Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The Russia Thing

I don't think I've addressed The Russia Thing more than peripherally on this site. It always struck me as stupid to be blunt about it. Russians certainly had a hand in shaping some opinions about candidates in the 2016 election, particularly Hillary, but so what? So did a lot of other interests, national and corporate, and it shouldn't matter in the larger scheme of things that Russia and Russians were also involved. That's part of the political game in this country and it has been as long as I've been alive. And no doubt it has been true as long as the US has been a nation.

When you look at it from a historical perspective, the focus on Russia's involvement to the exclusion of just about every other national and corporate involvement is distinctly odd. Not only were they not the only ones attempting to gain advantage from the election (of Trump, but it's more complex than that), they weren't necessarily the main foreign interest in the outcome of the election. Oh no, far from it.

But in order to understand what happened, we need to understand what was going on. Trump wasn't expected to win. Not even he expected to win. The outcome was a surprise and a shock to the entire electoral system including the funders, media, and candidates. The voters were largely appalled. How did this happen?

It's not easy to sort out what was happening that led to such an unexpected outcome, but among the things I was aware of was a very concerted online effort to influence the influencers. This is tricky; it isn't self evident that influencing the influencers had much of an effect, but I think it did.

"Stop Hillary" was a really big thing online. Bernie was the great white hope, but he failed miserably. Whether or not he was robbed by the DNC and Hillary's partisans is a question I choose not to get into. I'll just say from personal knowledge that the Democratic Party apparatus is tailor made for selected outcomes, and there isn't a whole lot insurgents (or Bernie) can do about it. In a lot of ways, the Party has fossilized around a set of rules and requirements that almost always ensure that a selected candidate achieves the presidential nomination, no matter what. And who does the selection? A committee of old timers, in effect a Politburo. Hillary was the foregone nominee, despite the fact that she was opposed a large minority of party voters. Realistically, so was Bernie. If they'd had their druthers, I'm not sure who the Democratic primary voters would have chosen. The problem was that none of the 2016 primary candidates really represented the interests of a majority of the party's voters. The factional split between Hillary partisans and Bernie partisans was unbridgeable. The Party apparat went with Hillary and the rest is history.

The factional split left a wide opening for "influencers" to do their thing, and I saw it happening in real time online.  Of course it had happened before, but not to the extent I was witnessing during the 2016 election. What I saw was a relatively limited anti-Hillary drumbeat -- from somewhere, initially I thought domestic, but it turned out to be generated in Eastern Europe, with a source apparently in Russia -- hammering away at her many flaws and being picked up and amplified by all kinds of online sites and eventually by the mass media. I noticed it seemed to start with apparent Bernie partisans, particularly the canard that Hillary was going to start WWIII -- which to this day is repeated as an article of faith.

I say "apparent Bernie partisans" because I don't think they really were. I think they were using Bernie's campaign as a launch pad, but they had no interest in his winning the nomination or the election. They wanted to stop Hillary. Whatever it took to do so.

When I started seeing "Macedonian teenager" memes showing up on a number of supposedly "progressive" sites, and not long after that in the mass media, I really questioned what was going on. Obviously these kids in Macedonia (which was initially where these memes were thought to be coming from) had a more or less direct line to the internet backchannels which in turn led directly to mass media backchannels. And then right out to the public.

It wasn't just the "$100,000 in Facebook ads" that the St. Petersburg Internet Research Agency purchased. Oh my no. Those ads probably had no effect at all. What was having an effect was the meme generators, wherever they were located, trouncing Hillary for "starting WWIII", for Libya, for Syria, for Iraq, for "super predators," for her devotion to neo-liberalism, for her supposed illnesses, for Bengazi, for those damned emails, etc.

Here's the thing. It wasn't coming from the Trump campaign (which was just riding a little bitty wave), and it wasn't coming from the Bernie campaign, either. There had to be some other source. It was relentless and repetitious to the point of complete predictability.

Hillary, the Arch-Bitch, had to be stopped at any cost.

By whom? Why? I think those questions are yet to be answered. "Russia" is not the Answer, though it may be part of it.

Trump of course benefited from an enormous amount of free publicity, but it was widely thought that was OK because he would come across so badly. That kind of thinking was critically in error, but it seems to have been the underlying thought process of those who were giving him so much free airtime.

On the other hand, Hillary was given no quarter, she was criticized relentlessly for everything, and she got much less airtime, even as she spent wildly to buy ads and positive coverage -- or any coverage. She was thought to be the uncatchable frontrunner. Trump was being boosted to make it a horserace, but Hillary was going to win, hands down. Everyone was certain of it. Absolutely certain.

And yet she didn't. What happened? Officially, what happened was that less than 80,000 votes in three states meant that Trump won the Electoral College while Hillary won millions more popular votes. Yet again, the Electoral College handed the presidency to the candidate with fewer popular votes.

Among the factors that led to that outcome were voter suppression in Wisconsin and Michigan, to the tune of several hundred thousand eligible voters who either not permitted to vote or whose votes weren't counted. Pennsylvania had some very hinky voting machines that could not be audited. A recount was tried in all three states, and it was shown to be impossible. Jurisdictions refused to cooperate, machines could not be audited, votes could not be verified; in some cases there were no paper trails or any trail at all. You had to take the results on faith because there was no way to verify the counts.

Then there was the issue of "interference." Prior to the election we were told that the Intelligence Community and DHS would be closely monitoring the election for any "interference." Uh oh. To me, that meant they intended to interfere. I wouldn't put it past them. They could certainly do it. As I pondered that possibility, it occurred to me that a faction of those entities would very much prefer a jocular, macho racist idiot in the White House to Hillary, no matter what we might think. Indeed, there was an obviously strong anti-Hillary streak among the macho agencies, plain as day. Particularly true of DHS, but I wouldn't say that the other three letter agencies were much in favor of her. If they were going to monitor, there would be little or nothing to prevent them from jiggering the results themselves if they wanted to.

And when the tiny number of votes in three states made the ultimate difference, I nodded sagely. When it proved impossible to fully recount or verify those votes, I figured it was obvious.

But my thinking about it is distinctly in the minority.

"Russia!" was announced as the culprit. OK. Russia and Russians did do things, yes, and Trump is in thick with Russians and (especially) Russian money, things that were almost never mentioned during the campaign. But did Russia cause Trump's success? Uh, no.

No, what was happening was much more complex. What Russians and Israelis and many other foreign interests were doing -- and are still doing as far as I can tell -- is using every tactic they can to influence the influencers, hoping to set public policy in the US favorable to themselves. The people -- we -- have almost nothing to do with it.

And I suspect the focus on Russia! is part of an influence campaign itself.

We've been in a very decadent phase of the Republic, and realistically, we're near the endgame. Trump won't be Emperor, any more than Julius Caesar was. But his successor likely will be. The Republic will become extinct. And you know what? Most people will say "Good riddance."

Thursday, April 18, 2019

The Fire at Notre Dame

Unlike so many of those who have spoken and written about the fire at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, I've never been there in person, but in a vicarious way I have, just like so many people who haven't been there have vicariously seen and felt the place through movies, teevee, picture books and so on. Notre Dame is in some ways more familiar to Americans than just about any other Medieval church on earth. Certainly more so -- perhaps oddly -- than the many Gothic piles that dot the British Isles. Hm. Wonder why that is so?

Of course the spectacular setting on the Ile de la Cité in the middle of the Seine increases the visual impact of the church and its flying buttresses. It's a photographic and artistic wonder, especially as the light plays on the exterior stonework.

Until the photos and videos emerged following the fire, I don't think I had ever seen pictures of the interior of the cathedral, and from what I've seen so far, there was nothing particularly special about it -- compared to other Medieval cathedrals throughout Europe, or even their imitations in the United States. What I had seen and remembered were photos of the magnificent stained glass windows that line the walls and punctuate the ends of the cross. Amazing in every way, meant to delight the senses, windows which for the most part they say have been there "forever." They are said to be mostly original from the 1300s or a bit earlier or later, some damaged over the years of catastrophes, wars and revolutions, but never destroyed, and even with the fire, most of the windows appear to have survived intact. As I say, amazing.

The 850 year old oak raftering burned, the lead roofing melted or vaporized (that must not be pleasant) and the 150 year old spire collapsed in a flaming heap, puncturing the vaulting and forming a blazing pile of primarily wooden debris on the floor of the cathedral in front of the altar. That burning heap of rubble was doused with streams of water and fairly promptly put out while the roofing kept burning. Other parts of the vaulting collapsed or were punctured, but they say the damage, while significant, is repairable. As I'm sure it is. Medieval churches and cathedrals throughout Europe have been bombarded, reduced to rubble in many cases, gone up in flames and been shaken to pieces in earthquakes. Their devastation and restoration is almost routine. So there is little doubt that Notre Dame will be restored, and Macron has set a goal of completing the restoration in five years. To me that's unlikely, but the work will be done no matter how long it takes.

The fire was truly shocking, however, a visceral shock felt throughout the European and European-descent world. At first, it seemed like the entire structure was aflame and that nothing would survive. Gradually, it was realized that the fire was mostly confined to the roof and the spire, and that the stone building mostly survived though badly damaged. Some of the closeup views during the fire and its aftermath showed very deteriorated stonework though. Parts of the building were undergoing restoration, but much of the exterior looked like it was overdue. The fire appears to have started at the base of the spire where restoration work was underway. It has been tentatively deemed an accidental fire. Roof fires are not uncommon during restoration work on Medieval buildings and that seems to be what happened here.

It's a shame and yet after the initial shock it seems that Parisians -- and just about everyone else -- has moved on, confident that the monument will be restored, and the fire will eventually be forgotten.

I haven't mentioned the many billionaires who suddenly came up with hundreds of millions of euros for the restoration but were unable it seems to help fund the renovations that were underway when the roof caught fire. Nor, it seems, have they ever been able to find a way to help alleviate the growing problems of homelessness in France and elsewhere. It's one of the Great Mysteries, isn't it? How is it they can collectively come up with more than a billion dollars practically overnight to fund the restoration of Notre Dame after the fire but could barely find a penny to help before? Mystery!

And I couldn't help but think about the shock people must have felt long ago as one by one and sometimes in batches ancient Roman monuments fell to ruin from fire, earthquake, wars and revolutions. Only they weren't rebuilt. And I think of all the cities in the United States left partially abandoned by changing economic priorities, entire sections left to rot and ruin. The fire at Notre Dame isn't quite in that category, but it is evocative of a kind of creeping doom nonetheless.

And yet, life goes on...

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Cars

I had a skill when I was very young. I could identify year and make of cars by their badging, shape and trim. It was considered cute that I could do this almost perfectly at the age of three, and it's a skill I've sort of kept over the years. Well, newer cars are difficult for me. They tend to maintain their appearance over several years, and there are a lot of brands now that didn't exist in the '40s and '50s.

I'm trying to keep a list of the cars we had through the years. I've done a post on this topic before, but I'll try to do a list without referring to it.

1. 1942 Packard Clipper. It was Hunter Green, but the paint was very faded. There was a big dent in one rear fender -- did my mother back into something, or did the car get hit by another? I don't know. The interior was ratty. Upholstery worn and torn, stuffing coming out of various places. It had an odd smell, might have been burning oil. My mother got the car in the divorce settlement from my father, and I think she hated it. Finally, the clutch or transmission gave out and she traded it for another car.

2. 1950 Plymouth. This was gray, four door, a Deluxe model. It was a pretty nice car all things considered, but it was a base model, so it had no radio or heater. My mother drove it until 1957 when she was in a wreck coming back from her late call at the hospital where she worked. The car was pretty much totaled. She was injured, broken ribs and wrist, and a nasty knot on her forehead. So she bought a Ford.

3. 1957 Ford Custom 300. This was also a base model, but it seemed to me to be very advanced compared to the Plymouth. Being shiny and new of course was the main thing. But it had fins and chrome and a low and lean look to it, whereas the Plymouth was high and rather staid.

4. 1959 Hillman Minx. An oddball car to be sure. I don't remember why my mother traded the Ford for a foreign car so soon, just over two years, after she bought the Ford. My sister was driving a French Simca at the time, so that may have had something to do with it. Anyway, I thought the Hillman was pretty deluxe, though it was smaller than any car we'd had up to then. It had a radio and heater and green leather upholstery. It was a little difficult to get used to because the shift pattern was different, but otherwise it was quite fine in a British sort of way. It was the first car I drove on my own, badly.

5. 1961 Ford Galaxie.  Well. This one was kind of spectacular. It was black with a red interior. It was a "hardtop convertible" which meant there were no pillars between the front and rear doors. It seemed huge compared to the Hillman, and I think that's why my mother liked it.

Video below of a similar car.

5. 1965 Mustang. She couldn't resist. The minute the Mustang was introduced, she wanted one -- and she got one.This one was green with a black interior. It was pretty basic, but it was sharp looking and she loved it. When the clutch or transmission went out, though, she traded it in.

6. 7. 8. A series of used Thunderbirds. There was a 1959, a 1961, and I think a 1963. My mother bought these cars for herself and didn't keep any of them very long.

9. 1969 Dodge Coronet. This was not a success. Her step-father had worked at a Dodge dealership when she was young, and he had given her her first car, a 1934 Dodge Coupe. She hoped that a new Dodge would be as much of a thrill. It was a disaster. It was too plain after the luxury of the Thunderbirds, and for some reason, it didn't "sound right" and it was hard to drive. Within a month or so she traded it for a...

10. 1969 Pontiac LeMans. She loved this car. She kept it for at least another 10 years, maybe longer. I don't know that she ever bought another car -- but we were estranged toward the end of her life and I have only sketchy knowledge of her after about 1977. She died in 1987.

Because her step-father was a machinist who became the service manager at a car dealership before he went on mercurial adventures as the owner of his own filling station and auto court, eventually losing all his money in a bogus mining venture in Nevada, my mother always had an interest and fascination with cars. My infant skill in identifying makes, models, and years cars from the '40s and '50s was widely admired, but eventually, I didn't really share her auto interest.

I've had many cars on my own over the years, starting with a 1950 Packard convertible (the one pictured below may actually be it):

Imagine a high school kid driving something like that around in 1965. My god. Just looking at the picture gives me a strange sensation, part thrill, part horror.

That was followed by a 1951 Buick Roadmaster, which was followed by a 1958 Cadillac, then a 1967 Ford Fairlane, then a 1970 Chevelle Malibu, then a 1980 Ford Escort, then a 1988 Toyota Corolla, then a 1992 Subaru, then a 1998 Pontiac, then a 1997 Chevrolet Astro van (which I still have) and then a couple of 2008 Subarus purchased in New Mexico, one purchased in 2013 which was wrecked, the other purchased in 2016 which we still have. 

Sunday, April 14, 2019

I Used to be 1/4 Irish

But now Ancestry DNA says I'm more than half Irish -- including Scottish and Welsh -- and less than half "British" -- Britain, including large parts of France and Germany, and all of Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg. There is no other DNA heritage in my updated DNA scan.

Well. The initial DNA scan was 1/4 "Irish", 2/3 "British", and the rest an amalgam of "Iberian," "Eastern European," and "Scandinavian."

My father's paternal grandparents emigrated from Ireland in 1850 or so; his maternal grandparents emigrated from what had yet to become Germany a few years later. This we know from extensive records and tales told by firelight. We know where our immigrant ancestors came from and I've been able to trace their ancestors into the 18th century. They're not quite who/what I thought they were, but close enough.

On my mother's side, it's more complicated. Her father was killed when she was very young, and she knew almost nothing about him. I've been able to trace her mother's ancestors pretty well, though, and almost all of them are deep-rooted in America, some going back to the 1600s in New Jersey, and then further back into the deep mists of time in England. Yes, almost all her ancestors on her mother's side are English. There are some exceptions. There's the Indian Princess (well she might be, it's hard to say; some of her descendants vigorously dispute it) in the 1700s; there are one or two Irish or Scottish folks who married into the family in the 1800s. But apart from them, it's all English ancestry on my mother's mother's side all the way down.

On her father's side, from what I could find out, it's a good deal more ambiguous. Her father's mother superficially appears to have been of New England English stock, thoroughly English but long time in America, with no Scottish or Irish admixture. But I wonder... One of her great-grandmother's last name was Scott.

My mother's father's paternal ancestors though... I could not trace his ancestors back farther than 1798 when his paternal grandfather was born in Virginia. Frontier Virginia. His paternal grandmother was Irish. They moved to frontier Kentucky, then to frontier Indiana where they settled and some of their descendants still are. So according to an ancestry chart, my mother's father's father was half Irish, my mother's father would have been 1/4 Irish; my mother would have been 1/8th and a little bit (allowing for Irish and Scottish ancestors on her mother's side), and that contribution to my ancestry would have only slightly increased my "Irish" from 1/4 to maybe 27-30% -- if that, since the way DNA works, my mother's "Irish" contribution might not show up at all, and my father's could be less than 1/4.

So. How did I get to be more than 1/2 Irish all of a sudden? It should be impossible. I don't have enough Irish ancestors, nor am I aware of more than a few distant (possibly) Scottish ancestors. (Ancestry DNA lumps Irish, Scottish, and Welsh ancestry into one glorious Celtish mass not three.)

I've been puzzling and puzzling this dilemma for months, and I just can't make it work. I even tried the proposition that my father wasn't my father, than one of his cousins was, a cousin who would have had 100% Irish ancestry. I even had a candidate in mind. Trouble was, I share abundant DNA markers with descendants of my father's sister and brother who have done the DNA tests. So many markers that we are from DNA evidence alone first and second cousins. If one of my father's cousins (the son of his aunt) were my biological father (possible though not probable) I would be more "Irish" but I would not be as closely related to my cousins as apparently I am. I would be third or fourth cousin rather than first and second. And if another (100% Irish-ancestry) man, not my father's cousin, had been my biological father, I would be half or more "Irish," but my cousins would not be related to me at all.

So it's still insoluble.

I tried to prepare this post a month ago for St. Patrick's Day, but I got caught up in research and other things and never finished it. The dilemma has spurred me to look ever closer at my mother's ancestry and at the people and places in Ireland that my ancestors must have known. The story I'm piecing together is pretty amazing. Not quite what I thought, but not that different either.

And in all my DNA results -- originally and updated -- there is no sign of German ancestry at all. The "British" in my DNA includes the western quarter of Germany which is where my German ancestors lived, but my cousins -- descendants of my father's sister and brother -- show definite specific German markers. I don't. It's a mystery...

The church on the road in Ireland near where some of my Irish ancestors lived:

And here is the church in Galisteo, not far from where I live now:

Both were constructed c. 1810.