Defining Enemies

It didn’t take long. Within minutes after I finished watching Biden’s speech, a dear friend whose politics I don’t share—although he is staunchly antifascist and hence respectable—posted on Facebook that I have learned nothing, because I disagree with Joe Biden when he says that Americans are not our enemies.

I disagree with that because it’s overtly false on its face, and that’s something I have very much learned in the last four years. It’s something I forgot in 2008, when I thought American support for torture had been repudiated once and for all. I was wrong then, and I’m right now.

Let’s approach this question logically. One of the following must be true:

1. Under no circumstances can a citizen of the United States be the enemy of another.

This is egregiously false, as was demonstrated in 1776 and 1861 at the national level, and which continues to be demonstrable at smaller ones. We want to still believe that disregard for the lives and a willingness to violence against fellow Americans is a fringe belief, but if it is, it’s a fringe belief that 70 million Americans are willing to stand with. If you’re completely comfortable that there will be no electoral violence between now and the Inauguration, or after, the FBI has research to show you.

2. Under no circumstances short of violence can a citizen of the United States be the enemy of another.

This caveat provides the comfortable wiggle room for many. “We simply disagree vociferously—until it’s a matter of life and death, we’re not enemies.”

My question, then, is how much violence is tolerable? It’s not zero. It’s never been zero. The widespread protests of 2020 should have told comfortable, safe, kumbayah America that millions of fellow Americans do not feel safe in the streets and do not feel protected—quite the opposite, the police who protect the privileged are their biggest threat. But a Democrat has been elected, so yay, all must be forgiven of those who cheered on the carnage.

But never mind the widespread enthusiasm for police brutality. I would argue that continued willful ignorance of public health and disregard for 230,000 American deaths shows the Republican party to be a death cult. There remains little doubt that their ongoing resistance to effective measures will contribute to the rise of this number by tens or hundreds of thousands. These are Civil War numbers. The only difference is that the triggers being pulled are invisible.

3. Under some circumstances, a citizen of the United States can be the enemy of another.

This is the only reasonable conclusion to draw, and the simplest place to draw the line is when an American cares nothing about the life, liberty, or pursuit of happiness about a class of Americans they deem to be “other.” But for a more rigorous definition, we have text. Originalist text, if you will:

We the people of the United States
in order to form a more perfect Union1
establish justice2
and ensure domestic tranquility,3
provide for the common defense4
promote the general welfare5
and secure the blessings of liberty6
for ourselves and our posterity7
do ordain and establish this Constitution of the United States.

I argue that if you do not support the seven bullet points above, you are un-American. And I further argue that the Republican party has abdicated its agreement to these points—in some cases for four years, in others, for decades. Need I enumerate the ways in which Republican policy overtly states its opposition to these values? Must I point out the numerous minoritarian hammerlocks they maintain on power, in the Electoral College, in gerrymandered House districts, in the Senate, and in the Supreme Court? They gloat about it.

It’s really quite simple. The predicate to having political opponents, not enemies, is a set of shared values. We did not erode these values in the other side; they chose to abdicate them as a path to power.

We are not demonizing the other side to state factual things about them; we are stating the truth in order to stand the slightest chance of reversing it.

If this sounds like demonization but is factually true, the existence of the debate is the proof of the argument: we continue to pretend we’re playing by the same values because we have the emotional development of children and a perverse belief in our inaccurate myths. Transplant any of these politics to another country. If you would say different things about the same scenario elsewhere, you are awash in comforting bullshit.

I’ve stated elsewhere and I’ll reiterate it: if you continue to have respect for a political opponent who voted for Trump, analyze the strength of your own values. It used to be taken for granted that we would reject Nazism, white supremacy, fascism, authoritarianism, brutalization, and a failure to agree to the peaceful change of power. Their side has embraced all of these things, and much more, including astonishing levels of incompetence and corruption. These are the positions of enemies of American values.

Phrased another way: if you, as I do, know Republicans who left the fold due to disgust with the past four years, what changes need to take place within the Republican party for them to return without the taint of the past four years? Joe Biden seems to think that all is forgiven—or at least, promotes the myth that all is forgiven. History and the experience of the global community indicates this is a dangerous myth to believe.

See America’s Next Authoritarian Will Be Much More Competent, Zeynep Tufekci, The Atlantic

So… no. Hell no. Mitch McConnell does not get to become the Mitch McConnell of 2008, the principled opponent of Democrats. Mitch McConnell is the enabler of autocrats, a direct promoter of forces within the American experiment that seek to end it. The Republican Party requires a reckoning, one that could have been but was not imposed by a tidal wave of Democratic wins this week, and one that now is questionable whether it will happen at all. The absence of that tidal wave stands as a clear warning.

If you treat those who consider you an enemy as your opponent, expect to lose. They’re not playing by your rules, or by any rules. They’re welcome back to the table as distinguished opponents at their option, but until then we cannot pretend otherwise, or demand that some privileged plurality of us return to the safety of our mythical American blankie. There is only one thing that can be shared now by all Americans: our collective failure to face ourselves. If we wish to return to a time when we can share better things, we must be clear about where we’re starting from.

Automation script for Mac 43 folders Desktop

I wrote an extremely simple AppleScript to create a 43 Folders setup on my Desktop, wherein I can put a file away for now and have it show up again automatically on a given day in the future. The script assumes there’s a folder named “43 Folders” on the Desktop, containing folders named with the following date convention: 20200704 for July 4th, 2020.

Picture of AppleScript

Then I used “Poor Man’s Cron” to automate this every morning: save the script as an application, store in ~/Applications, and launch it with a repeating event in my calendar every morning at 8 AM. Note: you’ll have to manually launch the app once the first time, in order to tell the Finder that it’s okay to run the app, and that the app has permissions to do the things it wants to do.

On the to-do list is to add a few lines of code to make the folders into the friendlier “2020-07-04” format, which I’ll post here when I get around to it.

Process 43

Fuzzy thinking about violence

Let’s get the equivocating bullshit out of the way: if you don’t stand with the rioting, you don’t stand with the protest.

Wait, what the fuck? Let me explain.

People take to the streets as a form of protest because it’s the first form of protest, probably the off-schedule way a shaman was deposed as head of a Bear tribe back in 80,000 B.C. Throughout history, under governments ranging from absolute autarchies through failed democracies to Communist dictatorships, when people have enough they take the streets. Sometimes literally, with barricades. Throughout history, this has preceded many teeth being kicked in, and throughout history, the authorities are much more often the kickers than the ones getting kicked.

It’s a painful route to take, and it’s how damn near every revolution that’s written down in history books gets started. The ones that are won by the protesters happen when the authorities are themselves met with overwhelming force—in some cases, external armies, and in others, internal moral suasion. Sometimes, the chief of police stands aside and says, “the palace is that way, go get ‘im.” It’s not that riots don’t work—history is replete with examples that they’re the only thing that did when other methods failed.

Ah, you say, but there’s a difference between violent and nonviolent protest, and looters have crossed that line. Have they? Dictionaries are interesting here, because they use protest to define violence:

Hello, circular reasoning.

The obvious flaw here is that for purposes of this discussion, we’re talking about the use of physical force against someone, not something. If someone steals your car when you’re not in it, that’s a nonviolent crime. If they then crash that car 20 miles away, it’s still nonviolent. Your car may feel differently, but that’s the whole point, your car doesn’t feel a goddamn thing. It’s an object. If they did it deliberately to hurt you, that’s something else—it could be an act of emotional violence against you, the part of this equation that feels things. Eye of the beholder stuff.

If you come out of that saying, “Okay, I support nonviolent protest so long as they’re also not damaging property,” now you’re setting limits on the kinds, types, and topics of protests you support, and hence you’re only in support of conditional speech. You have an absolute First Amendment right to burn down a Starbucks. What you don’t have a right to is to escape the consequences from the criminal act of burning down a store. But you can’t be held on different charges of burning down a Starbucks as opposed to a Dunkin’. Would you say that a mob that burned down a Wendy’s and left the Chick-fil-A untouched, or that salted the earth of the Hobby Lobby while protecting a Michaels, cannot possibly be engaging in political speech?

In other words, when you say you oppose the looting, you’re picturing this:

…a presumably uninvolved person taking advantage of chaos to engage in some theft. And yes, some of that goes on. I’ve never looted a store or been part of a mob that was, so I couldn’t tell you personally how much of that there is. But I can say that what you should be picturing is this:

To put it yet a third way: if you cheered when the Iraqis brought down the statue of Saddam Hussein, and you don’t stand with the neo-Nazis when they hold rallies at Confederate statue sites, then where are you with people trying to destroy the statue of Frank Rizzo, the eminently racist former mayor of Philadelphia who rose to power by being its eminently racist police commissioner? Would you say that’s not a valid part of a protest against police brutality?

It’s perfectly reasonable to say, “I cease to support nonviolent protest when property damage happens as part of or alongside it.” That’s your call. Just don’t give yourself the warm fuzzies of supporting the protest any longer. You’re now on the side of the authorities, the Man, and Law and Order. “They’ve” gone too far and now must be stopped—or channeled back to when you were comfortable with them. And now you have to understand that you’re ranking that comfort ahead of whatever the protest is about.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m terrified of what’s going on and want it to stop. I’m also literally going hungry this weekend because the curfews and store closures include food and I’m not prepared for that. I don’t live where the riots are happening, and I get to write this from a place of privilege. But tonight they could reach to outside my door.

So I have to ask myself: do I support what’s being protested enough to put up with that, to have skin in the game? Or do I oppose the protest?

If you don’t stand with the rioting, you don’t stand with the protest.

Postscript: I had notes on the obvious reply to this post, namely, “Gandhi and MLK, those are the protesters I support.” That is, let’s go only with the protests where they’re committed to the forms of nonviolence that are easy to be comfortable with.

I call that a “form” of nonviolence because it doesn’t actually reduce violence—it says that the protesters will absorb more violence from their opponents without violent opposition, and use that in their favor. Net amount of violence in the form of teeth being kicked in, in absolute numbers, remains about the same.

I’m with you on that—they’re the only kinds of protests I engage in, and I’ve left a few that started down a dark path. But what it also says is, “Let’s take the two most exceptional and preternaturally gifted protesters of the last century and make them the baseline minimum for agreement in this one.”

I’m proud of the protest groups I’ve worked with that have done everything they could to meet this standard, and I’ll stand with them again. But at its core, protest is a form of civil disobedience, with the noun being “disobedience” and the modifier being “civil.” If you prefer the protests of the disobediently civilized, that’s fine, so do I. But you can’t restrict protest to that standard, or else you’re limiting all protests to what are obviously ineffective methods in many cases.

Again, it comes down to: do you believe in free speech or conditional speech? This essay is only meant to be damning if you believe in the latter but pretend you’re for the former.

Now that we know what we’re capable of…

Hello from one undisclosed bunker to another. It’s been a hell of a month, and it’s looking like it’ll be at least another month of this, maybe more. Maybe much more, given that only around half of us are distancing, and that might not be enough to let us go outside safely.

We’re doing what we’re doing to save lives: our own, those close to us, and strangers. So my question: why did you wait this long?

There’s an old parable: you’re walking alongside a pond, dressed in your best, most expensive business clothes. You see a child drowning. For the sake of argument, you’re an excellent swimmer and maybe trained in rescue techniques. Do your clothes prevent you from jumping into the water to save the child? Do you pause at the shoreline to strip to your underwear? Or do you dive into the scummy water as quickly as you can?

Most of us don’t know the answer to this question, but we know what our best selves would do, and we want to believe that we’d do the same. The problem is: we don’t. Every day thousands of children die from malnutrition, poverty, hunger, poor medical care—you know the story. Maybe you’ve donated to the groups that help. Maybe you haven’t. All we know is, children are still dying.

The standard psychological answer for this is salience. A child in front of you, with only you available to help, calls upon you in a way that a starving child halfway across the country or around the world does not. Other people can take responsibility. It’s not immediate, so it’s not salient—which is to say, it doesn’t break through the barriers which keep you in your habits, which make the death of this particular child more important than whatever it is you’re already doing.

But there’s a deeper answer than that, and that’s comfort. Americans, we like to be comfortable. Other nations, other peoples, other generations of Americans, they knew how to sacrifice. How to send their teenage children to Germany and Japan. How to build barricades in Paris in the 18th century and storm the Bastille. How to form communities that prevented any one of them from going hungry, or provided other subsistence even when the whole town was barely above that level.

Four months ago, you knew that Americans went to bed hungry, that a large fraction of children live in poverty, that millions have no health insurance and millions more can’t rely on theirs to handle catastrophe. Whatever you did in the face of such things, it wasn’t enough, because such things took place.

We’ve invaded countries without reason. We’ve tortured prisoners, sometimes innocent prisoners. We’ve built concentration camps at our borders. We’ve denied basic and necessary health services to every woman of childbearing age living in the wrong states. We’ve disenfranchised millions. We’ve been ruled for 12 out of the last 20 years by presidents who lost the popular vote, and they’ve appointed half the Supreme Court.

And you let it all happen. You, personally. And me. Who, other than Americans, can take responsibility for the actions of America? If you don’t feel responsible—why not?

And that’s the reason why we didn’t act, why we’re all pretty damned sure we never will. It’s not only about salience, and it’s not only about comfort. It’s about convenience. We’ll donate money—if we have any left over after we buy our luxuries. We’ll make time available to volunteer—in ways that don’t push us too hard. We’ll attend protests, but not the kind of protest that ends in mass arrests.

But now, in the face of a threat that can’t be bargained with, that doesn’t brook negotiation, that genuinely is a threat where we’re waiting for experts and leaders to do their work and we’re fucked if they fail, when that happened: we dropped damn near everything that was normal about our lives and stayed the fuck home. We changed every routine we had. We did the uncomfortable, inconvenient, but now salient things that other generations, peoples, and nations have done in the face of a threat to their common sense of humanity.

These other problems, the ones we’ve resigned ourselves to living with (or rather, that we’ve consigned other people to live through): they’re just bad management. They are vulnerable to bargains, negotiation, and just plain getting their asses kicked. We know we can have better health care, more equal treatment under the law, less abject poverty, more human dignity. We know this because our peers do it, and we know this because we instinctively know this. That’s why those in favor of deprivation, those who profit from it, fight so hard to make sure you stick to what’s convenient: they know there’s nothing else stopping you.

When this is over, when we’ve achieved whatever we call “new normal,” we’ll have space to address our other political endemics, or we can return to the status quo. It’s notable that somehow, the government spending and social safety net that would help at any time are suddenly bipartisan during crisis time; it’s almost as if everyone knows this shit works, but we don’t care enough most times to make it happen, or somehow can’t when the wrong party’s or the wrong color president is in office. Or if it costs money that goes to the wrong people. That’s inconvenient. It’s especially inconvenient for those of us outraged by it all, because to act on it effectively would be a lot of effort. Easier to be comfortable.

What will you do next, now that you know what you’re capable of?

Postscript: I wrote this in the second person to be provocative, but I don’t exclude myself from this responsibility or this guilt. I think I do more than the average bear regarding social justice; I’m also pretty damn sure I’m grading myself on a curve and have frequently rested on imaginary laurels.

But I can say that for the past two years, I’ve taken on a volunteer role that’s caused me real hardship and sacrifice, that’s been regularly inconvenient and uncomfortable. I’ve done this—and pretty much only this in terms of activism—because this has been the best place to put my time, effort, and resources; it’s been a lever where I think I can make a real difference, more so than in the other volunteer work I’ve done.

That doesn’t let me off the hook for all the ills my work doesn’t address. But if anyone asks me what I did during the final collapse of a sustainable environment, or when we were ruled by a Nazi sympathizer, or when our democracy was trashed, I can point to what my nonprofit sets out to do, then to roughly 4,000 hours and counting and say, “I did that.”

Now, like everyone else, I’m discovering what other sacrifices I could have made sooner, and that what I thought was my utmost maybe wasn’t. It’s up to me to decide what’s enough. It’s up to you, too. What will you point to? Will that satisfy you? And when you insist it was the best you could have done—will you believe yourself?

An open letter to Elizabeth Warren

As of tonight, I’m officially nervous. All three Democratic candidates (factoring in Bloomberg’s dropping now that his coronation is cancelled) may very well be electable, but the two front-runners have terrifying game theory negatives.

Bernie might get to the convention with voter wind at his back, but he’s never going to win over the party faithful—which means begrudging support from the people who actually do work on the ground in parallel with the presidential campaign. Joe might have superdelegates and the party establishment in his pocket (along with, it must be said, key voter demographics), but if he arrives at the convention with anything less than an outright majority, we all find out how many Bernie voters are Bernie voters, and will ditch for Jill Stein or stay home.

Remember those Bernie guys who tried to make the 2016 convention a circus? They’re still around. They won’t take a Biden pseudo-win quietly. And if Bernie really is sailing on young and new voters, well, they’re the first ones who’ll ditch the general if they can’t vote for their guy.

That’s not to say that I think either Bernie or Biden are toast—contrary to the myth that many Democrats buy into that Trump is sparkles and magic, I still believe that incompetent leadership leads to bad results, and I still believe that we’ll see them before November in ways that Fox News can’t paper over. But it could still be a nailbiter against the worst president we’ve ever had.

So my advice to Warren: stay in the damn race and stop trying to win. You can’t out-Bernie Bernie and you don’t want to tack to Biden. What you can do: start running ranked-choice voting polls in all fifty states and release them all. Now that Pete, Amy, and Mike are toast, there’s one and only one compromise candidate, and that’s you.

That was your pre-primary strength: the politics of Bernie, the pragmatism of Biden or Hillary, and the demeanor of Muhammad Ali. You hit the stump saying that you’ll support any candidate who shows up at the convention with a majority before superdelegates weigh in—but you wave around polls showing that you’re the preferred second choice of both wings of the Democratic electorate. Do you have any doubt you’re not?

Here’s the thing: your support may not be wide enough to win primaries, but it’s damned deep, and the people who support you are all in. You need to keep them going, keep them energized, and get enough of them to avoid jumping ship to keep yourself viable as the alternative. Biden and Bernie will never be that person—and may wreck the party or the election going head-to-head. The common ground between those two is a DMZ minefield. The third option is necessary. You’re it.

Speaking for myself: I’m Bernie politics all the way, but as I’ve written before, I think he’ll be a bad president. I think Biden’s presidency will continue the 40-year trend of fixing Republican mistakes, lukewarm successes, and no inspiring wins, that lead to Republican reversal of our gains (and then some) immediately after. But I think he’ll be a better president. So I have no idea which lever I’d pull in April.

I hope I don’t have to decide.

Things I Don’t Understand About the Present Moment

  1. There’s such a thing as a monumental political swing, but short of French revolutions they take decades. Bernie was fringe politics in 2016 who normalized his agenda for 40% of 50% of the electorate. That doesn’t describe a front-runner in 2020.
  2. That everyone, inside the Democratic party and out, who chides us with “this moment is too important, you should all coalesce around a single candidate early” does not understand that the single candidate they have in mind is their candidate, and that we hear this from five different directions daily.
  3. Why Trump is being normalized by damn near everyone, who says that “a strong economy will win over everything else.” I was raised to believe that incompetence eventually leads to disaster, and yet these people simultaneously give credit for the DJIA and don’t price in the odds that Trump policies will eventually tank… well, everything.
  4. That this normalization disregards the certainty that Trump is exacerbating the trashing of the planet and we’ll end up spending trillions of dollars on disaster mediation. (Although see below.)
  5. The fervor I see for Warren online, and in the crowds going to her events, doesn’t jibe with her erasure in the news media. (Although see below.)
  6. The fervor I see for Bloomberg in the press and his correlated rise in the polls, when the thing both established and left Democrats hate most are national candidates who haven’t paid their dues and built a base for their colleagues.

Things I fear I understand about the present moment:

  1. The strongest kind of media bias is towards profitability, and there is nothing in politics more profitable than a close race. If the conventional wisdom is that Bernie’s negatives will result in a close race with Trump—and why wouldn’t it be?—of course there will be an unconscious bias pushing him forward.
  2. Bernie is entirely unlike Trump, but the core of Bernie’s voters sound a hell of a lot like the core of Trump’s voters in their cult of personality. The difference is that the Democrats aren’t running scared and this causes greater division, while Republicans will cave to keep their votes and maintain their power.
  3. The same can be said about Mike Bloomberg and a billionaire sweeping in with his money to “save us all because only he can do it.”
  4. Warren’s erasure in the media since Iowa: misogyny.
  5. Warren’s erasure in the media since Iowa: a sense that she might be a compromise candidate (between Bernie and the moderates), and hence be less exciting (and less profitable) to cover between the convention and the general.
  6. A brokered convention could be covered as an astonishing coalescence within the Democratic party, but instead the word “disarray” is going to be the most used in the news media word cloud for months.
  7. The normalization of Trump is exactly what you’d expect when the news media (seeking profitable, enraging stories), big money (seeking short term economic gain), and outside forces (seeking Russian dominance into the American vacuum) are all served by a Trump victory.

I’m not scared by any one candidate (although Bernie’s age and moral certainty, and Pete’s inexperience, make me think they’ll be bad presidents). I’m terrified by what the present moment seems to say about our politics.

“Kumbayah, Asshole”

This morning, I pressed the Publish button on a 5,000 word essay in this space, but didn’t publicize it anywhere because I thought I should probably come back to it. The topic: in the last six months or so, I’ve been hearing repeatedly from multiple people regarding what a dick I was being online, arguing too much and generally disturbing everyone’s sensibilities. The title of this post is a fair summary of what I was hearing.

People who don’t have mental illnesses never understand this, but when I hear critiques like that, I don’t get to have an opinion. I’m bipolar with ADHD—that means a lot of things, but first and foremost it means that my self-perceptions don’t mean shit in this instance. Each and every time, I go back and reread what I wrote. Sometimes they’re right, and I was a dick. Often they’re not, and so I say something olive branchy that still manages to be entirely true. If I can’t say “I’m sorry for what I said” because I’m not, I can usually at least say, “I did not intend your reaction and I’m sorry I caused it.”

So in the 4,000 words I just cut, I explained how self-analysis works after 25 years of therapy in far greater detail, did an analysis of why a dozen problems out in the world have made us much more distrustful of each other, how this may have led to hair-trigger emotional reactions to what used to be entirely acceptable, and pointed out various hypocrisies regarding some exceedingly hostile messages I’ve received telling me I need to be more civil. Then I blew it all to hell, because after revising this literally 29 times and counting, I realized that the core issue here is miscommunication—and the people who are absolutely certain of what I’m saying, in contradiction to my actual words, will just as effectively misread what I write here.

Suffice to say: sometimes my fault, sometimes not. But one thing they’re all certain of: that I’m also absolutely certain of my position. But I’m not. I’m literally crazy. What I’m certain of is that I have a goddamn good command of facts and rhetoric, little goddamn pity for people who don’t, and little goddamn patience for people who don’t think they’re important parts of an opinion breakfast. However, my conclusions are malleable—how could they not be, half of them are about technology that will be obsolete in three years. My facts are memorized by a computer made of meat. They can be misremembered, out of date, or poorly sourced in the first place. Most of them are not, so I don’t know which ones are rotten until I bring it out and someone corrects me. I have discussions and debates because I learn from them. That’s not speaking from a position of certainty, and the point is not to “win,” the conversation is the point. Didn’t we all used to be like this?

I’m pretty fucking sure that pressing the Publish button again is going to be a Friendship Limiting Move. But there are a few reasons to do so. It could be that I’m just a dick from now on and people who don’t leave will have to put up with that; might as well be honest about it, because whom do you know who entirely changed personality at 50? Or that everyone is batshit crazy from living in a kakistocracy and I haven’t changed one iota, but everyone now needs their warm fluffy blankie of nothing but 👍👍👍💖💖😆 and I’ll be ostracized for not providing one.

But the main reason I’m posting this: shit, people, you’re all scattered to hell and gone. I have two close friends in Philadelphia I rarely get to see, a dozen more in DC I rarely get to see, and I can go two weeks without speaking more than a single sentence a day out loud. (“Venti, about an inch of room for milk, thank you.” This is in no way an exaggeration.) I am fine with this, because I have to be—it’s not like anyone makes an effort anymore to be in touch anywhere but online, and I’m no exception. I’ve been a digital native since Reagan’s first term; there are things about my social life I’d like to improve, but being lonely is not one of them.

So tell me to stick to small talk online, and never say anything that could possibly be upsetting or controversial, and that’s the scope of our friendship from now on. Let’s just be honest and say it’s the end of it—all that’s left is performative kabuki.

How I concluded the original essay:

It’s one thing to assume that a random stranger online is a troll. It’s another to forget everything you know about someone in order to reach that conclusion. Three of the people who criticized me have known me for literally 40 years. I cannot believe that it comes as a surprise to them that I have strong opinions, and that when I share them, it’s because I enjoy debate. In my world, that understanding of me should provide the benefit of the doubt. Likewise when there’s broad agreement on large concepts and interesting discussions to be had on smaller ones within them—if we’re allies on an issue overall, is it necessary for us to be in lockstep on codicil 17, section 8? These days, apparently yes.

But while I usually feel justified I wasn’t inappropriate when I review my words, the fact remains, I’m bipolar with ADHD and I don’t get to feel secure in those conclusions. So these are my next steps, and I list them as an open message to anyone I’ve offended, pissed off, transgressed against their social norms, or otherwise ruined their evening:

  • It is never my intention to provoke a negative emotional response to a discussion. I’m aiming for emotionally-neutral-and-interesting, humorous, or warm fuzzies. Anyone I actually want to go fuck themselves, I’ve stopped talking to them long ago.
  • For the dozen or so of you who’ve complained, I’m making a list. An actual list, with your names and the things you thought I did wrong. I think this is silly and I doubt any other human being on Facebook does this. It’s just that my only alternative is to write you off entirely.
  • When I post to or comment on Facebook or Twitter, it’s stream of consciousness. Five minutes later I’ve entirely forgotten I wrote it until a notification brings me back to it. When you detect a trend in what I’m saying, I haven’t noticed it until you point it out to me.
  • Likewise, if you’re slowly getting pissed, I have no fucking clue.
  • So tell me.
  • If you do, I’ll add you to the list.
  • Since my time here is stream of consciousness, your presence on the list does not guarantee compliance—I’m not going to keep it open in a side window every time I’m online. I’ll review it from time to time, and every time I change it, and with any luck avoiding you will become habitual.
  • I’ll ask for some benefit of the doubt. Remember: bipolar and ADHD. These are not excuses, they are illnesses. They affect how I perceive the world and how I act. I will judge people on the basis of whether they respect that.
  • I will likewise judge people for dictating to me what I can and can’t say, and the words I use. Because frankly, one of the ways I’m out of fucks to give is that I don’t need friends who disrespect me. Similar to disregard for mental illnesses, “helpful” advice such as how I should change my entire communications style, approach to life, what conversations I enjoy, or how I avoid depressive isolation, has a possibility of knocking 50% to 95% off my regard for you as a quality human being. You will not be informed of this. Several people already have not been. Some people have not used up all of their Get Out of Jail Free cards and are still doing fine despite using these actual words once or twice. No one but me knows which is which, or ever will.
  • Of course, it’s entirely up to you whether my opinion of you matters to you.

A format for better debates, please?

Hey, we all like actual debates, right? That is, the format that’s very much not what we saw the last two nights, where people talk to each other and don’t struggle for airtime. For intellectual folks, people directly addressing each other can be stimulating and interesting. For everyone else (and, well, us too), as we saw when two candidates go went it, that’s the part of the event that’s entertaining—and possibly tells you more about the people.

So… why the hell do we have moderators insisting they can’t talk to each other, and taking up minutes with their questions? It only ensures that only the rudest and loudest will get into a back and forth—and as we’ve seen, it allows for the rules to be applied haphazardly. I have a proposal for better debates:

  1. Before the debate, every candidate is given the same long list of topics, all brief and general: e.g., climate change, nuclear weapons, North Korea, election security. They return these lists is ranked order.

  2. The top choices are set as the topics for the debate. The number chosen is the same as the number of candidates onstage, or an integral multiple thereof. The rest go back into the pool for the next debate. New topics can be added to the pool between debates, so news events can be referenced but only briefly. “Iran response” is fine; “did Iran attach mines to those ships?” is not.

  3. Each topic is given (length of debate / (number of topics – 2)) minutes. For a 100 minute debate and eight topics, that’s ten minutes each, broken down as follows: 2 minute opening, 2 minute response, 1 minute each of followups by the same speakers, and four 1-minute followups by everyone else. Vary lengths as necessary to match available time, but not more than 25%; if they have to be shorter than 90 and 45 seconds, pick fewer topics.

  4. Everyone gets one turn in each slot. Which slot they get for which topic is assigned first by how they ranked the topics, with ties broken by the same rankings by which they qualified for the debate. Someone polling at 12% beats the other at 10%, for example. The guy who only barely squeaked in shouldn’t expect to get what they want unless no one wants it. The same ranking is used to pick the topics and assign the slots, so no gaming the system by ranking your actual first choice tenth—it likely won’t be used at all, then.

    No one knows which slots they have until the debate, when each lectern has the entire schedule on a display a few minutes before it starts.

    Example: Candidate 1, who made this their most important topic, talks for two minutes; candidate 2 ranked this first or second and responds. 1 then speaks again for a minute, followed by 2 again for a minute. 3 and 4, who ranked this topic higher than others, each have an assigned minute. The next minute is randomly assigned. The last minute is left open until the debate: candidates can press a button on their lectern to take it, but can only do this once for the entire debate. First-come, first-served, except that the first person who hasn’t spoken on the topic takes precedence over the first person who has. Anyone who never presses their button gets that minute extra for closing.

  5. There are no moderators, but there is an M.C. who normally keeps their mouth shut after introducing everyone, to do things like shush the audience. The first speaker frames the topic, the next speakers can follow their lead or not as they choose. The topic of the period is always on a chyron at the bottom of the screen. Each candidate can say whatever they like.

  6. When it’s someone’s turn to speak, their mic turns on. When they have 15 seconds left, an audible tone chimes that everyone (audience included) can hear. The volume on their mic gradually declines and turns off at the end—final words will be at low volume, hence they don’t close with a zinger that causes audience reaction to eat the next person’s time. (Get your prepared soundbites in when you start, and eat your own time, folks.) Finishing 15 seconds early, not a bad idea.

    If a speaker stops early, they can press a button and bank that time for another reply. Timers and time bank displays are on the lectern; the candidate presses a button to activate their bank for fifteen seconds, which restores the volume to the mic if they’re in the last 15 seconds—but it’ll start dropping again immediately unless they press the button twice.

  7. The cameras are pre-set and will go to the person with a live mic, but will usually split screen with the prior speaker. A second 4K video feed is provided that shows all candidates at all times, high enough resolution to see reactions not on the main broadcast (which most people won’t see until after the debate, but it could be simultaneously broadcast).

  8. The remaining two 10-minute periods are open sessions at the middle and the end, each speaker has 10/N minutes to say whatever they like. (Or three 7-minute sessions for opening, midpoint, and closing.) Mics are live the entire time for the last open session, their entire time bank is automatically added, and the next speaker’s time doesn’t start until the audience is quiet. (And maybe cap the maximum time a person can bank, so no one can shut up for two hours and talk for 10 minutes straight at the end.)

  9. A transcript of the debate is posted as soon as possible. Each minute or two’s transcript is posted on its own page in addition to the full trascript. Candidates have 24 hours to post a short reply to what anyone said (e.g., limited to 200 words, no links allowed but “see my website for details” is fine—you just can’t post a keyword to a 2,000 word reply). After 24 hours, the speaker has 24 hours to post a reply of the same length.

That leaves 20 minutes in a two-hour broadcast, which I assume will be used to make the entire thing humane. Put in a three-second break when one mic turns off and the next turns on, or a short break between topics. Two five-minute breaks for everyone to be off camera. Whatever works. Networks will probably want a buffer zone so the rules don’t make the debate run overtime.

I don’t have any illusions that this will bring Oxford-style debate to our politics, but it’s fair, it gives everyone the chance to talk on what they most care about, and I think it balances actual discussion and debate with the need to keep everyone to very short amounts of time.

Already tired of the Game of Moans

Did we all watch the same show?

I’ve been just completely amazed at most of the commentary I’ve been reading about the final two episodes of GoT, and while I don’t quite want to wade into every argument—that would lead to a post roughly as long as one of GRRM’s books—there are a few worth addressing.

Mad Queen Dany—Where the hell are people getting this from? It’s not on the screen. (It is in the execrable “inside the episode” trailers that HBO produced, which involves the two showrunners saying such idiotic things about the show which they’ve spent 4,000 hours a year analyzing since Mitt Romney was in multiway primaries, that I presume Milk of the Poppy is involved.)

Yes, absolutely, it would be utterly maddening if we felt that Dany committed a savage war crime out of a fit of pique, or because she didn’t get laid, or because the Red Keep set her off (make that two doses of poppymilk if you buy that story). But that’s not what we saw: we saw Dany having what was probably the easiest major victory in the entire series—we see maybe five casualties on Team Targaryen—and having some kind of painful epiphany. It’s not in dialog, and it’s only somewhat backfilled in the final episode. So what we take from the scene is what we read into it.

People who want to get infuriated seem to think that the writers are saying, “the bitch snapped,” with exactly that level of dismissal of the character. What I saw: after eight seasons of Dany balancing ruthlessness with compassion, she has a realization that an easy win is a temporary one. It doesn’t break the wheel, it doesn’t prevent future contenders for the throne, and it doesn’t cement her victory. Burning King’s Landing, on the other hand, ends the war much as an atomic bomb did—with her as sole superpower.

For those who object that “just having the dragon is enough,” get real. If you live in the 21st century it’s 98% likely you have no conception of what a single modern nuclear bomb’s effects are, and the inhabitants of the only country to ever use much smaller versions in anger are in utter denial about what our nation did 70 years ago. Stopping when the bells rang meant stopping before a deterrence was created. (And not original to me, I read someone’s else’s essay saying, “If you can fire scorpions at Drogon and then surrender scot-free, it’s only a matter of time before repeating the same strategy neutralizes her advantage.” Which, let’s recall, she regards as her child.)

You don’t have to agree with me—the point is, it’s not on the page in episode 5. You can read Emilia Clarke’s face in multiple ways; you can’t definitively establish Dany’s intent from it.

Dany the Megalomaniac—Second, folks are already royally pissed about Dany’s inability to comprehend that “we destroyed the village in order to save it” doesn’t quite fly. At least, not for the audience behind the Fourth Wall, and not for our surrogates on the show.

You know whom it does fly for? That same damned audience when considering an actual war with real casualties. How long has it been since America supported an invasion of choice by four or five to one, with most people buying into “greeted as liberators?” I’ve been hearing people say “nuke ’em until the rubble glows” since the Iranian hostage crisis forty years ago. I’ve heard just about everyone retroactively justify Afghanistan and Iraq because we deposed a dictator and shot bin Laden in the head. (Even antiwar folks have tended to soften some criticisms since those war objectives occurred.)

The words you are looking for are “cognitive dissonance.” Americans want to believe that our country and our population are basically decent, ergo by definition everything we do is basically decent. Oh, maybe we screw up a few things, but our intentions are good. Surely that creates allowances, yes? At least, it creates sufficient allowance that nearly all Americans completely forget about our military actions so long as American casualties stay in single digits.

This is Nora al-Awlaki. She died at the age of eight in a 2017 US attack on an al-Qaeda camp in Yemen. She was an American citizen. If you just found yourself thinking, “well, her al-Qaeda father shouldn’t have had her at the camp,” or “it’s horrible but these things happen,” congratulations, you just engaged in the same retroactive justification that distances Americans from horrors like Hiroshima and Dresden—and Dany from King’s Landing.

This is an American child whom my country killed. Discuss and debate that all you like—just don’t minimize it.

If you think it’s unrealistic that someone in a position of power would tell themselves a story that makes them a good person in contradiction of all evidence, you’re holding your fiction to a higher standard than your reality.

Dany the Monster—Many folks are also sputtering mad about Dany’s brand seemingly changing from “liberator of the common people” to their exterminator. This is too much of a switch for them to take.

I’m not going to repeat the dozens of articles that point-for-point demonstrate every plot beat showing her inhumanity against her enemies, ever since she didn’t much mind Drogo offing Viserys. If you think she did an unearned eighth-season heel turn, you’ve already read these and rejected them.

What I will point out, which I haven’t seen anywhere else, is that Dany has spent eight seasons dividing the world into “my people” and “everyone else.” People who are othered don’t count—whether that’s because they own slaves, have gotten wealthy from a slave society, or were the poor schmucks who took up arms at minimum wage on the wrong side of Drogon.

She didn’t merely kill these people, she burned these people. The two lead slavers of Meereen get quick deaths from Grey Worm—who presumably keeps that dagger sharp enough to be painless—but everyone from Lannister soldiers to Euron’s sailors to King’s Landing’s civilians to the Tarlys to Varys burns.

Are there any criminals you consider so awful that you’d be in favor of burning them at the stake as punishment? How about terrorists? Or actual Nazis from World War II? I’m guessing you have a sliding spectrum from “I’d vociferously oppose that” to “it’s not ideal but I’m not exactly going to argue in favor of that bastard.” Congratulations, you just demonstrated how you have a sliding scale of humanization. So does Dany.

Dany the Tyrant—Cognitive dissonance can also explain why Dany is certain that Cersei is a tyrant and she is not—but there are better explanations.

There’s been this weird rush of people saying that they wanted GoT to end on some kind of kumbayah democratic note. Or that Dany was inherently democratic in intent. Look, she freed her slave army and now they fight for her willingly!

Did any of them leave the day she did that? How much does she pay them? Do any of them have skills, interests, or socializations that would allow them to do anything but fight in an army as a profession? Do you suppose that peer pressure in a military organization and the complete absence of any other community might prevent some people from leaving? Did anyone have second thoughts when she told them she was uprooting them all to fight in a foreign land, or when the objective switched from fighting evenly matched humans to a quarter-million undead?

We see the Dothraki deciding—although how much of that is individual choice, and how much is cultural socialization to do whatever the Khal says, might be a worthwhile intellectual exercise. What we do know is that she’s breaking Dothraki cultural taboos; crossing the sea is pretty much the equivalent of holding pork rib and Chippendales night at a Saudi airbase. Surely everyone is acting free of coercion after she barbecued all the Khals they arrived with, walked out of an inferno, and asked for everyone’s support while sitting on a goddamn dragon. (After which, she’s unconcerned about her plan to take Westeros with the equivalent of a Mongol horde, which was the 13th-century equivalent of saturation bombing.)

Dany allows the freedoms she is willing to bestow, none of which seem to cost her anything. Missandei sticks around. Grey Worm never takes a vacation. Jorah keeps coming back even when she threatens his execution.

The premise that Dany was some kind of political liberation proponent is dealt with in the spot-on scene where Samwell suggests universal suffrage. We’re supposed to laugh at the comparisons to allowing horses and dogs to vote—but that’s pretty much historically accurate. The idea that a people should elect their leader was ludicrous for most of human history. It was just as ludicrous to the people who would have formed an electorate—when your monarch is the will of God, suffrage is blasphemy. What you might occasionally get is the tribalism of the Iron Islands—acclamations of minor chieftains, who go on to form the councils that acclaim higher officers. That doesn’t mean that everyone in the community gets to show up to chant Yara or Euron.

The idea that everyone should be able to vote is just a completely foreign concept until 1776. No, wait, that was male landowners. 1820? Nope, still male and white. 1865? Not after Jim Crow. 1920? 1965? How about we note the Georgia Senate election and just say “not yet” in terms of American consensus on this issue. Thinking of medieval, monarchical Dany as a proto-chapter of the League of Women Voters was wish-fulfillment of the highest order long before season eight.

Dany the Subverted Feminist Icon—Nope, not touching this with a ten-foot pole. It’s my role to mostly shut up and listen to what people say on this topic, and I don’t think I have much to contribute because I’m not emotionally invested in the messaging that some people thought was brutally undermined. I will say that just in the last hour I’ve seen feminist criticisms along the lines that Brienne, Sansa, and Anya don’t count as gender representation in the Game’s outcome, because they all establish power in the show with masculine tropes—which makes me wonder if any of these people took a moment to think about how this point of view would sound if they applied the same language to real people who might not be straight or cis.

Look, folks, yes—the last two seasons were just really fucking rushed and a lot of corners got cut. There are all sorts of pacing dynamics we grew to expect from the show during the first five seasons that were jettisoned—and in that change many things that would have been spelled out three times in the past had to be head canon. What I don’t get is why people don’t accept “HBO can’t spend $300 million on another 50 episodes” as a perfectly valid explanation for this. It may not be as satisfying as wizardly writing that leaves no plot holes unfilled and no coffee cups on the great table.

But I’ve already shown you how your standards are likely a lot lower for the world you live in than for Westeros. And that’s where the show gets made.

Update, one day later: I read today on Vox that HBO actually wanted more episodes in the final two seasons, and it was Weiss and Benioff that brought the total down to 13 in a compromise. This completely shifts the blame from one of real-world restrictions to a complete failure to manage creative limitations. I can understand the difficulties of bringing this home in less time; I fail to understand setting those limits on yourself in the first place.

An open letter to future CES PR people

Another year, another CES in the rear view mirror. This year’s was especially infuriating in a number of ways—none of them bad enough to get me to reconsider coming again, but enough to delay my writing more than usual.

So in the interest of future harmony, my recommendations to all PR people at future CES shows (which if I’m feeling saucy, I might put into my email signature next year).

For the love of God, bring USB sticks

Wifi at some hotels in Vegas is capped at 1 Mbit, and some of the “fast” ones are 10 Mbit. The most depressing possible answer to “do you have a press kit?” is “yes, it’s on our website.” This is especially the case if the big blue button to download it all at once includes a folder with a gigabyte of videos. That’s over two hours on wifi. If I tether to my phone, 25 minutes and $10 on Google Fi.

I’m on deadline and I have 200 booths in my bag. I’m only going to bother downloading yours if you’re very interesting. Don’t you want my attention if you’re just moderately interesting, so I can read your press kit to see if you make the cut?

You’re spending at least $25,000 to be at CES, sometimes much more. A USB stick costs fifty cents. Bring five hundred.

At least have a decent website for the purpose

If you must send me to your website, have a link on your home page that says “Press” or “Media,” and when I click on it, show me a link that says “CES press kit.” Include digital-only pictures and press releases, and put it all in a zip so I don’t have to go rabbit hunting on your site to see what I’ll need. Far faster for me to do that on my own drive. Make your TIFFs and videos a separate download. Yes, I know you spent a ton of money on your video, your aunt thinks it looks great, and maybe your boss gets a cameo. If video isn’t required to demo your product (almost no products meet this criterion), we don’t care.

(And what is up with people posting WebP images this year? I can’t do anything with those. JPEG or PNG.)

I don’t see why you love QR codes. My phone can understand those, but I don’t want your materials on my phone. I don’t know if my Mac can deal with them because I don’t wave random objects in front of my camera.

If you don’t have a decent website, be available 24/7

I just cut two companies from my story because the press reps didn’t get back to me in the four hours I was writing it. At 1 AM Eastern Sunday. Who’s more annoyed that I wrote a paragraph and had to delete it because I couldn’t find a price or release date? Me, or the company that paid thousands for that paragraph? The answer to this, of course, is to have a decent press section on your website. If all you have is “feel free to email us,” well, don’t sleep much during or soon after CES.

If you’re offering a review unit, do it in advance

I don’t want to get to your booth and hear, “We have review units, but we ran out.” Offer me one in advance by email, and then hold it for me. Review stories are in addition to my immediate news coverage; I get paid more to write them. A review unit will get me to stop by your booth if it’s likely to generate a story, especially if you’re innovating in a category of products I already know.

Don’t ask me to guarantee anything

No, I’m not going to promise to write about you. I’m especially not going to promise that if you give me a unit to review. Taking your review unit means, “I have an intent to review this, and a reasonable expectation my editor will buy the story.”

If I do write about you, it might be to mock you. This is not a reflection on you, it’s a reflection on your product or company. 90% of the time I don’t write about you, either I’ve decided you didn’t fit my audience (whatever my personal interest), or I did write about you and my editor cut it.

If you say one word that makes me think you’re intending a quid pro quo (usually, a valuable gadget for positive coverage), not only will I blackball the company you’re representing, but I’ll find out which PR firm you’re with and blackball all of your colleagues, because now I’m questioning the ethics of the people who hired you.

Don’t ask me to set a meeting unless it’s after-hours

When I arrive at CES, at best I know which days I’ll be at LVCC or the Sands. That’s likely to change on the fly. You have to be a fascinating story to get me to say I’ll be there at 3 PM. But if your executives are available at 8 PM, that’s off hours and you’re not cutting into my floor time. (You will be cutting into my writing time, so this isn’t exactly easy, but it’s easier.) Fancy Venetian suites are nice, but Starbucks is also fine.

Don’t ask me to notify you if I write about you

Google Alerts is your friend. I’ll sometimes do this during the rest of the year, but at CES I’m leaving here with a 5-inch stack of business cards and I’m only going to look yours up if I need you for something.

Make your booth viable for split-second decisions

Yes, booth materials are damned expensive. But if I walk past you and your booth is a table with a stack of flyers and a blank background, I have to fight through the crowd just to figure out who the hell you are. I never do. You want a large enough sign so I can tell from a distance of 10 feet whether to stop.

Make those displays count

Likewise, don’t tell me you’re the “first ever groundbreaking tech product” in the category. There are probably a dozen other people saying the same thing. Don’t use marketing-speak and hype. Don’t make outrageous claims, even if you deserve to. Provide enough specifics so I’m both interested in your product and have some reasonable trust in your company.

Best example of this: a pain relief booth in 2018 gave enough detail in their 10-feet materials that I stopped. When I asked my first question, “do you have peer-reviewed studies?”, the guy pulled out a three-inch binder of papers that said on the cover “#1 of 3.” He then asked, “do you also need the other two?” When I saw their booth again in 2019, I asked what was new.

If your booth isn’t on a grid, tell me how to find you

No one does this, and it would make so much difference. When I go to find your booth, I have a booth number, and I can look up and see that I’m on the 31300 aisle, or whatever. If I’m at booth 31324 and you’re at booth 31354, but there’s a multi-aisle booth between us, I have to hunt for you. Also sometimes the case if your booth is bisected from the main aisle by a diagonal path. You’ll have maps with the major booths in advance of the show. Tell me you’re “booth 31354, just past the BigCo booth in the direction away from the hall entrance.”

Have printed materials, and enough of them

Few people make this mistake, so when they do it’s galling. I can skim a flyer in 15 seconds, at which point you’re still clearing your throat. That gives me the salient points of what you’re pushing. If I’m interested, I’m going to want to take it with me (with a USB stick), because that piece of paper is another mnemonic. Have enough to last until Day 4 closing.

Bonus points: print on matte, not glossy paper. I might want to take pictures of your papers to scan them, and glossy paper will reflect the light and white out part of your page. Use a light background so I can scribble in the margins.

Small gifts are nice but won’t do you any good—usually

That giant bowl of Hershey’s Kisses isn’t interesting to me. It’s Vegas. I have all the desserts I want. At the moment you see me, I’ve walked 5 miles in a convention center where the coffee is $5. Give me a bottle of water or a fruit bar and I’m a happy camper. No, this won’t affect whether I write about you—but I will stop for 60 more seconds to chat, out of basic human decency, and that’s 60 more seconds you’ll have to get my attention. (Note: a cup of coffee takes at least five minutes to drink before I can walk without spilling it.)

Don’t hustle the aisles

My great-grandfather ran a haberdashery shop, and he used to stand on the sidewalk yelling at passersby, “You look awful. I can help with that.” Don’t do this. By the time I’ve registered you’re speaking to me, I’ve glanced at your booth and made the split-second yes/no decision. If it’s a no, you’re just going to force me to ignore you like a Salvation Army Santa Claus in August.

Don’t call me by my frickin’ name

Yes, I know, we’re all wearing nametags. You can say, “hey, Jeff!”, and I’ll glance in your direction. When I discover I don’t know you, I’ll be annoyed. I’ll be exceedingly annoyed if this is in combination with hustling the aisles.

Note: annoying me very much can demote your product from “reasonably interesting” to “hell no.” Happens at least once a year. This year a company who reliably gets my coverage was dropped because the PR rep blew me off before I knew their new stuff.

Know my publication and I’ll remember you, too

I don’t write for a marquee site—we’re extremely well-known in the Apple community, but not at CES, and we have a small but dedicated audience. If you’ve put in the legwork to know my writing or what the site generally covers, your preparation instantly puts you in the top 3% of people I’ve spoken to.

Listen to me

If I tell you I’m uninterested, it because my readers won’t care about you. Save your breath and go find a qualified prospect. When I say, “give me a minute to read your flyer,” don’t talk at me while I do that. I’m deciding if you’re interesting, I can’t listen and read at the same time, and I’ve decided I need more data more efficiently than your talking speed. Answer my subsequent questions and then let me get the hell out of your booth. I have more to see and you have more people to talk to. You don’t have to finish your patter, and my leaving early might mean that I’ve already decided to write about you unless you’re about to talk me out of it. (This has happened.)

Don’t tell me “the PR person has left the booth”

I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of products I’ve seen in 12 years where I was willing to wait to talk to someone. Again, you’re spending five figures to be here. Have at least two people on hand, with one available during all show hours. (Exception: if you have only one person who can authorize a review unit or answer technical questions, that’s fine. Give me their card and preferably their cell number, and I’ll call them while walking to the next booth.)

For the love of God, bring USB sticks

Hell, bring a thousand. There are 4,500 journalists here. You might hit a home run.

Scenes from CES 2019

Spirit Airlines, you’ve got to be shitting me with this tray table.

I’ve seen better product names. (Booth was a Korean company, so don’t blame them too much.)

Spotted at the Mirage. I have friends who would drop far too much money here. Those signed Bohemian Rhapsody and Creed posters can be yours for only $1,595 each.

The people at the smart oven booth were geniuses—they gave out freshly-baked cookies.

This sign is apparently necessary in Vegas, I’ve seen it in multiple hotels.

$8,000. It makes cocktails.

Have you considered there’s a reason you’re the first?

For the extremely impatient or those who have always dreamed of having a child made of Silly Putty.

1982 me would have found this deeply satisfying.

The key to CES is timing, because this Disney line overflows in the morning.

Holy crap.

It’s a TV set that gives you free Netflix while it mines cryptocurrency for the company that built it. In other words, save $9 on your media by spending $30 on electricity. Genius.

Met Opera: La Traviata (Fathom Events) review

Saw the Met Opera’s La Traviata tonight at Mazza Gallerie in DC. They do a series through Fathom Events, a live Saturday performance broadcast to theaters, with an encore the following week. You see it on those two days or not at all. Saturday performance in Philly was sold out when I decided to go the day before; Wednesday night showing was in a 3/4s full theater. (Of the kind of people who laughed at whatever the director said when he responded to a question in French.)

Can’t comment on the performance, totally unqualified, so let’s just assume among the best you can see. Unsurprisingly, a bit less affecting than some live operas I’ve seen, but better than the one or two where I could tell I was seeing meh performances. (I got teary, but I also cried during Spider-Man last week, so take with a grain of salt.) A nice treat to have camera angles to actually see what the hell is happening, as the seats I’ve been able to afford generally means that performers through opera glasses are still the size of Lego figures.

Also: subtitles! I actually knew what the hell was going on. Which made me realize that the story is about very silly people doing incomprehensible things with the sort of melodrama that would make telenovela characters say, “Chica, you’re laying it on a bit thick.” But, you know, opera.

Recommended for casual fans who surprise themselves by going <raises hand>, and for folks who have never seen one and want to find out if they’re missing anything. Also perhaps a gateway drug for advanced kids this way. The subtitles make it much more approachable, and the ticket price ($28 where I was) likewise.

Going forward, I’m not sure if I’m interested in seeing the operas I’ve never heard of, but I’ll definitely try to go to the canon performances: the rest of this season includes Carmen and Die Valkure (aka the Apocalypse Now theme song). I might actually be able to say something useful about Carmen; I’ve seen it before. Full listing here, including some other snooty arts like ballet (which I might give a try).

Worst story ideas ever, part 2

I have to read headline pitches. It’s boring. I mock the worst ones.

Seeking health professionals to discuss the negative health effects of wearing an ill fitting bra

because apparently “it hurts like hell” isn’t a good enough reason

How To Overcome Writer’s Block

get a phone call from your agent, “you have to finish or give the money back” (hypothetically, so I hear)

Seeking Christian (Women Who Rock with Success)

seeking writers who (understand punctuation)

The Health Benefits Of Waking Up Before Sunrise

wait so paleo diet is good because it’s paleo but “be awake when it’s light out” is somehow bad now

How to Talk to Your Partner About Your Sexual Frequency

there are four different ways to interpret this and I’m going with electromagnetic wavelengths

Coconut Oil for Horses (Anonymous)

you should at least tell us what country you’re in so we can leave it

How to reheat a baked potato

ask the guy who didn’t know how to microwave a sweet potato yesterday

Budgeting as Part of the Sandwich Generation

set up a gofundme to raise money from the pepsi generation

Do women like beards?

if your editor wants a story longer than one word, you may want to rethink

Seeking dancers and scientist on why some people truly have no rhythm?

the profession you want is “anthropologist” because rhythm is culturally defined

Bilingual AI Expert/Programmer Needed

and must love dogs

Global Hotspots 2030: Where The Smart Money Will Go Next

obviously, anywhere but the places you print in the story

Redeem United Miles

fly somewhere

Still looking for bingeable Netflix Original Series!

still don’t understand how this could possibly require an expert to interview!

Ways for retirees to enjoy Labor Day for free

no, it’s every other day they enjoy, sitting on their lawns pointing and laughing at people going to work

How to turn a bedroom into a flex room

drive rifts in your family such that they can’t stand to be around you half the time

The Best Apps for Small Business of All Time

try something more specific, like “best apps for people with opposable thumbs”

If you’re a perfectionist, use these ways to keep your cool with a boss who is not

or perhaps tell your readers that their boss is right and they may need therapy

Things That Make You Look Old

being old

Worst story ideas ever, part 1

I recently signed up with a news service in order to promote my book. They send me headlines of stories that journalists want to write, I reply if someone is writing a story I’m expert on.

This is very boring as I have to read 100 headlines for every one I reply to. And some of these are ridiculous. Therefore, I will mock them.

Signs The Universe Is Trying To Hook You Up With “The One”

you become spaghettified as you pass the event horizon of a black hole

tips to make sure you and your employees aren’t breaking the law

discard the business model of robbing banks

Strategies to Increase Your Organization’s Market Share

sell more things

How sleep can help your skin look better

avoids needing to use meth to stay awake

The Health Benefits Of Sleeping With Your Dog

people with germs tend to avoid people who practice bestiality

Looking for sources for a story about pet sharks

the longer you wait, the harder they are to find

How to microwave sweet potatoes

if this is unclear, a kitchen contains sharp objects and you should not be near them

Ways to Use Canned Sardines in Cooking

getting your in-laws to leave early

Bonding with horses

you should talk to that guy with the dog


It is infuriating that liberal America is focusing on Merrick Garland and Roe v. Wade. It’s a failure of political imagination, and shows just how far our heads are up our asses regarding the massive losses we sustained in 2016.

It’s not Roe, and it’s not Obamacare, that’s on the chopping block. It’s everything from the New Deal onward, and quite possibly every progressive reform since the Gilded Age, which is clearly the model of America that conservative SCOTUS has in mind. At a guess, the only thing not at risk, as it might be a bridge too far, is women’s suffrage in the 1920s—but considering how thrilled conservative SCOTUS is regarding restricting voting rights and allowing corporate money in politics, perhaps I’m also failing to imagine sufficiently.

It simply doesn’t matter for shit whether we retake the White House, or get 60 votes in the Senate, or have a Democratic lock on two branches of government between now and 2050. That’s roughly the beginning of the next window when we might have a chance of reversing our SCOTUS losses, and in the meantime, any Democratic initiative anywhere to the left of center-right is likely to get blown away in court. No government accountability, no restraint of corporate power, no gun control, no rebalancing of the American political map in favor of democracy.

This requires an act of political will similar to that undertaken by Republicans when they blocked Merrick Garland, and it’s a simple one: the magical number nine isn’t in the Constitution. It’s set by Congress. And when we hold Congress (as I expect we will in 2021—working from the theory that the GOP will be back in 2008 regard after Trump’s disastrous policies harm their best voters), we need to replace it with thirteen.

That’s because two1 will be the number of SCOTUS justices nominated by a president without a popular majority, and confirmed by a Senate with an even bigger skew in terms of how undemocratically votes result in apportionment of political power. Arguably, the American people want political balance on the Court—either a balance of left and right, or the nomination of centrist and centrist-left Justices going forward. (I could make an argument that 3 million in favor of Hillary argues for Justices as far to the left as Alito is to the right; instead, I’ll make the less radical suggestion that we should aim for centrism rather than liberalism.)

1I’d set this number at three due to W’s appointment of Alito, as while he was nominated in the second term, it was the power of incumbency that allowed W to get there, and that incumbency was also based on an undemocratic outcome. Again, I’ll go for the <ahem> conservative argument.

Two more Justices cancels out the undemocratic power of Trump’s nominees (so far), but that’s not balanced yet. Had these appointments been made by Hillary (or before that, Al Gore), that would have been a 22% swing to the left, not a neutralization. So we need two more votes to counter. Technically, we need four more votes to counter, bringing us to fifteen, as 2/13ths is less than 2/9ths.

Please note that while this may sound shocking, it’s perfectly allowable if Dems hold the White House and 50 seats in the Senate. Mitch McConnell’s own rules say so. These is merely a break from political norms—which the other side is quite happy to break any time they wish. I’m still not quite clear why we’re required to bring Marquess of Queensbury boxing gloves to a machete fight.

Of course, the Washington Post, New York Times, and most current Senate Democrats can be expected to gather their petticoats to their corsets and exclaim how this could never happen. That’s what happened last time: FDR’s attempt to expand the Court was shut down by Senate Democrats. What we need to do is convince our elected representatives that we are out of sufficient fucks to give such that we’re willing to sacrifice decades of political power on the altar of playing nice.2

2Meanwhile, that’s also the obvious spin that puts this into the Overton window. By rejecting Merrick Garland, the GOP is to blame for a period of political instability and breaking of norms, and the Democrats are simply responding in kind. By doing so, we’ll encourage future Congresses to take an approach short of salting the earth for partisan purposes, so Democrats can perfectly well state that they are in favor of a return to norms after past norm-breaking has been addressed.

This is all perfectly kosher under the rules. All it takes is political will. And if we don’t have sufficient will to do so, it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference how hard you work for anything else on your agenda, as it can all be shut down in an instant. Your choice.

1,300 words about the North Korean diplomatic crisis, with jokes

Call me utterly amazed by some of the discussion the last few days about what’s going on re negotiations with North Korea, and who should get credit for it. NPR in particular has been engaged in the kind of rhetorical schizophrenia that led me to dump them from my news mix for a year starting in December, 2016. They’ve had correspondents on who can report a fact, and then commentate as if they had reported its exact opposite, within the space of half a breath.

Best as I can tell from my extensive radar of “random friend comments that Facebook deigns to show me,” quite a few people are getting dizzy from fumes, so let’s talk.

In the past year, North Korea has taken their nukes, and put them on missiles that can hit anywhere west of Bangor, Maine. There’s a decent chance the bomb would fizzle, and there’s solid evidence that they’ll aim for New York and hit Kansas, but as even a missed fizzle would glass an inconveniently large area with people in it, people got rightly concerned.

This led to Trump’s infamous fire-and-fury response, and as with Nixon, how you responded to it was entirely based on how you heard it. Folks who only heard the audio had the shit scared out of them at such high velocity that it became a $500 procedure in Los Angeles. But if you saw the video, and how Trump immediately crossed his arms and put on the facial expression of a toddler demanding a cookie, your takeaway was that we’re totally fucked not because of the belligerence of the statement, but because he clearly has no idea what he’s doing.

Fast forward to the present. Big things are happening: Trump is meeting with Kim, John Bolton and his mustache are running the show, the president of South Korea says Trump deserves the Nobel. If big things are happening, our cognitive dissonance tells us, good things might result. If good things might result from a previously insoluble shitstorm, the dissonance continues, clearly the people in charge must know what they’re doing through some application of 12th-dimensional diplomacy.

This is all completely understandable. It’s a known cognitive flaw. The people in charge, no matter how incompetent they obviously are, must have access to some inscrutable wisdom or arcane lore—government seeeeecrets, if you prefer—that makes what they do rational.

Let’s review recent history:

North Korea has been playing bait-and-switch for roughly 40 years, through a process of saber-rattling, and then seeing what they can get when they briefly but ostentatiously stop. This time, they have their largest saber ever, which legitimately did shock security experts by how much they accomplished in a short time. The thing is, they’ve gotten what they’ve wanted forever—a meeting with the president, the international status that entails,1 a lot of fodder for continuing to prop up the home dictatorship—without making a single concession. Their stated policy for literally their entire existence is the reunification of Korea (under their rule, natch). Shaking hands with South Korea isn’t something they gave up, it’s another win for them.

1North Korea is famously bad at understanding our motivations, and appears to be missing the obvious signs there is bipartisan consensus and widespread international support that starting in 2021 or 2025, we all whistle, gaze somewhere into middle distance, and pretend that the last several years never happened. This will infuriate both the Trumpistas, and folks like me who want to see them utterly repudiated and fed Mueller-butter sandwiches.

Meanwhile, south of the 38th parallel, we have an ally with all the political stability of the Italian parliament, the refined decorum of the Knesset, and the comfortable security of the fifth guy to pick up the revolver in a game of Russian roulette. In a move that created tidal waves of jealousy across our country, they impeached their last president and sent her to jail for 24 years. The new guy is faced with:

  • an impending negotiation of absolute existential importance to his country
  • a US president who is cajoled by flattery in much the same way that tween girls are cajoled by Taylor Swift
  • a US presidential advisor who is entirely likely to advise that we nuke everything between Beijing and Tokyo, then negotiate with the cockroaches in 20 years
  • a North Korean regime that is not merely proven batshit, but is raging at an even higher level of batshittery. Kim’s half-brother was assassinated with a nerve agent. In a squeeze bottle. At an airport. By a woman who was told it was a prank for a reality show. It’s rumored that this, and other DPRK cabinet moves with extreme prejudice, are taking place to put down an internal split that could lead to a coup.

Given all this, entirely independently, of his own volition, and without any ulterior motives whatsoever the president of South Korea says that Trump deserves the Nobel Peace Prize.2 And people seem to have bought it. I have heard the words “diplomacy” and “Trump” in the same sentence, which appears to be the same logical thought process that leads people to look at drunk people with a Ouija board and say, “must be ghosts.”

2As for the actual people who award the Nobel Peace Prize, considering that they gave it to Obama in 2009 for, quote, “giving us the warm fuzzies after the last guy” endquote, Trump could emit flaming unicorn ass rainbows that cure death and end poverty, and still be six slots behind Taylor Swift for consideration. Corollary: Trump’s successor will have hers staple-gunned to her forehead during the inauguration ceremony.

Granted, I’ll admit a certain bias, in that Trump could literally offer me his hand to drag me out of Hell, and I’d believe that he reached for a dropped KFC drumstick and helped me only because he’s equally incompetent at chicken. It would take quite a few foreign policy experts3 lining up to say Trump is a genius before I’d think otherwise.

3All of them.5

This does have a façade of being the sort of impasse that could be hastened along with a wildcard. That appears to be the slender thread of a rational basis for breathy exclamations about Trump’s success, for getting people to the bargaining table who have been begging to be at that particular bargaining table since 1953. The thing is, if Trump agrees to cut all ties to South Korea and have every Chevy made with Pyongyang steel, in return for the promise of an 18-month pause in North Korean nuclear ambitions with no IAEA oversight, that is among our best possible outcomes. People don’t seem to understand—literally, it’s unthinkable—that this is the kind of meeting where two people with a boundless capacity for their thoughts being nontangential with reality, and the emotional temperament to go to war over a misunderstanding or personal slight, also have the ability to actually do it.4

4In all seriousness, it would go like this: Kim makes a rhetorical threat identical to every rhetorical threat North Korea has ever made, the DPRK version of asking about your family before getting down to business. Trump is scared, or worse, offended, because he genuinely believed that he would be treated with deference. He turns to Bolton for advice. Pyongyang is glowing as soon as they can get Trump outside the blast radius, as is Seoul and anyone else in the crossfire.

5I can’t remember, but apologies to Dave Barry if this joke is a direct lift.

Fucking done being polite

Republicans are sociopaths. Full stop.

We’re supposed to call it tribalism, and say that many of them are hurting, or scared, and deserving of empathy. We’re supposed to say it’s a problem on both sides.

No. We’re not sociopaths, and they are.

One party thinks the problem with gun violence is not enough people shooting back.

One party desires to deport everyone who immigrated to the United States an arbitrarily long time after their own ancestors did.

One party believes that if you don’t have enough money, you should get sick and die.

One party states that if you can’t find work, or can’t work, or your work doesn’t pay enough, or you become obsolete, or you’re bankrupted by bad luck, you deserve to lose your home and starve.

We’re supposed to say that all of this is a problem with Republican politicians, not Republican voters. The voters are just single-issue. Lashing out. Fiscally conservative. Misguided. Misinformed. Hurting, scared, deserving of understanding.

No. They’re sociopaths. Incapable of empathy. Complicit with—or supportive of—the evil, the dangerous, those working to harm. Moved only when it affects them personally, which then inspires more hatred of the outsiders whom they blame.

The Second Amendment voters, at least they’re honest sociopaths about their desire for Mad Max anarchy and rule by threat of violence.

The anti-abortion voters believe that the female meat vessels carrying a fetus—or who someday might—have no human rights, but also support the destruction of poverty and healthcare safety nets necessary to indicate they actually give a damn about babies. An unplanned pregnancy means you’re a whore; the child must be brought to term; should you not raise the child exactly as they think you should, you’re morally inferior and undeserving of help. Women are half the population; not caring about them is not merely misogynistic, it’s sociopathic. Not caring about children after demanding and enforcing their birth is monstrous.

The racists, we’re required to pretend that there’s some qualitative degree of difference between them and the white nationalists and the Nazis, even when we’re required to use a microscope to spot the distinction. Not caring about anyone nonwhite, or non-Christian, or more urbanized, or otherwise Other is sociopathic.

The fiscal conservatives, whose espoused beliefs are as hollow as the moral crusaders who supported Trump, they might be the worst of all. They take carte blanche to shut down any expression of compassion or decency if it costs money, yet they only seem to care about money spent on compassion and decency. They’re kind, they’re caring, they’re not like those social conservatives—or so they would have you believe—it’s just that the right to individual wealth is more important than any of the above, and complicity with everything else is justified. Specifically, the right to their own wealth, or the wealth they expect to acquire.

That is a dictionary definition of sociopathy.

I’m not calling out paleoconservatives, the modern Republicans of the 1960s, who thought Goldwater was dangerously radical, who came to their positions from a genuine—although in my opinion, mistaken—belief that conservative values, prior to sociopathic Moral Majority and Tea Party hijacking, improve the human condition. It’s just that few of them exist, they’re not loud, they’re not doing enough to reclaim their party—and based on election results, they mostly end up going along with the sociopaths. At which point, they are no better.

What about the rest of us? We care, supposedly. We’re outraged, clearly. Yet we keep playing the game.

We know the game is rigged. It’s rigged by money, it’s rigged by power, it’s rigged by outright disenfranchisement. Maybe we protest, politely, dear me, nothing illegal or too disruptive. Maybe we give money. Sometimes we vote. Then we lose, and the cycle continues. Or we win, we’re moderate in our use of power, we seek compromise, and of course, we’re always more concerned about being fair and idealistic than accomplishing our goals, of making a real goddamn difference. So most of what we achieve is cleaning up the worst of what happened before we got there. For a while. Until they win again and destroy the lives we tried to save.

And when we go to war, most of us are just as in favor of killing brown people for our own temporary illusory security as they are. Next time it’ll probably be Asian people. Again. We’re quicker to regret it, for what that’s worth, but we don’t learn from it.

We’re the frogs in simmering water. It keeps getting worse, it keeps getting more rigged, it keeps killing people, it keeps increasing the suffering and the misery and the deprivation, it keeps destroying any sense that we can collectively act with decency. But only a little at a time. A bill today harming the safety net, forgotten tomorrow because of some act of violence, in turn forgotten next week when some other sociopathic normalized behavior captures our attention.

We’ve forgotten it’s sociopathic, so we don’t act.

What we should have done, what truly decent people would have done, what the people who aren’t too complacent and comfortable do: shut it the fuck down.

It would have to be all of us, that’s the only way it works, that’s the only way to support each other through the painful sacrifice. Stop going to work. Stop contributing to the economy for anything but bare necessities. Block the streets with our bodies. Shut down Congress and legislatures and courts with the sheer masses of people surrounding the buildings. Do it for gun violence, then do it again for healthcare, for immigration, for all of the outrages that make us less than who we claim to be.

Get loud and don’t stop, never stop, grind it all to a halt. Power and money need us to play by their rules, to act in the ways they can control and counter. The only way to hurt them, to subvert their power, is not to.

And finally, finally, stop coddling sociopaths and pretending that since there are so many of them, whatever they believe is normative. We’re not all in this together. Half of us are in violation of every accepted framework of common decency, including the ones they claim. They’re actively sociopathic, or they’re discreetly sociopathic, or they’re complicit with sociopaths for selfish reasons—which is just another definition of sociopathic.

It would have to be fucking all of us. A few thousand people on a Saturday afternoon is playing the game. Boycotting the inhumane corporation of the moment is playing the game. Tweeting and posting and being really concerned, but staying within the lines, is playing the game. This post is playing the game.

But I’m being a fantasist. Of course, we’re going to keep playing. We’re comfortable and complacent, and with few exceptions, the only Americans in the last century who’ve made sacrifices like these did so because they had no choice.

What would it take for us to be finally done, for the water to boil? There’s ample evidence that there’s no upper limit, that even looming nuclear or environmental Armageddon, and the potential extinction of our species, is not enough to move us. We just get by, and we hope our kids will get by, and we’re pretty sure that some generation eventually won’t, but we try not to think about it. We just get by, and we don’t really comprehend it—we don’t feel it the way we would if we had to watch it—when other people don’t.

We’re not sociopaths, but we’re not moved to action either. Not enough. We mostly just watch and hope it doesn’t get too much worse, or too soon, or for the people close to us. What do we call people like that?

I’m not sure what I’m willing to do, not without a large group, large enough to protest like Gandhi and have it matter. But I do know, I’m fucking done being polite, with being performatively inoffensive, with my few remaining shreds of belief that Americans are special, or that we have shared values. Republicans are sociopaths.

Last Jedi: best Star Wars ever

There is really only one question coming out of The Last Jedi: is it an excellent Star Wars movie, or is it the best Star Wars movie so far? I’m leaning towards the latter, and seeing as how I’m already seeing some (extremely misguided) people on Facebook being completely underwhelmed, I decided to explain why—at great length, as is my preferred style.

This post is not just filled with spoilers, it talks about things ranging from the opening seconds to the closing credits. If you haven’t seen it yet (and really, why not? you’re nuts), close your browser and delete the application before proceeding, lest some stray electrons from my web server reach you and take away one iota from the movie.

The core reason why this is the best Star Wars movie to date: just as Star Trek: Discovery is doing, it is simultaneously part of the universe it’s living in, and a deconstruction of that universe. Last Jedi introduces critiques of Star Wars, which have been swirling for decades out here in the real world, in-universe for the first time.

The Force Awakens was very much a beat-for-beat homage to the original Star Wars, and that mainly for a Doyleist reason: it had to prove that the magic from the original movies was recaptureable (which it did admirably). The Last Jedi is the handing off of the baton from what came before to whatever is coming next.

It’s not a perfect movie. There were a number of scenes and characters which I thought were a bit questionable. But as I come to praise Caesar, not to bury him, I’ll gloss over these and maybe return to them in a future post.

Opening Scene: hands down, I will never have more fun in a movie theater than the 30 seconds when the Lucasfilm logo is replaced with Long, Long Ago, the fanfare begins, and I know that never again will I get to see this movie for the first time. Keep making them until I’m a Force ghost, Disney, because I’m going to keep buying tickets.

Rey’s Knighthood: there was much grousing after Force Awakens that Rey was far too powerful on zero training, which continues here: after being spurned by Luke and not getting any more Jedi pointers, she pulls off some Yoda-level Force levitation near the end of the movie. (And I recall that canonically, the crimson guard of the Emperor have Sith fight training, so the fact that she fights them off and does slightly better than Kylo is even more impressive than lifting rocks.)

But Rey’s self-tutored transition from neophyte to mastery is little different than Luke’s. Luke got maybe a few weeks at Dagobah, but his confrontation with Vader makes it very clear he’s out of his depth. By the beginning of Return, though, he’s all Jedi ninja. I’ve seen head canon explanations of this ranging from a return to Dagobah to training with Obi-Wan’s Force ghost, but the most obvious one is, “if you’re strong with the Force, you’re a self-starter.” Considering that the only time we’ve seen official Jedi training, it was for Anakin Skywalker, perhaps that’s further evidence that the Jedi curriculum is not as good as is promised in the brochure.

Combine this with Luke’s mini-sermon on the distinction between the Force itself, and the Jedi’s jealous guardianship against anyone else understanding it, and it seems clear: the Force decides whom it likes, and if you have that, who can ask for anything more? This nicely discards some of the most troublesome canonical problems with the Jedi which everyone has been glossing over for years: a pre-Schism Catholic separation of the learned from the unwashed, and control over whom is granted access to sacred knowledge; a theory of pedagogy whereby kindergartners are too old to be considered (concomitantly implying that the “right age” is fairly close to kidnapping toddlers from their parents); and while no one comes out and says it, the near certainty that the Old Republic Jedi were awfully cozy with hierarchical, patriarchal, and oligarchical governance and leadership structures.

Kylo’s Nonredemption: what are the two things we know about the Force? First, it has a light side and a dark side; dark side Force users get more superpowers, but have a tendency to be irredeemably evil. And unlike everything we know about the real world, where good people do bad things and vice versa, in Star Wars you’re one or the other.

Second, all of the light side users are super-concerned about the “balance” of the Force, which doesn’t make any sense whatsoever given that a) it’s hundreds of them versus two Sith masters, whom no one even believes exist at first; and b) it’s neither clear what the hell they’re trying to balance, or exactly what they do except talk about it endlessly. The most comprehensible Force balance we ever get to see is Luke’s Dagobah swamp yoga.

But wait! There’s a huge caveat to “irredeemable,” because even if you’re an evil space tyrant for decades and involved in the death of billions, it’s all okay so long as you get that teary final scene with your kid, and maybe throw an emperor into a deep hole. This makes about as much sense as finding out that Hitler made a Jewish friend in the bunker, so everyone decides to build a statue of him. (Presumably in South Carolina, by very fine people.)

I came out of Force Awakens saying, “I will be so pissed when they give us the inevitable Kylo redemption arc.” It’s as much part of Star Wars DNA as the hero’s journey. Before Vader, there was Han’s transition from selfish smuggler prick to deus ex falconia in Episode IV. And just so there’s no confusion: yes, of course he murdered Greedo. That’s what makes his story work.

So then they give us Kylo’s redemption. And turns out, it wasn’t half bad; I’m watching the scene thinking, “if I must have this, this is probably the best way to get it.” I’m already picturing Episode IX with plucky Kylo and Finn coming up with counterstrategies against the First Order, while marveling at a pretty damn good fight scene, ending with the moment where Rey unequivocably saves Kylo’s black-clad ass.

But then… Kylo wasn’t redeemed, he just did what Vader never did: depose the master and take over himself. Three minutes of Hux Force choking later, and he’s the undisputed Emperor. Suddenly the entire story arc of the next 1.5 movies (and maybe 4.5 movies) gets completely rewritten. Fuck that noise where he commits patricide against goddamn Han Solo and gets off scot free. Even in his own reconstruction of events, he’s still the guy who burned down a Jedi temple and killed off half of his (presumably teenage) classmates. And the redemptive quality that we’re supposedly seeing—his struggle with the light side—turns out to be Snoke’s plan to lure out Force-sensitive enemies.

Fuck him, he’s a bad guy. Even Rey’s given up on him by the end, and her unfailing optimism about the goodness of people is as fundamentally irrational in the Star Wars universe as it would be in Westeros. Chewie had the right idea: keep shooting at him with a bowcaster.

We Don’t Need No Stinking Hero’s Journey: Meanwhile, back on the island (and how amusing is it that an island features so prominently in the movie JJ isn’t helming?), Luke is not the guy we’re expecting. I probably annoyed my fellow moviegoers by how hard I laughed at the opening shot, where he tosses his lightsaber over his shoulder and off a cliff; we waited two years for the resolution of a nearly literal Force Awakens cliffhanger, and that’s what we get? Loved it.

This sets up the obvious Star Wars trope: Luke the reluctant hero (this time in a teacher role), unwilling to be involved, but gradually won over by the plucky determination and sheer talent of his padawan. (It doesn’t hurt that Daisy Ridley has preternatural screen charisma, making it entirely believable that characters would naturally come over to her side.) It’s the arc we get with Poe, when Leia and her second discuss how much they like him because of his mutiny. Luke is just being grumpy; surely Rey’s winning attitude will bring him back. Artoo even gets in on the plan, showing Luke the Leia hologram to remind him of his old attitudes.

But as it turns out, Luke isn’t in seclusion because he’s turned his back on the Resistance, or out of self-loathing after Kylo’s dark side turn, but because he’s lost faith in the Jedi as a whole. This not only makes his actions in this movie believable, but it fills in a major plot hole from the last one: short of this—which I wouldn’t believe would ever be in Star Wars if I hadn’t seen it—there’s no good explanation for the events leading up to Episode VII. “Our” Luke would never turn his back on either his friends or the fight, and that’s exactly what he did. Turns out, he had what I think might be the only explicable reason for doing so, which is a point of view that’s never been hinted at in any other movie (and certainly never from a Jedi).

And who should come back to exemplify this, but Yoda himself? Mr. “Do, or do not; there is no try” is now “failure is the greatest teacher,” and he puts the exclamation point to it by burning down the Jedi library-tree. (Which is kind of a weird concept unless it’s a swipe at Avatar.) Put simply, Yoda’s self-assuredness in the original movies is a bit odd after the decisions we see him make in the prequels—flying in at the lead of a platoon of stormtroopers rather put me off the little green dude for a while—and it’s interesting to see that wherever Force ghosts go when they’re not enjoying a big Yub Nub party, they’re giving some thought to their past actions.

Leia’s “Death”: after the dispatch of poor Han in the last movie (sending him off a trademark Death Star balcony, so there would be no misconceptions that maybe it was just a flesh wound), I think we were all steeling ourselves for the loss of the rest of the Big Three this time around. And there goes Princess Leia, whooshed out into deep space, her body drifting around for enough scenes for us all to think, “wow, they just did that.”

Then we get the dramatic close-up, and the hand flex, and I had just enough time to think, “okay, here’s the dramatic last message to Luke,” before she proceeds to Iron Man back to safety with goddamn Force powers. Which is, at a single stroke, both badass, and redemptive of one of the worst failings of the original trilogy.

First, there’s what she does. The Force can keep you alive in space? Wow. That’s new. But it also makes sense—it’s a life force, after all. So it’s easy to say, “sure, it’s 3° Kelvin and she’s out of air, but if you’re strong enough with the Force, maybe you just don’t die until you’re ready to.” After all, dead people get to become Force ghosts (even if they were evil for most of their lifetimes), so sure, there’s some serious mojo working there.

Second, there’s that she does it. She’s the sister of Luke, the Jedi master. She’s the daughter of Vader. Without mentioning that horrible midiwhatsis concept, the Force has a serious genetic component. And all we’ve gotten to see her do so far in Episodes IV through VII is have a cosmic Force awareness of things happening light years away. That’s great, but come on; Artoo can do the same thing with his T-Mobile antenna.

This, however, is a superpower. And just to remind you, she’s a girl. Which means that the most amazing Force badassery we get to see in this movie is wielded by two women. (I’ll get back to Luke in a moment.) Maybe you had to be alive for the original trilogy in theaters, but man, this is as big a deal to Star Wars as that interracial kiss was in Star Trek. Goodbye, gold bikini.

Luke’s Twist: Meanwhile, we get to see Luke pull off some never-before-seen Force powers as well, walking out of a vaporizing First Order barrage like some goddamn Kryptonian. I halfway expected him to wave his hand and blow away every attacking AT-AT seconds later.

But it’s not him; it’s a Force ghost. Which is at once a brand new superpower (we’ve only seen that from dead guys before), and also a perfect explanation for how he pulled that off. We all got to see hundreds of Jedi mowed down in Episode II, so it’s just not credible for the Force to confer invulnerability. But if he’s not there in the first place? That’s just some damn good writing—especially since it’s completely in character for him to not attack Kylo all during their lightsaber fight, so it’s only in retrospect that I realized that the only person who ever touches him is Leia during their conversation. (The Incomparable podcast notes something else I missed: everyone else’s feet kick up the salt to show the red layer, but Luke’s don’t.)

It also nicely wraps up, “how the hell did he get in?” Poe Dameron’s one-liner sets up the first (incorrect) explanation, which we see is impossible when they get to the rockfall. You get just long enough to think, “maybe the rockfall happened after Luke arrived,” before you’re told, “nope, ghosts walk through walls.”

Considering how much handwavium we’ve all had to deploy for the classic trilogy (seriously, I’ve seen explanations that time moves slower on Dagobah because it must be orbiting a black hole), this sets up an obvious plot hole, gives us time to justify it with a hand wave, corrects it in dialogue, destroys it again on screen, and then makes it all completely sensible.

Han Fauxlo: I don’t know how much there is to say about Benicio Del Toro’s character, at least maybe not until after we see Episode IX; I won’t be all that surprised for him to complete the Han Solo arc from scoundrel to hero. But for now at least, he’s the embodiment of the discarding of the light side-dark side dichotomy. Unlike earlier scoundrels we’ve come to love, his good guy turn is a matter of convenience, and he switches right back when the tide turns. But he gets off several one-liners exactly regarding how the line between good and evil is not so much gray as irrelevant, punctuated by the hologram showing that the same arms merchants who build Death Stars build X-Wings.

I’d rather keep the remainder of the new series redemption-free; it’s clear that Finn never needed one because he was never a “bad” stormtrooper to begin with. Del Toro can just vanish without loss, or remain a bad guy; he doesn’t need to be the next Han. (And probably can’t be, after “responsible for the deaths of half the Resistance.”) But this is interesting in-universe commentary that the new Star Wars universe is just as mixed up as ours is regarding good and evil, which is all to the good.

Rey’s Parentage: Likewise, we also seem to be somewhat finished with “everyone important is related to everyone else important.” Sure, Ben Solo is strong with the Force because he’s a Skywalker, there are still some genetics about. But unless Kylo is lying about Rey’s parents (always a possibility), Rey’s Force sensitivity is sui generis. That nicely democratizes the Force in a completely non-Lucasian way, and also resolves a lingering problem left over from Awakens: there really weren’t that many viable candidates for Rey’s parentage. Couldn’t be Leia and Han, very difficult for it to be Luke, nonsensical for nearly anyone else. I had my bet riding on “Kenobi granddaughter” as of two years ago, but considering the amount of backstory that would be necessary for Ewan or Alec to have had a descendent on Jakku, I’m happy to be wrong.

Remember, this is the universe that made Leia a princess, although her “official” Dad was a senator, because her secret Mom was… uh… an elected queen? But no one knew Padme was her mother, so why… oh, forget it. Princess Leia is a princess because it’s iconic, because rescuing princesses is a trope, and because Leia calling her rescuers idiots and blasting away the wall to escape was badass in 1977. Attempts to be Watsonian are doomed to failure here, and it’s simply completely weird that Lucas became uncomfortable with perpetuating hereditary monarchies, at the same time he was cementing the view that only certain people get to use the Force, those people mostly being the children of other Force users.

Carrie’s Dedication: “For our princess?” Oh, man. I’m not crying as hard right now as I did during the closing credits, but I haven’t been able to think of those three words without getting choked up.

Somewhere, there’s an alternate timeline where Carrie isn’t dead, and there’s no cosmic irony that Leia’s the last survivor of the Star Wars trinity, but can’t have whatever sendoff was planned for Episode IX. I wish I could see that movie.

Wrapping Up: So, yeah, I get it, there are flaws. The porgs have more than a whiff of Ewok to them, and scenes with them were a bit more Tex Avery than I’d like. Laura Dern could have saved everyone a lot of trouble by not keeping so many secrets from Poe. My particular favorite: really, no one has ever tried lightspeed at an attacking fleet before? Seems like it should be an obvious trick. (Considering how often Hux screws up in this movie, Vader’s strategy of rapid general disposal starts to look a bit better in retrospect.)

But not enough flaws to take it out of the running for best Star Wars ever, and since that’s a wholly subjective opinion, I’m comfortable saying it won. Which is to say: the original Star Wars is forever going to be the most fun movie ever made, partially because it’s pretty damn good, and partially because I saw it when I was seven. That’s also why I’ve always had less regard for Empire than most people: age 10 me didn’t get a lot of it, age 13 me judged it the weakest of the three, and while adult me likes it more now (and Jedi less), Star Wars still takes the cake and leaves no crumbs behind. Sure, you can appreciate Empire on a deeper level, but once you do that, you also need to evaluate it for its flaws, of which it has many. The worst flaws of Star Wars, they fixed in Rogue One.

(And to repeat age 10 me’s biggest objection to Empire: the whole point of movies is that there’s never a “wait until next week to see the conclusion.” Empire had one which you had to wait three years for. That should be considered child abuse.)

Coming out of Awakens, I was ready to say that it was on par with Star Wars, based on the simple fact that it made me feel like I did when I saw it the first time. That’s pretty damn rare; the only movie I can recall making me as giddy in theaters recently was Spider-Man: Homecoming. (There have been six, count them, six swings and misses at this by movies with Superman in them since Superman II, when making a feel-good Superman movie should be the biggest gimme in Hollywood.)

My joy at seeing a movie isn’t necessarily correlated with the quality of the movie as a movie; my favorite movie doesn’t have to be the best movie I’ve seen. I’m equally leaning towards saying Discovery has knocked DS9 off its perch as the best of Star Trek… but my favorite is likely to always be TNG. Likewise, Star Wars is always going to be my favorite… but for right now, I’ll call it. Last Jedi is better. It breaks the most ungainly Lucas toys and builds something better from them. Not only am I looking forward to what JJ does in IX, I can’t wait now for Rian Johnson’s run at X through XII.

Some profane advice for Nancy Pelosi

When the Democratic response to Trump’s white supremacist sympathies is empty, pretty words, and their only action is to legislate architecture, that’s so batshit incompetent, I start to believe the people who say we deserve to lose.

Pelosi should have gone on CNN Tuesday night and said exactly this: “Fuck Nazis and everyone who supports them.” And then introduce legislation about statuary and restricting Trump’s powers.

It would have emphatically set the Democratic position and removed the perception that they don’t stand for anything.

It would have explicitly told every group persecuted by Nazis and white supremacists, who happen to be the Democratic base or ripe targets, “we have your back in no uncertain terms.”

It would have been safe, because opposing Nazis is the biggest gimme position since, “Ogg, don’t stick your face in the fire.” Safe shouldn’t matter, but it seems to be the top priority for at least a plurality of pusillanimous Democrats.

The use of the word “fuck” would have dominated the media and gone viral, ensuring that it made a permanent impression that Fox News can’t spin.

It would have ended “the Pelosi problem” whereby her name is being used as a dog whistle for communist takeover. Anyone criticizing Pelosi from the right would have to explain they’re not supporting Nazis. Message buried.

Probably would have also shut up antsy Democrats who prefer an internal turf war to actually defeating Republicans.

Anyone criticizing her language would have to explain they’re not supporting Nazis or being polite to Nazis. Message buried.

CNN would make noises about her language, unbleeped because they had no warning for a 3-second delay, and would be secretly thrilled about the ratings bump thereafter.

This is how you win, Democrats. Maybe you take issue with this particular tactic, but this is how you win.

Tina Fey is a goddamn hero

The Internet is going through a minor uproar (its default state) over the Tina Fey sheetcake video. Twitter hashtag #sheetcaking is a thing, mostly by people (as of last night) who say that Fey’s “position” comes from white and wealthy privilege. Either that, or Tina Fey is a brilliant metatextual satirist.

I don’t entirely disagree with the latter point; Tina Fey is a smart cookie and I doubt that she missed the historical resonances of “let us eat cake.” But both of these points of view completely miss what she did say.

She did not mock Nazis. She did not mock Nazi sympathizers. What she said was, “It is so blindingly obvious that all of you are rightly upset about Nazis and Nazi sympathizers that I’m going to poke fun at how we’re coping with those chinless turds.” It’s a message of inclusion—but only to antifascists, which Fey rightly assumes to be damn near everyone.

“But she told people to stay home!” Yes, she did. Let’s even give you the benefit of the doubt, and not say “she’s a comedian” or “she meant that satirically.” Let’s unpack that.

As I write this, there are approximately 50–100 “free speech attendees” (it’s unclear to me whether they identify as “alt-right” or neo-Nazi or whatever, but they’re clearly sympathetic) in Boston, literally surrounded by 20,000 counter-protestors. 200–1. That’s a good turnout, a good ratio, makes for excellent news coverage of our side, makes the “alt-right” look pathetic.

There are 4.7 million people in Boston metro. Assuming the crowd is all locals (which is certainly not true of the “alt-right” people they’re protesting), that’s a turnout under 0.43%.

On January 21, when the Women’s Marches across the country got more people to show up than in pretty much ever, estimates were over 4,000,000. That’s about 1.2% of the country.

SNL Summer Edition got 6.5 million viewers the week before Fey’s broadcast, and that was before she went ridiculously viral on the Internet. As I write this, SNL’s YouTube clip has been viewed just under 4.5 million times. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of other copies generating their own views. And it’s Saturday afternoon, 36 hours after broadcast; there’s still the rest of the weekend.

Are those 15–20 million viewers going to take Fey literally and be less likely to show up at a protest? I think that’s pretty damned unlikely, but let’s say yes. 98.8–99.6% of them weren’t going to show up anyway. But all of them are primed with the belief, “It is so damned obvious that Nazis are despicable that I’m laughing with people who are laughing at them.” How do you think these people will react when fascist sentiment is aired in their communities?

Protests aren’t about absolute numbers. You want enough people to be numerous for the venue; don’t put 100 people into a stadium, or underpopulate your inauguration compared to somebody else’s. If it’s a counter-protest, it’s nice to have more people than the other side. But the big thing, the key number, is “enough people so people hear what we’re saying.”

There’s no benchmark for that. 400 fascists showed up in Charlottesville, and we’re all talking about how much we hate them. (And yes, that means that some baby protofascists might be getting exposed to them that way; this is why they must also hear louder ridicule.) 250,000 antiwar activists turned out to protest the Iraq War nationwide in 2003 and didn’t get on the nightly news.

It’s not about who’s there, it’s about who hears about you. And usually, it’s not about making the other side look wrong, it’s about making the other side look ridiculous. You literally can’t be taken seriously when everyone’s laughing at you. Trump supporters can argue that they’re right forever and a day against all evidence; bring up the inauguration, though, and they have to lie about the numbers and say the pictures are fake, because we all know what an empty Mall says about Trump.

Yes, we must turn out in counter-protest against Nazis, fascists, and not to put too fine a point on it, Republicans. Which we’re doing. Tina Fey is fighting the other front in this war of ideas. We can’t win unless she does.

Correction: Boston police reported at 5:30 that the crowd was 40,000, not 20,000.