Monthly Archives: May 2019

Game of Thrones – Realpolitik

This post may not sit well with the folks who think the final episodes of Game of Thrones were a matter of great public importance, enough to warrant a million-signature petition for a final season redo. If you are one of those people, you probably should stop reading now.

For a brief recap, the show ends with:

… the Queen’s Hand has committed a blatant act of treason out of some familial loyalty to his brother who has been sleeping with his sister and has been imprisoned, pending his inevitable execution …

… the putative heroine has turned into a mass murderer, destroyer of all she surveys, women and children included;

… the Hand, assessing his difficult situation, importunes the Queen’s incestuous lover, and the true heir to the Iron Throne, to undo the Queen because, well, you know, she’s not who we thought she was …

… the Queen’s newly discovered relative, rote repeater of “she’s my Queen, she’s my Queen” right up to the point where he drives some Valerian steel into her heart, is so now “not my Queen;”

… a “council” of somebodies sits down in the shade to decide who will replace the dearly departed and one of them suggests, to much amusement, a plebiscite of “everyone” to decide who should rule the Seven Kingdoms, to which one “nobleman” in best form, suggests they let his horse vote, ahhahahaha, but …

… when it’s clear Sansa isn’t going to be chosen, she reduces the “Seven Kingdoms” to six by simply saying “not the North” and please sit down, Samwell Tarly, you idiot … and he does; thus does democracy die in the Six Kingdoms …

… and so they pick Bran whose leadership skills are … not self-evident … but perhaps he means well, though one must wonder about his first big decision to make the Queen’s former Hand his Hand so the Hand can “correct his many mistakes” in the future, a fate apparently deemed worse than death in those parts …

… and that’s a wrap … except

… the murderer of the Queen is banished back to the Black Watch and the Wall, which no longer has a purpose now that the White Walkers have been destroyed, and accepts his fate without so much as a quarrel about the inequity of it all, and …

… the one person who could upend the entire scheme is the brown-skinned guy, the slaughter-in-chief, Grey Worm, leader of the Unsullied and recently decorated as head of the Queen’s Army or something like that, due to his valor and fantastic killing skills, except there’s no Queen now and the “council” is letting the murderer off easy…

… and so Grey Worm effectively dictates the punishment, short of death, of the Queen’s murderer…

There are probably more “morals of the story” in Game of Thrones than in the typical fairy tale but for me the two principal lessons are clear:

  • power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, and
  • the absence of checks and balances in a government will inevitably lead to dangerous outcomes.

The first is too obvious to need much elaboration. Daenerys Targaryen still has one full-grown dragon near the end, plus the loyalty of the miraculously surviving and bloodthirsty Dothraki and Unsullied armies. It’s hard to load more power in one person than that and Daenerys obviously relishes her position – total victory — and, as she “explains” to no one’s great surprise, there are many more battles yet to be fought as she reconstructs the “world” in the image she has in her mind. Daenerys Targaryen thus ends up as the comic book heroine and villain.

The second moral point is more important because less obvious. This principle is what makes Game of Thrones relevant to the world we live in now. In the end, with the “city” of Kings Landing in ruins, the Queen is unbounded. She is defeated only by a final act of hubris, in which she believes that Jon Snow (whom she loves at least as long as he doesn’t challenge her “right” to the Iron Throne) will not harm her, misapprehending completely the mental state of a man who has already been dead once and to all outward appearances seems dazed and uncomprehending of how things have devolved to this sorry state. Love is blind, as the saying goes.

Now the fate of the “world,” as defined by the Seven Kingdoms, is left in the hands of the “council.” The only real power in the scene is Grey Worm who, with a nod of his head, could bring the “military” to terminate the council in a heartbeat. Yet, he resists the direct and deadly use of his power, insisting, however, that Jon Snow be properly punished for his crime against the Queen.

So, ultimately, peace seems to prevail, only because the parties have inadvertently stumbled into a place where the most powerful player, the commander of force, turns out to be sensible and not interested in leveraging his position beyond seeing some form of justice done as to Jon Snow. Grey Worm turns out, then, to be perhaps the best of the men in the entire story. He stays his hand in the interest of peace when he could easily just take control.

There is no mistaking that Grey Worm is the key power player in the end. It was that “check and balance” that operated to “solve” the problem of Jon Snow and to give the “politicians” space in which to negotiate their peace with each other. As improbable as that final outcome may have been, and I’ll leave that to others to debate, the point in the end was that absent Grey Worm’s steady hand, there is no telling what could have happened as the others jockeyed for position. At the same time, we can see that if the only obstacle to the politicians dividing up the world, is the one with “force” at his command, the potential for continued instability is high. You upset Grey Worm at your peril.

That principle – checks and balances – was set up in a three-part scheme by the Framers of the U.S. Constitution. The 3-way regime has served the country pretty well until 2016 when 2/3 of the checks fell into the hands of one party, and a criminal was placed in charge of the executive branch.  The balance was somewhat restored in 2018 but the Trump administration continues to undermine the Judicial Branch by nominating and approving, through its control of the Senate, judges who are ideologues and, in some cases, plainly lacking relevant experience and demonstrated judicial temperament.

We are, therefore, at a precipice, not unlike the one that the “council” in Game of Thrones faced. The sitting president has already begun to suggest that he may not respect the outcome of the 2020 election, so we may yet be looking to the leaders of the “force” component of government to decide whether we will continue to be democracy or something else. The result may turn on a Grey Worm yet again. Our fate will then depend on his being as sensible as the “real” Grey Worm.

Branding Mysteries at Amazon

In a brief break from politics, I came across this gem a while back:

After reading “About the product,” My first reaction was “great, an increase of 4X in the power of my dishwasher detergent. That’s an impressive 67% increase in strength.” Then, I read the second sentence, “The product itself remains the same.”

What? The 10X product is “the same” as the previous 6X product – and you may receive either one, no matter what you ordered?? And it’s actually “4X concentrated????” But, but, I thought it was at least 6X and might be 10X but now it’s only 4X? Is the 4X the same product as the 6X and the 10X???????

What is going on here? Is this Artificial Intelligence at work in Amazon? At Cascade?

Does no one proof read this stuff before it’s put on the website? Is the description really true and there is no difference between 4X, 6X and 10X? On what planet is this mathematics in use? Am I the only one who reads “About the product” on Amazon?

Since some time had passed since my discovery, I returned to Amazon.com to search again for Cascade ActionPacs Dishwasher Detergent and discovered that the “Xs” have been removed from all the “About the product” descriptions. The site seems to be pushing Cascade Complete, Cascade Platinum and Cascade Pure Essentials. Oh, and Platinum Plus which shows “16X” on the package, though not in the “About this product.” 16X. Imagine that. In case you’re wondering, that is 1X greater than the 15X shown on some packages of just plain Cascade Platinum.

You should also be aware that Cascade Complete has earned the Good Housekeeping Seal, according to “About the product.”

And you’ll no doubt want to know that Cascade Platinum is “Tougher on Burnt-On Messes.” Tougher than what is not indicated, but I’m sure it’s tougher than, say, loose and crumbly messes. AND, it’s “Tougher than 24-hour stuck-on messes,” which, I assume (never assume) is even worse than “Burnt-on Messes.”

Two final observations from the Amazon website (I am not making this up):

“Safety Warning

IRRITANT. HARMFUL IF SWALLOWED OR PUT IN MOUTH. MAY IRRITATE EYES OR SKIN. KEEP OUT OF REACH OF CHILDREN. DO NOT GET IN EYES. DO NOT GET ON SKIN OR CLOTHING. KEEP OUT OF REACH OF CHILDREN. FIRST AID TREATMENT: Contains sodium carbonate, nonionic surfactants, sodium silicate and enzymes. If swallowed, give a glassful of water and call a Poison Control Center or doctor immediately. Do not induce vomiting. If in eyes, rinse with water for 15 minutes. If on skin, rinse well with water.

Legal Disclaimer

Statements regarding dietary supplements have not been evaluated by the FDA and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease or health condition.”

One other “final” observation (if Amazon/Cascade can say 6X and 10X are the same thing, I can fudge on “final”: I looked at the always fascinating “Customer questions and answers” for Cascade Platinum 15X. I have edited these items to protect the identity of people who, for whatever reason, identified themselves. This is a tiny sample of the 50 questions/answers posted for this one product. These items speak for themselves so loudly that I will just leave them here for your edification, though in a few cases, I have been compelled to comment.

Do you have to use salt with this product?

“No pepper is required either! It comes pre-seasoned!”
….

“No “
….

“I have really hard water so I have to have salt in my water softener or else I still have hard water spots on my dishes with these pods. So, I think that would depend on how hard your water is.”

“Never have”

How do you decide which strength of pod to get? Eg 15x vs 12x vs 10x. Why would you not just get the most powerful one?

“I agree. Just get the most powerful one.”
….

“I have tried them all and 15x which is platinum is the best.”

I know the 16x power works great with the hard water here in Texas, would the 15x power be just as effective?

“We have hard water in AZ as well. I have never used the 16X but the 15X is the best that I have purchased. Beats Finish pods by a long shot.”

Can someone will this work with a automatic dishwasher? Thank you

“Works great! And smells good too!”
….

“ABSOLUTELY! I only use in in my dishwasher. And it does a fine job.”
….

“That is what the product is made for”

“That is exactly what it is made for.”

Can It Be Used In Washing Machine?

“Why would anyone want to use dish wash in a cloths washing machine?”

How many pods in the 2 boxes option?

“Seriously?!?”

….

“Same count as one box”

Do you peel off the outside clear layer on the pod?

“It’s was good”  [Best of 6 answers to this question]

Are the pods individually wrapped? Or, can you take the pod directly from the box it comes in and place in dishwasher?

[There were 8 answers to this question. I love how people like to help each other. But, seriously, some people should not be allowed near machinery]

Do the bucket come with it and wut size. I dont need the pods just the bucket

Best of 4 answers:

“The bucket does come with but it is a small bucket. like 7 in height X 6 in width if I had to guess”

[It’s hard to please everyone. The very next question was from someone who didn’t want the bucket: “Is there a product refill with less packaging? I would adore a 62-pod refill pack for my current “tub” with less packaging.” If only those two could get together. A match made in … Amazon]

How does this taste, compared to Tide pod orange & blue flavor?

“G F Y”

Trump’s Presidency – the Real Game of Thrones

I have just read that the Trump administration has refused to sign an international agreement involving New Zealand, France and the top social media companies headquartered in the United State that would combat online extremism. The cited objection: the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. While mouthing its general agreement that online extremism is a serious problem, the Trump administration suddenly is concerned that policies designed to more aggressively strike at the use of online platforms to promote extremist and violent behavior will conflict with freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment.

This comes from the same president who, in the wake of the white supremacist/neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville declared there were “good people on both sides.” The same president who has declined multiple opportunities to take aggressive positions against extremist right-wing activities. The same president who ignores the all-too-frequent episodes of white assassins slaughtering children in schools and Muslims in their churches while jumping at every chance to complain that an immigrant person of color was involved in some crime.

This from the same president who has, dozens, if not more, times described the media as the “enemy of the people.”

So much for Trump’s concerns about the First Amendment. The truth is that Donald Trump supports online extremism from the racist right-wing white male cohort that produces most of it and that supports him no matter what he says or does. Trump cares nothing about the First Amendment except for its utility as a whipping boy when members of the free press speak negatively about him.

In this, as in most other things, Trump is a lying traitor to the United States.

Think that’s too strong? I have also just read that Trump’s attorneys have argued in litigation challenging a subpoena from the House Oversight and Reform Committee for Trump financial records. Trump’s attorneys maintain that Congress may not investigate the president regarding violations of the law, but only about matters that have a “legitimate legislative purpose.” That position expressly bars Congress from looking into whether the president was personally financially involved in a conflict of interest arising out of a particular piece of legislation.

The ironies of these arguments are almost too glaring to comprehend. There is no question that Congress has the power to bring impeachment proceedings against a sitting president for “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” The president’s lawyers seem to argue that, despite the wording, the impeachment clause refers to something other than “law enforcement.” That position is not only contrary to the Constitutional language, the principle of separation of powers and plain common sense, it also sets up the president as a person who can, with impunity, violate the law, violate his oath of office, and, generally, act like a king, above reproach, immune to sanction, free to act as he wants without restraint.

There is one irreducible fact about the U.S. Constitution that no amount of legal legerdemain can overcome: the Framers of the Constitution intended to preclude the assumption of kingly powers by the future chief executive of the government under Article II. Trump’s lawyers appear to have forgotten the reasons the War of Independence was fought. It is also commonly called the Revolutionary War — it was a revolution against the tyranny of the English crown, the claimed right of the King of England to treat American colonists however he wanted, above reproach, immune to sanction, free to act as he wanted without restraint.

Trump is now also hinting that he may not respect the outcome of the election that will consider his replacement in 2020. It is only a short step from that position to a claim that he doesn’t actually have to stand for re-election at all, that he can simply suspend the “rigged” election and remain in office as long as he wants.

If that is where Trump and his enablers in the Republican Party are headed, I then suggest, in all seriousness, that we will have a second American Revolution that will remove him from office one way or the other way. If it comes to that, his promoters like Senator Lindsey Graham will face a similar fate. This is the same Senator Lindsey Graham who, in February 2016, stated in public that Donald Trump was a “kook” and “crazy“ and not fit for office,” among many similar statements. It’s all on video: https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/tomnamako/kook Now Graham is Trump’s most ardent supporter but he has nowhere to hide from his treachery. Nothing about Trump has changed for the better since Graham accurately described him in 2016. Graham, like Trump, is unprincipled and apparently willing to say and do anything to keep Trump, and himself, in power.

It is hard to imagine that the courts will sustain Trump’s argument that he is above the reach of law, but anything is possible. Everyone must pay close attention to what may seem like peripheral legal squabbling but is in truth laying the groundwork for a repudiation of the Constitution.

Journalism and Democracy

I have just finished Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now by Alan Rusbridger.

Based on the title, you might think this book is all about Donald Trump and his attempt to sell the idea that the press is the “enemy of the people.” While the Trump menace to freedom of the press is mentioned, the book is not mainly about that. It’s about the process by which The Guardian, one of the UK’s most storied newspapers, has navigated, with varying success, the rocky path from the traditional ways of journalism to the world brought about by the internet and the digital globalization of information.

Rusbridger is not a household name in the United States like, perhaps, Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post. Rusbridger was editor-in-chief of The Guardian from 1995 to 2015, the seminal period during which the digital challenge to top-down journalism manifested and ran roughshod over traditional ways of delivering the “news.” He is, among other things, a hell of a great writer and a compelling storyteller who confesses throughout that he was usually at a loss to know what to do to save The Guardian from financial destruction and from loss of its moral compass.

Rusbridger’s book is a remarkable explanation of the transition from a news operation funded by a trust, but still dependent upon advertising revenues for survival, to a multi-element news machine adapting to the digital age. Some of the financial details may challenge your interest, but the overall story line is as powerful as anything in great fiction. But, of course, it’s not fiction, not fake news, but truth.

Along the way, Rusbridger explores the meaning of “news” in a digital world, how news is discovered, vetted for importance and interest, and delivered to a global audience still interested in “truth” mediated by trusted investigators, writers, editors and publishers. He narrates the stories of Wikileaks (Julian Assange) and Edward Snowden and the issues their pilfered documents raised about what was responsible to publish, how governments attempted to prevent publication and much else. Readers from my generation will, of course, remember Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers, the New York Times and the ultimate victory in court that enabled the world to understand how the United States government had misled the people about the Vietnam War. Even then, the Nixon administration tried to imprison Neal Sheehan under the Espionage Act for his journalism in breaking the story.

The struggle over the Snowden documents was no less dramatic with the special twist – something I did not know – that the United Kingdom has no equivalent to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing freedom of the press. In the UK publishers, editors and even individual journalists are subject to lawsuits by “offended” parties, including giant corporations, who object to unfavorable news being published about them. Even members of Parliament and the British government itself were ominously threatening to punish difficult publish/don’t publish decisions about matters to which they took serious umbrage. Editors could go to jail for publishing the “wrong stories.”

Early in the book, Rusbridger discusses the period during which UK competitors of The Guardian began to dumb down their news to attract eyes, with considerable success and adverse effects on more traditional news organization that continued to publish in the old style. The conflict is described as “an ongoing concern for complexity, facts and nuance versus a drift towards impact, opinion and simplicity.” [Breaking News at 91] In ruminating about the divergent paths before them, Rusbridger raises question to which no ready answers existed at the time or even now [Id. at 92-93]

“What … should a news organization do, faced with legions of apathetic readers?

Did we have any kind of responsibility to tell our readers things they might not think they wanted to know?

Would a move to less complexity end up reinforcing a pattern of ignorance, or carelessness about things that ultimately do matter to us all? … Most of public life was not faithfully representable in either black or white. Somebody – surely – had the duty to paint in the greys.

Fast-forwarding to the second decade of this century, Rusbridger observes that “an ever-more polarized public – favouring either black or white answers to complicated problems – had lost either interest or trust in a world of greys.”

Another interesting observation lies in the discussion of the “long tail” of news. In traditional newspaper journalism, the story was developed during the day, published late and delivered for morning consumption. The story was effectively “over” until at least the next day’s paper was distributed. In the digital world of social media, however, “a story had a life independent of the news organization which created it.” Breaking News at 157. The story “was now a living thing – being shared, critiqued, rubbished, celebrated, clarified, responded to, rendered irrelevant, added to, challenged – maybe all of the above – while [the reporter] was trying to take a well-earned break.”

The battle that ensued after The Guardian published some of Snowden’s documents led many UK papers to line up against The Guardian. Rusbridger listed a series of legal challenges over the years to newspapers’ publication of controversial material, almost always sustained by the courts. Rusbridger:

“Journalists may often make wrong  decisions – but the assumption has to be that newspapers are free to make those wrong decisions and, if necessary, be held responsible afterwards. It was so strange to see writers and editors in 2013 willing to concede this principle when judges had, in general, been so much more robust in their defence of the press.” [Breaking News 321]

The attacks on The Guardian will look familiar to anyone paying attention to the rhetoric of Donald Trump who, in his paranoid desperation to deflect criticism, has labeled the press the “enemy of the people.” Rusbridger discusses that and the issue of “fake news” at length in the Epilogue to the book. Of course, his views will be of no interest to people who have forfeited their ability to think in favor of abject adoration of everything Trump. For the rest, though, whom I still believe to be the majority, the centrality of a free press to the survival of democracy will resonate. The current challenge to genuine journalism is deadly serious, one among many such threats that now arise from the kleptocracy that Trump and his family, with full support of the Republican Party, seeks to establish in the United States.

The story of The Guardian is our story as well and should be read by everyone who cares about the survival of democracy and personal freedom in America.