Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A Twitter Thread Vol VIII - Chasing Shiny Objects

Did you hear how the President is going to let Paul Ryan hang out on a limb with the rob-from-the-poor-give-to-the-rich Affordable Care Act repeal? The DC media has become as conspiratorial as a JFK Assassination convention, but instead of looking at Occam's Razors, they look for Area 51. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Book Review - The Road To Little Dribbling

I really like Bill Bryson’s writing. I own both books he wrote on English usage and have read several other of his works, including A Walk in the Woods, At Home (my book of the year in 2011), and One Summer.  The Bill Bryson I know is avuncular if bit irascible, the paradigm of a public radio host with a bit of a salty tongue about him. So, when Bryson puts out a new book, even on a topic that might not interest me, say, traveling in Great Britain, I am definitely going to read it. Which is why writing this review of The Road to Little Dribbling is so difficult. I really did not like this book. It was by turns churlish and meandering, with a sense of “mailing it in” that surprised and disappointed me. It was as if Bryson’s editor told him it was time to crank out another book and the best they could come up with was revisiting a topic (and place) already explored. 

But Bryson is no stranger in a strange land. He has lived in England off-and-on for decades and wrote a similar book (Notes From A Small Island) that The Road is a sort-of sequel to. Indeed, one of the first chapters documents his taking the British citizenship test (he passes). Oddly, for someone so versed in English culture, Bryson all too often comes off as the quintessential ugly American (which is ironic, considering he was born in Iowa). He reserves his sharpest barbs and insults for people who work in the service industry - waiters, shopkeepers and the like - who Bryson dismisses and demeans while fantasizing about inflicting bodily injury to them for the temerity of not giving him what he wants. It is not a good look and Bryson falls on the wrong side of the line between curmudgeon and straight up asshole more often than not. 

The Road has the feel of a musical album of outtakes and lost tracks, something that record companies put out long after the Tupacs or Elvises of the world have left us. I hate to call this book a cash grab because it does have salutary aspects, but it lacks originality and was not thought through. For instance, Bryson visits many places that do not appear on the lone map provided at the beginning of the book, including Wales, and no line of demarcation is provided for the border between England and another part of Great Britain that he also visits - Scotland, so through much of the book you have no idea where he is unless you also have Google maps open on whatever device is handy. 

Further, the so-called “Bryson Line” - a sort of Broadway separating the eastern and western halves of Great Britain is not followed with any particular fidelity. For more than the first half of the book Bryson rattles around the southern coast and then knocks off the upper two-thirds in a scant 100 pages or so. It is odd for a book to feel both padded and too short, but The Road achieves this rare daily double. There is a lather, rinse, repeat quality to the reporting - Bryson enters <fill in blank town> finds nearest pub, has a drink with either a charmingly British bartender or a dismissive one, eats an Indian meal next door, and goes to bed. There are many greens and glens, craggy cliffs, and quirky one-offs, but the whole is far less than the some of the parts. The book suffers from far too little editing to whittle down the essentials while failing to give the type of visual or spatial guidance that would have been helpful. 

Bryson would have been better served traveling to a country he was unfamiliar with or perhaps it is just that he is a poor ambassador for the country he is familiar with - much of The Road includes discursive references to traffic, the poor design of the highway (sorry, motorway) system, the disagreeability of the native people, and so forth. When he is not being an obnoxious jerk or fantasizing about beating some poor soul over the head with his cane, Bryson can be an enjoyable tour guide. The best parts of The Road are those where Bryson acts as historian and storyteller at the sites he visits. A page summary on Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile and Stonehenge’s less famous sister site Avebury are Bryson at his best. 

In the final chapter, Bryson discusses what he likes about England, noting that “living in a British climate teaches patience and stoicism.” The same could be said for slogging through The Road To Little Dribbling.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Book Review - A Path To Peace

Buried near the end of George Mitchell and Alon Sachar’s book A Path To Peace, the authors say:

U.S. administrations come and go, but the Israeli-Palestinian conflict goes on.

In addition to winning the “Captain Obvious” award, this observation neatly captures why, as we approach the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War that led to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a peace treaty between the two people remains elusive. In part, this is because of the inherent challenge in negotiating a settlement where one party is being asked to give up something tangible (land/strategic military depth) for something intangible (peace) and as the authors explore, how entrenched positions built up over decades of mistrust, death, and destruction have made a peace treaty seem like a pipe dream. 

A Path is two small books in one. The first, a 101-level seminar on the modern history of the Middle East given by a man steeped in the fine points of diplomacy is executed flawlessly, while the second, a tick tock of recent attempts to bring the parties back to the negotiating table, is less successful. 

The tutorial that fills the book’s first half would be of use to the current occupant of the White House. It does not get too deep in the weeds while giving the reader a good sense of the historical grievances each people have. But when Mitchell and Sachar move toward the more recent past, the book’s pace slows. This is not their fault. President Clinton’s efforts during the tail end of his Presidency were the closest the parties ever came to an agreement, but since that high water mark, efforts to finalize a deal have proven elusive. The authors do a bit of rehabilitation of President Bush’s time in office by giving him (deserved) credit for trying to push the parties toward an agreement in the latter part of 2007 and 2008. But when that effort also fell short, war broke out in the Gaza Strip not long after and whatever hope of resolving this decades-long dispute went out the window. 

Mitchell enters the picture as the rubble is being cleared in Gaza but after putting forth two peace proposals (not to mention unilaterally withdrawing from the Gaza Strip) it is clear the Israelis determined that a hoped for agreement was a mirage. Mitchell chronicles his time as Special Envoy but he is not helping the parties get an agreement over the goal line, he is working with people who are in many ways back at square one. 

The problem with this part of the story is that it is simply not very compelling. And this is no fault of Mitchell or his co-author. They revel in the intricacies and nuance of negotiation, it is just that the time period of Mitchell’s involvement in the process was neither fruitful nor newsworthy. Mitchell ended up spinning his wheels trying to bargain for a settlement freeze in the West Bank while the Palestinians dithered over whether they would negotiate directly or indirectly with the Israelis. Small victories, like public meetings between the leaders, failed to bear more meaningful fruit and Mitchell quit the assignment within two years. 

The “path” Mitchell and Sachar outline in the book’s final 20 pages is more like a sketch, suggesting a few things the international community can do (setting up a refugee fund for Palestinians that could be tapped once an agreement was signed, extending NATO membership to Israel) along with a painstaking set of “trust building” measures. But these ideas are unrealistic so long as the parties continue on their present course. Having made serious offers in 2000-1 and 2007-8, it seems clear the Israelis have made a decision that a peace agreement is simply not in the cards and have moved on. The Palestinians are fractured between the Hamas-led Gaza Strip and the Palestinian Authority running parts of the West Bank while holding out for an even better deal than the ones they turned down. 

But the parties’ posture only makes any final agreement that much harder to reach. The deal the Palestinians rejected in 2001 got worse in many ways by 2008 because more settlers had made their way to the West Bank. Similarly, any deal that is negotiated now will displace even more people even as Israel slowly, inexorably expands its footprint into what is supposed to be territory that makes up a future Palestinian state. 

Israelis are coming around to various ideas that would have seemed insane when the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993 - some want the government to annex the West Bank and grant Palestinians some form of second-class citizenship, others suggest unilateral withdrawal behind the “security barrier,” thereby creating a de facto Palestinian state but without any of the safety guarantees the Israelis desire. On the Palestinian side, advocates now dream of a “one-state” solution where Israel absorbs the Gaza Strip and West Bank and everyone living in it with equal rights and citizenship that would give Palestinians access to a dynamic economy and political representation. 

Of course, none of these is any more realistic than the totemic two-state solution that has animated negotiations for the past 25 years. The Israelis will no sooner forfeit political hegemony (not to mention the hard-fought economic stability they have worked for since 1948) in a one-state solution than the Palestinians would accept an apartheid-like second class citizenship for those living in the West Bank and Gaza. In the Middle East, it is rarely the carrot that works and until someone is wielding a stick that either (or both sides) fear, there is no end in sight to the conflict. 

For my own part, I have always thought the framework of the two-state solution everyone seems wedded to makes little sense. The idea of having a Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip on one side and a PLO-controlled West Bank on the other would make Israel the only country I can think of with a hostile neighbor bordering it on BOTH sides. As I wrote about at further length, better to have all the Jews (and Israeli Arabs) on one side and all the Palestinians on the other. To achieve this, I propose moving all the Gazans to the West Bank and the Jewish settlers to the Gaza Strip (or back into Israel proper). This solution would give the Israelis greater strategic depth while requiring all Palestinians to live under one roof. It would also provide both countries with a single,  contiguous border. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

A Widow's Grief

Carryn Owens was in the House chamber last night when President Trump spoke to a joint session of Congress. Her husband, Chief Petty Officer William (Ryan) Owens, was killed during a military raid in Yemen just a few weeks ago. It was reported in the press (I did not watch the speech) that the applause CPO Owens and his widow received was the loudest of the evening. The President himself noted that Owens must hear the cheering in heaven.


While it is pedestrian gross to use the death of a member of our military for political gain, it is a special kind of gross to trot out a widow for such a public spectacle when you (the President) cared so little about the details surrounding the raid, you reportedly approved it between courses of dinner with your political advisors in tow and did not even bother to stop by the Situation Room at the White House during the operation to check on its status. It is also a special kind of gross for members of the Republican party who made the tragic death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others in Benghazi a cause célèbre for years to ignore the sketchy circumstances surrounding Owens’s death and the apparent lack of rigor that went into signing off on the mission.


It might be too much to ask for that the sacrifices of our military be apolitical, but for the man who approved a mission under questionable circumstances to use a dead man’s widow as a prop to make himself look good is a level of cynicism rarely reached in politics. That the media pointed to it as a high point for Trump and not another sub-basement of his venality, is another story altogether.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy

Sunday, February 26, 2017

A Twitter Thread Vol VII - F*ck The White House Correspondents Dinner

Yesterday, Cheeto announced he was not going to attend this year's White House Correspondents Dinner. The dinner, affectionately known as "Nerd Prom" (h/t @anamariecox) is a staple of "official" Washington. In recent years, it has taken on the air of the Oscars, with a full red carpet, hours of "pre game" discussion on cable news, and a parade of Hollywood celebrities rubbing elbows with the Wolf Blitzers, Chuck Todds, and Rachel Maddows of the world.

What the WHCA also is as an elite, totally-removed-from-the-struggles-of-ordinary-Americans exercise in self-congratulatory behavior. A pigs-sitting-around-the-table-at-the-end-of-Animal-Farm spectacle where the lie of Washington is exposed for all to see. The fighting, the filibustering, the hours of talking head debate on TV is the political equivalent of professional wrestling - highly scripted, with the characters acting out their roles, except here it is the lives of those ordinary Americans being toyed with, not some story line where evil is triumphing until good prevails. 

As I noted in the below thread, the median income at the WHCA is surely far greater, perhaps as much as an order of magnitude greater, than that of "ordinary" Americans. And when politicians and reporters, celebrities and movie stars don their tuxedos and formal gowns to congratulate each other on what swell people they all are, it could not be a louder "screw you" to the rest of us if they didn't scream it all out in unison.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Book Review - Future Sex

Google “photos of Times Square from the 1970s” and you will be flooded with images of garish neon light and promises of available women. The peep shows and porn shops that Martin Scorsese made iconic in Taxi Driver were of a distilled prurience that avoided the hippie vibe of free love and did not have the patina of bourgeois hedonism found at Studio 54. Previous generations were scandalized by women wearing dresses that showed a bare ankle, Paris in the 19th century was a hotbed for behind-closed-doors sexual experimentation, and there are probably a few cave drawings that would be called pornography even today. It is to say that sex, in its many and varied forms, has long obsessed us even as we often try to wrap a plain brown bag around it and pretend it does not exist. 

Emily Witt is not the first writer, nor will she be the last, to delve into this duality, and the cover of her book Future Sex is its own 21st century Times Square billboard - a woman with a smart phone between her arched legs, a dull glow emanating from it, beckons the reader to open the front cover and peer inside. Witt is a game tour guide through the nether regions of sexuality. She attends sex parties, porn shoots, and Burning Man, engages in “orgasmic meditation,” and dabbles in webcam play. Through much of it, Witt maintains an authorly distance, and avoids judgment of her subjects, be they the couple who make a living having sex on the Internet or another twosome who have a revolving door of lovers in an open relationship. 

So long as monogamous relationships are the norm, anything written about anything other than that will stand in contrast and therefore be titillating, an object of curiosity, and “other.” So it is here. Witt has some winning lines like “The panda gang bang took place deep in the basement of the Kink armory …” but as with much in today’s society, there is little new under the sun, it is simply easier for a light to be shined on it. Polyamory, eastern philosophies as a gateway to sexual freedom, and pornography are not new and while the Internet has afforded people new chances to remunerate their sexuality or explore it in novel ways, the underlying experience, be it of BDSM, cosplay, group sex, or any of the other rainbow variety of sex that Witt explores and discusses, was not invented yesterday. 

What has changed (and mostly for the better) is society’s attitude toward that otherness. What was once shielded behind a curtain or considered sin has largely been mainstreamed. Witt reaches for broader themes because of this newfound reality. The definition of sex work is much broader than it once was so it is easier to connect, say, economic dislocation and the downturn in the job market to people webcamming their sex acts as a way to make money. Similarly, young, affluent techies in Silicon Valley are searching for a different plane of existence through the use of MDMA while plotting their sexual trysts on Google calendars for their polyamorous partners to study and consider. This may seem novel, but other than the technological wizardry and substitution of MDMA for LSD, such behavior would not have been out of place in the Haight-Ashbury of the late 1960s. 

In part, this book is also pitched as Witt’s own exploration of what relationships and sex mean to her, a woman in her early 30s, but she can be an unreliable narrator. The book begins with her taking a months-long hiatus from the single life in Brooklyn by moving to San Francisco, but at some point along the way, she demurs at having sex at an orgy because she has a boyfriend back home, while her trip to Burning Man is occasion to have sex with a casual friend and a man she meets there called Lunar Fox. Because the book’s time line is never explicitly given, the temporal shifts left me confused as to whether Witt was a woman exploring the possibilities of alternative dating options or an anthropologist jotting down field notes. Maybe it was a little of both, but as a meditation on “future sex” I found the book less convincing. Today’s world may be glossier and filled with young people whose pockets are lined with wealth earned in the tech book, but at base, the desires are no different than the seamy Times Square of 40 years ago.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Thursday, February 23, 2017

A Twitter Thread Vol VI - Media Gaslighting

There has been a lot of media pearl clutching at some of the more radical policies Trump has instituted. Oddly, those same members of the media ignore the fact that their wall-to-wall smearing of Hillary Clinton during the campaign, the days-long stories about her pneumonia, the weeks of coverage of her email server, Benghazi, and on and on, helped elect Trump. And oh yeah, reporting on email the media knew to be stolen by the Russians didn't help either ... 

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A Twitter Thread Vol V - No Really, What's The Matter With Kansas?

After starving his state of revenue by massively cutting corporate and personal taxes, Gov. Sam Brownback took to Twitter to brag about a tax increase he vetoed. Under Brownback, Kansas has conducted a real-time experiment in the so-called "supply side" economics theory that first infected Washington, D.C. when Reagan became President. The idea is simple - cut taxes on the "job creators" (read: rich people and corporations) and the massive spike in economic growth will make up for the lowered tax rates. Only problem? It does not work. At the federal level, the growth was never enough to make up for the reductions, not to mention those pesky commitments to things like Medicare or Republican fetishes with military spending cost money. Oh, and loose regulation also encourage morally questionable decision making. It's no coincidence that the Savings and Loan crisis, two Wall Street crashes and three recessions happened under our last three Republican Presidents. Anywho, enjoy this little thread ...

Monday, February 20, 2017

A Twitter Thread Vol IV - Supply Side Economics 3.0

The idea that "deficits don't matter" if famously attributed to Dick Cheney quoting Ronald Reagan. This morning, a story from AXIOS indicated that Republicans are prepared to go to the supply side well for a third time (Reagan 1981, Bush 2001/2003) selling the same snake oil (or is it voodoo economics?) that a spike in production and economic growth will make up for the hole that's about to be cut into the Treasury's revenue stream. If it is true that "fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me" what happens the third time around? 

Friday, February 17, 2017

A Twitter Thread Vol III - Defunding PBS, NEA, AmeriCorps & Legal Services

Collectively, these programs are hundredths of one percent of the federal budget, but hey, people like PBS, college graduates serve in their communities, and lawyers defend poor people, so let's defund them. Makes sense. Can you feel the economic anxiety, everyone?