December 31, 2016

Web Site Fixed

I noted on 12/22/2016 that I was having trouble with the navigation mechanism on my Web site, Lionel Deimel’s Farrago. That problem has now been fixed. I’m not sure what caused the problem or why the fix I applied was necessary, but I appreciate that the software gods are capricious.

Anyway, I am happy to be ready to enter the new year with a Web site that is working as it should.

Happy New Year to all.

Happy New Year!

December 28, 2016

Winning Is Not Always the Smartest Objective

Every chess player knows that winning is sometimes a foolish objective. When victory is exceedingly unlikely (and probably impossible), the only sensible objective is to avoid a loss. A draw is always more desirable that an outright loss.

Apparently, Donald J. Trump is not a chess player, or, if he is, I doubt he’s a good one. For Mr. Trump, winning is always his objective. He acts as if his personal motto is that articulated by coach Henry Russell (“Red”) Sanders: “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” (According to Wikipedia, this quotation was not original with Vince Lombardi.) Donald Trump has repeatedly asserted that the United States is losing in its international relations, and he is going to make the country win consistently.

Unfortunately, winning in foreign affairs is not always the smartest objective.

Both the People’s Republic of China (China) and the Republic of China (Taiwan) claim to represent all of China. Neither claim is completely credible, but the dispute is a sensitive one. China is represented in the United Nations; Taiwan is not. Despite that Taiwan is a thriving democracy with a vibrant economy, it is generally not recognized as a separate country, though it participates in world affairs almost as though it is. Should hostility every break out between the two Chinas, it is clear which country would win. It is even believed that China would be willing to use nuclear weapons in an open conflict with Taiwan. That would not be good.

President-elect Donald Trump, in seeming conflict with U.S. foreign policy, spoke personally with the President of the Republic of China. There is good reason to believe that Mr. Trump, who has shown great hostility toward China, would favor a formally independent country of Taiwan. However, U.S. policy has been to recognize China, to not recognize Taiwan, but to trade with and sell arms to Taiwan. High-level public contact with the Taiwan president violated longstanding policy and was guaranteed to upset the Chinese government. The status quo regarding the two Chinas is not ideal, but, for the moment, it avoids conflict and allows Taiwan the independence it would not have as part of China. Perhaps, in some distant future, China will develop into a democracy, and unification of Taiwan with China will become either acceptable or unnecessary. For now, everyone is happy enough to forestall conflict.

Can a President Trump accept the status quo, which is likely not a “win” for the U.S. in his mind? In chess terms, the current China situation is a draw; neither side “wins,” though the world wins through the avoidance of overt military conflict. This may not be good enough for the new president. Recognition of Taiwan as an independent country could theoretically be achieved by the new administration without retaliation, possibly military, by China. (By no means, however, could such a newly recognized country claim all of China without igniting conflict.) Such an outcome of a deliberate strategy, however, is almost certain to fail. The up-side of pursuing such a strategy is minor, and the potential for catastrophic failure is monumental. In other words, pursuing a “win,” as Trump, no doubt, is tempted to do, is something between reckless and suicidal. Winning is not the smartest objective.

In the Middle East, given Mr. Trump’s statements, his cabinet/ambassador choices, and his Twitter complaint about the recent U.N. Security Council resolution deploring Israeli settlements on the West Bank, there is a danger that the new president will want to pursue a “win” in Palestine. Such a “win” would see Israel progressively gobbling up land on which Palestinians would like to build an independent country. This land grab would naturally include all of Jerusalem, which the President-elect wants to see become the site of the U.S. embassy in Israel. Such moves, as Secretary of State John Kerry argued today, make a two-state resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict increasingly unlikely. Alas, we may have already passed the point of no return in Palestine with respect to a two-state solution. If, however, Palestinians can see neither two independent states in their future nor a single democratic, secular state, they (and surrounding states for their own reasons) may conclude that a final go-for-broke attack on Israel as the only reasonable path forward. That would not be a happy development and would be a win for no one.

Donald J. Trump has lived in a world where there are winners and losers, and his objective is always to be the winner. He believes that his mode of operation has served him well (though others might argue the point). World diplomacy is a more nuanced universe, however, than the commercial one in which Mr. Trump is used to operating. Wins are not always possible and are sometimes foolhardy. Draws, and even minor losses, have to be tolerated. Diplomatic success is not something that has to be maximized each quarter. In the diplomatic world, one has to take the long view. Unfortunately, the President-elect seems to have a very short attention span. His “winning” strategy may result in losses beyond his imaginings.

Mr. Trump needs a new motto: “Winning isn’t everything; sometimes it’s not the smartest thing.”


Chess pieces

Correction, 12/28/2016. In the original text, I indicated that Secretary Kerry’s speech today took place at the U.N. The speech actually was delivered in Washington, which the current text of my essay reflects.



December 27, 2016

When Was America Great?

I am still working to fix the navigation on my Web site. In the process, I am discovering files I had completely forgotten about. One of this files is shown below. I apparently created this graphic last July, but I don’t think I did anything with it. As we get closer to having Donald Trump as President of the United States, however, what I wrote half a year ago seems important to think about. You can click on the graphic for a larger image. Feel free to use this image elsewhere.

When was America great?

December 24, 2016

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

I wrote the poem below in 2002 and added it to my Web site, along with a description of its origin. Posting this is a more-or-less annual tradition here. The poem is really about the frantic Christmas shopping season. In posting this on Christmas Eve, I pray that you are finished with shopping, wrapping, etc., and still have enough energy to enjoy the actual Christmas celebration.

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas
by Lionel Deimel


The jingle bells are back,
Ringing jingle-jangle ding-dong-ding
On the street corners and at the mall,
Where the giant Damoclean snowflakes
Hang menacingly from the store ceilings
Over the heads of the make-up consultants,
Displaying their perfect faces, Santa Claus hats,
And belligerent helpfulness.


The colored outdoor lights are back,
Contending with high-pressure, sodium streetlamps
To banish night and veil the pallid twinkle of the stars,
Letting the phosphor-white icicles,
Dripping electrically from the eaves,
Highlight the unnatural landscape
Of rotund, glow-from-within snowmen
And teams of gene-damaged reindeer.


The entertainments are back—
The last-minute, Oscar-hopeful blockbusters
Playing beside cheap trifles luring the momentarily vulnerable;
Pick-up-choir, stumbling-through-the-notes Messiahs
Competing with earnest Amahls and Peanuts Specials;
The cute-but-clumsy, tiny ballerinas tripping through Nutcrackers
Sorely in need of crowd control;
And the latest made-for-TV, hanky-wrenching, feel-good melodrama.


The emotions are back,
With love-thy-neighbor, brotherhood-of-man yearnings
Schizophrenically vying with loathing for the driver ahead,
As we pursue our private quests
For perfect love-showing, obligation-meeting, or indifference-disguising gifts,
Our anticipating the giving-terror, receiving-embarrassment,
The disappointing joy, and the exhilarating letdown assuring us at last
That Christmas is upon us.


Snowflake

December 22, 2016

Problems with Lionel Deimel’s Farrago

Yesterday, I was fixing some minor formatting problems with my Web site, Lionel Deimel’s Farrago. In the process, my software royally screwed up navigation on the site. I have been trying to fix the new problems, but I don’t, at this point, know when I will ultimately be successful.

The good news is that all pages are accessible. (Every now and then, as I try to fix the navigation problems, pages may disappear for a short time, however.) If you have a URL, you can go directly to a page. If you are looking for something, you can use the search page or the site map to find what you are seeking.

Sorry for any inconvenience.

December 19, 2016

We Need Direct Election of President and Vice President

As expected, the Electoral College has failed the Republic. (See “The Constitution Faces a Challenge (And It Will Probably Fail).”) Although the result still lacks final certification—truly a formality at this point—Donald J. Trump’s election to be President of the United States today became certain with the Electoral College vote.

Although the Electoral College has its defenders, most Americans neither completely understand our electoral system nor approve of what they do understand. Many thoughtful commentators have argued that the Constitution should be changed to mandate that the candidate receiving the most votes becomes President. (E.J. Dione Jr. was arguing this on The Diane Rehm Show only today.) Many advocates for scrapping the current system seem to believe that doing so by means of a constitutional amendment—a route that has been tried unsuccessfully in the past—will not succeed. Simple inertia militates against the change. Also, it is argued that small states would oppose it.

Actually, I suspect that the Republican Party would object to a constitutional amendment. It isn’t clear that the current system actually favors the Republican candidate, but it is true that the two elections in recent years in which the winner did not have the most votes were won by Republicans (2000 and 2016).

The small state argument for the current system is weak. Although it is true, for example, that one vote in Wyoming has, in some sense, more influence than one vote in California, Wyoming has so few electoral votes and, in any case, is a reliably red state, so no candidates bother to campaign there.

Admittedly, passing a constitution amendment to elect the President and Vice President by popular vote may seem an impossible task in December 2016. However, a lot of people are upset about how Trump won the presidency, so that there is probably more sentiment for such an amendment than there has ever been. If people interested in democracy continue to agitate for change, that change might eventually be effected. Think about same-sex marriage. Not too many years ago, legalizing same-sex marriage was unthinkable. Even LGBT activists were reluctant to advocate it. Over time, however, attitudes changed. This could happen with how we elect our chief leaders. But it can only happen if the issue is kept before the public.

A constitutional amendment is the proper answer to the question of how we can improve our electoral system. Passing state laws to make electors vote for the candidate with the most votes is an unreliable kludge that might easily be declared unconstitutional.

I must offer one caveat. While it’s true that Hillary Clinton received more individual votes than did Donald Trump, she did not earn a majority of the votes cast. According to the AP, Clinton received 48% of the votes, and Trump received 47%. Gary Johnson, however, earned 3.3% of the votes, and Jill Stein earned 1%. If either Clinton or Trump were declared the winner, more votes would have been cast against that person than for her or him. This might seem like a minor technical point, but there are reasons to demand that the winner win with a majority of the votes cast. (See “The People’s Choice” for more insight into why this is important.) One of the “virtues” of our current system is that it usually (though not always) delivers a winner with a majority of the (electoral) votes cast.

There are at least two basic ways to elect by popular vote and elect by majority, not simply plurality. One way is to have a second vote of the top two candidates if no candidate achieves a majority of votes in the initial election. In certain circumstances—see “The People’s Choice” again—this can produce anomalous results. As long as we continue to have only two major parties, the only real problem is having to have a second nation-wide vote. Under our current system, however, we don’t really select a winner immediately. (I dismissed this scheme in my essay just referred to, but I may have been hasty.)

A second (and better) way to assure the winner wins by a majority it to use a preference voting system in which voters rank candidates in order of preference. (See “The People’s Choice (Round Two).”) This would be the ideal sort of voting scheme to ensconce in the Constitution. It is, however, unfamiliar and difficult to describe, so people would need experience with it in other contexts before it would be widely accepted.

The will of the people, I assert, did not determine who will be our next President. We need to fix our electoral system lest our democracy be seen as illegitimate. (A Trump presidency will surely encourage Americans to consider alternatives to the present system.)

And so, fellow Americans, we need to argue for direct election of President and Vice President. We need to do it now, and we need to maintain pressure for change. Perfecting our Union demands it.

December 18, 2016

Trump 2024

Tomorrow, the Electoral College will determine if Donald J. Trump will become the next President of the United States. There is little doubt that Trump will receive the requisite votes to move into the White House.

In anticipation of that depressing development, I have written something rare for me—a piece of fiction. Titled “Trump 2024,” I consider the possible state of the country seven years from now. I sincerely hope that my speculations are wildly off-track, but I worry that they may not be.

Comments are especially welcome.

December 15, 2016

Jesus, Progressive

I am tired of the influence of the so-called Christians in this country—the people who object to abortion with the same passion that they oppose programs to help impoverished children, the folks who want label or depart Muslims, the voters who want to teach pseudo-science in schools but not mention that climate change is an existential threat, the people who hate homosexuals and liberals with equal zeal.

Jesus’ message was one of love, not of hate. He had nothing to say about abortion or homosexuality or climate change (which wasn’t an issue in his day anyway). I am tired of people who love their religion but seem to love neither God nor their neighbors. Jesus was anything but a conservative, and true Christians are inspired by Christ’s example.

These thoughts led me to devise the graphic below. Feel free to use it wherever you like. Click on it for a larger version.


Jesus was a progressive.

December 12, 2016

Package Tracking Failure

I find myself buying an increasing number of products over the Internet. Even when price is not an issue, I sometimes cannot find a particular item in Indiana, Pennsylvania. Practically everything I order these days is delivered by a service that provides tracking information for packages. It is reassuring to be able to follow the progress of a package with some certainty as to when it will arrive.

Yesterday, however, my faith in package tracking was shaken. The Postal Service was to deliver a package on Sunday, December 11. (The first time the USPS was supposed to deliver on Sunday, I was skeptical, but my order did indeed arrive when it was supposed to.) I checked the mailbox frequently Sunday afternoon, but no package ever materialized. Sometime after 6 PM, I visited the USPS tracking page. I was surprised by what I saw (see below).

Tracking information

According to the USPS, my package was delivered Sunday at 3:21 PM. If so, where was it?

This morning, I visited the local post office with a copy of the tracking information above. The postal clerk took my printout and disappeared for 5 or 10 minutes. When he came back, he explained that there had been some sort of mistake. He didn’t really say what went wrong, but he suggested that the driver on Sunday was an inexperienced one. Anyway, he assured me that my package was on a truck and would be delivered today. It was.

I was happy to receive my order, but I will never again be quite so confident of tracking information, at least from the United States Postal Service.

Falsiness

It has long been obvious that Donald J. Trump has a complicated relationship with the truth. Beginning with the birther issue—at least as far as a national audience is concerned—Trump has shown a blatant disregard for facts. Assertions by him are simply instrumental, intended only to advance his personal interests. A majority of Trump’s statements checked by PolitiFact have been labeled Mostly False, False, or Pants on Fire. Even for a politician, this is a bad record.

One might generously suggest that Donald Trump traffics in truthiness, a concept enunciated by Stephen Colbert on his satirical Comedy Central show The Colbert Report. Wikipedia explains Colbert’s term as follows:
Truthiness is a quality characterizing a “truth” that a person making an argument or assertion claims to know intuitively “from the gut” or because it “feels right” without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.
A less generous analysis, of course, is that Trump lies a lot. On the other hand, Trump, who has no expertise in so many of the areas in which he pontificates, may actually believe what he says. He regularly touts his extraordinary intelligence that, presumably, allows him to intuit that which is invisible to the rest of us mere mortals.

Whatever the underlying mechanism, Donald Trump seems to live in a universe unmoored to the body of facts by which most of us regulate our lives. Distressingly, he seems to have pulled many of his supporters into his strange Land of Trump. (Rachel Maddow recently reported on a survey that suggests as much.)

The latest election-related bombshell is the revelation that the CIA believes not only that Russia hacked Democratic e-mail accounts, but also that the information collected from those incursions were leaked to the press with the intention of helping to elect Donald Trump and to defeat Hillary Clinton. Trump has called the CIA allegations “nonsense” and denied that the intelligence community could not possibly know either that Russia was responsible or that the hacking and leaking was done for a particular purpose. Ironically, the CIA has more sources and tools than Trump could possibly know about, given the fact that he regularly declines to receive intelligence briefings.

Trump’s commitment to truthiness is obvious for all to see. We need a new word for Trump’s intuitive rejection of anything that he doesn’t like, such as the notion that his victory may have been facilitated by foreign involvement in the campaign. Obviously, Trump does not want to admit of anything that would tarnish his “massive landslide victory.” He does not want to believe the CIA and therefore doesn’t. I propose that the required word for this kind of self-deception is falsiness, which we may define as follows:
Falsiness is a quality characterizing a “falsehood” that a person making an argument or assertion claims to know intuitively “from the gut” or because it “feels right” without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.
Alas, all of Trump’s actions seem to be based not on reality, but on truthiness and falsiness. The same intellectual virus has infected his cabinet picks, who don’t believe in global warming or the need to protect voting rights, among other things.

Unfortunately, while Donald Trump believes he can live in a world where truth and falsehood can be discerned by his gut, the rest of us will have to live with the consequences of what is actually true and what is not.

May God help us!


Truth Matters

December 10, 2016

The Constitution Faces a Challenge (And It Will Probably Fail)

The Constitution faces a challenge later this month when electors cast their votes for the next President of the United States. What is almost certain to happen is that electors from states in which Donald Trump earned more votes than Hillary Clinton will cast their votes for Trump. Hillary Clinton will earn the votes of electors of states in which she received more votes than Trump. Some states even mandate that this should happen, although electors cannot be forced to vote in this manner. Two states—Nebraska and Maine—direct their electors to vote somewhat differently, but neither state is large enough to make a difference in the election.

What is distressing, of course, is that Hillary Clinton garnered about 2.8 million votes more than Donald Trump. Trump revels in his victory, indulging his expansive ego in a victory tour. Yet Trump is the country’s second choice for President. The people wanted a President Hillary Clinton.

Were the Electoral College to operate as was originally intended, wise electors would fail to give Trump the votes needed to move into the White House and, instead, would give that privilege to Mrs. Clinton. The only reason the Electoral College was created was to protect the nation from the popular vote for an unqualified or dangerous demagogue. Federalist Paper #68, presumed to have been written by Alexander Hamilton, offers this observation in favor of the presidential election mechanism specified by the Constitution:
It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.
The constitutional mechanism ran into problems in early elections and was modified by the Twelfth Amendment in 1804. The amendment was particularly concerned with the election of the Vice President and need not concern us here.

Alas, the Founding Fathers did not anticipate the immediate development of political parties. Pretty much from the beginning, electors represented parties, not simply wise and judicious upstanding citizens. Gatherings of electors never became deliberative bodies. As the system has developed, electors are chosen by parties from the party faithful, and the likelihood that any one of them will vote for someone other than his or her party candidate is vanishingly small. It is particularly ironic that electors meet in their own states to protect them from the influence of electors elsewhere. In our wired modern society, this merely saves travel money.

In 2016, the Electoral College has the potential to save the United States from the unqualified, loose-canon plutocrat that is Donald Trump. Electors could act as the Founding Fathers apparently intended and protect the country from the collective insanity that was the 2016 election. Given that the Democratic candidate is competent, sane, and preferred by more voters, making this happen would be an easy moral choice.

For the Electoral College to make Hillary Clinton President would require that 38 electors chosen by local Republican parties cast votes for Clinton, rather than Trump. That this is as likely as snow in Death Valley in August is obvious from the fact that, although so many high-profile Republicans were part of (or sympathetic to) the Never Trump movement, that movement virtually disappeared when Trump was declared the victor in November. Being in power was too seductive. Making a deal with the Devil and risking the Republic was not too high a price to pay.

So, the Constitution faces a challenge next week. Can it protect us from an egomaniac supported by billionaires, white nationalists, religious fanatics, and hopeful, but ignorant, working people? The Constitution will certainly fail this test, and Donald J. Trump will officially become the next President of the United States.

Assuming that the expected outcome occurs, the people of the United States should immediately begin an energetic and sustained campaign to amend the Constitution to provide for the direct election of the President and Vice President. The Constitution must be amended. State laws to give electoral votes to the popular winner is a kluge that is simply not good enough. A Donald Trump must never be elected again.

Postscript. Some have argued—I, myself, have argued—that our electoral system encourages candidates to campaign throughout the country, as electoral votes are to be had everywhere. In fact, however, the system has the opposite effect. The Republican candidate need not campaign in New York, and the Democratic candidate need not campaign in Alabama. It is safely assumed that those states will go to the Democratic and Republican candidate, respectively. In a popular-vote system, however, the Republican would certainly want to campaign in New York, and the Democrat would likely want to campaign in Alabama. The perverse influence on campaigning is yet another reason to prefer voting for our chief executives by popular vote, as does every other democratic country on the planet.

Trump: Second Choice of American Voters
Click above for larger image.

December 3, 2016

A Trump Challenge

I was watching Rachel Maddow last night discuss Donald Trump’s speaking to the president of Taiwan, thereby creating something of an international diplomatic incident.

Somehow, the phrase, “arrogant asshole” popped into my mind unbidden. One thing led to another, and I began to wonder if I could construct an entire Trump-oriented alphabet, albeit one not appropriate for children.

Although entries for a few letters came easily, it was soon apparent that this task would be difficult. I therefore decided that I would begin the project on my blog and invite readers to help me put bones on the alphabet skeleton. Besides being intellectually challenging, this project may provide some temporary comfort to those suffering depression over the election of Donald Trump.

Below is my incomplete alphabet. I invite readers to offer additional entries in the comments. Feel free also to offer alternatives to the entries I have already filled it. I’m sure we can do better together. Consider this an opportunity to purge some of your negative feelings concerning the state of our country, if only temporarily.

A: Arrogant asshole
B: Biggotted blowhard
C: Clueless clown
D: Dangerous demagogue
E: Egregious exaggerator
F: Fulsome fascist
G: Grandiloquent gaslighter
H: Hirsute half-wit
I: Insufferable Islamophobe
J: Jejune juggernaut
K: Kooky know-nothing
L: Lifelong litigant
M: Malefic misogynist
N: Nasty name-caller
O: Oleaginous oligarch
P: Pernicious prevaricator
Q: Querulous quack
R: Radical reactionary
S: Slimy smirker
T: Thin-skinned tyrant
U: Un-American upheaver
V: Vicious vulgarian
W: Wanton womanizer
X: Xyresic xenophobe
Y: Yankee yokel
Z: Zealous zero

It is not clear that constructing a complete alphabet is possible. It may be necessary to introduce obscure words, and, even then, certain letters may prove recalcitrant. Let’s give it a try anyway.

Update, 12/4/2016. With the help of friends, a word list, and a dictionary, I have completed my alphabet. Arguably, the list exhibits some redundancy and has a few entries that beg for improvement. Can anyone offer improved entries? (Note that I have rejected many of my own ideas, as well as those from others, some of which I hated to lose. I want to keep the list length to 26, however.)

December 2, 2016

America’s Second Choice for President

Hillary Clinton’s lead in the popular vote has grown to over 2½ million and is slowly climbing. Donald Trump was clearly favored by (and assisted by) Vladimir Putin, but American voters preferred Clinton. Isn’t it time to do away with the Electoral College?

Trump: Second Choice of American Voters
Click above for larger image.

Update, 12/10/2017.
 Clinton’s lead in the popular vote has increased to 2.8 million.

December 1, 2016

Further Thoughts on Conflicts of Interest

Yesterday, I wrote about reasonable ways that a President Trump might avoid outrageous conflicts of interest. (See “Conflicts of Interest.”) I’d like to offer two other possibilities, though either of these leave Trump’s enterprises in the hands of his children, whom he might be inclined to favor in his acts and policies, possibly to the detriment of the country generally.

Scheme 1: Donald Trump could give his holdings to his children. There would normally be a large tax liability involved in such a transaction, but a law forgiving such liability to avoid conflicts of interest might be construed in Trump’s favor. (This is not a sure thing, however.) Such a gift would have to be made with the explicit agreement that the beneficiaries were under no obligation ever to compensate Trump for the gift. Ideally, the president should be enjoined from discussing the affairs of The Trump Organization while in office.

Scheme 2: Donald Trump could sell his stake in The Trump Organization to his children and put the proceeds into a true blind trust. Finding a reasonable price that his children could actually afford might be difficult. Again, the president should be enjoined from discussing the affairs of The Trump Organization while in office.

If Donald Trump does not devise some mechanism to avoid egregious conflicts of interest, his presidency will be handling one conflict-of-interest scandal after another for four years. It is doubtful that whatever plan he unveils on December 15 will quiet the press or the ethics watchdogs.