Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Russian Thinking Vs American Thinking

I was talking with a Russian immigrant on Sunday who made the point that lying is so deeply engrained in Russians that it must always be accepted as a given. I asked whether this was a cultural issue, or the natural result of living under great deprivation. He wagged his head, and offered an analogy:
In Russia, the subway stations are gorgeous; like museums, with sculptures, paintings and jewels. The trains, however, are total crap, and haven't been replaced since the 1970s.
He sat back sheepishly, as the rest of us scratched our heads and cleared our throats. Unable to drive home his metaphor, he'd conked out. The conversation moved on to other topics.

But this was like pure catnip to my brain, so I spent the next hour trying to complete the metaphor, finally managing it (to his satisfaction). I recount it here not to share the conclusion - which is clever but not particularly interesting - but as an illustration that sometimes it takes two to construct an ambitious insight. This is new for me - two people struggling together to connect the ends of a tenuous bridge across a daunting chasm. Hmm.
Trains are software, stations are hardware. The trains are the moving part, and the station is the solid part - the frame of reference. Americans focus on the dynamic portion. The software. Russians concentrate on the solid ground. The hardware. That's the key cultural difference.

Effecting change (in order to inject your creativity, your vision) is easy for an American. We simply tweak the moving part; the software, and mass attention pivots to adapt to the change. Our mindset is earnestly can-do/matter-of-fact. But for Russians to effect meaningful change, they are compelled to tweak the underlying fabric; the hardware. And changing the unchangeable requires blatant disregard for what's plainly true.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Frickin' Bob Dylan

Yesterday, I posted what I thought was a particularly insightful contribution to an online forum (under pseudonym). No one noticed. As an experiment, I asked a friend to upvote my posting. One lousy upvote. Immediately, people started piling on and paying all sorts of attention.

This illustrates a larger problem with the world - a problem I tried (unsuccessfully) to solve via Chowhound. Everyone assumes cream floats, but it totally doesn't. Billions of metric tons of quality are overlooked every nanosecond. People only notice what has previously been noticed, and we foolishly assume it's an "efficient market." Most of us only want to eat in crowded restaurants.

Bob Dylan is terrific. But he certainly does not need more recognition or another million bucks.

I hope there will be a day when the Industrial Awards Complex devotes its energy, capital, and publicity to singling out people who actually could use a boost, rather than lazily congratulating the highly-acclaimed and rewarding the wealthy.

Saturday, October 15, 2016


The word "respect" means so many things to so many people that it's lost nearly all meaning. Worse, it's often used as a cudgel (which is a shame for such a lovely word). I'm not normally a fan of twee Tumblr-ish ponderings, but the following, from this Tmblr, transcends the genre:
Sometimes people use “respect” to mean “treating someone like a person” and sometimes they use “respect” to mean “treating someone like an authority”

and sometimes people who are used to being treated like an authority say “if you won’t respect me I won’t respect you” and they mean “if you won’t treat me like an authority I won’t treat you like a person”

and they think they’re being fair but they aren’t, and it’s not okay.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Summing Up The Donald Trump Episode

Donald Trump was not a great evil. Not a fearsome bogeyman. He was a cautionary tale of the potential for one badly-damaged little dude to project his psychological issues on the world at large. None of the historical conquistadors and tyrants were great. They were all the same deal: small, damaged, insecure people externalizing their fragile egos. Please remember this, citizens of the 28th century and beyond: it's always just some damaged asshole channeling deep negativity to project their petty, sad, inadequate internal issues. The ease with which this can occur is extremely disconcerting.

As I said earlier, we are privileged to experience this deep truth - to learn it viscerally from right there, right now, rather than reading about it from a distance - even though this up-close view has curled our souls a bit.

We know things about the world that succeeding generations might not.

Required viewing: A Face in the Crowd. A classic film about a small, damaged, insecure person externalizing his fragile ego.

In fact, I'd make the case that there is no such thing as "evil"; it's all just the toxic repercussions of banal insecurity. The country - the entire world! - has been traumatized by the silly, transparent ravings of some random failure of a garden variety wacko. This isn't anything as awesome as Evil. It's just some guy as messed up as your brother-in-law or the dude who plows your driveway who arose at the right time, saying the right things to the right people.

A Historic Moment of Free-Falling Dread

In fall and winter of 2001, venturing into Manhattan required some fortitude (I'd pack a transistor radio to stay informed in case of emergency). We New Yorkers, in our weakened state, were deeply rattled by the subsequent anthrax attacks. We had no idea what was coming next. Would wrecked urban landscapes and burly dudes pulling bodies through smoking mounds be our new normal?

At that time, I thought to myself: "History won't note any of this. It will be remembered that there was an attack, and we were all sad. No one will record the lingering anxiety, the not-knowing, the wrenched feeling in our stomachs - not from missing a couple towers few of us ever loved in the first place, but from the disorienting feeling of being unable to touch bottom - the not knowing how different it would all be. It was months, perhaps years, before we consensually decided New York was a city rather than a war zone.

Fifteen years later, I see that I was correct about history. The upshot is, indeed, that there were was an attack, and we were all sad. Tight and concretely clear. This happened, and that happened. Historians record only tangible actions.

I'm having that same feeling this week. And, as in 2001, I don't need to ask around to know that I'm definitely not the only one. We know now that Donald Trump won't win. That horrifying prospect is gone. What's more, we haven't learned anything significantly new about Trump in months. Absolutely nothing in the past month has been a surprise. Yet, even though I'm no sensitive snowflake, I find myself consumed with sadness. It's that old feeling again, deeper than our personal emotions; this is the visceral etching of history on our spirits in real time.

It will be recorded that a fascistic narcissist came dangerously close to the US presidency, and was rebuked. But this feeling I'm feeling (and I know without asking that many of you are feeling, as well) of free-falling dread that's not the least bit mitigated by the meteoric rising of Clinton's poll numbers - even in safely red states - and the avoidance of our most feared outcome, is not lifting. It won't be recorded in history. This is only for us. We need to remember.

I noted the turning point on Monday, saying that "if you're going to pay attention to politics once in your lifetime, now's the time. It's a privilege to live through history - even unpleasant history. I don't want to just read the synopsis later. This is not a moment to hit the fast-forward button; this is a moment to hit "play" and pay full attention." I'm indeed paying full attention. I haven't done much else this week. I don't want to spend decades trying to process my feelings and adjusting to tectonic changes that happened in my peripheral vision. I want to live straight through this with eyes wide open and the clearest possible perspective.

Several friends got flu shots this week, and report feeling even crappier than they usually do afterward. My suspicion is it's not the flu shots.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Barack Obama: "The way ahead"

Lost amid our national Trump obsession (which I've been feeding, I know; sorry!) was Barack Obama's very interesting and beautifully written article for The Economist outlining the economic challenges to be faced by the next administration, along with some insightful and dispassionate observations about - to come full circle, again with apologies - Trump (though the name is never mentioned).

Since it's for The Economist, he doesn't need to dumb it down. You don't normally hear his thoughts at this level of depth and consideration. It's a great read. Here's the intro:
Wherever I go these days, at home or abroad, people ask me the same question: what is happening in the American political system? How has a country that has benefited—perhaps more than any other—from immigration, trade and technological innovation suddenly developed a strain of anti-immigrant, anti-innovation protectionism? Why have some on the far left and even more on the far right embraced a crude populism that promises a return to a past that is not possible to restore—and that, for most Americans, never existed at all?

It’s true that a certain anxiety over the forces of globalisation, immigration, technology, even change itself, has taken hold in America. It’s not new, nor is it dissimilar to a discontent spreading throughout the world, often manifested in scepticism towards international institutions, trade agreements and immigration. It can be seen in Britain’s recent vote to leave the European Union and the rise of populist parties around the world.

Much of this discontent is driven by fears that are not fundamentally economic. The anti-immigrant, anti-Mexican, anti-Muslim and anti-refugee sentiment expressed by some Americans today echoes nativist lurches of the past—the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, the Know-Nothings of the mid-1800s, the anti-Asian sentiment in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and any number of eras in which Americans were told they could restore past glory if they just got some group or idea that was threatening America under control. We overcame those fears and we will again.

But some of the discontent is rooted in legitimate concerns about long-term economic forces. Decades of declining productivity growth and rising inequality have resulted in slower income growth for low- and middle-income families. Globalisation and automation have weakened the position of workers and their ability to secure a decent wage. Too many potential physicists and engineers spend their careers shifting money around in the financial sector, instead of applying their talents to innovating in the real economy. And the financial crisis of 2008 only seemed to increase the isolation of corporations and elites, who often seem to live by a different set of rules to ordinary citizens.

So it’s no wonder that so many are receptive to the argument that the game is rigged. But amid this understandable frustration, much of it fanned by politicians who would actually make the problem worse rather than better, it is important to remember that capitalism has been the greatest driver of prosperity and opportunity the world has ever known.

Over the past 25 years, the proportion of people living in extreme poverty has fallen from nearly 40% to under 10%. Last year, American households enjoyed the largest income gains on record and the poverty rate fell faster than at any point since the 1960s. Wages have risen faster in real terms during this business cycle than in any since the 1970s. These gains would have been impossible without the globalisation and technological transformation that drives some of the anxiety behind our current political debate.

This is the paradox that defines our world today. The world is more prosperous than ever before and yet our societies are marked by uncertainty and unease. So we have a choice—retreat into old, closed-off economies or press forward, acknowledging the inequality that can come with globalisation while committing ourselves to making the global economy work better for all people, not just those at the top.

Trump Apologizes for US Intervention on Serbian Genocide

25 days before the election, Donald Trump goes out of his way to tow a rabidly pro-Serbian line that comfortably matches one of the Kremlin's more important talking points.

Look, I'm not conspiracy-minded, and I'm having trouble conjuring up deep emotion re: the whole Russian connection thing. Really, I was off Trump the moment he informed us that Mexican immigrants are nearly all criminals and rapists (on the very day he announced his candidacy, if I'm not mistaken), so I haven't needed much further anti-Trump persuasion. In fact, I'm perplexed that the recent misogyny stuff is the least bit surprising to anyone. So I'm nonplussed by the recent waves of somewhat contrived-seeming outrage - and am, in fact, really upset by this deeply unfair video, proving that the right doesn't have a monopoly when it comes to cynically pushing deep buttons of division and racial animus in order to achieve political ends (the rest of us oughtn't reciprocally match the "burn-it-all-down" stance).

But, still. I have to concede that this Serbian thing is awfully strange.

Two notes:

1. This is like the third really good, really early, really important reporting I've seen from Newsweek this month. Did they get good again?

2. Muslims are, unsurprisingly, freaking out that the guy who wants to block them, and possibly deport them, putatively from a common sense desire to weed out bad apples, is now apologizing for the United States' intervention in the attempted genocide of Bosnian Muslims.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Trump Has A Huge Night at the Second Presidential Debate

So the Vic Berger video I briefly referenced yesterday has finally arrived, and it's as creepy/hilarious as we all hoped it would be.


Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Burning it to the Ground

The end game of our century-plus political alignment has, sure enough, gained momentum. The Republican candidate for president is currently burning it all to the ground on Twitter.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Florida...

Some quick links:

At any other moment of our nation's history, this story, explaining how a US presidential candidate got caught not just unwittingly acting in the interest of a foreign power (as Trump has been doing for Russia all along), but cribbing directly from whoever feeds Russia's primary propoganda organ (i.e. someone high-level at the Kremlin), would produce an earth-rocking scandal.

Adding to the two I recommended yesterday, here are some more Twitter feeds to monitor: David Fahrenthold (the WaPo reporter who's been doggedly working the Trump foundation/donations story), Matt Mackowiak (another conservative anti-Trumper), Vic Berger is due to post a much-awaited mash-up of the last debate any minute now, and, just for fun, Ken Bone, the dude in the red sweater from the debate who's become an Internet sensation (check out this appearance on Kimmel bearing in mind how very, very difficult it is for a civilian to draw laughs - much less sustained laughs - on a late night talkshow.

Finally, this is pretty hilarious:

More brilliant videos from Peter Serafinowicz

Monday, October 10, 2016

All My Election Predictions Were Wrong

I was wrong in all my predictions about this election:

1. I wrote, back in May, that "the smartest thing Hillary and Bill could do would be to rent a nice house in the south of France until November, and disappear. Not say a word. Let her proxies (not Bill) snipe at Trump. Let Trump be the only candidate committing unforced errors. Give him the total spotlight he craves. Let the nation experience nothing but wall-to-wall Trump for six months. Let Trump undo Trumpism."

I still think that would have worked out just fine, but my prediction - that she'd mess things up with the lousy political skills which had squandered huge leads against seemingly weak opponents twice before - was wrong. She didn't spend the past months bellowing "Donald Trump is a racist!!" over and over again, as I expected. Rather, she and her team have played a subtle political strategy that I imagine will be remembered and taught for centuries.

The campaign ad below, from July, was brilliant. It perfectly set the stage for everything her campaign would be doing:

In the first debate, her strategy and execution were flawless. She trolled and provoked with perfect grace, while completely belying her image of stridency and smugness.

In the second debate, she played a prevent defense, declining to spar (even letting plenty of whoppers pass by unchallenged), running out the clock on her mounting lead. Trump gave her several opportunities to shove the knife in deeply, but she took none of them. This, too, was brilliant.

The Trump ticket went into the debate at a crisis point, with the Republican party on the verge of mass defection, and high-level talk of replacing the candidate. His running mate had even abandoned the campaign for two days and was said to be watching the debate performance before deciding whether to drop out. Clinton went in for no kills, did no trolling, and did little to set him off. She let him live, ensuring that the Republican party would be tied to this drowning candidate for the duration, and keeping the Senate's majority (and perhaps the House's) highly vulnerable.

That she was considered to have narrowly "won" the debate was, I think, purely accidental. Her main goal was to preserve a fatally damaged raft just enough that her opponents wouldn't abandon it for other, more unpredictable, means of survival. That was an awfully tough needle to thread, and she (and her team) nailed it [note that I just executed a rare quadruple mixed metaphor]. That she narrowly won, to boot, was a political triumph (long-time readers know I'm anything but a Hillary Clinton fan).

2. I thought Trump could turn his bellicose demagoguery on and off. But he never pivoted for the general election, as I predicted. I was extremely wrong...and stupidly so. A 70-year old shallow narcissist, perennially surrounded by sycophants, has had neither opportunity nor incentive to develop the facility to modify his persona, his views, or his verbal style. Trump, I should have realized, is an expression of pure id, and id can't pivot.

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