Thursday, November 10, 2016

what went wrong?

Many years ago, when I was a young Programmer thrust into the role of 'Systems Analyst', I had the good fortune to share an office with an old guy (digression: now I'm the Old Guy) whose main working years predated computers.  His profession was called things like 'Operations Research'.

He was tall, white-haired, and skinny and smoked incessantly. He didn't know computers, but he knew Systems and learned quickly.  Even better, I learned a lot from him.

One of his favorite stories was when he was employed by a restaurant, to analyze why it wasn't making money.  This is what he said he learned:

In the restaurant business, you can promote your place as having either a superb atmosphere, superb food, or superb (i.e. reasonable) prices.  If you have one of those, you *may* succeed.  If you have two of those, you will probably succeed.  If you have all three of those, you *will* fail.

In the world of electing a President, you need a great candidate, a great message, and a great organization.  If you have all three, you will probably succeed.  If you have only two, you *may* succeed.  If you have only one of those, you will fail.

The Democratic Establishment had a mature organization, but they decided on the candidate before they decided on the Message.

I was at Bernie's amazing early Portland rally (28,000 wildly cheering fans).  The message was:  Income Inequality and a Rigged System, over the past 4 decades, has left much of America behind.  We all understood this, and approved of his remedies (overturn Citizens United, reign in military spending, build infrastructure, and, above all, care about the masses who have been victimized by globalization).

The Hillary people saw Bernie as an opponent to be quashed, not as a reflection of Popular Voter Sentiment.

Both the Progressive Crowd and the Rust Belt folks understood the damage done by decades of plant-closings and Wall Street shenanigans (i.e. Bernie's message), and the Rust Belt folks, who actually lived with the shattered lives, dreams, and opiates, simply don't see Gender inequality as the Big Issue This Year.

A Sociopath like Trump understood why Bernie was drawing the big crowds.  He didn't need (or even favor) Bernie's remedies.  He only needed Bernie's Message as a basis, and mixed in the usual demagogue tropes (you know what they are) to keep 'em riled.

And here we are.  Just my opinion.

Friday, October 28, 2016

who can say what's funny?

Reading about some of the apparent beliefs of the more extreme corners of the Trump-is-great crowd, I am reminded of something that occurred some years ago.  I offer this only as a personal experience.

My son, probably then in Middle School or Junior High, had some friends who got involved in a local Civil War Re-enacter group.  As a long-time student of the Civil War myself, I was interested in what went on and what the kids were being exposed to.  We had a couple of local get-togethers, where the kids made cartridges for an upcoming regional event.

We went to the event, south of Portland.  It was a lovely weekend, and was quite interesting seeing the 'camps', with their 19th Century crafts, clothing, and everyday items.  The 'battle' had the expected artillery, rifles, battle lines, and tactics (i.e. CHARGE!!).

There was lots of smoke and noise.  Can't recall which side 'won'.

At some point I was chatting with other Dads, and one of them told this joke:

Dad1:  My grandfather had a terrible experience at a Concentration Camp.

Me:  Yeah?

Dad1: Yep, he got drunk and fell out of the guard tower.

Me (thinking):  WTF?

Other dads:  Haw, haw.

We never went back to another event, so I can't claim this is indicative of the mind-set.

But it happened, and I never forgot it.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

It-Drives-Me-Nuts Dept., revisited

Et tu, NPR?

On Morning Edition today, they were interviewing two economists (of different persuasions), to analyze Trump's recent 'economic policy (sic)' speech.  They played the quote where he said, basically, "and we're going to eliminate the Death Tax - no workers should have to pay this, after paying taxes all their lives."

And the crowd goes wild.

The economists then had a back-and-forth, treating this nonsense (intentional or ignorant?) as a serious proposition. "Well, the Estate Tax only kicks in on estates worth many millions of dollars."  "Yes, but even a small business person with two or three car dealerships would be subject to the tax."  Etc. etc. etc.

Missing the point entirely.

It would not have taken that long for someone to mention that, of course, the 'Death Tax' is another right-wing dog-whistle (see also 'partial-birth abortion') designed to inflame the uninformed. 

Considering that economists say that a major proportion of our fellow Americans couldn't find a way to cobble together a couple of thousand dollars in an emergency, I can pretty much guarantee that a major proportion of Trump's cheering crowds will never (well, maybe in their dreams) have an estate subject to the Estate Tax.

But, no, another opportunity was lost to insert Reality into what has become a non-Reality-based campaign.   Then again, maybe I'm confusing today's NPR with the NPR of Yesteryear.

But wait, there's more.

A few minutes later, in a recap of the news, they mentioned that 'two families who lost sons in (wait for it) Benghazi have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Hillary Clinton', then moved on.

If only they could have taken 8 seconds to add, 'of course, the lawsuit was brought by Larry Klayman, the notorious right-wing hack who has been persecuting the Clintons with spurious lawsuits for decades.'

It drives me nuts.

At least, with the Romans, the masses got BOTH bread and circuses.  No bread for you!

Sunday, August 07, 2016

why do we feel bad when fictional characters die?

We are watching, on Amazon, a popular TV show that had multiple seasons.  We are currently many seasons in and 2 from the end (no more spoilers here!).

Last night, without warning, one of the main characters, who had been central to virtually every spisode from the beginning, was suddenly killed.  I found myself feeling sad, which is, on the face of it ridiculous.

There was a one-minute warning, because the camera focused briefly on a gun, and I am well aware of the theater rule that, if you show the audience a gun, it must, sooner or later, be fired.  There must be a few exceptions, but none come to mind.  Anyone?

What is it about human story-telling that makes Unexpected Death such a primary archetype?  I'm guessing that, in the days when we inhabited tree-tops above the savannah (or even among the fur-trappers of the 1820's), sudden Unexpected Death was not unusual, and feeds the human need for either catharsis (if we liked the character) or schadenfreude (otherwise).

I can only liken the stunned sensation I felt last night to reading about the hobbits trudging thru the Mines of Moria, and Gandalf suddenly disappearing into the abyss with the Balrog.  (Gandalf, if you don't know already, reappears later, so this feeds into the Resurrection archetype, which appears to have had a equally pervasive fascination, but don't get me started).

Downton Abbey had a bunch of these, too, but, aside from Sybil, I wasn't that deeply affected.

With the TV series we are following, we feel the shock and numbness that the other characters feel, and we wonder how we can go on.

Yet, we know we will go on.

The point of all this is that, in these days, Sudden Unexpected Death does NOT touch most of our lives (at least in my particular demographic - the mileage of other humans here on Earth varies considerably).  Encountering this in fiction is (Fate willing) probably the main way we will experience it.  Maybe fiction is a way of letting us know that these things happen, and gives us a model for how to continue to live.

Still, I can't help feeling that, when an author kills a character, she cannot avoid thinking, with satisfaction, "this'll make 'em squirm."

I am currently re-reading 'Hamlet' (eBook) for the first time since High School.  The author writes very well, but I sure hope nothing bad happens to ol' Hammie, since I am growing quite fond of him. 

Monday, May 23, 2016

where have all the Gepids gone?

If you're like me, you've thought a lot over the years about the barbarian invasions into Europe, in the early centuries of the Common Era.

I'm currently reading a recent book on the history of the Silk Road(s), and came across this sentence:

"As if this were not bad enough, in the middle of the fifth century, having flushed forward a hotch-potch of tribes—Terevingian Goths, Alans, Vandals, Suevi, Gepids, Neurians, Bastarnians and others besides—the Huns themselves appeared in Europe, led by the most famous figure of late antiquity: Attila."

This is not the first time that I've seen mention of the Gepids, in similar lists.  I always quickly moved on.

This time I headed over to Wikipedia, and, as always, there is just enough information there to sufficiently plug this knowledge gap. Here's the link, for those with nothing else to do:

For the rest of you, here's what you need to know today:

"The Gepids' participation in the Huns' campaigns against the Roman Empire brought them much booty, contributing to the development of a rich Gepid aristocracy."

So, they were a real deal at the time, and, apparently, Attila liked his Gepid allies.

After Attila died ("unexpectedly", which was probably to be expected), the traditional Civil War broke out and the Gepids chose the right side, which allowed them to establish a Gepid 'kingdom' (of modest size), near today's Belgrade.

Things were looking good for those Gepids, for about 100 years.  You can almost hear Gepid fathers telling their wide-eyed children, "don't ever forget that you are a Gepid, and you should be damn proud."

In 552, they suffered a 'disasterous' defeat by the Lombards (the Wikipedia page for the Battle of Asfeld is pretty spare, considering how momentous it was for Gepid history), and many moved into northern Italy.

Around 630, an invading force of Byzantines "attacked a Gepid feast, capturing 30,000 Gepids". I was at the Portland Bernie rally with 28,000 happy people, so I can begin to imagine how that day was a 'disappointment'. 

But I digress.

That, apparently, is one of the last reliable historical references.   Their 'kingdom' (which actually has a name: "Gepedia") lives on only in Wiki-pedia - kind of ironic, don't you think?  Today, seems curiously disassociated from Gepids.

What do we take from all this?  If the Gepids were assimilated into the Byzantine sphere, Gepid DNA must still be part of the European stew.  They are described as "white, tall and blond-haired," so obviously not in MY stew, but look around you.

Gepids walk among us, and frequently appear in commercials.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

the persistence of memory

For many years, I have been a volunteer, playing piano for the choir at a predominantly-Jewish assisted living facility.  We do a lot of songs from the Great American Songbook, but also throw in an occasional Beatle tune (which generally mystifies the Group).

A digression:  in our current program, we are doing 'With a Little Help From My Friends', but, in the interest of gentility, substituted 'eat some pie with a little help from my friends' for 'get high with a little help from my friends'.

Where was I?  Oh yes.

This experience has taught me a great deal about Old Folks, and I often get glimpses into the rich, vibrant, and varied lives that these now stooped, often-frail, mobility-or-speech-impaired singers have had.

There are several whose European accents reveal the reality of their having experienced horrors that, thankfully, I have not.

One guy in particular has made reference to the fact that he was in the Pacific, preparing for the invasion of Japan (and his statistically-likely demise), when the atomic bombs brought an end to the War.

But an entirely-new dimension of the power of memory happened last week, when one of the ladies in the group came up to me while I was warming up before the rehearsal.  I was playing a Gershwin tune and, with a quivering voice, she said quietly "I still can't believe he died." 

She was genuinely on the verge of tears, having been instantly transported back to July 11, 1937.

Think 'Prince'.

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Known Unknowns

On November 22, 1963, I was sitting in Mrs. Peachy's 4th Grade class, at Hendy Avenue School, Elmira, New York.  It was a normal day until early afternoon, when The News broke.

That night, we watched, stunned, as live TV showed the casket being unloaded in DC, and I was, for some long-forgotten reason, alone in the house on Sunday, when I watched live as Jack Ruby stepped into the picture and chaos ensued.

The Kennedy assassination has been with us a long time.  I always expected that some deathbed confession would have cleared it all up by now, but, as they say, questions remain.

When we were in Vietnam last November, we visited a Buddhist monastery outside of Hue, whose head monk, in the summer of 1963, had driven his little blue car (still faithfully preserved there at the monastery) to Saigon, parked outside the US embassy, poured gas on himself, and struck a match. 

Our Vietnamese guide proceeded to explain to us the reason why Kennedy was  killed.  It went like this:

President Diem's persecution of the Buddhists (leading to many public self-immolations that summer), increased Kennedy's fear that the bad publicity over these deaths jeopardized his re-election prospects for 1964.  Kennedy directed the State Department and CIA to take out Diem and his brother, Nhu (who was involved in the international heroin trade), who were both assassinated November 1, 1963.  Three weeks later: Dallas. 

Bottom line on this theory:  Kennedy was killed by the American mafia, on behalf of the French heroin mafia, who had been partnered with Vice President Nhu.  Our guide recommended to us a book describing all this: "The Deaths of the Cold War Kings".  I read it, and it was pretty convincing.  Case closed.

Not so fast.

In another context a couple of weeks ago, another JFK assassination book came to my attention, and I just finished it: "JFK and the Unspeakable", complete with a jacket blurb from Robert Kennedy, Jr ("everyone should read this book").

Vietnam also played a key part in this book, but quite differently.  The subject of heroin is never mentioned and, instead of Kennedy approving the Diem/Nhu assassination, he is instead portrayed as having been absolutely opposed to it.  Instead, he was totally outflanked by the duplicitous hawks in the CIA and Joint Chiefs, who were fearful that Kennedy's plans to GET OUT of Vietnam (well-known but not to be released to the public until after his 1964 re-election), and find a peaceful accomodation with the Soviets (instead of escalating the Cold War), would lead to Communist world-domination.

Bottom line: Oswald was actually a patsy (as he claimed) and the CIA perpetrated a complex web of implications and impersonations that were focused on bolstering the Oswald-did-it line.  Also, a prior CIA assassination plan, in Chicago on November 2nd, was aborted at the last minute, although a patsy for that planned killing had likewise been cultivated.  Kennedy knew that he was a target and, throughout November, had the sense that his end was near.

Again, a totally convincing narrative - the CIA did it.

Finally, I remembered another massive JFK book that came out a couple of years ago and just got it at the library.  It's "Legacy of Secrecy", by Lamar Waldron and co-authored by the impecable Thom Hartmann.

This is an imposingly-hefty book (850 pages), that claims to be the definitive word.  Its conclusion: it was the Mafia.  I am NOT going to spend the next couple of weeks reading it - I am burned out.  However, I did consult its extensive index: not a single reference to Diem or Nhu.

What do we conclude about all this?  For an answer, I only had to look at my copy of the current "London Review of Books", which has a long review of a new book called "The Murder of James I".  That, for those keeping score, was in 1625.