Bleakness In The Ozarks


Title: Winter’s Bone

Rating: 5 Stars

For some reason, this film fell off my radar when it first came out. It was definitely my loss.

This is the story of a 17 year old woman named Ree. She is growing up very poor in the Ozarks. Her father, a meth cook, has run off, her mother is in a semi-catatonic state, and she is raising her younger brother and sister on her own.

The sheriff stops by and tells Ree that her father has disappeared. He’s due for a court date, and if he does not appear, his bail will be forfeited. Unbeknowst to Ree, he put up the house and their woods as collateral.  Therefore, if Ree doesn’t find her father in the next week or so, she and her family will be thrown out of their home. By this point, the home is the only thing keeping them together.

Not having anyone else to lean on, Ree sets out to find her father. She immediately runs into all kinds of problems. First of all, women have a strictly defined place in the social hierarchy. She grimly trudges on, even as men menace her and other women set themselves upon her.

Sorry for the spoiler, but the film is nearly ten years old. She eventually discovers that her father, despite being a long standing adherent to the local code of silence, had broken and was cooperating with the authorities. Once this fact became known to the locals, he was taken away and murdered.

She still needs to find evidence of his body or else his outstanding bail will still be revoked. After suffering beatings, ultimately some of the women take pity on her and take her out to a shallow lake where her father’s body was dumped. They take a chainsaw out and chop off his hands. With this evidence, she can now save the house and her family.

No one can say that this is a happy story. One of my favorite literary forms goes by various names, the most respectable of which is country noir. These are dark, violent books populated by tough, resolute characters following their own code. This is a prime example of this genre.

Ree, like many of the characters in the film, has a fierce pride about her as she unflinchingly faces her grim reality and does what she knows to be right. Even as she goes about trying to save her house, she still takes the time to tend to her mother and to raise her brother and sister, teaching them the same lessons that someone once taught her.

Another strong character is her father’s brother, named Tear Drop. He’s a drug addict and a lifelong criminal himself. At first, he refuses to help her. As her quest takes her deeper into the dark criminal world, he, like Ree, faces his grim choices and decides to the do the right thing and support his kin. By the end, once he finds out who has killed his brother, he heads out determined to try to mete out his society’s idea of justice, knowing that in all likelihood it will get him killed.

This, like Leave No Trace, which I just saw last week, is a reminder of the satisfaction of watching a quiet little film. There’s no Disney happy ending or Marvel explosive finale, but after the film is over, you find yourself thinking about and worrying about the characters, hoping that somehow they found a path out.

This is one of those rare cases where, having watched the film, I want to run out and buy the book.


Tongue Clucking Rationalist


Title: Fantasyland

Rating: 3 Stars

These are, it goes without saying, strange times in which we live. By career, I am a software developer, so rationality, logic, facts, and science seem to be obviously irrefutable guideposts in our modern world.

So what do I make of these times? Climate change is almost unanimously believed to be real by those who have dedicated their lives to the research, but around half of Americans believe it to be a fraud. Evolution is the basis for many branches of science, yet some forty percent of Americans are strict creationists.  Vaccines have saved literally millions of lives, yet there are a ton of Americans that refuse to vaccinate their children, causing the comeback of several previously essentially eradicated diseases.

Other parts of the Western world don’t share these beliefs. What’s so special about America? Is it something new? Was there some trigger?

This discussion underlies Fantasyland. Anderson’s thesis is that this is how we’ve always been, going all the way back to the Puritans. Due to a couple of possible factors, there is something native to the American character that impels us to irrational thought.

Before I go into more detail, which, despite the somewhat lukewarm three star rating, I did find thought provoking, let me talk a bit about why it only got three stars.

The first beef that I have with it is that he just covers too much real estate. The chapters are short and provide very little context. It’s like you’re driving by on a tour bus at full speed and the tour guide shouts at you every time you pass by something significant. You’re barely processing what you just saw and now already there’s another thing.

The second beef is the fact that it’s pretty clear that he himself was once a free thinking hippie but now has come to the true religion of rationality. Life a reformed alcoholic, he just can’t keep the sneer out of his voice as he talks about those that have not seen the light of reason. The tone of the book suffers as a result.

The first two groups of settlers to America were in Jamestown and Plymouth. In one case, the inspiration for the settlement was religious zealotry. In the second case, it was a pursuit of riches. These two threads run common throughout America’s history and form the basis of our national case of irrational thought.

Protestantism is one of the threads. Unlike Catholicism, Protestantism actively encourages decentralized thinking. There is no central figure that dictates edicts. From the time of Martin Luther, the idea is that everyone should read the bible themselves and effectively become their own priest.

It starts off this way, but inevitably a group coalesces around a particularly charismatic figure. That figure then effectively starts his own branch and rules over it with some variation of an iron fist. Inevitably, someone in that branch will take Protestantism to heart and will take issue with the leader’s dogma and question it. That usually results in the skeptic being thrown out of the flock, which results in the skeptic attracting a flock of people to his own teachings, after which he creates his own branch of Protestantism. Rinse and repeat.

This process ends up creating highly individualized thinkers who construct their own belief systems, which may or may not have a basis in reality.

The second group, the fortune hunters, have their own brand of unreality. They hear rumors of gold and blindly chase after it, regardless of its veracity. Their very occasional successes spur a further army of fortune hunters. This chase against all odds and in the fact of insurmountable hurdles brings out primarily those not susceptible to normal rational arguments.

These are our Americans.

This books goes on to list nearly innumerable examples. He talks about PT Barnum and his highly popular museum that mingled fact and fiction in a jumble. He talked about the role that irrationality played in the various Great Awakenings (four to date) that have taken place in America. He talked about the great fraud perpetuated by the Sun paper in New York City, which had people believing that a recently installed telescope had discovered life on the moon. He talked about the various Southern myths that arose out of the ashes of the Civil War.

He gives special focus to the 1960s because it was a great era of irrationality from both the left and right. Most people know about the left and how they went to great lengths to abandon scientific, rational principles. Tenured professors wrote serious peer reviewed papers about the falsity of reality itself.

On the right, it was during the 1960s that there was a strong movement to reinforce concepts such as hell, which was falling out of favor from the mainstream branches of Christianity.  The Left Behind series is a product of that movement. Creationism rose to the forefront of many Protestant teachings. Previously backwoods practices such as speaking in tongues came out front and center.

Today, we have the unreality of reality shows. We have the internet pumping every conspiracy theory or crazy philosophy into our household.

And out of this mess arises irrationality incarnate, Donald Trump. He believes that Trump is the natural apogee of our country’s history.

What can come next?


A Matinee Of Delight

mv5byjcyytk0n2ytmzc4zc00y2e0lwfkndgtnje1mzzmmge1yjy1xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtmxodk2otu-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_Title: Ant-Man and the Wasp

Rating: 4 Stars

After having sat through the serious, adult film Leave No Trace, I was ready for some mindless fun. So, on a beautiful, sunny, Summer day, I went to a matinee showing of the latest Marvel movie.

It turns out that it was pretty much a perfect Summer matinee film. The characters were breezy, the villains were cartoonish, and the plot moved along swimmingly, as long as you didn’t hold it up to the light too close for examination.

This shows the genius of Marvel in the year 2018. They start off with the serious and dark Infinity War, segue on over to the darkly humorous and insanely violent Deadpool 2, and close out on the lightly humorous, very family friendly, Ant-Man and the Wasp. The fact that they can pull off all three of these very different movies, have them all to be (in their own way) well made, and make a shit ton of money on each is a strong statement on the stranglehold that they currently have on blockbuster film making right now. It’ll be really interesting if they can sustain it since it’s pretty clear that they’ve been building to this year for quite some time. Will they be able to pivot and start up new story lines? The next couple of years should be interesting.

It seems almost petty to talk about the plot. Scott, Pym, and Hope get a clue that maybe Hope’s mother (and Pym’s wife), long since given up for dead in the subatomic, might actually be alive. They decide to try to rescue her by building some kind of quantum tunnel. In the meantime, Scott’s under house arrest for some other Captain America caper and the FBI is dead set on catching him if he leaves his house. Also, there’s Sonny Burch, a black market dealer, trying to buy/steal the quantum tunnel so that he can profit from it himself. Also, there’s a woman that is quantumly unstable (?!) that is also trying to get to Hope’s mother in the subatomic, thinking that by doing so it will somehow stabilize her (?!).

Blah, blah, blah…

It doesn’t make sense, and it’s actually OK that it doesn’t make sense. This is comic book logic. What it does do is set up scenes of action and humor, which for a movie of this type is pretty much what the plot is supposed to do anyway.

Scott, Pym, and Hope have good chemistry. Scott and his co-workers (especially Luis) have good chemistry. Scott has an adorable relationship with his daughter. Good triumphs. People thought evil actually turned out not to be. The truly evil end up thwarted.

Do you get the idea? It’s just a fun movie. A great way to while away a Summer day in an air conditioned theater.

Go see it. Leave your brain at home. Have fun.

A Quiet Search For Peace


Title: Leave No Trace

Rating: 3 Stars

I’m off to see Ant-Man and the Wasp in a bit, so I figured that I needed to have a little cinematic cleanse before re-entering the MCU.

Leave No Trace is almost precisely an antidote to a Marvel movie. It was quiet. It was character focused. There was no end of the world drama. There was no evil force. In fact, there was barely a plot.

Will and his daughter Tom are apparently living out in the woods somewhere. By necessity, they are living a simple life, but from the early scenes in the movie, it appears to be a comfortable and loving life. As the movie expands, it becomes obvious that this isn’t just the two of them on a camping trip. This is literally their lives. They hide out when they hear voices. They occasionally run drills where they practice hiding. It appears that Will is a war veteran (presumably of Iraq or Afghanistan) that is tormented by nightmares. Living out in the woods by himself and his daughter appears to bring him a measure of peace.

This peace is doomed to be shattered. Tom is accidentally spotted by a jogger. The jogger reports her sighting to authorities. The authorities come out with their dogs to investigate. Will and Tom are discovered. Will is taken away in handcuffs.

Both Will and Tom just want to be left alone. However, they are not allowed to live out on the public land. Ultimately, their story goes public and a Christmas tree farmer volunteers to give Will a job on his farm and a quiet house for the two of them.

Tom easily adjusts and grows to like living in the house. She makes friends and begins to realize what she was missing out living in the wild with her father. Will, on the other hand, feels the stifling influence of civilization even out on a rural farm. Finally, he can’t take it anymore and he and Tom pack up and search for another place to live in the wilderness.

Now that Tom has experienced a less solitary life, she is resistant. However, she loves her father and wants to be with him and to help him.

This conflict between Tom’s desire to live in a community and Will’s need to be away from society forms the heart of the narrative.

This film, by design, isn’t going to be one of those films where you leave thinking it’s the greatest film ever made. It is a quiet exploration of two characters, their obvious love for each other, and their attempts to resolve the conflict at the heart of the film. It stays true to this exploration.

I like the fact that this is an adult film. There are no villains. The social service workers, the psychologists, and the tree farmer are all trying to find a good resolution for Will and Tom. Will isn’t a stereotypical PTSD soldier acting out on violent impulses. He’s a quiet, determined man trying to do what is right. Tom is devoted to Will but also understands that she has to have a say in her life. There are no easy answers.

I also liked the fact that there is very little exposition. The story is told through the film. You watch the film to discover the relationship between Will and Tom. You never learn what happened to Will in Iraq, but as the film unfolds you can surmise.

In summary, it was a quiet, small film expertly executed.

America The Beautiful

Like I did last year, I attended the Naturalization ceremony at the open air Fisher Pavilion at Seattle Center. It was very similar to last year. If interested, you can read about last year’s festivities here.

Like last year, it was a beautiful day. A gospel choir sang. Native Americans did a song / dance / story. Among the 500 people, some 83 countries were represented. Among the largest contingents were people from Mexico, Vietnam, Cambodia, and the Philippines. It was, just like last year, an uplifting and cheerful day that left me feeling inspired.

Even though it left me with such feelings, it just so happens that at the same time that I attended this ceremony, I was in the midst of re-reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Reading this at the same time as attending the ceremony left me with what best could be described as mixed emotions.

For those not aware of it, Zinn’s history was written close to 40 years ago (with new chapters added until he passed away some years ago). At the time that he wrote it, he was concerned that most American histories were written in a very one-sided, traditional and nationalist perspective. He wrote a history that was focused on the voices that history never records: those of the oppressed, powerless, and disenfranchised.

Re-reading this book at the same time as attending the naturalization ceremony brought new light to it. At the ceremony speaking were people of power. The Governor was there. One of the US Senators was there. The King County Executive was there. All of this gave the ceremony the trappings of state power.

On that day, under the auspices of this state power, the Native Americans did their dance. The US history of Native American treatment is sordid. There was literally not a single treaty that was signed with a tribe that was to last “As long as grass grows and water runs” that was not broken by the US government. Native Americans were hunted and herded nearly to their deaths.

Likewise, as the gospel choir sang, I thought of our nation’s treatment of Blacks. Black slaves were brought to America in 1619 to Jamestown, barely 10 years after it was founded. Our country truly was stamped with slavery from its beginning. From that sad start, our country has had 250 years of slavery, 100 years of Jim Crow, and some 50 years (and counting) of mass incarceration.

A large number of the new citizens were from Mexico. Think back to 1846, when America was hankering to fulfill its manifest destiny and bestride the entire continent. The only problem was that there was another nation in its way. After encouraging Texas to fight for its independence, James Polk later sent the American army down to Texas. There it knowingly made camp and built forts in what was Mexican territory. When the Mexican military engaged the US army in a minor skirmish on its own territory, the US government immediately claimed that it was under attack and that it must defend itself. In the resulting lopsided war, the US army nearly entered Mexico City. There were talks that maybe the US should just take all of Mexico. Instead it took only half. It paid a pittance for Arizona, California, New Mexico, and part of Colorado. Manifest destiny was ours.

Similarly, a large number of citizens were from the Philippines. Think back to the Spanish American War. Under what was at best murky circumstances and with a large assist from the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (“Remember the Maine!”), the US declared war on Spain. In the ensuing war, the US gained more territory, including the Philippines. This was, however, news to the Filipinos, who thought that they were fighting for their independence. After careful reflection, William McKinley decided that the Filipino people just were not prepared to take on the challenge of self rule and that it was the US’ responsibility to help lead them (Rudyard Kipling’s White Man’s Burden). Considering the fact that the Filipinos had a declaration of independence, a president, a constitution, and a congress, that’s ridiculous. In the ensuing war (called the Philippine-American War in the US and the War of Independence by the Philippines), Americans were accused of mass atrocities. Full independence was finally granted in 1946.

Finally, there was the large number of new Vietnamese and Cambodian citizens. I scarcely have to talk much about that. The Tonkin Incident, used to gain military authorization for the escalation of the Vietnam war, was later proven to have nothing to do with North Vietnamese forces. During the war, there were over one million Vietnamese deaths. Atrocities were committed. There was mass, indiscriminate bombing. Neutral countries were bombed (hello Cambodia).

It was interesting to me that one short ceremony managed to have a touch point to so many dark chapters in American history. This is especially so because it was such an overwhelmingly positive, reinforcing ceremony celebrating America and its diversity in one of the most progressive cities in the country.

Obviously, the gospel choir and the Native Americans chose to be there. Even more so, the immigrants from nations that America has such a checkered history with have voluntarily, enthusiastically, and with great effort become citizens of America.

It’s interesting to me why that is so. Is it that, even given the history of America, the promise of America still holds? The American ideal? The idea that it’s the land of opportunity? That if you work hard you can achieve your dream? Do so few other countries offer even the dream of such a thing?

Or is it the power of being #1 and everyone wanting to be on the winning team? Even today, the US is the only hegemon on the planet. Its military, economy, and culture dominate the world as no other country ever has. Everyone wants to be on the winning team.

Circus in Sochi

mv5bmtexmdc5njqymjjeqtjeqwpwz15bbwu4mdezmzkyodiy-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_Title: Icarus

Rating: 4 Stars

The film starts off somewhat benignly. Bryan Fogel, a pretty serious amateur cyclist, is disillusioned with the state of his professional sport. This is around the time that Lance Armstrong, after many years of fierce and angry denials, has admitted to long term doping. It appears that the entire sport of professional cycling is littered with cheats.

Fogel decides to find out how easy it is to cheat the drug tests. He competes in a grueling amateur race and places fourteenth. For the next race, he decides that he’s going to dope himself and see if he can game the system to avoid detection. He first enlists an American expert in doping named Don Catlin. Catlin decides that helping Fogel cheat, even if it is to expose how easy it is to cheat, is an ethical boundary that he’s not willing to cross. Instead, he recommends Fogel contact the head of the Russian testing program, Grigory Rodchenkov. Surprisingly enough, Rodchenkov cheerfully agrees to help him, even at one point coming to visit Fogel in America to smuggle Fogel’s urine back to Russia.

The first half of the film is this journey as you see how intensive and invasive the doping regimen is. Over the span of several months, Fogel does get measurably stronger. He comes into the event poised to do much better.

However, it does not work out. He experiences equipment failure and other strokes of misfortune. He ends up finishing even worse than he did the previous year.

There the story appears to start petering out. However, at the same time that this is going on, Rodchenkov appears to be getting increasingly upset. International agencies are investigating his drug facility and how tests are performed there. He gets increasingly nervous.

He ultimately confesses to Fogel that, on behalf of Russia, he has led a large program of doping athletes. Rodchenkov begins to fear that he will be arrested. Fogel manages to secure him a plane ticket and Rodchenkov successfully manages to flee Russia, leaving behind his wife and daughter.

Rodchenkov also manages to steal a treasure trove of evidence explicitly linking the Russian government to a wholesale doping plan. It’s been going on for decades, but with the 2014 Winter Olympics held in Sochi, Putin made it clear that he expected the Russian athletes to dominate.

Rodchenkov set up a drug testing facility in Sochi. The FSB (former KGB) worked with Rodchenkov to figure out how to cheat the supposedly impregnable Swiss urine bottles for the purpose of switching the urine.

As a result of this action, Russia won a record 33 medals at Sochi, including 13 gold.

Once in America, afraid that the Russian authorities were going to try to assassinate Rodchenkov, Fogel hid him in an apartment. Ultimately Rodchenkov testified in front of the US Department of Justice and was interviewed by the New York Times. The resulting publicity resulted in an independent investigation that collaborated Rodchenkov’s testimony.

The film ends with Rodchenkov still in US protective custody due to fear of assassination by Russian agents. His wife and daughter are still in Russia.

Watching this film, I was struck by the affinity that authoritarian governments have with sports. I think back to the 1936 Olympics with Hitler praising the Aryan ideal. You can go even further back to the Roman poet, Juvenal, criticizing the Roman politicians’ attempt to appease the citizenry by offering them “bread and circuses”. Is there a bigger circus in the world than the Olympics? How much are the Russian people willing to tolerate Putin’s totalitarian behavior because he helps them feel good about themselves on a sporting worldwide stage?

And now, of course, the Russian soccer team, playing in Russia, is now in the World Cup quarterfinals (as of this writing). Life must be very good in Putin-Land right now.

And finally, of course, how much of Trump’s success is based on providing circuses? Every day there does seem to be a new act in town. The media is so focused on the circus acts (Harley Davidson, Michael Cohen, Melania’s jacket) that it loses sight of the fact that the town’s bank is actually being robbed in broad daylight (trillions of dollars are being added to the debt).

Oscar Wilde Would Have Ruled Twitter


Title: The Picture Of Dorian Gray

Rating: 3 Stars

An artist, Basil Hallward, is infatuated with a young man named Dorian Gray. To Basil, Dorian represents  beauty and a pure innocence. Basil paints Dorian’s portrait. Basil channels his deeply repressed love of Dorian into the art and produces a masterpiece that captures the essece of Dorian’s soul. As he’s wrapping up the painting, Basil and Howard meet Lord Henry Wotton, a witty hedonistic cynic. Henry’s cleverness captivates Dorian.

At the unveiling of the painting, both Dorian and Henry acknowledge the genius of the portrait. In fact, it is so lifelike that Dorian is upset. He realizes that, as he ages, he will lose his beauty while the painting will always retain it. Falling on his knees, Dorian implores that the painting age instead of himself.

His wish is granted. Over the ensuing years of hedonistic debauchery that ultimately descends to murder, Dorian does not change a bit, but the figure in the painting becomes a monster. Finally understanding that the painting is itself a portrait of his guilt, Dorian takes a knife to destroy it. In the morning, his servants find Dorian dead, stabbed in the heart, his face and body horribly disfigured by age and dissipation, and the picture restored to its original beauty.

Most people already know this story, if nothing else by a long ago Far Side Cartoon:


In the play, the “love that shall not speak its name” is much more obvious. Basil effectively confesses his love to Dorian. It’s clear that Basil is a gay man that has not and will not come to terms with this. Given the tenor of the time and the fact that Oscar Wilde, subject himself to many gay rumors and was to find himself in prison for “gross indecency to men” within five years, this was one of the most, for the time, controversial aspects of the work.

Oscar Wilde was a great proponent of the artistic idea of aestheticism. This is the idea that the beauty or sensuousness of the art is more important than any social or political meaning that can be derived from it.

Knowing that, it seems amusing to me that aestheticism gets a pretty good beating here. Aestheticism, if not regulated, leads pretty quickly to hedonism or empty cynicism. You see that here in many ways. First of all, Dorian falls in love with the actress Sibyl. Sibyl falls helplessly in love with Dorian, and in so doing, she loses her motivation to act. When Dorian sees her lackadaisical poor acting, he promptly falls out of love with her and renounces her, ultimately leading to her suicide. It is Dorian’s pursuit of  meaningless sensuousness that, more than time itself, leads to the degradation of his portrait.

Henry, for his part, by the end of the play, after a lifetime of seeking only shallow surface beauty, is old, embittered, and lonely, a shell of his previous effervescent self.

Slightly off subject, but I find it interesting when an artist, through his art, actually makes the opposite point of his own personal beliefs. As I just said, with this play, Oscar Wilde does not actually put aestheticism in a good light. Similarly, Fyodor Dostoevsky was a political conservative, but in novels like Brothers Karamazov, his conservative characters actually come off poorly. It probably says something about an artistic genius that he/she can take a point of view that they don’t agree with but can express it in a compelling manner.

It is interesting to contemplate how Oscar Wilde sees himself in this work. When asked, he said that he saw parts of himself in all three main characters. His quote:

Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry is what the world thinks of me: Dorian is what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps

Some interesting things were done in terms of this specific staging. There was a chorus consisting of Victorian men and women. They would occasionally interject the inner thoughts of characters. Sometimes the characters themselves spoke out loud their own internal monologues, often coming out in the form of almost stage direction.

The stage was nearly always in a state of fog. I’d imagine that this was to show Victorian London as well as to make visible the hidden gay subtexts of the play.

One of the challenges for staging a play based upon this novel is the epigrammatical method in which Oscar Wilde wrote. One of the reasons for his still enduring fame is that he was the master of the one-liner (eg I can resist everything but temptation). Throughout the play, especially with Henry’s lines, these bon mots are interspersed throughout the dialog. However, what seems clever when reading becomes jarring when staged. It’s almost like you’re talking face to face with someone who communicates only in tweets. There’s an artifice to it.

This was probably one of the reasons why the play left me somewhat cold to it. While watching a play, I like to have a suspension of belief but, whether it was the play itself or the choices that the actors made, I just couldn’t get over the feeling that there were just people on a stage reciting lines. I didn’t feel any true connection to the characters.

The White House Asylum

If the stories about how Donald Trump spends his nights at the White House are true, then it’s pretty sad and pathetic. The rumor is that he wanders around in a bathrobe watching hours and hours of news television, calling some small circle of friends willing to tell him what he wants to hear, and, sigh, yes, tweets.

That would seem to be possibly the nadir of White House activities. However, that might not be true. It turns out that some pretty freaky things happen there.

Here’s a partial list:

Let’s start with a certain intern masturbating herself with a cigar in the Oval Office while Bill Clinton was watching and pleasuring himself. Oh, by the way, Yassir Arafat was in the Rose Garden waiting to meet Clinton while this was going on.

Lyndon Johnson would regularly decide, during meetings with aides, that he needed to drop a deuce. While continuing the discussion, he would take the aides into the bathroom, drop his drawers, and take a dump, all the while still talking. I have to admit that I’ve never had a boss try that with me. In case you think that this misuse of bodily functions was a one-off for LBJ, once at his ranch while he was out with his secret service agent, he whipped out his…um…Johnson and proceeded to urinate on the agent’s shoes. When the agent cursed, Johnson claimed that doing so was his prerogative.

Herbert Hoover seems like a decent enough fellow. After all, he did keep Europe from starving to death in the aftermath of WWI, even if didn’t do so well during the Depression. Apparently his thing at the White House was that employees at the White House were never to be seen. Therefore, if one of the employees saw or heard Hoover coming, they would throw themselves into broom closets or behind furniture or something like that so he wouldn’t have to lay eyes upon the help.  This actually continued through FDR. It was Truman who saw someone leap out of his sight as he approached and he was like, WTF? Once he learned, he immediately put a stop to it.

Clinton wasn’t the only president who got his freak on in the White House. Warren Harding had a long running love affair with Nan Britton. It started when she was 18 and he was about 50. Harding’s wife did not approve, so they had to sneak around. Apparently, they used to hook up in a tiny coat closet. Stay classy, prez.

Andrew Jackson was the first true ‘man of the people’. All of the previous presidents were either Virginia landed gentry or had the last name Adams. Jackson was from the wild west of Tennessee. When he was elected, he was truly thought of as the people’s president. Therefore, the people thought that they owed themselves a celebration at his inauguration. This celebration involved a throng of people getting very drunk, invading the White House, destroying furniture and china, and nearly trampling Jackson himself.

Let’s not forget about Richard Nixon. Imagine Nixon, sitting there in the Oval Office with his consiglieres Ehrlichman and Haldeman, plotting to pay off criminals, knowingly incriminating himself on tape. Possibly even worse, he had a special hatred for a famous investigative journalist named Jack Anderson. He allegedly plotted to have him killed. Nothing came of it, but think about that one a bit.

Sometimes, it’s not just US presidents behaving badly. One time, when Boris Yeltsin was making a state visit, apparently he had maybe a little too much to drink. He was discovered, late at night, on Pennsylvania Avenue, in his underwear, trying to hail a cab so that he could get a pizza.

Probably the most famous oddity is the King, Elvis Presley. Pretty much on a whim, Elvis decided that he wanted to meet Nixon, and not only that, but Elvis wanted to be given a federal narcotics badge because he thought that it gave him free reign to carry guns and drugs. Makes perfect sense. Elvis hand writes a letter to Nixon and drops it off. Somehow it gets to Nixon and Nixon decides to take the meeting. Elvis knows that you can’t just show up to the White House empty handed, so he carefully chooses a gift to give to the president. It was a gun. Elvis thought it would be a good idea to bring a gun to a meeting with the president. The Secret Service intervenes and confiscates it. When the two men met, they posed for the famous picture that in some way sums up America in 1970.

I could go on, but I’ll let you that sit with that final image. Next time you think of Donald Trump vacantly staring at Fox News or railing against the fake news of CNN, just keep in mind that, as a nation, we’ve survived weirder.

The Perils Of Data At Your Fingertips

Many years ago, I read a collection of essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan called Pulphead.

One of the essays was called Unknown Bards. It centered around the very early recordings of blues singers. These recordings were during the time between the mid 1920s to the late 1930s.

There wasn’t a huge market for recordings in those days. Also, most of these blues records were done by black artists. As is sadly typical, even less care was taken of preserving this music than other music of that era. Over time, as the understanding grew that blues music is foundational to American music, there have been attempts to try to recover these very early recordings.

To a large extent, this article is about these recovery attempts. It features several odd characters. They are all obsessive record collectors that have given up much of what other people would consider a normal life in this pursuit.

There is the story of a man that owned a significant number of rare recordings. He lived at a YMCA and kept the recordings under his bed. There was another man that heard of a rare recording that someone owned that lived a long distance from him. He called the collector, verified that he had the record in question, immediately hopped into his car, drove overnight to get to the collector’s house, knocked on the door, asked the collector to play the record, listened to it, thanked the collector, and then left. He drove over night just to listen to a probably two or three minute recording. There was yet a third man that ended up with a known single copy of a record that gotten so overheated that it had warped into the shape of a bowl.  Painstakingly, over a period of months, he slowly but surely flattened it back into a playable shape.

All of these people seemed like their own personal Captain Ahab in pursuit of some white whale recording. Their lives might seem odd to us, but to them, this quest provided meaning.

As I said, this article was written many years ago. In that article, it listed many of these exceedingly rare blues songs, many of which only had one known copy still extant (at the time that it was written).

Recently, on a whim, I went to iTunes and searched. Every single one of those exceedingly rare songs that these obsessive recluses would have probably given up a kidney to procure is now available on iTunes for ninety-nine cents.

On the one hand, this is progress. This almost lost part of American history is now available for all. Do you want to know for yourself if Edmund Muskie cried in New Hampshire? Do you want to hear Black Panther philosophy directly from H Rap Brown? Do you want to see the first motion picture film (the Roundhay Garden Scene)? Do you want to hear Gore Vidal, famous novelist and intellectual, call William F Buckley, another famous intellectual and founder of the modern conservative movement, a crypto Nazi and have Buckley reply back calling Vidal a queer and threaten to punch him in the face? Well, it’s all there on youTube. It truly is a magical place for a history geek like myself.

However…sometimes it seems that something is lost. Part of the fun of the quest for the knowledge is the quest itself. If all knowledge truly is at the tip of your fingertips, does it start to make us lazy? How many of us, in our quest, now bother to even navigate to the second page of the Google search results?

This seems to be important because facts and opinions have always been blurred but in the current day there seems to be no difference at all. Now, apparently, fake news is anything that doesn’t jibe with the current president’s opinion. With the filter bubble that Google and other social media platforms force us into, many people legitimately believe that their opinions are mainstream, regardless of anything approaching objective reality.

I’m not saying that I’m pining for the days of my childhood, where pretty much the complete store of knowledge that I had access to was the five year old copy of the Encyclopedia Brittanica that my parents bought for myself and my brother.

However, it does seem that all of this ease of data has left us mentally flaccid and is  leading us to the path of the future humans in Wall*E.


The Enemy Of Your Enemy Could Still Be Your Enemy


Title: Ghost Wars

Rating: 4 Stars

As the book subtitle says, it’s the history of Afghanistan up to September 10th, 2001. Spoiler alert: it really doesn’t go well for anyone.

The story starts way back in 1979, over twenty years before 9/11. A riot breaks out in Pakistan where the US embassy is overrun and a Marine killed. The riot is inspired by Islamic extremist university students. While the embassy burns, the Pakistani government sits idly by.

Over in Afghanistan, the Soviet have installed a Marxist government. That government almost immediately tries to govern by Marxist principles (including such radical ideas as making it mandatory that girls learn how to read). This dramatic change leads to Islamic unrest throughout the country.

From these two pretty unrelated events, the grim history is set into motion.

Ultimately, the Marxist Afghan government collapses. The Soviet Union, wanting to protect its flank, apparently ignoring previous great power history, decides that it must avert this by invading Afghanistan and taking over. This immediately inflames local warlords and the Soviet Union finds itself in a brutal asymmetric war of attrition.

In line with its history, the CIA not only completely missed out on the Soviet invasion but was quite literally on the eve of it still insisting that it won’t happen. Despite that, the United States, fairly fresh off of being on the losing end of its own brutal asymmetric war of attrition, decides that it will be great fun to use this as an exercise to give the Soviet Union a bloody nose. Working through Pakistan, specifically its intelligence agency, the ISI, it begins to funnel arms and money to the mujaheddin.

The rulers of Saudi Arabia, always looking for opportunities to prove their Islamic bona fides (despite generally living lives that a platinum selling rap star would concede as excessive), match the American funds as a gesture of Islamic solidarity.

Pakistan provides active support to the mujaheddin. Some hard core Islamic clerics set up madrassas on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Religiously inflamed Arabs start poring into Afghanistan to take up the war against the Soviets. Many of them are poor soldiers and die. However, many do stay and fight. One of the Arabs that sees action is Osama bin Laden.

Ultimately, the Soviets admit defeat and pull out. In fact, not longer after that, the Soviet Union ceases to exist. This seems to be a great victory for the West.

However, there is now a large number of religiously inflamed battle hardened veterans. They look around for what is stopping a regional caliphate from being born that would encompass all of the Islamic lands. Their eyes rest upon the United States that bestrides the planet like a colossus and also has the audacity to station thousands of troops in the holy lands of Saudi Arabia. The United States is seen as a particular enemy to Osama bin Laden and he begins to preach a global jihad against the great Satan itself.

Obviously, there is so much more to the story than this. Coll does a masterful job of putting together the story of how Afghanistan gets from 1979 to 2001. I simply can’t do it justice here.

Some things to keep in mind:

The United States government repeatedly takes its eye off of the ball in this part of the world. The presidency of George H.W. Bush pretty much ignores Afghanistan and terrorism in general. The Clinton administration ignores these issues as well until a couple of African embassies are blown up. This hot and cold interest in the region leads to frustration to its allies in the region.

Pakistan is so focused on its confrontation with India that it is willing to overlook the Taliban excesses and its harboring of bin Laden to keep an Islamic ally on its border. Pakistan not only overlooks but actively funds and supports the Taliban, despite the US pleas for it to stop.

With the bin Laden family so deeply enmeshed in the Saudi government, it is reluctant to move on Osama. As mentioned previously, the government wishes to present itself as a paragon of Islamism, which means that, like Pakistan, it is directly and indirectly supporting both Osama and Afghanistan.

The CIA is both frustrated at the lack of support that it perceives from the government but is also gun shy from its earlier sordid history of coups and assassinations. By the time that 9/11 rolls around, the CIA is reduced to repeatedly shouting about pending attacks but providing virtually no detail regarding the attacks, sounding like nothing more than a multi-billion dollar Chicken Little.

At the CIA, the book discusses at length its two main leaders during this time. There is William Casey, the ex-OSS officer that wants derring-do operations that stick it to the Soviets. During the 90’s, it is George Tenet, the hail-fellow-well-met glad-handing career staffer that succeeds in re-energizing the CIA but leaves it a bureaucratic organization afraid to act without specific permission from the White House.

As is typical with such books, as you read it, even though you know how it will end, you find yourself hoping that it will somehow be different. Maybe Osama gets arrested in Sudan. Maybe the raid that got cancelled at the last minute goes ahead and Osama dies in Afghanistan in a hail of fire.

But alas, history does not work like that.