A River of Gratitude

The story of how one simple gift changed everything between Donald Trump and China’s President Xi

President Trump recently returned from a relatively successful visit to Asia — measured on a bell curve where managing not to vomit on the Japanese Prime Minister and not to start World War III are considered successes. There were few substantial gains or diplomatic breakthroughs, but no mega-gaffs either. (Possibly a few dead fish in the koi pond at Akasaka Palace, but for Trump that is coals to Newcastle.)

What should we make of the visit? On the one hand, they say travel broadens the mind. On the other hand, Japanese zen has the concept of no-mind. If Trump had no-mind to begin with, then maybe the trip didn’t broaden anything (except perhaps the national debt). Or maybe Trump’s version is “I no mind if you flatter me to pieces.”

They say there’s honour among thieves. Politicians? Not so much so. That’s why at the ASEAN summit held on November 13, Trump participated in a complicated form of handshake designed to prevent the motley collection of leaders from picking each other’s pockets while on stage together.

The ASEAN summit, and a handshake instead of a kiss.

Trump reportedly signed up for an event billed as “The Spilla in Manilla,” but chickened out when he heard his hotel room was bugged. Clad in a Barong at one point, he was mistaken for a waiter and forced to return the tips he collected from other waiters’ stations.

Trump and Duterte: Two Barongs don’t make a right (or Human Rights)

The most notable feature of the trip was the turnaround in how Trump regarded China and its newly annointed strongman President Xi Jingping. During his 2016 campaign, Trump spoke harsh words about China, accusing the nation of rapacious trade policies and vowing revenge. But after being fêted in the Forbidden City and treated to a military parade, Trump began to thaw slightly.

By the end of his China visit, Trump was singing a different tune entirely. What prompted this miraculous turnaround? It’s almost like he was ready to start passing out little red hats saying Make America Xi Again. (Not to be confused with the motto of the Ex-Lax company, which is Make America Shi– well, better not go there.) But seriously, what spurred the change?

The Chinese are gracious hosts and masters of the ceremonial, so it stands to reason that President Xi could locate just the right gift that would soften up Trump and appeal to his particular interests and proclivities. It was an audio CD that reportedly did the trick:

So next time you have a tiff with a friend (or even a head of state), think how some little gift, carefully selected, can open the floodgates of forgiveness and lead to a river of gratitude.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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Alabama Narrowly Averts Deluge of Roy Moore Jokes

We’ve all heard the digs at our Southern compatriots: Amabala – the backward state. Passing a roll of Cottonelle to the state which dares to defend its rights (and wrongs).

I know it’s not polite when Easterners rib Southerners about their “backward” culture. But it’s also not polite for Southerners to (very nearly) send the likes of Roy Moore to the Senate, where he might have voted on issues affecting the lives of everyone in the country. Moore’s proximity to the Senate understandably causes a rift in civility.

The late Andy Kaufman was, in part, a comedian. He was also a combination merry prankster and provocateur specializing in the politically incorrect. He craved intense interaction with a crowd, and stand-up comedy seemingly wasn’t doing it for him at a latter stage of his career. So he decided to become a pro wrestler.

As a wrestler, he adopted various bad guy personas, and reveled in the hatred he could generate by (for example) wrestling women, and claiming to be the Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World. In this persona, he would act like the consummate male chauvinist pig, taunting women that he was so superior to them, and they could never beat him (though occasionally they did).

When wrestling men, especially in the deep South, he adopted a different bad guy persona. He and fellow wrestler Jerry Lawler formed a partnership where Lawler would play the popular Southerner that everyone would root for, and Kaufman would play a parody of a New York Jew — which entailed him losing the match, then threatening to sue everyone in sight. But he took it much farther…

Kaufman seemed determined to tear away at any thin veneer of civility which existed between Southerners and Easterners, and to provoke a response of sheer hatred. He knew the stereotypes of Southerners that Southerners hated, and his routine entailed baiting them crudely and mercilessly until he was finally pounded by Lawler (to the crowd’s delight).

Kaufman would bait Southerners live in the ring, or in pre-recorded TV segments meant to drum up publicity for matches. He gave the crowd their money’s worth. They loved to hate him, and loved it when Lawler would finally use the “Piledriver” (his patented move) to finish Kaufman off. If it looked like Lawler had broken Kaufman’s neck, so much the better.

What was the abuse that Kaufman heaped on Southerners that made them want to see Jerry Lawler break his neck?

It was all theatre or a strange kind of comedy, but you wonder who was or wasn’t in on the joke.

Anyway, if Amabala had sent us Roy Moore, what could one do but pass them a roll of Cottonelle, possibly with an instruction manual using pictographs only?

Let’s hope the Old South is truly dead and buried (or at least resting comfortably), and that the election of Doug Jones is a harbinger of the New South marching in the general vicinity of the twenty-first century!

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

Of Further Interest

Kaufman and Lawler continue their feud on Letterman (YouTube)

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Of Goobers and Gobbers

If the Donald’s tweets are to be believed, gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie failed to “embrace” Dear Leader, and so suffered a shocking defeat. He mother no love him anymore!

I pity people learning English as a second language. (I pity myself, but that’s another story.) Where does “gubernatorial” come from? It always reminds me of, well…

Mr. Peanut, the original “goobernatorial” candidate

Still, I suppose some candidates are bigger goobers than others. Some are bigger gobbers than others. Remember Gobber Newhouse?

With a feeling of disbelief I recognised Gobber Newhouse. I had had previous experience of his disregard for the licensing laws and it was clear he had been at it again. … He reeled up the aisle, turned, to my dismay, into our row, rested briefly on Helen’s lap, trod on my toe and finally spread his enormous carcass over the seat on my left.

— James Herriot, from All Creatures Great and Small

Enter the Gobber Newhouse lookalike contest and win a free MAGA hat! (Ability to slobber all over oneself not strictly required.)

Gobber Newhouse played by Ivor Salter

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Breaking: Trump Opens New Golf Course on Indian Land

“This is a line of Indians leaving Rancho Malario. To make room for you! Here’s the beautiful Trail of Tears Golf Course…”

Full comedy album here.

More About The Firesign Theatre

“Classic comedy album a Firesign of the times” (Boston Globe)

Note: The album title in question admits of seasonal variations. Now that the Trumpster claims to be resuscitating Christmas, one might say “Don’t crush that crèche, hand me the pliers.” Something to think about while eating at Papa John’s. (Don’t!)

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Schiller’s Ode To Trump (rude song parody)

Keith Schiller, Trump’s former body man, testified before Congress last week. He sang, but not quite in the expected manner. Giving it a Beethovenian blush, his testimony went something like this:

Schiller’s Ode To Trump (libretto)

All these rumors are mistaken,
Don’t believe the dossier;
True, the Russians offered playmates,
But the Donald would not play.

Allen Menschen have their foibles,
All are steeped in Kompromat;
Trumpster is my Daddy Warbucks,
I will be his laundromat.

(Joined by a chorus of Congressional Republicans)
Allen Menschen have their foibles,
All are steeped in Kompromat;
Trumpster is our Daddy Warbucks,
We will be his laundromat.
His laundromat, his laundromat!

(Soloists)
Never was a ruffle,
No behaviour unbehoovia;
No sign of those naughty ladies,
No trace of effluvia.

(Chorus)
Never was a ruffle,
No behaviour unbehoovia;
No sign of those naughty ladies,
No trace of effluvia.
Effluvia, effluvia!

Known to be a celibate
From Texas to Tralfamadore,
Donald Trump is Mr. Clean
And I’m the one who mops the floor.

Hailed as a gentleman
Who only plays with shuttlecocks,
Donald is my president
And I will wash his dirty socks.

(Chorus)
His dirty socks, his dirty socks,
Yes we will wash his dirty socks!

Trumpster is a little lamb,
No girl would need a chaperone;
Leaving off the time that he
Had coitus with a Sousaphone.

(Chorus)
A Sousaphone, a Sousaphone,
Had coitus with a Sousaphone!

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Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization. No Sousaphones were harmed in the making of this post.

Ruminations on Trump’s Visit to Japan

Updated! From “No Gate” to “Fishgate,” with stopovers to sing the Jet Jaguar song, eat at Alice’s Restaurant, battle smog coming from PR flacks, and hear the Heart Sutra performed in four different languages.

President Trump got everything from Prime Minister Abe but a piggyback ride, which put me in mind of this classic send-up by the MST3k gang:

MST3k is known for its obscure references which people love tracking down. The last line, “Don’t touch my bags if you please, Mr. customs man” is from an old Arlo Guthrie song called “Comin’ Into Los Angeles.” Arlo is the son of Woody Guthrie, and had a big hit with “Alice’s Restaurant,” a satirical talking antiwar song that was later made into a ramblin’ film by Arthur Penn, a veritable paean to anti-authoritarianism.

At his presser with Prime Minister Abe, President Trump spoke slowly and quietly, looking rather tired and restrained. It could just be jet lag (or Jet Jaguar lag), but I wonder if any of the Washington press corps have the nerve to ask Sarah Huckabee Sanders (a.k.a. “Clarice”) if the president is on meds to calm him down and keep him from uttering phrases like “little rocket man” and “total destruction of North Korea.” (They should also ask Sanders whether she still hears the screaming of the lambs.)

The MST3k send-up of Godzilla movies from the 1970s (in this case, Godzilla vs. Megalon) is a lowbrow poke at our brethren from the land of the rising sun. One could discover from Wim Wenders’ outstanding film Tokyo-Ga that Japan is a nation of contradictions. Fifty years ago they were famous for turning out cheap transistor radios and bad monster movies, but this stereotype fails to reflect the hidden (or at least less visible) Japan — a highly cultured Japan rich in noble traditions worthy of study and emulation.

Japanese Zen Buddhism (with its “no gate” philosophy) has had a profound effect on spiritual seekers in the West, and on the New York School of artists and composers. The venerable American literary character Suzuki Beane was probably named after Zen teacher D.T. Suzuki. But even Godzilla, tacky though he was, has become a meme ranging from the computer world (Filezilla, Clonezilla) to the Thanksgiving oven (“Birdzilla” in a classic episode of Cheers). Maybe we should refer to our president’s huge ego as “Trumpzilla.” It can only be tamed by leading it around golf courses until it is tired and spent and requires Bosco. (Maybe a metaphor for spiritual practice?)

Apropos of the MST3k line “He crimefighting covers up a basic insecurity,” what do we make of Trump’s speech to the military at Yokota Air Base?

We dominate the sky. We dominate the sea. We dominate the land and space,” the president said. “Not merely because we have the best equipment, which we do, and by the way, a lot of it’s coming in. You saw that budget. That’s a lot different than in the past. A lot of beautiful brand new equipment is coming in. And nobody makes it like they make it in the United States. Nobody.”

“No one, no dictator, no regime, and no nation should underestimate ever American resolve,” the president said, standing on a stage in an airplane hangar on the base. “Every once in a while in the past they underestimated us. It was not pleasant for them. Was it? It was not pleasant. We will never yield. Never waiver, and never falter in defense of our people, our freedom and our great American flag.”

— Donald J. Trump to troops stationed at Yokota Air Base, Japan, as reported by abcnews.go.com.

While it’s good to have an effective military, bragging about one’s domination and equipment does suggest an underlying insecurity as well as being in bad taste for a superpower. Military force alone is brute force, ignorant force, unenlightened force. There is no such thing as a “smart bomb,” and while Trump’s words may have been aimed at North Korea, they were doubtless a grim reminder to the Japanese people about Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Military force should always be tempered by wisdom, compassion, keen insight into subtle aspects of diplomacy, and an overarching desire for peace — all qualities Trump seems to lack, but tries to make up for with braggadocio.

We have yet to see Trump go on a Godzilla-style rampage, but the prospect is not encouraging, and Republican Senator Bob Corker recently vowed to hold a hearing examining such questions as whether Trump has the power to unilaterally start World War III (perhaps in response to a Twitter spat).

Outsized American politicians and Japanese monsters

When George H. W. Bush visited Japan in 1992, he famously vomited on the Japanese Prime Minister. Urban legend has it that this gave birth to a cheap Japanese toy, a likeness of Bush 41 which spewed vomit on cue. Whether or not this toy ever existed, the underlying incident reinforced Japanese perceptions of American politicians as oversized entities capable of extreme behaviour.

President Trump did little to overcome the American oaf complex when feeding fish in a koi pond at Akasaka Palace. Oblivious to their true needs and natural limitations, he quickly emptied the entire box — possibly causing the same malreaction in the fish as Bush 41 had shown 25 years earlier. If a fish could sing, it might have sung to Trump “I need a slow hand!”

But is Fishgate real or fake news? It could be yet another Rorschach test in which we see a reflection of our own internalized views about Dear Leader (or as Schubert would say, “Dear Lieder”). Country Joe and the Fish might dutifully enquire “What’s that spell?” Japan clearly has Donald Trump all a-cluster.

The original 1954 Godzilla movie sported an anti-nuclear theme, and some later tokusatsu films had environmental themes, with pollution poisoning the fish so vital to Japan’s culture, economy and diet. Given Trump’s choice of anti-environmentalists to head environmental agencies, poisoning fish is something we more or less expect of him, and are quick to believe. But until we see a reliable body count from the pond in question, we ought not carp, lest the scales of justice be wrongly tipped. 😉

Speaking of outsized Americans who lack subtlety, the purely technical question has arisen as to what audio format should be used when archiving press conferences held by Sarah Huckabee Sanders. The answer? Definitely FLAC. (For Obama speeches, use OPUS.)

When Sanders walks out, you get the impression she turns on the smoke & fog machine. It’s rather like air pollution or toxic sludge, which were subjects of the environmentally conscious Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster (a.k.a. Godzilla vs. Hedorah).

Hey, maybe instead of calling Sanders “Clarice” (from Silence of the Lambs) I should call her “Hedorah.” I suppose after a press conference, reporters are left flopping like fish in a polluted sea.

The Smog Monster flick is strange and wonderful, full of bizarre animated sequences, nods to 60s psychedelia, and a cheesy “Save The Earth!” song in one U.S. release, replacing “Return the Sun!” in the Japanese version. And let’s face it, sunlight is the best disinfectant for political malfeasance.

With its smörgåsbord (or sushi bucket) of influences and techniques, Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster confounded critics. Legendary killjoys the Medved Brothers ranked it one of the worst of all time, but Andrew Pragasam writes:

The movie isn’t that bad. Its schizophrenic tone is born of a desire to please three wildly divergent markets: the kiddie matinee crowd, ecologically conscious students, and counterculture party hounds… Japanese cinema was facing such a financial crisis, Toho Studios were willing to try anything to rake in the yen. However, [director] Yoshimitsu Banno was entirely sincere.

One short animation from the film looks like it might have been influenced by Heinz Edelmann, the graphic designer behind Yellow Submarine:

In the Japanese clip, notice the dark, shadowy cityscape with “lonely people” wearing gas masks. Two tall European women enter, walk towards each other, get vaporized by smog, and merge into a single, two-headed image, which then becomes a crosshatched marking on a map showing the area affected by Hedorah’s pollution.

In “Godzilla is a Radical Environmentalist,” Daniel Oberhaus opines:

Although [Japan] is not without its environmental problems, today Japanese cities are among the least polluted in the world. This is due in part to the swift action against industrial pollution orchestrated by its government nearly 50 years ago, and was reinforced by Banno’s unique take on a Japanese icon in Godzilla vs. Hedorah. For all its corniness and pulpy action sequences, at the film’s core is a radical message that still resonates with modern audiences: the only way to take meaningful action against climate change is to stomp out the main problem — complacency.

Elsewhere, Oberhaus points out limitations of the approach taken by youth in the film:

Half [of it] takes place in a Japanese rock club, where Yano’s older son grapples with psychedelic hallucinations as Hedorah takes over the city. The smog monster eventually makes its way into the club and ends the party prematurely, at which point the elder Yano and his fellow students decide to take action by organizing a “million man march” against the smog monster.

Despite their good intentions, the students’ march is woefully under-attended and devolves into yet another dance party. Banno’s satire has a clear target and message — the impotence of well-intentioned environmentalists who naively believe that they can reverse the damage of industrial pollution with enough marches and bonfires.

Or maybe they just needed a better song! (“Big Yellow Buddha” is one title that comes to mind.)

“No Gate” philosophy and the Heart Sutra

Since I couldn’t resist a header promising a journey from “No Gate” to “Fishgate,” here’s more about the “no gate”* philosophy found in most strains of Buddhism, whether Indian, Tibetan, Chinese, or Japanese.

The terms “no gate,” “gateless gate,” and “gate of emptiness” are used to describe a particular Buddhist teaching. It is not easily grasped, but the essence of it is that the final void reached through meditation is not different from the phenomenological world. Zen is sometimes called the “gateless gate” because compared with some other religions (or non-religions), it’s viewed as non-dualistic.

Discussion of the gateless gate is sometimes connected with study of the Heart Sutra, a scripture accepted by most schools of Buddhism, translated into various languages, and often sung or chanted:

The Heart Sutra in Mandarin:

The Heart Sutra in Tibetan:

The Heart Sutra in Sanskrit (1):

The Heart Sutra in Sanskrit (2):

The Heart Sutra in Japanese (1):

The Heart Sutra in Japanese (2):

The first version, sung by Taiwan-born folk-pop icon Chyi Yu in Mandarin Chinese, might be described as “rich”; while the last version, chanted in Japanese by a group under the direction of Taisen Deshimaru, may strike us as more austere. But at the core is the same mystical teaching that “emptiness is form and form is emptiness.”

Somehow I can’t imagine Donald Trump grasping the concept of shunyata.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization. We gratefully acknowledge the city of Tokyo.

*Not to be confused with “No Gates!” — a chant popular among anti-Microsoft activists and Linux aficionados.

How many Tasmanians does it take to eat the planet Jupiter?

Outback mum becomes YouTube hi-tech maven

In my role as part-time techno nerd and Linux aficionado, I’ve struggled through numerous how-to videos made by lonely guys living in their parents’ basement, cussing up a storm at Microsoft while extolling the preternatural benefits of Water Rat Linux (or whatever distro with a development team of one has lately come down the pike).

Yes, saving the world through Linux how-to videos can be a lonely and thankless occupation — but meet hi-tech whiz kid Philip Adams and his “sinsible” (yet vivacious) mum Diana:

Philip and Diana Adams

Together they’ve become stars of a YouTube channel called OSFirstTimer where mum Diana tries out (and sometimes intentionally destroys) a variety of computer operating systems, goaded on by son Philip, who alternatively guides her, assigns her reasonable tasks, leads her into evil ways, and lands them both in full giggle loop territory.

I stumbled on their antics quite accidentally, being genuinely interested in Remix OS (a.k.a. Android for desktops), and charmed to find their exploration begins with Diana feeding gigantic white parrots on a balcony by the seashore:

The patriarch of the family, Ben, is occasionally roped in, as is little sister Jasmine (or “Jazzy”); but for the most part it’s Philip and Diana who attract viewers with their great chemistry and offbeat approach to matters hi-tech.

Last month I posted a two-part series on “Art and Hermeneutics” which gave me the opportunity to study the works of Hans-Georg Gadamer and learn about the subject from folk already conversant. I therein had occasion to reference musical duets between Stu Goldberg and L. Subramaniam, and between Mahavishnu John McLaughlin and L. Shankar. These duets are dialogical in nature — a word which crops up often in hermeneutics. Dialogue with others can unleash a certain power, beauty, and joy. This is one high falootin’ explanation for why OSFirstTimer videos are so much more engaging than those made by lonely guys in basements. The interplay between Philip and Diana results in a “fusion of horizons,” making the dull subject of computer operating systems seem vibrant and alive.

One of the more intelligent, knowledgeable, and well-spoken YouTube Linux gurus, Joe “Bootsy” Collins (a true Southern gentleman and Linux Mint booster), points out that some purveyors of Linux how-to’s are foul-mouthed and reinforce the notion of tech as a “boys’ club” with high barriers to entry for women. The peripatetic English Bob, however sociable, doesn’t do much to dispel this image with his wallpapers featuring muscle cars or scantily clad Asian women. But OSFirstTimer balances the scales somewhat. The main star is clearly Diana, who’s eminently practical about what works and doesn’t work for her, asserts her preferences with oomph, and is not afraid to choose a pink, flowery wallpaper if the mood strikes her. To their credit, neither Philip nor Diana spend their time vaping or f-bombing (another dig at English Bob).

I’ve quoted Gadamer as saying “If you decide to make the effort to read, when you read you will not deconstruct, but you would learn to construct.” Good advice, but every thesis cries out for its antithesis. Particularly in the world of tech (which some people take so seriously), deconstructionism has its place. Tech companies even offer “bounties” to end users who find creative ways of destroying their products and services. Figuring out how to destroy something can be a good way of learning how to build it better and stronger, an approach also useful when fashioning bear-proof trash bins or squirrel-proof bird feeders:


Fortunately or unfortunately, no one has yet fashioned a Diana-proof OS.

The Internet has proved a mixed blessing — certainly not the Utopia envisioned by early adopters. We’ve become reliant on technology, but there are a thousand-and-one things about operating systems and Net life which are annoying or degrading, so I especially enjoy Philip and Diana’s sojourns into creative destruction, and their live encounters with tech support scammers. Without ever mentioning Turing, they re-enact the Turing Test — or perhaps an old TV commercial starring Ella Fitzgerald:

Is it live or is it Memorex? Surely a meme for our times. Philip is a genius at installing operating systems as virtual machines, so when he and Diana go online, trolling for ways to catch a virus or schmooze with scammers, what ultimately gets destroyed is a virtual install running in VMware, not the real underlying operating system. Still, there’s always the risk that a powerful virus or skilled hacker could get past the virtual machine and attack the host OS. IOW, “Kids, don’t try this at home!”

While OSFirstTimer spends a fair amount of time just fooling around, much can be learned about Net life from creative play, as when Diana falls in love with the BonziBuddy adware, and Philip has to explain that such is vehemently hated in polite Internet society:

Equal opportunity destroyers, Philip and Diana don’t just go after Windows, but also Mac and Linux. In the course of their antics, viewers learn the valuable lesson that searching for free movies is one of the easiest ways to encounter malware and fake antivirus:

While giddy with amusement is their typical state, they become positively hysterical when interacting with “Andrew The Expert,” whom they encounter after getting a fake antivirus warning from visiting a movie site. Is Andrew a real person or a bot? The Turing Test (or Voight-Kampff Test) has not been so rigorously applied since Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, later made into the film Blade Runner by Ridley Scott.

Questions of sentience and legitimacy are never quite put to rest in the OSFirstTimer video, so let me address these issues with a couple of links:

“Ongoing MacKeeper fraud”
http://www.thesafemac.com/ongoing-mackeeper-fraud/

“PUP Friday: MacKeeper”
https://blog.malwarebytes.com/puppum/2016/08/pup-friday-mackeeper/

It could be that Philip and Diana encountered a human-assisted bot. The bot interacts with their Mac OS and spits out some canned responses, but when it’s stumped by their questions, a real person situated in Kiev (and always named Andrew) may chime in now and then.

Feigning concern about her privacy, Diana eventually agrees to give her “real” e-mail of fairypop@prettymail.net, which sends her and Philip into paroxysms of laughter. We’re helplessly carried along as they gradually morph the tech session into a computer dating scenario. The “bot” explains that dating is out of the question because it’s currently warming a seat in Ukraine.

This is probably the most insane of the OSFirstTimer vids, but definitely one of my favourites, doubling as a non-prescription antidepressant.

So next time tech is getting you down, hop on over to the OSFirstTimer channel  to see if an outback mum can claw her way through an outlandish OS or unsuspecting tech support scammer. She may succeed or fail, but she’ll definitely entertain you, and you might even learn something.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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Tom Price – Leaving on a Jet Plane

A paean to the disgraced HHS Secretary, who was thrown out with the Friday trash.

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump’s health secretary has resigned, after his travel on costly charter flights triggered investigations and angered his boss.

Tom Price’s partial repayment and public regrets couldn’t save his job.

The Health and Human Services secretary became the first member of the president’s Cabinet to leave office in a turbulent young administration that has seen several high-ranking White House aides ousted. Price served less than 8 months.

When interviewed about future plans, Price said he expected to be found hanging around airport bars and giving away free high schools.

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The views expressed are those of the author, and do not represent any other person or organization.

Are transcripts of Trump speeches accurate?

Beware the cleanup of politicians’ speeches, as vital clues may be lost in translation.

I’m not so compulsive as to keep a notebook on the subject, but I’ve often heard a politician make a speech and later checked the transcript only to find that their remarks had been cleaned up after the fact.

Why should this matter? As a student of literature (and an amateur playwright), I know full well that the manner in which a character uses language (including any corruptions or malapropisms) tells us a lot about their background and influences. Those of us who spend years learning the craft of writing (and thinking) are keenly aware when someone mispronounces “nuclear” as “nucular,” or says “phenomena” (plural) when the case is singular. We cringe when we hear “squash” (which you might do to a bug) when what is really meant is “quash” (which you might do to a subpoena). We are not ideally snobs about it, but we tend to view how someone uses language as a vital clue about how they think.

I remember back in the 1980s hearing Rep. Helen Bentley making a one-minute speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. She seemed quite disinterested, reading rather woodenly from something her staff had given her. It was supposed to be about a crucial issue concerning the Gulf Coast, but when she got to the nub of it she mistakenly said “golf course,” which I thought was a hoot. But of course, she got the standard “permission to revise and extend her remarks,” so the Congressional Record probably says “Gulf Coast,” nicely masking her absent-mindedness.

Bringing this into the Trump era, for better or worse I heard Trump’s speech on August 14 in which he was forced (seemingly at gunpoint) to denounce “the K.K.K., neo-Nazis, white supremists [sic] and other hate groups.” “Supremists” is at best a corruption, and at worst simply not a word. But in the transcript printed by The New York Times, he magically becomes grammatical!

There are a million worse injustices, so I won’t dwell on it; but this is an easy-to-check example of a wider phenomenon. The Times online version has a 1-minute video excerpt along with the longer transcript, so it only takes half a mo to compare the two and see how “supremist” has been corrected to “supremacist.”

I favour accurate transcripts of politicians’ speeches which capture the flavour of the original, including any nods to illiteracy, since these are clues as to how seriously we should regard the politician in question. 😉

Helen Delich Bentley, who in her senior years as a congresswoman had trouble distinguishing between the Gulf Coast and the golf course, being perhaps more familiar with latter than the former.

Donald John Trump, who on occasion may rail against “white supremists,” while at other times appearing to defend them.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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What Donald Trump could learn from the Blues Brothers

(UPDATED!) Recent events in Charlottesville raise the old question of whether life should be taken seriously. Sometimes it’s so painful and sad that it has to be taken seriously; but paradoxically, this calls forth the opposite thesis: that life is cosmically funny and can’t be taken seriously. Science fiction author Robert Heinlein, writing about his character Jubal Harshaw, said:

He had long ago made a pact with himself to postulate a Created Universe on even-numbered days, a tail-swallowing eternal-and-uncreated Universe on odd-numbered days — since each hypothesis, while equally paradoxical, neatly avoided the paradoxes of the other — with, of course, a day off each leap year for sheer solipsist debauchery.

The debauchery might not be such a good idea, but there’s something to be said for taking life as seriously as you can, with occasional time out to laugh at its absurdities. As I’ve noted elsewhere, humour is helpful for relieving outrage fatigue.

There’s also some weird variation on George Santayana going on here, like “Those who fail to study the Blues Brothers are doomed to repeat them.” The Nazis and anti-Nazis who clashed in Charlottesville over the weekend could have saved themselves a lot of trouble by simply watching this clip:

That said, how hard would it be for Donald Trump to say “I hate Charlottesville Nazis” or “I disavow myself from Charlottesville Nazis”? Why can’t he bring himself to do it? Why does he have such a tin ear at moments when the nation is outraged or grieving, and needs words well spoken and deeply felt by a wise leader to calm the waters? Sadly, Donald Trump is not wise or well-spoken, does not seem to feel deeply about issues affecting millions of Americans, and his EPA is more likely to poison the waters than to calm them. In a recent op-ed, Michael Winship called him “emotionally challenged and empathy-free.”

In between teeing off and praising the Veterans Tapdance Administration, Trump woodenly delivered an equivocal statement on Saturday — a statement that pleased no one except Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, and Charlottesville Nazis.

Adding to the weekend’s insanity was the kickoff of Anthony Scaramucci’s rehab tour — far, far too soon in my opinion. It’s like the guy who just vomited on your shoes calling you up the very next night and asking you to a French restaurant where they serve frogs’ legs in cream sauce. Let me at least forget the smell of your vomit before you once again try to ingratiate yourself. (Channeling Trevor Noah here.)

Ah, the times we live in! If Scaramucci felt even an ounce of genuine contrition, he would have taken a long vacation from public life, and spent the time cleaning outhouses or performing other works of public benefit. Instead, we’re treated to 15 minutes of his ugly mug on This Week with George Stephanopoulos.

It is to weep — or laugh.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

Note: I’m using “Charlottesville Nazis” as a catch-all term here. Word is, most of the Nazis who demonstrated in Charlottesville came from out of town. Charlottesville has a reputation as a liberal college town with a diverse population and a welcoming atmosphere.


UPDATE: CNN analysis of Trump’s latest (August 15) statement about Charlottesville, where he aggressively defends the alt-right. At 10:55 in the video, Van Jones breaks down in tears thinking of his Jewish godmother.

In comparison to Trump’s tin ear, former President Obama tweeted this sentiment drawn from Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk To Freedom:

The full quote is:

No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.

Nelson Mandela

This reminds me of another of Mandela’s sayings, which Sri Chinmoy set to music:

I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom.

One of the problems with Trump’s claim of moral equivalency between the two sides in Charlottesville is that the white supremacists and neo-Nazis seem very comfortable with a world where there’s slavery, fascism, and open carry of firearms, while the counter-demonstrators generally favour more freedom and less guns. They also managed not to commit vehicular womanslaughter.

Of Further Interest

Gratitude to President Obama
Thought of the Day: People Are Good
People Are Good Everywhere

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Guamanians! Test your civil defense knowledge

Boning up on essential skills for coping with nuclear Armageddon

With the recent dramatic lack of brinksmanship by the Donald, people of Guam have needed a refresher course on what to do in case of nuclear attack. But have government brochures really provided adequate information?

The following video offers a quick drill on essential aspects of civil defense, with multiple choice questions designed to test your knowledge. Example:

How do you protect yourself from fallout?

A. Hide in the basement until it goes away.
B. Wear protective rubber underwear, and simply brush yourself off at the end of the day.
C. Run naked through a field of sorghum.

After viewing the video, you should at least be able to answer this question: What is the most practical thing you can do in the event of a total thermonuclear war?

Sidebar: Guam facts

Guam is not a state, but a U.S. protectorate. As such, it sends one delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives. The current delegate is Rep. Madeleine Bordallo, but according to tourists she’s not the only Bordallo in Guam. More Guam facts from The Colbert Report: Better Know a Protectorate. More Mystery Science Theater 3000: Rocket Attack U.S.A. on YouTube.

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Doctor Who: Tom Baker and Sophie Aldred Interview (rare)

Here’s a very entertaining interview with Tom Baker and Sophie Aldred of Doctor Who fame (the classic period). Baker’s at his best here, given enough room to expand upon his tallish stories, but not overstepping the bounds of good taste. Sophie counterbalances him nicely with some lovely stories of her own, as they appear together on a pledge drive for Maryland Public Television broadcast in 1990.

I suppose the reason I wanted to post this now is that with the Trump administration occupying so much of the communications bandwidth in American life, we forget that actors and artists express themselves so much more gracefully. The president and his spokespeople regularly abuse the English language (arrivederci Scaramucci), so it makes a nice change of pace to listen to people who can put together sentences with intelligence, grace, and wit.

Tom Baker is especially good at spinning yarns with an improvisatory air, but occasionally landing on a serious point. Still, the atmosphere is light, and the paper plates stuck hastily to the studio walls in fond emulation of the old TARDIS set help ensure that we’re never far from a giggle.

You get an hour’s worth here, but I may post the final 15 minutes elsewhere. In those final minutes, when asked to deliver a soliloquy on the need to support public television, Baker goes over the top in reviling non-contributors as “parasites,” repeating and embellishing with a vengeance previously reserved only for Daleks! This is amusing in light of the fact that abolishing funding for public TV is one of the Trump administration’s avowed policy objectives. 😉

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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Anthony Scaramucci: First Day Report Card

Comparing Scaramucci to departing Sean Spicer on criteria like the Hostage Video Factor, Sphincter Rating, Comic Potential, Effusiveness, and Hair Helmetry…

Up and down this nation of joy, this nation of plenty, there is visible mourning going on. Whether on park benches in the humblest of burgs, or the gold and cocaine flecked halls of Hollywood production studios, comedians of various ranks and strata are crying into their sleeves, donning black fedoras, and dolefully humming the tune from Chopin’s Funeral March. Spicey is gone.

The incoming Anthony Scaramucci had a good first day by (admittedly low) Trump administration standards. No post press conference surgery was required to remove foot from mouth. He did not offend Holocaust victims or misrepresent easily checkable facts in an obvious way. While fencing with reporters, he maintained something passing for a sense of humor, and did not become peevish or petulant. He did not hand late night comedians material on a silver platter as his predecessor did; instead they’ll have to dig for it.

This brings us to the first of our comparison criteria: the hair helmet. I have to admit right off the bat that Anthony Scaramucci has a better hair helmet than Sean Spicer. For those unfamiliar with this fashion staple, here are a few examples beginning in the 1950s:

Ex. 1: The classic hair helmet sported by Lloyd Bridges in the 1950 sci-fi extravaganza Rocketship X-M

Ex. 2: The modern variant embraced by Anthony Scaramucci

Ex. 3: The hair helmet worn by Eddie Munster in The Munsters

Ex. 4: The Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri hair helmet from The Sopranos. (The addition of “wings” does not actually result in flight.)

Ex. 5: Leona “Pistachios” Helmsley was one of the helmet’s few female proponents.

Ex. 6: Barack Obama experimented briefly with the hair helmet, but found it too unwieldy.

Having a hair helmet held in place by a combination of Dippity-Do and Plaster of Paris is clearly an advantage for any incoming communications wonk (or even Chief of Staff), so we have to give Scaramucci the edge here. But how will he fare on the Hostage Video Factor? This is defined as the extent to which a spokesperson for the president looks like they’ve had a gun put to their head and been forced to mouth words praising their captors for their kindness and good treatment, while all the while their eyelids are blinking in Morse code: “HELP ME! I DON’T WANT TO BE SAYING THIS. THEY MADE ME!”

Spicer was, of course, a passed master at this. Armed with a flotilla of alternative facts and a hornet’s nest of moxie, he would grit his teeth and try to defend the indefensible, but you could often tell his heart wasn’t in it. In his waning days, he would fall back on the boilerplate response that “The president’s tweet speaks for itself,” which was really his way of saying “The president’s tweet was so insane, counterfactual, and off-the-wall that I won’t even bother trying to defend it.” By contrast, Anthony Scaramucci is a slick salesman. He rates no better than zero on the Hostage Video Factor because he actually enjoys retailing Donald Trump as World’s Greatest Statesman to a gullible public.

This brings us logically to the Effusiveness Factor. Sean Spicer was rarely effusive in his defense of Trump, but rather adopted the manner of a grim Republican institutionalist. To Spicer, Donald Trump was the latest product churned out bearing the Republican brand, and therefore had to be defended for the sake of the party. Picture a customer service rep who tries to tell people complaining about a mail-order pain reduction gizmo which actually electrocutes them that “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature!” That’s Sean Spicer, but to his credit he did it mechanically and joylessly, with little effusiveness and quite a bit of bumbling.

On the other hand, Anthony Scaramucci is the guy who tells you: “What you’re feeling isn’t really lethal electricity coursing through your veins, it’s joy. I love this product, I love this brand, I love Donald Trump, I love the team. I love Junior Mints, they’re so refreshing!” (Then he blows you a kiss.)

Scaramucci’s “love” for Donald Trump is love for a product successfully marketed using discreditable techniques — a product which may be hazardous to your healthcare and comes with a long list of side effects, such as burgeoning cynicism that American democracy can really work, that it won’t crash-and-burn while aping reality TV.

Love is a profound spiritual emotion. When it’s wasted on things undeserving of love, this tends to cheapen life and discourse. Despite his riches, Scaramucci (or “The Mooch” as he’s known on The Street) is a cheap money man on the make for political power. He’s so childishly enamored of that power, it comes naturally to him to make gushingly absurd, over-the-top statements deifying the object of his affections (whom he previously scorned). The Mooch is by nature a fawning flatterer of This Year’s Princeling, ready to trumpet tiny hands as gargantuan mitts, and to rewrite history favouring the Monarch.

When it comes to Comic Potential, Sean Spicer rates a perfect 10 for reasons that have become all too obvious. (If anyone’s memory is flagging, just look to the Beeb’s “Best Sean Spicer memes and ‘facts’.”) Spicer was the teacher you loved to sass because you knew how easy it was to rile him, and it was worth being sent to detention just to see him throw one of his hissy fits. “Don’t you dare shake your head at me, young lady!”

Whereas, Scaramucci — despite his monolithic hair helmet and effusive praise of All Things Trump — only rates about a 3 for Comic Potential. He’s a skilled manipulator who knows how to inoculate his presentations with dashes of humor so that they don’t seem quite so outlandish; and like a good knuckleballer, he knows how to change speeds and mix in different kinds of junk to keep reporters off-stride. Though he doesn’t hail from Hollywood (but rather Wall Street), he epitomizes the maxim that “The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you’ve got it made.”

One might liken Scaramucci’s use of Trump to the old Wall Street pump-and-dump scheme. Right now the Mooch is pumping Trump like a biomed stock that just went public, but it’s easy to picture him dumping Trump, timing the moment to a nicety so as to position himself as one of the rubes who was fooled by the gaudy patter, rather than one of its purveyors. “Oh how it pains my heart to have to say this,” Scaramucci might opine at some future date (next Sunday A.D.?), “but it appears the man I believed in so deeply secretly colluded with the Russians. I want to prove to you that I’m honest in the worst way. So even after the impeachment, as a patriotic American I plan to stay on and help our great new president develop the trust of the American people, which he so richly deserves…”

This brings us to the Repulsiveness Factor. Sean Spicer was frequently irritating, but never repulsive. People sometimes felt a little sorry for him because, through whatever vicissitudes of life, he became the guy whose job it was to put lipstick on a pig day after day. You could feel sorry for Spicey the way you felt sorry for Rhoda Morgenstern because her job was dressing department store dummies.

But for those who see through his charm and feelgood manner, Anthony Scaramucci is not a sympathetic figure. When we hear him claim that Donald Trump has “good karma,” we instinctively want to throw up. Obviously, Trump has bad karma for acting like a creep in myriad areas of life, up to and including an election campaign which he won through dirty tricks and low rhetoric, ultimately becoming the poster boy for the Ugly American. Indeed, writing in the Guardian, comedian Frankie Boyle refers to Trump as “a man so obnoxious that karma may see him reincarnated as himself.”

Seriously, between Scaramucci and Trump, you could make the world’s biggest fluffernutter, with Ivanka supplying the white bread (using peroxide as needed, if Kellyanne hasn’t bogarted it all).

Though Sean Spicer’s college nickname was “Sean Sphincter,” to me Anthony Scaramucci moves in wider circles. 😉

Regardless of political persuasion, one thing we can probably all agree on: When it comes to Donald Trump’s new wartime consigliere, there’s a lot to unpack — especially above the scalp.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.


Sidebar: Is Scaramucci Trump’s Mini-Me? Let’s consult The Daily Show

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Two AHCA Memes: Mystery Meat and Dead Parrot

Everybody knows what the AHCA is: the American Health Care Act — but nobody knows what’s in it. That’s because like the famed “Her Majesty” from the Beatles’ Abbey Road album, it “changes from day to day.” Which AHCA are we discussing, the one that kicks 23 million people off their health care, the one that kicks 30 million people off their health care, or some as yet undisclosed variant whose spores are still being nourished in the bowels of White Male Senate reality?

Getting hooked up with the AHCA is like dealing with one of those Internet firms that changes its terms of service with each passing morn. Sure, you read the terms and conditions when you first signed up, but since then there have been 57 policy updates, and you barely blink an eye when you learn that you’ve agreed (by not opting out before last Tuesday) to turn over your first-born child, or have any legal dispute resolved in the jurisdiction of Tanginiqua.

The AHCA is mystery meat. What is mystery meat? Imagine you’re sitting in the school cafeteria, munching on some orangey-green, vaguely pastalike concoction in which bits of something meatlike surface now and then. Having been run through both the Deflavourizer and the Blandifier, this concoction as a whole cannot be identified by taste, no less its constituent ingredients. So you’re left to guess about the meat. It could be hog testicles and chicken bladders mixed with hyrdrolyzed plant protein, or it could be Stewie — that fat kid who was sent to detention Never To Return.

The AHCA is, thankfully, moribund — a fancy word for “almost dead.” Yet, Senate leader Mitch McConnell (a.k.a. “Mitch The Rooster”) continues to pretend that it lives on. This calls forth the famed dead parrot meme from the Monty Python sketch:

MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt: Leader McConnell, is the AHCA dead?

McConnell: Why no, it’s only pining. Pining for the fjords. Beautiful plumage, the American Health Care Act.

We can only hope, in the argot of Monty Python, that this is an ex-health care bill.

BREAKING NEWS: Donald Trump has just appointed Phil Niekro as the head of the Knuckleball Integrity Council. Mr. Niekro’s job will be to ensure that no knuckleballers load up the ball with vaseline, or use a concealed nail file to scratch it up so that it moves erratically.

In the same news dump, the Trump administration announced the appointment of Roger Delgado to head up the Doctor Who Regeneration Board. Also known as “The Master,” Delgado’s job will be to ensure that all future Doctor Who regenerations go as smoothly as possible.

Both Niekro and Delgado are expected to perform admirably, notwithstanding their decease.

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British MPs Need Stronger Passwords

Hi-tech help for a hung Parliament…

The recent cyber-attack on their e-mail accounts has underscored the need for Members of Parliament to use proper passwords. The practice, popular among MPs, of using short, suggestive phrases has led to appalling breaches — not to be confused with appalling britches (also a problem), but never-you-mind.

The simple fact is, passwords like “HungInHertfordshire”,”TorySlut”, “HotCladding”, and “Slave2May” are far too easy to guess, leading to massive insecurity. And believe you me, Mr and Mrs Britain, massive insecurity is something we don’t need more of down Westminster way.

The time-honoured tradition for creating strong, nay unbreakable passwords is to combine a common phrase with a series of numbers, the name of a fruit or vegetable, some random punctuation, topping it off with another phrase. Hence, an ideal password would be:

supercalifragilisticexpialidocious9713206pineapple?!@#*THE-EMPIRE-STRIKES-BACK!

Easy to remember, but hard for hackers to crack! Please don’t use that one, though, as it’s my own personal password. I’m proud to say that in years of continuous use on the Internet, no one’s ever broken it. 😉

Sidebar: British Officials Respond To Cyber-Attack

According to the Guardian, international trade secretary Liam Fox (whose e-mail password is “ChickenCoop”) told ITV News the attack was a “warning to everyone we need more security and better passwords. You wouldn’t leave your door open at night”.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (whose password is “AloneAndNaked”) was quizzed about the cyber-attack between sets at the Glastonbury Festival. Said Corbyn, “I think [this] indicates just how vulnerable we are to cyber-attacks and our cyber-security”. He proceeded to punctuate his remarks with a rousing rendition of “Blue Suede Shoes”, flanked by a blushing security guard.

Nellis Prawntree, the Shadow Minister for Looking Into Things That Other People Find Uninteresting (whose password is uninteresting), assured the public that a new algorithm is being developed to create strong passwords which are also suggestive enough to appeal to tastes of British MPs. A supercomputer is working on the problem, and after months of programming has produced the following:

eatmyshorts0800369celery*#@!?I-PROMISE-I-WON’T-RUN-IN-YOUR-CONSTITUENCY

Jeremy Corbyn fans at Glastonbury 2017 (Photoshopped)

Of Further Interest:

The Guardian interviews Lord Buckethead at Glastonbury
A Trump Joke for UK Readers
Greenspan Bobblehead Shocks Nervous Britons – UPDATE

This post is a work of parody. The views expressed are those of the author, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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