Category Archives: Uncategorized

Past the Point of No Return

The New York Times just published a “guest opinion” piece by J. Michael Luttig, a former judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit and an advisor to Republican senators. https://nyti.ms/3HS9cjT

The article is entitled, The Conservative Case for Avoiding a Repeat of Jan. 6. That language suggested to me that the argument would be that we should just accept the Big Lie that the last election was stolen, accept massive voter suppression legislation around the country in red states and, as a democracy, roll over and not only play dead but be dead. My second reaction was, over my dead body.

Turns out, I was overreacting. My first impression of the topic was wrong. Moral: always read the story before falling for the headline. So, I did.

Luttig, to be sure, is a learned man, shaped in the higher echelons of Republican politics and the judiciary during the halcyon days of the Reagan and G.W. Bush administrations. I say “halcyon” because this was the time when the Republican Party still purported, at least, to stand for something. Luttig eventually resigned from the Court of Appeals to become Boeing’s General Counsel with a reported pay raise of more than $2.5 million. https://bit.ly/3Jvs88e Pretty good for a boy from Tyler, Texas.

I mention all that because, as is often true, challenging someone of his standing and accomplishment can be … challenging. But what are they going to do? I don’t practice law anymore and I do love a challenge. So, let’s look at Luttig’s latest thoughts on the all-important subject of avoiding another violent attack on the government and the Constitution.

To his credit, Luttig recognizes that Trump and his Republican devotees represent a “clear and present danger” to our democracy. Noting issues with the language of the 1887 (yes, over 120 years ago) Electoral Count Act, he further acknowledges that the efforts of Senators Hawley and Cruz to overturn the election were based on “little more than a wish” and notes that Trump has confessed to his perfidy, both past and looking forward.

Trump’s continued promotion of the Big Lie has never been an issue. As president he stated he could do “whatever I want” and he still thinks that. Here’s where things get sticky for Judge Luttig.

Referring to the mythical remnants of the Republican Party after deducting Trump fantasists, Luttig says they are “mystifyingly stymied by Mr. Trump” and while they allegedly reject his lies about 2020,

they are confused as to exactly how to move on from the 2020 election when their putative leader remains bewilderingly intent on driving the wedge between the believers in his lies and the disbelievers.

This political fissure in the Republican Party was bound to intensify sooner or later, and now it has, presenting an existential threat to the party in 2024. If these festering divisions cost the Republicans in the midterm elections and jeopardize their chances of reclaiming the presidency in 2024, which they well could, the believers and disbelievers alike will suffer.

In moving with such facility from “clear and present danger to democracy” to concern about the “existential threat to the {Republican] party,” the Judge reveals his true goal is to right the listing Republican ship and enhance its political fortunes, notwithstanding its hypnotic devotion to Trump. If so, his argument has little or nothing to do with protecting the country from the collapse of democracy.

Luttig’s argument is another variation of “can’t we all just get along?”

the right course is for both parties to set aside their partisan interests and reform the Electoral Count Act, which ought not be a partisan undertaking.

“Ought not,” indeed. My, oh my, what a wonderful world it could be.

Luttig completes the fantasy analysis by assigning mutually reinforcing goals to the two parties. This is a standard tenet of books and courses on negotiating for “mutual gain.” Democrats, Luttig imagines should want to reform the Electoral Count Act to protect democracy which he admits is failing.  This, he speculates, would “prevent another attack like the one at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.” The logic of that premise-conclusion escapes me. As Peter Navarro has insisted, the aim of the January 6 mob was to force the election into the hands of the states, where the Republican majority would install Trump. They didn’t really care what the law said or what power Vice President Pence actually had under the law.

The mutual gain in Luttig’s conception is that “Republicans should want to reform the law for these same reasons, and more.”  Uh huh. He asserts that, while Trump and Trumpers won’t join, “there are consequential reasons of constitutional and political principle for the large remainder of Republicans to favor reform in spite of the former president’s opposition.”

“Consequential reasons of constitutional and political principle” —  got it. I am rolling on the floor LMAO. Except it’s not funny. Luttig’s thesis, right out of the old and long-ago discarded Book of Republican Orthodoxy, is that,

Republicans are proponents of limited federal government. They oppose aggregation of power in Washington and want it dispersed to the states. It should be anathema to them that Congress has the power to overturn the will of the American people in an election that, by constitutional prescription, is administered by the states, not Washington. If the Democrats are willing to divest themselves of the power to decide the presidency that the 49th Congress wrongly assumed 135 years ago, then it would be the height of political hypocrisy for the Republicans to refuse to divest theirs.

Well, now, isn’t that wonderful. Republicans favor limited federal government. Unless, of course, their state gets hit by a big hurricane or flood. Then they are more than happy to line up for federal money and manpower. Actually, I had understood that Republican orthodoxy was opposed to big government everywhere, but that idea was trashed in Texas recently. Republicans are perfectly fine with big government telling people what to do and not do, as long as it aligns with their religious or so-called freedom and family values.

Putting aside Luttig’s phantasmagorical search for coherence in Republican political doctrine (it being the party that advanced no platform in 2020), he next argues that Republicans should want reform of the Electoral Count Act because it is blatantly unconstitutional.”

Trump acolytes like Mr. Cruz and Mr. Hawley should appreciate the need to reform this unconstitutional law.

… no Republican should want to be an accessory to any successful attempt to overturn the next election — including an effort by Democrats to exploit the law.

Did you catch that unsubtle attempt to both-sides the question? He goes on to suggest that it’s the Democrats that may abuse the ECA in 2024 and thus Republicans should support a statutory redo to prevent that heinous outcome.

Someone please make him stop. Cruz and Hawley caring about the constitution? Seriously?

Luttig argues that reform should include giving federal, yes, federal, courts the power to resolve disputes over state electors and to ensure compliance. Right. Remember Gore and Bush?  And recall that the courts do not have command of the means to enforce anything. That power largely, if not entirely in practice, resides in the Executive Branch.

There are other details to Luttig’s proposals, but, frankly, madam, I don’t give a damn. The Republicans are so dug in on resisting any and every action supported by Democrats that the debate over electoral count reform could last decades. All the while Trump would be whining that he was cheated and his lunatic fringe supporters would continue attacking state capitols and Congress … unless and until the leaders of these fascist efforts are indicted, arrested, tried, and imprisoned.

Recall that the Republican Party has, among other things, embraced many of the conspiracy theories of QAnon, failed to discipline members like Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene, supported a president who lied and dissembled about a deadly virus that has now killed more than 915,000 Americans and maimed countless more, and twice refused to convict on impeachment in the face of overwhelming evidence of guilt. These people are not going to do anything to help the country resist the fascism they regularly promote.

If Luttig is right that “the future of our democracy depends on reform of the Electoral Count Act” that was enacted in 1887, we are in more trouble than rewriting an obscure statute can fix. It’s fine to say that “Republicans and Democrats need to put aside their partisan differences long enough to fix this law.” Fine indeed, but such proposals will have no credibility as long as the planners/leaders/major perpetrators of January 6 walk free. Senators Manchin and Sinema have put the last nail in the myth of bipartisanship.

And that’s the one point that Luttig got right:

the only members in Congress who might not want to reform this menacing law are those planning its imminent exploitation to overturn the next presidential election.

If you remain in doubt as to who they are, their names may be found here, https://bit.ly/3gPVNwM, in the updated Congressional Hall of Dishonor

In closing, let me repeat: no statutory language changes are going to protect our democracy from elected and unelected officials who have no respect for law or oaths of office. The Republican Party has made clear beyond reasonable doubt that it is committed to obtaining and keeping power permanently by whatever means are necessary. If it were otherwise, it would have formally repudiated the lying traitor Donald Trump. Instead, it has embraced him as its leader. Just ask Lindsey Graham.

People who believe in the American democracy, however flawed it may be, had better remain alert to the danger and act/vote accordingly. Don’t be distracted by appeals to bipartisanship and unity, however (or not) well-intended. We’re well past the point of no return.

It’s the Same Old South?

Déjà vu all over again. The ink is barely dry on the conviction papers of the three men who chased and killed Ahmaud Arbery when two more white men repeat almost exactly the same behavior in Mississippi. White father and son charged for chasing and shooting at Black FedEx driver https://cnn.it/3BeEKO6 The only saving grace here is that the Fed Ex delivery man was not physically injured. Both he and the people in the neighborhood who were at risk of being hit by errant bullets escaped with their lives. Also, the other drivers on the interstate highway where the two white men chased their intended victim.

I acknowledge that I don’t know why Federal Express would have a rented but unmarked van in service for delivery of packages, but it doesn’t matter in the end. According to the reporting, the delivery man, D’Monterrio Gibson, was wearing a FedEx jacket, shirt and pants.

But let’s suppose he was somehow behaving in a “suspicious manner” which is one of those eye-of-the-beholder things. One man’s suspicious behavior is another’s harmless curiosity. But let’s suppose that in the process of delivering packages, Mr. Gibson was lingering a bit at some homes. Maybe his attention was caught by something or other. Let’s further suppose that Mr. Gibson’s “suspicious manner” was observed by the father-son team who shot at him and chased him.

The assailants had one and only one course of action: call the police. If it appeared that the “suspicious” delivery man was about to depart the neighborhood, the only course of action was to record the license plate, take photos is possible and await arrival of the police. In the most extreme circumstance such as an observed kidnapping, which does not appear to be true here, they might be justified in following at a safe distance and staying in touch with 911 dispatch to help the police catch up.

Given the reported circumstances, there was no basis for the assailants to chase and shoot at Mr. Gibson. And, while we’re on this, do Gregory and Brandon Case normally sit around during the day with guns at the ready?

The resemblance of this situation to the murder of Ahmaud Arbery is so obvious I am loathe to point it out.

There are other similarities too.

I wrote about some of the disturbing early developments in the handling of the Arbery case arrests and prosecutions. https://bit.ly/3HRlEAs  According to initial reports, many of the same procedures are occurring here: delays in arrests, failure to charge the most obvious and serious crimes. That said, it is entirely possible yet that the Case boys will see their charges upgraded to at least attempted murder.

It seems to me that two forces, at least, are at work here. One, certainly, is the apparent belief among some white men in the South that they are entitled to use deadly force against anyone they deem “suspicious,” serving, in effect, as self-appointed police making what are euphemistically called “citizens arrests.” The second force, all too obvious, is that white men in these places, mostly though not entirely in the South, are all too ready to take matters into their own hands, use violence against unarmed Black men on the thinnest of pretexts. On the face of it, noting here that it is early days in this case, there is little to distinguish this from lynching in old style.

According to the reports, the charges against the Case men were (1) Brandon Case: “feloniously attempting to cause bodily injury with a firearm and a deadly weapon by shooting at an occupied vehicle with Gibson inside.” Presumably a reference to Mississippi Code Title 97. Crimes § 97-3-7:

(2)(a) A person is guilty of aggravated assault if he (i) attempts to cause serious bodily injury to another, or causes such injury purposely, knowingly or recklessly under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life;  (ii) attempts to cause or purposely or knowingly causes bodily injury to another with a deadly weapon or other means likely to produce death or serious bodily harm.  [emphasis added]

Conviction under that section is “imprisonment in the county jail for not more than one (1) year or in the Penitentiary for not more than twenty (20) years.” That curious wording appears to give the sentencing judge massive discretion on where to send a convicted felon and for how long.

The father, Gregory Case, is charged with “unlawfully and feloniously conspiring with Brandon Case to commit aggravated assault by attempting to cause bodily injury.” Under the law, conspiracy can be proved by conduct and does not require proof of an overt or explicit agreement.

The assertion of “aggravation” in relation to the assault is important here because, while “simple assault” in Mississippi is defined this way,

(1)(a) A person is guilty of simple assault if he (i) attempts to cause or purposely, knowingly or recklessly causes bodily injury to another;  (ii) negligently causes bodily injury to another with a deadly weapon or other means likely to produce death or serious bodily harm;  or (iii) attempts by physical menace to put another in fear of imminent serious bodily harm

It is punishable only by a fine ($500.00) or by imprisonment in the county jail for not more than six (6) months, or both.

The charges seem correct as far as they go. Time will tell on that. It is concerning, however, thatBrandon Case’s bond was $150,000 and Gregory’s Case’s bond was $75,000. Those seem very light considering that a deadly weapon was involved and that Gibson and people in surrounding homes and vehicles were put at risk by the Cases’ actions (still alleged, of course, and innocent until proven guilty). Also disturbing is Mr. Gibson’s assertion that when he visited the police station the morning after the incident, the police there did not take his claim seriously and, among other things, implied that the incident might have been caused by his own behavior.

I repeat that nothing about this story, so far, indicates or suggests that Mr. Gibson did anything that would warrant his being chased and shot at. It is hard to imagine what circumstances that could have been.

Adding to concerns about the handling of the case is the fact that the perpetrators weren’t arrested for eight days and then only after they came to the station for an interview. The Police Chief said, “investigations take time” and no doubt they do. The Gibson case was likely not the only serious problem the Brookhaven police had on the blotter for the day. However, it involved gunfire and that should have led, one would think, to bringing the suspects in immediately.

Finally, it’s more than a little disturbing that, the day after the attack, FedEx assigned Mr. Gibson the same route. Using the usual cliches that companies almost always use in such circumstances, FedEx’s statement said it “takes situations of this nature very seriously” and that it was “shocked” by the attack. Because, you know “the safety of our team members is our top priority.” Surely someone at FedEx could come up with something more original than those canned statements. And what’s with “leave without pay” in these extraordinary circumstances? FedEx has plenty of resources with which to do better for its employees.

In any case, as noted, it’s early days. The similarities to the Arbery case are stunning and reminiscent of a South many of us had, foolishly, thought was over. The “wild west” character of these incidents is a stark reminder of how far we have yet to go in creating a civilized society that treats all people as worthy of respect until proven otherwise. We will no doubt hear a lot going forward about the legal principle of “innocent until proven guilty.” Fine, but the question remains why the Cases did not apply that principle to Mr. Gibson. Why, indeed.

The Cat is Out of the Bag

When it was revealed that General and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, had intervened in anticipation that Trump might use the military to keep himself in office, strong backlash was heard from some in the military, present and former. They appeared to believe that it was wrong for Milley to move independently of the president who was his commander-in-chief, regardless of his fears that Trump might act to subvert the election with military force or start a nuclear conflict and declare martial law.

That position was, I thought at the time, unbelievably short-sighted and mindless. Accepting that chain-of-command is important, I thought, and still believe, that General Milley is an American hero for seeing a fundamental danger to the country and acting to prevent it.

Now come three other generals (retired) arguing that “The military must prepare now for a 2024 insurrection.” https://wapo.st/3e8J6vH “We are chilled to our bones at the thought of a coup succeeding next time.”

I am too, and so should you be. We are facing the most serious threat to our democracy since the Civil War.

The case made by the generals is compelling:

  • Many of the insurrectionist mob on January 6 were veterans or, even more remarkable, active-duty military;
  • The commander of the Oklahoma National Guard refused to compel COVID vaccination of his Guard members because the Governor of the state said he should not follow the President’s directive;
  • “The potential for a total breakdown of the chain of command along partisan lines … is significant should another insurrection occur. The idea of rogue units organizing among themselves to support the “rightful” commander in chief cannot be dismissed;”
  • The real possibility exists that state Guard units will follow their political preferences if their candidate loses the next election;
  • Access to state arms repositories might be loosened to aid insurrectionists prepared to do battle;
  • Often ignored, the distraction of a violent domestic conflict over the election with a divided military would make the U.S. vulnerable to attack by international enemies;
  • We have passed the stage of mere strong political disagreement and must urgently prepare for worst-case scenarios, by, among other things, holding the leaders of January 6 to full accountability for their actions;

The generals who have spoken out about the danger have made several compelling proposals for preventive measures:

  • An immediate civics review for all uniformed and civilian military regarding the Constitution they have sworn to uphold and on the subject of election integrity, the laws of war and how to deal with illegal orders;
  • Re-inform members about the “unity of command,” so there is no question about who is in command;
  • “identify, isolate and remove potential mutineers” and “propagandists who use misinformation to subvert the chain of command.”
  • war-game the next potential post-election coup attempt to identify weak spots, debrief the findings and act to prevent breakdowns in the military and in connected civilian agencies.

A major step in support of this pro-democracy agenda involves the military and Department of Justice acting aggressively and urgently to hold accountable those who participated in and/or led and/or conspired to induce the attack on the Capitol. Regardless of what led people to involve themselves in what was a blatantly and unquestionably unlawful assault on the government, minds are not going to be changed any time soon.

The remedy for now is to make clear that the penalties for such conduct will be administered severely and promptly. Military who participated should be expelled from the service. They have no excuse for violating their oaths of loyalty to the Constitution. Similarly, the January 6 House Select Committee must adopt a sense of urgency and work continuously until its mission is completed.

Simultaneously, the Department of Justice must, with equal urgency, complete its investigations and indict the leaders in Congress and the former White House (and associated advisors) and elsewhere who participated in, conspired to incite or aided-and-abetted the January 6 assault. It should not take a week or more to hold in contempt individuals who refuse to comply with subpoenas or who falsely claim the Fifth Amendment while simultaneously proclaiming their innocence and make false accusations about the process.

Among the other obvious dangers here is that these investigations will drag on, the TrumpPublican Party will regain full control of the Congress (not dependent on the cooperation of people like putative Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin) and activity to investigate and hold accountable will be halted. If that happens, you can kiss our democratic republic goodbye, perhaps for good. The authoritarian goals of the TrumpPublicans are to entrench their power permanently. Democracy is at stake. Time is running out. Politics as usual is not good enough. If we do not act in the face of the threat, we will deserve what we get.

Not Dead Yet

This is a bit delayed but it’s never too late to show life standing up to the ravages of time and other deadly forces. In this post we cover recent visits to two local parks where signs of life remain despite the imminence of winter. Temperatures in the DC area have varied dramatically and there have been some very cold nights. Still …. see for yourself. Plants still live. Ducks are still around. And, of course, the beavers never stop. Neither do the people who tend to these places.

Huntley Meadows

Mason Neck

Mason Neck State Park is also the Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge, though at this time of year the wildlife is sparse, or at least hard to spot. Nevertheless, we saw lots of woodpeckers although they were too small and flittish to photograph. Here is a sample of that walk on the roughly one-mile Bayview Trail. You will see that the beavers have been at work there as well. The squirrel appeared out of nowhere and scaled the tree in seconds, only to freeze, as they do, when he realized I was watching. He did not flinch for several minutes as I waited for a better photo angle. The duck blind was empty which may explain the casual attitude of the ducks and geese on the water.

Happy sunsets!

Touring the Refuges (Wildlife)

Needing a break from the … everything … and having our planned Hawaii trip postponed thanks to raging COVID, we decided to fulfill one of my long-time goals – visiting the wonderfully named Great Dismal Swamp – and see a few of the many other wildlife refuges in the general neighborhood of the GDS. Virginia Beach would be our base of operations.

Note: if you believe we’re still in the midst of a pandemic (hint: we absolutely are), don’t go to Virginia Beach, Norfolk or anywhere in the vicinity. Almost no one wears a mask in any situation. Also, the Hilton Hotel, and likely others in the area, was having major staffing issues with an apparent inability to fulfill many commitments (they did reduce our bill). On the other hand, do visit Katie’s 33rd Street Café on the boardwalk for breakfast. Outstanding.

Here is breakfast at Katie’s and the outdoor seating area early on a Sunday:

Eastern Shore of Virginia Wildlife Refuge

Visited on the way down, a fortunate decision since there was relatively little to see. This refuge comprises 1,127-acres in Northampton County at the southern end of the Eastern Shore and near the tip of the Delmarva Peninsula. You can skip it without missing much.

Great Dismal Swamp

As stated above, I have wanted to visit this place for years. Much of the Swamp is actually in North Carolina. Back in 2008 an unplanned fire started in the GDS as a result of logging operations and burned 4,884 acres over 121 days. Another fire was started in some of the remains in 2011. That fire covered more than 2,000 acres. We happened to be driving down I-95 at the time and recall that the road was engulfed in chocking acrid smoke for many miles. https://www.fws.gov/fire/news/va/southone_final.shtml

The Great Dismal Swamp is well-named. While there are some boardwalks to permit easy access to some of the interior, the view into the Swamp is imposing. The vegetation, alive and dead, appears to the eye as a tangled impenetrable web of many dead plants. Lots of vines and eerie-looking live things.

One of the most interesting elements of GDS is Lake Drummond, reachable on a hard-pack 6-mile road, a slow but surprisingly easy drive. Lake Drummond is unusual for several reasons. It is underlain by peat, giving the water a spooky dark look. When we were there, there was nary a ripple on the surface.

Birdsong Peanuts

After leaving the Swamp, we were startled to see a large “factory” in this place (Suffolk) and stopped briefly for a look. It was in fact a “shelling” facility. The explanation from the company:

Birdsong buys carefully selected peanuts directly from the farmers’ fields. They are then cleaned, shelled, sized and shipped in truckload lots to manufacturers who turn them into many popular food items, from peanut butter to peanut M&M’s. If you eat products made from American peanuts, chances are you’ve consumed peanuts from Birdsong.

Birdsong serves our customers from six shelling plants strategically located throughout the peanut growing area. The plants are supported by over 85 buying points and enough warehouses to store 2.4 billion pounds of Farmers Stock in the shell. We also have enough cold storage, usually ranging from 38° to 42°F, to keep 250 million pounds of shelled peanuts in a controlled environment for our manufacturer customers. [https://www.birdsongpeanuts.com/locations]

Imagine that: 2.4 billion pounds of peanuts.

Back Bay & False Cape

Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge

Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge was established on June 6, 1938 as a 4,589-acre refuge to provide feeding and resting habitat for migratory birds. It is a critical segment in the Atlantic Flyway. As the metropolitan area of Virginia Beach began to grow in the 1980’s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pursued a land acquisition program to double the size of Back Bay NWR [to over 9,250 acres] in order to protect the watershed from harmful development.

Back Bay NWR includes a thin strip of barrier island coastline typical of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, as well as upland areas on the west bank of Back Bay. Habitats include beach, dunes, woodlands, agricultural fields, and emergent freshwater marshes. The majority of refuge marshes are on islands within the waters of Back Bay.

Thousands of tundra swans, snow and Canada geese and a large variety of ducks visit the refuge during the fall/winter migration. Refuge waterfowl populations usually peak during December and January. [we missed this]

False Cape State Park, comprised of 3,844 acres, sits between Back Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, The Park is one of the last remaining undeveloped areas along the Atlantic coast.

False Cape is unusual in that the park is accessible only by foot, bicycle, tram or boat. Public vehicular access is not allowed at any time.

False Cape features guided kayak trips, primitive camping, interpretive programs, hiking and biking trails, and 6 miles of pristine Atlantic Ocean beach.

The beach extends all the way to North Carolina.

The park operates a tram that leaves from the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge from April 1 through October 31. The tram runs through the Park’s Barbour Hill area and Wash Woods historic site. Most of the photos that follow were taken from the tram.

First Landing

First Landing is also a Virginia State Park consisting of 2,888 acres. https://bit.ly/3r8zvNg

The Park’s name derives from its remarkable history:

The park is where English colonists first landed in 1607. Native American canoes, Colonial settlers, 20th-century schooners and modern cargo ships have navigated the park’s waterways. Its cypress swamps were a source of fresh water for merchant mariners, pirates and military ships during the War of 1812. Legend has it that Blackbeard hid in the Narrows area of the park, and interior waterways were used by Union and Confederate patrols during the Civil War. Built in part by an all African-American Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933-1940, the park is a National Natural Landmark and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

We were surprised that First Landing is Virginia’s most-visited state park, partly because it’s within the boundary of urban Virginia Beach. Despite the ease of access, the park sports 20 miles of trails and 1.5 miles of Chesapeake Bay beach frontage. It includes bald cypress swamps, lagoons and maritime forest, as well as rare plants and wildlife. It even offers cabins and yurts for overnights.

The Park website has this note:

The park is located beside a military training center that operates year-round in any weather at any time of day or night. Park guests may experience unusual sights and loudness. Nighttime training may last even beyond midnight. The activities pose no risk to park guests.

We did not notice this while at the Park, but it was different story in Virginia Beach proper. More on that shortly.

Norfolk Botanical Garden

The last major stop on our tour, these gardens, in many ways, turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip. The gardens are vast, with a huge variety of plants, many stunning flower plots, a nice tram ride around the major elements and generally a carefully planned and well-tended diverse display of plant life and some other features we did not expect.

The sculptures are made of materials dredged from the ocean, evidence of the catastrophic impact that humans are having by allowing plastic to enter the water.

The pictures speak for themselves. We highly recommend this place if you’re in the area.

Ocean View Pier [Comic Relief]

As our touring wound down, we were more than a little hungry. We somewhat randomly ended up at the Ocean View Pier . It was, to say the least, an interesting place. The food was surprisingly good but be aware that they allow smoking on the top deck.  These photos also speak for themselves.

Virginia Beach

Our story cannot end without a closing comment or two about Virginia Beach.

I mentioned the warning at First Landing about the military base. At our hotel in Virginia Beach, we were periodically stunned into silence by the truly ear-splitting roar of jet fighters coming and going. They apparently needed to attain altitude as fast as possible, resulting in deafeningly loud jet blasts that overwhelmed every other sound. A bit unreal. Not sure how the locals can stand it, but they do.

We were also “treated” to a crazy storm that swept down the length of the beach our last evening. The photo does not do it justice. It led to an evening of torrential downpours, defeating our plan to eat dinner outside and, well, it’s not a good story.

Overall, we saw many interesting sights on this trip, not including Virginia Beach itself, which was largely deserted, especially at night. We recommend the parts of it noted above. There is nothing more to say about that.

Happy Thanksgiving.

The End.

 

 

Dear Mayor Bowser

I am inspired to publish this now because I received your News message of October 15 entitled Accelerating Roadway Safety Projects. You stated a planned “acceleration of roadway safety improvements across DC,” driven by a wave of “traffic violence.” One of the primary solutions was the reduction of the default speed limit to 20 mph, although you recognized that speed is not the only problem – it’s also “distracted driving or a refusal to share the road.” Indeed.

One of the major “solutions” proposed is your request to DDOT “to move forward with a campaign to accelerate the construction of roadway safety improvement projects that will better protect pedestrians. This includes the installation of speed humps, stop signs, and right turn hardening measures. Starting this week, and continuing annually, DDOT will target 100 intersections that are within the District’s high-crash, high-injury corridors.”

Before going further, I suggest that solving the “traffic violence” problem is not achievable by placing obstacles in the path of already frustrated drivers. Speed humps may slow a car temporarily but if they lead to rapid acceleration after driving over one, the purpose seems defeated. Similarly, stop signs work if drivers stop and look before proceeding. If not, they can create more of a hazard as people in a hurry run through them. This happens every day all over the city.

While it may appear otherwise initially, rest assured that I am on your side. You have a difficult job for reasons too well known to reiterate here. Take what I offer as a good faith effort to help. As background, I moved to the District in December 2020, following three years in New York City. Before that, I lived in Northern Virginia (Falls Church, Reston, Alexandria) beginning in 1967, so I am no stranger to this area.

It is useful to begin with consideration of some general principles. The government is essentially a joint effort, funded with community money, to establish some rules within which a civilized society can function safely and fairly. This includes rules designed to establish order in what would otherwise be a chaotic, every-person-for-himself madhouse with high risks for everyone. Without such rules, the situation would resemble the Tragedy of the Commons in which each person would act in a manner designed to benefit him alone even though the result is destruction of the common good and losses for everyone. Today, DC roads resemble the Tragedy of the Commons because gross and serious violations of the laws, rules-of-the-road and common sense are rampant.

To be clear, I am not referring to “law and order” in the Republican/Tea Party/right-wing sense of the term, nor do I want to live in a “police state.”  The goal is a regime that, with reasonable compliance, benefits everyone – drivers, bicyclists, pedestrians. Everyone enjoys the benefits of more order, smoother traffic flow, less stress and more safety. There is an irreducible minimum of order that must be maintained to prevent chaos and avoidable harms.  DC appears to be well beyond that threshold.

For context, most days I drive two roundtrips from the West End (Washington Circle area) to the east end of town (10th & K), using L Street and returning west on I Street. When the traffic is unusually slow on I Street, I often move up to K Street for the return leg. Total roundtrip distance is exactly 4.1 miles. What occurs around me almost every day borders on unbelievable but it’s all true. A very select example includes:

Just this morning, we were confronted by a car traveling the wrong way on a one-way street (11th Street NW). The driver just kept coming, veering away at the last minute and turning the corner behind us. He was either completely oblivious or determined to place himself and us at risk to avoid turning around and driving in the proper direction.

Later, as I sat waiting for the light to change at Pennsylvania and 25th Street NW, two people, at least in their 30s, walked across Pennsylvania in reliance on the “walk” sign that was clearly lit. A car headed east on Pennsylvania ran the red lights facing west, passing between the pedestrians. Apparently, neither of them was aware of the danger – each had his nose buried in a cell phone and never looked up as the car raced between them.

A white Range Rover on K Street going west abruptly moved into the right lane in front of me with no signal, then a few blocks later, drove through a red light, turned left in front of the cars in the left lane and continued down the cross street, thereby also illegally crossing the service road on the other side.

A red truck in Washington Circle stopped at a red light, then drove thru it.

A driver ran three red lights in rapid succession in Dupont Circle.

It is routine to encounter drivers on M Street in Georgetown going 40 mph and more with impunity.

Illegal parking during rush hours is rampant. By taking up what would be traffic lanes, these parkers restrict the driving space for cars, leading to congestion, anxiety and angry, reckless driving behavior. Many sections of L Street are down to one lane in many places due to rush hour parking on sections already narrowed by construction sites. Many days a week the van in the photo below is illegally parked during evening rush in front of 1100 L Street NW:

Speaking of narrowed streets, the decision to block the left lane of the L Street/20th Street corner with pylons while allowing parking along the right side has reduced L Street at that intersection to one lane.

The result is that many drivers are surprised to find the left lane blocked and struggle at the last moment to enter the traffic flow in the one remaining lane of traffic. Conflict!

Worse yet, the complexity of the pylon arrangement misleads many drivers who then make a left turn from the remaining traffic lane, crossing the bike lane and the actual left turn lane, defeating the purpose of the pylon arrangement to provide additional protection to bicyclists.

The apparent absence of law enforcement in the city has led to other dangerous practices:

Pedestrians routinely slow-walking through intersections with nose buried in can’t-wait-to-be- read cell phone messages

Scooters/motorcyclists/bicyclists lane-splitting among cars in traffic lanes, zigzagging among the cars to get ahead

Scooters suddenly flying off the sidewalk at intersections to enter traffic

Red-light violations everywhere – by cars, trucks and bicyclists – often without even showing down

Left turns on K Street across multiple traffic lanes to enter the service road going the opposite way, in effect a risky U-turn, causing much sudden lane shifting

Turning from the wrong lane, usually with no signal – failure to use turn signals is rampant everywhere

The city’s installation of bus-only lanes, sometimes changing every block or two, has created additional parking space for trucks and cars alike. Buses for which the lanes were intended are forced to veer into car traffic lanes to get back. There is no apparent enforcement.

The most egregious and often-repeated violations of good driving practices are (1) failing to use the turn signal to indicate lane-changes/turns on the streets and in the roundabouts, and (2) turning from the center lane in either direction across the actual turning lane. These happen every day on my short roundtrip.

Then there is the matter of noise. As noted, I have lived in New York City and am no stranger to the realities of compacted urban living. There is, however, a difference between the unavoidable sounds of a city, cars and buses, aircraft overhead, etc. and the entirely preventable racket made by people who get some bizarre satisfaction from drawing attention to themselves by making unnecessary noise. These include motorcycles with punched-out mufflers, or no real mufflers at all, and cars with mufflers designed to make huge bursts of sound during acceleration and braking. These cars often display spoilers on the trunk and are in the style of “muscle cars.” The drivers who race the engines in traffic, do high-rpm “jack rabbit” starts and engine-assisted stops are trying to draw attention and they do, along with a large dose of irritation at the unnecessary noise they produce. Their behavior screams “look at me, look at me!” It is irritating and distracting.

The city has, apparently, determined to address these issues by trying to force traffic to slow down, as noted in the Mayor’s news message above. Reducing speed limits may seem an easy and appropriate defense, but speed limits that are too low likely cause more problems than they solve. Take a drive on the 40 mph GW Parkway, for example. Anyone trying to comply with that speed limit on the four-lane divided road will find other drivers speeding around them, frequently showing anger, impatience and dangerous driving. Average actual speeds in those areas are vastly higher whenever traffic volume permits and often even when it doesn’t.

It seems most drivers most of the time assess the risk of getting a ticket or being involved in or causing an accident as vastly lower than the costs of being a few minutes later at their destination. There is little question that this happens on DC streets every day all day everywhere. My casual but repeated observation of DC driving behavior suggests a widespread belief among drivers that there simply are no meaningful constraints on their behavior – no laws, no rules, no risk of being caught while endangering others.

Studies in the Netherlands support the idea that higher speeds, both generally and in relation to other cars, produce more crashes with greater damage to drivers and others affected. https://www.littlerock.gov/media/2484/the-relation-between-speed-and-crashes.pdf [the Institute for Road Safety Research] But US studies suggest that may not be the whole story and that “posted limits are not the cause of auto accidents – reckless driving is.” https://www.hg.org/legal-articles/the-effects-that-speed-limits-have-on-auto-accidents-30226

The last cited article states that

A method known as the “85th percentile” is used by traffic engineers to establish speed limits. This tactic operates under the assumption that most drivers will travel at a speed that is reasonable, sensible and comfortable to them on any given roadway, regardless of the posted limit. Speed limits are set at a number that separates the bottom 85% from the top 15%. For example, if the speeds of 100 vehicles are measured and 85 vehicles are traveling at 37 mph or less, the speed limit for the road could be set at 35 mph. [emphasis added]

A California study,

showed that higher speed limits set in 1995 and 1996 did not increase the rate of fatal or injury traffic crashes. In fact, actual travel speeds on roads with increased speed limits barely changed. People were already traveling faster than previous speed limits, and once speed limits were altered they generally did not speed faster than their comfort zone…. Although findings across the country are conflicting, they have shown that drivers are by-and-large practical and cautious. In essence, posted limits are not the cause of auto accidents – reckless driving is. [emphasis added]

At the risk of exposing my confirmation bias, those US observations are consistent with my day-to-day experience in DC. Lowering speed limits to levels that most drivers will find unreasonably constraining and putting speed bumps and stop signs in more places, will not change that. Such policies simply make more people into scofflaws, but they won’t likely change outcomes much if at all.

What then to do?

First, identify some of the main drivers of the problem and put resources against them. These would certainly include illegal parking in rush hour and in places where such parking materially increases congestion and conflict. The return on investment to DC from a well-managed team of “meter monitors would likely be very high.

Second, hire, train and deploy small teams to monitor driver behavior on problematic streets and intersections. Take videos of excessively dangerous practices and have another team member stop the car and issue tickets. This is not much more complicated than fielding teams of police to use radar and then flag down speeders. Observation of vehicles in the “circles” alone would likely more than pay for the costs of the teams.

Third, use the email addresses of DC-licensed drivers to remind them of certain rules-of-the-road. Explain in stark terms that certain behaviors will no longer be tolerated and that if stopped after being notified, the consequences will be serious.

I do not suggest these steps will solve all the problems. Even a 25 percent reduction in aberrant driving would be a worthy achievement and city revenues would increase significantly.

As for noise, the solutions are similar. There is no reason that the city should put up with people who deliberately make noise just to attract attention. Horn honking by automobiles (and frequently by impatient bus drivers) should be outlawed unless essential in an emergency. You get what you tolerate. DC has a Noise Ordinance.

Section 20-2700 of the DC Municipal Regulations states,

It is the declared public policy of the District that every person is entitled to ambient noise levels that are not detrimental to life to life, health, and enjoyment of his or her property. It is hereby declared that excessive or unnecessary noises within the District are a menace to the welfare and prosperity of the residents and businesses of the District. It is the declared public policy of the District to reduce the ambient noise level in the District to promote public health, safety, welfare, and the peace and quiet of the inhabitants of the District, and to facilitate the enjoyment of the natural attraction of the District.

This regulation reflects a serious quality-of-life problem in the city. Enforce it.

The cars in question usually are Mustangs or sports cars/muscle cars that look like them, often fitted with a rear spoiler. The noise they emit is usually coincident with moving at high speed through crowded streets in places like Georgetown’s M Street and less-crowded (at least now) thoroughfares like Pennsylvania Avenue. Even casual observation by enforcement would readily identify locations where deliberate noise violations, and often related dangerous driving, occur daily. This past Sunday I observed a motorcyclist riding twice through the same Georgetown neighborhood gunning his unmuffled engine for no purpose other than making noise.

In addition to the obvious benefits to safety and good order, active enforcement of traffic safety and noise control would also benefit the city’s finances. The cost of a reasonably trained force of meter monitors, traffic monitoring teams (all of whom do not have to be police officers) focused on serious violations and repeated noise ordinance violations would contribute significant revenue to fund the city’s other obligations. Everyone wins.

 

 

 

Media Bias – Who Are the Victims?

“Conservatives,” or more accurately Trumpist sycophants, complain a lot about “media bias,” claiming they are being “censored” and otherwise discriminated against. They do this even though FOX “News,” OAN, Newsmax, Breitbart and others devote virtually their entire waking moments to spewing false and/or distorted information about elections, COVID-19 and other important public subjects, basically hewing to the Donald Trump fantasy line of the day.

A few days ago I was hunting online to determine how to watch President Biden’s speech regarding the new federal COVID—19 policy. I turned to Safari, the primary Mac search engine (I prefer Google but there are indications that it does not work well with the latest Apple OS) [Note for the record my sophisticated use of computer terminology – search engine, OS – some days I amaze myself]

I typed “time of Biden’s speech today.” And this is what I got.

I’m pretty sure this does not happen by random accident. I searched for specific news about President Biden and got a bunch of right-wing blather thrown in my face by Yahoo.

My curiosity piqued by this unexpected outcome, I did some digging. I turned to … search engines. Turns out Yahoo is owned by Verizon Communications. But wait, Yahoo is actually Microsoft’s Bing search engine. The plot thickens. Already, I know more about this than I think I want to know. But I plowed ahead.

I “learned” that Google, the search engine associated with the Chrome search engine, with a market share of 92+%, is bigger than all the other search engines combined. https://bit.ly/3C00spd Second in size is … Bing, with 8% share. The site cited above notes, “Unlike Google, Bing’s homepage always features a stunning image and news stories.” Hhmh … I can’t wrap my mind around the idea that photos of Dan Bongino and Marsha Blackburn are “stunning” except in the sense of “mind numbing.”

That aside, we must remember that “Google also powers other search engines – including Ask, which is the sixthlargest search engine in the world” and that Yahoo!’s search engine is really Bing and that Yahoo, as search engine, is the fourth largest search engine in the world. After that, the others listed on the ranking site are mostly country-specific with names like Baidu, Yandex, DuckDuckGo, Naver, Seznam, Ecosia (Bing again) and AOL (hahahahaha -AOL, yes, really, AOL).

ll this brings to mind the old Abbott & Costello routine, Who’s on First,” which as a very young child I thought was pretty funny. It now has its own Wikipedia page, https://bit.ly/2V7PWM2, and … well, enough about that. As applied to search engines, the Who’s on First is not very funny.

In the case of search engines, the answer seems to be Google but it’s hard to know who is actually providing you with search information at any one time. In the end, I suspect the real answer is that all the information you get from Internet searches is controlled by three or four people, about whom little is known except by doing Internet searches they control. You see the problem.

Frankly, madam, I don’t give much of a damn about these people. What I care about is the possibility that, contrary to what the Trumpists are claiming, the truth, yet again, is the opposite – that a nefarious process is under way in which I ask for information about the President of the United States and get promotional garbage about/from right-wing fools.

We are all, mostly, now aware of some of the principles of behavioral economics that emphasize how the order and manner of information presentation can control what we think. At the least, the Yahoo response to my query created cognitive dissonance when I realized what had happened (it might be worse if this occurred without my recognizing it!). Cognitive dissonance is explained this way by the folks at Psychology Today:

The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people are averse to inconsistencies within their own minds. It offers one explanation for why people sometimes make an effort to adjust their thinking when their own thoughts, words, or behaviors seem to clash with each other.

When one learns new information that challenges a deeply held belief, for example, or acts in a way that seems to undercut a favorable self-image, that person may feel motivated to somehow resolve the negative feeling that results—to restore cognitive consonance. Though a person may not always resolve cognitive dissonance, the response to it may range from ignoring the source of it to changing one’s beliefs or behavior to eliminate the conflict. [https://bit.ly/3C0QeVK]

Given that, for example, Bing reportedly gets 1.3 billion visits per month, you wouldn’t have to succeed at altering thinking patterns of a large share to affect a huge number of people.

To be clear, I am not advocating content control, which would create a multitude of practical and legal problems. But if my experience with my Biden speech search is a frequent occurrence, there is cause for (1) alarm and (2) some form of investigation/exposure, including ultimately some form of mandatory disclosure/warnings about the practices being used to deliver information. Yes, yes, I get that there are First Amendment issues there too, but it is unclear to me whether the issue is being examined outside the near-hysterical drumbeat of right-wing whining about censorship (for which little to no evidence appears to exist).

The termination of Donald Trump’s access to Twitter and Facebook was based upon blatant and repeated violations of the Terms of Service. Trump’s posts involved demonstrable lies and misinformation about matters of vital public importance. He had many opportunities to stop but, if anything, he escalated his misconduct with his continuing false claims about election fraud.

The major Internet platforms are, in my opinion, making a huge mistake with their cavalier approach to Terms of Service and enforcement. I understand that at their scale of operations, there is no simple solution. But to understand what is being done, a process of analysis of how the systems could be improved must begin, leading ultimately to public pressure for positive change. This is an essential process for the preservation of democracy in this country. Just imagine what would happen if control of one of these behemoths were to fall into the wrong hands. Indeed, it may have already happened.

Chump Play in Philadelphia

I confess I’m still bothered by the scene in 2012 when Jason Werth, playing outfield for the Washington Nationals,  broke his wrist on a diving catch in a game against the Philadelphia Phillies and the Philadelphia crowd jeered him. There seems to be something about Philadelphia.

Last night, 3-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer, fresh off an injury of his own, was pitching against the Phillies, now managed by former Yankees manager Joe Girardi. Because of renewed concerns in major league baseball about pitchers using illegal substances to get better or different spins on pitches, it was apparently thought appropriate for the umpires to check Max. Not once, not twice, but three times –after the first inning, after the third inning and then, unbelievably, in the middle of the fourth inning. Scherzer was upset to have his inning interrupted and, of course, nothing amiss was discovered. https://atmlb.com/3gRbxR6

This fourth check was apparently instigated by Girardi who, after Max struck out the final batter of the inning, came out of the dugout and began challenging Scherzer to meet him on the field for, presumably, a physical altercation that would, almost certainly, have resulted in Max being ejected and both dugouts would have engaged in the typical scrum. Instead, Max smartly remained in the dugout and, appropriately, Girardi was ejected.

Bob Carpenter, the Nationals announcer, was upset, also understandably, remarking that if this kind of gamesmanship is permitted, a manager could easily disrupt a possible no-hitter in the middle of the ninth inning and throw off a pitcher’s timing.

This was a chump move by Girardi. Major League Baseball needs to be careful here to assure that the concerns about substances on baseballs do not turn the game into a contest of repeated disruptions to damage pitcher performance. To be clear, I don’t think pitchers should be permitted to use anything other than the classic rosin bag that has been part of baseball for a very long time, but this should not lead to disrupting a pitcher in the middle of an inning as occurred in Philadelphia last night. Girardi coming out of the dugout to entice Scherzer to fight on the field was completely unacceptable, and he should be fined substantially for it. Just my opinion.

Didn’t Take Long, Did It?

President Biden gave a long address to a joint session of Congress. Two hours later (12:04 a.m. this morning), Leana S. Wen,  filed a 775-word response as a “Contributing Columnist at the Washington Post.  https://wapo.st/3xyYfPc Dr. Wen (a title I use out of respect but is curiously omitted from her byline) is prodigiously educated and experienced in matters medical. However ….

The gist of Dr. Wen’s instant response to the President was that by requiring masks & physical distancing, Biden undermined the effort to achieve herd immunity through vaccination because the images of the audience of politicians in masks will support rather than negate vaccine hesitancy. She took this position despite the rule in place since January that requires masking while on for federal properties.

My first draft of this post went on at length about Dr. Wen’s curious choice of hills to fight on, but after a short walk, I concluded “so what?” The truth is probably that no matter which course President Biden took (assuming he was even involved in the decision), it would have been wrong in some “expert’s” eyes. Too cautious, not cautious enough, ad nauseum.

To her credit, sort of, Wen also attacked the CDC for “overly-cautious guidelines” that she says may lead people to conclude, “What’s the point of getting inoculated if not much changes?” She goes back and forth between “Biden sent the wrong message” and “CDC needs to urgently change its recommendations” that Biden followed.

Pretty mushy messaging in the end. Somebody’s at fault, but who? In the end, in my opinion, her attack on the speech arrangements added more fuel, not less, to the ignoramuses who claim that the vaccines are unsafe, contain secret devices to …. oh, never mind.

 

Note to Readers

I have discovered that I, and any other reader, can see comments submitted to my posts but my replies do not go back to the commenter through email. This is a “feature” of WordPress on which this blog is hosted.

If, therefore, you want to receive a reply to a comment, which I’m usually more than happy to provide, please (1) post the comment on the blog and (2) send the text of your comment to me at shiningseausa@gmail.com. I will respond. Politely, no matter what or how you write. Thank you and I hope you enjoy reading posts on this blog. I will continue to address issues of the times along with what I hope are interesting observations about life in the District of Columbia, in random order.

As a hint of things to come, I will be writing, not necessarily in this order, about Unregulated Capitalism At Work, the Threat of Guns to American Freedoms, a piece related to “Go Back Where You Came From,” a long piece about James Baldwin’s remarkable book, The Fire Next Time, and a review of the Mueller Report redactions on grounds of “ongoing investigation” (what happened to those investigations?

Finally, ShiningSeaUSA is also on Twitter at @ShiningSeaUSA in case you want to follow me there.

Thank you and get your vaccination as soon as you are eligible.