The Thinker

Arming teachers is still crazy but the NRA is even crazier

Another tragic but predictable mass shooting happened last week in Florida, killing seventeen high school students. A 19-year-old former expelled student of the school had no problem purchasing an AR-15 — a semi-automatic rifle — entering the school and causing mayhem. The armed officer who was supposed to go after the assailant fled instead, probably because he was scared but also because a standard issue police revolver is no match for an AR-15. Two of the dead were teachers who died protecting their students.

What made this shooting especially memorable was that it got the surviving students up in arms, so to speak. Within days they were at the state capital in Tallahassee petitioning its legislators to enact common sense gun restrictions. There were also TV interviews with the students, town halls with politicians and a meeting with Trump at the White House. Short-attention-span Don was given a set of five talking points to make it sound like he was being empathetic, a skill he simply lacks. Once the students were gone though his “solution” seemed predictable. While calling for raising the age to 21 for acquiring rifles (under which the AR-15 qualifies) — a proposition more rhetorical than anything else — he next pivoted to his “real” solution: put more firepower in the schools, principally by arming teachers. The “solution” to these Republican politicians is always the same: you solve the problem by doubling down on a failed strategy.

I last wrote about the folly of arming teachers after the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting. Some of the NRA talking points do make some sense. There are very few NRA members that would likely instigate something like this. Most NRA members are law abiding. It’s not the law abiding ones that I worry about though. The NRA’s real sin is not in causing these acts but in aiding and abetting them.

It’s all well and good for you not to take any lawless actions with a gun. But when you promote the equivalent of a huge open warehouse of guns and NRA members are encouraging anyone to come in and arm themselves, you are aiding and abetting. The NRA though goes far beyond this. They surround the warehouse with neon lights. There is a huge searchlight on the roof. They broadcast the warehouse’s hours on all the local radio stations. They make it easy to get a gun and encourage you to get as many not as you need, but as you want.

For an organization whose initial focus was gun safety this is a shocking turn away from their mission. It’s like encouraging kids to play with matches and open cans of gasoline. Okay, technically maybe this isn’t against the law. Matches and gasoline of course don’t kill kids by themselves. But they will kill some and injure a whole lot more if you make it super easy to play with matches and gasoline.

An organization at least originally chartered to promote gun safety should not be promoting people’s right to own AR-15s and enhance their semiautomatic weapons with bump stocks. This is because these actions are not responsible. First you need to demonstrate that you have the maturity to own a gun. Next you need to demonstrate that you can use a gun responsibly, perhaps by passing a required course in gun safety and marksmanship. Lastly you need to make sure that you can be held liable for your actions with a gun. Then maybe you should be able to get a gun. Maybe you should demonstrate for five years that you can use a handgun responsibly, and then are eligible to get an AR-15.

Obviously you can easily kill people with a gun. It’s pretty easy for me to kill people with my car too. To mitigate the likelihood that I will kill someone with my car, not only are there criminal penalties for doing so, but I also need insurance up the wazoo. Last I checked my wife and I were paying about $1700 a year for the privilege of driving. Most of that will compensate people who we injure driving or their property. If I had a history of driving aggressively I’d probably pay a lot more for insurance, if I could get it at all. Most states require drivers to carry insurance, which effectively means that if your driving is judged to make you a menace on the road, you can’t legally drive at all. Can you even get insurance that protects your liability for using a gun in this country? I doubt it. You should be required to get a gun insurance policy and show it to a dealer before you are allowed to even buy a weapon.

The NRA though aggressively promoted laws that allowed the alleged 19-year-old mentally unstable Florida shooter Nikolas Cruz to buy that AR-15. It actively worked against laws that would have kept mentally unstable people like him from acquiring these weapons in the first place. In fact last year it successfully got Congress to pass and Trump to sign a law that actually made it easier for the mentally ill to get weapons. The change said that no background checks were necessary unless the mentally ill person was likely to cross state lines.

And Trump’s new solution is to arm teachers, essentially putting out more open gasoline cans and matches as if by doing this will somehow make everyone safer. Of course it ignores the elephant in the room: guns are very lethal weapons and assault weapons are exponentially more lethal than handguns because they inflict greater injury, and much faster too. It’s like dumping gasoline on the sidewalk, giving kids burning matches and encouraging them to get close to the gasoline but not actually ignite it.

In short: it’s nuts. It’s absolutely true that barring some sort of bizarre accident, guns don’t kill people. People though kill people all the time, and in this country they principally do it with guns. Increasingly it is being done with ever more lethal weapons amidst denser populations. And they pack them in pretty tightly in our schools.

The Supreme Court has recognized that the right to own a gun is not absolute. You still can’t own a machine gun (unless it was manufactured before 1986 and you acquire it privately), although a bump-stocked semiautomatic weapon is virtually the same as a machine gun. No right is unlimited and that includes the right to bear arms. Society has every right to set boundaries on rights because no right is absolute, something the NRA likes to deny with guns. I have no right to yell “Fire” in a crowded theater. I have no right to publish libelous information. I have no right to assemble a crowd for non-peaceful purposes. And I have no right to possess weapons if I am mentally unstable, cannot use them safely or if their power is such that they effectively cannot be countered. Since at best cops hit their targets 20% of the time, an armed teacher is going to be even less effective. Most likely he will be mowed down before he can raise his weapon. If it is used it is just as likely to be used to maim or injure some innocent person than a perpetrator.

These reasonable restrictions on guns in the past were why school shootings rarely happened. Part of reducing these deaths though is also changing the culture that says unrestricted use of firearms is somehow virtuous. It is not and it kills thousands of us a year as a result. Students can clearly see that our laws are not working and that adding more guns will not ease the problem. With their energy and passion, perhaps common sense gun laws will return again.

 
The Thinker

Figuring out that Trump is guilty is not too hard

And so our national nightmare continues. At least last week we learned for a fact that not only did the Russian government interfere in the 2016 elections, but also that doing so is a crime. Special counsel Robert Mueller released a slew of indictments, mostly against Russian citizens who will likely never be held accountable for breaking our laws. In doing so though he demonstrated that crimes did in fact occur, something Trump can no longer deny. Instead, Trump says “no collusion!” However, if someone colludes with an illegal intent, collusion becomes conspiracy, which is illegal.

Most likely this is just the tip of the iceberg that Mueller (if he hangs around long enough) will expose. Trump is being premature in his ludicrous claim that this exonerates him. If anyone in his campaign knowingly helped the Russians in these efforts, they are guilty of conspiracy. Remember that during the campaign Trump said that he hoped the Russians were breaking into Hillary Clinton’s email server. By hoping they would do so, he was cheering the Russian government on, tacitly endorsing acts that are illegal. It’s not conspiracy, but the non-lawyer in me suspects this could be construed as providing moral support to the enemy. If it’s not a crime, perhaps it should be.

The title of my blog suggests its principle topic is the application of Occam’s Razor. I rarely talk about the razor, but I do today to state what by now should be obvious. The most likely reason that Trump is giving the Russians the pass is that he is being blackmailed. No other reason makes even the remotest sense. Moreover, Trump is taking extraordinary steps to give the Russians a pass. For example, he is required by law to impose additional sanctions on the Russians, in part due to their election meddling. Over 95% of the Congress voted for these sanctions. The Trump administration though has refused to impose any sanctions. His rationale seems to be that what we are doing is working so well. So well in fact that Russians haven’t been deterred in the least. As I write they are working hard to influence our 2018-midterm elections.

Mueller’s indictments reveal the scope of Russia’s information warfare against the United States. It’s pretty breathtaking and sophisticated. In today’s Washington Post, we learn that in a building in St. Petersburg, Russia hundreds of Russians are working around the clock to spread disinformation and inflame our partisan tensions just on our social networks. From the indictment we’ve learned this included sending Russians to America to stake us out (in violation of their visas). Their budget for this exceeds $1M a month. It was used to pay for things like a cage to place in a pickup truck to hold a fake Hillary Clinton in prison garb, to emphasize the need to “lock her up”.

The Russians have extensively analyzed the vulnerabilities of our social networks. Working with psychologists they have figured out ways to hit our psychological triggers. It’s all quite sophisticated. I doubt our government is doing anything similar. Its scope is pretty breathtaking, not that the Russians have had a chance to catch their breath. Their effort continues apace, nonstop. But Trump could care less. He has taken no actions in response. He of course won’t impose any new sanctions on the Russians. It’s not hard to imagine Republicans in Congress looking the other way too. Implicitly anything that lets them retain control of Congress, or limit their losses, is good in their eyes.

What Russians are doing though is not the least bit subtle. They are trying to further divide us with the ultimate goal of breaking us as a nation. Governments rarely fall from invading armies. Rather they rot from within. So anything the Russians can do to further the rot and accelerate it from their perspective is good. It is so much better to take over a country where the infrastructure is at least still in place. So much better the spoils of war. It’s so much cheaper too.

And our IT companies are at least unwittingly abetting them. One of the downsides of a capitalist system is that its weaknesses are easily exploited. Facebook and Twitter are powerful social networks, but they are principally in the business of making money. Making sure content is legitimate and from verified posters is expensive and time consuming. It’s so much easier to take the money and run, which they did. I am on Facebook and I have probably seen some of their targeted efforts, as have you. Facebook’s witting or unwitting willingness to foster this behavior has led my brother to leave Facebook altogether. He cannot support a company that supports our enemy. Arguably any true patriot should ditch Facebook, Twitter or any other company that helped accomplish the Russians’ ends. I may have to join them.

Also arguably these companies didn’t know that sophisticated schemes were underway to leverage our social networks in illegal manners. You can bet though that they were quick to take the money of whoever offered it to them. In the Russians’ case, it came principally through fraudulent PayPal accounts. Thus Elon Musk (whose Falcon Heavy rocket made the news last week) is also tied up in all this.

As for Trump, he is trapped. The Russians obviously bated him long ago by catering to his usual vices: beautiful women and money, skills the Russians have long excelled at. I expect that the Mueller team will report in time that much of the money that propped Trump up these last ten years or more came through Russian sources via Deutsche Bank. I expect in time we will see that a lot of money laundering from Russian sources paid for a lot of Trump’s lifestyle too. When you sell lots of $500K condos for $1M, 5M, $10M and $20M, when similar condos in the market don’t command that price, it’s a sign of money laundering. When these condos that are often left unoccupied and where buyer is some shell corporation you are probably laundering money.

Trump knows that Mueller cannot indict him. At least in the short term, all Mueller can do is report his findings to Congress, which can choose to impeach and/or remove him from office. Once he is removed however it is possible that he could be held to account for any crimes uncovered.

A more rational lawbreaker would be working on a plea deal. In Trump’s case maybe it would be agreeing to resign if Mueller agreed to not indict him on any criminal charges. Trump though is not thinking this through rationally. When you have a case of toxic narcissism like he has, you close your mind to such thoughts. Instead you do everything in your power (and he has plenty of power now) to keep the dogs at bay.

We don’t have to speculate about whether he’d use this as his strategy. Based on having people like his lawyer buy the silence of those women he’s had affairs with (like Stormy Daniels), it’s clear which methods he prefers. Only sometimes it comes to bite you. Putin likely has the goods on him. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if the alleged pee tape does exist and Putin is holding its release over Trump like the Sword of Damocles. Putin likely has a lot more than that.

So what you see is an ever more frantic and unhinged Trump. While he rages and tweets though, Russia continues its sophisticated cyber attacks on our country making many of us its ultimate victims.

 
The Thinker

Scared to death

Did you see the video of Donald Trump’s hair (or more accurately his lack of it)? It looks like on February 6th Trump had a really bad hair day. The camera caught these moments when he was ascending into Air Force One. Trump of course goes through great length to hide his thinning hair. While only his hairstylist knows some of his secrets (and I’m not sure he has one), it looks like he’s getting by by letting his sideburns grow to great lengths and sweeping them back.

Frankly it looks stupid. It’s rumored that Trump has had scalp reduction surgery, presumably to pull back and make the most what he has left of his hair. It’s obviously dyed and lacquered with something to make it thicker than it is. It’s also obvious that Trump wears dentures. No one has quite that perfect teeth. But when you are 71 all you can do is make the best of what you’ve got or in Trump’s case, fake it … bigly. Trump wants to pretend he’s much younger than he is and full of vigor, but if anything he looks older than his age.

Since two posts ago I turned 61. I’m doing relatively well hair-wise, at least compared to my younger brother. But like Trump I have a lot less of it on the top of my head and what’s left is a lot thinner as well. My former hairstylist assured me I would always have a full head of hair, but I doubt it. In the sun it’s pretty obvious it’s going. Like it or not I too am aging. And while like Trump I don’t particularly want to look older than my age and would prefer to look younger than my age, I don’t intend to fake it.

Still, Trump and I share one undeniable fact: were both aging and it’s only going to get worse. I have no illusions that I’m handsome enough to attract some younger babe. Unlike a lot of the men in the news these days I’m not in the mood to try. I like the woman I married 32 years ago, faults and all. She loves me. If I were to hitch up with some younger babe I’d never really believe she loves me anyhow.

I can’t read Melania Trump but I really doubt she loves her husband. She now has more reason not to love him if these Stormy Daniels rumors are true. Even if not true, she surely knew she was marrying a man with issues and infidelities. My guess is Melania knew poverty as a child, or enough discomfort that she wanted to be kept warm and in opulence for the rest of her life. At least she got that with Trump. If he dumped her like he did with his other wives there would be a fat alimony and a big bonus: not having to endure her husband anymore.

Aside from 46 chromosomes, humans share one important thing: we are all destined to die. One way to measure a person is to see how they respond to this knowledge. I try not to think about it too much but I live in a strange family. My daughter says she is not death-phobic. She’s converting my wife who is spending her time on YouTube watching the Ask the Mortician channel, and enjoying it. For the last few years my main way with dealing with death is to live robustly. Make every day count and stay engaged. For me life is about living. Death will take care of itself, since it is inescapable.

I do get this much from listening to my wife and daughter: many of us are trained to fear death. It’s not like this in all cultures, Japan for instance. But here in the west we are in the death-denying business. Some take it to crazy lengths, and Donald Trump must be near the top of the list. Trump’s reputed recent physical was crazy. He’s 239 pounds, and was probably holding helium balloons while he was weighed. He also inflated his height to 6’3” so he can technically claim not to be obese. His doctor, the White House physician, said he was in fabulous health. But the doctor was clearly lying. You don’t need to be a doctor to see it for yourself. Trump looks terrible, gets no exercise of note, requires statins to keep his cholesterol in check and has a diet that consists of a lot of McDonalds takeout food.

Many religions teach us there is an afterlife which if true is a good reason to not be worried about death. The problem is that most of us in our hearts don’t believe it. We can’t acknowledge to ourselves that we don’t believe it and that feeds a lot of anxiety, anxiety that seems to grow worse as we age. Trump is denying his mortality bigly. So did my mom when she was dying. Her faith was pretty useless to her. She was scared out of her mind.

Only two aunts (one of them in a mental hospital) stand between me and everyone in the generation before me related to me dead. Both my parents are gone, my father most recently two years ago on my birthday. The one aunt who is still of sound mine is taking lots of supplements, is carefully watching her nutrition and is getting lots of exercise. She is the youngest of twelve. All the rest are gone. She reports its sad and scary to see all those you loved die. What are left are mostly children and grandchildren if you are lucky to have them. She’s got the children, but both her husband and daughter are dead and died just weeks apart in misery. Of the three boys, two are married and none produced heirs.

Being a middle child I am likely to see some of my older siblings die before me and they will experience my absence from their lives when I die. That too is part of aging and dying, at least in a large family (I have seven siblings), if you live long enough. In some ways it is better to die sooner so you don’t have to go through that crap.

With six decades to ponder death though I’ve realized a few things. Death does not scare me. I don’t want to die by having my head chopped off with an axe or from a gunshot wound but that’s a logical fear to a particularly horrible way of dying. Having watched two parents die though death is no longer a mystery. It’s natural and it’s a consequence of living. I should no more be afraid of being dead than I should be scared that there was no me before I was conceived.

I am afraid of dying a miserable death like my mother endured. I can and will take sensible precautions to avoid those kinds of death. The major cause of her death was Progressive Supranuclear Palsy. I am taking COQ-10 to make it less likely that this will kill me, although it might. Parkinson’s runs in her family. My father died primarily of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). Basically his lungs died before the rest of him. I have a physical in two weeks and on my agenda is to ask my physician how I can avoid COPD. (Obviously I don’t smoke, and neither did my father. This is often where it begins.)

Something’s going to get me though and it will get Donald Trump too. You play the game, you do your best to stack the odds in your favor so you can at least optimally enjoy what time you have left, but a certain amount is left to fate. COPD is not a bad way to go if you have to go. My father was able to stay at home until nearly the very end.

So perhaps watching Ask the Mortician is not a bad idea. Maybe we have such phobias about death because we don’t want to confront our mortality. And yet there is nothing more natural than death. We will all experience dying but I suspect even in dying there is some living there. We will all find out in time if we can get suppress our fear of dying enough to enjoy living. That’s how I intend to go.

I don’t know how Donald Trump will go when his time comes, but I am confident he will fight it, lose like all of us do and maybe for the first time in his life feel humbled by forces outside of his control.

 
The Thinker

Much worse than Watergate

Our Chinese curse of living in interesting times continues. These days are truly extraordinary, although it may be hard for many Americans to see it. Our republic hangs in the balance on what happens over the next days, weeks and months.

It’s easy even for me to get caught up in the political drama of the moment, most recently the #ReleasetheMemo controversy. What’s harder to see is the big picture and how our republic is becoming increasingly tenuous. We are moving quickly toward an authoritarian state.

The #ReleasetheMemo controversy, with the said memo now officially released, allowed Republicans and Trump to release highly classified information to make the most tenuous possible case that the FBI and Justice Department is out to get Donald Trump. (A curious case to make since it is a department full of Republicans and has always had Republican FBI directors.) Releasing this memo also exposes sensitive intelligence sources and methods, which the Justice Department has said may result in people getting killed. You would think that this would give those approving this memo some pause, but not at all. Trump broadcast his approval of the memo even before even reading it. It’s not clear he actually has read it, as he has zero attention span.

How crazy is this conspiracy theory? Let Chuck Todd, host of NBC’s Meet the Press explain it:

Why Trump would do this is obvious: he’s trying to escape justice. It is now abundantly clear that minimally he and many on his team have obstructed justice. It’s also abundantly clear that Russia has the goods on him. Trump admitted as much after he fired former FBI director James Comey: he said it took the Russian heat off him. He wants to make this whole “Russian thing” go away.

The memo gives him the pretext to remove Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Rosenstein oversees the Mueller investigation. Mueller’s report will never see the light of day if Rosenstein is gone and Trump’s own lackey is in charge. So I expect Rosenstein will soon be fired. Mueller doesn’t have to be fired, but Trump will probably require his replacement to fire him anyhow. Trump will not allow himself to be held accountable for his actions. He never has and never will. Escaping justice is all he cares about.

A side effect though would be to make the Justice Department partisan and for it to lose its independence. Think about what this means. The Justice Department and the FBI in particular are our primary means of enforcing the law of the land. If they didn’t do this, you don’t have justice. At best you get very selective justice.

And Congress, at least almost all Republicans in Congress, are all for this. That was the whole point of #ReleasetheMemo. Congress is supposed to execute oversight of the Executive Branch. What we got now is just the opposite: Congress is aiding and abetting the White House and abdicating its role in oversight, in particular its oversight in making sure the Justice Department operates impartially.

So for the first time ever both Congress and the Administration don’t want the Justice Department to actually impartially administer justice. I was about fifteen when Watergate broke, and this didn’t happen during Watergate. It’s true that Democrats controlled Congress, but once Republicans realized the scope of Watergate they worked with Democrats to hold Nixon accountable. Now it is just the opposite.

This should not be surprising. Republicans are just following through on a long-executed playbook. Their goal is to end democracy and our republican government. In 2016 we not only elected Trump, but we also disenfranchised millions of voters. If these voters could have voted most likely would have kept Trump out of office. Republicans worked overtime to reduce the share of minorities and poor people who were allowed to vote. They aggressively purged voter roles.

Of course it’s not just limiting voting that Republicans worked at, but also at populating the judiciary with conservative judges, “strict constructionists”. So we pretty much have one party control now: Republicans control Congress, the White House and effectively the Judiciary, at least the Supreme Court. In Shelby County v. Holder, which struck down much of the Voting Rights Act, we watched conservative justices aid and abet the process of disenfranchising voters. One of Trump and Congress’s major tasks has been to put more conservatives in the judiciary by filling openings denied to Barack Obama during his presidency.

When you have a Justice Department that won’t administer justice; when you have a White House actively trying to keep the Justice Department from administering justice and setting it up so that it can’t do so in the future; when you have a Congress aiding and abetting by blocking the administration of justice; and when you have a court system that increasingly won’t uphold justice uniformly, you have a complete perversion of our form of government.

You have in effect removed the checks and balances from our system of government. We end up with a republican form of government in name only. Moreover, we set the conditions for authoritarian government instead.

That’s what we are up against at the moment. In the past I had faith in the American people to rectify the problem, which hopefully they will do in this year’s midterms. But our voting system is badly frayed due to gerrymandering and voter suppression. Depending how the Supreme Court rules in two gerrymandering cases it is considering this year, it could make our voting system even more disenfranchising. And we are also deeply polarized voting for our tribe rather than in the best interest of the country.

It’s abundantly clear that Republicans only want the “right” person to vote, which largely means only “white” people. We have a president who is openly racist. We have a Republican Congress that is pretty much the same way. The #ReleasetheMemo controversy shows just how extreme Republicans will go on this issue. They will put party before country, not just a little bit but by taking a mile instead of an inch. There is no bridge too far for them as long as they can hold on to power. Democracy and republican government don’t mean anything to them. They are not patriots.

All this is going on right under our noses but it is hard for many of us to see the full scale of the wreckage they are unleashing. True patriots will of course protest and work hard to change this. Republicans though have gotten so skilled at manipulating the system to favor only them that it’s unclear if anything short of a new revolution can actually restore democracy. Arguably, we don’t have it anymore.

 
The Thinker

One year of Trump: it’s beginning to look a little Stormy (Daniels) out there

It’s hard to believe we are a year into the Trump presidency already. In one sense Trump has succeeded: he has kept the conversation on himself. It’s what he wants from a presidency since if you are a narcissist this is how you measure success.

Trump does have a strength of sorts: he intuitively knows when to spin toward another topic when something in his life becomes too uncomfortable. Like sheep the media go along because they are always looking for something new and shiny to report, and his Twitter feed provides plenty of this kind of fodder. So when he decides to rant about Hillary Clinton again that becomes their topic of focus, rather than whatever brouhaha he was being criticized about.

A year of a Trump presidency has however clarified a lot of things. He is exactly the man we Democrats said he was during the campaign. In many ways he’s proven worse that our worst fears. The one area where he has (so far) assuaged my fears was that he did get us into a new war. Trump seems to realize that this is a red line he should not cross, mainly because it will come back to bite him bigly. But it is consistent with a man who is 100% bluster.

During the filming of The Apprentice he fired people right and left. That was all for show. The show was entirely scripted. In real life Trump doesn’t fire anyone, at least face to face. Basically Trump is a coward. He wanted his White House Counsel to fire Bob Mueller, the special counsel looking into potential crimes against him. When his counsel refused to do it on threat of resignation, he backed down. Reince Priebus (his first chief of staff) was fired with a tweet while he was out of the White House. Former FBI director James Comey was fired with a letter hand carried by an assistant to his office. Trump was so clueless he had no idea that Comey was on the west coast. So at least we now know that Trump is like the Wizard of Oz: just a man behind the curtain generating a lot of smoke.

It’s also clear that we have a man-child as our president. The best analogy I can come up with is that Trump is a grown up version of Calvin (from the comic strip Calvin & Hobbes.) In some ways though Calvin is more mature. Trump never left his terrible twos. This makes him utterly transparent. Just as a parent can read their child’s inner mind effortlessly, so can the nation read our president with ease. The only ones having trouble at it are those who voted for him. They see things like greatness in him that simply doesn’t exist. And they will excuse any behavior rather than face their own cognitive dissonance that they voted for this wreck of a man.

For example, there’s the latest Stormy Daniels controversy. It’s clear that Trump had an affair with the busty porn star about the time Melania gave birth in 2006. Trump of course denies it all. But there are three curious aspects of this affair that let you know it’s real:

  • In the Intouch Weekly interview, Stormy’s says they had sex, but not “porn sex”, just the unprotected kind. More tellingly in the interview she related Trump’s fear of sharks, something no one would know who had not spent a lot of time with him.
  • There is the picture of the two of them together.
  • The most damning proof is that when the allegations came out, Trump’s lawyers immediately issued a disclaimer from Stormy Daniels denying the affair. That’s right; Trump’s lawyers had this on file ready to issue the moment it came out.

No matter. His supporters and particularly the evangelical community seem happy to excuse him of this infidelity, one of many. They’ve excused plenty of other stuff too completely at odds with the morals they claim to follow. They are convinced the Lord is working in mysterious ways with Trump.

Trump has the attention span of a gnat and can’t remember a key point hammered in by an aide just minutes earlier. He constantly changes his mind because he can’t remember what his position used to be. The Washington Post documented more than 2000 lies and misstatements in his first year in office alone. Trump’s default response is to lie and he does it effortlessly and without thinking. He clearly does not feeling guilty about it. He doesn’t feel either guilt or shame. He can’t be trusted about anything, which is why Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer says negotiating with Trump is like negotiating with Jello.

Trump though can be mendacious. He’s a pretty effective agent of chaos. He consistently appoints people uniquely unqualified for the positions they serve, but who are nonetheless capable of crippling institutions in their charge. This is because Trump is good at finding reprehensible people, as it takes one to know one. In general his appointees show contempt for the institutions they serve, dislike the people in their agencies, work to pervert its missions they are supposed to champion and are prone toward corruption. Some agencies are better than others at resisting the will of their new leaders. The courts are proving reasonably effective at restraining the worst of Trump’s impulses. Unquestionably though our constitutional system is under immense strain.

It’s also clear that Republicans don’t care about rule of law, at least when they are in charge. Whatever means are necessary to achieve their ends are fine by them. So they certainly won’t be impeaching Trump. I figured they probably would a year ago, but then I had more confidence in the integrity of Republicans than they have shown. It will take a wave election in 2018 to hold Trump accountable, and it’s clear that Republicans are pulling out all stops to discount their likely losses.

We can at least hope but not expect that 2018 will be less crazy than 2017. Given Trump’s track record though it’s a wan hope at best. So keep those seat belts buckled, passengers.

 
The Thinker

Two book reviews: “After Lincoln” and “City of Dreams”

I’m back home after 19 days away. I’d like to say I was on the road but most of it was on a cruise ship so technically I was on the seas. When not at ports of call, cruise ships does give you downtime. With no Internet, there was time to do something I should do more of: read books. I completed two books on the trip, both worth your time if you are into histories.

After Lincoln: How the North Won the Civil War and Lost the Peace
By A. J. Langguth
ISBN 978-1-4516-1733-7

It’s curious how many books you can find on the Civil War but how few you will find about Reconstruction: the time after the Civil War when the slaves were technically freed but not quite equal citizens. This book by the late USC professor A.J. Langguth (1933-2014) finished in the year of his death delves into the messiness of the post Civil War years. You are introduced to a cast of characters including a number of rogues. The title gives away the ending, in case you are unfamiliar with U.S. history. What is truly heartbreaking is how much overt discrimination remains 140 years later. Moreover, the parallels between Andrew Johnson (who succeeded Lincoln after his assassination) and Donald Trump are more than a little creepy. (Trump though is actually worse.)

The book does not start immediately after Lincoln’s murder. Most chapters delve into particular historical figures, fills in their biographies before reconstruction and tell the roles that they played. It’s quite a gamut of figures: from Nathan Bedford Forest who founded the KKK (and led a very successful cavalry for the Confederacy) to Pickney Pinchback, half black by birth (white slaveowner, black slave) but all black in the eyes of society. He won election to the U.S. House and Senate for Louisiana, but was not permitted by Congress to actually be seated. There are also names that might ring bells from newspaper publisher Horace Greeley, to Secretary of State William Henry Seward (who bought Alaska for the U.S.) to presidents that served during this time. Johnson is the most infamous since he was impeached (but not convicted), but the book also covers Ulysses S. Grant’s eight years as president and ends with his more obscure successor: Rutherford B. Hayes.

Langguth’s approach works pretty well because it illuminates these figures while constantly adding backstory and connecting characters. The chapters are just the right size to be comfortable reads without feeling overwhelming. They also draw you in. The 13th, 14th and 15th amendments were progressive tools that should have made most of these class and race issues moot. By dropping out of the Union, states of the Confederacy gave power to the Republican Party to pass these progressive amendments freeing the slaves, giving them full enfranchisement and equal protection. To say the least the Southern states were put out. They became experts in passive and overt resistance that was occasionally quelled by the introduction of federal troops.

Langguth gets into all the details of how we lost the peace. Basically the South sort of won the Civil War after it lost it for two reasons: Jim Crow laws that courts were reluctant to strike down and northern Democrats who tired of the whole equal enfranchisement business. Essentially a critical mass of white America stopped caring.

At 375 pages (without appendices) it’s an appropriately sized history that should sustain your interest despite the known outcome. The movie Lincoln gave us a taste of some of these figures (like Thaddeus Stevens played by Tommy Lee Jones). Langguth colors in these characters and exposes the macro and micro forces at work during this time. In short, you’d have a hard time finding better book to read about Reconstruction, in part because so few have been written.

City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York
By Tyler Ambinder
ISBN 978-1-328-74551-4

Published in 2016, this book is one that I don’t think has been done before: a deep dive into New York City’s 400 years of history with a special emphasis on its many immigrant communities: who came, how they interacted, where they settled, who succeeded, who failed and the many tensions of living in this biggest of cities. Ambinder, a professor of history at George Washington University, fills out the story in part by documenting his own relatives’ paths.

This is a real tome: 738 pages, 570 pages without the appendices. It’s also the kind of history that I like best: that tells me things I would never learn otherwise. It’s a work of immense scholarship but written so well that at times you can’t put it down. To me the most interesting and appalling part of the book is its discussion of immigrants transit to America in the mid 19th century, which for most of our ancestors meant steerage class on a sailing ship: a slow trip to America in the bowels of the ship where sickness, overcrowding, darkness, dysentery and literal bowels made the journey hellish with many casualties along the way. The fetid atmosphere describe almost rises from those pages.

Curiously it intersects frequently with After Lincoln since the era around and after the Civil War forms a significant chunk of this tome. You see some of the same characters in both books, such as Horace Greeley and cartoonist Thomas Nast. Both books cover the draft riots in New York during the Civil War too. New York started out as New Amsterdam and was hence a Dutch colony, but the Dutch couldn’t hold onto it particularly as colonies around it became British possessions. People arrived by the boatloads. New York quickly became the largest city in the world. Jamming so many people into the city was done poorly at best. Most immigrants ended up in crazily crowded tenement housing, with populations per square mile so dense that they rivaled anything ever seen before. Ambinder also shines with his extensive look into tenement housing, whose details are equally as appalling as the passage of people in steerage class during the days of the sailing ships.

New York first previewed America’s coming ethnic tensions. How could it be otherwise when so many ethnicities were jammed together into so small a space? Then as now people self segregated themselves by ethnicity. For a very long time the Irish dominated the city. If the word Tammany Hall rings a bell, you’ll learn a lot about the Irish that ran it mostly corruptly while also giving employment to huge numbers of immigrants.

Ambinder though shows us that regardless of the time it’s always the same story. It’s only the cast of characters that rotate. In the 19th century the Irish were oppressed. The cartoonist Nast even drew them with gorilla foreheads. The No Nothing Party of the 19th Century was formed principally to keep the wrong kind of immigrants (the Irish in particular) out. Like Trump today, the No Nothings wanted only the right people to be Americans. Eventually though it was the Irish that saw themselves the most legitimate of New Yorkers and they worked to repress other groups, like the Italians. Having felt discriminated they seem to delight in dishing it out.

Ambinder’s detail is often staggering, but mostly it’s an engaging read. If it drags, it is only near the end where we see New York’s latest immigrants (mostly from the West Indies) going through this pattern yet again. As recently as the 1990s, whites in Queens were bashing in the heads of West Indies immigrants when they happened to stray into their ethnic enclaves. With Muslims pouring in today, Ambinder makes it clear that they too will become part of our fabric and that our fear of them is ridiculous.

I read a lot of history books and City of Dreams is definitely in the top ten percent of my favorites. It may be a tome, but it is definitely worth your time.

 
The Thinker

Report from some so-called “shithole” countries

Seeing Central America has been on my bucket list of a long time. Curiously Central America is largely not visited by cruise ships, but that’s changing. This Holland America 15-day cruise we’re on is mostly about getting up close and personal with Central America, or as close as you can get given that you will see it generally through shore excursions provided by Holland America.

I have been to so-called “shithole” countries before. Nothing I’ve seen so far quite compares with what I saw in the Philippines in 1987, when I was sent there on a business trip. It’s been thirty years and fortunately I’ve heard that tremendous progress has occurred there since then. I was quite appalled by the trip, even though I knew what to expect. A “shithole” country should almost by definition lack modern sewage systems. That was true of the Philippines back then, with some exceptions in Manila. Waste was generally dumped into the street and sewage for the most part into the rivers and tributaries, and most of the shacks that compromised housing lined these water sources. Cars had no emissions system so the atmosphere too was simply a toxic dumping ground, making areas in Manila in particular toxic to the lungs. The most appalling part was the lack of public education. It was a privilege available only to those who could afford it for their kids and most could not. So kids mostly grew up in the street, and were tempted into the abundant trade of services for the American seamen that I encountered. If you wanted to have sex with someone underage, it was not a problem. It was a grinding poverty where kids often smoked in the streets and worked hard to part us Americans from our money.

I was informed by some of the U.S. Navy people I worked with that as bad as the Philippines was, nearby Thailand was worse. Lots of people died there from completely preventable diseases. Things like netting to keep the mosquitoes off their bodies at night was unaffordable. People literally starved in the streets. Everyone was too inured to it all to care about it. I never saw any bloated bellies in the Philippines, except from many a pregnant teen, some of who I suspect were pregnant due to the presence of frequently visiting U.S. sailors.

On this cruise we have visited Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Mexico. The closest country here to what I witnessed in the Philippines thirty years ago was Nicaragua. But Nicaragua was still an improvement. They have a public education system, not a stellar one, but it exists. They also have universal health care, again not great health care, but it’s there and can be used by anyone though with some delays and perhaps some issues with the quality of health care. In that sense Nicaragua is ahead of the United States. There are still people in our country that cannot get health insurance, and if Republicans get their way the uninsured rate is likely to soar again. In that sense some reverse migration may be in order.

Nicaragua is the largest and most populous country in Central America. You can see in the local markets sanitation standards that would be unacceptable in the States. You can see stray dogs in the street and sometimes malnourished horses along the sides of the road. For most, housing consists of a shack or shanty with a corrugated metal roof, often with cinder block walls but often less. But unlike other countries I’ve visited, there are plenty of reasonably maintained highways and there are lots of cars, buses and trucks running around. Unlike the Dominican Republic that we visited four years ago, most of the roads are paved. If the potholes aren’t fixed they aren’t too bad and you can drive around them.

Guatemala is not that much better than Nicaragua, at least if you look at their statistics. We saw security guards in most establishments. But the roads are quite good and well marked and it’s clear there is a significant middle class, who often drive to the coast on the weekend to enjoy the beaches there. They cause traffic jams too, and we were caught up in one on Sunday. There are plenty of first-world establishments along the sides of the roads too, and we stopped for lunch at one classy place (Pueblo Real) along the Pan American highway. Few can afford new cars, but plenty of people have after-market automobiles that were crashed in the United States and restored and look new. A car is something of a status symbol and plenty of families have them. Obviously it’s beyond the reach of many, so these depend on private bus systems instead. They are everywhere but unlike the jitneys I witnessed in the Philippines, these are essentially blinged school buses that are well maintained and presumably quite affordable. There was some air pollution, but it was mostly due to burning the sugar cane so it can be harvested. The automobiles all seemed to come with their emissions control systems intact.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Costa Rica is the jewel of Central America, such as it is. If Central Americans aspire to live somewhere in the area, Costa Rica is probably it. Costa Rica would still be seen as somewhat rough by most American standards. But the curious fact is that if anyone’s standards are slipping, it’s the United States’. Our educational standards are beginning to resemble Nicaragua’s more than Costa Rica’s. This is symptomatic of our refusal to invest adequately in our own human capital and infrastructure. And Donald Trump’s disdain for “shithole” countries has the effect of making us more like one of these countries every day.

As I have noted in many other posts, immigrants both legal and illegal have allowed Americans to maintain much of their standard of living. To the extent the Trump Administration succeeds in its war on immigrants, expect it to drag our economy down. Immigrants keep our productivity booming and inflation away. In any event, it’s unlikely Trump has visited some of these countries that I’ve visited on this cruise. He would probably refer to them as “shithole” countries, but I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t characterize the people there as lazy either. What they mostly lack is fertile educational soil to reach their potential, which is generally denied to them by the landed aristocracy that is essentially in charge in most of these countries. Some countries like Costa Rica have made huge strides, but most seem mired in slow progress at best. The real obscenity is that systematic forces by people like Donald Trump are keeping them from realizing their full worth.

As for Trump, his ignorance is appalling but not the least bit surprising. He and his fellow Republicans though are exacerbating their problems, not helping to solve them.

 
The Thinker

Is Trump a racist? Is the pope Catholic?

You can get thousands of miles from the United States and still not quite leave it. Such is the case here on the cruise ship MS Westerdam. As I write this (Tuesday) it is making its way toward Baja California for one last port of call before our cruise ends Saturday at San Diego. Excerpts of the New York Times are provided at various places on the ship, and if so inclined you can also watch a few American news channels like Fox News and MSNBC in your stateroom. You can also read the New York Times online at no extra charge.

In any event, while at sea I am informed enough about American politics to understand that things are just as fouled up as they were when we left the States on January 5th. Trump continues to bumble his way through his so-called presidency, now approaching the one year mark. I was actually watching MSNBC when his remarks about “shithole countries” first made news. The news cycle has pretty much stayed in this track since. As usual Trump keeps changing his mind about his remarks. At first he seemed not to dispute them, then said the exact words were not correct, then decided he never said them at all all while carrying out policies that do their best to bar people from these types of countries. Lately, the line is he used “shithouse” rather than “shithole.” More amusingly, yesterday he decided that no one was less of a racist than he was, remarks made on Martin Luther King’s birthday. Trump celebrated the holiday by playing golf and of course doing nothing that resembled performing community service. You can see where his real values lie.

It really doesn’t matter if Trump uttered these words or not. It sounds like something he would say because he has said things like this over and over again. Why would anyone believe otherwise? That’s why when I heard them I said, “Why is this news?” He based his campaign on racism. During it he explicitly criticized a Hispanic American judge because he believed due to his enthnicity he could not be unbiased adjudicating a case against him. Now somehow the “shithole” remark suddenly proved he was a racist as if there was some doubt before? When he’s obviously been a racist all of his life? He’s just taking after his father who was arrested in the 1920s at a KKK rally in Queens, New York.

If a man isn’t a racist, you might think he would be comfortable with all races and have friends with every hue of the human spectrum. Trump has no black friends, but really he has no friends at all. Believing him when he says he is not a racist, or really about pretty much anything, is a complete waste of time. He will change his opinion on a dime. It’s clear that most of what he is told goes right through him. To the extent he learns it has to be visually. So when you brief him give him a Powerpoint chart with one bullet. He still probably won’t retain it. According to news reports he cites this disruptive aspect of his personality that is the source of his “genius”. By this standard anyone who constantly vaccilates and acts like an asshole most of the time is also a genius.

So just in case you are wondering, our president is a racist and likely one of the most racist people that you will ever learn about. Racism was the foundation of his campaign and it’s why his caught on when others did not. He assumed the worst about Republicans, not the best and was proved right. But long before he became a candidate racism still formed his center. He spent years attacking Obama for not being a real American, asserting that he was actually born in Kenya. He has promoted whites at the expense of all other races. Moreover, he has consistently made racism an integral part of his business, starting early when he refused to rent apartments to non-whites. He surrounds himself with rich white men.

The core of racism though is simply the belief that certain races inherently deserve privileges and have superiority that other races do not. That’s been Trump throughout his entire life! It’s baked into his personality. The only thing that would surprise me is if he went against his own biases. For Trump, this would qualify as genius.

 
The Thinker

Costa Rica vs. Nicaragua

Costa Rica is supposed to be the jewel of Central America. Disembarking at Puertarenas on Friday, it didn’t give that impression. Puertarenas is on the west coast of the country. Its black sand beaches made it look sort of dirty. A recent tropical storm has left a lot of deadwood along its beaches too. The black sand comes courtesy of the many volcanoes in the country, a couple of which are usually glowing on any given night. A drive on our tour bus showed a city that looked at best second world. After completing a short train excursion along a track lined with shanties, the Costa Rica we saw gave more of an impression of Haiti than Central America’s shining jewel.

It’s likely true that had we disembarked at the ritzier and more touristy areas a bit north and west of where we were docked our experience would have been more positive. As our train also wended its way through melon fields and coffee plantations, our tour guide explained why things were not quite what they seemed. The shanties we saw were overwhelmingly put up by Nicaraguans, citizens of Costa Rica’s country to its north. Just as in the United States it is beneath most Americans to do farm work, so it is today for most Costa Ricans to engage in that kind of labor. Some of these guest workers were here legally. Many more were not. In any event, Costa Rican law allows for squatters to at least try to construct homes on available plots of land. If after ten years the property owner doesn’t throw them off it and they can prove they have lived there that long, they can claim ownership of the land. Given that you could be thrown out at any moment, there’s not much point in overdoing your house. In any event, many of these Nicaraguans worked the nearby fields. Without their presence and the willingness to work for wages that can’t be paid to a citizen, like migrant workers in the United States, the melon fields we saw would not get harvested and probably not planted.

It wasn’t always this was for Costa Ricans. In the 1940s after a civil war started within the army, two things happened. First, the populace was so upset by the civil war that they abolished their army, the only country to do so in the Americas. Second, they elected a progressive who introduced social security and universal health care. Nine percent of a Costa Rican’s wages go into this system. Employers pay twenty percent of an employee’s wages into it. The money not spent on the military was channeled into education instead. A middle class that was virtually nonexistent in the 1940s emerged, took root and now consists of most of the population. Like the Scots, Costa Ricans learned that investing in education pays long term dividends. Basically these progressive policies totally transformed the country.

Costa Rica is thus a country that hovers somewhere between second world and first world status. Our first impressions were definitely wrong. Even the most modest shanties have satellite antennas on the roofs and Internet access. So what we saw was actually a country on the rise with a high cost of living but where most were upwardly mobile, and expecting things to remain that way. It’s also a country blessed by a peace that seems to elude the rest of Central America. This plus its tropical climate, rich soil made possible from its many volcanoes and its abundant rainfall makes it the place to be in Central America. And in truth, if you’ve traversed places like Detroit or rural parts of Alabama and Mississippi, the United States looks just as bad, if not worse. So we’ll be back to explore more of Costa Rica.

Nicaragua on the other hand is Central America’s poorest and largest country. If so if doesn’t look it. Its shanties looked comparable to Costa Rica’s, but were perhaps more numerous. Most roads were paved. The port city of Corinta where we docked seemed busy, in spite of its fifty percent unemployment rate. You can find a stray dog or two in the streets or a wild horse along the sides of the road, but also plenty of cars, trucks and motorcycles, as well as people on bikes.

What you might expect to find in such a poor country but won’t is much of a crime problem. Nicaragua has the lowest crime rate in Central America, in spite of its poverty. There is no drug trade here because (as our guide told us) no one can afford drugs anyhow. If people have a vice, it’s alcohol, not cigarettes. It does have plenty of corruption. The most profitable profession is not businessman or lawyer, but politician. The corruption seems endemic. Daniel Ortega, a former Sandinista, is now in his sixteenth year of rule, having originally led the communist Sandinistas to overthrow the country’s long-reigning Somoza regime. Ortega is now largely not seen, as he has Lupus which makes him avoid daylight. His wife was elevated to Vice President and is effectively running the country. In short today there is little difference between the right-wing Somoza regime and life under Ortega and the Sandinistas, except a lot less repression of dissent. There is a public health service and a free public school education is available to all. But the public schools are poor and under funded. Their health care system while universal also suffers from issues, mainly timely access to services. It’s perhaps not surprising then that the influence of the Catholic Church is waning and evangelical churches are moving in. Approximately sixty percent of Nicaraguans are now Catholic.

You would think then that Nicaragua should be avoided, but its tourism business is booming. If you are looking for a cheap place to retire, Nicaragua should be on your list. Real estate is dirt cheap, prices are low, crime in low, gangs that inhabit nearby countries like El Salvador and Honduras don’t exist and you get a drier climate than in Costa Rica, at least along its west coast. I can’t see retiring there, but I can see why Americans who like tropical climates and need to stretch their retirement dollars might want to find a gated community in the country and call it home instead. You might say that Nicaragua is something of a bargain if you can deal with the general poverty and corruption. It’s quite a pretty country too.

 
The Thinker

Transit of Panama

Circuiting the Panama Canal is pretty awesome, but probably more awesome if you are an engineer, since it’s easier to appreciate the feat accomplishment. These days we tend to take engineering for granted. But having traversed the Panama Canal Wednesday for my first and likely last time, it was still impressive. Opened in 1914 it suddenly made getting between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans much faster and less hassle. The transit is hardly free. It cost our cruise ship about $120,000 to make the journey just one way. You can’t charge it to your business AmEx card. You can’t wire Panama the money either. It must be paid in cash in Panama using an agent.

Considering we went through the same locks the first ship used more than 100 years ago and with little in the way of obvious improvements, my immediate reason for being impressed is that it has been working reliably for more than a century. That in itself is stellar engineering. Even the Brooklyn Bridge has undergone major maintenance that shut it down from time to time. Our cruise ship, the MS Westerdam is more than 800 feet long and about 140 feet wide. It fit snugly but completely inside the locks. Turned over to Panama in 2000, the American presence is still obvious during your transit. The locks were built to accommodate 1000 foot ships and you can still see along the locks distances measured in feet along the side of the locks. There is some new stuff, though. Just two years ago, in 2016, a new set of locks was opened for even longer and wider ships.

We have a historian on board who gave us an abridged history of its history and construction. It was standing room only at the Main Stage of our cruise ship for the lecture, but it was still impressive to go through the locks in person. As you sail in through its Caribbean entrance at Colon, what you mostly notice is the vertical distance covered by each lock. It takes three locks to ascend the eighty or so feet to reach Gatun Lake, a lake created as part of engineering the canal. The original intent was simply to not use any locks. That turned out to not be viable because of Panama’s consistent rain and the continuous erosion issue that introduced. Speaking of rain, it rained when we went through, but only briefly. It rains pretty much every day in Panama, so it’s not usually a question of whether it will rain, but how much. How much is usually a lot.

They have the equivalent of a cog railroad along the side of the locks to tow vessels through the canal with no worry that the ships will hit the sides of the locks. It’s old tech but pretty impressive nonetheless to watch. It was hard from our ship to see the lock fill with water due to its girth. But you can still feel the effect as you move a significant vertical distance over about eight minutes. Eventually you end up on Gatun Lake and for a while transit becomes serene and predictable. There are two more sets of locks to transit before you hit the Pacific Ocean.

You would think that you would head east to west coming from the Caribbean Sea, but in fact you go north to south due to the shape of the isthmus. Panama, like Colombia that we visited briefly the day before, is very much a tropical rainforest.

So much of the magic of the Panama Canal has to do with how they solved the basic issue of its hydraulics: create artificial lakes and make huge, indestructible locks. One of the biggest engineering challenges was cutting through what remains of the continental divide when it goes through Panama: the Culebra Cut. It took a lot of dynamite, a lot of hauling away rocks with a portable railway of sorts, and a lot of lives lost. About 5000 people, mostly from the Caribbean, died constructing the American attempt to build the canal. Many more died in an earlier attempt by the French But its completion signaled a new age in history: the end of an age dominated by Europe and one dominated by the United States. With the completion of the canal, the U.S. proved it had the right stuff.

When you’ve completed passage perhaps the most impressive part is looking out at the vista of the Pacific Ocean: seemingly limitless and in our case sunny and under fair seas. Considering that twelve hours earlier you were in the Caribbean Sea, it’s an impressive transition. It’s not hard to understand why the Panama Canal is seen as one of the ten wonders of the modern world. So scratch that off my bucket list. In addition, this is my first excursion by ship on the Pacific Ocean.

We had a brief stop in Cartagena, Columbia, so brief that we elected not to take a tour and didn’t make it past the cruise terminal. It is a thoroughly modern city, just thoroughly tropical. For our ship to make its date with the Pamana Canal, we had to leave shortly after noon.

Our next stop is Puntarenas, Costa Rica and some exciting tours there. We won’t arrive in San Diego until January 20. You might think we could get there a lot sooner, but there are 5000 miles or so of coastline to traverse with plenty of port stops in between.

 

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