Read it here before it happens (Khashoggi)

Mohammed Bin Salman: We are shocked—shocked! that a rogue band of operatives misunderstood my idle reflection (“will no one rid me of this turbulent journalist?”) and committed this terrible crime.  We are not surprised that the group included Qataris and Persians.  All will be beheaded publicly tomorrow afternoon at 3 and their bodies put through a brush chipper and into my shark pond.

[Twelve schlimazel expat laborers are rounded up off the street and executed]

Trump: As I expected, the vengeful Democrat fake news press mob—the greatest, most mendacious, most treasonous mob any president has ever faced–was wrong again, and if some patriots should exercise my rally advice on them it’s really their own fault.  I talked to my good friend Mohammed Bin Salman this morning; he bought three condos right there on the phone, and he firmly denies he had anything to do with this unfortunate event, just like Putin, Brett, and, um me, and that should be enough once and for all.

I might add that the people who expect some of my strongest supporters (and funders) to give up $10 billion in arms business, while there are still working hospitals in Yemen patching up Houthi children to grow up into radical Islamic terrorists,  over one foreign brown fake news scribbler for the failing Washington Post, are the kind of people who don’t want America to be great, and that’s why we need to save the Republican congress next month.

Kavanaugh’s reputation destroyed in real time

Brett Kavanaugh is, as far as we can tell, a respectable and competent lawyer and jurist. He could have had a distinguished, or at least successful, career as a federal judge.  Now he’s the latest victim of Trump’s systematic, relentless, demolition of the honor and reputation of everyone within his reach.

He may well be confirmed, in which case he will find the appointment a thoroughly poisoned chalice.  Most important, he wears around his neck the stain, on both his character and his competence, that he was the first choice of a deliberately–obsessively–ignorant, hateful, narcissist. The guy who found him suitable for the job is a historically mendacious and malevolent fool, whose staff (what remains of the “best people”) spend half their time protecting the nation from his childish impulses and recklessness and the other half patching a bubble inside which he might float to the end of his term.  Trump’s understanding of the law and the constitution is well summarized by today’s whine that the criminal indictment of two Republican congressmen should have been put off until they were reelected this fall (or, I guess, forever).

He will also be the justice confirmed by the McConnell senate that cheated to substitute Gorsuch for Garland, and that was denied the documentation (i) necessary to evaluate his qualifications and competence (ii) that, when it comes to light during his lifetime appointment, is quite likely to throw serious shade on him (or why were those documents secreted?).  All we really know about him is that the reactionaries and troglodytes of the Federalist Society believe he’s just the guy to protect the rights of the richest to get richer and buy elections and policy, of industry to poison their neighbors and workers, and of Republican politicians to choose their voters. Not to mention, the guy to send women back to the coathanger era.

Poor Brett: if this comes out as it seems headed, he will forever be “the guy Trump nominated to fend off his impeachment”; one of his senate interlocutors wisely said “you will always have an asterisk next to your name”, which is right except that the asterisk will be an indelible and devastating blot. No respectable judge or lawyer will be comfortable citing his decisions; his influence will be restricted to hacks and stooges, and he’s smart enough that he will eventually realize this, but alas, too late.


Hunters as sportsmen

I’ve never been opposed on principle to hunting or hunters, and back in the day I have dispatched some small game. A squirrel is a small target and doesn’t sit still for long, so it requires marksmanship, but nothing about hunting signals courage when you have a firearm…maybe going after wild hogs the old fashioned way, with a spear. Taking game in the wild requires knowing something about their habits and ecology, and there is such a thing as a sustainable harvest. Deer in suburbs without their predators are a serious problem, maybe worse as the predators (coyotes and mountain lions in CA) follow them in from the woods and acquire a taste for poodles.

Every now and then, though, an episode like this comes out that makes hunters look really bad–it’s so great when a boy learns sportsmanship, honesty, outdoor skills, and character from his dad, right?–and your government is at work to encourage behavior that cannot be called sport or, except for someone with a real pathology, recreation.

A proposed rule published by the National Park Service in the Federal Register would let Alaskan game officials decide whether bear cubs can be killed alongside their mothers, caribou can be shot from a boat while swimming, wolves, including pups, can be hunted in their dens and other animals can be targeted from airplanes and snowmobiles. Animals could also be baited with sweets and killed or poisoned.

The Park Service said its proposal is consistent with an order by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to accede to states’ wishes to expand recreational [sic] hunting. 

Did these people start out pulling the wings off flies? Pouring kerosene on cats and lighting it? Pups and cubs, recreational baiting and poisoning, yup.

Republicans have seriously degraded since Teddy Roosevelt, and maybe a lot of Alaskans have gone through too many long, dark, cold winters.

Donald Trump, MS13 operative

Donald Trump talks about MS-13 more than any other NGO (no, I haven’t got actual numbers to support this), and it’s not surprising. He loves American exports, and MS13 was made in USA prisons and delivered to El Salvador; its cruelty and misogyny is surely a level of aspiration for him. So it’s not surprising that he and his catspaw Sessions have signed on as actual MS13 operatives, now delivering escaping victims back to them (and all the other Central American gangs)  for rape, enslavement, and murder. Even when they’re in court trying to get asylum.

I wonder if he has a deal for docile immigrant employees in his hotels…

Museums behaving badly

I love museums. Science museums, history museums, art museums; there’s nothing like looking at real stuff in person. Whether it’s an antique automobile, a big old beetle in a case, or the Ardabil carpet in the V&A, being able to walk around it, get close, and engage on my own time is one of my top-level pleasures.  I’m sure I learned as much natural science in the American Museum of Natural History as a child as I did in school; whenever I’m traveling, I make a beeline for local museums.

The affection is not entirely requited in art museums, mainly  because so many of them transparently disrespect me (and all the other visitors) by pointless, insouciant, arrogant stinginess with the information that makes the art accessible.  This weekend I was at the Huntington, the Getty Villa, and LACMA in LA. The Huntington and the Getty do a pretty good job with long, informative labels that provide context, history, and some guidance about what to attend to in the works on display, but LACMA left me really steamed.

A featured exhibition was several galleries full of contemporary political art by Iranians that reached back to the Shahnameh for analogies and references, a show with appropriate local interest (there are lots of Persians in LA, including refugees from before and after the shah’s overthrow) and in any case an interesting and fruitful concept.   You should go and see it, but unfortunately you will miss a lot unless you’re already hip to recent (and ancient) Iranian history, and can read Farsi. The labels were tiny and short and one after another very political work full of incriptions, signs, and text in Farsi was untranslated. One faceplant in particular seemed to sum up art museums’ worst instincts to make not only the typical visitor, but almost any visitor, feel unqualified and inadequate.

The work, by Koushna Navabi, is a couple of dozen rings in different metallic finishes with the same portrait, a little over an inch each way:

This is the entire label we were offered:

Know whose portrait this is? Only because I’m old enough to almost remember the period, and spent some time in Iran after the coup that overthrew him, I recognized Mohammed Mosaddegh, about whom Wikipedia says “Many Iranians regard Mosaddegh as the leading champion of secular democracy and resistance to foreign domination in Iran’s modern history. Mosaddegh was removed from power in a coup on 19 August 1953, organised and carried out by the CIA at the request of MI6.” In  the oppressive regime of the shah and his SAVAK secret police that followed, Iran’s oil remained in the hands of western oil companies and their US and British protectors. Of course by 1979 this arrangement went off the rails because the Iranians had had enough of it.

Any of that useful in engaging with this work? Or is the (I presume) affectionate but rather obscure pun in the title all you needed? I hung around and asked at least a half-dozen visitors if they knew whose portrait was on the rings; none had any idea. Here’s what the curator thought she was doing with this show; I’m sure her middle-east specialist colleagues were impressed, but an exhibition like this is a lot of work: I guess she just didn’t have a minute to actually think about the visitors who would walk in the door.

Language gaps, extension of remarks

Just for the record, I need to add  to the list of words needed to discuss Trump, especially in view of Helsinki:











Needed: not namecalling, not hyperbolic; evidenced attributes. Without language like this, you cannot get Trump right, and we can’t defend ourselves against him.

Language gaps

I have been reflecting on two traditional habits of our media that have become not only dysfunctional but actively destructive.  First, reporting on Trump as though he is a basically serious person.  The press is, slowly, getting better about nailing Trump for lying, and using the word. Old habits die hard, and the habit of treating the discourse of a US president as being considerable, and assuming conventional links among utterance, belief, and intention is one of those. But it’s not working, because those links are broken in Trump’s case.

When someone says something, in any serious context, we take the utterance as some sort of forecast of behavior.  “Drive me around in my car and I’ll pay you $X” is a commitment, maybe enforceable in court; “I love you” uttered by anyone not a complete cad isn’t as firm an assurance of future behavior, but normal people take it as at least not meaning “I don’t care about you” or “Actually I love someone else”, and normal people say it, or don’t, knowing that.  People can change their minds, but the general rule applies,  especially for public figures and leaders: what you say is and is seen to be predictive of your future behavior. A colleague of mine said what it means to a Jew to be Bar Mitzvah is that you are now responsible to what you say.

Accordingly, presidential discourse has always been reportable as spoken: data that is predictive (not perfectly) of consequential actions. However flacks and commentators spin it, we have taken presidents’ words as considerable.   It’s time to stop what has become a mechanistic charade: we have a president whose speech, whether about values, beliefs, or promised action,  only predicts his behavior accidentally. He reneges on flat commitments like promises to give to veterans’ causes, to invest in infrastructure, and ‘deals’ like the one last fall about immigration.  He is relentlessly, doggedly ignorant about absolutely everything, so his statements of fact are not even hopes and wishes, but short-run chum for his most hateful base, whatever he thinks a rally audience wants to hear. When Trump’s rallies, tweets, and press events are broadcast the way a normal president’s events used to be, and when his environmental policies are presented as though the fact assertions they rest on are on this side of the line between knowledge and witchcraft, they are flatly misrepresented. “Trump said X today” is simply not the same kind of report as it would be regarding the utterance of a responsible adult; tradition is a poor guide now. “Trump said X” means “the last person (or rally crowd) who flattered Trump in his presence, or his latest instructions from Putin, told him to say X” and little more.


Continue reading “Language gaps”

Imran Khan, blasphemer

Imran Khan is a cricket player who has gone into philanthropy and then politics in Pakistan, and until now is the leading candidate for prime  minister in the upcoming elections (despite a #metoo problem a decade old).  He has, however, committed blasphemy, which is a very big deal in Pakistan, so it will be interesting to see how events unfold.

Khan’s offense is to claim, implicitly but incontrovertibly , that the teachings of Mohammed are so unpersuasive, and his person so unprepossessing, that Islam needs the protection of a murderous regime of capital punishment and vigilante justice. This regime is a matter of national law (article 295c of the constitution), and Khan just came out in support of it. The killing is not only judicial: in Pakistan, people are also  lynched if they say something a tinpot local vigilante, or just a small-time religious nut, or for that matter a guy who thinks you looked at his sister funny, wish to view as disrespectful to the prophet, and the body count is not trivial. Along the way, this savagery devalues all professions of genuine faith, as who can tell whether they are sincere or just fearful?

Remarkable in the extreme that a national figure can show such disrespect for the prophet, adherents, and doctrines of his own faith, especially as Islam has a pretty good record (independently of episodes of conversion by the sword), attracting adherents by teaching and preaching its intrinsic merits, over 14 centuries.  It’s hard to imagine a more abject surrender of the high ground than “actually, I got nothin’ but this gun to shoot you with.”  I have no special case for Khan either way, but I hope he at least survives this suicidal episode.



Nature imitating art

It always does; never perfectly but well enough to teach us something.  At the end of The Lord of the Rings (the book, but not the movie), the evil wizard Saruman and his nasty, slinking sidekick Wormtongue Cohen arrive in the hobbits’ peaceable shire and spread ruin, fear, and mistrust. Along the way they cut down trees, destroying nature, and try to make an industrial wasteland out of it.  Eventually they are overcome, and in a final squabble resulting from Saruman disrespecting Wormtongue and betraying him to the hobbits, Wormtongue kills Saruman.

For some reason I am remembering this episode lately.


Governance of associations

Sports are peculiar institutions.  The rules of the games have to come from somewhere and big network externalities encourage everyone to follow them. But the competitive/collaborative associations of profit-making enterprises (teams), players, and leagues have to improvise their governance, often across international legal jurisdictions, and it doesn’t always work right.

Rules sometimes change, for good or ill.  Tennis players used to be obliged to wear white; now anything goes.  Technology keeps motor racing and sailing rules in flux.  Baseball tried to increase scoring and home runs for fan appeal by (ill-conceived) ideas like lowering the pitcher’s mound and the designated hitter, and (better) ideas like speeding up the game by limiting mound visits.  The three-point field goal changed basketball so historical statistics are hard to compare to today’s, but the game is no worse for it, in my inexpert view actually better.  Games with tradition properly have a big flywheel on rule changes, but (i) making the games more fun to watch, (ii) player safety, and, importantly, (iii) high correlation between playing better and winning, are legitimate grounds for tuneups and innovation. [On (ii); college football was substantially revamped a century ago because players were getting killed, and the implications of what we’re learning about concussion risk in football and soccer are still unfolding.]

Now, soccer (outside the US, football). For people who might want to watch the World Cup matches, here is a quick guide, soccer for dummies:  twenty players kick a ball down a large field with lots of passing and possession changes, and many one-to-one duels; eventually one player kicks the ball over, or to the side of the goal (or doesn’t), and everyone runs the other way. Repeat this sequence to the point of stupefaction…except that once during the game (typically) the ball goes in one of the nets.  If it’s not a complete mismatch, this occurs when some cosmic roulette ball lands on a secret number, and has nothing to do with the quality of play overall.

Today, Russia 1-1 Spain, wins by one penalty kick. Croatia 1-1 Denmark, ditto. Four hours of actual play could not establish any team’s superiority on the day by scoring, and all the marbles went to coin-flips (do I jump  left or right? Could we just play scissors/paper/rock instead?) each between 0.9% of each team.

The World Cup results to now are full of 1-0 games and ties. There’s even a famous song (1919) about a 1-0 game .  What we have here is an athletically and strategically excellent, pure, simple, game, played and loved by millions–ruined for serious competition (including medium-to-high-level amateur play) by not enough scoring, a deficiency that could be easily remedied by adding about a yard (maybe two) to the width of the goal.

Fixing this can’t be a matter of evolution or coaching, and confronts a minor installed-base problem (all the physical goals all over the world needing to be replaced or modified) plus the aforementioned flywheel (“we’ve always done it this way, all our skills are based on the current goal, etc.”).  It also requires a functional governance structure, and what that would be for a game played from tot to geezer levels, in dozens of countries, with a multi-billion-dollar pro business is very hard to see.  The Swedes switched from left-side to right-side driving, but Sweden is a country with one government. Maybe the fix could start with US colleges, which at least have an NCAA; maybe one of the European leagues could take the plunge. It doesn’t put existing soccer skills at risk of obsolescence, and it would sure improve the game; how you play for an hour and a half ought to have something to do with whether you win. [minor edits and corrections 1/VII/18]