Saturday, March 25, 2017

Politics 101

The No True Scotsman Fallacy

No true Scotsman is a kind of informal fallacy in which one attempts to protect a universal generalization from counterexamples by changing the definition in an ad hoc fashion to exclude the counterexample. Rather than denying the counterexample or rejecting the original claim, this fallacy modifies the subject of the assertion to exclude the specific case or others like it by rhetoric, without reference to any specific objective rule ("no true Scotsman would do such a thing"; i.e., those who perform that action are not part of our group and thus criticism of that action is not criticism of the group).


Philosophy professor Bradley Dowden explains the fallacy as an "ad hoc rescue" of a refuted generalization attempt. The following is a simplified rendition of the fallacy:
Person A: "No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge."
Person B: "But my uncle Angus likes sugar with his porridge."
Person A: "Ah yes, but no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge."
The essayist Spengler compared distinguishing between "mature" democracies, which never start wars, and "emerging democracies", which may start them, with the "No true Scotsman" fallacy. Spengler alleges that "political scientists" have attempted to save the "US academic dogma" that democracies never start wars from counterexamples by maintaining that no true democracy starts a war.


The introduction of the term is attributed to British philosopher Antony Flew, because the term originally appeared in Flew's 1971 book An Introduction to Western Philosophy. In his 1975 book Thinking About Thinking, he wrote:
Imagine Hamish McDonald, a Scotsman, sitting down with his Glasgow Morning Herald and seeing an article about how the "Brighton Sex Maniac Strikes Again". Hamish is shocked and declares that "No Scotsman would do such a thing." The next day he sits down to read his Glasgow Morning Herald again; and, this time, finds an article about an Aberdeen man whose brutal actions make the Brighton sex maniac seem almost gentlemanly. This fact shows that Hamish was wrong in his opinion, but is he going to admit this? Not likely. This time he says: "No true Scotsman would do such a thing."

Tomer Hanuka, "Spring Awakening"

The True Meaning of Nostalgia

I recently had a brief chat with a hundred-year-old Jew. His name is Manuel Bromberg, and he’s a resident of Woodstock, New York. Mr. Bromberg had written me a letter, to tell me that he had read and liked my latest book, and in the letter he mentioned that in a few days he would be hitting the century mark, so I thought I’d call him up and wish him a happy hundredth.

An accomplished artist and professor for most of his very long life, Mr. Bromberg painted murals for the W.P.A. and served as an official war artist for the U.S. Army during the Second World War, accompanying the Allied invasion of Europe with paints, pencils, and sketch pad, his path smoothed and ways opened to him by the presence in his pocket of a pass signed by General Dwight D. Eisenhower himself, just like the Eisenhower pass carried by “my grandfather,” the nameless protagonist of my novel. After the war, this working-class boy from Cleveland rode the G.I. Bill to a distinguished career as a serious painter, sculptor, and university professor.

Mr. Bromberg sounded strong and thoughtful and sharp as a tack on the other end of the line, his voice in my ear a vibrant connection not just to the man himself but to the times he had lived through, to the world he was born into, a world in which the greater part of Jewry lived under the Czar, the Kaiser, and the Hapsburg Emperor, in whose army Adolf Hitler was a corporal. As we chatted, I realized that I was talking to a man almost exactly the same age as my grandfather, were he still alive—I mean my real grandfather, Ernest Cohen, some of whose traits, behaviors, and experiences, along with those of his brothers, brothers-in-law, and other men of their generation in my family, of Mr. Bromberg’s generation, helped me to shape the life and adventures of the hero of that book, as my memories of my grandmothers and their sisters and sisters-in-law helped shape my understanding of that book’s “my grandmother.”

Then Mr. Bromberg mentioned that he had now moved on to another novel of mine, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” and he wanted to tell me about another connection between his life and the world of my books: when he was in junior high, in Cleveland, Ohio, his chief rival for the title of School’s Most Talented Artist was a four-eyed, acne-faced wunderkind named Joe Shuster. One day in the mid-nineteen-thirties, in the school locker room, Mr. Bromberg told me, Joe Shuster came to him looking for his opinion on some new drawings: pencil sketches of a stylized cartoon strongman cavorting in a pair of circus tights, with a big letter-S insignia on his chest. To the young Mr. Bromberg, they seemed to be nothing more than competent figure drawings, but Shuster seemed to be very excited about this “Superman” character that he and a friend had come up with. “I have to be honest with you, Michael,” Mr. Bromberg told me, in a confidential tone. “I was not impressed.”

After we talked, I found myself reflecting on the way that, with his Eisenhower pass and his connection to the golden age of comic books, with his creative aspirations rooted equally in hard work and the highbrow, in blue collar and the avant-garde, Mr. Bromberg had been able to find so much of himself in my writing, as so many Mr. Brombergs, in various guises, can be found in the pages of my books. I think there are a few reasons that the lives of that generation of American Jews have formed my fiction. The first is that I have always been—to a fault, it has at times seemed—a good boy. At family gatherings, at weddings and bar mitzvahs, from the time I was small, among all my siblings and cousins, I always felt a sense of dutifulness about hanging out with the old people, enduring their interrogations, remedying their ignorance of baffling modern phenomena, such as Wacky Packages or David Bowie, and, above all, listening to their reminiscences. As the extent of my sense of obligation about serving this function became apparent, I was routinely left behind with the Aunt Ruths and the Uncle Jacks and the Cousin Tobys, not just by my peers and coevals but by our parents, too. Even to this day, at the weddings and bar mitzvahs of other families, you will often find me sitting alone at a table with an Uncle Jack completely unrelated to me, patiently listening to the story of the plastic-folding-rain-bonnet business he started in Rochester in 1948 with a three-hundred-dollar loan from somebody else’s Aunt Ruth, a story that all of his own relatives tired of hearing years ago, if they ever paid attention at all. (...)

My work has at times been criticized for being overly nostalgic, or too much about nostalgia. That is partly my fault, because I actually have written a lot about the theme of nostalgia; and partly the fault of political and economic systems that abuse nostalgia to foment violence and to move units. But it is not nostalgia’s fault, if fault is to be found. Nostalgia is a valid, honorable, ancient human emotion, so nuanced that its sub-variants have names in other languages—German’s sehnsucht, Portuguese’s saudade—that are generally held to be untranslatable. The nostalgia that arouses such scorn and contempt in American culture—predicated on some imagined greatness of the past or inability to accept the present—is the one that interests me least. The nostalgia that I write about, that I study, that I feel, is the ache that arises from the consciousness of lost connection. (...)

Nostalgia, to me, is not the emotion that follows a longing for something you lost, or for something you never had to begin with, or that never really existed at all. It’s not even, not really, the feeling that arises when you realize that you missed out on a chance to see something, to know someone, to be a part of some adventure or enterprise or milieu that will never come again. Nostalgia, most truly and most meaningfully, is the emotional experience—always momentary, always fragile—of having what you lost or never had, of seeing what you missed seeing, of meeting the people you missed knowing, of sipping coffee in the storied cafés that are now hot-yoga studios. It’s the feeling that overcomes you when some minor vanished beauty of the world is momentarily restored, whether summoned by art or by the accidental enchantment of a painted advertisement for Sen-Sen, say, or Bromo-Seltzer, hidden for decades, then suddenly revealed on a brick wall when a neighboring building is torn down. In that moment, you are connected; you have placed a phone call directly into the past and heard an answering voice.

by Michael Chabon, New Yorker | Read more:
Image: Eleni Kalorkoti

[ed. ps... If you're a fiction lover and haven't read these already, I'd highly recommend Mr. Chabon's books: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Telegraph Avenue.]

Friday, March 24, 2017

Lee Morgan

I Called Him Morgan
[ed. I've been a Lee Morgan fan since, like forever. Nice to see a new documentary about him.]

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Heather Fortner

Impeachment: Is It Just a Fantasy?

On 21 July 2007, George W Bush underwent surgery to have five polyps removed after what was described as a routine colonoscopy. The date may have been lost to history, but for the rare invocation at the time of a constitutional amendment laying out how the transfer of power to the vice-president works in cases of presidential disability.

For 125 minutes – as long as it took for Bush to enter and emerge from partial anesthesia, eat breakfast and display possession of his native wit – Dick Cheney held all the powers attached to the office of the presidency. (Some wags have suggested that Cheney wielded that authority, unofficially, over a much longer time span.)

Even before the FBI director announced on Monday that the bureau is investigating possible collusion between the Donald Trump campaign and Moscow during the 2016 presidential election, the precise rules for how the powers of the presidency might be transferred – or simply rescinded – in case of criminality or emergency had become the subject of newfound and intense focus in the United States.

Whispers about impeachment, the most familiar constitutional procedure for removing a president, began to circulate even before Trump had taken the oath of office. But two months into Trump’s presidency, those whispers – and the search for any other possible emergency exit – have grown into an open conversation that has moved well beyond the realm of a Democratic party daydream. “Get ready for impeachment,” an influential, 13-term Democratic congresswoman tweeted after the bombshell FBI announcement.

The Trump-Russia intrigue has produced a flood of speculation as to whether a new Watergate scandal was afoot. That crisis, which began with a break-in at Democratic party offices inside the Watergate hotel in 1972, brought down President Richard Nixon after two years, in the only resignation of an American president yet.

In a remarkable 77-minute press conference/performance artwork in February, Trump denied inappropriate ties to Moscow, which US intelligence agencies have concluded tampered with the presidential election in Trump’s favor. “I have nothing to do with Russia,” Trump said. “I told you, I have no deals there, I have no anything.”

But the significance of the allegations, and of the FBI investigation, is plain.

“On a 10 scale of Armageddon for our form of government, I would put Watergate at a 9,” wrote Dan Rather, the longtime network news anchor, in a Facebook post. “This Russia scandal is currently somewhere around a 5 or 6, in my opinion, but it is cascading in intensity seemingly by the hour. We may look back and see, in the end, that it is at least as big as Watergate. It may become the measure by which all future scandals are judged. It has all the necessary ingredients, and that is chilling.”

There are other grounds on which Trump might be removed from the presidency. A movement to impeach Trump for allegedly violating constitutional bans on receiving certain gifts – a problem rooted in the president’s failure to divest from his real estate, hotel and branding businesses – gained 875,000 online signatures in one month, said organizer John Bonifaz.

“I think there are many members of Congress who are deeply troubled,” said Bonifaz, a constitutional law expert and MacArthur fellowship recipient. “I think it’s only a matter of time before a resolution gets introduced in the United States Congress that starts this process of an impeachment investigation in the House of Representatives.”

In yet another scenario, as laid out in the 25th amendment to the constitution, which Bush invoked when he handed off power to Cheney, the vice-president, acting in concert with a majority of the cabinet, might declare the president unfit to serve. This is the most delicious scenario, for connoisseurs of political intrigue, though the amendment has never been invoked to remove power from a president against his will.

So what does the history of impeachment of US presidents tell us about where we might go from here?

by Tom McCarthy, The Guardian |  Read more:
Image: UPI / Barcroft Images

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Political -Technological Kryptonite

Nearly a year ago, Donald Trump walked onstage at an aluminum factory in Monessen, Pennsylvania, and began a speech coalescing around his favorite topic from the stump—making America great again. Citing his experience in the real-estate business, Trump said he would personally guarantee that he could ensure the rehabilitation of the rural town and its woebegone manufacturing industry. He discarded a number of potential obstacles—secular trends such as globalization, existing trade agreements, and the increasing preponderance of robotics—and outlined his hope for the resurrection of the American steel business. All he would have to do, so it seemed, was prevent large companies from sending jobs overseas and force them to buy American-made goods.

Trump’s campaign was filled with lies and falsehoods, but this one may be the most damaging of all. Not only does it misunderstand the forces at play in the global economy, but it does not even begin to comprehend the massive changes ahead. And it is those changes that are likely to render Trump not merely a fool but also a political eunuch.

A few years ago, as I was walking through the robotics lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, observing prototypes for fold-up driverless cars and digitized prosthetics, among other things one only expects to see in Christopher Nolan movies, I was arrested by a sign that sat upon one student’s desk. “Be nice to the robots,” the placard read, “for they will be in charge one day.” The sign was presumably meant as a joke, but that prophetic mantra stuck with me for years. It seemed so eerily accurate. What I didn’t realize, however, was how quickly that day would arrive.

During the past few years, we have been inundated by research reports from universities and media outlets presaging the dawn of the Robot Revolution. The futurists and roboticists whom I’ve spoken with often predict that the first wave of vanishing jobs will be the “repetitive” ones: meat packers, who recurrently slice open a cow’s carcass; or stockroom attendants, who carry boxes from one shelf to another in a warehouse; and supermarket cashiers who slide your bananas and boxes of cereal across a scanner. All of them will see their functions replaced by an algorithm. Amazon is already working on a prototype in which you enter a grocery store, fill your bag with food, and then simply walk out. Sensors and cameras know exactly what you’ve purchased and will automatically charge your Amazon account. Something along these lines will happen with clothing stores, gas stations, even most restaurants.

But these sorts of advances, while undeniably futuristic, only represent a small fraction of what their underlying technologies can accomplish. The number of jobs that will be affected, and rendered irrelevant, by robots, automation and artificial intelligence is going to be astounding and terrifying. And the day of reckoning is not decades away; it’s only a matter of years from now. Forecasts have noted that entire industries will be overtaken by vehicles that are controlled by little robotic brains and thousands of sensors. Truck drivers will likely be out of work; taxi and Uber drivers will see a decline in the need for their services, too. And this transformation isn’t going to happen simply in a vacuum. We will see cars start to drive themselves down the street while their passengers nap or watch a movie. Rather than fly from Los Angeles to San Francisco, you might get into your car at bedtime and program a destination so that you could wake up in the peninsula. Many U.P.S., FedEx, and U.S. postal service workers will be replaced by drones. (I’ve seen prototypes for huge gas-powered drones that can carry one-ton packages 40,000 feet in the air at speeds two or three times that of an airplane.) Construction workers will one day be replaced by 3-D printers that can literally print a home in a day by squeezing out cement and other materials like icing atop a cake.

One of the big promises of driverless cars has been that the technology will help erase the preponderance of automobile accidents. There are currently some 33,000 people in the United States who died each year in car crashes, and 94 percent of accidents, indeed, are caused by human error. Yet even this hopeful, life-saving efficiency will negatively affect doctors, ambulance drivers, people who work in body shops, glass-repair shops, and other related industries. Then there are auto auctioneers, the telemarketers who answer the phone at call centers when you need to call A.A.A., or get a new lease quote. Loan underwriters, credit managers, actuaries, rental-car agents, people who work in driving schools.

The list goes on and on. Traffic courts will completely vanish. (You can’t speed if you’re not driving.) And think about all the easy money that would be siphoned away from the car industry and government. Americans rack up $6.2 billion in speeding tickets a year. Gone. Billions of dollars in parking tickets. Gone. A truck with no one behind the wheel doesn’t need to stop to get a burger in the middle of the night or use the restroom. All of this makes the people who work at rest stops and motorway hotels useless.

Here’s a scary thought: many of the states with the most truckers also have the most gun owners. So it should be interesting to see if they go quietly into the night when they are out of work. And if you’re a Republican, here’s an even scarier thought: these are many of the states that voted for Donald Trump last November under the misguided hope that his attacks on migrant workers and companies who off-shored jobs could somehow erase the most inconvenient truth of all. Globalization was once the greatest threat to the middle class. Now it’s automation. And the wreckage is only about to begin.

While it might seem unlikely to us dumb humans, driving is actually a rather easy task for a machine to learn. Roads are a specific width and length, motorways generally operate at a certain type of speed, city streets at another, and networked cars can learn together very quickly how to avoid obstacles.

Automation and artificial intelligence are going to be able to do far more complex jobs. Eventually, doctors, most specifically surgeons, could be replaced by nano-robots that are (or will be) so tiny that they could be dropped into your blood supply and perform surgery on you, or fight cancer or a virus, while you watch TV at home. (Presuming we still watch TV in the future, that is.) There will be less of a need for military and soldiers on the battlefield (drones have already facilitated this transition), and infantrymen will be replaced by terrifying-looking robots that can run faster than a cheetah, or swarms of fighter drones, before being rendered useless themselves as the world presumably transitions to cyber or biological warfare, which could lead to a lot more casualties than traditional wars.

And then there’s people like me. If you think a robot or algorithm can learn to be a lawyer or surgeon, or drive a truck across America but can’t learn to draw or paint, write a song or edit a story, you’re failing to grasp just how pervasive this Robot Revolution is going to be. Art directors and copywriters will be replaced by an algorithm that can A/B test 500 versions of an advertisement to see which is best for a specific audience. Eventually, as in Minority Report, each ad will be tailored to each person who views it. Business books, or how-to guides, could be written by machine-learning algorithms. Even thrillers and novels. Films and TV shows will have computer-generated actors and actresses that don’t complain about the size of their trailer. Films will be edited by algorithms. Robots, automation, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and a slew of other technologies will learn to write pop songs and greatest hits. And while there will be standouts (think La La Land, among last year’s manufactured hits) most consumers won’t know the difference between those made by humans and those made by machines.

People who are building this future predict that America will have to implement a Universal Basic Income, or UBI, in which Americans who lose their jobs to automation are paid a wage by the government. But let’s think about that for a moment. Can you imagine the Republicans getting on board with such an idea? Paul Ryan and his band of cohorts behind Trumpcare can’t even fake enough morality to help the poor get health insurance. Do you really think they are going to pay millions of out-of-work truck drivers to stay at home and do nothing? Good luck with that one.

So what will happen when we all lose our jobs to automation? Some theorize that, in the same way that the Industrial Revolution made way for a new class of creative jobs that didn’t exist before, the Robot Revolution will free up the proletariat from the labors of driving cars or trading stocks, and an entirely new industry will be born from all our free time. Maybe they’re right. But there is major difference between these two consequential revolutions. The Industrial Revolution took place during the course of nearly a century, from the mid 18th century to the mid 19th. The speed with which we will become servile to robots is going to happen with such rapidity we won’t know what’s happened until an estimated 75 percent of Americans are out of a job by the end of the century.

by Nick Bilton, Vanity Fair |  Read more:
Image: via:

DOOMguy Knows How You Feel

The original Doom (1993) was a first-person shooter noted, even notorious, for its comically intense graphic violence and early, immersive pseudo-three-dimensional world. What it lacked for in plot (and it lacked intensely in plot), it made up for by bringing the speed and fluidity of arcade style gameplay to the nascent FPS genre at home. This past year, while much of the world was transfixed by the increasingly bizarre American presidential election, a niche but still mass market of gamers saw id Software release the long-delayed DOOM (2016), a reboot of the 1990s game. What in May looked like a bizarre retread, an uninvited “blast from the past,” looks considerably different in cold winter light. Everything old is new again, and DOOM knows how you feel.

It is often assumed that a fundamental question in games is one of “agency” — particularly the player’s ability to make meaningful “choices” within a game world. However, DOOM is built with a different, and, I would hazard, more accurate assumption in mind: games work primarily on an affective plane. The question they ask is not “what will you do?” but rather “how do you feel?” And DOOM doesn’t think you’re feeling particularly good at the moment.

At first glance, DOOM is unremarkable. The mining of recent cultural memory and nostalgia for cheap commercial cash-ins has reached near parodic proportions, with no “intellectual property” deemed too insignificant to be recreated ad nauseum. But one does not need to spend long with DOOM to know that the game is in on the scam. In DOOM, you play as a nameless, faceless “space marine” so bereft of characterization or quality that across the many iterations of Doom, internet commentators have come to call the protagonist, simply, “doomguy.” Doomguy was a useful skeleton to hang the 1993 game on — a game far more focused on introducing then-new game mechanics and game coding practices. Now DOOM plays doomguy’s emptiness back at the game-playing public.

Doomguy sells. DOOM (2016) sold approximately one million copies by the end of summer 2016, and likely many more since then. This is probably around $50–$60 million in sales at least (not counting fall of 2016). For a game with its unusual design — and one that is not part of a dominant franchise (Call of Duty, Pokémon, FIFA, et cetera) — it did quite well. The global market for video games is estimated at somewhere between $91 billion and an optimistic $99.6 billion mark. Some projections put a 2017 market peg at approximately $106 billion. In just the first three days after its debut in 2015, Call of Duty: Black Ops III was responsible for 550 million of those dollars, with Call of Duty being probably the largest first-person shooter franchise, and also the most generic. So DOOM is neither a tiny, independent game nor a powerhouse juggernaut. It’s a revival of a dormant one, which came on strong to mostly positive critical reception. DOOM sits in an interesting interstitial space economically and culturally: mass market but niche, known but not ubiquitous. (...)

Following these opening moments, we quickly learn the setting of DOOM through a series of voice-over conversations, holographic corporate PR messages, and, for the truly curious, endless reams of hilarious flavor text exposition. The Union Aerospace Corporation [UAC] appeared as a futuristic defense contractor in the original game. In some not-too-distant, post-apocalyptic future, it has decided that the only path to a sustainable future for humanity is to literally mine energy from Hell. Shockingly, this path to prosperity goes horribly awry. It is up to the newest incarnation of doomguy to sort it out, mostly through destroying key objects, ignoring proffered advice, and murdering a dizzying assortment first of zombified ex- (post-?) UAC employees and then, well, the demonic legions of Hell itself.

The UAC is played as one long, ghoulish gag reel of neoliberalism’s greatest hits. The entire game — with a nudge and a wink — reminds you that the contemporary ruling class would rather tap a rich vein in Hell than release the reins one inch to non-doomguys and gals everywhere. It also presents the player with constant reminders of the self-help-inflected, corporate newspeak of our era. (...)

DOOM’s rage is telegraphed from the very first moment of the game, but it is only when you are somewhere in the middle of one of its fully fleshed out scenarios, dancing from one platform to another, whirling through your array of weapons, prying the jaws of some Hell beast apart while cursing the utter inane idiocy of DOOM’s world — which is to say our world — that DOOM begins its rage education in earnest. Games are machines for producing affect, but they are also pedagogical ones: DOOM is instructing us. Pankaj Mishra recently argued that ours is an age of anger. Doomguy occupies the subject position of the 21st-century rage agent par excellence: put-upon, yet powerful; crumpling like a fragile heap from just a few demonic projectiles but with a rage potential unmatched; disenfranchised but with so many tools of power at hand. Mishra wisely encourages his readers to turn to the social theorists of the 19th century who took irrationality seriously; to the Darwins, the Freuds, the Webers, and Nietzsches who saw in modern humanity sexual impulses, old Gods, churning natures, and ressentiment instead of simple, orderly, maximizing rationality. But DOOM already knows that. DOOM takes us as we are.

by Ajay Singh Chaudhary, LARB | Read more:
Image: Doom

The Hawaii Cure

Do not eat until you are full; eat until you are tired,” calls Chief Sielu Avea, a Polynesian entertainer who, according to his bio, is “internationally known as the Coconut Man.” Making our way to the plastic table, paper plates wilting in our hands, we are tired already.

Here at the Chief’s Luau, “Aloha” means last to the buffet. The feeders in the “Royal” service tier ($159 per ticket) got first crack at the chafing dishes. And then team “Paradise” ($119) went at the sheet cake and roast pig. And if we stragglers in the Aloha group are not enraptured with our feast of sweetly lacquered chicken chunks and puffy dinner rolls, the fault is ours for booking steerage at $87 a head.

But you do not come to the Chief’s Luau for the food. You come because you have traveled thousands of miles only to fetch up in Waikiki Beach, a concentrated zone of souvenir dealers and luggage-dragging hordes that feels like a cultural protectorate of the airport. Hankering after something incontestably Hawaiian, you end up on a charter bus bound for the Chief’s Luau at Sea Life Park 15 miles west on the Kalanianaole Highway. Never mind that what is most purely Hawaiian about the luau is its proficiency at extracting tourists’ dollars. The luau leaves no doubt: You are in Hawaii now.

Beyond the buffet, there are traditional activities. Under the instruction of shirtless men in sarongs, you can fling a plastic spear at grass. There is the weaving station, where the spectacle includes a pregnant woman shoving her young daughter for trying to horn in on her work at a frond headband. And there is a fire-starting clinic where we rub sticks on logs in the hope of making flame. This proves no more possible than it was in the forests of our childhoods, but we go on rubbing in the faith that we are in a magical land where the laws of physics bend toward human satisfaction.

And for many of us, it is a magical evening. The magic has to do with the moon, the thud and rustle of the surf. The magic is working on Jed, my 1½-year-old son. He is off to the side of the action, trying to seduce a girl of 7 or so. She is engrossed with her tablet. A cultist of the night sky, Jed touches her wrist, points overhead and says, “Stars.” The girl’s eyes do not flicker from her screen.

My wife is similarly resistant to the enchantment. “This luau is making me feel bad about myself, and it is making me feel bad about humanity,” she says. We are now watching an entertainment where Hawaiian women in grass skirts dance the hula, and Hawaiian men with painted faces do a grunting spear-dance and stick their tongues out tikistyle. To my wife, this smacks uncomfortably of minstrelsy, which, yes, it does. But at least it is a two-way minstrelsy. The dancers pretend to be tiki warriors, and when the chief, in parting, bids us officially welcome to “the land of happy people,” we pretend to believe that such a place exists.

Can it be true? The aloha spirit is real? Paradise on earth? An Eden of happy Americans moated from our national ravages of malevolence, contempt, uncertainty and fear?

Not until 2017 has Hawaii held for me even a vague temptation. The 50th state has always seemed to me a meretricious luxury product whose visitors bring happiness with them in the form of money. I am not constitutionally geared for paradise. I am not one for cocktails containing patio equipment, for lazing on talcum-soft sand, eyes gone to pinwheels, grinning madly at the sun. (...)

We are staying in a room at the Waikiki Beach Hilton, which, with its ocean views and high-pressure shower head, is dangerously close to nice. But in the corridor I am pleased to meet a fat and saucy cockroach, thoughtfully dispatched, perhaps, by a concierge who has gotten wind of my preferences. In live-and-let-live aloha spirit, I do not molest the animal. My wife, however, in consideration of the sleeping guests the roach might visit, bruises the creature with a sack of dirty diapers before it jogs off down the hall.

In the lobby, we lay down $12 for two coffees and one banana and browse the morning paper, which proves a clemency from anticipated horrors. The front page of The Honolulu Star-Advertiser bears not a single presidential headline. “Legislature Considers Funding to Combat Rat Lungworm Disease” is the story of the day.

Dawn finds us waterfront on Oahu’s North Shore, downrange of the Banzai Pipeline. The sand has a forthright cornmeal consistency. The water is the blue of telegraph insulators. The waves transmit a disaster-movie feeling with every crash, even after you have watched a thousand of them land. The young and barely clad are out in force, demonstrating physiques that can come only from long and rigorous hours of ignoring national politics. Just up the shore, two young women are seriously engaged in the business of aiming a big professional camera at the tanned, professional butt of a third young woman who, I’m guessing, is a big deal in a modeling niche I didn’t know existed. One thing is sure: No way will I be bathing here.

My son gives not a damn. He uncloaks fully his cloudlike body and hits the sand like an oyster in a breading dredge. The day is perfect room temp with a breeze. In the distant shallows, surfers shoot the tube or gleam the curl or whatever that amazing thing is called. My wife and I breakfast on fresh coconut — neither sweet nor flavorful but fun to gnaw, for the feeling that you’ve acquired termite superpowers. Jed squats and tumbles and packs his nethers with 20-grit. “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” is his ecstatic report on the sensation. I am right there with him. It would be overselling things to claim that I’ve achieved rapturous mind erasure my
first morning in Hawaii, but this is, well, rather nice.

For lunch we motor clockwise down the coast to the Kahuku Superette. The Superette is a homely liquor shop/convenience store that from the outside is easily pictured in a newscast with police lights flashing on it. Inside, they dish out poké of world renown. Poké is sashimi salad doused in soy and sesame and other things. We get a tub of traditional shoyu poké and a tub of limu poké with crunchy bits of seaweed. The place to gobble the Superette’s poké is in your hot rental car in the muddy parking lot. Gemlike blocks of tuna nearing a full cubic inch are bright and salty as the sea.

by Wells Tower, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Dina Litovsky/Redux

[ed. So close and yet so far. Here's an excerpt from an email I sent to my son during my last trip over when the power went down for nearly three days. Small town, small island, completely different scenario, but still... There are so many facets to Hawaii that reflect and refract whatever you bring to it:

"It's been crazy. Last Friday the winds started howling, then really began ripping on Sat. all over the islands, peaking Sat. night. We lost 17 power poles at the power plant and the island's been without power for the last few days. Just came back on early this morning. Really interesting to be in a (mini) disaster again... normal barriers break down between people and everyone pulls together and you see the best come out in folks. Everything closed - restaurants, grocery stores, gas station. Nothing hot or cold to eat (I had some canned sardines). No hot water for showers. No electrical outlets to charge phones. No ice. Food spoiled in refrigerators and freezers. People forced to grill whatever they could before it all went bad (and most of it did). Yesterday the stores opened briefly with generators to let people buy whatever non-perishables they could find, but cash only (and the ATMs didn't work either, so I'm down to $6 today). There were lines of 50 people or more at both stores, and they were just letting in a handful at a time, I guess to keep a mob from forming. No cash registers, just hand calculators. Really interesting. Then the gas station opened with generators and the line ran 20+ cars around the back of the station and down the street. $50 limit, cash only there too. Everything cash only, and no place to get cash! But like I say, the best comes out in people...when I was at the bank some lady (a stranger) asked me if I was visiting and when I said yes, she said she would loan me money. A stranger! I declined, then [T.] across the street made the same offer. Declined that too, but today I would have had to take the offer. I shared a loaf of bread and some canned sardines and chili with him. I was also down to fumes in the jeep so couldn't go anywhere, either.

Fun, eh? Then, the sun goes down at 7pm each night and you get to lay in the dark and talk to the geckos until hopefully falling asleep (and waking up at 4am and laying in the dark till sunup at 7am). Nobody knew how long it would take, just hopeful rumors that kept getting dashed. If this went on another couple days I think people would really be desperate. I went to the hospital (I heard their generators) and the people there were nice enough to let me re-charge my phone so I could make sure I had a seat out on a flight, just in case it really got bad.

But, another interesting thing: everybody was OUT. Walking the streets, talking with each other, kids playing and biking and doing kid things. I met a few new people just that way. There was nothing else to do but socialize (and grill). Really nice to see and experience that again. This really is the friendliest Isle."]

Monday, March 20, 2017

How NFL Players Lost Their Leverage

It’s a good time to be an in-demand NFL player, as record spending is making the league’s top free agents richer than ever. As of Tuesday, NFL teams had spent $1.9 billion on unrestricted targets through the first six days of free agency, with $922 million of that guaranteed. Last spring, teams spent $1 billion guaranteed over six weeks. For valuable players hitting the market at the right moment, big deals are the new normal.

For everyone else, though, settling is. The rising salary cap, which sits at $167 million for the 2017 season — up $12 million from last year and $47 million from 2011, the first season of the league’s current collective bargaining agreement — has altered spending patterns in the NFL. And though earnings are rising for the top free agents, a confluence of events has caused them to shrink for those lower on rosters, eradicating the NFL’s middle class and costing its lower tier much of its leverage.

Larger training camp and practice squad rosters mean more players competing for spots on the active roster, robbing those on the fringes of true bargaining power. The rookie wage scale, introduced in 2011 to theoretically push more money toward veterans, has actually hurt aging nonstars, who wind up negotiating below-market deals based on their low initial salaries. And of course, NFL teams remain self-interested even amid the rising cap, reducing their own financial burden using little-known, widely implemented mechanisms like split contracts and per-game roster bonuses.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. “The goal of [the 2011 CBA] was to give more money to the middle class,” says Mark Dominik, a former Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager, who’s now an analyst for ESPN. “Instead, what happened was teams rewarded star players, and it created a cavernous pit between types of contracts. It’s a have-and-have-not league.”

NFL teams have always considered lower-rung players disposable. Now, however, franchises have become expert at stacking the deck against those with the least leverage, further splitting rosters into two clusters with vastly different circumstances.

“We’re in a challenging time,” says Rams general manager Les Snead. “I’ve heard [former Colts executive] Bill Polian talk about the concept of ‘monetary dysfunction,’ where you have problems in the locker room because guys are saying, ‘Hey, why is this guy getting this money?’ … The market used to be outdated annually; now it’s outdated on a player-by-player basis. The paradigm shifts constantly. … There’s going to be a natural jealousy.”

During the 2015 season, Ronnie Hillman led the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos in rushing yards and touchdowns. At training camp seven months later, the Broncos, flush with running backs, released Hillman from the $2 million contract they’d signed him to earlier in 2016. Instead of resuming his role as Denver’s lead back, Hillman had to face the open market a week before the season began. Absent his leverage, he signed a league-minimum deal with the Minnesota Vikings two weeks into the season worth a prorated $760,000 and featuring what is called an “injury split,” which would cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars if he wound up on injured reserve.

As guaranteed money has risen for the NFL’s haves, split contracts have become increasingly prominent for the have-nots. These deals put the risk almost entirely on the player by not guaranteeing the full amount of money unless he stays healthy all season. For example, Donald Brown’s deal with the Patriots last season called for $965,000 total, but a prorated drop to $453,000 if Brown hit IR. This mechanism used to be reserved for late-round draft picks and veterans with extensive injury histories. But according to multiple NFL team executives, over the past few seasons splits and other similarly pro-team, anti-player contract clauses like per-game bonuses have started to creep into more veteran deals than ever before. Nick Greisen, a former NFL player who now sells injury insurance to NFL players, estimates that players leaguewide lost $28 million in salary due to these injury clauses in 2015, up from $19 million in 2013 and $23 million in 2014.

“[Teams] are going to try to keep their money in their pockets as much as possible,” Hillman says. “The league is cheap, man. And you kind of learn they don’t really take care of you like that.” Hillman, who was placed on waivers by the Vikings and picked up by the Chargers in November, says he signed his split contract because “I knew I wasn’t going to get hurt,” but also says he feels for the growing group of players facing slanted negotiations. Hillman believes that the CBA should include more provisions to protect veterans and laments how quickly players are flushed out of the league if they find themselves off a roster for even a moment. “There are lots of things you’d want to change about the CBA,” Hillman says. “But for me, it’s definitely how they handle players out of the league, trying to get another [team]. I can’t complain about that because I got picked up, but just hearing how other players struggle to get back in, or look to the [National Football League Players Association] for help, it just sucks to see your friends go through it.” (The Vikings declined to comment.)

Since the cap started rising, NFL teams have performed a master class in reducing their own financial risk at the expense of lower-earning players. In addition to identifying the proliferation of injury splits, people inside the NFL — from team executives to agents — point to the growing number of contracts built in part on per-game bonuses, which stem from being on the active roster, meaning that to get their maximum salary each week, a player must be on the 46-man game-day roster, not just the 53-man overall roster. Greisen says his data shows that players lost $20 million leaguewide in 2016 due to per-game bonuses.

by Kevin Clark, The Ringer |  Read more:
Image: Getty Images/The Ringer


Step Back for the Bigger Picture

Two weeks ago today, President Trump went on Twitter and leveled a series of accusations against former President Obama, most notably that Obama had wiretapped his phones in Trump Tower. The claim has been roundly criticized ever since. Notably, it came on the heels of a new round of damaging revelations about ties between Trump's entourage and Russia. We've now had formal inquiries from the congressional intelligence committees, statements from the Department of Justice and the FBI, a follow on attempt by Trump and Spicer to redefine what the President actually said.

We know this much of the story. But this is a case where the particularity of the story, the minutiae of intelligence officials' denials, discussions of what authority a president might theoretically have to do such a thing all conspire together to confuse rather than illuminate what happened.

The real story here is that the President, by force of his office and audacity, was able to inject into the national conversation a preposterous claim which the country has spent two weeks debating. True, most people may not believe it. But virtually everyone has gone through the motions of probing the question as though they might be true. Intelligence communities have been briefed, statements have been made, a number of news conferences have been dominated by it. Perhaps most notably, members of his party have only been willing to say that there is as yet no evidence to back up the President's claims - not that they are obviously false and represent a major problem in themselves.

I would say that this ability - both the President's pathological lying and our institutions' inability to grapple with it - is the big, big story. The particulars of the accusation basically pale in comparison.

Also note how these lies have spread. The need to perpetuate the lie has made it necessary to escalate it. In an attempt to work around the uniform denials of every US government agency that does 'wire-taps', Press Secretary Sean Spicer was forced to grasp on to the rantings of a Fox News 'legal analyst' who claimed that President Obama had used British intelligence to sidestep US legal strictures. Repeating this claim with the imprimatur of the White House triggered a minor but real diplomatic incident with the United Kingdom, which may not yet be settled.

Continuing to defend the baseless claim required Trump to revisit the story in his press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, both doubling down on the claim and also passing the buck to Fox News and creating the surreal spectacle of suggesting that he, like Merkel, was the victim of the very intelligence services and law enforcement agencies which he in fact now leads.

While most have dismissed the President's claims, it is still the case that he has been allowed to drive public debate for two weeks over an obvious lie. Members of his party will not denounce it as a lie or even obviously false. That's a big problem. Without being overly dramatic, this is a warning case of people in power deciding what's true and false which is a harbinger of free government dying.

by Josh Marshall, Talking Points Memo |  Read more:
Image: uncredited via:

What the Senate Should Ask Judge Gorsuch

[ed. See also: The Case Against Neil Gorsuch and Neil Gorsuch Is No Originalist.]

When Judge Neil Gorsuch faces the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday, will we see a series of crisp, clear exchanges on the nature of the Constitution, the role of precedent, the limits of presidential power? Or will we see what one legal scholar called “a vapid and hollow charade, in which repetition of platitudes has replaced discussion of viewpoints and personal anecdotes have supplanted legal analysis”?

If the last 30 years are any guide, put your money on the second option.

Ever since Judge Robert Bork offered the Senate an honest account of his judicial philosophy in 1987 and watched it torpedo his chances, nominees have steadfastly refused to engage on controversial legal issues—insisting that they must avoid prejudging cases by remaining silent about any significant issue that might conceivably come before the court. Those nominees include Elena Kagan, the legal scholar who authored that 1995 jab at the process, and who notably lost her enthusiasm for revealing questions and answers when she was the one being questioned as a nominee.

Modern nominees decline as well to offer assessments of virtually any past Supreme Court decision, beyond embracing Brown v. Board of Education—the school desegregation decision of 1954—and taking a swipe at the Dred Scott decision of 1854 that declared slavery the law of the land. (Justices Antonin Scalia and William Rehnquist hold the record for such discretion: During their 1987 confirmation hearings, both refused to commit even to Marbury v. Madison, the 1803 decision that established the Court’s power to strike down laws as unconstitutional.)

The result has been a series of elaborate, ritualistic exercises designed chiefly to make political points in front of the TV cameras. (Many of the senators will make eight-minute statements followed by a question mark.) Democrats will ask Gorsuch whether he believes there is a right of privacy in the Constitution. He will say yes. Then they will ask if that includes a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy. He will say that issue might well come before the court, and will decline to answer. Or, like John Roberts, he might acknowledge that Roe v. Wade established a precedent, but will not say whether and how that precedent might be overruled. They will ask whether the Constitution limits the president’s power, wrapping such questions with denunciations of President Donald Trump’s travel bans, and point to memos Gorsuch wrote while in the Bush administration, embracing a robust view of that power. He, and the Republicans on the panel, will note that he was serving as an advocate back then, and no conclusion can be fairly drawn about how he might rule as a Supreme Court justice.

Democrats will ask Gorsuch why he rules so often in favor of corporate and business interests. He will say his job is to apply the law, not to reach beyond it to make political judgments. Or Gorsuch might be asked which justices he most admires, a backhand way of asking what judicial philosophies he admires; he could well respond by offering diplomatic praise for the two justices he clerked for—Byron White and Anthony Kennedy—and leave it at that.

Gorsuch’s opponents will have combed the record, looking for any writing or statement that could prove troublesome. Back in 2009, Justice Sonia Sotomayor found herself having to explain over and over—to every Republican on the panel—what she meant when she said in 2001 that: “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life.”

And the process is made worse by the uncertain grasp that many of the senators, on both sides of the aisle, have about the subtleties of constitutional law. (I am waiting for the day when an exasperated nominee challenges members of the committee to ask a question without reading from the talking points prepared by their staffs; in many cases, the silence would be deafening.)

So, faced with a nominee likely to shield himself by invoking “the Ginsburg Rules” (named after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s determination to offer no “hints” “previews” or “forecasts”), are there any questions that might offer a chance to draw Gorsuch into a genuine glimpse of his thinking? It’s worth a close look, since if a hearing features nothing more than partisan oratory and skillful evasions, it might be better just to call the whole thing off.

Considering the areas likely to dominate the hearings, and in which the public has the greatest interest in knowing the answers, here are some proposed questions that might help cut through the usual charade and give us a chance for a genuine window into Gorsuch's thinking.

by Jeff Greenfield, Politico |  Read more:
Image: Getty

[ed. See also: Trump's Method, Our Madness.]

Image: Jean Dubuffet, “Tissu d’episodes” (c. 1976).