And now, we have China threatening ‘a large-scale war’

China's one and only aircraft carrier, which they bought used./U.S. Navy

China’s one and only aircraft carrier, which they bought used./U.S. Navy

Or rather, we have state-controlled media doing so, which is a signal I think we have to take seriously:

The US risks a “large-scale war” with China if it attempts to blockade islands in the South China Sea, Chinese state media has said, adding that if recent statements become policy when Donald Trump takes over as president “the two sides had better prepare for a military clash”.

China has controversially built fortifications and artificial islands across the South China Sea. Rex Tillerson, Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, said China’s “access to those islands … is not going to be allowed”.

China claims nearly the entire area, with rival claims by five south-east Asian neighbours and Taiwan.

Tillerson did not specify how the US would block access but experts agreed it could only be done by a significant show of military force. Tillerson likened China’s island building to “Russia’s taking of Crimea”.

“Tillerson had better bone up on nuclear power strategies if he wants to force a big nuclear power to withdraw from its own territories,” said an editorial in the Global Times, a Communist-party controlled newspaper….

I’m not disagreeing with anything Tillerson said, mind you — and it’s not all that different from the policy followed by the Obama administration — but the current situation is fraught.

On a previous post about Nikki Haley, Phillip Bush said:

That’s going to be a tough job, representing the views of the United States to the United Nations and the world when your own Administration is going to be one squabbling, Tweeting, contradictory, capricious, incoherent mess, especially on foreign policy. Her greatest challenge will come not from fellow delegates at the UN or on the Security Council, but trying to sort out and gracefully convey the day-to-day contradictions emanating from the government she is appointed to represent….

Yep.

One of the main narratives of this week has been that Trump’s nominees are not toeing the Trump line, particularly on foreign policy. Which in one way is encouraging (the nominees’ take is usually far wiser and better-informed), but in another way can lead to chaotic, incoherent policy, an unstable situation in which an unstable personality (hint, hint) can trigger an international crisis, perhaps even war, with a phone call — or a Tweet.

I have little doubt that Nikki Haley will conduct herself “gracefully,” but I do worry quite a bit about a diplomatic novice representing us on the Security Council without expert supervision and direction. That said, in a crisis, Nikki would be the least of my worries. And of course, the new POTUS would be my greatest.

What if, sometime after next Friday, Chinese state media issues a blustering threat like that, and includes some less-than-flattering reflections on Trump himself? How do you suppose he’ll react? And who will be able to contain him? And will they be in time?

Did y’all watch Nikki’s State of the State? Thoughts?

15977395_10154298333428226_5727442610324759310_n

File photo from the governor’s Facebook page.

CAVEAT: When I wrote this post I had missed something important in the governor’s speech, something that had come during the part I missed. It has bearing on the points I make in the post, and here it is.

I had a Community Relations Council meeting last night, so I only heard the very last part of Nikki Haley’s last State of the State on the radio driving home.

It sounded fine, as fond farewells go. I was a little disappointed by one thing. I heard her talking in a roundabout, indirect way about getting the Confederate flag down:

But above all, I will remember how the good people of South Carolina responded to those tragedies, with love and generosity and compassion, and what that has meant for our state.

I spoke earlier of my dear desire to see the image of South Carolina changed for the better. Standing here tonight, I can say with every confidence that it has happened, that that desire has been fulfilled.

But not because of me. The people of South Carolina accomplished the highest aspiration I had for our state all on their own.

They did it by showing the entire world what love and acceptance looks like. They did it by displaying for all to see the power of faith, of kindness, and of forgiveness. They did it by stepping up to every challenge, through every tragedy, every time.

But I wish she’d spoken about it more directly. When I got a copy of her speech later, I found that it only contained the word “flag” once, and that was in reference to the Clemson flag she and her daughter had hoisted over the State House earlier this week. (NOTE: This counts officially as a sports reference, and fulfills the weekly quota! So if y’all want to talk about that football game the other night, here’s a place for you to do it.)

Which disappointed me. Why? Because I think getting that other flag down was her defining moment, the one when she became the leader of South Carolina, and led us to where our lawmakers had refused for too long to go.

Did you see Obama’s farewell speech the other night? He mentioned getting bin Laden, didn’t he? Of course he did. That’s when he made his bones as commander-in-chief. Well, the flag was when Nikki made hers, only as leader of a mature, rational state where people may not forget, but they forgive, and care about each other.

Yeah, I get that she wanted her speech to be sweetness and light, and didn’t want to say anything that stirred ill feeling — and there are those who resent taking down the flag, although they’ve mostly been fairly quiet. And it seems safe to assume there’s a bit of a correlation between those folks and the set that voted for her soon-to-be boss.

But that was her proudest moment. I think it’s easy for people to downplay her role, but I’m telling you, I’ve known too many governors who didn’t want to touch that flag, or even talk about it. And I’ve known others who started to do something, but backed away, or accepted a “compromise” that settled nothing — because they saw that as the best they could get out of our Legislature. And maybe they were right, at the time.

But the thing that Nikki did was recognize the moment when it came, and seize it without hesitation. (That’s a huge part of leadership — recognizing when people are ready to be led. One of the secrets of Lincoln’s extraordinary achievements was his uncanny ability to see exactly when he could lead the country to do things it had always refused to do before.)

It was a moment in which the whole state was in shock and morning. And there were those who protested that this wasn’t the time to act, before the dead had even been buried. But sometimes that exactly when one must act, because later would be much too late.

When she stood up and said, essentially, Let’s not let this summer pass without getting that flag down for good — no fooling around, no compromises, that made all the difference. It made what had been impossible possible, and made it happen.

So if she’d wanted to speak to that directly, I’d have applauded. Because I’m proud of her for that.

She didn’t have to brag or anything. She could have stuck to her theme of “I didn’t do it; y’all did.” And that’s true, in the sense that our state was ready to be led there. But without someone strenuously pushing it through the Legislature, it wouldn’t have happened.

I’ll close with that video my son did after the first anti-flag rally after the shootings, the one I did the voiceover on. It testifies to a mood sweeping through our state. But I still said, it took what Nikki did to translate that into action…

Tim Scott’s celebrated one-word burn

I read about this in The State this morning, but it really didn’t make any sense without the original Tweet:

Tim Scott is the first black Republican U.S. senator from the South since Reconstruction and the only black Republican in the Senate at the moment. He also has announced he will vote for Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions to become the next attorney general.IPwQ2WC9

Given the allegations of racism that have followed Sessions since he was denied a federal judgeship in 1986, Scott’s decision to support him has been met with plenty of criticism.

And lots of that criticism has come online, especially on Twitter, where Scott has 162,000 followers. But one tweet in particular annoyed Scott. User @Simonalisa blasted Scott and former Sessions aide William Smith by referring to them using a racial slur….

“So I thought it was a good time to tell people what I thought.”…

The original Tweet and the account that produced it had been deleted, but I found a reTweet that reproduced it:

OK, now I get it.

Well played, senator.

I miss Garrison Keillor

garrison_keillor_96

Saturday, the radio in our kitchen was on at 6 p.m., and when “Prairie Home Companion” came on… we turned it off.

Instead of turning it up, which is what we usually would have done, ever since we started listening to it out in Kansas in the ’80s.

It’s just not the same without Garrison Keillor. That deep, mellifluous, soothing voice, speaking of things that prompted nostalgia and peaceful reflection on the human condition, was what the show was about. I appreciated that the new guy made a joke in the first show about his high, piping voice, but you know, after a bit it’s not funny. I’ve lost my reason to listen.

Keillor is still writing. But frankly, I’ve never liked his writing quite as much on a page or screen — I prefer to hear him say it. Also, his unspoken stuff tends to be more political, and he’s such a doctrinaire liberal that a lot of stuff he says is a bit off-putting to me.

But… I find that if I can imagine him reading it, I’m fine with it. And this latest piece in The Washington Post yesterday made it very easy to hear the voice. It was gentle, it was kind, it was reassuring, unassuming and forgiving. And when you write in a voice like that, I can handle pretty much anything you have to say. An excerpt:

Face it, Southerners are nicer people

I’ve been down in South Carolina and Georgia, an old Northern liberal in red states, enjoying a climate like April in January and the hospitality of gracious, soft-spoken people, many of whom voted for He Who Does Not Need Intelligence, but they didn’t bring it up, so neither did I.

I walked into Jestine’s Kitchen in Charleston, and a waitress said, “Is there just one of you, sweetheart?” and her voice was like jasmine and teaberry. There was just one of me, though I wished there were two and she was the other one. She showed me to a table — “Have a seat, sweetheart, I’ll be right with you.” Liberal waitpersons up north would no more call you “sweetheart” than they would kiss you on the lips, and if you called one of them “sweetheart” she might hand you your hat. I ordered the fried chicken with collard greens and mashed potatoes and gravy and read a front-page story in the Charleston Post and Courier about a Republican state legislator charged with a felony for allegedly beating his wife in front of their weeping children, and then the waitress brought the food and I dug in and it was luminous, redemptive, all that chicken and gravy could be. If this is what Makes America Great Again, I am all for it….

I thought to myself, “A person could live in a town like this.” I’ve spent time with people whose politics agreed with mine and who were cold fish indeed and now that I’m elderly and have time on my hands, maybe I’d enjoy hanging out with amiable sweet-talking right-wingers. I’m just saying….

Indeed. And I miss hanging out with him on Saturday evenings…

(It’s fun when Yankees find us so captivating. Reminds me of the one year I lived above the Mason-Dixon line growing up. I attended second grade in Woodbury, NJ. I read more fluently than most 2nd-graders, and once a teacher heard me read aloud, she started lending me to other classes to read to the kids. I was happy to oblige. They thought my accent was so charming. They looked upon me as a pint-sized Ashley Wilkes, and that kind of thing can make a certain sort of Yankee lady just swoon.)

Wishing Bryan and Kathryn joy of their birthday

not-quite-famous

I already knew thanks to Facebook that today was the birthday of two blog stars, Bryan Caskey and Kathryn Fenner.

Then Bryan told us it’s Alexander Hamilton’s special day, as well. (We know what his birthday was; it’s the year that’s in doubt.) You know, the Broadway star.

I thought I’d do a post about ALL the distinguished people born on this day, but when I Googled it, I got this ridiculous site that listed Hamilton, and a bunch of people I’ve never heard of. See the sample above. I had been hoping for famous people. Was that list put together by a bot from Teen Beat?

Wikipedia took the question more seriously, and yielded up:

Now, see, that’s some distinguished company! A Roman emperor — well, you can’t say fairer than that! And I honor DeVoto as editor of Mark Twain’s papers. And who is cooler than Clarence Clemons?

In any case, happy birthday to all, especially Kathryn and Bryan. I give you joy.

Oh, and a special blog welcome to Colton, Bud’s 6th grandchild!

That's me on the left, Doug on the right, and our birthday kids in the middle, at the 2013 Walk for Life. They were younger then...

That’s me on the left, Doug on the right, and our birthday kids in the middle, at the 2013 Walk for Life. They were younger then…

All the President-Elect’s Men

Remember the last scene of “All the President’s Men?” If you don’t, you can watch it above.

Pretty powerful. On a television on a desk in the newsroom of The Washington Post, Richard Nixon is seen triumphant, being inaugurated for the second time as president. In the background, across the newsroom, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (OK — Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, really) are not watching the event, because they’re too busy pounding out one of the stories that will bring Nixon down.

We experienced a moment like that tonight. In a prelude to the inauguration of Donald Trump next week, President Barack Obama was delivering a particularly graceful valedictory address — our last worthy, fit president reminding us of the values that America is supposed to be about. The feeling of the passing of American greatness was palpable. We had a good run there, for 44 presidents. Or 43, if you leave out James Buchanan.

Half of Twitter — including me (you can go peruse my Tweets) — was writing about that. The other half was writing about this, which corresponds to the counterpoint of Woodstein hammering away at the story that will doom the new president. Check this out:

Or this version:

Or, if you’re into the salacious, this:

Wow. I mean, just… wow.

This is early. The picture is incomplete. There’s always the chance that, as Trump claims, this is “FAKE NEWS – A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!” After all, there’s a lot of that going around lately.

But I have never, ever heard of allegations like this, however flimsy, being made about anyone about to become president of the United States. That alone makes this unprecedented.

The report alleges that, while Trump turned down some sweet deals offered by the Russians, “he and his inner circle have accepted a regular flow of intelligence from the Kremlin, including on his Democratic and other political rivals.” Yeah, and “FSB has compromised Trump through his activities in Moscow sufficiently to be able to blackmail him.”

Who knows at this point what’s true? For their part, though, our top intelligence chiefs found it worthy of passing on to the current and future presidents last week.

Here’s a caveat in The Guardian‘s story:

Despite glowing references from US and foreign officials who have worked with the source, there are some errors in the reports. One describes the Moscow suburb of Barvikha as “reserved for the residences of the top leadership and their close associates”, but although it is a very expensive neighbourhood, there are no restrictions on who can own property there. The document also misspells the name of a Russian banking corporation…

Must give us pause. But speaking of misspellings, The Guardian mentioned “Senator Lyndsey Graham” in the same story.

I don’t know where this is going to go. But it feels like one of those moments. You know, like in the movie…

hqdefault

Well, that didn’t take long: Roof sentenced to death

Well, that didn’t take long, in the end:

So after all the buildup to the trial, and the lengthy trial itself, the jury made short work of the matter. It took less than three hours for them to decide.

We’ve known he did it since the day after the massacre itself. Now we’re done with the formalities, except for one.

What to say? Well, I don’t believe in the death penalty, but if you’re going to have one, this is what it’s for.

If I have any further objection, it is this: I wish he was receiving this sentence purely for the nine horrific murders he committed rather than for “hate crimes.” It worries me to see the United States of America put someone to death for his attitudes, however abominable they are. It almost belittles the enormity of what he did, by shifting part of our emphasis from the killing of innocents to punishing political views. (This is one of my few areas of agreement with libertarians.)

But when his execution comes, I guess it’s sort of moot what we call the crime. Once he’s dead, that’s it. He won’t do that any more.

This was a weird day in the courtroom, with Roof’s bizarre address to the jury that dramatically demonstrated why it’s a terrible idea to represent yourself. After supposedly taking over his defense because he didn’t want evidence introduced that point to insanity, he said, “Um, I think it’s safe to say that no one in their right mind wants to go into a church and kill people.”

His soliloquy included other weirdness, such as:

“Wouldn’t it be fair to say that the prosecution hates me?” Roof said, noting that prosecutors were seeking the death penalty.

Roof told the jury they might think, ” ‘Of course they hate you; everyone hates you. They have good reason to hate you.’ I don’t deny it.”…

We’ll never really known what made this guy tick. And perhaps that’s a blessing…

Of course, we don’t know the Russians DIDN’T win it for Trump, either — and that’s the genius in what they did

As serious people do everything they can to persuade Donald Trump and his followers that they must take the Russian attack on the bedrock of our democracy seriously, they keep stressing, in the most soothing tones they can muster:

We’re not saying the Russians threw the election to Trump. We’re saying they tried to, and that’s something that must be taken seriously, however you voted…

I’ve done the same thing here, repeatedly, although with no discernible effect.

And I and others will keep on saying it, because it’s true: We don’t know, we can’t know, whether Russian meddling actually threw the election to Trump.

Of course, there’s an unstated second side to that coin. If we don’t know Putin decided the election, we don’t know that he didn’t, either.

And that’s the side of the coin that I think everyone sort of instinctively understands, and which therefore makes this conversation so difficult.

Here’s the problem: It was a close election, so close that Hillary Clinton lost the Electoral College while winning the popular vote. That means any one of a number of factors could, by itself, account for the losing margin.

In other words, it’s not only possible but perhaps likely that all of the following elements had to be present to get Trump to an Electoral College win:

  • Let’s start with the biggie: The fact that the Democrats nominated the most hated major-party nominee in modern history, except for Donald Trump himself. This is the major factor that, while it couldn’t give him the win (since he was despised even more), it kept him in the game from the start. All other factors after this are minor, but remember: the whole thing was so close that it’s possible that every minor factor had to be present as well.
  • Clinton’s private server. Assuming this had to be present, she doomed herself years ago.
  • Her fainting spell. Here the Russians were, working like crazy to spread rumors about her health, and a moment of human weakness hands them this beautifully wrapped gift.
  • Comey’s on-again, off-again investigations. I’m not saying he was trying to sabotage the election, but if he had been, his timing couldn’t have been better.
  • The anti-qualifications madness sweeping through the electorate across the political spectrum. This populist surge produced both Trump and Bernie. In this election, solid credentials were a handicap. And poor Hillary had a great resume, as resumes have historically been judged.
  • The Russian operation, which gave us a drip-drip-drip of embarrassments (none of which would have amounted to anything alone) with the hacked emails, and a really masterful disinformation campaign as Russians blended into the crowd of alt-right rumormongers.

Could Trump still have won if you took away the Russian efforts — or the FBI investigations, or Hillary’s pneumonia, or any other factor? Well, we don’t know. We can’t know — an individual decision to vote a certain way is composed of all sorts of factors. I can’t give you a breakdown, with percentages, weighting every factor that goes into my own voting decisions — even though I’ve had all that practice over the years explaining endorsements. So I certainly couldn’t do it in assessing the decisions of millions of voters out there. And there’s no way to correlate the effect of any single factor meaningfully with the actual vote totals in the states Trump won.

So we don’t know, do we? The Russians think they know, which is why our intelligence establishment detected them high-fiving each other over Trump’s victory. But they can’t know, either. They certainly didn’t know they’d accomplished their goal before the vote, because they were geared up to sow doubts about the legitimacy of what they expected to be a Clinton victory.

It’s safe to say Trump wouldn’t have won if those other factors hadn’t been present. But I don’t see how we will ever know whether Russian meddling put him over the top.

And as much as anything, that is the most brilliant stroke by the Russians. The effect of what they did can’t be measured. Consequently, they have us doubting ourselves, flinging accusations about motives and completely divided in our perception of reality. We’ll probably be fighting over this for as long as this election is remembered.

I’ve mentioned this before, but I will again, for Bryan’s sake if no one else’s: In the Patrick O’Brian novels he and I enjoy so much, a favorite toast for Royal Navy officers in the early 19th century was “Confusion to Bonaparte,” or just, “Confusion to Boney.”

The ideal codename for the Russian operation messing with our election would be “Confusion to America.” Because there’s no doubt that they have achieved that

"Confusion to Boney!"

“Confusion to Boney!”

The election stats that I apparently never wrote about

2016-glimpse

Click on the image to download the spreadsheet.

I think I’m losing my mind (and yeah, I know; some of you will present evidence that this happened a LONG time ago).

Let me apologize in advance if I wrote this post before. I thought I had, but I can’t seem to find it. So here goes, perhaps again…

About a week after the election, Cindi Scoppe wrote about the terrible won-loss record of the candidates that The State had endorsed in 2016:

Two-thirds of the candidates our editorial board endorsed in last week’s election lost. We have never seen numbers like that since I joined the board in 1997 — and as far as I can tell for decades before that. Normally, it’s more like 25 percent….

Of course, all that means was that two candidates lost, as the paper had only endorsed in three races in the general, instead of the usual 10 or 20 that we’d back in the days when we had the staff to do it.

But taken as a percentage (which is a pretty meaningless thing to do with a sample of three), I’m sure it was a bitter pill. I wondered why Cindi hadn’t offered the running total from over the years to show just how much of an anomaly that was. Apparently, she just didn’t have the numbers at hand. But I did, at least through 2008, my last election at the paper. And it just took a few minutes to update the table with results from 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2016.

Why did I have those numbers? Because in 2004, I got fed up. We’d hear from bitter candidates who did not get our nod who claimed that they didn’t want it anyway, because our endorsement was “the kiss of death.” Well, I knew this wasn’t true, not by a long shot. (I also knew by their behavior that these very people were usually quite eager to get our endorsement, until they didn’t. Then it was sour-grapes time.) But I didn’t know how wrong they were. I didn’t have numbers.

Then there was the other problem: Democrats regularly claimed that we only endorsed Republicans, and vice versa. I knew that was untrue, too (any casual, unbiased observer knew better than that). But again, I couldn’t quantify it.

I had resisted keeping track of such things in the past, for a couple of reasons. First, endorsements were arguments as to who should win, not predictions of who would win. A lot of people failed to understand that, and would demonstrate their lack of understanding by saying we got it “wrong” when our endorsee lost. No, we didn’t. We weren’t trying to make a prediction. And why would we have kept track of how many Dems or Repubs we backed, when we didn’t care about party?

But as I said, I was fed up, and I wanted to lay all the lies to rest permanently. So I dove into our musty archives for several hours, and came up with every general-election endorsement we had done starting with the 1994 election. Why that date? Because that was my first election as a member of the editorial board, and since then we’d had 100 percent turnover on the board — so it was ridiculous to hold any of us responsible for editorial decisions made before that date.

And I stuck to general elections, to keep it simple. After all, that’s the only time one is choosing between Democrats and Republicans. And digging up the primary endorsements would have taken more than twice as much time. I’ll acknowledge this freely, though: Our won-loss numbers wouldn’t have been as good if I’d tried to include primaries, because we were staunch centrists, and primary voters tend to have more extreme tastes than we did.

What I found in 2004 was that since 1994, about 75 percent of “our” candidates had won, and we’d endorsed almost exactly as many Democrats are Republicans. I updated the numbers after the 2006 and 2008 elections.

Anyway, after Cindi’s column, I updated my spreadsheet with numbers from the years since I’d left the paper, including 2016, and here’s what I found:

The running percentage of “wins” had dropped slightly since 2008, with 72.26277372 percent of endorsees winning since 1994. Even though the paper had a big year in 2014, with eight out of 10 endorsees winning. (When I had first compiled the numbers in 2004, our batting average was .753.)

The partisan split became more nearly even. As of 2008, we were favoring Democrats slightly with 52.6 percent of endorsements going to them. Now, that’s down to 50.37 percent, about as dead-even as you can get: 68 Democrats, 67 Republicans and one independent since 1994. The paper has favored Republicans 13-8 since I left.

Anyway, since I’d gone to the trouble of running the numbers, I had meant to write a post about it. If I did before now, I can’t find it. So here you go…

Here’s the spreadsheet.

Graham to any Republican who discounts Russian actions: “You are a political hack.”

Some excerpts from Lindsey Graham’s appearance on “Meet the Press” on Sunday:

All I’m asking [President-elect Trump] is to acknowledge that Russia interfered [in our election] and push back. It could be Iran next time, it could be China. It was Democrats today, it could be Republicans in the next election….

Our lives are built around the idea that we’re free people, that we go to the ballot box, that we have political contests outside of foreign interference. You can’t go on with your life as a democracy when a foreign entity is trying to compromise the election process. So Mr. President-elect, it is very important that you show leadership here….

We should all – Republicans and Democrats – condemn Russia for what they did. To my Republican friends who are gleeful: you’re making a huge mistake. When WikiLeaks released information during the Bush years about the Iraq War that was embarrassing to the administration, that put our troops at risk, most Democrats condemned it, some celebrated it. Most Republicans are condemning what Russia did, and to those who are gleeful about it, you’re a political hack. You’re not a Republican, you’re not a patriot. If this is not about us, then I’ll never know what will be about us. Because when one party is compromised, all of us are compromised….

graham-still

What’s in a name: ‘Horse-Swapping Billy Smith’

My ancestor was sort of an Eastern version of a Pony Express rider.

My ancestor, I take it, was sort of an Eastern version of a Pony Express rider.

Made a lot of progress on the family tree over the weekend. I started on a trove of material on my son-in-law’s family that my daughter brought back from Tulsa over the holidays, and added more than 70 of his kin to the tree — thereby giving my twin granddaughters a nice start on knowing that side of their heritage.

I spent the rest of my time filling in recent gaps in my own side of the family. No delving back into the Middle Ages — no Strongbow or Ragnar or Charlemagne; I stuck to the realm of great and great-great grandparents. I even added a few people who are still alive (which I find are much harder to get basic information on than dead people — although Facebook has made it easier to find photos of them). Recently I’ve discovered that, since I now know a lot more about searching the Web for clues, I’m often able to quickly identify connections that eluded me in the past.

Also, I finally gave in and paid for a six-month membership to Ancestry.com, so I was pretty much drinking data from a firehose with regard to the last century or two. (I only signed up for the U.S. data, so I don’t get anything about ancestors before they crossed the Pond.)

Here’s my favorite discovery of the weekend: My great-great-great grandfather William Burns Smith, who was born in 1803 in North Carolina, and died in Marion County, SC, in 1897. He was my mother’s mother’s mother’s father’s father.

I had already known who he was, and he had already been on my tree. But over the weekend I discovered the fun part: He was known as “Horse-swapping Billy Smith.”

I love finding an ancestor with a catchy sobriquet, such as “Strongbow” or “Shaggy-Breeches.” This one came with a fun anecdote. Horse-Swapping Billy delivered the mail by horseback between Marion and Bennettsville (the town where I was born). The local postmaster was sufficiently impressed by the job he did that he bothered to record this story:

“There is another family of Smiths, below Marion, which I understand is in no way related to those hereinabove noticed – I refer to the late William B. Smith and his family. He, as it is said, came when young from North Carolina, and settled below Reedy Creek Baptist Church, on an apparently poor place; he was called “Horse-swapping Billy Smith” — he was a great horse trader, and in that respect his mantle has fallen upon his sons, Nat. P. and Henry…

William B. Smith, away back in the 50’s, carried the mail on horseback from Marion to Bennettsville, by way of Catfish, Reedy Creek, Harlleesville, Selkirk, Brownesville and Clio to Bennettsville, and back the same route, once a week — at which time the writer was postmaster at Reedy Creek; he went up one day and came back the next; sometimes one of his boys, James or Nat, would carry it.

The writer remembers on one occasion, the old gentleman went up; his horse sickened and died at Bennettsville, and the next day Mr. Smith came back, walking and carrying the mail bags on his shoulders, and went on to Marion that evening. I suppose he was then fifty years of age, and the distance traveled on his zig-zag route was at least sixty miles. One of the men of the present day, much younger than Mr. Smith, would not think of such a trip. Mr. Smith had much of the “get up” in him, and whatever he undertook to do, he did it, and if he failed it was no fault of his; he was accustomed to labor and hardship, hence it did not hurt him….

I love it! There was no keeping Horse-Swapping Billy down! He was just full of the “get up!” And it he failed at anything, don’t blame him, because you know he gave it 110 percent!

My frustration, though, is that the chronicler doesn’t bother to explain fully why he was known as “Horse-Swapping Billy.” In what way was he “a great horse-trader?” Did he have a side business in horse-trading, or was he into it as a hobby? Or was it a broader metaphor, as in he was a guy good at making deals, whether they literally had to do with horses or not? Or, like the Pony Express riders of about that time, did he swap horses at various points on his mail route? If so, he should have made a swap before he got to Bennettsville that one time.

It’s a small thing to give me such delight, but it’s stuff like this that keeps me going with this hobby…

When I discovered this, I called my uncle (who lives in Bennettsville) to share, but to my disappointment he already knew about Horse-Swapping Billy. But we got onto other family matters, and he told me that he’d always heard that the Browns way back on his mother’s side of the family were at some point connected to the Browns on his father’s side.

And… here’s the good part… ultimately they’re supposedly all related to the legendary “Cut-Face” Brown.

I spent an hour or so digging around, but didn’t arrive. I’ll look again when I have time. I’ve just got to find out how I’m related to a guy with a name like that

Just to get us in the right mood for the snow…

I’ve got to stop by the Food Lion to make some routine purchases for the weekend, and I’m already dreading having to fight the “Oh, my God; we’re all gonna die!” crowd stocking up on bread and such because the world will be coming to an end with a few flakes of snow.

So I rewatched the video above, to get me into a mood for laughing at the situation…

Apple stiffs America, kowtows to the Chinese

apple_logo_png_06

Remember how Apple told the U.S. government to take a hike when it made a perfectly legitimate request for help in a terrorism investigation?

By contrast, here’s how the company reacts when China asks it to help oppress the Chinese people:

BEIJING — Apple has removed the New York Times app from its digital store in China, acting on what it says were orders from the Chinese government.

The New York Times, which offers content in both English and Chinese, is one of a growing number of foreign news organizations whose content is blocked in China, although some people here use special software to bypass the censorship system.

The Times said the app was removed from Apple stores on Dec. 23, apparently under regulations issued in June preventing mobile apps from engaging in activities that endanger national security or disrupt social order.

That occurred as New York Times reporter David Barboza was in the final stages of reporting a story about billions of dollars in hidden perks and subsidies the Chinese government provides to the world’s largest iPhone factory, run by Apple’s partner Foxconn. That story went online on Dec. 29….

Will Graham and McCain stand alone against Trump on intel?

Donald Trump’s insistence on doubting intel indicating that the Russians tried to tip the election in his favor is a remarkable instance of his flaws coming together over one issue.

Combine his lack of faith in people who obviously know more than he does (a large set) with his inferiority complex (in this case, his touchiness over the suggestion that anything other than his own wonderfulness won the election for him), and you have a guy willing to sacrifice the nation’s intelligence-gathering apparatus for the sake of his own fragile ego. This, of course, takes petty self-absorption to a level previously unseen in U.S. history.

Which is, you know, a pretty good illustration of why it was utterly insane for anyone to consider for a moment voting for him to be president of the United States. But that’s water under the bridge, right? This is the irrational world in which we now live.

I was a bit encouraged when I saw this headline leading The Washington Post this morning: “Trump’s criticism of intelligence on Russia is dividing Hill GOP.” An excerpt:

McCain will hold a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Thursday on “foreign cyber threats” that is expected to center on Russia. Intelligence officials — including Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr., Defense Undersecretary for Intelligence Marcel J. Lettre II and U.S. Cyber Command and National Security Agency Director Michael S. Rogers — will testify, and some Republicans are hoping they will present evidence that Russia meddled in the elections.

“The point of this hearing is to have the intelligence community reinforce, from their point of view, that the Russians did this,” Graham said. “You seem to have two choices now — some guy living in an embassy, on the run from the law for rape, who has a history of undermining American democracy and releasing classified information to put our troops at risk, or the 17 intelligence agencies sworn to defend us. I’m going with them.”

Graham was referring to Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder accused of helping Russia leak emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee….

Unfortunately, it’s not much of a split, going by this story. So far, it looks a bit like another case of John McCain and our own Lindsey Graham standing on the side of reason and national security, and too many others cowering, unwilling to tell the incoming emperor the obvious: that he has no clothes, and that it’s not a good look for him.

Sure, McConnell has spoken up in the past, and Marco Rubio might get on board with McCain and Graham. And Paul Ryan, bless him, had the presence of mind to call that Assange creep a “sycophant for Russia.”

But only time will tell whether the GOP Congress will live up to its obligation to check and balance the absurdities of our president-elect…

On the downside, Trump will still be president in October

Had to smile at this news from The Washington Post this morning:

proxy

Will the mysterious shadow planet Nibiru obliterate Earth in October? No.

If all goes according to wild conjecture, planet Earth and the planet Nibiru are set to collide in the autumn, twin cosmic shooters in a game of apocalyptic marbles. Nibiru is playing for keeps, bringing sinkholes, fire storms and the general annihilation of life as we know it. As with many conspiracy theories, though, this one has a fatal factual flaw. The closest thing Nibiru has had to an existence was a cameo in a 2013 Star Trek film. There is not, in reality, a planet called Nibiru boldly zooming through our solar frontier….

Here was this thing I had not worried about a bit, because I had never heard about it. (It’s one of those things like “the world’s gonna end in 2012” — remember that one?) And now they were telling me not to worry about it.

But don’t bother to celebrate our deliverance. Scientists also predict that, on the downside, Donald Trump will be president of the United States in October 2017.

They give with one hand, and take away with the other…

Ladies who lunch: Real-life Rosie the Riveter and friends

imrs

Women employed as wipers in the roundhouse eat their lunch in the break room of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad in Clinton, Iowa, in April 1943. (Jack Delano/Library of Congress/Courtesy of Taschen)

As you know, some of the more creative ways FDR tried to get the economy going again were pretty cool.

We’re all familiar with at least some of the work done by photographers under the auspices of the Resettlement Administration, such as Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother.”

Well, there were color photos, too, and they’re all stored at the Library of Congress.

The Washington Post brought some of them to our attention this morning, with this explanation:

A new book by Peter Walther, called “New Deal Photography. USA 1935-1943 (Taschen, 2016) brings together a comprehensive survey of the work done by the FSA, including that more rarely seen color work. From street scenes to pictures of field laborers and train yards, these images show us what the United States looked like in a bygone era, one rife with economic struggle. Here are a few of the incredible images produced by photographers Marion Post Wolcott, Jack Delano, John Vachon, Fenno Jacobs and Russell Lee.

Be sure to go check them out.

The “Rosie the Riveter” photo above was to me the most striking of the lot. It’s just so perfect — the women’s work clothes being right out of a poster — it seems staged. But I don’t think it was…

‘Sherlock’ jumped the shark some time back

sherlock-154-v-facebook1200-0e09d9_ragp-1920

The series started out promisingly enough.

In the first season, I found “Sherlock” fun, clever and refreshing.

Normally, I look askance at efforts to “update” perfectly good stories, unless they are exceedingly well done. For instance, give me Franco Zeffirelli’s temporally faithful 1968 version of “Romeo and Juliet” with the perfect casting of Olivia Hussey as Juliet (a girl actually almost young enough for the part — and what young Romeo would not have fallen for her?), not the execrable (right down to the title) “Romeo + Juliet” of 1996.

On the other hand, give me Ethan Hawke’s brooding young updated “Hamlet,” with his usurping uncle being the head of “Denmark Corporation,” over the versions with the absurdly ancient Kenneth Branagh (36) or Mel Gibson (34) in the title role. OK, Hawke was 30, but didn’t look it. And his characters’ obsession with shooting avant-garde video of himself and the other characters worked perfectly with Hamlet’s introspection.

Despite what I say about Branagh and Gibson, I can even overlook demographically creative casting, such as the Nigerian-Jewish Sophie Okonedo in the recent “The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses”… when they pull it off. I thought she was scary good as Margaret of Anjou.

But enough Shakespeare; back to my topic… At the outset, I thought the “Sherlock” update worked. The folks who made it did fun things with Sherlock’s use of his smartphone and Watson’s blog, and the Guy-Ritchie-style cinematographic gimmicks were more fun than distracting.

The early episodes, from “A Study in Pink” through “A Scandal in Belgravia,” are true to the essence of the Holmes canon (and sometimes even to the letter — I was startled, when I went back and read “A Study in Scarlet,” that the original Watson actually was an Army doctor trying to get over his experiences in Afghanistan), while introducing 21st-century elements that work, and freshen up the formula. And as the story wore on, I was delighted with the wonderfully idiosyncratic Moriarty created by Andrew Scott.

But then… the writers of the show started running out of legitimate ideas. This was fully evident in the first episode of the third season, with the explanation of how Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock wasn’t really dead. Something was just… off about it.

This offness really went over the Reichenbach Falls when we learned Mary Morstan’s big secret. That, as much as anything, was the moment when the shark looked up and saw the Fonz’s motorcycle flying over the tank.

This was insulting to the plot, to the characters and to viewers’ intelligence for a number of reasons, such as:

  • The basis of Watson’s relationship with her — and therefore the explanation of her role in the protagonists’ lives — was that he had fallen for the person she had seemed to be. And now she was an entirely other person — an unrealistically sinister person. And yet the relationships continue on their merry way.
  • This was a fantasy character, and not in the Sherlock Holmes mode of fantasy (a cerebral sort of fantasy, in which we pretend we believe that an eccentric genius actually could deduce those facts from such thin, subtle clues without erring), a sort of fantasy that works in a Victorian/Edwardian drawing room. This character sought to out-Bond James Bond, and folks, there is no such person out there as James Bond to begin with — or Jason Bourne, either. What real spies do is George Smiley boring. (At least, boring to adolescents. I find Smiley fascinating.)
  • She’s not some super-athlete, but a middle-aged woman, who is just barely young enough to have a baby. Nothing about the actress or the character speaks to “superhero.”

Yeah, I realize I’m running up against the feminist imperative here. The original Mary Morstan, in the Arthur Conan Doyle stories, was a realistic young woman of her era, a former governess, a damsel in distress very much in need of our heroes’ aid. And feminists hate that kind of character, which means the entertainment industry hates that kind of character. So she becomes a superwoman. And ta-da!, the men are no longer driving the action.

Fine. But make it semi-believable. Make the next Luke Skywalker a girl rather than a boy, but make it work (all things are possible with the Force). Sell it to me. I fully believed in the deadliness of the original “La Femme Nikita.” That worked. But stop and think a bit before you do it. I wouldn’t believe Watson as some sort of super double-naught spy/assassin. So why do you think it works with his wife?

But this wildly unbelievable Mary Morstan isn’t the problem — she’s just a dramatic illustration of the problem.

The problem is perfectly seen in the moment, in the new episode aired Sunday after months of hype, when a group of super-assassins dressed like ninjas (one of them being Mary, by the way, although that’s not important to my point), come rappelling down from the rafters into a hostage situation, spraying automatic-rifle fire in all directions.

Yes, there was violence in the original Holmes stories. This sort of violence: As they hastily left the flat on Baker Street in response to the game being afoot, Holmes would suggest Watson slip his ancient revolver into the pocket of his mac, just in case — a revolver Watson would produce and train on the villain in the denouement, causing the baddie to become completely passive while Holmes explains how he figured it all out.

The “action” was civilized and human-scale. It was about what went on in Holmes’ head, not “Fast and Furious”-style whizbang.

In other words, more Smiley than Bond.

The makers of “Sherlock” seemed to understand that at first. Then they lost their way…

Please, Sherlock -- lose the ninjas.

Please, Sherlock — lose the ninjas.

Yo, this is the news we GOT, so quit yer bellyachin’…

Increasingly, folks from various walks of life — but particularly those in various areas of media and communications — feel a need to apologize or at least commiserate with their audiences, to do what they can to soften the pain of living in the post-Nov. 8 world.

So a certain tone has crept into the unlikeliest places. Check this, from an email message seeking entries for a photographic retrospective on 2016:

american-photography

Basically, We acknowledge your trauma (your “trepidation and uncertainty”), but do us a favor and see it you can pull it together long enough to send us some content, however unpleasant the subject matter

But that wasn’t nearly as blunt or to the point as an ad I got on my iPad recently, promoting a Reuters TV app. See below. (Hey, we know this news sucks, but it’s what we got. We wish he had better but we don’t, so quit yer bellyachin’, sit still and watch it…)

Hey, folks, don’t worry. Donald Trump is a really smart guy, and is already telling our intelligence experts things they were clueless about… oh, wait — that wasn’t actual news. That was The Onion

reuters

Belated Top Five List: Best Christmas toys ever

15726431_10208249181372897_2002329340568424216_n

Technically, this list is not late, as this is the ninth day of Christmas. In any case, I didn’t see the inspiration for it until today. Also, it’s a slow news day.

My fellow former Cosmic Ha-Ha Dave Moniz posted the above photo on Facebook last week, with this caption:

Patrick and Monica somehow found this vintage “electric baseball” set. What a lovely Christmas gift. Unlike its first cousin, “electric football’ this actually works without little plastic men running in hideous circles or clumping in immovable scrums.

My first thought was, I’d like to try that game out. My second was, I hated to see him run down electric football, which frankly, I liked better than real football. Any of y’all remember those? You’d put your little plastic players on the line of scrimmage, with one of them holding the little felt football, and hit the switch, and the whole stadium started vibrating like mad, causing the men — whose bases were perched up on thin, flexible blades of clear plastic, would start moving independently, one hoped toward the goal line. But really, they went wherever they wanted — which quite frequently was backward.

It was a pretty wild toy, both in concept and execution.

Actually, here I am describing it like something from the distant past, and apparently they still sell these things! Which was a surprise to me. But if you’ve never seen one of these in action, here’s video of a fancy modern version.

Bottom line, I loved my electric football game.

Which got me to thinking: What would be my Top Five Toys Ever, with an emphasis on those received from Santa. Here’s a hastily assembled list, which I may amend as we proceed:

  1. My BB gun — To be specific like the kid in the movie, my Daisy Model 1894 authentic saddle gun. This was probably the greatest surprise of my childhood, as my mother had always assured me I would never get one because — and she actually used this line — I would put my eye out. This was a beautiful rifle, the metal parts a nicely blued steel, with the stock rendered in plastic that at least looked like wood from a distance. The moment I found it under the tree was special: Santa had laid out my new sleeping bag that I was expecting, and the rifle was slipped inside it. This, of course, proved the existence of Santa, because I got it when we were living in Guayaquil, Ecuador, and I don’t think there was a store on the entire continent of South America where my parents could have bought this. I had a lot of fun with it, and never did put my eye out.
  2. Any Official Boy Scout gear — All through my Cub and Boy Scout years, nothing could top any gift that had an official Scout logo on it. These were items that a guy had to have to make his way in the world, to Be Prepared (I had never heard of the Zombie Apocalypse, but I instinctively sensed that every boy should be prepared for it), and the Scout emblem, to my mind at least, spoke unfailingly of quality. I received a bunch of stuff from this category over the years. Some items that stand out are my official Cub Scout pocketknife, and my official Boy Scout mess kit and canteen (which I think I got the same Christmas as the BB gun and sleeping bag, so I cleaned up that year).
  3. Tabletop hockey — As I worked on the list, I thought of something I liked better than electric football. That was the non-electric hockey game my brother and I had — this kind, which had the metal rods that you’d move in and out to move the players across the “ice,” and which you would spin to make them shoot the puck. We had some pretty furious, active games with this, which we would play for hours. I still remember with shame how petulant I got the first time my brother — who is six years younger — beat me at this. But mostly, it was fun.
  4. Cowboy six-shooters — This is a whole category because I had a lot of them in the ’50s and ’60s, but I’m going to zero in on one particular product. Do you remember the Mattel Shootin’ Shell system? The Shootin’ Shell was a three-part piece of ammunition. It had a brass shell with a spring inside, a gray plastic slug that you’d push into the shell until it clicked, and a little round paper cap that you’d stick on the back of the brass shell. When the gun’s hammer hit the back of the shell, the shock would cause the spring to eject the little gray slug out the barrel of the gun, and the cap would go off to provide a semi-realistic sound. Here’s video. Anyway, at one point Mattel released a mechanical adversary with which to have gunfights. He was this villainous-looking little mannequin who, when you pulled a string, would start to draw. If he fired before you, you were “dead.” If you managed to draw, fire and hit him with your Shootin’ Shell slug before his arm got to a certain point, his arm would stop. No, I am not making this up. I was able to shoot from the hip and stop him. And yes, boys of my generation were really into violent toys…
  5. The see-through submarine — This was another one that we got when we lived in Ecuador, which speaks to extra exertions by my parents — they no doubt arranged to get these things from the Base Exchange up in the Panama Canal Zone, via the monthly C-47 that brought nonperishable groceries down to U.S. personnel. Anyway, this was an impressive toy. I had forgotten the name of it, but Google has identified it as the Remco Barracuda Atomic Sub. It was about three feet long, and had a motor that moved it on discreet wheels along the floor (water would have destroyed it), while it automatically fired torpedoes out of the bow. The coolest part, though, was that it had a transparent top deck that you could remove, and move around the little blue plastic crewmen inside. For whatever reason, I seem to recall you could also rearrange the bulkheads — which made it more like a Napoleonic-era warship than an actual sub. A friend of mine, also a Navy brat, had a huge toy aircraft carrier made by the same company. It had a pretty powerful catapult for launching aircraft, but that’s not what we used it for. This kid also had a construction set for building skyscrapers. We’d build a skyscraper, and then launch leftover plastic girders at the building from about six feet away to knock it down. A lot of trouble, but eminently worth the effort.

Honorable mention: Hot Wheels. These came along a little late for me, but I had an awesome time playing with my brother’s Hot Wheels — and my sons’, and my grandson’s (every time I go into Walmart today, I have to fight against the temptation to buy him another — they’re only 94 cents apiece, and they’re awesome!). I had grown up on Matchbox cars and thought they were pretty cool, but Hot Wheels just blew them away. Matchbox would later ape the fast-wheel technology, but they were just playing catch-up from then on.

Yep… guns and war toys and fast cars. But I was an actual kid, not a hypothetical one, and that’s what I liked, and I was lucky enough to come up before these things were thoroughly frowned upon. So there.

Now… what are the vintage toys that make you wax nostalgic?

45e9d678c6e2ccbf4372a92fe9faea37

Apparently, I did NOT use Hans Delbrück’s brain in building the new president

young-frankenstein

I began my day, my year, crying out in protest against a headline on The Fix:

I am as dismayed as Froderick Frahnkensteen at learning that apparently, at some point during this awful past year, I put an abnormal brain into a seven and a half foot long, fifty-four inch wide — but small-handed — gorilla.

But don’t blame me! Eyegor let me down. I had intended our new POTUS to have Hans Delbrück’s brain, you see…