And 2018-2020?

For the first time in my adult life, I won’t be watching the inauguration tomorrow. Of course when I watched it, I always watched it on television. You get a great view and there is never a line at the restroom. Unlike with Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009, it’s unlikely that the national mall will be jammed to capacity tomorrow. In fact, it may be the least attended inauguration in forty years or more.

It’s not surprising. District of Columbia residents voted 94% for Clinton, so they’re not going to show up. Both nearby Virginia and Maryland also went for Clinton, as well as the country. Clinton after all won the popular vote by over 2.9 million votes. Last I read DC officials had approved 200 bus permits for inauguration day, a record low. The protests the day afterward has at least 1000 bus permits approved. If you want to see hoopla, you might want to wait to turn on the TV until Saturday. So many entertainers have refused to perform at his inauguration festivities that he may be reduced to the U.S. army band. At least they can be made to attend.

Anyhow, I won’t be watching. I’ll be avoiding media tomorrow, which is one reason I’m getting this off today. For many of us it will be a black day, made blacker by the overwhelming nature of the unqualified people Donald Trump has chosen for his cabinet. One after another they embarrassed themselves at their confirmation hearings. Nominee Rick Perry at least apologized for wanting to get rid of the Department of Energy. He was so naïve that he had no idea that its principal mission is to regulate our atomic energy and nuclear stockpile. Even a Tea Party Republican will make an exception for the Department of Energy, well, at least those who take the time to learn about its mission, and that wasn’t Rick Perry. And so it went and is going, nominee after nominee. If you were looking for the least qualified people to head up the departments they will probably be running, they’ve been in front of Congress exposing their woeful ignorance. But I guess if you are trying to drain the swamp, why not throw in a whole bunch of stink bombs and hope the swamp’s denizens quickly evacuate?

Some really can’t leave, and that includes some three million federal employees, one of which used to be me. I spent my last ten years before retirement with the U. S. Geological Survey, part of the U.S. Department of the Interior. A big part of its mission (aside from the earthquakes) is monitoring climate change. Our new president has declared it to be a hoax created by the Chinese, so naturally plenty of them are scared they will be intimidated into publishing false science or fired when their mission is declared over.

For over 100 years, even through conservative administrations like Bush II and Reagan, the USGS has been protected from political pressure. That’s probably not going to happen this time around, at least not with Ryan Zinke as the new Interior Secretary. When Bush II was president, the USGS got an Alaskan geologist for its director, and even he managed to leave the USGS nonpolitical. Naturally, I keep in touch with many of my former colleagues still working there. They are appalled and frightened by the ignoramus in chief about to be unleashed. Those who could retire mostly opted to do so on January 1.

Trump has already promised to freeze federal hiring. If draining the swamp means destroying a government we’ve spent centuries carefully building, this is a great way to affect change. The federal workforce is predominantly older anyhow. Without fresh blood coming in, it’s going to wither on the vine. Each agency is a complex system. Knowledge is primarily transferred via mentoring. With older employees leaving and no new ones coming in, those left will be increasingly ignorant, just like their new leaders.

There are signs that America is waking up. Saturday we’ll see plenty of them on the mall angrily protesting. Trump’s pre-inauguration approval ratings are dismal, reaching levels not seen since Jimmy Carter was sworn in. As his appointees get confirmed and bumble badly through their new roles, the press will be rife with lurid stories reporting their endless boondoggles. Obama ran a virtually scandal-free administration. Trump’s has already started; it’s clear that from the moment he is sworn in he’ll be in violation of the Emoluments Clause of the constitution.

For Trump, it’s unlikely that Republicans will hold him to account for it. Once the master bullies, they are now the bullied. Trump warns them via tweets that they better not oppose him. They would be wise not to do so, as his supporters will raise holy hell if they do. These portraits of courage under Obama will prove wallflowers under Trump. So expect Republicans mostly to sit on their hands while we drop Russian sanctions, reduce our commitment to NATO and as he makes impulsive and catastrophically bad decisions in the months and years ahead.

For me this would be a good time to go into a coma, to be woken in four or eight years. I’m not sure we’ll still have a country then, but I’m hardly the only one not anxious not to watch this predictable wreckage to our once great country. I can fight like hell, but traveling 400 miles to D.C. to protest Saturday won’t be one action I’ll take, although there are plenty of marches locally that I can easily attend.

Or I could do what my wife is doing and literally escape. Her birthday falls on Inauguration Day. I happened to be out of town the night Trump was elected. I came home to find her barely functional, all her muscles tense, sleepless, with chronic headaches and crying a lot. Most of her friends are in the LGBTQ community and they were in a similar state. In the weeks that followed she did not get much better. Her relief is to fly to Aruba, hole up at a B&B near the beach for a few days, read trash and go nowhere near the news. She comes back early Monday morning at which time I expect she will be headachy again, her muscles all taunt, her lower back a mass of agony and despondent. And then the real carnage starts. But at least for a few days she can escape it all.

Welcome to 2017. Thought 2016 was bad? It was just a warm-up.

The Thinker

Resolve not to diet this year – it’s probably the healthy choice

Since it’s the New Year, many of us have resolved to lose a few pounds, or more than a few pounds. Given the propensity of obesity in the country, many of us have probably resolved not just to take off dozens of pounds or more, but to permanently take them off too. Somehow this year, unlike all those other years, we’re finally going to summon the energy and commitment that ultimately we lacked in all those other years when we made similar pledges but ultimately failed.

Perhaps you’ve had the same conversation with your doctor that I’ve had. You go for a checkup, you are overweight and they suggest you lose weight for your health. I told my doctor lots of times that I’m great at losing weight. During my last big attempt in 2013 I lost more than thirty pounds in a little over two months. It was amazing how incredibly fast I lost that weight and without feeling particularly hungry. But that was more than three years ago. I’ve put it all back on and some extra.

This of course is the story of all my dieting over the years and probably yours as well. I might add that through all this dieting and not, I’ve never shirked staying physically fit. Most days I get my 10,000 steps in and I’m at the health club regularly. My latest blood test shows no issues with pre-diabetes, cholesterol or the usual things that alarm doctors. I’m basically a healthy overweight late middle age adult.

So I’ve been arguing with my doctors. They concede that with a few exceptions most of their patients who have taken off weight have put it back on and then some too. They really don’t have any solution to this problem other than to eat less and exercise more, something proven not to work for most people. If you are diabetic or have high cholesterol of course there are things you can do to address those issues. Obsessing about your weight is probably not one of them, but eating better and exercising regularly may be.

The evidence is clear for those of us that choose to see it: dieting almost always causes subsequent weight gain in excess of what you took off. In short, dieting works for a little while then it will recoil, exacerbating the problem. And you will doubtlessly feel guilty about the weight you’ve put back on, figuring it is due to some fault or lack of character on your part. Dieting then becomes not just a physical problem but a mental one too.

But here’s what the diet industry won’t tell you: it’s not your fault. Every time you diet your body sensibly thinks it is being starved and keeping it alive is its primary mission. It learns lessons by lowering your metabolism, so every calorie packs more punch. And because the body says, “I am not at the weight I should be” it will cause you to crave more food. The diet industry depends on diets to fail so you will start the cycle of concern and shame again and they can collect more money by building false hope.

In truth you don’t need to be a Skinny Minnie. And you don’t have to spend the rest of your life fighting cravings for food. The yo-yo dieting cycle will probably do more to kill you prematurely than being overweight and controlling your weight.

So resolve to stop dieting in this New Year. It’s counterproductive. Barring some new drugs that can reset your metabolism permanently (now there’s an area for some medical research!) you probably aren’t going to be a Skinny Minnie for the rest of your life. You may achieve it for a time, but the odds are you will yo-yo back.

Of course if you are overweight or obese and you continue eating the way you are now, you will probably gain more weight. But the reason you are eating more is that you have lost the ability to eat intuitively. That’s the premise behind Intuitive Eating, a book by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, two registered dieticians, a program with more than twenty years of success. Dieting has caused our signals to get crossed. Among other things we have lost the ability to feel satiated.

Learning to eat intuitively again introduces natural control over diet without feeling like you are giving up anything. This should give you a feeling of empowerment, feeling you can enjoy food again and reduce the pointless guilt trips that come with diets that rarely succeed in the long run. After months of pondering where to go from here in my journey, it is the next logical step. I’ve enrolled in a local Intuitive Eating course and the book is our foundational text. I’ll let you know how it goes.

It’s worth discussing what causes this destructive cycle in the first place. Part of it is clearly models, both literally and figuratively. Models are typically very slim and many have chronic eating problems of their own. We also tend to model actors, who are disproportionately slim and attractive as well. We project onto ourselves that they are examples of who we should be.

In fact, models and actors are the exceptions to the rules, freaks really compared to the rest of us. Those who are not dealing with their own eating disorders though are at a normal weight mainly because they are intuitive eaters. I have an older brother who is an intuitive eater. He always ate slowly and has been skinny his whole life. The rest of us: not so much. What they are doing is not all that special. It’s something they’ve had their whole life and no events have come along to set it out of kilter. Moreover, because they have not yo-yo dieted, their metabolism is relatively inefficient, meaning they can eat more of the same foods the rest of us do and by processing it differently they will convert less of it into calories.

The second part comes from body shaming. Parents seeing their children getting overweight will often start them on a rigorous exercise regime, often with calorie restrictions. This is the beginning of a destructive, often lifelong yo-yo dieting cycle, one that will likely cause a lot of mental distress, and drive overeating and insecurity. One of the worse things parents can do is restrict food choices for their children. Instead they should make food plentiful and available when desired and children will eat intuitively.

For those of us for which all this is too late, learning how to eat intuitively again makes a lot of sense. While we are unlikely to be Skinny Minnies again, we will regain weight control, stop the chronic craving that cause us to overeat, bring our metabolism into balance, lose the guilt, enjoy food again and feel we have control over our lives again.

That sounds like a resolution I can keep.


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