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I really miss Sir Terry Pratchett. Looking at the news (and the comments to the news) makes me wonder if this be-hatted weirdo who wrote about witches, imps, and golems was actually the last great humanist…

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Today, let’s talk about a concept from one of Pratchett’s later books “Making Money”.  Halfway through the novel, two of the characters are trying to unravel a deepening financial mystery which is threatening to derail the economy of the fantasy microcosm which the novels are set inside.  The fictional sleuths investigate the late Chairman of the Royal Bank and find that his wardrobe is filled with very specific boudouir costumes. Staring at this excess and pondering the depths of the human psyche, one of the characters forms a social hypothesis which is outlined below (I copied the following verbatim from a Pratchett wiki):

The Horseradish Sauce Hypothesis runs thusly.

Everyone likes a beef sandwich, right?

But just to vary the flavour one day, you put a little horseradish sauce on it.

You discover you like horseradish sauce, so the next time you do a beef sandwich you put a little more sauce on it.

Then a little bit more.

Then a little bit more.

Until one day, you put so much horseradish sauce on the sandwich that the beef falls out.

And you don’t even notice.

I am going to say nothing of truly addictive things like fentanyl, nicotine, lechery, or alcohol (which everyone already knows are habit-forming), and instead write about how society is being conquered by dangerous, low-grade flavors of horseradish.  This sounds harmless enough (after all, everyone has to get through their meaningless day jobs), yet, as in the sandwich example above, you don’t notice when the meat falls out.   One goes from “reading the news” to internet troll without recognizing it, and it’s happening to all of us.

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The internet is the all-time expert on horseradish.  It knows the specific variety that everyone likes: Facebook likes, shopping, gambling, esoteric adult material, cat photos, Farmville, getting angry about ANTIFA, reading diatribes about how the earth is flat, or whatever. It’s all there.  The special sauce which makes the internet so addictive is that it knows what rewards give your brain a little jolt of dopamine and it can administer these little jolts every 5-12 minutes all day.  Most people spend all day in semi-isolation in beige cubicles doing meaningless & stressful tasks for distant masters.  The internet is to such people what cocaine-laced water bottles are to depressed and lonely laboratory rats.  The little razor-hooks can find the cracks in everyone’s façade because they dangerously mimic life’s true sources of meaning and joy.  If you squint cross-eyed at the list in the second sentence of this paragraph you can imagine how these things are sad substitutes for friends, romance, knowledge, status, and a sense of belonging.

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This is not how I would build a society.  It is sad that people have gambling problems instead of fulfilling life quests, or naked pictures of women instead of girlfriends, but I guess it moves stocks, diet pills, and plastic novelty hats well enough to keep the world economy chugging along.  The real problem is that the internet has moved beyond being a private venue for embarrassing vices to being the main venue for news and political discourse. It is where society collects and dissemination  information and opinions.  The internet is now where we self-select into groups.  This is not resulting in a golden age of clubs and volunteering, instead it is transforming the country into a boiling cauldron of tribal anger.    It feels good to be furious…or maybe not good, but at least it feels like something and one seeks it out every day until the beef in the sandwich is gone and all that is left is the empty calories of spicy sauce.

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I try not to write about our déclassé president, because I regard him as a symptom of this problem rather than the problem itself (and also because granting him attention makes him stronger).  Yet he is apparently a near-univeral flavor of internet horseradish.  People back home in West Virginia can feel the righteous joy of punishing smug coastal elitists by joyously watching that fellow destroy the whole country and rob us all blind. People in Brooklyn can feel the righteous joy of being angry about this mendacious hustler. Getting worked up by the news becomes a dollop of horseradish and we all need more each day.  I know I now check to see what grotesque enormity the president has committed before I check anything else.  If child poverty in Central Asia dipped four fold or the UN seriously curtailed human trafficking or something I would probably not notice, but I moronically know every dumb thing the President tweeted.

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There has always been a degree of degraded spectale to American politics–it’s part of democracy…part of humankind!–but it these piquant empty calories are taking the place of vital nutrients for the body politic.  As we stare in horror or glee at the political theater, our problems are not getting solved.  New discoveries are not being made. Compromise and reform are not being achieved.  When Trump is gone in 2020 or 2024 (assuming the republic survives), we are still going to have this dangerous fascination with outrage.

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Making the news into addictive “infotainment” is dangerous.  It is less an inquiry into truth and more like the ill-concealed traps and lures within infomercials aimed at the elderly or the ignorant.

There is a quote from Anais Nin which succinctly and poetically summarizes the horseradish hypothesis: “Abnormal pleasures kill the taste for normal ones.” It seems deceptively straightforward until you think about it, and then its tragic power becomes evident.  Really think about how you look at the news lately…are you trying to determine the truth of what goes on or are you looking for a dollop of outrage to push you foward to the next sensational click?

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The beef is falling out of society’s sandwich in a lot of ways right now. I concentrated on political problems becaue they are top-tier troubles, but the other ignoble horseradish is part of this too.  Everybody needs some special zest, but if the banquet is nothing but novel jallop, we all begin to starve!

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I have been watching NASA with great consternation lately.  The space agency has maintained its budget (which is good, in today’s world of brutal trench-warfare politics), however for 15 months NASA has had no leader and it seemed to be stuck in a holding pattern, unable to move forward on missions.  Finally, in April, the President’s candidate for the position of head administrator was confirmed, Jim Bridenstine a fundamentalist congressman from Oklahoma who does not believe in global warming and opposes LGBTQ rights.  He is the first non-scientist chief administrator in the agency’s history.

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Bridenstein does however have a background as a Navy officer which is promising.  It is possible he can put his more recent background as a divisive political agitator and an ignoramus behind him.  His first major speech was somewhat encouraging:  he reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to send missions to both Mars and the Moon in the not-enormously distant future.  The historic first moon landing was 49 years ago and the last manned mission to the moon took place in 1972 (three years before Bridenstein was born).  The new administrator compared these missions to the Lewis and Clark Expedition and went on to say it is time for NASA and private aerospace ventures to work on building a transcontinental railroad to space in the current era.  That is a fine metaphor (although I don’t trust private aerospace ventures any more than people of the 19th century trusted crooked railroad monopolies).  Bridenstein needs to back up his elegant words with real plans for NASA.  Currently, the USA can’t even put a human in space, much less send one to the moon or another planet.  Bridenstein needs to act quickly and decisively to show that he is not an agency head like Scott Pruitt, Ben Carson, or Jeff Sessions (which is to say a leader who embodies the opposite & antithetical values from the agency they were sent to run).

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I liked your railroad metaphor, Jim, but you need to appoint a lot of smart people to organize a meaningful and coherent schedule for America’s favorite agency.

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RIP to the first victim of an autonomous car.  Details are still coming in, but it seems like an Uber robot SUV being tested in Tempe, Arizona killed a woman who was walking her bicycle.  Well, I guess technically some rich guy was already killed while incorrectly operating his semi-autonomous Tesla, however today’s accident feels more real to me and, judging by headlines, to everyone else as well.

I used to be deeply in love with the idea of cars.  They represented power, freedom, and status…until I tried to drive one and realized A) I am terrible at it; and B) it is profoundly easy to hurt or kill someone with a car.  American society is designed to normalize this in all sorts of ways… to such an extent that most people don’t even notice our rising traffic fatality statistics.  In Holland, if you kill somebody with a car, no matter what the circumstances, it is a real problem, but in America, even if you pretty much straight-up murder somebody through volition or grotesque incompetence, the police will come and rationalize a way it was the bicyclist’s or pedestrian’s fault and give you a hug and a root beer sticker. (If you kill more than six people you get a free foot-long hero sandwich!)

The deep indifference of the authorities is born out by the numbers: in 2016, 37,461 people died in traffic-related accidents in the United States.  If 40,000 people died in a war or by gun violence, society would be up in arms (so to speak) and we would be having a national conversation about how to improve things (editor’s note: in 2016, 38,000 Americans were killed by guns. What sort of dark carnival are we running over here?).

America is too spacious for us to ever be free of automated carriages.  I live in New York because, despite the cars, I can bicycle here (barely) and because there is a 24-hour subway (also barely…thanks a lot, Cuomo).  But beyond the coral-reef lifestyle of America’s one worthwhile city there is too much distance to cover.  Even if we were all Lance Armstrong (and we’re really not) we would still need motors to get around.

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We have decided not to invest in effective national mass transit. Likewise, we are not redesigning roads in ways which have been proven to make them safer in Europe and Japan (safer for motorists, pedestrians, and bicyclists alike).  Our only hope of diminishing the carnage and damage wrought by our 1950s/60s era national transportation system is effective robot cars.  This won’t work if we take the lamentable current state of transportation as something to aspire to.

So, although today’s headline was scary and terrible, we need to keep looking at the bigger picture. We are fixated on the person tragically killed by a robot car because it is novel and garners attention (look, here I am writing about it too), but the real headline should be the hundred people who were killed in the United States today by normal human drivers.  Of course, that is the same story every day so nobody remarks upon it.   So Uber (and Google, and Tesla), get your act together.  Break down the data and figure out what went wrong and fix it.  Why didn’t your car stop (they are supposed to have faster reflexes than any person)?  Also, why was the “car” a giant hulking tank to begin with?  What is wrong with robot cars that are adorable little soft alien bug cars, like the Japanese are working on?

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Robot cars are coming and I believe they will be glorious, but a lot more work is needed…and more imagination and creativity are needed too.  So let’s slow down for a moment, but then speed up.  Think of the one person killed, but think of the hundred too.

My family is from West Virginian and I have some relatives back home who are fierce red partisans who ardently believe that fascist mismanagement of our country by the executive branch will restore some imagined golden age (I, on the other hand, think that America’s leadership crisis is dangerous and will, at best, make the future dimmer and more difficult… but we’ll talk about that closer to the midterms).  At any rate, on a vexing Facebook feed from the Mountain State, I spotted this meme, which is meant to counter the idea that politicians are beholden to financial contributions from the gun lobby.  Ripped straight from the frothing mouth of social media, here is a list of the top 50 lobbying spenders:

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These numbers are worth talking about on two levels.  First, although this list doesn’t explain much about NRA contributions to candidates (why! they’re not even on the top 50 list!), it shines a rather disconcerting light on why American healthcare costs more than twice as much as it does in other developed nations. Health outcomes from our system are not nearly as good as they are in, say, Chile or Slovenia, and life expectancy in the United States is falling, yet it seems like pharmaceutical and insurance companies have found a way to spend some of their loot!  This differently organized chart of direct political donations by industry over the last 20 years makes this point even more dynamically:

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There are some other unpalatable truths in there, as well, if you are in the mood to find out why net neutrality got binned or our national transportation policy is a mess.

However, both of these charts are misleading when it comes to the gun lobby, which brings us to our second point. Here is a rather more accurate breakdown of NRA spending.

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The red and pink parts are what shows up in the earlier charts.  That yellow portion of the pie is “outside spending”.  This money does not directly support candidates, instead it is used to attack opposing candidates who propose gun legislation.  These ads tend to come from “Americans for safe homes” or suchlike anodyne organizations which are funded by the NRA’s “Political Victory Fund” (or they can come straight from the NRA which likes to have member, after all).

I suppose my libertarian cousin, were reading this, would angrily retort “Yeah! But what about the outside spending by insurance companies, pharmaceutical firms, and trial lawyers? What is that like?”  I have no answers (and I am tired of looking at charts), but that really IS an excellent question.  Here is another one: how are we supposed to have a democracy when figuring out who is paying for different sorts of political outreach is like figuring out Chinese shell companies?  (as a side note, if you invested a lot of money in Chinese public companies, you may wish to look more closely at the control of such entities).

I grew up in the country and I actually sort of like guns, although they have no place here in Brooklyn (there’s some smug coastal NIMBYism for you).  Unfortunately, the glowing fantasy of power and control they provided is evaporating as I get older (I, mean, even if I had a firearm…the fact that I go through life unarmed makes such notions an even greater stretch).  We’ll get back to America’s relationship with guns and power later this week, right now though, looking at these charts is making me feel even more powerless.  I have no MONEY.  How is one to make one’s point to the world in such circumstances?  A bunch of dull charts about how giant nebulous lobbying groups are misleading us with dark funds?

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I was looking forward to writing about that crown that was stolen in Germany…but I guess we will have to wait until tomorrow to talk about stolen crowns. Today the President of the United States, the famous New York real estate conman Donald Trump, fired the Director of the FBI for investigating the extent to which the Trump electoral team colluded with the Russian effort to undermine or taint the American election. This was, of course, not the reason given for Comey’s summary dismissal, but it is exceedingly difficult to draw any other conclusion. Director Comey was a divisive and flawed figure in his own right. Some eminent neutral observers blame his strange behavior last year for Hilary Clinton’s shocking electoral loss. However, now that he has gone off to join Sally Yates, Preet Bharara, and everyone else who has investigated Trump, it is looking like he was the best FBI Director we are likely to get. Who knows what cartoonishly malevolent or benighted figure the administration will dig up to replace him?
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The whole episode paints a disturbing picture–but the dark image which is emerging is hardly unexpected to anyone who has any familiarity with Donald Trump.
Trump reminds me of a naked drunkard dancing on banana peels at the top of a tall slippery marble staircase with a huge ornate cake at the bottom. It seems like there is only one way this scenario could possibly end, and yet his comeuppance keeps on being deferred by the increasingly irrational and cowardly behavior of everyone else. Trump is an old man who lives on steak and hamburger and does not exercise, it is possible he will manage to escape falling into the cake (or, to be less allegorical: he might avoid impeachment and prison because of a massive coronary). Yet, as we all breathlessly await his tragicomic downfall, he is doing terrible damage to institutions the nation really needs, and he is undermining our faith in each other and ourselves.

A few years ago, I was talking once with my uncle about a colleague of his, a Chinese scientist who naturalized to America to work as a physicist. This colleague had a son who had excelled in school and otherwise had a life of great promise, however, when my uncle asked what career he had chosen, the Chinese-American physicist was reluctant to talk about it. My uncle thought that the promising son had fallen into drugs or crime and was happily astonished when the physicist confessed that his son had become a successful FBI agent. But to a Chinese person, being part of the national secret police was not a thing to talk about or be proud of. If we are not careful we could find ourselves in a similar situation here.
Most people do not think of the FBI as the internal police (although that is clearly what they are). The Bureau has its own checkered history (I bet Donald Trump would not have dared to fire J. Edgar Hoover) yet their bravery, zeal, and hard work are rightly famous. If a movie has an FBI agent, he is usually the hero. We don’t call dismissively call the FBI the secret police because if, goodness forbid, there were a crisis we would be happy to see them. They have a worldwide reputation as a bastion of upright cops. They are the good guys.
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And now, like affordable health care, or national parks, or basic scientific research, this too is under threat because of the corrosive awfulness of our executive branch. Are the FBI to become a bunch of goons who exist for the president’s narcissism and self-aggrandizement and to protect his crooked international business deals? Think of how awful it is to even suggest that!
Republicans are exulting over the unprecedented power they have garnered (in an election where they solidly lost the popular vote). They are passing immensely unpopular legislation and privatising big hunks of the government to their cronies. They are gleefully making it easy for the president to get away with anything he likes. It is difficult to see how they think it could possibly end for them. Do they imagine Trump will reign forever? Do they not see or care how bad he is for them and the things they claim to care about?
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The danger to democracies is that the institutions start to seem corrupt and nobody believes in them causing a feedback spiral. When I try to talk to hard-working and idealistic Millenials about politics they all seem SO cynical (and I am a world-weary Generation X person). Clearly, they have bought into the false equivalency of seeing all politicians as the same. It does not shock them to suggest that the FBI could be easily subalterned. They do not have illusions that the system is anything other than a rigged game of business cartels and their pet politicians. I find that sad. If they had just gone out and voted, none of this would be a problem. Their cynicism has deepened the problems they are cynical about.

There are good people at the FBI and among the Republicans (although it is hard to imagine that congressmen have a principled reason for letting little kids die so that giant crooked insurance companies can become more rich, I am sure they truly think it is for the best). But these good people need to step up and speak out. We need to keep concentrating on the fact that we are all on the same side. Not red versus blue, but Americans together against corruption, malfeasance, and iniquity. We need to celebrate bravery when it appears. I thought Sally Yates was superb this week. She was the attorney general just a few short months ago… We need to keep asking questions until we get real answers and not stupid malarkey.
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This post is a reminder that we need to keep believing in our institutions and trying to support them (even if it seems increasingly possible that the President of the United States could be a traitor and a criminal who is surrounding himself with white supremacists and weak minded yes-men).

Jeremiad over: have a good night!

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It is January 20, 2017, the day of the inauguration of Donald John Trump, casino magnate, television personality, and media provocateur as 45th President of the United States of America. Now, bad presidents come and go. The country has had plenty of liars, knuckleheads, perverts, and even a life dictator in the highest office (the life dictator actually turned out to be pretty ok, but we made sure to change the rules as soon as he was dead).  Yet Trump strikes me as something special.

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From now until when he keels over dead, the papers are going to be chock full of Trump’s bloviations, crimes, vulgarities, enormities, and attention-seeking behaviors (I am not sure if Trump will seize permanent hold of the presidency, if mortality will catch him before four years are up, or if he will go on to bigger better things, but I am absolutely sure we are going to hear about everything he does until he moves on to the great reality show hereafter).  This success at attention seeking is the greatest source of Trump’s power. It is how he has built a cult of personality unrivaled by all but our greatest presidents (who were honorable enough to turn their backs on such dangerous and undemocratic personal style). Trump knows that outrage and hate are just as good for his aims as praise.  All of the anti-Trump editorials and essays have helped him. He has discovered that fame in contemporary America is like absolute value in mathematics: it doesn’t matter whether it is negative or positive.

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let a equal publicity

Therefor I am going to avoid hating further on the Donald. It only helps him.  I am going to confront his personality cult indirectly by comparing him to the thing that interests me the most, but which Trump would least like to be—me! a broke nobody artist. I will look at Donald Trump as a human and see if we have anything in common.

I had this idea when I was at the Duane Reade downstairs at the Trump building at 40 Wall Street, Trump’s downtown office (which is next to the title insurance office where I work as a sad little clerk during the day).  Duane Reade posts all of its prices in terms of what you would pay if you had a Duane Reade discount card (which is probably actually a vector for Duane Reade to sell all of your information to insurance companies and drug companies).   Without this horrible card, everything rings up for 20% to 30% more than you expect to pay.

At the beginning of the presidential campaign, when Trump was merely one of many improbable Republican candidates, one of my colleagues ran into him shopping at Duane Reade. Trump was by himself buying an armful of hair spray (honest!), and was nice enough to take a picture with my coworker.  The other day, as I paid 20% extra for my gummy bears and salve, I wondered if Trump has one of these awful cards for his hairspray, or if he too must suffer the same frustration when his goods all cost more than they are marked.

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It made me think of him differently—not as a dictator come to crush America, nor as a gold-orange idol on tv, but as an actual person, and from there, in a rush I realized we share much more than I would like to admit.

Donald Trump and I both came from successful WASP families.  Instead of being merchants and businesspeople, my family are scientists and administrators.  But both groups made their way up by working hard.

Trump and I both went to similar colleges: The University of Pennsylvania and the University of Chicago.  We are both tall and goofy looking and we both make our money in the same business—real estate– although we could not be at more different places on the ladder (and Trump has recently left for public service).

From there the similarities become more disturbing. We both have a history of failed businesses that have left us with deep scars. We are both straight but can’t seem to make relationships last. Trump and I love New York City unconditionally (even though the city doesn’t seem to love us back).  Each is secretly anxious that he is not actually good enough and so desperate to appear smart that he seems foolish… each is a rather silly man who is terribly, terribly worried about what people think of him.

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Please not the same hair…please not the same hair!

 

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Arrrgh!

I hope you kin that the point of this is not that Trump and I are a lot alike (I actually think we are profoundly different).  The point is we need to stop concentrating on him as a unique personality and start looking at him as another politician. And we need to stop letting him get our goat.

Trump scares me and being scared makes people do stupid things. I have been so angry when I looked at self-satisfied or annoying posts on Facebook, that I felt like breaking off my social interactions with people I grew up with.  I have come terribly close to angrily denouncing everyone in rural America as “deplorables” and swearing off West Virginia. More often than I would care to admit, Trump has filled my heart with blinding rage

My family has a dark saying.  It is counter intuitive (and probably stolen from a ballad or a fifties tv show), but it turns out to be disconcertingly true: “You become what you hate”.  You see it everywhere:  social justice advocates who hate people for the circumstances of their birth, or folks who imagine all of some different sort of people are racists. Look at Trump’s die-hard followers who lambast city dwellers for being selfish and self-satisfied!  Look at allegedly egalitarian city dwellers making fun of people for poverty and a lack of educational opportunities!

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If we go down the path we are on, we are ALL going to be more like Trump than we ever want to be.  We will not have his wealth or his facile ability to manipulate people by appealing to their greed. We will instead have his talent for sewing discord, ruining things, and bringing hatred and fear to the United States with hyperbole and bad ideas. By being afraid and despising him with our whole hearts we will make our fears come true. We will start to hate our friends and neighbors.  Look into your heart and ask how you are already like the president.  I have a feeling you will find more points of comparison than you will be comfortable with.

Donald Trump has not even been president a whole day and he has already divided the country further than any time since the Civil War.   Eris is stealing the crown of liberty in America. The solution is not to concentrate on how hateful he is personally. The solution is to talk about how we can cooperate to actually get things working  and make of our dreams come true. Billionaires don’t dream of killing little kids on the street. Coal miners don’t want the world to cook and choke. Even Donald Trump loves his family and wants a world where his grandkids can grow up safe and healthy (to someday bate the press in their own ways).  We are all more similar than we would like to admit. But that shouldn’t be a shameful admission.  It should make us stronger, smarter, and kinder.

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Well, the American election is coming up tomorrow. I have tried not to write too much about this great national contest, since every other media channel in the world has covered it non-stop for 20 months now, but I guess it is time for Ferrebeekeeper to hop down into this mudpit and support a candidate. In the past, when there has not been such difference between candidates, I have supported voting out incumbents or cross-voting (i.e. voting blue in red states or red in blue states). Alas, Americans neglected my fine advice and we are now experiencing some real national strife, so for the 2016 election I am advocating a different course to unite the troubled nation.

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Hilary Clinton should be our president. If you are a voting-age United States citizen you should vote Democratic up and down the ticket.

Now,  admittedly Hilary is 1) grasping, 2) secretive, and 3)shifty , but she exhibits these traits well within the ordinary operating tolerances of American politicians.  Indeed, in the right light, and, with a bit of squinting, these traits could be 1) ambition, without which, no one would be a politician to begin with, 2) the ability to plan, and, 3) the ability to compromise and change tack based on the circumstances.  Additionally, she personally knows every important leader in the world. Above all, she is a workaholic, a smart person, and somebody who cares that the nation succeeds and prospers.

So there are some very legitimate reasons to hope that Clinton will be our own iron lady (provided she can jettison this stupid rubbish about how free trade and globalism are bad for us). Hopefully she can also project American power a bit more robustly than certain presidents in order to gladden our allies and dismay our enemies.  She certainly has vast experience of public life, a sharp mind, and an indomitable will. So I am not merely voting for Hilary because of the despicable nature of her opponent.
Speaking of whom: beyond Donald Trump’s lack of policy, his ignorance of world affairs, and his extremely shady business practices, there is one overriding reason Trump should never be president: he is mean. He takes personal delight in cruelty, violence, and spite, in a way which I have not seen in another American politician (or even in any other person except for a few outliers in Junior High School whom I suspect have long since been hanged). Because of his sadistic streak, I have been sad to see Trump win over so many voters.  New Yorkers know that he is a con man, a loser, and a violent lout, why can’t everyone see these things about him? I kind of suspect it is more about primatology and less about people sharing Trump’s atrocious values–I certainly hope so.
But enough. Too much has been said about Trump.  The whole world has paid attention to him for far too long.  However I would like to talk about Trump supporters before the election ends tomorrow and we pretend we never have to think about this again.  The followers fall into two different categories: established Republican political leaders (who have always pretended to be lukewarm, although I don’t think that is really the case), and grass-roots political supporters who tend to be rural working-class whites.
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Appallingly, the Republican establishment has supported Trump even though anyone who has lead people in any capacity can plainly see he is not a worthy leader. This is why I recommend you vote against all the Republicans tomorrow.  A lot of writers and talking heads have acted like they are sorry for Paul Ryan, or Ted Cruz, or other Republicans who have been forced to support Trump. This is ridiculous. Those people haven’t been forced to do any of the things they have done. They have chosen their actions for specific reasons, and they should be judged accordingly. The current Republican leaders have been throttling the government of resources so that it doesn’t work right and then acting as though this somehow the fault of government. They have been throttling people of resources so they don’t work right and acting as though it is the fault of people. They are behind Trump not out of fear (although they do strike me as singularly cowardly) but out of lust.  If Trump wins they will be able to use his inattentive narcissism to remake the country in a grasping and mean-spirited way of their choosing.
Which brings us to Trump’s grassroots support. I am a West Virginian.  The whole nation makes fun of the state and this is generally regarded as fair sport (since, among the chattering class, it is not uncouth to make fun of poor white people the way it is regarded as bad form to make fun of poor brown ones). Additionally, the benefits of globalization have not much “trickled down” into West Virginia, except perhaps in the form of fracking revenues. To my horror, West Virginians are taking their revenge by voting for Trump. It is like the capuchin throwing away the cucumber.  It will not help them.  Indeed, this time, such spiteful protest could actively hurt us all.

East Flatbush, the Afro-Caribbean immigrant neighborhood where I live now reminds me greatly of Clay County—in bad ways and good ones.  Poverty, addiction and and feuding are big problems, but the great bravery, loyalty, and personal generosity of the inhabitants tends to keep everyone moving forward and make life worthwhile. The distinction between city and country is a false one.  The distinction between Americans of different races, religions, and genders is likewise not so big as some people would make it out to be. Democrats for all of their flaws, believe in a united nation.  Lately Republicans are deliberately dividing us so they can get everything they and they alone want. The Democrats are wrong-headed and frustrating. They tend to neglect the two most important issues in front of us, research and national defense.  But Republicans have stopped caring about these issues as well and they are actively trying to injure the nation so that they can advance their own agenda.  This political infighting is causing people to lose faith in the system (which feeds into the “government is broken” death cycle which is so dangerous).

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The United States needs to be careful.  The Han Dynasty and the Soviet Union stopped thinking they were countries and suddenly they were not. We are the United States of America, but it could be otherwise. Anyone who wants to be president should recognize that the nation needs both the sharp-eyed riflemen from West Virginia and the shrewd-minded accountants from Montclair–and all sorts of people from everywhere else (Hillary Clinton, an Appalachian who ended up in New York, knows this) . The states and their people are deeply heterogeneous but stand beside each other through any crisis–structural, cyclical, or natural. We are not the “Fiscally Independent and Selfishly Aloof States of America”. Our name is much finer than that.  Let us remember that on election day…and all of the other days after that.  We must work hard with President Clinton so that the election of 2020 is not so divisive and awful.

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One of the defining characteristics of warriors in this age of the world is their camouflage garb.  The brave men and women of the Army, Marines, and even the Air Force all have combat fatigues which make use of broken stippled patterns of drab colors meant to conceal them from the eyes of enemy combatants…but what about the Navy?  Sailors tend to be mercilessly prone to being spotted—since they are generally located on huge floating metal arrays belching out smoke above the flat blue seas.  Ferrebeekeeper has written about attempts to camouflage ships, but what about the men aboard these vessels?

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Perhaps the absence of camouflage—as much a part of a soldier’s identity as a sword was in the past–is why the US Navy decided to try blue digital camouflage work clothes (aka aquaflage).  However that experiment is now coming to an end.  The navy is discontinuing the production of the chunky blue-black-gray suits as of October 1st (although the final phase-out of service will be three years from now).

There were a lot of problems with these suits.  The tunics and trousers feature a pattern which resembled a ghastly mélange of bluefish chunks and hematite.  And the purpose was unclear too.  Was this for sailors who were trying to hide in the ocean itself…or in a bad nineties music video?

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The outcry against the uniforms was not solely aesthetic.  Apparently these awful things were hot and were prone to melting and catching on fire (although I guess those are aesthetic concerns too—who wants to be seen wearing melted sardines and asphalt or running around in a flaming sailor suit?)

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The uniforms came into service in the not-very-great year of 2008.  Maybe they were part of the same sort of wooly thinking which caused the great recession or, more-likely, the result of an unsavory deal between a vendor and a politician in charge of appropriations.  The suits which are formally known as “Navy Working Uniform Type I” will be replaced by green camo known as “Navy Working Uniform Type III” (apparently Type II uniforms were a sort of invisible khaki color).  This will solve the sailors’ fashion woes, but now everybody is going to think that they are army guys.  Maybe the Navy needs to give up on camouflaged sailors and return to some stylish 18th century horizontal stripes!

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If they want to be inconspicuous, they can just stop playing bagpipes….

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Happy Birthday to the United States of America!

In past years we have celebrated Independence Day with an historic picture gallery, possible national animals, and an essay concerning the lackluster national mascot, Uncle Sam. This year, let’s return to the basics: recreational explosives, or, as they are more commonly called “fireworks”. Blowing things up artistically in the sky has been the preferred method of celebrating this nation’s birthday since the 18th century.

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Fireworks were first made in China, but today they are almost entirely manufactured in, um, China. As such, Chinese symbols and names are a big part of fireworks. This is lucky for ferrebeekeeper since snakes, poultry, bees, wasps, flowers, and badass mammals like tigers, cats, and wolves are mainstay names for mass produced fireworks.

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I live in Brooklyn, and I can’t buy fireworks (much less light them off). Nevertheless the best part of fireworks is looking at the packages and fantasizing about the awesomeness which is just a spark away. Here is a gallery of firework packages which fit in Ferrebeekeeper’s topics array. Bees and birds are the best represented since not only do they fly but they are also beautiful and dazzling. I especially like the egg-laying hens which shoot exploding “eggs” out of their tail feathers. Unsurprisingly there are plenty of flowers, snakes, tigers, and hissing cats, but I was surprised to find pine trees, crowns, and octopus fireworks. Naturally outer space was featured, yet sadly there were no fireworks named for gods of the underworld (although I did find some “banshees”, which almost count).

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Wow! I’m sorry we can’t wait for dusk and light these all off, but local laws prohibit that (as does the nature of reality). Enjoy the colorful exploding anemones in the sky at your local show and have a lovely weekend of feasting and drinking with your family and friends (and, for my international readers, I guess just keep savoring the world cup…your own national fireworks celebrations should be just around the corner).  Fireworks remind everyone that life is brief and it isn’t safe, but it is beautiful and amazing!

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Huzzah!

The Korean Demilitarized Zone and Joint Security Area at Panmunjom

The Korean Demilitarized Zone and Joint Security Area at Panmunjom

On August 21, 1976, the joint military forces of the United States and South Korea launched Operation Paul Bunyan, a mission which involved 813 fighting men on the ground (including a platoon of South Korean martial arts experts wired with Claymore mines), 27 military helicopters, a number of B-52 high altitude bombers with their jet fighter escorts, and the aircraft carrier Midway along with its attack group of missile cruisers, destroyers, and submarines.  At the heart of the mission was a team of eight soldiers armed with chainsaws! The rest of the forces were providing support for this small team of men whose mission was…to cut down a single poplar tree.

This requires some explaining.

On July 27, 1953 an armistice agreement effectively ended the Korean War by creating a buffer zone 4 km (2.5 mi) wide which runs 250 kilometers (160 miles) across the entire Korean peninsula.  Although huge armies wait on either side, the Demilitarized Zone itself remains a no-man’s land, deadly for humans to tread upon (and, consequently, one of the most pristine temperate forests on Earth).  Only a tiny portion of the DMZ is designated as a Joint Security Area (JSA) where people can go. Located near what used to be the village of Panmunjon, the JSA serves as a sort of neutral meeting place, where North Korean forces meet face to face with forces from the United Nations Command. Numerous military and diplomatic negotiations have taken place at the JSA (although the North Koreans abandoned all meetings in 1991 over a perceived slight), however, in the years since the armistice, the area has also been the sight of many kidnappings, assaults, and killings as the hermit kingdom repeatedly tests its boundaries like a dangerous animal behind an electric fence.

A photograph of the actual confrontation--well, that certainly clears everything up!

A photograph of the actual confrontation–well, that certainly clears everything up!

In the mid-seventies, American and South Korean forces near the JSA had a problem: a leafy poplar tree blocked the view from one guardhouse to another.  North Korean commandos exploited this weakness to attack the isolated guardhouse more than once.  On August 18, 1976, a team of American and South Korean soldiers was duly dispatched to trim the tree.  Unfortunately a bellicose team of North Korean soldiers intercepted the landscaping team and precipitated a fight.  The North Korean officer stated that the poplar had been planted and nourished by Kim Il-Sung and was therefore sacrosanct.  In the ensuing melee, two American officers were killed with axes and clubs.  The perfidious North Koreans rushed to the Conference of Non-Aligned Nations, and presented the incident as an American attack.  With support from Cuba, the members of the conference passed a resolution condemning the provocation and demanding a withdrawal of US and UN forces from the Korean peninsula.

Carrier USS Midway (CVA 41) is flanked by destroyer USS Picking (DD 685) on the left, and guided missile destroyer USS Preble (DLG 15) (from the US Navy Museum website)

Carrier USS Midway (CVA 41) is flanked by destroyer USS Picking (DD 685) on the left, and guided missile destroyer USS Preble (DLG 15) (from the US Navy Museum website)

Gerald Ford decided the incident had to be answered in a way which asserted overwhelming force yet precluded further escalation.  Hence, Operation Paul Bunyan was put together to chop down the tree under the rubric of massive armed force.   Heavily armed infantry, artillery, and air assault forces were moved into supporting positions as was the Midway carrier group.  The armed convoy cut down the tree (in 42 minutes) and left the 6 meter (20 foot) stump remaining.  They also cleared away two North Korean barricades.

A section of the poplar stump, saved for posterity

A section of the poplar stump, saved for posterity

Response to Operation Paul Bunyan was swift an unexpected:  Kim Il-sung sent a message to United Nations Command expressing regret at the incident. North Korea’s provocative actions along the border were subsequently muted down (although, obviously, not forever).  In 1987, the stump was cut down, but a stone monument to the fallen American officers was erected in its place.

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Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

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