Toni Morrison on her father

June 18, 2017

          Novelist Toni Morrison was asked why she had become a great writer, what books she had read, what method she had used to structure her practice.  She laughed and said, “Oh, no, that is not why I am a great writer.  I am a great writer because when I was a little girl and walked into a room where my father was sitting, his eyes would light up.”
                         ==Donald Miller, quoted in The Sun

The genius of Hayao Miyazaki

June 17, 2017

I love the movies of Hayao Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli.   These videos give an idea of his genius as an animator.  But you would have to see the movies to appreciate his genius as a storyteller.

I read that he is coming out of retirement—or that his previous “retirement” announcement was misunderstood.  This is good news.

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The real question about U.S. election hacking

June 16, 2017

The important question about computer hacking of the American voting system is not:

  • Is there evidence that Russian computer hackers interfered with the 2016 presidential election?

The important question is:

  • Can the American voting system be hacked?

Because if the American voter registration rolls or vote counting systems are vulnerable to outside interference, sooner or later somebody is going to interfere.

It may be Russian agents.  It may be agents of some other foreign country.   It may be unscrupulous American political operatives or special interests.  But somebody will do it.

POLITICO magazine recently reported that last August, Logan Lamb, a 29-year-old cybersecurity specialist, accidentally gained access to the voting records and systems for the whole state of Georgia.   He reported the problem to the proper authorities, but was brushed off.

Bloomberg News reported that investigators said that, prior to the 2016 election, Russians gained access to voter databases and software systems in 39 states, including software designed to be used by poll watchers and, in one state, a campaign finance data base.

There is no evidence that 2016 election results were actually changed, according to Bloomberg.  Whatever happened may have been a training exercise for a future operation.

Vladimir Putin, in his interviews with Oliver Stone for a soon-to-be-released movie, accused the United States of interfering in Russian elections.  Putin denied allegations of Russian hacking, but, when asked whether there is a secret U.S.-Russian cyber war, he said that for every action, there is always an equal and opposite reaction, which sounds like a semi-admission.

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Did Senate Dems trade ACA for Russia sanctions?

June 15, 2017

Senate Democrats reportedly made a deal to allow Republicans to gut Obamacare in return for their support of tougher sanctions against Russia.

The Republicans have a 52 to 48 majority, so they have the power to force through their plan.   We the public don’t know what it is going to be, but, in order to be reconcilable with the House bill, it will include denying government health care benefits to millions of people in order to enable tax cuts for the very rich.

There are procedural tactics that the Democrats could use to delay action until public opposition has time to build, but they reportedly have agreed not to do this.

So the public loses a program that, despite its many flaws, has saved lives in return for the increased possibility of war with Russia.

Reports of a deal may be false or exaggerated and, if there is a deal, not all Democrats may be on board with it.

But it is an indisputable fact that the Democratic leadership in Congress is putting much more energy into investigation, so far fruitless, of Trump’s ties with Russia than into opposing the Republican political agenda.

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Republicans ready to kill Medicaid expansion

June 13, 2017

I hadn’t realized that more Americans are enrolled in Medicaid, the health-insurance program for low-income Americans, than in Social Security, Medicare or any other federal benefits program.

And the increase in the number of Americans with health insurance under Obamacare—the Affordable Care Act—is due more to the expansion of Medicaid than to signups of people under the health insurance exchanges.

But Senate and House Republicans have reportedly agreed on a plan to dial back the Medicaid expansion.

Kevin Drum of Mother Jones reported that there are 68 million Medicaid enrollees, making it a bigger program than Social Security (61 million), Medicare (55 million), food stamps (44 million), unemployment insurance (6 million at the height of the recession), the earned income tax credit (26 million) and temporary aid to needy families (about 4 million).

Medicaid was created to provide health insurance for Americans earning poverty-level wages.   Under Obamacare, eligibility was increased to Americans earning 138 percent of a poverty wage.  This would be $16,394 for an adult, according to CNBC News.

The program is administered by state governments.   President Obama’s plan pays states nearly all the costs added by the expanded plan, and then a progressively lesser amount sliding down to 90 percent.  The Supreme Court ruled that state governments cannot be compelled to accept the expanded plan, and 19 state governments, all with Republican governors, opted out.

CNBC reporter Dan Mangan reported that Medicaid has added 15 million enrollees since Obamacare went into effect, a figure which includes some people who would have been eligible under the old rules.   That’s nearly 4 million more than signed up for health insurance under the Obamacare exchanges.

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American optimism and deaths of despair

June 12, 2017

I always thought that optimism was a basic and unchanging part of the American national character.

My belief is shaken by the rise in “deaths of despair”—first among middle-aged (45-to 54) white Americans, more recently among prime working aged (25 to 44) Americans of all races.

“Deaths of despair” are suicide, drug overdoses and alcohol-related liver disease.  The rise is thought to be caused by the hopeless economic situation of many Americans and by the ready availability of addictive drugs.

But this can’t the whole story.   In earlier eras of American history, such as the 1890s, poverty was greater, inequality was more extreme and addictive drugs were more freely available than they are now.

Pioneer families struggling to survive in sod houses on the prairie, immigrants in ragged clothes getting off the boat on Ellis Island, let alone African-Americans and native Americans—they all were in more desperate situations than any American today.

The USA was in the midst of a depression, comparable to the Great Depression of the 1930s.  There was no social safety net.   It was possible to starve to death in New York City or any major city in the Western world.  If you couldn’t pay a doctor bill, you relied on charity or, more commonly, did without.

Opiates were sold legally.  Opium dens were found in every major city.  Heroin was a patented brand-name drug sold legally by the Bayer company.   Drunkenness was a serious social problem.

But this was an era of hope, not despair.  Workers formed labor unions and fought armed company police.   Farmers started organized the Populist movement.   Middle-class reformers started the Progressive movement.   They enacted reforms and social changes from which we Americans still benefit.

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The spread of deaths of despair in the USA

June 12, 2017

Americans in the prime years of life—aged 25 to 44—are dying at an increasing rate, and the increase is mainly due to “deaths of despair”—drug overdoses and alcohol-related disease.

I recently wrote a post about the Case-Deaton study, which shows a rise in “deaths of despair” among white Americans, especially those age 45 to 54, since 1999.

Now reporters for the Washington Post have done their own study which shows a rise in the death rate since 2010 among Americans of all races in the prime of life—age 25 to 44.

As in the Case-Deaton study, the increase is due to “deaths of despair”—drug overdoses and alcohol-related diseases.

Since 2010, death rates have risen

  • 16 percent for young white American adults.
  • 18 percent for young native American adults
  • 7 percent for young Hispanic American adults
  • 4 percent for young African-American adults
  • 3 percent for young Asian American adults.

Why is this happening?

The majority of Americans are doing badly economically.  Wages are stagnant.  Good jobs are scarce.  Many have educational, medical or other debts they never will be able to pay.

Except for the professional classes and the ultra-rich, few expect to do better economically than their parents, and few expect their children to do better than themselves.

In the past generation, some of us have been sold in the idea that medications, such as Prozac, are the solution to our psychological and personal problems.   A journalist named Robert Whitaker did a good job of documenting this in his book, Anatomy of an Epidemic, and his book and website, Mad in America.

This new respectable drug culture made it easy for Purdue Pharmaceuticals to market Oxycontin, an addictive pain killing prescription drug, and widespread use of Oxycontin made it easy for illegal drug traffickers to sell heroin as a cheap substitute.  For some, drugs provided an easier escape from dead-end lives than individual initiative or political struggle.

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How the U.S. lags peer nations in health care 2

June 11, 2017

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I came across a 2015 study by The Commonwealth Fund that shows the Americans spend more on health care, use more medical technology and take more prescription drugs than citizens of most peer nations, but aren’t necessarily more healthy.

We’re not the worst in this respect, but we’re far from the best.

The charts above and below tell the story.   I doubt things have changed much since 2013.

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How the US lags peer nations in health care

June 10, 2017

Click to enlarge

Americans pay more for medical care than citizens of other advanced nations, and get less in return.  Our health outcomes are worse.   So far as I can tell, enactment of the Affordable Care Act in 2010 hasn’t changed this.

Health care spending per person

United Kingdom, $4,003

France, $4,407

Canada, $4,607

Germany, $5,267

United States, $9,451

Percentage of population without medical insurance

United Kingdom, 0.0%

Canada, 0.0%

France, 0.1%

Germany, 0.2%

United States, 9.1%

What patients pay to see a doctor

United Kingdom, free

Canada, free

Germany, $5 – $11

France, $25, most of which is reimbursed later

United States, $30 to $200, depending on insurance

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What we don’t know about Russia election hack

June 8, 2017

Double click to enlarge

Thomas Jefferson once wrote that newspaper articles should be classified into truths, probabilities, possibilities and lies.

I think the investigation of connections of President Trump and his supporters to Russia has uncovered possibilities and some probabilities, but few if any truths.

I don’t want to jump to conclusions, but I don’t want to overlook any probabilities or truths.

Scott Ritter, in an article in Truthout, points out that this leaked NSA document, published by The Intercept, uses a color code to differentiate truths, probabilities and possibilities.

The green lines point to things that the NSA analysts say are true, the yellow lines to things that the NSA analysts say they believe are probable and the grey lines to things they believe are possible.

In short, we the people are at the same point we were before.  We don’t have any certain knowledge.   Smart people make different judgments based on the same facts.  All the more reasons for Congress, the special prosecutor and the press to pursue their investigations.

LINK

Leaked NSA Report Short on Facts, Proves Little in ‘Russiagate’ by Scott Ritter for Truthdig

ISIS vs. Iran: which side should we be on?

June 7, 2017

The ISIS attack on Iran shows the alignment of alliances in the Middle East.

On one side, there are Saudi Arabia, the Gulf emirates, Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and also Israel.

On the other, Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas.

If the U.S. aim is to crush Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, why does the U.S. side with Saudi Arabia against Iran?

If you think Iran is the problem, ask yourself:

When was the last time that Iranian-backed terrorists attacked people in Europe or North America?

When was the last time that terrorists backed by Al Qaeda or ISIS attacked people in Israel?

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Second thoughts on the Russian hack leaks

June 7, 2017

Cooler heads point out unanswered questions about Reality Winner’s NSA leaks about Russian intelligence activities during the 2016 U.S. elections, but come to different conclusions.

At this point, in almost everything related to Trump, Russia and secret intelligence agencies, the only that we the public know for sure is that we don’t know the whole story.

LINKS

A few thoughts on the leaks by TTG for Sic Semper Tyrannis.

Hey, Intercept, Something Is Very Wrong With Reality Winner and the NSA Leak by Peter Van Buren for Hooper’s War.

Was Russia Probing U.S. Electoral Systems? by Philip Giraldi for The American Conservative.

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NSA reports Russia tried to hack voting system

June 6, 2017

A National Security Agency report, leaked to The Intercept, says that Russian military intelligence attempted to hack U.S. voter records shortly before the 2016 election.

The GRU reportedly was able to obtain passwords that enabled it to penetrate an electronic vote systems company.   The Intercept identified the company as VR Systems, which serves local election boards in eight states.  Using those passwords, the GRU attempted to penetrate at least 122 local governments.

The FBI has arrested a 25-year-old government contractor named Reality Leigh Winner on charges of giving the top-secret NSA documents to The Intercept.

Whether the Russian hackers succeeded and what, if anything, they did or tried to do to affect the election isn’t known.   And there is no indication that anybody in the Trump campaign was aware of any of this.

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Why is the Hispanic death rate lower?

June 6, 2017

Click to enlarge

Compared to non-Hispanic whites and blacks, Hispanic Americans are survivors.

Why?

The Case-Deaton study and its new update showed that the death rate is rising among non-Hispanic white Americans while it is falling among citizens of every other important industrial nation.   Anne Case and Angus Deaton attribute this to the rise “deaths of despair”—from alcohol, drugs and suicide.

The study showed something else that I think is equally interesting.  The death rate among Hispanic Americans has always been lower than among non-Hispanic whites, and it continues to fall, in line with trends in other industrial nations.

In the chart above, the bright red line is the death rate among non-Hispanic white Americans and the bright blue line is the death rate among Hispanic Americans.

The death rate among non-Hispanic American blacks is higher than among whites, but it is falling, not rising.

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Heroin addiction comes to West Virginia

June 5, 2017

As a boy and well into adulthood, I thought of heroin addiction as a product and problem of big city slums—a world completely alien to me.

My old friend Steve called my attention to a harrowing article in The New Yorker about heroin addiction in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia, just across the river from western Maryland where the two of us grew up.

The Eastern Panhandle as I remember it

I am shocked, although I know I shouldn’t be, that heroin addiction could capture so many people with the same small-town white Protestant background as me.  But in fact rates of drug addiction are higher among non-Hispanic white people than among Hispanic or black people.

Like much of Appalachia, as well as the Rustbelt along the Great Lakes, the city of Martinsburg, W.Va., lost its main manufacturing employer, the Interwoven textile mill, and nothing has ever taken its place.

Citizens of Martinsburg today are thinking of converting part of the old Interwoven plant into a drug rehabilitation center.

Margaret Talbot, the author of the New Yorker article, gives harrowing descriptions of how drug addition has become normalized.  She opens with a description of a mother and father suffering a drug overdose while attending a Little League game.

She reported on how marketing of painkillers such as Oxycontin enabled West Virginians to self-medicate for physical and psychic pain, and then how heroin was introduced as a cheaper substitute.  She went on to write:

Michael Chalmers is the publisher of an Eastern Panhandle newspaper, the Observer. It is based in Shepherdstown, a picturesque college town near the Maryland border which has not succumbed to heroin.

Chalmers, who is forty-two, grew up in Martinsburg, and in 2014 he lost his younger brother, Jason, to an overdose.

I asked him why he thought that Martinsburg was struggling so much with drugs.

“In my opinion, the desperation in the Panhandle, and places like it, is a social vacancy,” he said. “People don’t feel they have a purpose.”

There was a “shame element in small-town culture.” Many drug addicts, he explained, are “trying to escape the reality that this place doesn’t give them anything.”

He added, “That’s really hard to live with—when you look around and you see that seven out of ten of your friends from high school are still here, and nobody makes more than thirty-six thousand a year, and everybody’s just bitching about bills and watching these crazy shows on reality TV and not doing anything.”

Source: The New Yorker

As I see it, large numbers of Americans think that what gives meaning to life is economic success, or at least being able to pay your way and be a breadwinner for others.  When that meaning is no longer available, they feel worthless and fall into despair.

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The changing politics of climate change

June 2, 2017

Hat tip to kottke.org.

Book note: The Making of Global Capitalism

May 30, 2017

International financial organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization have come to be a kind of world government, dictating policy to supposedly sovereign governments.

I recently read a book, The Making of Global Capitalism (2012) by two Canadian leftists named Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, on how this came about.   I thank my friend Tim Mullins for recommending it.

It’s quite a story.  It is not well understood.

The first part of the story is the U.S. New Deal.   President Franklin Roosevelt and the Democratic Congress gave the U.S. Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve System the authority they needed to stabilize the crumbling U.S. financial and banking system.

The second part is the 30 years following World War Two.   Under the leadership of the U.S. Treasury and Federal Reserve, international financial institutions were created that duplicated the U.S. system.  They presided over the era of greatest peace and prosperity that North Americans and Europeans had ever since.

The third part is what happened after that.  The world’s financial system endures a series of ever-greater financial crises.   To deal with them, international financial  institutions demand the surrender of gains made by American and European workers and the middle class in the earlier era.

The irony is that a financial governing structure created by American power is now stronger than ever, while the actual American economy is rotting away beneath it.

Panitch and Gindin described in great detail how this happened, step-by-step,.

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Memorial Day 2017

May 29, 2017

Memorial Day was originally a holiday to honor the Union dead in the Civil War.  They should not be forgotten.   The painting below illustrates the Battle of Gettysburg, with Union defenders on the left, Confederate attackers on the right.

A Memorial Day War Nerd: Gettysburg Was The Finest Fight Ever in the World by John Dolan, aka Gary Brecher, for The eXiled.

Northern guild of master craftsmen at work.

May 27, 2017

It is always a pleasure to watch people who are masters of what they do.

The following video was produced by Northmen: the Guild of Northern Master Craftsmen in Latvia, which is dedicated to traditional hand craftsmanship.

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Why the US bears the cost of NATO

May 26, 2017

My sixth most-viewed post is about a warning in 2011 by then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to European allies to pay their proportionate share of the cost of the NATO military alliance.

This is much the same as what President Trump is saying now.

I thought then, and I still think, that members of the European Union are strong enough and wealthy enough to protect themselves without relying on the USA.   I thought then, and I still think, that this would be a good thing.

But if the Europeans paid for their own defense, they might be less willing to follow the U.S. lead in military policy.  And, maybe more importantly, they might be less willing to buy their weapons from American manufacturers.

The advantage of paying the piper means that you get to call the tune.

Thomas Frank on Trump’s nationalist populism

May 24, 2017

Nobody alive has a better grasp of American politics than Thomas Frank.

Above is a video I came across of a talk he gave in April at the Kansas City Public Library.   It’s a bit long, especially to watch on a computer screen, but Frank is an entertaining speaker, as he is a writer, and I recommend listening to him if you have time.  His talk ends a little short of an hour and a question-and-answer period runs for about 30 minutes.

Frank sees Donald Trump as the latest of a line of Republican nationalist populists—his predecessors being Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, George W. Bush and the leaders of the Tea Party.

A populist is someone who claims to speak in the name of the people against the elite.   The old Populist Party, which dominated Kansas politics in the 1890s, represented farmers and laborers and fought against bankers and railroad CEOs.

The Democratic Party used to be this kind of populist party, Frank said, but it no longer is.   Instead it represents a professional class defined by educational credentials.

In the days of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, Democrats spoke in the name of the common people against greedy Wall Street bankers and power-hungry corporate CEOs.   But the present generation of Democratic leaders regards bankers and CEOs as classmates—members of the same college classes and same social class.

This has given an opening to nationalist populists who claim to speak for the common people against meddling bureaucrats, unpatriotic intellectuals and out-of-touch journalists.

The vast majority of Americans are either treading water economically or going under.   They are justifiably angry, and right-wing talk radio tells them a story that explains their plight and channels their anger.

The Republican populists offer no real solution, but Democrats no longer offer an alternative story.  That’s why they’ve been in decline for 50 years.  They will have a hard time coming back, Frank said, even if Donald Trump self-destructs.

I found Frank’s whole talk interesting.  Maybe you will, too.

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Donald Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia

May 24, 2017

I came across this picture a couple of days ago and wondered what it was.

It is a ceremony conducted Monday in honor of the opening of the Center for Combating Extremist Ideology in Saudi Arabia.

The participants touching the glowing orb are Egypt’s President Abdul-Fatah Al-Sisi, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz and President Donald Trump.

The name of the center is ironic, because Saudi Arabia is the center for extremist ideology in the Arab world.

Saudi Arabia pays for missionaries to spread Wahabism (or Salafism), a highly intolerant version of Islam.  Wahabists believe that Shiites and other Sunnis are not true Muslims.

Hassan Rouhani

King Salman and his son, Prince Mohammad bin Salman, are  waging a bombing campaign against Shiite villagers in Yemen, is stepping up aid to rebels in Syria and is trying to organize a Sunni Arab military alliance against Iran.

Voters in Iran, meanwhile, have re-elected President Hassan Rouhani, the moderate reformer who negotiated the nuclear deal with the USA.

Rouhani is more democratic and peaceable than the hereditary Saudi rulers.  He has won honest and contested elections.  The range of choices in Iranian elections is limited because the ayatollahs vet candidates.  But you could say the same about U.S. elections, except that our candidates are vetted by big-money donors.

The Saudis seek regime change in Syria and Yemen; Rouhani seeks increased trade and investment.   In Middle East geopolitics, the Saudi monarchy is the aggressor, the Iranian clerical regime is the one on the defensive.

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Donald Trump and the trouble with democracy

May 24, 2017

Brooke Gladstone, in her new book, The Trouble With Reality: A Rumination on the Moral Panic of Our Time, claimed that the election of Donald Trump reflects fundamental flaws in human nature and in the very ideas of democracy, free speech and freedom of the press.

Brooke Gladstone

To her credit, she doesn’t take her argument to its logical conclusion, which would be to empower gatekeepers to filter the news and opinions available so the rest of us aren’t exposed to anything the gatekeepers consider fake.

Many others, in fact, do go that far, so I will try to sum up her argument and then engage it.   Here’s her argument:

  • Truth is subjective Everybody lives in their own unique reality.   Since our ability to understand is limited, we make decisions based on stereotypes.   All human beings are emotionally committed to stereotypes and experimental psychology shows that our brains react negatively to whatever challenges our stereotype.
  • Knowledge of facts is not enough Any given set of facts is subject to multiple interpretations.  We the people filter facts according to own various assumptions and biases.
  • Appealing lies beat inconvenient truths John Milton, Thomas Jefferson and John Stuart Mill claimed defended free speech by claiming that truth would defeat falsehood in a free and open encounter.  This is bogus.   We the people don’t have access to full information about important public issues, nor the time or ability to evaluate it if we did.
  • Democracies foster demagoguesSince we the people cannot make rational decisions, we tend to prefer demagogues who offer us appealing fantasies rather than intellectuals who tell us inconvenient truths.

Here’s my answer.

The expression that “truth is subjective” or “we all live in different realities” is highly pernicious.

It’s true that we all have our own unique experience of reality.  As Gladstone notes, humans can’t imagine what it is like to experience the world as a bat or a bloodhound does.  But a human, a bat and a bloodhound all live in the same actual world.  We are all burned by fire and drown in water.   If our perceived reality is wrong, the real reality will sooner or later catch up with us.

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Donald Trump and the trouble with reality

May 23, 2017

Brooke Gladstone, a broadcaster and media critic, has written a provocative 87-page book about Donald Trump and his challenge to the concept of objective truth.

Trump has given us a constant stream of assertions—Obama was born in Kenya, Muslims in New Jersey celebrated 9/11, millions voted illegally in the 2016 elections–without facts to back them up.

That is, as she wrote, a challenge to the basis premise of democracy, which is that we the people have the ability to make good choices as to who will represent us.

But what if we don’t have a good basis for making a choice?  What if the very possibility of making a rational fact-based choice is called in question?

We normally assume that both sides have some basis for what they say and that our job is to choose the one who makes the best case.   But Donald Trump just says things without bothering to make an argument?

How can the casual newspaper reader, TV watcher and social media user evaluate this?

∞∞∞

The philosopher Harry Frankfurt made a distinction between liars (people who knowingly make false statements for a reason) and bullshitters (people who don’t know or care whether what they say is true or not).

It’s not just Trump.   The whole flood of charges regarding Trump and Russia seems very—for want of a better word—Trumpian.  Every day there’s something new and nothing is ever proved.

The distinction between lies and bullshit applies here.  I don’t think anybody is knowingly making false statements about Trump and friends.  I think many of them just don’t care one way or the other.

On the other hand, the consequences for revealing unwelcome truths can be severe—Chelsea Manning seven years in prison, Edward Snowden a fugitive from U.S. law, Julian Assange confined to the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

I’ve had people tell me that Assange should not have published information unfavorable to Hillary Clinton unless he had information equally unfavorable Donald Trump to publish.

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A brief entertaining history of everything

May 20, 2017

This video by Bill Wurtz is fun and, as far as I can tell, well-researched and accurate.

Hat tip to Jason Kottke, who also linked to Wurtz’s video history of Japan.