The odd advantages of having a stupid president

The Thinker by Rodin

In case you haven’t noticed, Donald Trump is pretty damned stupid. Obviously he is not retarded. His vocabulary, while often elementary school level, is enough to be understood. He still knows how to apply the spray tan, dye his hair, then lacquer it with industrial strength hair spray. Anyhow, if you have any doubt, watch Trump’s news conference yesterday.

In any normal times, this would have leaders of both parties rushing to invoke the 25th Amendment. And they should have, but of course Republicans in Congress are too cowardly to admit the obvious. He is so stupid. Any half self-aware president would not announce that their national emergency for a border wall with Mexico wasn’t really a national emergency, undercutting the many cases that will come before various courts. But more than a few of them were probably thinking: He’s so stupid he probably doesn’t have the wherewithal to follow through anyhow, so what does it matter? Donald Trump goes for nice shiny objects that are dangled in front of him, hopefully with mirrors that reflect his glorious visage. He has proven staggeringly inept at actually getting anything done.

Think about it: he had control of all branches of government for two years and his signature accomplishment was piling on more tax cuts for the wealthy, something the Republican Party can always agree on. I’m sure I’m not alone in noticing that my federal taxes are actually going up, but I live in a relatively high tax state now (Massachusetts) and I can’t claim to be in the top ten percent of income earners. To the extent he has been successful, it’s been in putting minions in charge of various departments with unusual wile and animus, but who are usually deeply corrupt such as Ryan Zinke and Scott Pruitt. They have no problem throwing people under the bus if it makes millionaires and corporations richer. It’s obvious though that while Trump wants to appear as an effective president, he simply can’t bother to spend the time to actually be one.

So this in a way is an advantage. Yes, he can foul up the machinery of government, but he’s not smart enough to do it adroitly. This means if you are going to elect a fascist as president, he’s the best possible fascist if you want to keep your constitutional democracy. This is because he is so stupid and clueless. He can’t be bothered to actually spend the time necessary to be a mendacious fascist, as his official schedule shows because it is loaded with “executive time” (read: watching Fox News).

It must bother the heck out of Vladimir Putin, but doubtless he was smart enough to realize Trump’s limitations. You get the sycophant you have, not the one you actually need. He was better than nothing but he will hardly bring about the rapid collapse of the United States.

Under the circumstances, our democratic government is handling his presidency pretty well. Many of his cabinet secretaries work against Trump’s aims, and do so overtly. The civil service seems to be morphing as best it can to provide passive resistance. During the latest shutdown, air traffic controllers showed Trump who was really in charge. This is amazing if you recall that Reagan fired all air traffic controllers for going on strike. The courts seem largely untouched, but stacking them with more Republican jurists will prove problematic over time. And now that Democrats control the House, it’s pretty clear that Trump’s agenda is blocked. No wonder then that he is left to declare fake “national emergencies” to stop the flow of migrants into our country, which is just 25% of the peak of the problem during the Clinton presidency.

Although the precedence for this emergency is very bad, don’t lose too much sleep over any more wall actually getting built. While it’s unlikely that Congress will overturn it, it is very likely that it will be ricocheting through the courts at least until the 2020 election, by which time it is likely to be moot. Trump has to hope he can win reelection and convince the Supreme Court to uphold his bogus emergency. That is, if he can be bothered to focus on it for the remainder of his term. Most likely he will be off playing with other new and shiny toys instead.

Should this happen again though it’s unlikely that our next fascist president will be as stupid as Trump. Hopefully Congress will turn blue and rewrite the national emergency law to prohibit exactly what Trump is trying to do. Let’s just be glad that if a Republican had to be elected president in 2016, it was Donald Trump and not Dick Cheney.

The nature of reality isn’t what you think it is, continued

The Thinker by Rodin

Last November I wrote this post, which suggested (to me anyhow) that what we perceive as reality was anything but this. Since that post, I have been delving more into the subject, which is getting clearer and weirder every day. What’s weirdest about all this learning and research is that the exact sorts of people you would think would be most skeptical about this stuff, like prominent physicists like Brian Greene, are promoting stuff that really sounds outlandish.

Greene is one of a number of physicists who are coming to believe that our reality is basically a hologram. If true, then in some sense we do live in a virtual reality, because a hologram is merely the projected illusion of something that is real and three dimensional, but isn’t.

More specifically, what these physicists are suggesting is that there are many more than the four dimensions (time being a dimension too) that we perceive. This has been accepted wisdom among physicists for decades: that there are 10 or 11 dimensions with the ones we can’t experience being “curled up”. If you think about it though, three of our four dimensions describe space, because space has height, width and depth. Einstein discovered about a hundred years ago that time is relative. The closer you travel to the speed of light, the more time elapses on places not trying to move toward the speed of light. So in some sense, Einstein is suggesting that time is virtual. In fact, Einstein called time an illusion.

The latest thinking among these physicists seems to be that not only is time an illusion, but that space is an illusion too. It turns out this is the simplest explanation for the Schrödinger’s cat paradox, that if a cat could be shrunk to quantum size, then it’s possible for the same cat to be both alive and dead at the same instant. This is because of the non-deterministic nature of the quantum world, where photons can be both particle and wave, depending on whether they are observed or not. If I understand what they are saying correctly, then this only makes sense if space is virtual too.

How to think about this? I imagine a transparent cube through which sunlight streams. It projects a three-dimensional real thing on a surface, but it is a two dimensional entity that we are looking at. If time and space are illusions, as a growing number of physicists are suggesting, then our lives are virtual and space is as virtual as time.

There also seems to be consensus that consciousness is external to all of this. So essentially we are all manipulating a model using consciousness that we call our lives. I imagine me (my consciousness) spending all its time looking at the projection of a cube on a two-dimensional surface. That is my reality, what I call my life, mainly because it’s something I can make some sense of life through interacting with it. I’m so focused on it that I cannot step outside of it. None of us living can, except perhaps some mediums among us. For those of us trapped inside this hologram, it’s as real as it can possibly be. But increasingly we understand that our reality is actually virtual. Perhaps it is better expressed that reality is much more than we can sense.

Many mystics believe in the notion of astral planes, i.e. other realities that the soul (consciousness?) can ascend or descend into outside of the one plane we call life. Many believe that we go into another astral plane after death. Most people believe they only have one life. Those who believe in God generally believe there is only one unique kind of afterlife, in which one size fits all. So most of us can conceive of only two astral planes: this life and the heaven or hell that awaits us in an afterlife. Conceptually there could be many more. Since there are 10 or 11 dimensions and we can only experience four (all of which may be virtual) there could be six or more other planes of existence that our souls/consciousness could inhabit or perhaps already inhabit.

It sounds so bizarre and unreal, particularly given that our reality seems to completely real to us. But this is basically what our best scientists now seem to be telling us. This is not to say they mean that a grand afterlife awaits us in some sort of heavenly cosmos. This is not to say that our traditional notion of God is real either. It does suggest though that real reality, whatever that is, is much grander, interesting and puzzling than we can perceive. If consciousness is apart from what we call reality and it persists after death (we can call it a soul), it does suggest our greater universe is some sort of collective consciousness slowly moving into increasing understanding and complexity as we discover and probe our universe through virtual realities, one of which we call our lives. We may be creating this reality simply by probing and testing its many layers and permutations.

I am reminded of the late author/philosopher Ayn Rand, whose theory of Objectivism I poo-pooed a few times over the years. I still think her theory is bullshit, since it was all about the individual and cared nothing for relationships. But one aspect of her theory was something to the effect that our lives are virtual; so we should feel free to manipulate it to get what we want out of it and don’t worry about the consequences. When we do this, we get the effects we are experiencing today, including the crisis of global climate change. It’s real enough in what we call reality and must be stopped.

Yet on some sort of grander, more cosmic level, she may be right. If these inferences are right, then we are all manipulating models of some sort of virtual world we cannot fully understand or escape, much like a baby puzzles through stacking blocks. Increasingly though, as real as it seems to us stuck in it, our reality is actually virtual. At the very least, it is an imperfect projection of a much grander and more complex reality whose true nature we are slowly uncovering.

The best in life is yet to be: an essay on healthy mortality

The Thinker by Rodin

Another birthday has come and gone. Since this one did not end in a zero, it did not deserve particular attention. But since I am in my sixties now, most of my life is firmly in the past. I’ll be fortunate if only two-thirds of it is in my past. Aside from a nice dinner of meatloaf and seeing If Beale Street could talk at a local arts cinema, it was like any other day.

Something I find curious about aging is that the one thing that bothered me about it growing up – death – doesn’t particularly bother me anymore. Death should be less of an abstraction at my age. We had our next-door neighbor die about a year ago. Both my parents are dead; my father curiously died three years ago on my birthday. My daughter slips into her thirties this year. We are on on our fourth set of cats. Living in a 55+ community, with most of my fellow residents older than me, it appears that advancing age doesn’t seem to bother them either. The oldest is 93 and he still gets around and enjoys life.

I’m trying to figure out why this is. It could be because I am in reasonably good health and have an excellent chance of enjoying another twenty years or more in good health. Part of it could be because we are both retired and don’t have the hassle of working or worrying about money anymore. But I’m also coming to think that a lot of it is due to not being religious. In my early twenties it’s fair to say I wasn’t religious, but I was still under a religious hangover. In my case, it was a Roman Catholic hangover. It clouded my thinking about death.

With a few exceptions, religion does much more to make us anxious about death than provide a balm to address it. It does seem ironic because if you check off the right checkboxes and have true faith, then eternal life is something of a given, albeit in a different state. And we are promised that in this case our next eternal and spiritual life will be a lot happier than this one.

For many of us, life is more chore than blessing. I don’t have to step far from my home to see it. During the recent arctic blast, two homeless people died of hypothermia in a tent behind a McDonalds restaurant in Greenfield, a town twenty-five miles north of us. The local homeless shelters could not accommodate the overflow crowds. I can see the homeless wandering downtown or holding cardboard signs at some prominent intersections. As miserable as life appears to be for them though, they still cling to it. For retired people like me without much in the way of worries about descending into poverty, life at this stage is exactly what I wanted out of life and finally received. It feels like a blessing. And it is, at least partly. I was able to hang onto a good paying job with benefits long enough to reach a good retirement, and there were no intervening medical complications to strip it all away.

No wonder so many retired people are happy with their lives. Death is unavoidable but so is life. And life is often very complex to navigate, and gets more complex everyday. In my early twenties, my real angst was likely not about some inevitable future death, but whether I could pay the rent next month. It was likely that the latter fed the former.

It used to be that life was a much more miserable experience. Retirement was virtually unheard of. Many of us lived with massive pain and discomfort we could do little to remedy. Most of us died long before we were at a retirement age, often painfully and violently. If we reached old age, we depended on our offspring to tend to us when our bodies grew frail. Medicine though only became useful in the last hundred years. Social safety nets did not exist then; living in general was precarious and scary. Retirement was a luxury for the truly rich, if they survived long enough to enjoy it. Now most of us will reach retirement age and increasingly most of us can enjoy it.

In those darker and scarier times, religion promised not only salvation but also something more important: eternal comfort in some future afterlife, which was naturally appealing because for most of us life was trial and tribulation. These days though many of us can have that comfort right now, or at least when we reach retirement age. Is it any surprise then that in countries with high standards of living that religion seems to be fading away? It’s not just Western Europe; it’s happening here in the United States too, albeit more slowly. It’s fading faster in places that are more prosperous. Hence you find more atheists in New Jersey, and fewer in Deep South Alabama. Prosperity may be what kills off religion.

My devout Catholic mother went to her grave scared out of her mind. Part of it was because her condition was quite debilitating: her case of Progressive Supranuclear Palsy is similar to Parkinson’s disease. In general, it’s a bad way to go. Michael J. Fox isn’t happy about his diagnosis. Robin Williams made what seemed to him the logical choice and hung himself rather than go through a miserable decline. But my mother was also uncertain about whether she would make it into heaven. She alluded to many mistakes she had made in her life, as if any of us get through life without making mistakes. I think what really terrified her was not finding going to hell, but the idea of utter nothingness, which you have to assume happens to you after death if there is no afterlife. It terrified her probably because her Catholic faith had kept her thinking about it, at least until she couldn’t not think about it anymore.

And yet as I noted before, no one worries about their state of nothingness before they were conceived. So logically it’s kind of silly to worry about what you are after death, if anything. I do suspect though that with the right education a lot of us can learn to deal with death in a much more … what’s the word … healthier way. We can choose to be terrified of it, or not, by death. But it cannot be escaped.

I think that’s where my head is right now. Whether my soul survives after death or not doesn’t particularly bother me. For me, what works is to be present in my own life every day, and to do things that I find interesting and meaningful every day. With death the lights may go out or not, but I do take some comfort that I am immortal in a way. Because of Albert Einstein, we know that space-time is real, and that time is an illusion. My mom is still alive somewhere in the space-time matrix. I just lack the ability to slide through space-time like a tape recorder to see her again. Some mediums though claim they can do this.

Given that space-time is a fact and that religion requires faith, knowing that space-time exists tells me that I am immortal in a way, as I am part of space-time which is effectively immortal. It is a sort of faith for the faithless. And I didn’t need Jesus Christ to find it. I needed to understand the implications of what Albert Einstein was telling us.

DuckDuckGo is a better search engine

The Thinker by Rodin

Google pretty much owns the search engine market, but why? Perhaps it was because they were the first to do it well. In the old days of search engines when we were forced to use sites like Lycos and AltaVista, finding useful stuff on the web was excruciating, requiring you to go through many pages of results (and usually wait … these were back in the connect-by-modem days). Google figured out how to turn relevance into an algorithm. Basically, the more sites that link to a page, the more relevant it is.

There’s more to a search engine than that, of course, but that was the big innovation. And not surprisingly, once that was figured out other search engines figured out how to do this too. For most search engine queries, you will get a set of similar results.

But with Google search, you get more, but in this case more maybe less. Specifically, what you get is what Facebook figured out, probably after seeing what Google was doing. Google will watch your behavior closely and give you more of what it thinks you like. To do that of course, it had to learn a whole lot more about you. And most of us are happy to comply, since most of us are logged into Google accounts. Even if we are not, given that we leave cookies in our browsers, not to mention IP addresses, so Google can usually figure out it’s you. With every search engine query and use of its services it learns more about you. Google probably knows you better than your spouse does.

The downside is that, like Facebook, you end up in a filter bubble. Google knows if you swing left and so your queries are unlikely to show links that swing right, at least not on the first page. In short, Google and other search engines undercut its own quest to provide relevant search results by providing you links to stuff you are more likely to click on. They are relevant as long as you want results that reflect your biases.

It’s a profitable strategy for Google. It just watches you behind the scenes. Its powerful algorithms give you more and more reasons to invest time with Google and its many services. I plead guilty because like almost everyone I have a Google account. I use GMail extensively. I long ago stopped using an email client. I do all my email using GMail’s web interface. I do turn off the marketing (thanks, Google!) and, gosh, with all that space and it’s amazing search interface I can find pretty much anything in my email in a few seconds spanning more than a decade of use. Since I have lots of clients, it’s quite a value to do things like easily figure out what their issue was six month ago. I’m willing to pay to use GMail, if I have to.

But I don’t have to use Google search. Since discovering DuckDuckGo, I rarely use it for search anymore. That’s because DuckDuckGo is kind of retro in a way: it provides more relevant results by getting you out of search personalization. I’m getting more relevant results with it. Moreover, DuckDuckGo doesn’t track your usage. It doesn’t know who you are. It doesn’t follow you around with ads. It just gives you highly relevant search results with incredible speed. I can hardly press the enter key before I get a page of results.

My result is now a lot of highly relevant content I wasn’t seeing before, mainly because it wasn’t on the first page of results. Google was figuring I didn’t want to see this other stuff, but I do. Actually, it was feeding me links that matched my biases, hoping I would stick around. With DuckDuckGo though, searching is becoming more useful again. Moreover, I am learning stuff by reading sites I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. I’m becoming more informed, getting actual news and perspective. Real news after all tells you objective truth, not selective truth. I’m moving out of my own filter bubble and into a wider world. I am gleaning actual insight. It’s neat and kind of humbling. But it shouldn’t be. Rather, the question should be why did Google and other search engines put us in this bubble in the first place? Of course: they were chasing mammon, putting their best interests ahead of yours

To use DuckDuckGo regularly, you have to change your default search engine. It’s not hard to do; it’s just something we don’t think about because for most of us we can’t imagine there is something out there better than Google. You’ve been sold a bill of goods that isn’t quite true.

Try it for a week and tell me I’m wrong. I’ve been using it for a few months now. I can’t see ever going back.

For more reasons of the virtues of this search engines and some of Google’s slightly evil side, watch this video:

Trump folds

The Thinker by Rodin

Yea! We get to have an open federal government again! Donald Trump threw in the towel this afternoon and agreed to reopen government, at least for three weeks and without getting his stupid border wall. Just a couple of days ago I lamented that I couldn’t see how this would end. I was not alone. But very suddenly, it all changed.

We’ll probably not know for a long time what changed Trump’s mind. If I had to guess, it was the wheels spinning off the federal government. Air traffic controllers were calling in sick in enough numbers that it caused the FAA to suspend air traffic in and out of New York’s LaGuardia Airport. When stuff like this happens, the pain extends beyond federal employees, their families and federal contractors. It hits the general public. And that makes them mad.

So it may be the unpaid but essential federal employees who brought the shutdown to an end by refusing to take the crap they were dished out anymore and calling in sick. It’s one thing for Trump to piss off his base; he’s basically been holding the government hostage to show Ann Coulter that he’s a real man. It’s quite another thing to be held responsible, not for the shutdown (all the polls show he’s being held to blame) but for something truly serious like an E. Coli outbreak or two airliners crashing into each other because there were insufficient controllers on duty.

This whole shutdown has been counterproductive to Trump’s and the Republican Party’s ends. It was stupid to do. It was an impulsive and rash decision by Trump in the first place. He is consistent in not thinking through the consequences of his actions. But it has had some surprising results. For the first time in my memory, the general public sympathizes with federal employees. They are no longer an evil, overpaid, lazy bunch of bureaucrats. They are real people who are seen as necessary and underpaid to boot.

The Republican Party has promulgated a lot of myths about federal employees over the years. As a four-year federal retiree, these always chafed on me. These myths have now been laid bare. Federal employees have endured decades of little or no cost of living raises. In the name of deficit reduction, it’s always in fashion to make federal employees pay.

In fact, the benefits of being a federal employee have been dramatically reduced over the decades. Federal employees still have pensions, but they are being asked to contribute more toward them. Inadequate cost of living raises have eroded their ability to buy things. Most federal employees live or work in the cities, which are high cost areas. They have been financially stretched for years.

So was no surprise to me to read stories of furloughed federal employees going to food pantries and losing their leases. So many of them are living paycheck to paycheck because their pockets have been picked for decades. To add insult to injury, now they get regularly furloughed. While federal unions are allowed, they are effectively toothless. They can’t bargain on wages. The sorts of benefits they bargain for amount to the discount at their department’s in-house health club. In August, Trump canceled a federal employee cost of living raise, for no reason anyone can figure out other than spite. The proposed raise was meager anyhow and would not have even kept up with the cost of living.

But it turns out that we need federal employees after all. And to fulfill a Republican’s worst nightmare, the general public now sees the value of federal employees. They make things work. They also see them as human beings, not faceless bureaucrats. It will take many years before they can be effectively stereotyped again.

From our trashed national parks, to our Coast Guard operating without pay, to the TSA agents who keep us safe traveling to the customs agents I encountered a week ago flying home from Ecuador, federal employees do important stuff. Some of the most important work you don’t see but take for granted, like ensuring that your food and medicine you use are safe. But it’s also stuff that is harder to see. During the shutdown, weather instrumentation that could not be maintained. This reduced the reliability of local forecasts.

Strangely, some federal employees do vote for Republicans. Not so much anymore. Even the most hardcore Republican in the federal bureaucracy won’t vote for Trump again, and probably not their Republican legislator or senator either, at least if they had a hand in keeping this shutdown going.

So who were the winners and losers?

  • Loser: Donald Trump. He literally could not have done a worse job with this shutdown. He proved once again that governing is way out of his league. He has no idea how to govern, how to garner support or even the basics of our constitutional government. He literally pleased no one, including his base. He only squealed because he was frightened things could get irreparably worse and that he would indelibly bear the blame. As for winning in 2020, he’s toast with 57% of Americans saying they will never vote for him in 2020.
  • Winner: Nancy Pelosi. It’s clear that she can kick ass and Trump is actually afraid of her. It may be because she is smart and pretty, and he finds that intimidating.
  • Winner (of sorts): Mitch McConnell. By refusing to do anything that Trump wouldn’t approve of, he likely did not reduce his 2020 reelection chances by much because he did not piss off his base too much. That’s all he cared about anyhow. He judged that no one would hold him accountable in the end. He’s probably right on that. As for his reputation as a spineless person unwilling to do his constitutional duty, that’s intact and impossible to erase.
  • Losers: Republicans in general. The Senate will probably flip to Democrats in 2020, and this shutdown will be a major factor. It is now seared as a painful national memory. Expect Republicans to lose more House seats too.
  • Winners (of sorts): Federal employees. They have found new sympathy and respect from the public. Actually, they have garnered empathy. A lot of them will throw in the towel anyhow, at least those who can afford to cut their losses and get out. I wouldn’t blame them. They’ve been treated abominably.
  • Losers: The American public in general. If nothing else, the 20% of the government that was shutdown for a month bought you nothing of value and made things worse. This was money wasted. This shutdown is likely to result in a negative GDP quarter and quite possibly trigger a recession.

We’ll see if Trump has learned his lesson in three weeks. He’s obviously not playing with a full set of marbles, so he might shut down the government yet again. Here’s hoping he’s retained enough of them not to make the same mistake twice.

The price of the never-ending federal shutdown

The Thinker by Rodin

Before we left for our vacation in Ecuador, I was wondering if two weeks later there would be anyone left around to let us back in. I was not particularly prescient in believing that the government would still be shut down. Still, our trip home from Quito connecting in Miami was nervous. Would TSA and Customs be on the job? Would we be able to catch our connecting flight on time?

It worked out for us, only because some gods decided to put us on TSA PreCheck. We were scanned leaving Quito but that’s not good enough for the TSA; if you are an international arrival, you have to go through TSA’s scanning. So when we finally got to TSA screening in Miami, it took less than five minutes, while the queue in the regular line was 15-20 minutes. So we made our connecting flight to Boston, but just barely, practically running the whole way to our gate (not easy when my wife has a bad knee).

On these international flights coming into the U.S. you must also go through Customs. There things were a bit alarming. It’s not that we had to wait a long time to get through Customs. It was just the opposite. Everyone was being hustled through at warp speed. You make your declarations at machines now. When we finally got to a customs’ agent, he never bothered to ask us a single question, just glanced at our passport and waived us through. It was just as alarming after we claimed our luggage. Yes, you have to claim them and check them again on your domestic flight. You drag your luggage past a few CBP agents who may ask to check your baggage. But they couldn’t be bothered. We had just come from Ecuador. We could have easily smuggled many kilos of cocaine in our suitcase. Perhaps dogs were sniffing the luggage before we picked it up, but the CBP agents looked like they didn’t give a damn. No one’s luggage was being pulled aside. I was left with the impression that our unpaid TSA and CBP agents were present in body, but not in spirit.

I also suspect that things are going to get worse. At some point this house of cards is going to collapse. There are already signs of it. Over the holiday weekend, 10% of TSA agents did not show up for work. Certain airports, like Atlanta (the world’s busiest airport), are already experiencing moderate to severe delays due to insufficient TSA staffing. Federal employees are not allowed to strike, but you can only test their patience so long when they are not getting paid. If this government shutdown goes on long enough, it may be rebellious federal employees figuring they have little to lose who gunk up the machinery of government that manage to break the logjam.

It’s clear that the shutdown is just going to drag on and get worse. It’s also clear that in particular Republicans really don’t care who they hurt. Some of them see government dysfunction as a good thing. If federal employees go homeless or people starve because they don’t get their food stamps, hey, it’s no skin off their backs. So it will probably take some major government lapse to move things, but even so there’s no guarantee. If hundreds get sick from E. coli infections because food inspectors are furloughed, or airplanes start crashing because federal authorities haven’t inspected them, maybe some action will happen. This shutdown shows every likelihood of continuing for months.

Action may finally happen when sufficient numbers of businesses petition Congress to end it. Republicans do listen to business. The airline industry is already suffering, and they give lots of money principally to Republicans in Congress. Delta Airlines figures the shutdown has cost them $25M so far in January. Threaten to stop giving these politicians money and they may find the courage to do what is necessary. Or certain segments of federal workers forced to work without pay may find the courage to strike. How are you supposed to get to work if you can’t afford bus fare?

If TSA and CBP agents en masse stopped showing up for work, that would ratchet up the level of this crisis. The shutdown’s continuation depends of the patience and suffering of people who can’t exist in this state forever. If they strike then perhaps Trump, like Reagan with air traffic controllers, would decide to fire them all. Perhaps he’d send in the military to do their job. TSA agents though don’t have that much to lose. Most are paid around $30K a year, a pittance for a federal employee, plus they have to work at inconvenient times and at weird shifts.

I just don’t see how this ends. There is simply the absence of leadership to end it. Moreover we have a tone-deaf president that cannot see past six feet in front of him. Vladimir Putin must be ecstatic watching our great nation crumble into dysfunction.

Trump is likely to sink the Republican Party

The Thinker by Rodin

This NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll has some really bad news for Donald Trump and the Republican Party. The poll focuses on the latest government shutdown and Trump’s further sagging approval ratings. The real story though is a bit below the fold: 57% of voters surveyed said they will definitely not vote for Donald Trump should he run for reelection in 2020.

Assuming the poll is accurate and those polled will carry through on their threat, should Trump run for reelection in 2020, he can’t win. Democrats could presumably pick just about anyone for their nominee and he or she would win instead. Assuming that Trump does not resign or is not impeached and removed from office before his term expires, he’s destined for defeat.

I will grant you that elections are often decided in their final weeks and that what seems like a sure thing now it no guarantee in November 2020. However, the Trump brand is fully established now. It’s also quite obvious that Trump will not change. It looks like his idea of running the government models how he runs his businesses: they go bankrupt due to his insatiable ego and complete incompetence. It’s hard to see how any campaign by Russia can undo America’s opinion of Donald Trump now.

All this is good news if you don’t like Donald Trump. Savvy Republican operatives though (if there are any of them left) should not have too much trouble figuring out the implications of this: Trump is likely to kill the Republican Party. If so, it would be karmic justice, and perhaps some compensation for the hundreds of thousands of federal employees and likely millions of federal contractors not being paid during the longest government shutdown in our history.

That’s not to say this shutdown might not injure the Democratic Party too. The longer it goes on, the likelier that both parties will share in the blame. Most voters though understand the real issue: Trump simply won’t compromise. He’s now gone out on a limb. To pull back now makes him lose face with the only group he cares about: his base. But his base keeps shrinking. By one measure it’s down 7%, based on his poll numbers.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) thinks he is being savvy by not having the Senate take up any of the appropriations bills passed by the House to end the shutdown unless he knows that Trump will approve them. By his way of thinking, this keeps him in good stead with Trump, who doesn’t like him (the feeling is mutual). It’s quite likely though that if any of these bills were actually voted on, they would pass easily. There might even be veto-proof majorities in both houses. McConnell is up for reelection in 2020 too in a deep red state that sided heavily with Trump. So he thinks his strategy is smart: it innoculates him from criticism that he undermined Trump.

But it’s not. Republicans currently must defend 22 seats in 2020, including McConnell’s. Democrats have to defend 12. With the Senate 53R-47D, Democrats have to pick up just four seats to flip the chamber. Picking up 4 of 22 Republican seats while defending their own seas are excellent odds. This is easily doable but gets much harder for Republican senators who closely align with Trump. And the longer the shutdown goes on, the more pain it inflicts on their reelection prospects as more of their constituents are affected by the shutdown. Every day sears the memory more.

Basically, Trump is a huge and present threat to the viability of the Republican Party. After 2020, it might be effectively killed. The smart thing for Congressional Republicans to do is also the most risky in the short term: dump Trump. Trump’s negatives will probably inspire other Republicans to also run for the 2020 Republican nomination. These efforts are likely doomed because the Republican Party as we have known it ceased to exist with Trump’s election. So in some sense, the Republican Party is already dead. What is it without Trump? What is its center? What is its animus? Who does it represent? Whoever it represents, it will require a coalition to govern and Trump’s base is not nearly large enough. Trump is Humpty Dumpty. It’s hard to see how to bring the Republican Party together again.

Trump is leading McConnell and the spineless people that populate the Republican Party right off the cliff.

Touring the Galapagos Islands

The Thinker by Rodin

If you are going to come all the way to the Galapagos Islands, you had better like nature. And hiking. And climbing over fields of lava rock. And sea lions, iguana, sea turtles and tortoises. And weird and interesting landscapes. You should not come here if you are looking for the amenities of civilization, like lots of fancy ethnic eating, dance clubs, Starbucks and skyscrapers.

They do try to cater to our tastes but it’s not the same. I ordered pizza for dinner the other night. The sausage was unspiced, the pepperoni uninspiring, the sauce nothing to brag about. There is “Tex-Mex” food which is pretty good. Just don’t expect much in the way of other types of cuisine. You can get sushi, but most other ethnic food except for Ecuadorian food is not available.

If you know anything about the Galapagos Islands, you will know that it is largely uninhabited. This is by design but it’s also something of a necessity, as it doesn’t make a great place for human habitation. Just 35,000 people live here in the Galapagos in three “port” cities, the biggest of which we are in at the moment: Puerto Ayora, on the south side of Isle Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz is roughly equivalent to Oahu without of many of its amenities, except for palm trees and volcanos. Puerto Ayora has 12,000 of the islands’ 35,000 people. This makes it roughly as big as the village I live in (Florence, Massachusetts), and the population of the entire Galapagos Islands roughly the size of the city of Northampton, Massachusetts in which my village resides.

Puerto Ayora tries its best to compensate. It has a beautiful marina, and the streets are lined with tourist related businesses. There are many shops selling day trips to the islands. There are also a decent number of restaurants. Without the tourist trade, it would be economically devastated. It’s mostly Americanos who come here, but many from mainland Ecuador come here too, as it is their primary place of escape.

It’s pretty easy to transact commerce even without knowing a word of Spanish. The merchants at least know just enough to get by, and since it usually involves dickering over price, they will often use a calculator to show their asking price. You might as well dicker over the price. It is generally expected, except at restaurants. There are some bars and nightclubs here too, but not too many as not too many are needed. You got to get away from the marina to find things like grocery stores and pharmacies.

If for some reason you want to move here, that’s virtually impossible. Even mainland Ecuadorians can’t move here. They want to keep the islands as natural as possible and really these islands would have a hard time supporting much more of a population. Your only hope is to marry a native Galapagos Islands resident. And then you would have to be temperamentally disposed to live around here without most of the amenities you may be used to. Moreover, prices are often high here. A pair of Levi jeans will cost you more than $100, a bottle of sunscreen more than $25. So a lot of residents wait for trips to the mainland or to the United States to stock up on these essentials, bringing back with them much more than they left with. The only bargain I found here so far was a local laundry service, found behind a small gate along a cinder block lined pathway. Total cost to clean nine days of sweaty clothes: $7.90.

So enjoy your time in the Galapagos Islands, just remember it will be short lived. There are always other islands to visit and hike, but many are far away and hard to get to. So instead take advantage of the nature close at hand, which includes a lot of sea lions. It’s hard not to find them as they will often be lounging on wharfs, beaches and rocks along the coast. They are certainly cute to look at with their tiny ears and big eyes, even if they are often in your way when you want to go somewhere.

Sailing the Galapagos Islands

The Thinker by Rodin

The good and predominantly Mormon citizens of Utah (or more specifically, its politicians) are doing their best to tear up the state, replacing bucolic vistas of cacti, mesa and desert flora with strip mines, particularly near national monuments like Bears Ears. This is an obscenity, but Utah is hardly alone among red states. Meanwhile, the Trump Administration seems determined to kill nature and thus kill all of us by opening up federal lands to private interests and putting more pollutants into the air … part of its “culture of life”, I suppose.

So perhaps it’s not surprising then that we are seeking out what nature is left, the  more natural, the better. Specifically we are sailing among the Galapagos Islands, which are a few hundred miles west of Ecuador on the equator.  Around the time I was born, Ecuador decided to turn these islands into a giant ecological preserve and national park. They were betting that leaving it unadulterated was smarter than populating and exploiting it. Maybe before it’s gone, the citizens of Utah will also realize to leave well enough alone too.

Isabela Island, the Galapagos
Isabela Island, the Galapagos

Utah has one advantage the Galapagos do not: it’s easier and cheaper for tourists to get to. You have to really really want to visit the Galapagos Islands to go there.  Ecuador deliberately makes visting these islands hard. There are no international flights here, so you must connect through Ecuador’s international airports. You also need a tourist pass, which costs $100 per person and there are often other fees as well. Cruise ships don’t come here; Ecuador won’t allow them. So to see the islands you have to find a licensed tour operator. There aren’t many, which makes it a pricey vacation.

If you want what amounts to a cruise like we do, you end up on a large yacht, in our case the Coral I (which sails with a sister ship, the Coral II). Don’t call the Coral I a cruise ship. It’s less than 130 feet long, and handles just 38 passengers plus a dozen crew. There are no slot machines on board, and no fancy waiters with white linen napkins hanging from their arms either. Instead you get buffet meals and you had better be on time. Breakfast is usually served at 0715, lunch at 1230 and dinner at 1830, generally in the dining room toward the bow of the ship. Ship time amounts to -5 GMT, instead of -6 GMT used in the islands, which allow them to extend daylight into more tourist-friendly hours. There is no evening entertainment except a briefing by one of the naturalists on the next day’s activities. There is a tour or two during the day on one of the islands, and one or more opportunities for snorkeling either over open water or on a beach.

While the crew of the Coral I do their best to give you a good experience, it’s not Royal Caribbean. Cabins are small compared with cruise ships. Keep your expectations modest. It’s what’s outside that you are paying for. I went snorkeling twice in deep water, swam by two famous Galapagos sea turtles and under a pelican’s feet. Once I got on the dinghy just in time to see a shark circling nearby. Fortunately, they don’t bite humans.

Darwin Lake, near Tagus Cover, Isabel Island, Galapagos
Darwin Lake, near Tagus Cover, Isabel Island, Galapagos

These islands of course are known for the many uniquely adapted species. The naturalist Charles Darwin posited his famous Theory of Evolution by making careful observations of differences in similar species on different islands. Darwin is a rock star here. He has a volcano and lake named after him and a research institute that we’ll visit later in our tour. Herman Melville, a real life whaler as well as writer found inspiration for Moby Dick here, where whales were plentiful. For a time in the 19th century near Darwin Lake the cliffs ran red with whale blood from all the whale slaughtering. For what looks like a pretty dry, volcanic and arid area, the wildlife is quite abundant. On a hike we had a hard time not stepping on all the iguanas around us. Only here in the Galapagos can they swim and sneeze salt. They have adapted.

I expected these islands to be smallish and kind of squat, but they are not. They have mountains here, if you consider mountains to be a five hundred meters high or so. There are also plentiful sheer cliffs, usually inhabited by creatures in close proximity to each other. I didn’t expect to see a whole lot of green but there is more than I thought, particularly at higher elevations. I did not realize that these islands all have volcanos, and most are have active volcanos. New land is being created every day around here. You don’t see volcano cones, but you do sometimes see fissures on the sides of mountains with steam venting out of them, making them look like clouds. You also see what looks like frozen black rivers falling off cliffs and into the sea: igneous rock that was once lava. There isn’t much in the way of beaches, but those that exist are mostly black sand from all the volcanic activity. It’s not hard to find areas strewn with lava boulders and fissures.

As islands go, the Galapagos Islands are rather new. Volcanic eruptions have joined some of them together over the millennia. Eventually, they will probably become one larger landmass. Unlike Hawaii where land is being created eastward, here they are being created westward. Some of the older eastern islands are slowly disappearing into the sea. It’s a world that is evolving with astonishing speed, in both geological and biological terms.

In mankind’s quest to ruin the planet, we are also destroying species and decimating the population of those species that remain. In my short sixty-something years I have already seen the change: the outside is a quieter place. I am rarely swarmed by insects or have a hard time hearing over the birds chirping anymore. Here in the Galapagos Islands though nature is still abundant, thanks to its isolation and Ecuador’s insistence that it will stay that way.

Vicente Roca Point, Isabela Island, Galapagos
Vicente Roca Point, Isabela Island, Galapagos

The Galapagos are remote in the best sense of the word and largely unspoiled. The equatorial sun shines intensely all year here. The nights have zero light pollution, making it an excellent place to see stars if clouds disappear. I am unfamiliar with southern constellations. Here you can see both the Big Dipper and the Southern Cross, but not necessarily at the same time.

The wildlife is largely inured to us human visitors. Most have no natural predators, which means they get to live in something of an animal Eden. The many sea lions spend most of their time basking on rocks or diving into shallow pools fed by incoming tides. The sea lions are often playful. We were watched curiously by a young sea lion as we got off our dinghy to walk a path over a boulder strewn beach. You will find blue-footed boobies sitting on a crag of rock next to some vertically hanging crabs, that are adjacent to iguana, penguins (some actually slighlty north of the equator) and sea lions.

Next, four days of day tours from a nice hotel before we fly home. It’s been nice to disconnect from politics for five days. Well, not entirely. I’ve been reading Michele Obama’s biography Becoming and am surprised to find that it’s very well written and quite a page turner. It’s worthy of a future blog post.

 

Ecuador

The Thinker by Rodin

Mark Twain once wrote that travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness. This may explain our problem in the United States where sometimes even traveling to another state is considered exotic. 64% of Americans have never left the United States, and 10% of us have never left our state. It seems to me that those who most need to travel outside the country are the ones least able to afford to do so, which exacerbates our narrow mindedness. Happily, that is not our problem. If Americans do go to a foreign country, it is probably Canada, which I discovered in 2017 is largely the same but with roads that are well maintained. Europe is probably the main destination for Americans traveling internationally for pleasure. It’s much less likely that Americans will travel to more exotic destinations like Africa, South America or Asia.

A year ago this month my wife and I took a 16-day cruise, largely our chance to experience Central America from a comfy cruise ship and cruise-line sponsored tours. It helped expand our horizons, but this trip to Ecuador is a better experience. We’re in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, which also happens to be about 10,000 feet above sea level and about twenty miles from the equator.

In the United States, you tend to think of the Americas as the U.S. and maybe Canada. This first real trip to South America though proves it is something else entirely: the Americas are mostly Hispanic. There is far more Spanish spoken in the Americas than English. The only other major language spoken in the Americas is Portuguese in Brazil. It has 200 million people, so there are more English speakers than Portuguese speakers in the Americas, but probably not for too much longer.

Happily English remains something of a universal language, but that doesn’t mean that most people speak it. It does mean that if someone has learned a second language, it is likely to be English. On this tour of Ecuador, we have a nice personal tour guide/translator provided by the touring company. My Spanish is more than forty years old and I haven’t had much need to practice it. I can stumble through the basics but I can’t hold a meaningful conversation in Spanish. In the past this was a big barrier to travel, but today it is less so. You can carry the Google Translate app around on your cell phone and if necessary you can use it to broker a conversation with someone in a foreign tongue. You can even point it at signs and it will translate them, at least a lot of the time.

Having spent a couple of days in Ecuador though I am feeling my mind broadening and my prejudices narrowing. If you think of South and Central American the way Donald Trump does, presumably as with mostly shithole countries, you would be largely wrong. We have seen some pretty impoverished countries like Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, but no one would characterize Ecuador that way, at least not once you have actually been here. A closer match is Costa Rica and I suspect Argentina and Chile that I have yet to explore.

You could perhap call Ecuador second-world, but it feels more first-world than second-world. Quito, its capital, is thoroughly modern while its old city (a UNESCO heritage site) is charming. You see mostly new cars on the road, and actually fewer junkers than you see in the United States. You also see car models and brands not in the United States, lots of nice looking but probably cheap cars from places like China and the Czech Republic. None of the worst stretches I’ve seen here quite compare to the poverty you will find in many places in Appalachia. While there appear to be fewer rich people here, there also appear to be a lot fewer poor people, at least as a percent of the population. Wealth inequality feels less of an issue here than in the United States.

Things do take some getting used to, of course. For one, Ecuador is on the equator. Days are always twelve hours long, within fifteen minutes or so anyhow and the sun is usually overhead, casting little in the way of shadows but plenty in the way of ultraviolet radiation. There are a lot more diesel cars on the roads, in part because the state subsidizes diesel fuel. It’s ridiculously cheap, like about $1/gallon. These subsidies may be coming to an end. It may explain the protestors we heard chanting next to the Presidential Palace, just a few blocks from our hotel.

The Americas look a lot like Donald Trump’s worst fear: brown people, with some black people thrown in, who are mostly descendents of people we largely exterminated in North America: the natives. Many people here can trace some ancestry from Europe, but the general population evolved from the Aztec, Inca, Mayan and other races that predated colonization. How many of us in the United States aside from Elizabeth Warren can claim any Native American blood?

But really these are terrific people: religious, hard working, courteous and respectful for the most part. That’s not to say they are better or worse than the rest of us; they are just the same with a darker skin hue than some of us are comfortable with. They succeed when they form governments that lift them up and fail when they don’t. Ecuador, like many South American countries, is getting an influx of refugees from Venezuela, which is collapsing. Ecuador though has always had some things working in its favor. Its wealth is largely a product of its oil revenues and previously its plentiful plantations and gold. Its government is not without corruption, but it’s a lot less corrupt than most and its leader generally work for the people, while sometimes lining their own pockets. It’s a mosaic of different geographical regions, from the Amazon, to Pacific beaches, to a cloud forest, to the Andes Mountains. This is my first experience with the Andes and they impress: tall, incredibly steep and full of volcanoes, some active. San Francisco’s hills have got nothing on Quito’s. I’ve never seen steeper roads or mountains with more severe slopes.

In short, Ecuador is pretty neat, at least what we’ve seen of it so far. We went into the cloud forest yesterday (which means you drop down to a lower elevation where clouds are usually at) to a town called Mindo, did some walking, took a chocolate tour, enjoyed a good lunch at a nice restaurant and noted the many potholes when you get off the main roads. Mindo is just 22 miles from our hotel, but it took two hours to get there along the impossibly twisting roads you have to take.

I suspect if I had to live somewhere in South America, Ecuador would be a logical place. It’s pretty modern, pretty to look at, more affordable than most places in the U.S. and the people seem to be doing pretty well overall. Yes, there is poverty in places. You see lots of entrepreneurs walking amidst the often stalled traffic selling bags of fruit, bottles of water and windshield cleanings. You see sporadic homeless dogs and poor people in the plazas, a site that looks familiar to every place I’ve lived in America too. You also see some delicacies that would turn off most Americans, like deep fried guinea pigs on a stick. (I haven’t found the courage to try them, but I doubt they taste bad, given their popularity.) In fact, there are expat communities of U.S. citizens here, mostly along the coast, and there are gated communities aplenty in Quito’s suburbs you can probably buy into at a great cost savings compared to U.S. real estate prices. You would have to learn Spanish, but it’s not that hard to pick up. You can often figure out the signage. Ecuador also has some conveniences that Americans would like. Gas is sold in gallons, their currency is the U.S. dollar and there are plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit from the many stands close at hand. Also, you won’t need to change appliances. Current is 120 volts and the plugs are the same as in the USA. You just have to like mostly brown and predominantly Catholic people.

So there are plenty of good reasons to visit Ecuador although few Americans do. It’s not that far away. Our flight from Miami took about three and a half hours. You might find yourself charmed and decide that maybe the good old USA isn’t nearly as great as you and Donald Trump have been led to believe.