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As the wife and I wandered around in London this past May, we stumbled across Kew Gardens which is a botanical gardens located in the western part of London around 11 miles from where we were staying. We had to take a couple of trains to get there. Most of the sights that the average visitor sees in London are concentrated within a 2 mile radius of the center of London, extending out from the UK Parliament building. But Kew Gardens is not close to that, it takes a little effort to get there. It’s also not one of the places that all the guidebooks tell you to go.

I used to live in England for 18 months, (technically 15 since I spent 3 months traveling around the world and wasn’t in the country) and I had been to London several times (I didn’t live there, I lived in a town about 90 miles west). But I had never heard of Kew Gardens.

We don’t normally visit botanical gardens, so we figured we check this one out.

I was amazed by it. There are lots and lots of little exhibits and greenhouses within it, including one where they grow a bunch of tropical plants despite it being the middle of London – a city not known for its tropical weather, or even nice weather. I thought that was cool.

But the place that blew me away was a little museum house that housed the paintings of a woman/philanthropist that traveled the world in the 19th century, taking pictures of all the places she had been to – The Marianne North Gallery. And, she had been to a lot.

Marianne North created a lot of paintings. According to the website, she did 883. I took a few pictures of some of the various walls.

I was so impressed by Kew Gardens and this museum that every time I hear that friends are going to London, I tell them to check this place out. I don’t think anyone ever does, but that doesn’t stop me from recommending it. It’s cheap to get in, and it’s not that busy.

2017-12-30-KewGardens1

In the picture above, you can see all the paintings by Marianne North on one of the walls; each wall had more paintings, and the building has several rooms. You can even go upstairs and look around the top.

The walls are divided into areas of the world, you can see in the picture above that they are divided into Singapore and Japan.

2017-12-30-KewGardens2

There’s also a lot of paintings of plants, like flowers, herbs, and trees. So many of them are native to the part of the world she visited.

2017-12-30-KewGardens3

I don’t remember what’s going on here, so I assume that this is the wife’s favorite picture.

2017-12-30-KewGardens4

Finally, I took a picture against a mosque, but I don’t know what country it’s from. However, it reminds me of the Blue Mosque in Turkey so that’s why I took the photo.

I remember thinking that North’s life work will live on decades and centuries after she has passed on. I then thought to myself that I don’t have anything similar. Sure, I’m fighting spam and malware, but that’s more of a treadmill than something that lasts and which others can admire long after I am gone.


I’m not always this impressed with the places I visit. For sure, I enjoy so much of what I go see – museums, theaters, restaurants, botanical gardens, even mountainous locations. However, what I like is the sense of wonder I get from going to out-of-the-way places that I had no idea even existed, and seeing that there is so much work put into it. I love having my expectations shattered.

That’s one of the best things about traveling.

Over the past several years, whenever the wife and I have traveled, we’ve mostly stayed in AirBNB’s rather than staying in a hotel. I’ve even used this tactic when I travel (alone) for work in that I sometimes stay (by myself) in an AirBNB rather than a hotel where the conference is taking place. I’ve done this in San Francisco and in Philadelphia.

Yet this year, we’ve discovered that staying in a hotel is not so bad. There are advantages both ways.

For AirBNB:

  • It costs less, which is especially important if you are footing the bill
  • It’s a more authentic experience
  • You can sometimes get more stuff, that is, the host will give you travel tips and brochures

But there are drawbacks:

  • Sometimes you only get a single room in a house where the owner also lives
  • The facilities are sometimes underwhelming (lack of amenities like toilet paper, paper towels, etc.)
  • The location may be quite noisy

The wife always used to eschew hotels, but this year we stayed in one on four separate occasions – in Sonoma, CA in February; in London, England in May; and in New York, NY in September; and in Toronto, Canada in October.

The wife enjoyed the first one because there was a lot of on-site facilities like a spa and she had a free pass to go in and enjoy it. In the second one, it was a last-minute booking (we did it from the airport in London) and it was a nice location. It was in downtown London,  was a good location since it was close to everything, and had nice facilities. The wife keeps asking me “When are we going to stay in a fancy hotel again?”

In both cases, the cost of the hotel was either covered by another company, or by credit card points.

But what we both notice is that we like staying at slightly nicer places. We’ve stayed in lesser-quality places before and while that was fine in the past, we don’t care for it so much anymore. They are too noisy, or too hot, or not that clean, etc. I can put up with it for a while so long as I have free wifi and the place is not cold.

I didn’t think I would get pickier as I got older… yet, here I am.

I thought I’d take issue with the list of so-called accomplishments posted on Twitter by US Vice-President Mike Pence. Here they are, in case you missed them:

2017-12-28-PenceAccomplishments

Let’s take a look them, and whether or not they are something that the Trump/Pence administration accomplished, or whether or not they would have been distinguishable from another Republican president.

1) Put Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court

It’s true that President Trump put a conservative on the Supreme Court. However, this was a gift delivered to him by Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell when we refused, for nearly a year, to give President Obama’s Supreme Court pick a confirmation vote in the Senate.

McConnell could get away with this because the Republicans had a majority before Trump was elected and therefore could (unethically) delay the vote until a new President was sworn in later that year, rolling the dice that it could be a Republican rather than a Democrat. His gamble worked, and a Republican candidate won. Obama’s pick was withdrawn by the new President.

President Trump then was given a list of candidates, provided to him by conservative groups. He then submitted the candidate and in a more-or-less partisan vote, the Senate approved him because Republicans still control the Senate. All the Trump/Pence administration had to do was say “Okay, we’ll take this guy” and that’s what they did.

Thus, rather than crediting the Presidency with this victory, we should be giving it to Senator Mitch McConnell. There is no differentiating factor between Trump/Pence and another, generic Republican candidate. Senator Ted Cruz, Governor Jeb Bush, etc. would have picked the same candidate, or someone ideologically similar.

Of course, McConnell’s lack of foresight has set up precedent for when control of the Senate swings to Democrats. If that happens, and a Supreme Court justice steps down or dies, and it’s the final year of a presidency, then the Democratic Speaker of the House can reasonably say “We don’t nominate Supreme Court judges in the final year of a presidency.”

It’s utter nonsense… but that’s how the political game will be played from here on. Supreme Court judges will start planning their retirement based upon their political leanings, and political trends in the nation. That’s not how it is supposed to work, the judiciary is supposed to be non-political.

2) Repealed the Obamacare Individual Mandate

The Republicans earlier this year tried and failed to repeal Obamacare. But they succeeded in repealing the individual mandate (you have to buy health insurance or pay a tax) by including it as part of the Trump Tax Cut.

Obamacare isn’t that complicated:

  • Insurers have to accept you even if you have a pre-existing condition
    .
  • They can only charge the highest premium of 3x the lowest premium
    .
  • But that means that they can’t spread out their risk. Insurance have to spread it out over young and old, healthy and sick. Otherwise, if only sick people bought health insurance, then everyone would be using it. Health insurance is only useful when you need it, and sick/old people are the ones who would use it the most.
    .
  • To prevent forcing insurance companies to take on more risk, the Individual Mandate says you have to either have health insurance, or pay a penalty (a tax). This tax is cheaper than what health insurance would be, but still. This means that young and healthy people who don’t think they need health insurance can’t opt-out of the system, they still have to buy health insurance but that means the risk is spread out

By repealing the unpopular part of Obamacare (the individual mandate), the Republicans are trying to have their cake and eat it too. They are keeping the popular parts (no denying coverage, can’t charge too much more than the lowest premiums, kids can stay on parents plan until they are 26). But all of the good parts require that the bad parts go along with it. It is a fantasy that health insurance companies will not increase premiums, they have to in order to cover their risk. They will not be able to spread out the likelihood of people not getting sick (the young and healthy) and will face increased probability of people making claims (older and sicker). This necessarily means costs will rise.

This so-called accomplishment isn’t much to brag about without a replacement system to keep costs in check.

3) 1.7 million new jobs, and lowest unemployment rate in decades

All politicians love to boast about the economy while they’ve been in office, and President Trump is no different. Even though nobody can point to any policies he’s enacted that has influenced the economy (other than the magical thinking of optimism about the economy), jobs have increased according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But the question is not whether or not jobs have increased, the question is are they increasing at a better rate than when Obama (or Bush) was president?

Here’s a chart of the numbers when Bush was president (in red), Obama (in blue), and Trump (in orange). In the chart below (P) means Preliminary but I have taken them as Actual numbers:

2017-12-28-BlsJobsReportYou can see that the Pence is correct, 1.7 million new jobs have been created from Feb December. But is that better than under Obama? Here’s the chart again with the last 4 years of the Obama presidency, and removing both January (which Trump was not president for) and December (whose numbers have not come in):

2017-12-28-BlsJobsReportLastFourYears

You can see that the numbers under Trump are actually worse than any of the years under Obama.

Here’s an exact year-by-year comparison, along with month-by-month breakdown of whether it’s doing better under Trump vs. Obama. If more jobs were created under Trump for the equivalent time period, the number is in orange. If more were under Obama, the number is in blue.

2017-12-28-BlsJobsReportYearByYear

You can see that most of the time, more jobs were created under Obama than under Trump.

So while Vice-President Mike Pence is correct when he says 1.7 million new jobs were created under the current administration, it lags behind the previous four years. 2016 started slowing down, and 2017 has slowed down even more other than October and November.

4) ISIS on the run

This appears to be referring to the Wikipedia article on territorial claims of ISIL. In 2014, the group controlled up to 110,000 km2 of territory, whereas by October 2017 they controlled about 10,000 km2 of territory in Iraq and Syria, plus whatever they controlled elsewhere (no more than 7000 km2, and at least 75-90% of that has been lost). So, according to various estimates, their territory has decreased.

Yet claiming that they are on the run is irresponsible.

  • In 2003, President Bush declared “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq just as an insurgency was getting underway that would last years.
  • The US invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and toppled the Taliban, yet is still there 16 years later still fighting the Taliban.
  • In 2014, President Obama dismissed ISIS as the “JV team”. And the past couple of years, ISIS has inspired
  • There have been numerous ISIS-directed or ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks this year in western countries and in the middle east

In other words, when terrorist organizations have been defeated, they always disperse-regroup-attack. They look for territory where the central government is weak, or even friendly, and then set up shop from which to conduct future attacks. There are several places in the world where they can move to.

It’s too premature to celebrate the defeat of ISIS because they can always lie low or morph into yet another organization.

5) Largest tax cut in American history

I’ve already written on my blog why the tax cut passed by the Republican congress isn’t as beneficial to the average American (it will lead to cuts in spending, higher inflation, and instead is a gift to the wealthy donor class that doesn’t rely upon spending the way that the general public does). This is a victory for tax-cut puritans, but not for sensible people.

It’s difficult to control for things like individual tax rate reductions, adjustments to brackets, eliminations of some deductions while new allowances are created for others, etc. Thus, the claim that it’s “the largest tax cut in American history” is difficult to verify. It doesn’t appear to be the largest tax cut in terms of rates for individuals, but instead touts the cut in the corporate tax rate from 35% to 21%, and then the cuts in individual rates thrown in on top of that makes it the biggest tax cut ever.

I went and did some research on the Trump vs Reagan tax cuts and found an analysis on PBS called How the GOP tax overhaul compares to the Reagan-era tax bills. The writer compares the current tax reductions with the tax cut of 1981 by the Reagan administration, and the tax reform by Reagan’s administration in 1987. The 1981 tax cuts were basically just a tax cut with no offsets for additional income, while the 1987 tax cut was revenue neutral – it reduced some rates and raised others; it added some deductions and remove many others.

It then compares the Trump tax cuts to the previous Reagan ones, let me quote:

If the 1986 tax bill was a model of how to do fiscal reform and the 1981 tax cut was a model of how not to do it, the 2017 process emulates the less worthy of the two precedents. … Instead of aiming for revenue neutrality, as the 1986 reform did, current proposals will expand the government’s budget deficit over the next decade, at a time when an aging population will place a growing fiscal burden.

To be sure, the current proposals do not get everything wrong. Reducing the U.S. corporate income tax rate would be good policy, provided the lost revenue could be paid for by eliminating business loopholes that the economy would function better without anyway, such as the corporate interest deduction and the favored treatment of carried interest. But the legislation cuts the corporate tax rate too much and limits these deductions too little to come anywhere near meeting the criterion of revenue neutrality.

The last bolded piece pairs well with another bullet point from the article:

The claim is that reduced tax rates will stimulate GDP so much that overall receipts will stay the same or even rise. When one hears these claims today, one might not guess that the argument, which was made by Presidents Reagan and Bush as well as by their political advisors, has been rejected by many mainstream economists, including the economic advisers to those two presidents. More importantly, when the tax cuts went ahead anyway, the theory failed miserably: Both times, budget deficits increased sharply.

Back in April of this year, the president and some of his advisers were making the claim that the tax cuts would grow the economy and therefore they would pay for themselves. Lately, however, supporters of the cut (like Speaker of the House Paul Ryan) have backed off that claim, saying “nobody knows if they will pay for themselves as that’s in the future”.

They’ve put in these caveats so that when the deficit does increase, they can say they never said the tax cuts would pay for themselves, as they seem to be heeding the advice of economists. But if tax receipts do go up, they can claim clairvoyance (“See? We told you it would be a good thing!”). It’s a good position to be in, if you can sell it.

But the reality is that these tax cuts will cause additional fiscal strain, and the “biggest tax cut in American history” is being passed for the sake of cutting taxes regardless of the long term outlook, and not for actual tax reform. In other words, the vice-president’s boast is, once again, nothing to boast about if we’re talking about doing things in the interest of the American public.

If we’re talking about doing things that benefit a narrow slice of special interests, then by all means, yes – this is quite the accomplishment.

I just don’t think it’s something to be proud of.

 

Disclaimer – If you haven’t read my disclaimer yet, make sure you do so here. TL;DR version – Buyer beware, I am not an expert, I am fumbling my way through this like the rest of you.

Also, I hold a little bit of Bitcoin and Ethereum.


The promise certainly sounds good

Blockchain promises us something absolutely amazing – the decentralization of everything:

  • Whereas all currencies today are run by central governments, Bitcoin is not controlled by anybody because it is decentralized and therefore nobody can manipulate it
    .
  • Whereas platforms are built on private corporations’ servers, Ethereum is not controlled by anybody because it is a decentralized platform that nobody can manipulate
    .
  • Whereas all of our data is controlled by a handful of big companies, files stored on the blockchain are distributed everywhere so nobody can control it

This promise of decentralization is key to the entire value proposition of blockchain.

But tech has touted the benefits of decentralization before, and it didn’t live up to the hype.

The idea behind networks and the network effect is that you have a bunch of nodes that are more-or-less evenly connected, so that everyone can learn from everyone else. This is the grand bargain behind social networks – by sharing information, the best and most correct ideas will bubble to the top while the wrong and worst ideas will fade away. Information wants to be free – and shared – and therefore reason and logic will win the day because of the free flow of information. Good ideas survive (eventually), bad ideas are disproven (eventually) .

That’s what we were promised.

The reality looks way different

But it’s not how it turned out. Social networking, far from having a unifying affect on people, has turned out to have the opposite effect. It’s made us more divided than ever. And, far from weeding out the bad ideas, it turns out that wrong ideas flourish in social networks.

The reason is (partly) because in a social network, nodes are not evenly distributed where information flows freely amongst everyone. Instead, it turns out that there are bottlenecks everywhere. Groups are localized among each other, and connected via super-connectors (pictured in blue in the diagram below). We stay by ourselves in our groups and only occasionally interact with the outside world, and it’s done via the super-connectors.

This ends up suppressing the free flow of information, and reinforcing our own particular points of view, since information depends upon whether or not they can get through the chokepoints.

The tech industry seems baffled about why this occurred. Wasn’t information supposed to be free? Didn’t it want to be free? Wasn’t free expression and debate supposed to sift out the bad ideas? How could this be? [1]

Yet this was entirely foreseeable. The decentralization of information has occurred before, the Internet is not the first time. The most obvious example is the Protestant Reformation. Whereas Christian theology used to be centralized in the Catholic church, the Protestant Reformation’s rallying cry was that all people could be their own priests, and everyone could interpret holy scripture for themselves. The interpretation of divine revelation was meant to be free, not centralized.

While the Reformation succeeded in reforming the Church, it also caused a lot of divisiveness, wars of religion, and tens of thousands of splinter denominations. That’s what happens when you decentralize, anyone can come up with a particular view; and then if you have enough skillz to make a particular outlook popular, you can get people to join along with you and embiggen your group. I suspect Martin Luther did not foresee that people, upon interpreting scripture for themselves, would come up with such different interpretations and would form splinter groups as much as they did.

In the same way, tech did not foresee how the decentralization of information on the Internet would lead to the insulation of people seeking to reinforce their own particular viewpoints and biases, rather than seeking diversity of opinion in a quest for truth. Yes, that exists. I do it, you do it, we all do it. But we also prefer to reinforce our own viewpoints in many areas of our lives.

As a representative of the tech industry who was caught off guard by this, I plead guilty. I don’t know whether or not I should have known better back then… but I certainly do now. The results of decentralization can be mixed [2].

What happens when we apply it to new technology?

Which brings me back to Blockchain. As I said earlier, its biggest premise is decentralization. Yet decentralization is a mixed bag. Will it deliver on its promises? Or will it fall flat? Or worse, will the results be mixed such that we become so dependent on the good that we can’t roll back the bad, lest we simultaneously rollback the good?

Bitcoin has been a roller coaster since its inception. It’s up bigly since it was created but has undergone massive corrections of 30-60% every few months (it recently corrected 45% from its peak this past December 2017, and only took a week to do it). Is this massive volatility a temporary thing until Bitcoin stabilizes as it gets more adoption? Or, is volatility a feature of Bitcoin because of its decentralized nature, where anyone can come in and buy/sell with no financial oversight?

 

All this volatility is not a good thing; between buyers and sellers, if the medium of exchange is likely to fluctuate wildly, then what you pay is likely to be far different than what you agreed upon. That makes it less likely you will want to use it as a medium of exchange which was one of Bitcoin’s original benefits – to act as a decentralized currency (although as I have said before, it behaves more as a store-of-value since the IRS treats the dispersion of your Bitcoins as a taxable event).

Thus, when it comes to using blockchain as a currency, decentralization has the benefits of being a deflationary currency that is resistant to manipulation by central banks, but it’s still potentially vulnerable to manipulation by the millions of end users who have their own ideas of what digital currency is, and what it should be, and then shunt it off from its original purpose.

I don’t know whether or not that’s a good thing.

What about decentralized applications? Those act as a currency (sort of) and as a platform to build stuff on. I don’t know about those, maybe they are useful and maybe they aren’t. For sure, blockchain promises to be disruptive. There are some like Ripple and IOTA that solve real problems; Ripple is criticized for being a private implementation of a blockchain, which conceptually it isn’t but in practice it kind of is. But even if Ripple is pseudo-private, is that a bad thing (because it undermines the concept of blockchain as a decentralized application) or a good thing (since it means it can’t be accosted by “do it yourselfers”)?

I think that this is one of the fundamental known-unknowns with blockchain. Decentralization may be awesome.

But then again, it may be yet another false prophet.

 


[1] This blog post is inspired by an article I read in Foreign Affairs magazine (I am a subscriber), see The False Prophecy of Hyperconnection – How to survive in a networked age. It’s behind a paywall, though.

[2] For more on the Reformation, see Majority believe Reformation was divisive, but justified

 

You know how you’re supposed to drink 8 glasses of water a day, but almost nobody does it?

Well, I do it, and have been for the past several weeks.

Why, you ask?

I was at my massage therapist, getting a massage. I have a lot of crunchiness in my back and shoulder muscles, every time I get a massage the therapist comments on it. And after every massage, they tell me to drink plenty of water. Of course, everybody says that.

But this time, the therapist told me something that made me change my behavior – drinking plenty of water helps with the “crunch, crunch, crunch” of my muscles. Or rather, it helps to make the fascia (the layer of tissue surrounding the muscles) more malleable and less crunchy.

That made me think.

I have back issues, like everybody else in America (okay, only 80%). If drinking more water was going to help fix things, then I would give it a try.

I started by actually measuring how much water I drink per day, and it turns out that on average I was already drinking 7 cups. If I have a cup of water at work at lunch, the paper cups are actually two regular size cups of water (that is, 8 oz + 8 oz = 16 oz). I have a glass of water at dinner, which is another 16 oz (two cups). For breakfast, I was having a cup of coffee (which counts towards your water content) and a smaller glass of water, and that added up to three cups (24 oz). But often that would be all the liquid I would consume during the day.

I decided to bump up my morning glass of water to two cups (16 oz) and a cup of coffee which is 12 oz; so, altogether, on an average day I would be at 7.5 cups of water and would only need to have an additional 1/2 cup (6 oz) to fill up my quota. That’s manageable, so usually at work I’ll have a cup of green tea or in rare cases, another cup of water. That puts me at my daily minimum.

I haven’t noticed any health changes yet, but I haven’t been back to the massage therapist either. I’m curious to see if it helped.

I better not have drank all this water for nothing.

2017-12-26-EightGlassesOfWater

As I’ve posted before, this past September the wife and I went to New York City where I was invited to participate in a customer panel (that is, the company I work for is a customer of another company, so they flew a bunch of representatives down to NYC for a couple of days). This was right before we went to Toronto for another conference I attended for work.

For many years, I had heard about New York pizza. I was never sure why it was such a big deal. What differentiated it from normal pizza? Sure, I could have Google/Binged it, but I never did. I don’t eat that much pizza anyhow, so it never was a burning issue for me.

But while I was in New York, I had my first New-York-pizza experience (I had pizza in New York in 2007, but I don’t think it was what’s normally thought-of as New York pizza). What makes it so special? Well, assuming what I ate for lunch was representative of New York pizza and not just some particular restaurant’s style:

  • First, the crust is much thicker. Like, a half-inch thick. Most pizza you get from the store or order from a pizza place (Domino’s, Pizza Hut) is thinner that New York pizza. I had a piece of it that was a regular size, and I was basically full (I ate a 1/2 piece more). It was an ordeal eating the slice of pizza, it was so thick.
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  • Second, it was way saucier than a normal pizza. I had to eat it with a fork and knife, it was so saucy and rich.

It’s really not similar to any pizza I normally eat. I’ve had Domino’s or Pizza Hut that people have ordered in; I’ve cooked frozen pizza I’ve gotten from Trader Joe’s; I’ve had cook-at-home pizza that people gotten from Papa John’s; I’ve gone to restaurants after hiking with the wife and ordered pizza. Not a single one of them was similar to New York pizza.

I don’t know that I would want all pizza I ordered to be like New York pizza, it’s just too rich for me.

But I sure am glad I tried it.

2017-12-26-NewYorkPizza

The picture above I got from Google, and would be an example of a thin-crust version of what I had.

Earlier this year, I took a Masterclass – Steve Martin teaches comedy. It’s a series of 24 lessons, each one between 10 and 15 minutes, about how to become a better comedian. It also has a workbook for you to follow along and do the exercises. I finished the classes in about 4 1/2 weeks, but I never really did the exercises (I’m a bad student, I know). Still, I retained a bunch of the knowledge.

I am not a funny person. Occasionally I will say funny things and people will laugh, but I don’t have the knack for making people laugh. Usually, it’s by accident or because I’ve copied it from someone else.

I don’t have any intention of becoming a comedian, but I thought I could work it into my performances – either when I do magic, or when I give talks/presentations at conferences.

I’ve known that I’m an average performer when it comes to magic; I can hold people’s attention for one trick and perhaps two, but I can’t carry an entire performance on my own. I’m at my best when I do a single trick by itself, and work it in that way. I don’t think people would pay to see me they way they would pay to see a professional comedian.

But that’s okay, I have no desire to be a famous comedian. I just want to be a better performer. I’ve taken some classes on it before, and this would help boost my skills. While I’m not the best performer around, I know I’m better than most of the speakers at conferences I go to.

There’s a few things that stuck with me from the Steve Martin comedy class, but the one that does the most is this – Use Everything. That is, if you look at opera performances they have lighting, and music, and costume, and staging… the whole nine yards. Comedy shows usually don’t. Therefore, as a comedian you should use everything you possibly can. Steve Martin used to use physical comedy in his routines (doing goofy things and making funny faces) and would also incorporate music.

The takeaway I got from that is to use everything I have when I do magic shows and talks at conferences. Or rather, when I give talks at conferences, use everything I have. I had already been doing this (open body position, arm motions, animations, and magic tricks), but now I do them on purpose. In order for me to give a good show, I should be using everything I can possibly use – music, magic, body language, facial expressions, funny voices, etc. So while I may not be able to say funny jokes, I can do funny things that are unique to me. I already have a reputation as someone who moves around a lot on stage, and does a lot of motion.

Looking back on my previous magic performances, I can see I didn’t necessarily do this. I have some magic tricks that are entertaining and can hold a crowd. But a lot of tricks are just… tricks. I am not differentiating them. That makes me a decent magician but not a great performer, only an average one.

So here’s my tip to the performers out there – use everything you have. It’ll make you a better performer.

A liquid paleo-diet

One of the books I read this year is Antifragile, Nassim Taleb. It’s kind of a hard book to describe, if you haven’t heard of it I suggest you read the reviews on Amazon or do your own Internet search to find out what it’s about (I may write about it later).

2017-12-25-Antifragile

But one of the things that stuck with me is how Taleb has a rule for the things he consumers as food and beverage – I don’t remember the food part, but he says he never drinks anything that hasn’t been around for at least 1000 years. He does this because the human body probably hasn’t had time to adjust to the new-fangled sugary-inventions that have appeared on the consumer market, and are therefore to be treated with suspicion. Our bodies just can’t process the influx of sugar or chemicals that is a regular part of the western diet.

I decided to copy this rule. This means I can drink water, wine, tea, coffee, and beer. I also drink milk but only a couple of tablespoons in my coffee. But if I did drink more than that, it would also be acceptable.

This also means that beverages like Coke, Pepsi (any sugary drink), Red Bull, Iced Tea, milkshakes, iced lattes, anything other than drip coffee from Starbucks, hot chocolate, and even orange juice is out. They are all fairly recent inventions. Orange juice is pretty sugary, so that’s not acceptable despite people saying they need the nutrients (you can get all the vitamins and nutrients you need just by eating fruit). Even Vitamin Water is not acceptable.

I had already been doing this for a couple of years now, but now I am more rigidly enforcing it. It greatly simplifies my dietary choices, and I really like that. Each of the things I can choose from – wine, beer, tea, coffee, and water – I like. I have no problem drinking any of them. And three of them – water, tea, coffee – are either no calories or almost no calories. And over the past year, I’ve gradually swapped out beer for wine, which processes in your body differently.

I took many things away from Antifragile, but this one has stuck with me the most.

 

In a switch to something I never thought I’d do, I recently added something to my diet: oatmeal.

Growing up, on weekends my family would occasionally have oatmeal for breakfast, although we called it porridge. And I never liked it. In fact, it was my least favorite breakfast food.

In my view, it tasted like goopy glop. It would be spooned into my bowl where it was kind of runny, and then I added milk (the way I would for all cereal – why would porridge be any different?). That made it even more unpalatable (why didn’t I learn?). In order for me to be able to eat it, I’d add several heaping teaspoons of brown sugar.

It kind of looked like this, only much runnier:

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I would regularly be asked if I wanted more. There was not a single time I said yes. Not even once, in 20 years. My brother and sister didn’t seem to mind it, and I ate it only because I had to. But I did not like it (a sentiment I share with my aunt). After I moved out, I cut back on it. In fact, the number of times I’ve voluntarily eaten oatmeal in the past ten years is… zero.

However, it turns out that it may not be true that I dislike oatmeal, but perhaps only disliked the texture and mouth feel of the way we used to make it. What if it were made more solid?

I don’t like the feel of goop and glop in my mouth, and that was always my association with oatmeal. But one time in an airport, in the lounge, there was free food for breakfast. I saw that it was oatmeal. Normally I wouldn’t bother eating it, but I peeked in and saw that the oatmeal was semi-solid. That intrigued me.

I took a bowl and put a couple of tablespoons in it, then sat down and ate it. To my surprise, it wasn’t that bad. It was a little chewy, but not at all goopy or gloppy. It kind of resembled this:

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A few weeks later, I was browsing through Fred Meyer where I got the bright idea of buying some breakfast oatmeal. I know that the wife would buy it sometimes, but I had no idea what version. I just wanted something not too sugary because that would defeat its purpose. I wanted to try oatmeal to switch up from eating toast in the morning, I wanted to diversify some of my grains from wheat to oats.

I read through a few packages and just ended up getting rolled oats. The next morning, I came down for breakfast and heated up a 1/2 cup of water, put in the packet of oatmeal, and let it cook for one minute. I removed from heat and put it into a bowl.

I took it to the kitchen table, ate it, and the verdict was… not bad. I could eat this without sugar. And I also ate it without milk. It was mostly chewy, but not really goopey or gloppy. I considered it an acceptable substitute for a slice of toast, and probably healthier as I usually put butter or honey on my toast whereas I can eat oatmeal plain.

I don’t necessarily eat it every day (sometimes I substitute eggs, or a second slice of toast) so I don’t get tired of eating it.

But it turns out that all this time, I was eating oatmeal the wrong way. Now I know, and knowing is half the battle.

Another one of the changes I’ve done so far in 2017 is try to improve my understanding of foreign affairs. I’ve always been interested in politics, and I understand that blogs and web articles aren’t always the best place to read it since people are frequently biased. The reason I did this is because while some Americans don’t care about expert opinions anymore, this American still does.

So here’s what I did:

First, I get daily emails from Foreign Affairs today.

At first I only wanted to read the free articles or so, but I discovered that I wanted more. I signed up for a subscription which only cost $50/year, and each day I get an article or two in my email inbox. When something sounds interesting, I click the link and read it.

Second, I read the magazine they send me.

Foreign Affairs originally consisted of a magazine and not online articles, and a lot of what appears in their magazine is duplicated from the articles they send me. But, the magazine comes with the $50 annual subscription. It comes once every two months, and it’s typically filled with about 20-30 articles. I read them all.

What I do is every couple of days, I read one, two, or three articles. Then I go back to the front of the magazine with a pen and put a checkmark next to the subject so I can tell which ones I’ve read and which ones I haven’t. I try to make it through all of them before the next issue rolls around.

So far, with the latest two magazines, I’ve been successful.

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Third, I listen to The President’s Inbox podcast

I like listening to podcasts, and one I started listening to this year is The President’s Inbox, which is a roundup of opinions of the international and domestic issues facing the US president. They put out a new article once every couple of weeks, and I think I’ve listened to almost all of them since I started listening to it this past spring.

I find these podcasts informative, it tells me things that I never would have learned otherwise and gives me insights that I previously never would have had.

Heck, even the wife listened to a podcast one time.

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So, those are the changes I made this year. I even thought about joining the US Council on Foreign Relations which is made up of a group of influential people in the US. People like former military leaders, think tank leaders, politicians, newspaper editors, etc. The only problem is you can’t just join. There’s an entry fee (fine) but you also have to be recommended by three or four other members.

I browsed through the list of 1000 people and the number of people I know is … zero. No, scratch that, I know that my Congressman is a member. Maybe I could ask him to recommend me.

But I don’t know anyone else, so that’s a problem I have to solve. I’ll leave that for 2018.

Changing shopping habits

One the changes that we’ve made this past year is in how we purchase meat. We used to get it from the grocery store, that is, Trader Joe’s or Fred Meyer or the Asian grocery store.

However, for the past few weeks we’ve also started getting it from an actual butcher shop which is close to the Trader Joe’s from where we live.

I’m keenly aware of this quaint practice. Back in the olden days, people would have used to do this all the time. It was normal, you get your meat from the butcher shop. But as America transformed into big box retail, the supermarket became the selection-of-choice for everything you want to buy.

Why go to the butcher shop?

We did it on a whim one day, and were impressed with the selection. Stuff does cost more from there, yes. But it also tastes better, and it might even have a better fresh meat selection than a number of larger stores. And I also feel good about supporting local business.

So that’s one of the changes we’ve made this year.

ButcherShop

This past week, President Trump signed into law a tax cut passed by the House and the Senate without a single Democrat vote. The tax cut lowers the corporate income tax rate from 35% to 21%, reduces the tax rates on the various income brackets, and repeals the individual mandate part of Obamacare. It also retains a slew of other tax breaks for wealthy individuals.

You might think I’m saying to myself “Oh, boy! I’m getting a tax cut! More money in my paycheck!”

But I’m not. I think that this tax cut is a bad idea. I used to write on this blog about 10 years ago that tax cuts were a good idea since it put more money into the hands of people who were likely to reinvest it in the economy and grow it, resulting in more jobs and prosperity for everyone. I have since reversed my position on that, tax cuts don’t make sense except at certain times. Now is not one of those times.

Why do I say this?

I calculated how much I will save on income tax. It’ll be about $7000. That’s nothing to sneeze at but I am an outlier. The Republicans have tried talking up the fact that the average family will save about $2000, and what working family wouldn’t want to save an additional $2000? Yet this claim is misleading because averages are skewed towards wealthier individuals. I am not wealthy, but you can see that my $7000 skews that average upwards. If there are five families getting an average of $2000, then that means that my $7000 takes up 70% of the break, leaving $3000 for everyone else – about $750 for the other four families. So even though the average is $2000, the reality is that the “average” family gets no where close to that. And the really wealthy individuals skew that much more than I ever could.

In reality, an average American family might get a $1000, or less than $100/month.

Still, you may say “But that’s $1000 they wouldn’t normally have! They should be grateful!”

Should they?

First, the Republican tax cut is going to add $1.5 trillion to the deficit, which means that in order to pay for its financial and debt obligations, the government will have to print more money. Printing more money will lead to inflation, which means that extra $1000/year is eaten up because the buying power of a dollar is now less than it otherwise would have been. Inflation is always present, but now it will accelerate.

Second, the individual mandate repeal of Obamacare means that people no longer have to buy health insurance. That means that young people can leave the market place, leaving only less healthy people to buy insurance. That means that health insurance companies have to charge more because whereas they used to be able to spread out the health risk among youth and healthy, sick and old, now they have sick and old and far fewer young and healthy.

This means that health insurance companies will have to charge more, which means that people will have to spend more buying their own health insurance, or employers will have to pay more to provide health insurance for their employees, or employer health plans will not cover as much. In all cases, consumer or employer buying power is reduced because money they normally wouldn’t have had to spend on health insurance now goes towards purchasing the exact same product.

Third, there will be cuts to government programs. This means that the private market has to make up the gap, which means that services that used to cost a certain amount will now cost a little bit more; or, service times will take longer meaning that people will have to wait for those services longer, and the longer we wait the less productive we are. Government spending on large projects – such as public transportation – scale much better than when private enterprise does it because of the economies of large scale. Only government has the ability to invest over a multi-year or decade timeframe, which ends up providing benefits for all of its citizens.

Fourth, eventually the bill will come due. Guess whose generation gets to pay for it down the road?

Yeah, that’s why I’m not that excited for this new tax cut. And I’m not alone, a large majority of American disapprove of it also.

For the first six years that I’ve lived in the Seattle area, I’ve had to drive to work. It was simply too far to walk as it would have taken 1.5 – 2 hours every day to get in. But in 2013 we moved closer to work and since then I’ve been able to walk. It takes between 20 and 30 minutes depending upon what building I am working in (the company moves us around a lot). I walk almost every day except when (a) it’s pouring rain in the winter (or snowing), or (b) it’s really cold, or (c) I have to go somewhere before or after work. So, basically I’d been walking to work for about 4 years.

However, earlier this year the company temporarily moved my team to downtown Bellevue, a distance of about 5 miles. This is too far to walk, it would take me two hours both ways so I had to drive in.

I was ambivalent about moving to a high rise in downtown Bellevue, but it turned out that I liked it for the most part. I could listen to the radio on the way in and the way home, and I liked being in the middle of all the action in downtown (there are lots of good restaurants around there, as well as being across the street from a shopping mall). I think most people enjoyed working in the downtown office, including myself.

The drawback was that I missed walking into work. I would deliberately park further away while working downtown so I still had to walk about 10 minutes to get to my office (if I took the stairs to the 11th floor). And, if I wanted to walk during the day, I had to motivate myself to do it during a break in the middle of the day, which I didn’t always do.

After moving back to the main campus, I started walking to work again. I realized that I really missed those early and late walks because I would listen to podcasts on the way. I never did that while driving to work, and only once in a while did it when going for a mid-afternoon walk or in the evening when I would try to catch up on my 10,000 steps. Not only that, but walking to work – depending on the building I am in – is a “free” 6000-7500 steps because it’s part of my daily commute of 20-30 minutes. When driving to work, it took 30 minutes but I would only get about 1000 steps each way, so I had to make them up in the evening somehow.

This is now part of the problem of living and working where I am living and working. I like walking to work because it’s decent exercise that I would otherwise struggle to get. It’s close by so if I ever have to drive, it takes less than 10 minutes; if I have to walk, it takes about 30 minutes.

If I want to switch jobs, my commute will increase as I will either have to drive or take the bus (or both). That means it will, once again, be more difficult to get my daily step count. And if I had to commute into Seattle, it would take me more than 30 minutes to get in, probably 45 minutes at a minimum. In rain, it would probably take 60-90 minutes.

I am fortunate that I enjoy doing what I’m doing, but on the other hand I sometimes wonder if I should try something different just for a change of pace. I hear all the time that it’s unusual for someone to stay in the same job for decades, yet that’s what I have done for the past 13.5 years. But I don’t want to extend my commute because a long commute time is one of the biggest causes of life-dissatisfaction. I’ve driven across the bridges in this city during rush hour, and it’s not fun. Even on the bus, it sucks the life out of your day.

But for now, I guess I’ll sit back and enjoy the ride.

I mean walk.

 

If you’ve ever had a cat, you’ll know that they can be kind of quirky. Our cat Ruby has more quirks than our other cat Zelda (by far). However, Zelda has a couple of quirks of her own.

One of them that she has developed this past year is wanting to stand or lie down in the bathroom sink. For you see, after I eat breakfast, I head up to the bathroom to brush my teeth and all that, and the cats usually follow me up shortly thereafter. Most of the time, they want to jump on the window sill so I’ll open the window and they can look out. That’s one of their favorite activities.

Both cats do that, but lately for some reason Zelda’s goal has simply been to lay down in the sink. What she’ll do is she’ll jump on the toilet and then hop onto the sink (after I’ve gotten to the bathroom, never before) and then start walking around the edge of the sink. And frequently she will stand in the sink, and sometimes she’ll even lie down in the sink!

I say “Uh, Zelda, what are you doing?”

Sometimes she starts trying to drink from the faucet, so I’ll turn it on a little bit, and then she’ll drink. Then, when she lays down in the sink, I’ll turn on the tap so it dribbles on her a little bit, and then I gradually turn it up so she gets more wet.

But it doesn’t bother her that much. She lets it run on her for about 15 seconds before finally getting up and starts sniffing, then pawing, the running water. And this entire time she’s asking for pets on her back and head. Zelda is not normally a cuddly cat, but once in a while she is.

Eventually she gets bored and jumps down. And a good thing, too, because I have to brush my teeth. You might ask “Why don’t you just kick her out of the sink?”

I can’t do that. You’d understand if you had a cat.

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Today, I turned 39.

I know a lot of people start freaking out about the passage of time, and getting older and whatnot, especially as 40 years of age approaches. And sometimes, I do too.

But for the most part I don’t.

My birthday was lower-key this year than in years previous. We were a little tight for time. I had to go to church to run the lights, and afterwards the wife and I went to Costco to get groceries (we’re real swingers here, doing responsible things and all).

We came home to put stuff away, and saw that the guy who was doing some work on our bathroom was gone. So, after quickly changing clothes, we headed off for lunch in Seattle to the restaurant of my choice – Cafe Turko!

You may recall that we went there last year for my birthday, although that was a Saturday evening and this was a Sunday afternoon. Since we went last year, we hadn’t returned. It’s not that easy for us to get to due to Seattle traffic, the only exception to this is on weekends.

Just like last year, we started off with the rainbow hummus which has four kinds – regular, sweet potato, beet, and olive (or something green, it may not have been olive). The wife then got a Turkish black tea and some lentil soup, while I got some lamb dish with rice and salad. For dessert, I got a Turkish coffee and some havlah with chocolate on it.

Speaking of havlah, it’s an eastern European powdery-dessert dish that the wife and I really like. But no one else seems to. I’m not sure why that is.

We came home, and an hour or two later I had to head off again to help out with a youth group where I am one of the assistants. Finally, I returned home where we relaxed a little bit while the sun went down on my 39th birthday.

As for next year, my 40th, what will I do? I’m not sure. I was thinking of having a big party but I’ve realized that December is not a good month for a birthday. On weekends, people are either out visiting family, or doing office Christmas parties, or going to friends’ parties, or doing church events. That means they are typically booked up which means that I’d be (probably) out of luck next year with respect to scheduling unless I promised a massively great party (note: I am not a good party planner).

But it doesn’t matter. The fact is I am another year older, and I’ve enjoyed the past 365 days. I discovered I like wine much more than I used to; my neck pain has reduced; and I even got a promotion at work. So it’s not all bad.

And, I’m looking forward to seeing what the next year holds.

[Really? Another blog post about politics?]

I’ve written previously about how tax cuts don’t lead to economic prosperity the way that some politicians think they do. And yet here we are, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has passed a tax “reform” package that has mostly tax cuts, and the Republican-controlled Senate is trying to do the same thing. Various analyses of these two tax packages mostly conclude the following:

  • The average person on the street will see little benefit, perhaps a couple of hundred dollars, up to maybe a couple of thousand dollars for people making ~$150,000/year
  • The people at the very top, in the top 0.1%, will see big savings in the many tens, or even hundreds, of thousands
  • Corporations will save lots and lots of money
  • In 10 years, most people will see their taxes go up
  • The federal deficit will increase as a result of these tax cuts

Given all these negatives, we have to ask the question: Why are Republicans trying so hard to pass these tax cuts?

Way back in 2015 when President Trump was campaigning, and then all throughout 2016 and the first part of 2017, one of his mantras was “Drain the swamp!” There are various interpretations of what this means, but basically it’s about preventing lobbyists and special interests from buying politicians’ votes, and instead acting in the interest of the average American citizen. During the debates, then-candidate Trump would say he would do this all the time. When he needed a favor, he’d call up a politician and promise a campaign donation. Some people (erroneously) thought that a President Trump would curtail this if he got elected.

And so to answer the question of why Republicans are trying so hard to pass these tax cuts, the answer is simple: it’s not because it benefits the average citizen, but because politicians are trying to please their donors. For you see, it’s wealthy donors that are pushing for tax reform (that is, tax cuts). They are wealthy, and want to see their taxes reduced even though they are doing just fine. They are pressuring lawmakers with the threat of withholding campaign contributions. Whether they truly believe that it would help economic growth (most economists don’t think so), or they are trying to starve the government of funding and thereby force cuts to services (resulting in average citizens paying more), it’s not in the interest of the average American citizen to get a tax cut. After all, they barely get anything.

Maybe if the 0.1% does indeed re-invest the money, there could be a trickle down effect. But for a tax cut to be stimulative, it has to expand the consumer class. A few hundred dollars for most consumers who will have to pay for services they didn’t normally pay for does not expand the consumer class, since it doesn’t expand domestic demand.

The swamp is doing just fine; they will be the ones to benefit most from these tax cuts. Like most of President Trump’s promises during the campaign, this one appears to be as fictitious as the rest of them.

About two years ago, we got another cat, Zelda. She was a kitten, about 3 months old. We brought her home and our other cat Ruby did not like her at all. There was hissing, and growling, and frequent beatings. Ruby does not like other cats in the house, and this little intruder needed to be gone, and pronto.

We’ve now had both cats for two years, and now they both more or less co-exist. As long as Zelda stays out of Ruby’s face, it’s fine. They can sleep 6 inches apart from each other, and there’s no hissing.

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It’s only when Zelda gets really close to Ruby – face to face – that Ruby hisses or sometimes swats.

But here’s the thing – Zelda gets in Ruby’s face all the time. In face, one of Zelda’s favorite games is one she invented, it’s called “Beat up Ruby.” The way it works is she walks over to Ruby and tries to tackle her, succeeding about half the time. That’s it. No other rules. Ruby hates this game and hisses at Zelda every time, but it doesn’t stop Zelda from trying to play it almost every day.

Ruby has figured out that Zelda likes this game, so she often walks around Zelda because she knows she might get tackled. That usually works. But it’s also not when Zelda attacks; instead, Zelda attacks at inopportune times, usually out of the blue. A common tactic is the sneak attack when in the morning, Ruby is sleeping on the bed and Zelda walks in, jumps up, and pounces on her. Oh, there’s lots of hissing (from one cat)!

Earlier this year, I took a picture of a faceoff. You can see that Zelda is about to tackle Ruby, and Ruby knows it. She lays back, paws up, ears pointing backward, ready to defend herself. In this case, Zelda abstained from going in for the pounce.

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But another time, I was able to take a series of pictures of Zelda beating Ruby up. This lasted about 3 seconds.

It starts with a face-off:

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Then Zelda pounced and they separated:

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They split apart:

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The sync up and fight again:

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And then it ended with another staredown, with Zelda finally backing down:

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Zelda is having a great time with this, but Ruby not so much.

Still, it’s entertaining to watch. Ruby has never fully gotten over the fact that there’s another cat in the house, but she has decided to live by the non-aggression treaty.

She just can’t understand why the other one keeps breaking it.

This past Thursday, I took part in the Seattle Stair Climb challenge for Cystic Fibrosis. This is a charitable fundraiser that raises funds to fight Cystic Fibrosis; two of my friends (who are married to each other) have a son with the disease, and so I decided to give some money to charity and take part in the cause.

That’s me below, the only one without a team T-shirt as I only signed up the day of the challenge, although I had been thinking about it for a couple of weeks.

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I hadn’t done a charitable event like this before – no runs for charity, no bike rides, no anything. At least, not in the past few years.

This one was a simple stair climb down in Seattle. You climb all 56 floors, bottom to top, to complete the event.

I figured I could do it; I occasionally climb all 28 floors bottom-to-top in the building where I work in Bellevue, so I figured this would take me a little more than twice as long. As it turned out, it only took 50% longer as the distance between each floor was smaller (that is, in the building at work, there are more stairs between floors than this one).

Still, on the way up I never stopped but I was breathing hard when I got to the top. When I reached the 55th floor, I “sprinted” the rest of the way. That is, I tried to go as fast as I could. My legs felt like rubber and I wasn’t moving quick at all, but I finished in 11 minutes and 52 seconds. That was good for 55th out of 171 total participants. In my age group (30-39), I finished 15th out of 33 people, so about in the middle.

I don’t know all that much about Cystic Fibrosis (I had to read about it), but it’s a disease that affects the lungs and your body produces too much mucous, and it is genetic (both parents must be a carrier of the gene). I know even less about research for a cure, but it sounds like technology such as CRISPR, which allow you to edit your genes or DNA, may be promising.

As difficult as the challenge was, I had a good time and felt like it was important to support my friends as they struggle through this challenge.

As I alluded to in another blog post, the wife and I were down in Hood River, Oregon this past summer. We went down for a wedding on Mt Hood, but this just so happened to coincide with the total eclipse that occurred this year.

Originally, the wife and I were just going to watch it from the place we were staying because it was reasonably close to the zone of totality, and we didn’t want to fight traffic. But I suggested “Look, we’re right here. We’re only an hour away from the zone, and we’re probably going to hiking later on anyway. So why not drive south as far as we can until we get to the zone, and then pull over wherever we can and watch the eclipse?”

And that became the plan. We got in the car in the morning and started driving south, planning to get into the zone of totality and then pulling over to the side of the road. To our surprise, there was basically no traffic. We had heard that there were major traffic problems, but not for us.

I kept track on a map of where we were, and checked NASA’s webpage to see where the zone started. I roughly knew where we had to get to, and when we crossed the zone we found a lake with a whole bunch of others who were similarly there to watch the eclipse.

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We parked in the parking lot with everyone else next to the lake, got out our lawn chairs, and looked up in the sky.

With our dark glasses, of course.

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The above picture was taken about 30 minutes before the total eclipse, when the moon was about 98% covering the sun. I had always thought that it would get super-dark when the sun was almost covered, but it wasn’t. In the picture, it looks like it’s still the middle of the day. In fact, it never did get super dark.

The next picture is when the eclipse was about 20 minutes away, at 99% coverage. As you can see, it looks like dusk.

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Finally, we came to the moment everyone had been waiting for, 100% total eclipse! It never got completely dark, although it was cold.

We were in the zone of totality but not the middle of the zone, so for us the total eclipse lasted around 30 seconds. I had enough time to take off my solar glasses, take this picture, tweet about it, and then it was over.

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We waited around for another 15 minutes as some of the other cars cleared out, it began to warm back up, and then we left to do a day hike.

And that’s the story of the time we saw the total eclipse in Oregon.

 

Here we are, another day with another piece of evidence that President Trump is a… sub-par President.

I could point to any number of things, but today I’m going to pick on his response to the allegations of child molestation of Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore. Or rather, his lack of response.

The background to the latest example

In case you’ve been living under a rock, or not following US politics, Roy Moore is the former judge in Alabama who had a monument of the Ten Commandments placed outside his courthouse. He was eventually told to take it down (you can’t put a symbol establishing preferences for one religion over another in the United States federal building, it is unconstitutional because the the US constitution prohibits favoritism on the basis of religion). He eventually lost his position as a judge and got kicked off the bench.

But that wasn’t the end of his career. For you see, after Alabama’s Senator Jeff Sessions left his seat to become the Attorney General of the United States under President Trump, the governor of Alabama appointed someone else (Luthor Strange) to fill the vacant Senate seat until the next election which would be held on Dec 12. Luthor Strange was the incumbent, but he had to win a Republican primary first, and then win in the general election to officially take the Senate Seat. And that’s where Roy Moore comes in. Moore ran against Strange in the primary and won. So, he’s now the Republican candidate to become the senator of Alabama in a special election on Dec 12, squaring off against a former prosecutor running for the Democrats, Doug Jones.

Roy Moore was all positioned to win the election because Alabama elects Republicans. However, a couple of weeks ago, numerous reports of Moore committing sexual assault 35-40 years ago against underage girls began to surface. This happened while he was in his 30’s and was the District Attorney. Allegedly, he was well-known for dating teenage girls, was banned from a shopping mall for hanging out around there (as well as high-schools), and allegedly groped not just one girl, but so far six (!) have come forward. One was as young as 14 years old when the incident occurred. Moore has tried hard to deny the allegations as fake news, except that one of the women has his signature in her high school yearbook.

My view of Roy Moore is that he is an extremist (his political views are to the far right) and he is endorsed by far right publications. I never wanted him to win anything. Yet now I am disgusted by the reports of child molestation. That should disqualify him from office; and while I understand that these allegations are unproven, there are six different women and this shows a consistent pattern of abuse. It’s not fake news, it’s sexual abuse.

The background to the background of the latest example

That’s what gives these allegations authenticity, these types of abuse are never just an isolated pattern, instead they come up over and over again. I can think of countless examples of this over the years:

What’s in common here is that this behavior (unsurprisingly) was going down for decades and was overlooked, but now that it’s come to light, the perpetrators are paying the price. Not necessarily with legal trouble, but at least with career trouble and massive hits to their reputation.

It’s a big problem in politics, too

Hollywood is not the only place where this has gone down. But at least in Hollywood, actors are paying for their sins.

When it comes to politics, many powerful men have almost managed to squelch allegations of sexual assault. Fortunately, they failed:

  • Just this past year, the popular mayor of Seattle Ed Murray, who is openly gay, was positioned to be easily re-elected. However, reports started surfacing this year that back in the 1980’s when he was a youth worker (also in his 30’s, the same as Roy Moore), he committed sexual assault against troubled youth. Murray denied the allegations and that they were politically motivated, but more and more reports kept coming forward. Eventually the political pressure was too heavy and Murray stepped down, and did he did not run for re-election.
    .
  • For me, the coup-de-grace is Dominique Strauss-Kahn. You won’t remember this, but I sure do. Strauss-Kahn is the former head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and he was based in New York City. A few years ago, the state of New York was trying to prosecute him for the rape of a maid (an immigrant) in a hotel. They were set to take him to court when a couple of days before the trial began, it fell apart and never proceeded. I never found out what happened, but my guess is that he did it and paid off the woman so she would drop her claims and refuse to testify.That wasn’t the end of his career, though. He started to move up in the circles but a year or two later, he was busted again for taking part in a prostitution ring, and was known for having wild sex parties. He never was convicted of anything (he admitted he had a strong sex drive) but that seems to be the end of his career. For now, I guess.
    .
  • Where this hits closer to home for me is that way back in 1993, while I was still living in Canada, my parents were involved in the Reform Party. The Reform Party was a right-wing party based in western Canada that was effectively a protest party. The local candidate was Terry Lewis, and he was a Christian. My parents supported him. He ran (and lost) in 1993, and ran again (and lost again) in 1997.Several years later, he was convicted of sexual assault which he committed against a teen boy in the 1970’s, again while he was a youth worker (in his 30’s, just like Roy Moore). He was convicted of a second case a few years ago.When my parents found out about this the first time, they were angry and disgusted that he did these acts. I give my parents credit, they never would have supported Lewis had they known that this was in his background.

So you see, sexual assault by men in positions of power, whether it is in Hollywood or in politics, is common. And it’s also serial, they rarely do it only one time. That’s what I think gives reports against Roy Moore credibility – that there’s so many.

The famous counter-example

But serially abusing men don’t always get their comeuppance, and the most obvious example is Donald Trump. In 2016, at least eight different women came forward and alleged that he sexually assaulted or groped them. At the time, candidate Trump said all eight of them were lying, a claim he still makes today. He was also caught on audiotape making “locker room talk” about women, but dismissed it as nothing more than men making off-the-cuff remarks about their sexual prowess (and that it was not at all a reflection of his character and his views towards women, relative to his own position of power).

President Trump got away with it; and unlike my parents who turned on Lewis even though they agreed with his politics, Trump’s supporters did not turn on him because they agreed with his politics, and they still haven’t. Likewise, Roy Moore’s supporters have not turned on him because they agree with his politics. Apparently, to Moore’s supporters, you can be a child molester so long as you espouse the right political and religious beliefs. If you do that, you get a free pass and anything wrong you do is dismissed as fake news.

When I was on a jury earlier this year, the case was about sexual assault. During the jury selection process, the lawyers are allowed to ask the potential jurors questions in order to kick them out of the jury pool in order for their client to get a fair trial (or the prosecutor get rid of any lunatics). I forget which lawyer asked it, but he asked the women in the audience how many of them had ever been a victim of sexual assault. Many raised their hands, and I tried to do a quick count. I estimated that somewhere between 20-25% of the women in the room had raised their hands. Some even spoke about their experiences.

So as you can see, this country has a problem with sexual assault committed by men, and many women don’t bring their stories forward out of fear, shame, and the feeling of powerlessness. Being accused of lying, and of participating in fake news, doesn’t help and makes the problem worse because it scares victims into staying silent. Furthermore, seeing the perpetrators (like then-candidate Trump) get away with it is even worse because it sends a social signal that it’s possible to get away with it under certain circumstances. People watch for these social signals, and if Roy Moore gets away with it, then others will figure out that you can get away with anything if you subscribe to extreme politics but indicate you’re on the side of a certain group.

Thought Bubble

Before, I continue, let me go to the thought bubble. I’ve listened to the radio about why Moore’s supporters haven’t abandoned him. Some think the accusations are fake news, others will vote for him even if the allegations are true because they won’t vote for a Democrat, but the one that makes me roll my eyes the most are because Christians have the concept of forgiveness. You may have committed some evil acts, but forgiveness is available to you. Redemption is a common biblical theme.

I get that, and it’s a great concept. However, it’s entirely dependent upon your coming clean, confessing, and repenting. In other words, you must admit your guilt and promise to turn around, and actually turn around.

Roy Moore has not gotten past that first step – he hasn’t admitted what he has done, so I can’t see how forgiveness should be extended to him. Indeed, by refusing to admit what he has done (allegedly), he is making the situation even worse by indicating to future victims that their stories will not be believed.

Thanks Thought Bubble.

Finally getting back to the hypocrisy

With all that in mind, let’s turn our attention back to President Trump. When the news broke about Moore’s allegations, President Trump was silent. He didn’t say anything. No urges about showing caution, no threats that these better not be true, just a simple “I haven’t studied it, we’ll have to see what happens.” He was exercising caution, a character trait President Trump doesn’t actually have.

Yet in the past week, Senator Al Franken, a Democrat out of Minnesota (the same Al Franken known for playing Stuart Smalley on Saturday Night Live) had his own sexual assault allegations makes the news. During a USO comedy tour back in 2006 before he was a Senator, he took a picture with his hands on the boobs of a female colleague while she was asleep (she was wearing body armor underneath military fatigue). Franken apologized for an unfunny joke and called for an Ethics Panel investigation into his own behavior.

While Franken is not the biggest thorn in Trump’s side, he’s been very vocal about sexual assault. And now this image has been circulating on social media. Like clockwork, President Trump rage-tweeted about Franken, calling his behavior inappropriate. “And what about the (non-existent) even worse images in photos 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7!?!?”

Seriously?

The sheer size and scope of the hypocrisy of this tweet floors me. This is a man who committed sexual assault against numerous women, calls them all liars, and propagates the problem forward by sending signals to others they will not be believed even if they do come forward. He said nothing to the allegations of sexual assault allegations against Roy Moore, even though other Republican leaders have condemned the behavior (for their own political reasons, of course) [2].

But the reason that President Trump condemns Franken is not because he is actually disgusted by Franken. Instead, it’s because he knows where his bread is buttered. Donald Trump always courts the extreme right-wing base of the Republican party. He eggs them on all the time, and exploits their support. That’s why he wouldn’t condemn David Duke (the alleged leader of the KKK), why he wouldn’t condemn neo-Nazis, and why he wouldn’t say anything about gun control even after the Las Vegas, Texas, and California mass shootings which have occurred in the past few weeks. It’s because there are too many far-right extremists that are part of that voting bloc, and he needs to shore them up regardless of whether or not they are harming the country.

I know that not everyone who supports Trump is far-right, or an extremist. But many, many do and President Trump is pandering to them.

So, the President condemns Franken because Franken is a Democrat; he doesn’t condemn Moore because Moore’s politics are extreme but align with Trump’s base.

That is the reason why President Trump does what he does.

He is not showing any type of moral leadership, but instead is exploiting divisions in the country to firm up his support [2].

And I predict he’ll do this over and over. When a white male commits a mass shooting, President Trump will be silent because gun control is a pet issue for many in his base and he won’t risk alienating them. But if a Muslim rents a truck and drives over people in New York, he’ll be tweeting about it within minutes, about how we need extreme vetting, because many in his base don’t like or trust Muslims anyhow [3].

And on and on it goes. And will continue to go until he either loses the next election, or is impeached (probably because of his dealings with Russia, although I think that is a long shot, perhaps 20% chance of success). The hypocrisy of calling out one set of behaviors when it is politically advantageous, and not calling out another – even when the other he is not calling out causes more harm – is not going to stop.

And I think that is damaging the country.


 

Update three days after I wrote this post

And just like that, we’re seeing the behavior of how politics overrides personal ethic.

1. The most disappointing example is Franklin Graham, the son of American evangelist Billy Graham and the person in charge of Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian charitable organization that runs Operation Christmas child. My wife and I have donated to this organization in the past, so it’s such a depressing example of how leaders in the church should know better, but don’t.

Franklin Graham posted this on Twitter in response to the coverage of Roy Moore:

Did you notice the “What about-ism?” This happens when you say “This guy is bad, but what about this other person who is bad?” This is a diversion tactic that you engage in when you can’t defend something or someone, so you try to shift the discussion over to something else which you can personally attack. It is a tacit admission that you lost that battle, so you try to engage in something you can win.

What-about-ism is used by the Trump administration all the time, and the media falls for it. They get into a discussion about other things, chasing the rabbit trail. But it’s a ruse, a canard. Regardless of whether or not that other thing is bad, we are discussing this thing right now.

Franklin Graham ought to know better. Yes, other politicians in Washington are bad, but right now we’re discussing Roy Moore and his sexual assaulting of underage girls. Don’t try to change the discussion just because you’re a conservative Republican and you think Roy Moore will support the policies you want him to support. I thought Franklin Graham ought to show some leadership by showing he has some skin in the game, and would denounce someone who has shown immoral behavior. I guess I was wrong about that.

2. Unsurprisingly, President Trump has endorsed Roy Moore. From The Hill:

President Trump on Tuesday appeared to throw his support behind Roy Moore (R) despite the allegations of sexual misconduct against the Alabama Senate candidate.

We don’t need a liberal person in there, a Democrat,” Trump told reporters on the South Lawn of the White House.

The president slammed the record of Moore’s Democratic opponent, Doug Jones, saying “it’s terrible on crime, it’s terrible on the border, it’s terrible on the military.”

Trump declined to say whether he believes the accusations against Moore, but stressed that the former judge has denied them. “He denies it. He totally denies it,” Trump said, noting the alleged incidents took place about 40 years ago. “Roy Moore denies it — that’s all I can say.”

As I explained above, it’s not surprising that President Trump would employ this tactic, he only speaks to his base and pushes policies for his extreme base. Roy Moore is part of it, and there’s no way Trump will abandon him no matter how bad Moore is, because…

3. The Hill also reports that Moore and his Democratic opponent are in a statistical dead heat, with Moore still slight ahead:

According to the Raycom News Network poll, 45 percent of respondents believe some or all of the allegations against Moore, while 34 percent said they don’t believe any of the accusations.

Twenty-one percent said they believe some or all of the allegations, but that it won’t change their vote.

Did you see that? 1 out of 5 voters believe the allegations of sexual assault are true, but still will vote for Moore anyway (I haven’t checked to see if those are all Moore voters, or split, or all Jones voters). This underscores my disgust that all you have to do is subscribe to extreme beliefs and signal to your extreme base that you’re on their side, and they’ll give you carte blanche to do anything you want so long as you vote their way when in power. Your moral character means nothing (and that’s what irks me about Franklin Graham, he should know better).

This sends a bad signal to everyone else who might be so inclined to abandon politicians who do grossly immoral things. If Side A (Republicans) won’t do it, or won’t do it in enough numbers to matter, than what motivation do Democrats have to abandon, say, Al Franken? It amounts to a unilateral disarmament. Votes can do the game theory, and abandoning their guy but knowing the other side won’t abandon theirs means that you either accept the other guy, or you stick by your own no matter how bad he is.

I know national politics is a blood sport, but this is starting to feel really slimy.


Addendum

[1] Some leaders in the Republican party have said they believe the women, and that Moore should drop out. I think they are saying this because it’s politically expedient. The Republicans are establishment Republicans, and Moore is an extremist outside that. They want Moore to drop out because they don’t want the problem that Moore would have brought to the party in power, even outside of these allegations.

Yet, because of my disgust of Moore, I have to align myself with Republican Congressional leadership, even if I understand that they’re only doing it because it aligns with their own best interests, and not because they are showing any moral leadership.

[2] This goes to what Nassim Taleb describes as having skin-in-the-game. If you don’t have skin-in-the-game, your opinion shouldn’t be taken seriously. For example, during the financial crisis, maybe Wall Street managers were criticized for taking on excessive risk and destabilizing the system, yet still profiting handsomely. They had no downside, only upside. They had no skin-in-the-game.

When President Trump refuses to criticize Ray Moore, it’s because he knows he might alienate his base if he does, even though charges of child molestation are serious. When he does criticize Al Franken (even though he himself has done far worse things), it’s because his base is fully on-board with him criticizing Democrats and there’s no downside for him. Democrats won’t vote for him, and he can shore up support within his base.

Thus, President Trump has demonstrated he has no skin-in-the-game when it comes to showing moral leadership, he only panders to his base.

It’s when you do things for which you might suffer adverse consequences that you should be taken seriously.

[3] The message coming out of the White House is that the reason the President has criticized Franken is because he admitted it, whereas neither President Trump nor Roy Moore admitted to these allegations.

Moore hasn’t admitted it because it would probably be political suicide. President Trump… probably can’t remember that he did it, or does remember but has convinced himself that it was perfectly okay.

But in either case, it sends a bad signal: rather than admitting when you’ve done wrong, deny it forever. Even if it results in long-term damage to real victims of sexual assault.