Saturday, June 24, 2017

Book Review - The Only Language They Understand

Fifty years and nine U.S. Presidents after Israel crushed its Arab enemies in the Six-Day War, resolution of the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians is not close at hand. The corpus dissecting this dispute is already voluminous and to that pile we now add Nathan Thrall’s The Only Language The Understand a jeremiad directed largely at Israel with a central argument (Israeli and Palestinian concessions only occur under pressure from the U.S.) that is iffy at best.

Thrall’s book is an odd duck. His position that Israel must be brought to heel via heavy-handed U.S. negotiating tactics has some historical support. In 1956, 1974, 1977, and 1991, Presidents of both parties used a variety of sticks (and no carrots) to obtain Israeli compliance for everything from withdrawal after the 1956 War to opening talks in Madrid that led (indirectly) to the Oslo Accord two years later. On the other hand, Thrall laments what he sees as America’s default strategy — kowtowing to Israeli while demanding concessions from the Palestinians. At the same time, Thrall argues, Palestinian positions have weakened over time through the application of force against it (he largely dismisses the decades-long terrorist activities of groups like the PLO, PLFP, and more recently, Hamas).

For seventy or so pages, Thrall pushes his position with confidence and persuasive power. However, after laying out his argument in the book’s extended first chapter, the remainder of the book is a series of non-sequential essays previously published on a variety of topics central to the region’s long-standing dispute. Readers weave through recent battles fought in Gaza, and are taken back in time to the Oslo Accords and their aftermath. 

It is enough to give you whiplash. By the time Thrall gets back to his thesis, he undermines it entirely by pointing out a basic reality of American politics — no matter how “pro-Palestinian” an American president is perceived to be (and the right falsely castigated Obama as such throughout his eight years in office) or attempts to exert even modest pressure on the Israelis, a solid, bipartisan majority in Congress will rise to Israel’s defense. 

Short of the type of international opprobrium levied at apartheid-era South Africa that reached a critical mass in the mid-1980s (and even so, without U.S. support), there is far less leverage to exert over Israel than in the past, and that is because the Israel of 2017 is not just a military power, but an economic one as well - more technologically advanced than almost any other country on earth, exporting its ideas as well as its material across the globe, and expanding its diplomatic reach with countries and regions of the world as a backstop against possible repercussions attendant to its failure to negotiate a peace deal with the Palestinians. 

Moreover, one of the unintended consequences of our invasion of Iraq in 2003 has been the rise of Iran as a regional power and the resulting partnership of necessity between Israel and its Sunni neighbors. As Thrall notes, intelligence sharing between Israel and Sunni-led Saudi Arabia exists (albeit largely unspoken) as Shia Iran has extended its reach into Iraq and moved into Syria to prop up Assad.

Thrall’s bias is apparent and not hidden. If blame is to assigned, his finger invariably points to Israel. He argues that Palestinians are put in the position of sacrificing a tangible goal (statehood on most of the land Israel has occupied since 1967) for intangible concessions (the moral concession of acknowledging Israel as a Jewish state and disclaiming rights to land promised it in 1947.) However, the same argument could be made on the other side - Israel is sacrificing something tangible (land and security via the creation of a Palestinian state on either side of its borders) for something intangible (assurances that such an agreement will result in peace, and not afford Palestine the time needed to build a military to start another war.) He also gives short shrift to the variety of proposals Israeli leaders have put forward from Camp David to Taba to Annapolis only to have them rebuffed by Palestinian leadership without meaningful alternatives. 

Thrall is also unduly sympathetic toward Hamas - gliding past its terrorist activities and military tactics of kidnapping Israelis soldiers to extract bargains from Israel or its cynical placement of armaments in schools and hospitals - putting Israel in the impossible position of choosing to ignore the existence of these weapons or risk killing innocent people Hamas has put in harm’s way. That Hamas garners popular support is itself an indicator that Palestinians are uninterested in a legitimate peace deal, but Thrall has no time for moral equivalence, for him, Israel holds all the cards and thus, if not all, than certainly the lion’s share, of moral failing. 

Curiously, the reader will search The Only Language They Understand in vein for Thrall’s ideas on how to break this gridlock. And that is unsurprising. Ultimately, there is a Kabuki theater about all of this. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators know each other well and mingle and socialize behind closed doors (and off the record) when the inevitable new push for a peace deal comes from America. Their positions are as scripted as a professional wrestling match and each has incentives to feign interest in accommodation without getting any closer to a deal. For Israel, it delays any international attempts to force its hand (such as the so-called “boycott, divest, and sanctions” movement) while ensuring a steady flow of military aid and political cover from the U.S. For the Palestinian leadership, they receive sympathy in Western Europe and aid packages that forestall economic collapse. And if the feints toward compromise do not work, each side knows that they can just wait out foreign powers whose attention wanes or is diverted to other matters.


Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy and read Israelis-on-one-side-Palestinians-on-the-other peace proposal here: http://scarylawyerguy.blogspot.com/2011/10/30-second-solution-to-middle-east-peace.html?m=0 







Sunday, June 18, 2017

Book Review - Word By Word

One hundred twenty eight pages into Kory Stamper’s winning book Word by Word a footnote is dropped defining “desert” in the sense (definition) of “just deserts.” Reading this passage before bed, I wondered if I was letting my eyes droop - was this some inside joke? Did Stamper intentionally misspell “desserts” to see if readers were paying attention? Did this slip past the book’s editor? Was I missing something? Of course, I had the luxury of typing “just deserts” into Google and discovered that this idiom, which means “getting what one deserves,” dates to the 1300s and has retained its unconventional spelling even in modern day. Lesson learned. And I suspect that the Venn diagram of people who are drawn to reading about how dictionaries are produced, what lexicographers do, and how challenging a job it is to simply define a word (see above) and are inclined to look up terms like “just deserts” while reading Word by Word is a near complete circle. 

Stamper, a lexicographer (“writer of dictionaries”) with Merriam-Webster, is a wonderful guide for those who love the English language. There is, as expected, a liberal sprinkling of fifty-cent words like defenestration and foofaraw, but Kemper also leavens her writing with equal good humor and the strategically placed swear word. Although she is at pains to lament her (and her colleagues’) general introversion, she is a sharp wit whose writing leaps off the page. To take one example, Stamper recounts a disagreement she had with a co-worker regarding the definition of the word “outershell.” She had defined the word as “a protective covering.” Her co-worker edited it to read “a protective outer covering.” She protested - you do not use the word to define the word and besides, by using “covering” the implication was clear that one thing was outside the other. But, he protested, the word being defined is not “outer” but “outershell,” so the “don’t use a word to define a word” rule did not apply. Her response:

I was perturbed. “Covering,” to me, already conveys outside-ness, not inside-ness. It is covering something; there is something inside it; it is outside the thing it is covering. Q.E. Motherfucking D. (emphasis in the original)

I mean, how great is that? At another turn, she laments the cottage industry of amateur lexicographers who are trying their hand at defining words as they come into popular use. In a discussion of the word “hella,” she poo poos a t-shirt with the word and several definitions (“an excessive amount,” “large quantity,” “more than above what is necessary”) by asking rhetorically, “Dude, do you even English?” Here, the amateur was too-cute-by-half and should have stuck to hella’s colloquial usage as “very” or “extremely.” (“This is a hella good book review, Scary Lawyer Guy.” “Thanks, reader.”)

The book can feel dense at times (I got a bit lost in the chapter on phonetic pronunciation, and the granular detail on different squiggly lines used in the editorial process still eludes me) but I suspect that the self-selecting group of people who are passionate about the English language and the words that make it up will not mind. In all of this wonderful detail is the type of behind-the-scenes information that leads people to fall down rabbit holes of research into the origins of words like “posh” (apocryphally noted as an acronym for “port side out, starboard side home” to indicate first-class passage on ships of yesteryear), “cop” (constable on patrol), and “Boston marriage” (a long-term love affair between two women). 

The irony is that at a time when more words are being “created” than ever before, the industry is, like many others consumed by the Internet, if not dying, than certainly limping along. Where at one point updates were produced every few years (and truly seminal works like the Third International spawned took more than 20 years and spawned books of their own (see, The Story of A’int)), now, online dictionaries have sprouted to further reduce profit margins even as lexicographers are needed more than ever. As Stamper notes, terms like “on fleek” and “mansplaining” arose out of nowhere and quickly became integral to the lexicon (the former is credited to a sixteen-year-old who used it in a six second video in June 2014 and by November of that year 10 percent of google searches were for that term, the latter spawning its own sub-industry of “-splaining” offshoots.)

Stamper is also here to slay a few shibboleths - do feel free to end your sentences with a preposition and reconsider your knee jerk rejection of irregardless. Do you furrow your brow at the death of proper English at the hands of millennials and smart phones? Reconsider your opprobrium; OMG is found in the private letters of Winston Churchill from almost one hundred years ago. Word nerds will relish Kemper’s deft hand in parsing “phonemic” and “phonetic” in a chapter on pronunciation and experience a tinge of jealousy that jobs exist that do not require any contact or communication with other human beings (Stamper paints a picture not unlike the coding hive on Silicon Valley but instead of 1s and 0s, Stamper and her team spend their days diagraming sentences and coming up with just the right way to describe the word measly.) 

Ultimately, Stamper sums up my feeling about Word By Word better than I can. In the chapter discussing the wonderful tradition at Merriam-Webster of giving written responses to all questions posed by readers, she notes: “It’s an even rarer thing to love words and find a group of other people who not only love them as much as you do, but also know a lot about them . . .” I could not agree more.



Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 


Saturday, June 17, 2017

Giants Stadium - 6/17/91

When I walked (stumbled?) out of RFK Stadium on July 12, 1990, my mind was fully blown. The three hours I had just spent having my brain bent by the Grateful Dead had far less to do with anything I inhaled or imbibed and far more to do with the sheer brilliance of their performance, capped by a near 25-minute Dark Star that left me scrambling to pick my jaw up off the ground. That show was its own capper to a near year-long run of excellence I had witnessed, from East Rutherford, New Jersey and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania the previous October to Landover, Maryland four short months before, the Dead were in peak form.

About two weeks later, I got a call at home from a friend of mine telling me that Brent Mydland had died. It was a body blow to every Deadhead. I immediately flashed to the prior summer’s shows at RFK, when, during I Will Take You Home the big screens zoomed in on Brent and the small photos of his two young daughters he kept nestled on his keyboard. What would happen now? 

In the pre-Internet age, information did not move at the speed of light. The musician asked to take Brent’s seat, Vince Welnick, was unknown to most of us (and you couldn’t pull up a Wikipedia page to find out more) and we had no idea someone far better known - Bruce Hornsby - had rebuffed the band’s request to join them full-time, but agreed to come on temporarily while Vince got his sea legs. 

And so it was, eight weeks after walking out of a sweltering RFK, I boogied into the Spectrum having no idea what to expect. I was less than floored, but understood Welnick was new and the pressure on him enormous. I missed the MSG shows that included Hornsby’s debut (and included two other standout performances - 9/19 and 9/20) but by the time Spring 1991 rolled around, I was dutifully impressed. The shows I saw at the Capital Center and particularly the three nights at the Omni in Atlanta, were intense, creative, and thoroughly enjoyable. That the band remade itself on the fly, with two new members occupying similar musical space, was a testament not just to the surviving five, but the new guys too. 

For me, the stage was set for what is, in my opinion, the best show of the post-Brent Mydland era - the June 17, 1991 performance at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. To borrow from Reggie Jackson, as the “straw that stirred the drink,” Garcia’s centrality to the quality (or lack thereof) of the Dead’s live performances cannot be overstated, and on this night, he was firing on all cylinders. Garcia is engaged and engaging from the show’s beginning - his graying hair blown back by stage fans, the band cozied into the first Eyes of the World show opener since 1975. It is possible this was done as a simple nod to the ABC broadcast recording being done of the show, but regardless, it is one of the band’s standout performances of this foundational tune.  

Unlike other shows where the band takes a few songs to get in gear, things click quickly. Thanks to the ABC recording you can see the band’s interactions and engagement with the music. Jerry’s appreciative nods in Bruce’s direction during Eyes are telling. Like a proud papa seeing his favored son succeed, Bruce’s touch-feel for the Dead’s music provided the band’s members - and particularly Garcia - with a newfound energy after Mydland’s passing. And unlike Welnick, Hornsby was confident in his ability to push the music. Part of what makes this show so special is Hornsby’s assertiveness. It is not just his and Garcia’s melodic interludes during Eyes, it is his playfulness with the music - Dark Star teases right before Masterpiece, Truckin’ and China Doll, his piano leads during the first set closer Might As Well landing like waves on the shore, his frisky Space jam as the band tuned up for the second set and his intuitive sense of transition deep into the second set from Truckin’ into New Speedway Boogie - separate this night from so many others of the post-Mydland era.  

And that is not to short change Welnick, who was being put in an impossible spot. On the one hand, he was being asked to replace the band’s longest-serving keyboardist while knowing he was (at best) the band’s second choice (behind Hornsby, who he had to play next to every night). On top of that, he was entering a world of incredibly devoted fans who were also unremitting in their criticism (the “Don’t Let Brent Sing” movement was well underway when I started touring with the Dead in 1987. After his passing, people came around to his talent. Go figure.) 

Even so, there were times on that sultry evening when he was given a chance to shine. Unlike Mydland’s bluesy growl, Welnick’s voice was more harmonious, and Hornsby wisely stepped back to give Vince opportunities during the stunning Saint of Circumstance second set opener to display both his musical and vocal chops.  At other points, like the extended Uncle John’s Band that closed out the first part of an equally extended second set, you can see the kernels of knowledge beginning to form, the muscle memory Vince was starting to develop, as he picks up hints of The Other One and Dark Star Garcia and Lesh flirt with during the meltdown jam that flows into the Drums segment. 

In all of this, there is clear joy and a desire for experimentation. The show stretches for almost three hours without feeling bloated. The nearly hour-long beginning to the second set comprised of Saint>Ship of Fools>Truckin’>New Speedway>Uncle John’s Band is both seamless in its transitions (Hornsby tries to goad the band into Dark Star again just prior to Truckin’ and gets about a minute’s worth of interest before the band abandons things) and well jammed without feeling indulgent. If that was not enough, the back end is equally muscular - with a rare (and eerie) China Doll rolling out of Space, followed by by Weir taking a double dip with a reprise of Playin’ in the Band and a set closing Sugar Magnolia that absolutely brings the house down. 

The Weight encore feels fitting. That song, performed with each band member taking a verse, is also in its way, an opportunity for them to take a small bow for what they had just produced. For those of us who cut our teeth watching Brent on the proverbial “hot seat,” it was also a chance to reflect on how far the band had come in the 11 months since his passing. Instead of curling into a shell, the band, as it had done so many times before, had, at least for a short time, reinvented itself and was stronger than ever. 

Of course, as I’ve noted before, that reinvention proved to be short-lived. The Fall 1991 tour, while ambitious in scope, failed to meet the high level of Giants Stadium or the other stand out performances during that summer in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Illinois and Bonner Springs, Kansas. Hornsby played his last show as an unofficial member in early 1992 and the quality tailed off as Garcia’s heroin addiction reared its head again and the band flagged. But on this night in New Jersey, that denouement was far off in the distance and the band played what may have been its greatest show of the era. 


Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Friday, June 9, 2017

Comey's Credibility Is A Problem For Trump

Former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee set official Washington aflame. The bombshells dropped left and right, from Comey calling the sitting President of the United States a liar on multiple occasions to his intimation that the current Attorney General may have had (another) undisclosed meeting with Russian officials. With so much to unpack, it is easy to get lost in the weeds. But by the end of the day, the President’s lawyer had distilled this politically (and legally) explosive event into something much easier to understand - a “he said/he said” credibility contest between Comey and Trump as it relates to the question of whether Trump asked Comey to end his investigation into the activities of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

And it is easy to understand why this matters. If it can be proven that the President directed Comey to end the investigation, it would be a clear case of obstruction of justice that any first-year law student could prosecute. Republican partisans have chosen to make two arguments - first, that Trump did not “order” Comey to end the investigation, just that he “hoped” he would end it; and second, (and this is the excuse used by Paul Ryan) that Trump is simply naive about the ways of Washington and politics and did not understand the gravity of what he was doing. No big deal, no harm, no foul.

But here is the thing. This is not a “he said/he said” situation where it is simply one person’s word against another’s. The public record we have indicates that the conversation in question, which happened the day after Flynn resigned, happened only after Trump cleared the room of his Vice President, his Chief of Staff, his son-in-law (who is also his adviser), and the Attorney General. Hardly the type of action of a babe in the woods but definitely the type of action of someone who would not want anyone else to able to corroborate what happened behind closed doors. 

Further, Trump may not have expected Comey to create a contemporaneous record of that meeting, but Comey did. That is very significant because contemporaneous notes are considered so credible, they can be admitted into evidence as an exception from the hearsay rule. (See, FRE 803). In other words, a contemporaneous memo written by someone at the time or immediately after an event occurs that describes that event is considered so reliable it is admissible in court to prove the truth of the matter asserted therein. 

But it is not just Comey’s testimony about that meeting or his memo that should be considered. As he stated before the Senate, he also shared the subject matter of his conversations with the President with at least five of his closest aides, including his Deputy Director and Chief of Staff. All of those men (and they are all men, which is another story for another time) could (and should) be called to testify about what Comey told them.

On top of all this is the context in which Trump's meetings with Comey took place. Sally Yates testified before Congress that she warned White House Counsel Don McGahn on January 26th that Michael Flynn had been compromised by the Russians. Less than 24 hours later, Trump had a private dinner with Comey where he (Trump) attempted to extract a "loyalty" pledge from Comey (according to Comey). Flynn resigned on February 13th. Trump's one-on-one with Comey, the meeting where Trump sent out everyone else from the room and asked Comey to drop the investigation occurred, you guessed it, less than 24 hours later - on February 14th.

The near-contemporaneous connection between disclosures about Flynn and his resignation and Trump's meetings with the man investigating those indiscretions belies the idea that Trump is some naive newcomer unversed in the ways of Washington. The temporal connection also suggests motive - we don't know (yet) whether McGahn shared what Yates told him with Trump, but it is hard to imagine a White House Counsel keeping such information to himself. Assuming McGahn shared what Yates told him with Trump, the idea of his asking Comey for "loyalty" does not seem far fetched. Similarly, once Flynn was turfed out (purportedly for lying to the Vice President about his meetings with Russian officials) it is not hard to connect that dot to a request by Trump to drop any further investigation into Flynn - the poor guy had suffered enough <eye roll>. 

On top of Comey’s testimony, his memos, and the statements he made to his senior advisors and aides is reporting by the Washington Post that Trump asked Dan Coats, the Director of National Intelligence, and Admiral Michael Rogers, the Director of the National Security Agency, to speak with Comey about scuttling the Flynn investigation. Neither Coats nor Rogers would answer questions posed by Senators about the veracity of the reporting, but importantly, the Post reporting indicates that Coats shared the substance of his conversation with Trump with his own aides and Rogers created a written record. Coats’s aides should be called to testify and Rogers’s memo subpoenaed. 

And if all of that was not enough, of course you have the coup de grậce - Trump fired Comey and then went on national television and said the reason for the firing was the FBI’s continued investigation of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. 

The idea that Trump simply expressed a “hope” to Comey that the case could be closed is belied by the extensive after-the-fact action Trump took with Coats, with Rogers, and ultimately, in firing Comey when he refused to stand down. And against that mountain of evidence that Trump sought an end to the FBI’s investigation into Michael Flynn - which is itself a greater interference in a criminal investigation than what the House of Representatives deemed obstruction of justice during Watergate - you have a man who settled a fraud case less than a week before he was sworn into office, has been sued thousands to times, and whose lies are so voluminous reporters have tallied hundreds in the less than six months he has been in office. All Trump has is his oft-repeated phrase “believe me.” Believe him? Hardly.


Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Sunday, June 4, 2017

This Article Will Not Help You Lose Weight

There are few public health topics about which more has been written to less effect than dieting and weight loss. We are told to go low carb, low fat, to drink smoothies the color of radiator fluid or cleanse our bodies with all cabbage diets. There are books about eating like the French, or like those who live along the Mediterranean, or even our cave-dwelling ancestors. Nothing seems to work. Indeed, the recent TIME cover story “The Weight Loss Trap” notes that nearly 40 percent of adults in America are clinically obese.

The number is alarming and unsurprising. Like people who focus on their wedding day and not the marriage that follows, people who concentrate on dieting and weight loss are putting their energy in the wrong place. The object should be eating a healthier diet and exercising regularly. Whether or not that results in reaching some mythical “goal” weight is beside the point of the many other benefits that accrue from this simple (but hard to follow) strategy. 

As the article notes, even as greater attention has been paid to dieting, the number of obese Americans has nearly tripled in the last twenty-five years. How is that possible? How is it that a subject for which more information than one could read in ten lifetimes is available, a $66 billion a year industry has sprouted and nearly $1 billion was spent last year at the NIH alone for obesity research, give us a country that is fatter and unhealthier than ever? 

The article’s central thesis is that medical research has evolved into a consensus that there is no “one size fits all” strategy for weight loss - what works for some people might not work for others. And to her credit, the author, Alexandra Sifferin, points out several of the challenges anyone faces - that as you lose weight your metabolism slows, making it harder to continue to shed pounds, and that most people who lose weight regain it over time. 

But in highlighting the obstacles, I thought the article could also be read by those attempting to lose weight as an excuse for their lack of success. For example, Sifferin cites one researcher who found that “biology,” and not merely a lack of willpower, may stymie your attempts at weight loss. That may have some truth, but if you are gorging on high fat desserts, burying your face in a bag of potato chips, or getting little to no exercise, I cannot accept that “biology” is the culprit. 

Sifferin also frames her story around extreme dieting as seen on reality TV (the article singles out The Biggest Loser) as offering an unrealistic view of weight loss. I could not agree more. If you lock away overweight people whose time is meticulously gauged by a staff of experts in exercise and nutrition and remove all their other daily responsibilities, of course they will lose weight. If you stick a bunch of singles in a mansion for a few weeks with all-expenses-paid dates, they might think relationships are easy too - TV is not reality. But why bother stating the obvious? 

Of more concern was the seeming contradiction in the author’s narrative. At one point she notes “that exercise, while critical to good health, is not an especially reliable way to keep off body fat over the long term.” Later, Sifferin discusses people who have successfully maintained weight loss over the long run, writing: “another through line: 94% increased their physical activity, and the most popular form of exercise was walking.” Huh? 

The author’s dig at “fancy gym memberships” also seems misplaced. It always baffled me that people will shell out $150 or $200 or more a month for something like cable tv (which, by the way, encourages laziness and yes, weight gain) but clutch pearls at a gym membership of $50, $75, or even $100 a month (which, by the way, encourages good health). Sifferin may mock fancy gym memberships, but for those (like me) who use theirs to take advantage of the cardiovascular and weight training such facilities make available, it is money incredibly well spent.

Unfortunately, the good advice is buried and may be missed by readers. For example, encouraging a healthy lifestyle over weight loss goals and that sustainable weight loss occurs over a long period of time and not without fits and starts along the way are two critical ideas that I suspect make a lot of people throw their hands up in despair. I have always thought that was the dirty little secret of all of this - it’s actually not as complicated as the diet industry would have you believe, it’s actually much simpler but harder to sustain - drinking water instead of soda, a sugar-laden “sports drink,” beer, wine, or liquor is boring, portion control is hard, exercising regularly takes discipline and that is before factoring in all the stressors of life. 

Weight loss should be viewed as an ancillary benefit to deeper, harder life changes, but because we like the quick fix over the long-term solution, the fact that the divorce rate and the percentage of adults who are obese are both stratospheric makes total sense.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy

Ms. Sifferin’s article can be found at:


My own experiences with exercise, fitness and healthier living can be found at:


Friday, June 2, 2017

Chris Cillizza Makes Me Want To Gargle Bleach

I am not a fan of Chris Cillizza. He wrote one of the worst books I have ever read about politics (and I’ve read quite a few); I once called him out on Twitter and his response was basically “I write a blog.” Some time later, he blocked me. Of course, my opinion of Cillizza is meaningless - he has (for reasons unclear to me) become a successful journalist, first, at the Washington Post and was recently poached by CNN where he gets paid what I assume is a healthy mid six-figure salary to write columns like this:

But that is the reality of all political campaigns. Stuff happens. Good luck and bad breaks occur. Circumstances totally out of a candidate’s control often decide — or heavily influence — how voters make up their minds. Here’s one example: Clinton’s private email server had absolutely nothing to do with the email hack via WikiLeaks. But the two issues — both of which dealt with email — got conflated as one issue in the minds of lots and lots of voters. And there as nothing Clinton could do about it.

The truth of the matter is this: Hillary Clinton’s name was at the top of the campaign and signed on the checks her staff received. It was her decision to set up a private email server and exclusively use it for her communications as secretary of state — the first person in her position to do that.

Cillizza then goes on at some length about all of Hillary’s failings as a candidate. But here is the thing - saying “stuff happens” as a way to minimize … pick your poison (1) Jim Comey going against DOJ protocols and sending a letter to Congress 11 days before the election based on incomplete information; (2) a foreign nation’s overt attempts to influence our election via cyber espionage; and/or (3) the Trump campaign’s (possible) collaboration with those efforts is disingenuous at best and dishonest at worst - there is no corollary, no modern historical precedent to compare these actions to. This is not a “bad break” like a good (or bad) unemployment number a few days before the election, these were intentional acts be persons (and a country) to tilt the election.

Which brings me to the second point and the one that really grinds my gears. Cillizza correctly notes that Hillary’s use of a personal email server and the WikiLeaks hack had nothing to do with each other but then he says they “got conflated as one issue in the minds of lots and lots of people.” This is the classic media dodge that omits its role in putting that idea in the minds of voters. I am not sure why “the media” is so reluctant to acknowledge its role in making both the email server and WikiLeaks bigger stories than they should have, but the idea that this conflation took place magically, without any doing by people like Cillizza is a blatant lie. 

And even if you accept that the email server was a legitimate topic for the media to cover, the extent of the coverage far outstripped the importance of it - no charges were filed, the State Department’s Inspector General acknowledged she did not violate State Department protocol and, by the way, more than 90 other senior level officials utilized private email accounts (including Colin Powell and senior aides to Condoleezza Rice). The perception that the email server story showed Hillary to be untrustworthy was a media creation, not one based on the facts of the matter. As for WikiLeaks, on this account the media’s refusal to admit its role in disseminating information they knew to be stolen by the Russians and (likely) being published to harm Clinton is both baffling and shameless. The stolen email were published in earnest right after the final debate and continued on right up to Comey's letter to Congress. The idea these things did not harm Hillary have been debunked by people like Nate Silver and are not "stuff" that candidates have ever had to deal with before. 

Any losing campaign for President is flawed - but so is every winning campaign. Perfection rarely (if ever) happens, but Cillizza’s dismissiveness of the forces that aligned against Clinton as mere “stuff happens” and his failure to acknowledge the media’s role in getting voters to think “Clinton + email = scandal” is the real scandal.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy

And do read Cillizza’s full column and draw your own opinions. It can be found here:


Saturday, May 20, 2017

The High Line

Four years ago, after spending Mother’s Day in New York City, my ex-girlfriend (a native New Yorker) asked me where I wanted to go the next time we visited. “The High Line” I said, without hesitating. “Too touristy,” she, a child who rode the subways when they were graffiti laden and went to Times Square when it was still home to porno shops, sniffed. We broke up a few weeks later (not for that reason), but today, I finally made it to what has become one of the most recognizable landmarks in Manhattan less than ten years after its completion (no small feat).

Special Lady Friend was right - the High Line is touristy, but simply because a seemingly never-ending parade of Europeans (easy to spot as Brooklyn hipsters with slightly better clothing) and middle Americans (the I ♥️ NY t-shirts are a dead giveaway) cycle through the roughly 1.5 miles of what was once an abandoned railroad line and is now an urban park, does not mean it is not also really cool. Where else could you see a couple getting married at 8:45 in the morning while 50 feet away, a yoga class was taking place in a studio with floor to ceiling windows?

I can see why the High Line engenders strong feelings - at its origination point the new Whitney Museum, garish, modern, and impossible to miss, stands in an area that was once synonymous with urban decay. The meatpacking district is now home to multi-million dollar condominiums and the entire pier is being transformed. For those (like my ex) who remember a tougher time in New York City, the era captured in movies like Taxi Driver, The Warriors, and Fort Apache: The Bronx, it can be difficult to get their heads around an expensive urban redevelopment project underwritten by well-heeled philanthropists whose names are honored throughout the park. 

But here is the thing. It is impossible not to be charmed by the High Line. It is the perfect execution of a simple concept completed with impeccable precision. From the slick website that posts events, performances, and things to do, to the manicured gardens bursting with color, you wonder how the High Line ever did not exist. It is not just how smart it was to take an abandoned area and repurpose it for a public good, but by making it so accessible (multiple entry and exit points) and interactive (the views are uniformly outstanding and also anachronistic, as in the seating area around 18th Street that allows for a view straight down 10th Avenue that makes you feel like you’re watching television) the High Line draws you in completely.

As the photos below show, the flora and fauna are a delight, photogenic and demanding attention, but the architecture of the area is also honored - the High Line snakes through, under, and is adjacent to the many buildings that arose before its construction and now, the many that are popping up in its wake. And there are SO MANY BUILDINGS going up. The entire length of the High Line is awash in construction - residential, commercial, the entire skyline on the West Side of Lower Manhattan has and is being transformed thanks to this visionary project. 

This is the bone that many traditionalists pick. After all, what was once home to shooting galleries and a lively after hours club scene has made way for high rises and waterfront driving ranges. And while I certainly get that argument, it is a windmill that people must be tiring of tilting at. After all, a Whole Foods has arisen along the Gowanus Canal and Brooklyn long ago became the poster child for gentrification. 

If there is a criticism to levy at the High Line, it is that the designers may not have had enough faith in their creation. Instead of drafting a plan that could accommodate huge crowds, the walking paths are narrow - one lane in each direction through most of the park - which can make the experience feel a bit like moving along a conveyor belt; however, this is tempered (in part) by the spacious seating areas that jut out like little culs de sac along the way. 

And for those who say the High Line and all the redevelopment that has sprouted around it has ruined the grittier vibe, not 50 feet from the 14th Street entrance, I saw a homeless woman writhing on the sidewalk. She was either having a seizure or an orgasm, so not all is lost. 


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Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Dumbest Thing Politico Has Ever Published

Politico has been derided as “Teen Beat on the Potomac,” a journalistic virus that has infected reporting by emphasizing controversy and gossip, with a splash of tabloid and less concern for hard news. And while Politico does churn out some decent reporting, its main claim to fame is Playbook, the daily tip sheet started by Mike Allen and now written by Anna Palmer and Jake Sherman, whose mission is to “drive the day” of political news coverage in the nation’s capital.

One part news aggregator and one part political analysis, Allen did not pioneer this idea, but he did perfect it; however, with his departure to Axios, and the emergence of other like products such as James Hohmann’s Daily 202 (The Washington Post), Playbook has faltered. A perfect example comes from today’s (May 16, 2017) edition. Palmer and Sherman offer this “quick thought”

You do get the sense that Trump has a decent chance for some sort of peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians. Of course, we should all be skeptical of solving one of the most intractable cycles of tension and violence ever. But in the last few weeks, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has signaled openness, and behind the scenes, Trump officials - and even some longtime Obama officials - have been surprised at the positive body language on the two sides.

Here, in one paragraph is everything that is wrong with modern-day political journalism. A story that is thinly sourced (anonymous current/former Administration officials), whose main source of evidence (body language) is as reliable as phrenology, drawing a conclusion (decent chance) about one of the hardest foreign policy challenges of modern history (peace between the Israelis and Palestinians), written by two reporters who were not even born when Jimmy Carter helped broker the peace deal between Israel and Egypt. 

It is no small feat to cram so much bad reporting into one paragraph, but Palmer and Sherman manage to do it. You would hope that an editor somewhere up the food chain at Politico would have had the good sense to squash a story like this, but in today’s media environment, that would be asking for way too much. 


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Saturday, May 13, 2017

Trump's Firing Of Comey Is A BFD

President Trump’s firing of James Comey has created a shit storm in Washington, D.C. that should be lighting everyone’s hair on fire. Comey’s protectors in the media are quick to rush to his defense, both generally, and specifically as to his actions over the past year. But here’s the thing. If you’re James Comey, you don’t rise to some of the most politically sensitive positions in government (U.S. Attorney for the S.D.N.Y. - the pre-eminent U.S. Attorney’s Office in the nation, Deputy Attorney General and FBI Director) without some savvy. The media’s willingness to constantly give him the benefit of the doubt lacks credulity, but at the same time, people need to understand that Democrats who were outraged at his actions during the campaign can also be outraged that his firing appeared to be a pre-textual (and pre-emptive) effort by a sitting President to shut down a criminal investigation into his campaign (and possibly Trump himself). 

It should be said that neither Clinton nor Trump was entitled to preferential treatment by Comey, but by the same token, they should not have been given worse treatment, which is what happened in Hillary’s case. When Comey gave a press conference in July 2016 to announce there would be no recommendation of charges against Hillary, he tiptoed near the line of impropriety - it is rare for an investigation that results in no charges being filed to be announced publicly; however, if you accept that in the public interest it made sense to say something, his editorializing went well beyond his charge and was, naturally, turned into convenient sound bites for political attack ads and ad nauseum coverage on cable news. Comey’s intervention just eleven days before the election was even more egregious, both because it flouted clear DOJ guidelines on making public statements so close to an election, but also because it was done without having facts behind it that might have mattered. 

The media’s willingness to give Comey a pass - bemoaning the “impossible” position he was in - has turned out to be too cute by half. The prudent course for Comey, had he treated Hillary like any other person under investigation but never charged, would have been to keep his mouth shut the entire time. Indeed, prosecutors do this for two primary reasons - (1) so an innocent person’s good name isn’t sullied if he or she is never charged with a crime; and (2) to avoid tainting the investigation. When word leaked after the election (curious timing, no?) that the FBI had an open and active investigation against the Trump campaign dating to last summer, his actions looked even more partisan and indefensible and the media’s defense, laughable. 

So why is that his termination by Trump is so offensive? After all, Comey blurred the lines (or eradicated them entirely) during the campaign. But here’s the thing - with an active investigation into Trump’s associates (and possibly Trump himself) going on, for Trump to remove Comey is precisely the type of malfeasance post-Watergate changes were designed to protect against, including the “wall” between the White House and the Department of Justice as it relates to criminal investigations and the 10-year term (which was established after Watergate in 1976) the idea being the FBI Director should, to some degree, be insulated from the political process. 


If it turns out that Trump removed Comey in an effort to sideline or stop an investigation into his campaign’s contacts with agents of the Russian government or, worse, actively collaborated with them, that itself would be grounds for impeachment; whatever else may be discovered would simply be icing on the cake. There are few agencies in our government more important to the functioning of our nation than the Department of Justice; thus, injecting politics into the DOJ is particularly fraught with peril. One of the reasons an independent counsel makes sense is because the nature of the Trump/Russia investigation is so sensitive and the appearance of a conflict so apparent, someone who cannot be removed by the President or Attorney General is needed. Once upon a time, Republicans believed in this concept; conveniently, it was when some guy named Bill Clinton was President. My, how times have changed. 

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Sunday, May 7, 2017

Breaking Saul

Whether by necessity or design, Better Call Saul has become about much more than a small-time lawyer’s transformation from hustling clients from the back of a nail salon office to consligiere for Albuquerque’s reigning meth king. And the change has been to the show’s benefit. All too often, and particularly in the first season, it simply felt like there was not enough “there there” to carry this story for a four or five season run. Episodes were mired in the back and forth of class action lawsuits and filial competition, but as as the show has accelerated its pace in a standout third season, the writers’ end game is now clear - instead of simply answering the question of how Jimmy McGill became Saul Goodman, they are filling in the entire backstory of the ABQ’s criminal underground when Walter White and Jesse Pinkman took that RV into the desert for their first cook.

In doing so, the show is less Better Call Saul and more Breaking Saul, as the child spin off adopts more of the parent show’s look and feel, including direct call backs, grittier storylines, and, most notably, the return of Gus Fring, one of the most sharply written villains in recent TV history. The fan servicing is not subtle and more than appreciated. A recent opening sequence flashback featuring Steven Bauer as Don Eladio meeting with his lieutenants was the closest BCS has come to directly referencing BB and the tension of those few minutes was as gripping as anything witnessed in the salad days of Heisenberg’s reign. On the other hand, the writers have offered a little lagniappe (something extra) at the beginning of each season - a one scene glimpse into Saul’s “erased” future, where he is now a sad sack Cinnabon store manager in Omaha, Nebraska with a droopy mustache and thinning hairline. 

As each episode airs, you see the puzzle pieces filling in, like the border has been completed and the middle parts can now be put into place. We see the nascent scuffles between Hector and Gus and know that the former will end up essentially becoming a suicide bomber to kill the latter, but we do not yet know how Hector became a mute in a wheelchair. Similarly, Kim, Howard, and Chuck are all integral to BCS but none appear in Breaking Bad. Do they simply live on (off-screen) in the BCS/BB universe or are their fates more dire? 

In broadening its scope, the writers have also lifted some of the narrative weight from places it seemed strained (Jimmy’s on-again/off-again relationship with Kim) and made it more balanced. As Alan Sepinwall has noted, BCS is now really two shows in one - the first is still tracking Jimmy’s inexorable slide to his alter ego but the Mike Ehrmantraut storyline, which seemed a throwaway when the series started, is every bit as prominent now. While Jimmy and Mike seem to be running on parallel tracks, their intersections, and in particular with the Fring/Salamanca storyline, show how these paths will all converge once a high school science teacher with a death notice fulfills his destiny and becomes the southwest’s greatest meth cook. 

Vince Gilligan had the good sense to put a temporal limit on Breaking Bad, ending it after 62 tidy episodes over five amazing seasons when he surely could have stretched but left an inferior product. I hope a similar decision is made with Better Call Saul which has become a highly entertaining spin off while retaining its own charms. 


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Sunday, April 23, 2017

Tulips - Spring 2017

When the tulips bloom, it can only mean one thing - spring has arrived. Here in New Jersey, it looked like spring was arriving before St. Patrick's Day, but a late season snow storm followed by several weeks of below average temperatures threw Mother Nature for a loop. Fortunately, spring has (finally!) arrived. Please enjoy these photos and if you would like a high resolution copy, feel free to email me at - scarylawyerguy@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy








Sunday, April 2, 2017

Book Review - A Colony In A Nation

In 2000, a 21-year-old college student attended the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As he passed through the layers of security to enter the convention hall, about thirty dollars worth of marijuana was discovered in his backpack. Instead of confiscating the drugs and arresting the perpetrator, the police looked the other way, handing the bag (and the drugs) back to the stunned young man. Had Chris Hayes been black and not white, or traveling on I-95 instead of with his future father-in-law (who was a reporter covering the RNC), this story may have turned out differently. 

The thesis of Mr. Hayes’s second book, A Colony in a Nation, is that criminal justice policy, from policing to prosecution, the essential duty of maintaining law and order, is done much differently depending on your zip code and skin color. In the Nation, largely white, middle to upper-middle class, your interactions with the police are at worst a minor annoyance (being pulled over for speeding) but more commonly quite positive, as they quickly respond to any disturbance in your leafy suburban bubble of privilege. For inhabitants of the Colony, darker skinned and poorer, the opposite is true. Each interaction with the police is fraught with literal life and death consequences. 

As a card carrying member of the Nation - a white man educated at elite schools and with meaningful wealth, Hayes may seem like an odd vessel through which to frame our country as one that has elements of apartheid-era South Africa and a vague resemblance to the movie “District 9,” but his roots in social justice movements and his avowedly progressive viewpoint fit neatly with this inequitable view of society. Hayes has seen the tensest standoffs between citizens and police up close and personally and has a clear passion for his subject. 

But for all of Hayes’s insight, braininess, and clear interest in the subject, ACIAN too often felt like a survey course when what I wanted was a graduate-level seminar. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the book feels light. It is short (220 pages) but utilizes generous margins and spacing, giving it the feel of an overlong magazine article and not a full length examination of an important public policy issue. Much of the book is informed by Hayes’s own experiences - both as a child and teen growing up in New York City during (as he calls it) the “Crack Years” and as a journalist who covered the aftermath of high profile police-involved killings. But for someone who embraces rigor and evidence, focusing so much on the anecdotal and not the empirical was surprising. To be sure, there is some discussion of research - Hayes lays out some of the various theories on why crime has dropped so dramatically in our country, ultimately concluding that we don’t have one solid answer, but then skips right past a national spike in murders in 2015 with a quick parenthetical that they took place in a few large cities. Huh? 

Part of this is deciding where you want to focus your attention. It is already well-documented that there is a difference in outcomes for black and brown defendants as compared to white defendants for a variety of crimes and while skin color may play part of a role, so too does economics. Poor white people have no better access to legal representation than poor black or brown people, it is just that the concentration of what we consider “serious” crime is centered in smaller and smaller parts of the country. The irony is that the geographic “colony” continues to shrink, but the psychic area, the one that results in Skip Gates getting accosted at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, black students being harassed by college campus police, or your run-of-the-mill “driving while black” incidents is as large as ever. *That* question, of our basic racial prejudices, whether we are in a high-crime area of an inner city or a sheltered college campus, begs more attention and response. 

As Hayes notes, most crime is intra-racial and if we are most concerned about serious violent crime, we cannot ignore the fact it happens disproportionately in what Hayes calls the “colony.” Where I live, in Mercer County New Jersey, it would take a town like Princeton 20-30 years to match the number of murders that occur in Trenton in just one. Indeed, in any given year, 90 percent or more (sometimes all 100 percent) of murders that occur in Mercer County happen in Trenton. Should we ignore this? In fact, there are a handful of cities in New Jersey that account for almost every murder that occurs in our state. Law enforcement can only do so much - they are reacting to a host of socioeconomic factors that have been in play for decades, yet we expect them to strike a balance between effective policing and not being influenced by race. It is an almost impossible task yet most officers do it.  

While unequal policing, and particularly as it relates to low level, non- violent and other petty offenses, is well documented, the same does not extend to more serious crimes. As a Chicago native, I was surprised Hayes did not focus more of his attention on his home town, as it does, in miniature, reflect many of the achievements and failures of policing. On the one hand, large swaths of the city are safer now than they have been in decades, while small pockets are as dangerous as a war zone. And that is the thing - the dramatic reduction in violent crime since its apex in the late 1980s and early 1990s has shrunk the areas with significant problems considerably, but the concentration in those areas has become even more significant. 

Indeed, part of my problem with books of this ilk that attempt to contextualize policing is that they fail to take into account the other villains in the story - if you want to find near-complete-circle Venn diagrams, study areas of desperate poverty, high unemployment, low graduation rates, and yes, single parent households, you will find high levels of criminal activity as well. This has nothing to do with turning inner cities into some sort of District 9 segregation units, but rather, a broader failing of public policy. As Hayes rightly notes, we ask police to do a great number of other jobs they are ill-suited for, but that is because so many other institutions in society have failed. This in no way excuses the abhorrent treatment black and brown people often face, but at the same time, there are myriad examples of police doing the right thing, of going above and beyond, in service of the communities in which they work. 

There is also a schizophrenic aspect to Hayes’s writing. While he laments the ineffectiveness of internal investigations as a means of bringing rogue cops to heel, he also visits a police training academy to simulate real-world interactions between police and the community. Unsurprisingly, the latter results in Hayes’s appreciation for the difficult, split second decisions police officers have to make (in one simulation, Hayes is “killed” because he fails to see a man approaching him with a shotgun), but the sequencing is backwards in the book. The gee-those-guys-have-a-tough-job insight occurs early on, while the criticism of IA procedures is deep into the book. It also begs the question, what is the right number of officers disciplined for their actions? No one ever seems to have the answer to that, other than to highlight instances of particularly egregious behavior (Eric Garner comes to mind) that should rightly be prosecuted and punished. 

There was also a missed opportunity to highlight public policy that is trying to address some of these root causes. Hayes need only go from Brooklyn to Harlem to see the work of Geoff Canada or consider the expansion of his Harlem Children’s Zone model in communities throughout the country to see what works. A step further and the question of continued funding for such a program (dubbed “Promise Neighborhoods” at the federal level) under the Trump Administration would put the question in sharper relief and challenge policy makers who pay lip service to caring about the “colony” to put their money where their mouth is. And even as the parties squabble in Washington, Governor Cuomo recently announced a $1.4 billion initiative to revitalize areas of Brooklyn that will include increased access to health care, an anti-violence program and other prosocial efforts at community redevelopment. 

Similarly, the sea change that is occurring, literally before our eyes, in criminal justice policy could fill its own book. Juvenile justice reform has been championed in blood red Texas and bail reform just went into effect in deep blue New Jersey that releases most defendants from custody at their initial hearing. These ideas, along with recent shifts toward adopting more of a community policing model, are the green shoots that will one day sprout. For a journalist steeped in policy, it was surprising that these and other locally-led efforts did not merit acknowledgment in ACIAN

At the same time, what of the young boys and girls growing up in the “colony” who do not expect to live past 40, have missing family members who are deceased or incarcerated, and are educated in dilapidated schoolhouses by teachers who are doing their best to bail water out of a sinking ship? We could train an army of Officer Friendlys to walk the beat of every street corner in every dangerous neighborhood in America, but without the basic foundations that we think of as middle class life - economic opportunity, access to a good education, and health care - none of this matters. 

Interestingly, the last vignette Hayes shares is of observing a group of African-American teens harassing passers-by in Prospect Park. The needling shifts from annoying to criminal when one of the youths steals a man’s phone as he is pushing a baby stroller. Harmless? Maybe. Petty? Perhaps. But because it is impossible to know whether these youthful indiscretions are just that or nascent signs of a more serious criminal mentality is part of what makes enforcing the law, be it in the “nation” or the “colony” so challenging. 


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Friday, March 31, 2017

Why Flynn Might Flip

Distilling complex legalities into 140-character tweets is next to impossible and the "threaded" tweet storm can only do so much. That said, I put this together last night when word broke that retired General Michael Flynn is seeking immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony before Congress (and, presumably, federal prosecutors). 

A few additional thoughts here: First, the very public announcement of this "offer" indicates a couple of things to me - that investigators have already been in touch with Flynn (or his lawyer), that he has likely turned over some documents and/or had preliminary conversations about what legal jeopardy he may face; Second, that his after-the-fact registration as a foreign agent was done to mitigate some of that jeopardy in the same way some colleges "self-sanction" before the NCAA has a chance to drop the hammer in hopes of getting leniency; and Third, that Flynn *potentially* has that proverbial "story to tell" that would burn the city down. 

Keep in mind, prosecutors are only interested in flipping potential defendants if those smaller fish can offer up someone bigger - in this case, the only person of substance above Flynn in the Trump campaign/administration is Trump himself. Of course, prosecutors don't just hand out immunity deals - as my tweets note, a proffer with accompanying support would have to be made about what Flynn is prepared to testify to. Further, because prior prosecutions, particularly during Iran-Contra, were fouled up by public testimony before Congress that was then used in the prosecution of people like Ollie North and John Poindexter, federal prosecutors would likely request that Congress NOT go forward with any interview or hearing that included Flynn while their criminal investigation is ongoing.

All in all, this is REALLY bad news for the Trump team and a (possibly) major step toward a fuller understanding of Russia's interference in the election coming to light. On the other hand, this could also be the effort of someone about whom we have a lot of public information - the undisclosed foreign representation and conversations with Russian officials being foremost among them - that would already establish probable cause of criminal activity. In other words, this might also be Flynn trying to protect himself from misdeeds that have little/nothing to do with his actions on behalf of our President.