Monday, July 30, 2018

We Have an Existential Threat and it's Colored Orange

The last two weeks are hard to believe. It seems that each day brings new surprises, each proving to be worse than before[1]. Special prosecutor Mueller indicts nine Russians for hacking into U.S. computer systems with the intention of affecting the presidential election. Since they live and work in Russia, there is no possibility they will be extradited to the U.S.

Monday, July 16th, Trump and Vladimir Putin met privately for several hours in Helsinki, Finland, discussing the relations between the U.S. and Russia. Afterwards, both of them held a news conference. Trump’s remarks provoked a firestorm back in the U.S. There have been calls for his impeachment from both Democrats and Republicans. Senator John McCain tweeted “Today’s press conference in #Helsinki was one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.” In a full statement, he wrote “President Trump proved not only unable, … but unwilling to stand up to Putin. He and Putin seemed to be speaking from the same script as the president made a conscious choice to defend a tyrant against the fair questions of a free press, and to grant Putin an uncontested platform to spew propaganda and lies to the world.”

I went over a transcript of the news conference several times and it was what I expected. Putin delivered a level-headed speech that was appropriate for the occasion. Trump started better than I expected. It seemed to me that the speech had been written by someone else, perhaps someone in the Whitehouse.

But midway through his remarks he switched gear and began pandering to his ”base,“ accusing ”partisan critics, or the media, or Democrats“ of wanting to do nothing but ”resist and obstruct.“ Later, in the question and answer period, he returned to his normal amalgam of subjects, insisting that he easily beat Hillary Clinton in the general election and that there was no collusion with Russia during the election:

There was nobody to collude with. There was no collusion with the campaign and every time you hear all of these you know 12 and 14 - stuff that has nothing to do and frankly they admit - these are not people involved in the campaign.

But to the average reader out there, they’re saying well maybe that does. It doesn’t. And even the people involved, some perhaps told mis-stories or in one case the FBI said there was no lie. There was no lie. Somebody else said there was. We ran a brilliant campaign and that’s why I’m president.

This was vintage Trump. It was surprising that Putin defended Trump when it was his turn to speak:

As to who is to be believed and to who is not to be believed, you can trust no one – if you take this — where did you get this idea that President Trump trusts me or I trust him?

He defends the interests of the United States of America. And I do defend the interests of the Russian Federation. We do have interests that are common.

We are looking for points of contact. There are issues where our postures diverge and we are looking for ways to reconcile our differences, how to make our effort more meaningful.

We should not proceed from the immediate political interests that guide certain political powers in our countries.

We should be guided by facts. Could you name a single fact that would definitively prove the collusion? This is utter nonsense.

Just like the president recently mentioned. Yes, the public at large in the United States had a certain perceived opinion of the candidates during the campaign. But there’s nothing particularly extraordinary about it. That’s a usual thing.

President Trump, when he was a candidate, he mentioned the need to restore the Russia U.S. relationship and it’s clear that a certain part of American society felt sympathetic about it and different people could express their sympathy in different ways.

But isn’t that natural? Isn’t it natural to be sympathetic towards a person who is willing to restore the relationship with our country, who wants to work with us? We heard the accusations about the Concorde company. Well, as far as I know, this company hired American lawyers and the accusations doesn’t have a fighting chance in the American courts.

So there’s no evidence when it comes to the actual facts. So we have to be guided by facts, not by rumors.

Putin also did his own version of Clinton-bashing:

For instance, we can bring up Mr. Browder in this particular case. Business associates of Mr. Browder have earned over one and a half billion dollars in Russia. They never paid any taxes, neither in Russia nor in the United States and yet the money escaped the country, they were transferred to the United States.

They sent a huge amount of money - 400 million - as a contribution to the campaign of Hillary Clinton.

Indeed, Trump did bash the intelligence community:

So let me just say that we have two thoughts. You have groups that are wondering why the FBI never took the server. Why haven’t they taken the server? Why was the FBI told to leave the office of the democratic national committee? I’ve been wondering that. I’ve been asking that for months and months and I’ve been tweeting it out and calling it out on social media. Where is the server? I want to know, where is the server and what is the server saying? With that being said, all I can do is ask the question. My people came to me, Dan Coats came to me and some others and said they think it’s Russia.

I have President Putin. He just said it’s not Russia. I will say this. I don’t see any reason why it would be, but I really do want to see the server. But I have confidence in both parties. I really believe that this will probably go on for a while, but I don’t think it can go on without finding out what happened to the server. What happened to Hillary Clinton’s emails? 33,000 emails gone — just gone. I think in Russia they wouldn’t be gone so easily. I think it’s a disgrace that we can’t get Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 emails. So I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that president Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today. And what he did is an incredible offer. He offered to have the people working on the case come and work with their investigators, with respect to the 12 people. I think that’s an incredible offer.

When computer security experts investigate an attack on a computer they frequently shut it down and make a clone of the hard disk and RAM. That way, they avoid having to transport the computers to a lab. A clone of the hard disk is, for all purposes, just as good as the original. So we can chalk Trump’s remarks on servers to either ignorance or pandering to his ”base.“

On the other hand, taking the word of any head of state over the advice of one’s own intelligence agents is foolhardy. This is especially true if one announces it in public, because it will make one’s own spooks into enemies. It is common knowledge among security people that no matter how close our allies may be, their officials cannot be completely trusted. Their loyalty is to their own nation and its government, not ours, and conversely.

Trump’s relationship with Putin is hard to explain in the absence of other reasons beyond his desire to improve relations between the U.S. and Russia. His businesses are known to be entangled with the Russion oligarchy, and they have loaned him large sums of money to keep his enterprises going. There is also good reason to suspect that Trump has been laundering oligarchy money through real estate deals.

Trump gets away with these criminal misdeeds in part because he has mastered the art of distraction. Every time damaging information emerges that horrifies knowledgeable persons, he quickly pulls a stunt even more outrageous than the last that draws everyone’s attention away from inconvenient information. His histrionics hide the damage he and his wrecking crews have been doing since he assumed office. His destruction of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and his war on global warming science endangers the existence of human civilization and perhaps the human species.

He is aware of the danger to climate of human activity, but is actively promoting the very activities that are contributing to the warming. Noam Chomsky recently pointed out that Trump has applied to the Irish government for permission to build a wall around his golf course to protect it from the rise in sea level.[2] It would be hard to find a better example of lethal irresponsibility.

  1. I began this article about two weeks ago, but the Trump merry-go-round started cranking up and spitting out more and more ridiculous rhetoric.  ↩

  2. Click on this link: Chomsky’s comments begin at 2:48  ↩

Monday, July 9, 2018

I've Been Using Hemingway Editor and Slick Write

I’ve had Hemingway Editor sitting unused on my computer for some time, but I recently started experimenting to see how well-known writers score in the parameters that H-E measures: the number of adverbs, instances of passive voice, phrases that have simpler alternatives, how many sentences are hard to read, and how many sentences are very hard to read. It is amazing how much these factors differ from writer to writer.

Earnest Hemingway, for instance, professed to hate adverbs, but used them more than I expected. I tried Joseph Conrad’s story, Karain: A Memory, expecting a high occurrence of adverbs. Conrad was a master of description. He portrayed life in an oriental jungle with a colorful realism that makes me feel as though I am in a boat, sailing up a tropical river, and observing fellow passengers, the luxuriant jungle lining the banks, and the creatures walking and crawling on the shore and swimming in the water. I tested the first two paragraphs of the story through Hemingway Editor and to my surprise I found that even though Conrad's adverb score exceeded what H-E considered proper, Conrad did not use very many adverbs—as few as any writer I recall reading. Conrad was stingy in his use of the passive voice, as well.

On the other hand, Conrad loved adjectives. It is hard to find a noun in his writing not modified by at least one adjective.

Below are Conrad’s scores for Karain in its entirety, calculated by Hemingway Editor:

 Long sentences, another pitfall flagged by H-E, are another “error” that novice writers are warned against. Conrad, however, used sentences as though they were musical phrases, to be squeezed or stretched as occasion demands. Words are like sequences of notes. They can be long or short or even silent, as in rests. He composed melodies, even symphonies, of paragraphs and sentences that evoke in the reader echos of forgotten exotic places, along with sights, sensations and feelings. He achieves that effect by loading his nouns with colorful adjectives and choosing his verbs carefully.

To illustrate, here are the first two paragraphs of Karain that I ran through H-E:

As you can observe, Conrad wrote long sentences marked as “Very hard to read.” It is probable that this assessment is based on length. Although most of Conrad’s short works were published in magazines, it would be much harder to get them published today. Long sentences are a negative factor in judging whether a story or novel will be published. Consuming hours of television, motion pictures and Internet content, it is reasoned, has shortened 21st Century readers’ attention spans, and made it more difficult and tedious for the average reader to follow.

Nevertheless, H-E assigns a difficulty level of grade 7 for the entire story, which it considers to be easy reading. And it is pleasant and easy to read because Conrad’s sentence structures are usually plain and his choice of words is well within the vocabulary of the ordinary person.

My conclusion: Hemingway Editor is a useful advisor but a bad boss. I run my articles and essays through it just before the final draft to see if everything is ok. It will usually point out a few places that need revising.

You can purchase Hemingway Editor for Mac and Windows at for $19.99. You can also try out the online version free at It’s definitely worth looking at.

You might also enjoy trying out Slick Write, which is free, but only available online. Slick Write has a slightly different algorithm with some different “mistakes” marked, such as excessive prepositional phrases, wordy or redundant phrases, adverbs, sentences with passive voice, plus improvable sentence structures, and word usage. Settings allow you to determine which errors it should mark. For instance, it will tell you when you might be using a word too many times. It nailed me for using the definite article “the” far too frequently. You can use it at by pasting your document into the browser window. There are plug-ins for Firefox and Chrome.
Disclosure: I receive no money or anything else in return for writing about products. I am not affiliated with sellers in any way.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

The Speech That Got the Civil Rights Act of 1964 Passed (Revised)

In July 1964, I remember watching Everett Dirksen, U.S. Senator from Illinois, speaking before the U.S. Senate, mobilizing his Republican colleagues in support the the controversial Civil Rights Bill that the House of Representatives had already passed. The southern bloc, led by Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, had filibusterd the bill for 60 days, stopping all Senate business. Dirksen, the Republican minority leader, after long and fractious discussion with the Republican caucus, brought enough of his colleagues around to support cloture[1], but their assent was shaky. His speech[2] swayed enough Republican senators sitting on the fence, that their votes, combined with the Democratic votes, invoked cloture, and ended the filibuster. A full Senate vote on the merits of the bill followed. The bill passed on June 10, 1964, and President Johnson signed it into law on July 2.

The speech itself does not measure up to the speeches of the greatest orators, like Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and William E. Borah[3], but it was exactly what was required to sway wavering Republican senators to vote “aye” to end the filibuster. Some parts of the speech were outstanding, however:
To those who have charged me with doing a disservice to my party–and there have been many–I can only say that our party found its faith in the Declaration of Independence, which was penned by a great Democrat, Thomas Jefferson by name. There he wrote the great words:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.
That has been the living faith of our party. Do we forsake this article of faith, now that the time for our decision has come.
There is no substitute for a basic ideal. We have a firm duty to use the instrument at hand; namely, the cloture rule, to bring about the enactment of a powerful civil rights bill.
I appeal to all senators. We are confronted with a moral issue. Today let us not be found wanting in whatever it takes by way of moral and spiritual substance to face up to the issue and to vote cloture.
You can read the entire speech here.

Can anyone imagine Mitch McConnell (R-Ky), the current majority leader of the Senate, delivering a speech approaching Dirksen’s in elegance, depth, moral power, and faith in the ideals upon which this nation was founded? Or that today’s Republican Congress would enact into law the great 1964 Civil Rights Bill, that reaffirmed and put teeth into the enforcement of those Constitutional rights granted equally to all citizens by the 14th Amendment? The idea that any Republican in today’s Senate would be willing to speak those words in public is laughable.

Times have changed. With few exceptions, politicians in power do not deserve the title of leaders or even epigons[4]. It is difficult to find a description that captures their abject subservience to wealthy campaign doners, their flagrant disregard for the welfare of the bottom 90% of their constituents, their rank dishonesty as to their own values and motives, and their willingness, nay, enthusiasm, in protecting persons high in the executive branch from accountability for their open and obvious corruption.

Enter Trump.

Donald Trump’s phony war against the media is waged for two purposes, which may even be unconscious, since he is not given to reflection:
  • To dominate the media (including the press, TV networks, cable channels, and the Internet) by his antics to the degree that he sucks the oxygen out of other news. The media welcomes being manipulated that way, since it attracts viewers much like a freak show attracts visitors visiting the state fair.
  • To sow mistrust of the media (except for Fox news). Trump mixes truth and falsehood with equal insincerity, a technique that induces brain fatigue and inhibits his viewers in distinguishing the difference between true and false. Fox, on the other hand, usually keeps its story straight, an impressive achievement, considering the alternative universe it has constructed. When you tell the truth you don’t have to remember what you said, but when you lie, you must remember everything you said to maintain the appearance of truth. Fox, whose political reporting is replete with false statements, manages to stay reasonably consistent, and it comes across to its viewers (most of whom are Trump supporters) as a voice of reason in a media world they have been manipulated into believing is “fake news.”
There are signs of awakening, however, especially online. While the Web has enabled right-wingers to recruit sympathizers and spread their alternate and hateful version of reality, it has also enabled progressive and liberal groups to organize and become politically active. The Justice Democrats and The Young Turks are two good examples. For the first time, thanks to YouTube, the public can now learn from political and economic thinkers that the newspapers and networks have ignored for years. These include, among many others, Noam Chomsky, linguist and public intellectual; Steve Keen, economist; Richard Wolff, Marxist political science professor; Ralph Nader, author and corporate gadfly with a big sting; and Slavoj Žižek, leftist philosopher.

But back to Senator Dirksen. During his time in the Senate, Senators usually treated each other with respect. They argued vigorously, but gentlemanly. Almost always, they put nation above party. When the nation was under great stress, like the McCarthy era, or the Vietnam War, some of that comity went away, but it always seemed to return.

Comity began to deteriorate when Ronald Reagan assumed office. Shortly thereafter, Newt Gingrich, speaker of the House from Georgia, finished it off. He saw that polarization of the political space gave the Republicans an advantage and acted accordingly. The Democrats, grown complacent by the majority they held almost continuously from the end of WWII on, were unprepared for the onslaught.

The new Fox network, founded by Australian newspaper billionaire Rupert Murdoch, gave a loud voice to the Republican nastiness and lying that was directed against Democrats in the early nineties. In addition, right-wingers discovered AM radio as a cheap platform from which to spew their venom. The king of the spewers was Russ Limbaugh, whose daily two-hour program attracted millions of “ditto-heads,” as they called themselves, and promoted the right-wing cause among angry white males. As a vote-getting tactic, it worked. The Republicans seized control of the House and then the Senate and have controlled them almost continually up to the present.

The Republican drive in the ’90s culminated in the unsuccessful impeachment of President Bill Clinton near the end of his presidency by a Republican majority that clearly wanted to jerk power from a Democratic president and his party. The details and purported reasons for the impeachment I will omit, but the trial before the Senate was a solemn farce. Although Clinton was acquitted, it became obvious to anyone that paid attention that the system had become dysfunctional. The American People were bewildered by the rancor and the inability of either party to legislate without a solid majority and without shutting the minority party out of the decision-making process.

For those of us oldies that remember what it was like in the ‘60s and even the ‘70s, this is saddening. The younger generations of Americans, born after Ronald Reagan became president, have little conception of what life was like for the ordinary person living in the ‘50s through the ‘70s. I suspect that much of what we tell them about the past is often taken as the grousing of the elderly about how things were so much better in their youth. A little research into publicly-available records would reveal, however, that ordinary folk really were better off than they are today in almost every respect[5], and the change for the worse was the outcome of deliberate efforts by powerful people to bring it about. But that story is for another time.

As I was surfing through the Dirksen Center website, I came across a radio interview of Dirksen and Hubert Humphrey, the Senate majority leader, discussing the Civil Rights bill, soon to be voted on by the Senate. They were proud they were able to arrive at a document that satisfied almost everyone in the Senate other than the southerners, who bitterly opposed any legislation that might elevate the condition of southern blacks.

Dirksen and Humphrey had both served in the Senate for many years, and had developed a friendship that went beyond a mere business relationship. At the end of the interview, Senator Humphrey had the following to say:
SENATOR HUMPHREY: * * * Senator Dirksen and I will be formal for a moment. My friend, I want the people of Minnesota and the surrounding area to know that when we pass this civil rights bill, we will not only pass one that is workable and acceptable, rational and fair and enforceable, but one that I believe will make a great contribution to domestic peace and tranquility and justice in our country. And when that happens, you, sir, can claim–and you won’t but I will claim for you–a large measure of the credit for this achievement. It couldn’t be done without you, Everett, and I, for one, want to publicly express my respect and admiration for you and my sincere thanks for what I call service beyond the call of duty and putting country ahead of every other consideration.
SENATOR DIRKSEN: I can say as much for you, my friend.
SENATOR HUMPHREY: Thank you, Everett.
That says it all. As we would say here in Mississippi about our current Congress: “All those Senators and Representatives, didn’t their mothers bring them up to behave and treat everybody respectful?”

I guess not.

  1. Senators have unlimited time to speak, but if a 3/5 majority of the Senate votes to invoke cloture, any further speeches are limited to 30 minutes.  ↩
  2. I have searched for a video or audio recording of the senator’s speech, but to no avail. Dirksen’s speech was transcribed and appeared in the Congressional Record, which seems to be the source of all references to his speech on the Internet. Anyone that can direct me to an online source will have my eternal gratitude. The 1964 Congressional Record is not available on U. S Government websites. It can probably be found in libraries with a Federal Depository.  ↩
  3. William Edgar Borah (b. 1865-d. 1940) was a Republican U.S. Senator from Idaho (1907–1940), and reputed to be one of the finest orators of his time. He was a small-government isolationist and too often employed his silver tongue in the service of doubtful or even evil causes in the name of states’ rights.  ↩
  4. An epigone is an inferior follower or imitator, from the Greek word epigonos, one born after. In Greek mythology, they are the sons of the Argive heroes who had fought and been killed in the first Theban war.  ↩
  5. Except for blacks, whose life improved during that time, but still fell far behind the standard of living that everyone else enjoyed.  ↩