Sunday, August 20, 2017

Solar eclipse tomorrow...

Over the 12 years of this blog's existence, seeing a total solar eclipse in 1970 has probably been written about four or five times if not more.  Any good excuse to write about that amazing experience has been taken.  That total eclipse was seen on Assateague Island off of the coast of Maryland, looking over the ocean.  Those couple of minutes of darkness with a panorama of colors on the horizon remain hard to describe.  Anyone with the opportunity to see tomorrow's event should do so.

47 years ago it was not such a widely heralded event.  The sand parking lot that we parked in was full but accessible.  Today it's a major event.  Even Royal Carribean Cruise Line has promoted a Total Eclipse Cruise.  The advertisement says "extraordinary partial views".  For their information there are no partial views that are especiallly meaningful.  Only being in the total zone provides the true light show.

We were in London in 1999 during a solar eclipse, but there it was not quite total.  The glasses were required and the event was notable as the sky darkened and the wind picked up, the birds grew eerily quiet, and it became cool.  But, there was nothing dramatic like being in the total zone.  After preparing the girls for something as least partially dramatic, it was a letdown.

To anyone reading who has the opportunity, get to the total eclipse area, get a view with a long perspective, and hope for clear skies.  It will be worthwhile.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

"American Fire", a tale of arson on the Eastern shore of Virginia

The subtitle of this book is "Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land".  It is written by Monica Hesse, a Washington Post feature writer who turned an initial story in the Post into this book.  It is about an area in the north of Virginia's Eastern Shore, one that is completely rural and far removed from the prosperity of its 19th century plantations and even its 20th century poultry processing factories.  It is also totally unlike its southern neighboring Eastern Shore county Northhampton which has retained some wealth from the past.

Accomack County is a place where people are casual and it seems that everyone knows everyone else.  This story is about Charlie and Tonya, a couple who would be obvious misfits in most places but were just part of this rural community of people who were mostly raised in the area.  Those who are not native were welcomed but years were required before they could be viewed as anything but outsiders.  Charlie and Tonya's quirk was that they enjoyed burning down buildings.  This is not a spoiler as the book is not a whodunit.  Rather it is more of a look at the how and why a half year spree of burning down over 80 empty buildings took place before they were caught.  The fire department stayed busy and regional media was attracted to the story.

At times the book edges toward trying to a modest version of "Hillbilly Elegy", but then backs off of anything political or topical beyond the impoverished area that is the setting.  At others it gets sidetracked into trying to create a fable like Bonnie and Clyde, but after four or five pages on that it gives up for obvious reasons.  Hesse spends time on generalizations about human behavior but there is little that is insightful about her commentary.  The core of the book is a simple tale about a rural community that has few aspirations but many simple satisfactions for the people that choose to live there.

This book was widely reviewed so it is assumed to be a publishing success.  It is really a hugely stretched out feature story filled with characters that are mostly forgettable once the book is put aside.  Yet it does resonate in its own way,  like driving down a remote two lane highway in rural Carolina or Virginia and seeing the old tobacco barns still standing and an RC cola sign tacked to an abandoned general store.  It is about an isolated world that exists on the fumes of the past while absorbing the drugs and bad television of the present.  In this story, a limited young man's infatuation destroys his life and it is unclear whether he cares.

"American Fire" is at its best when it sticks to a straightforward and observant tale of a rural area that for many would otherwise be unknowable.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Stocks fall as unhinged Trump finally rattles markets

The market has been incredibly resilient this year in the face of Donald Trump's rants and tweets, but today it noticed.  With the collapse of two business advisory counsels of CEO's and Trump's inability to stay on the message of his economic plans, the skepticism that he can deliver anything to investors of consequence is growing.  If there is no tax plan and no infrastructure spending plan, and with anything of consequence in healthcare already sidelined, the administration is in trouble.  Trump is more focused on trading insults with real and imagined adversaries than in governing.  His reaction to the events in Charlottesville has been disheartening even to many of his Republican supporters, and an embarrassment to this country in general.

Among stocks followed closely here, only Pepsi, Berkshire Hathaway,  Boeing, McDonalds, Proctor and Gamble, and Costco escaped today with just minor losses.  Otherwise it was a broad and significant sell-off.  Without any major economic event as an accelerant, it is expected that equities will steady tomorrow but that the Trump dump will be in place for now.  If he cannot calm the ugly Trump down, the decline could continue in a meaningful way next week.  His toxicity is spreading to the market.

Kenneth Frazier's notable courage

Before the moment completely passes, it is appropriate to recognize the first CEO to demonstrate backbone by action and not just words and confront Trump by resigning the American Manufacturing Council after the President's heinous remarks about the Charlottesville events.  Early Monday morning, Kenneth Frazier of Merck stepped into a spotlight that his Board, his employees, shareholders, and his clients would share whether they wanted to or not.  He could not know at the moment that he resigned what the response would be.

Within an hour Trump went to Twitter and blasted Frazier, apparently thinking that this prominent black CEO was out there on his own, wink, nod.  He was not and others followed slowly at first and by Wednesday the Council was collapsing, as was the so-called Strategy and Policy Forum.  Steve Schwartzman made an effort to salvage what he could for his long term business friend Trump but, being the amoral realist that he is, quickly gave up and reported the facts to Trump.  Trump then pretended to disband the councils of his own volition.

Frazier had a stellar background of legal public service before his business career, and he took a risk that could have been magnified by his background.  He was quickly and unequivocally vindicated.

Postscript:   It should be noted that Elon Musk resigned from the Strategy and Policy Forum earlier in the year, in a less charged atmosphere, due to Trump's withdrawal from the Paris climate accords. Who can forget seeing Trump outside of the White House reading a script written by Bannon about which he obviously had no understanding, as the withdrawal was announced to a group of sycophants on the lawn.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Generals in place

When Trump began appointing military generals to top positions in his administration, the first reaction was that doing so just bolstered his maladjusted macho ego.  To have these experienced senior officers reporting to him was proof of his omnipotence perhaps.  Their qualifications for the nuanced responsibilities that they were given was hard to discern.

Now with General Kelly as Chief of Staff, General McMaster as head of the NSA, and General Mattis as Secretary of Defense, it can be viewed as reassuring.  Their military training and ingrained obedience to chain of command had been a worrying aspect of their appointments at first but now they could be, it is hoped that they are, a formidable layer of restraint for an embattled President.

While North Korea is off of the front page for a day or two, that issue has not gone away.  Should Trump decide to take the focus off of the self-inflicted chaos that keeps building on the domestic front by creating a crisis or worse in Asia,  it is expected that the generals will provide much tougher conversations than Ivanka, Jared, or Melania.  Whether they will need to step in and stop the President from some rash move is unknown, and they will certainly try to keep everything behind the scenes.  With these generals, there will be no hysterical "I am in control" speech as delivered by Reagan Secretary of State General Al Haig.

Their presense gives the impression of adult supervision, and hopefully that thought is correct.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

"Sonny Boy" by Randy Newman

For those who receive "The Daily" e-mail from the New Yorker online, today's August 15 edition has a treat.  It's a music video of a song from Randy Newman's new album, "Dark Matter".  After watching the news, it lightened things up, and it's so nice to hear the familiar Randy Newman again.

Scaramucci and Colbert

Anthony Scaramucci's decision to be on Steven Colbert's show last night was an expression of his extreme confidence, cockiness, or recklessness.  While he noted at the outset that Colbert had promised that there would be no "gotcha" questions, Scaramucci was quietly humiliated by Colbert's straightforward approach.  It is unclear if Anthony realizes what happened, and maybe that attribute has been a is key to his success.

When Colbert asked direct questions about Priebus, Bannon, and issues related to his brief tenure as communication director, Anthony would begin to equivocate.  Colbert would interrupt and ask "but what would the Mooch say?"  Then a direct answer would follow.  Anthony made sure that he was known as the Mooch from the outset when his mixed reception at the start from the audience led him to say that those must be "Mooch" as opposed to the few boo's that they were.

Bizarrely Scaramucci engaged in a back and forth about his remark to Ryan Lizza that Bannon was hiding in his office "sucking his cock".  Colbert questioned whether Anthony could do that and how. It was an odd moment in the extreme with Anthony looking perplexed that Colbert could ask that, but then came back with an Eddie Murphy quote that showed he was prepared to deal with the comment. The quote --- "if I could do that I would never leave the house."

The worst moments of the Mooch's performance were when he praised Trump as a compassionate person, a wonderful person, in a tough situation as he had given up his life of luxury to be President of the United States.  Anthony surely thought he could schmooze his way through this interview, and some may think he did.  In this day and time when Donald Trump became President, it could be that Anthony was right.  He got that attention he wanted and among supporters the cred for showing up.

On the other hand, he could have been viewed as putty in Colbert's hands.  When asked at the end if he would encourage other Trump administration members to come on the show, he emphatically said yes.

Postscript 8/16   ---  On reflection, and knowing Anthony's resilience, could he like all of those who surround Trump have actually been speaking to Trump through his appearance on this program?  Will he be back?

Monday, August 14, 2017

Vice News on Charlottesville

The Monday Vice News tonight focused solely on the weekend events in Charlottesville, Virginia.  The continuity of a straight half hour of reporting was a relief from the piecemeal news accounts of the last 36 hours, both because a story was told and because it needed to be a program with no repetition.  Most of the news to date had really been less than ten minutes of footage.

There were interviews with a couple of rigidly alarming extremists, right wing zealots with guns.  It is a given that there are crazies in the white supremicists ranks, but as leaders proud to be interviewed?  The most interesting take from the Vice News program after everything that had already been digested here was how anti-semetic the thugs were.  It was clear from the outset that they were vehemently anti-black, but only through their constant chants could they underscore how much they hated Jews, blamed Jews, for whatever their miseries are and slights they have experienced.

Those interviewed professed in convoluted ways some sort of world views, and the best comparison to whatever they were trying to say was neo-Nazism.  They really seem like extreme fringe groups that should be monitored.  If they are not on the fringe, we have big issues.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Michael Lewis writes in Vanity Fair about Trump's attempt to dismantle a cabinet department

In the current Vanity Fair, September issue, Michael Lewis is given 12 pages to detail what's going on at the Department of Energy under Donald Trump and Rick Perry.  It is a well done and incredibly important article, but for starters it must be said that neither Trump nor Perry have the slightest idea what they are doing.  That probably did not need to be said.

From this perspective Lewis's piece is a thorough description of the responsibilities of that department.  The extent of what falls under the umbrella of Energy is extensive.  Everything from protecting the electrical grid, guarding the nuclear arsenal, assessing the nuclear threats of North Korea and Iran, plus of course the important but in comparison more mundane regulation of oil, gas, coal, wind, sun, and water power sources.

There was almost no effort at a transition under the Trump/ Perry "leadership". Seven months in, the department is hugely understaffed, new appointees have few qualifications for their jobs, and the professional staff is either leaving or hanging on with low morale. The extent of the damage will only be known in a crisis and no knowledgeable observer wants to see that.  The exact title of Lewis's article is "The 5th Risk".

While what is going on in this department is frightening, this could be an example of what is happening in many departments.  Appointments in the State Department, even ambassadorships and senior consuls, have been taking place so slowly that it is unlikely that many positions will be filled by year end.  The only department that most agree is up and functioning is the Justice Department under Jeff Sessions as it aggressively cuts back on civil rights for many Americans.

Reading Lewis's article is suggested...