Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Loving like cats and dogs

“Love is that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.” — Robert A. Heinlein, American science-fiction writer often called the dean of science fiction writers, from Stranger in a Strange Land 

TODAY IS Paul's birthday. To celebrate I'm giving him (and you) a break from politics and serious thoughts. I'm hoping this will make him (and again you) smile. Happy birthday to the one who is my heart, my soul and my life. 

Cats Sleeping on Dogs

Monday, May 29, 2017

Generations of service

“Without heroes, we are all plain people, and don’t know how far we can go.” — Bernard Malamud, one of the best known American Jewish authors of the 20th century

TODAY'S POST on Memorial Day contains a layered, multi-generational story of service and inspiration. Hang with me if you can.

If you read Hey Look Something Shiny with any regularity, you may recall that on Veterans' Day, 2016 I wrote a post about a years-in-the-making design project that Paul and I have had the privilege of producing and installing in five Iowa National Guard / Army Reserve / Veterans' Affairs buildings in the state.

Of all the hundreds and hundreds of finished products we've delivered in more than 25 years in business, I'm proudest of this work.

The work has been ours, but the concept and vision were that of Colonel Scott Ayres, and over the course of several years of collaboration, we've become friends. 

Scott's dad, Boyd Ayres, a retired US Army Major, died in October of 2016, and Scott shared with me the eulogy he delivered as his father's funeral. I was affected by his dad's story and the Ayres family legacy of service. Boyd served and Scott picked up the mantle and continues to serve. 

But the story is even richer than that. 

Recently Scott found an email that his dad had sent to his sons in 2012 about the teacher and World War II veteran who inspired Boyd to become both a teacher and a serviceman.

First here's Boyd's (abbreviated) story from his son, Scott.

"Boyd LeRoy Ayres was born prematurely in a blizzard on a northern Missouri farm on January 24, 1941. He weighed just 2-3/4 pounds and was not expected to live. On the night of his birth, his granddad trekked to town on a sleigh to retrieve the doctor and then constructed an incubator to keep the newborn alive. Boyd persevered, demonstrating the strong will to live that was present every day of his seventy-five years.  

Dad was an Army paratrooper and then a Special Forces soldier — a Green Beret — with 47 jumps, who served in Okinawa, Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Cambodia, Laos and South Vietnam. He was one of the first soldiers to be authorized to wear a Green Beret, and it was a lifelong source of enormous pride for him and his family that he was "one of America's best."  

As President Kennedy proclaimed when he authorized it, "Wear the beret proudly. It will be a mark of distinction and a badge of courage in the difficult days ahead." 

Dad later joined the Army Reserve, received a direct commission, served on active duty during Desert Storm and retired as a Major in the Cavalry

Boyd was the first member of his family to graduate from college, graduating from the University of Northern Iowa with a bachelor's degree in American history. After graduation, he taught at Williams Junior High in Davenport where he was recognized as the Iowa Reservist teacher of the year in 1979.

Boyd brought history alive to his students, dressing up in period costumes. Students often remembered him as their favorite teacher, and to his great joy, some maintained contact with him throughout his life. Many former students have told us they became teachers because of Dad.

He loved his family — five children, 17 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. He also loved Irish folk music, telling stories, history, teaching, genealogy, the Iowa Hawkeyes and just being an American soldier and an American citizen. Dad was so very proud of being both.  

Boyd prized his Irish ancestry and somehow got to know every Irish folk singer who toured America. Before he died, Dad let me know that Safe in the Harbour — which one of the singers will perform as the closing song today — explains how he felt at the end.  

He will be deeply missed by his friends and family, but in the best Irish and Trooper tradition, you may find him now at Fiddler's Green."


But now, as Paul Harvey used to say, here's the rest of the story — 
revealed in an email Scott's dad sent his sons in 2012 identifying the role model for Boyd's career as a teacher and a soldier. 

"I got in today's Emmetsburg paper the obituary of Robert Sackett, who was probably one of the most influential people in my life while I was growing up. I sent a condolences note to his wife and family on the funeral home's website today.

Anyway, boys, if you click onto the video portion about him on the funeral home's obituary list, you will see a video about, oh 10 minutes or so I guess, of his life. 

And in that video (I was amazed) — you will see your dad in a photo playing the trumpet with a little band I was in with Mr. Sackett. I guess I would've been maybe  14 or 15 or so, but a pretty good photo. As I remember, I believe we were called the Cylinder Sidewinders and even went to Ames to appear on TV for some reason or another.

He was a WWII vet; had made the Normandy landing with the 1st Infantry Division. He was captured at the Battle of the Bulge, and was a POW. While a POW, he was tortured on Christmas Eve 1944 because the guards caught him playing a homemade harmonica of Christmas Carols.  

But the thing that earned him his punishment scar, was that when the guards first caught him playing, he began to play the Star Spangled Banner because, he said, "I was in trouble anyway!"  

The man had this long indented scar on his upper arm where a hot poker iron had been placed on it, but as he said, "I never said I was sorry for making and playing the harmonica." 

I remember one Christmas program at school, and the lights were down while we playing a Christmas song for the crowd and the program, and Mr. Sackett broke down crying and had to leave the stage. He later told all us kids that he had just remembered the Christmas in his POW camp.

This was a teacher, boys, who would (and I know this came out of his own pocket) buy us plastic airplane models to give to us during the summer months if we would practice our instruments as enticements to do so. He would take us band boys on camping trips and would let us fire his German Luger at targets on those camping trips.  

I remember he told me once that in order to smuggle it home on the ship when he was released to come home, he took it apart and taped all the pieces across his belly under a big gauze pad as if he had a bad stomach wound.  

I saw him in about 1999 when I stopped by his place in Emmetsburg, and we had a long and wonderful talk. He told me that his son had rented or bought Saving Private Ryan for him to see, but he told him, "Dad, look you might not want to see it, so be warned."  

Bob told me that he wanted his wife to see what Normandy was like. He said, "Boyd, the only thing that was missing was the smell of the blood and the diesel smoke."

I last saw him at the last class reunion I attended in 2009 in Emmetsburg. He was an extraordinary guy who touched my life in so many ways during those years I lived at Cylinder. And I am now so grateful that I let him know that when I stopped to see him at his place in 1999."

Boyd Ayres on trumpet and his teacher, Bob Sackett taken about 1955.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Well played, Mrs. Ailes

“The rain is famous for falling on the just and unjust alike, but if I had the management of such affairs, I would rain softly and sweetly on the just, but if I caught a sample of the unjust outdoors I would drown him.” — Mark Twain

WHEN Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died, I wrote a post entitled Scalia Croaks and I Get to Be Glad and caught a certain amount of flak for it, criticism that was some variation on the theme "Someone died; it's wrong to be happy."

Prepare to be outraged. However pleased I was to be rid of Antonin, let me tell ya', I'm down right ecstatic that Fox News founder Roger Ailes cashed it in ten days ago. Gleeful, delighted, doing the happy dance. You get the picture.

To those who are aghast at the schadenfreude I'm experiencing, I ask: Why do you think it's unseemly, perhaps immoral, to be glad he's gone? Because somewhere someone liked Ailes or maybe (ack, gag, retch) loved him? Because whatever else he was, he was still a person? (Not sure about that last part.)

Nah. I get to decide who I'm happy to share the planet with and who I'm un-sad to see take a powder. Or become powder, as the case may be. 

Once again I offer my favorite basic truth: There's a bell curve to everything. It's such a useful tool for understanding the world! There are extraordinarily, brilliantly, kind people on the skinny, righthand end of the curve who effect the world for the better, and there are individuals on the skinny, lefthand end whose greed and inhumanity debase us all. 

So I ask again as I did in my Scalia post: Did you think it was a good thing when Osama bin Laden — or Hitler or any other malevolent force — was no more? If so, then you don't actually believe that being glad when someone dies is wrong as a moral absolute. You just think you should get to be the one who draws the line.

Below is a Rolling Stone article I endorse. But before you get to that, I want to share a comment that made both Paul and me burst into spontaneous, raucous guffaws of laughter. Someone had shared the RS piece online, and unsurprisingly there were dozens of witty comments, but the aside that was the pièce de résistance was this: 

"Roger Ailes, habitual adulterer, gets $40 million for stepping down from Fox for sexually harassing women, upping his net worth to at least $100, dies from a fall at home. Well played, Mrs. Ailes."

Roger Ailes Was One of the Worst Americans Ever

Fox News founder made this the hate-filled, moronic country it is today

By Matt Taibbi

May 18, 2017

On the Internet today you will find thousands, perhaps even millions, of people gloating about the death of elephantine Fox News founder Roger Ailes. The happy face emojis are getting a workout on Twitter, which is also bursting with biting one-liners.

When I mentioned to one of my relatives that I was writing about the death of Ailes, the response was, "Say that you hope he's reborn as a woman in Saudi Arabia."


Ailes has no one but his fast-stiffening self to blame for this treatment. He is on the short list of people most responsible for modern America's vicious and bloodthirsty character.

We are a hate-filled, paranoid, untrusting, book-dumb and bilious people whose chief source of recreation is slinging insults and threats at each other online, and we're that way in large part because of the hyper-divisive media environment he discovered.

Ailes was the Christopher Columbus of hate. When the former daytime TV executive and political strategist looked across the American continent, he saw money laying around in giant piles. He knew all that was needed to pick it up was a) the total abandonment of any sense of decency or civic duty in the news business, and b) the factory-like production of news stories that spoke to Americans' worst fantasies about each other.

Like many con artists, he reflexively targeted the elderly – "I created a TV network for people from 55 to dead," he told Joan Walsh – where he saw billions could be made mining terrifying storylines about the collapse of the simpler America such viewers remembered, correctly or (more often) incorrectly, from their childhoods.

In this sense, his Fox News broadcasts were just extended versions of the old "ring around the collar" ad – scare stories about contagion. Wisk was pitched as the cure for sweat stains creeping onto your crisp white collar; Fox was sold as the cure for atheists, feminists, terrorists and minorities crawling over your white picket fence.

Ailes launched Fox in 1996 with a confused, often amateurish slate of dumb programs cranked out by cut-rate and often very young staffers. The channel was initially most famous for its overt shallowness ("More News in Less Time" was one of its early slogans) and its Monty Python-style bloopers. But the main formula was always the political scare story, and Fox quickly learned to mix traditional sensationalist tropes like tabloid crime reporting with demonization of liberal villains like the Clintons.

Hillary Clinton in particular was a godsend for Fox. The first lady's mocking comments about refusing to stay home and bake cookies – to say nothing of the "I'm not sitting here, some little woman, saying 'Stand By Her Man' like Tammy Wynette" quote – were daggers to the hearts of graying middle Americans everywhere. What's the matter, Ailes' audiences wondered, with Tammy Wynette?

So they tuned into Fox, which made ripping Hillary and other such overeducated, cosmopolitan, family-values-hating Satans a core part of its programming.

But invective, like drugs or tobacco or any other addictive property, is a product of diminishing returns. You have to continually up the ante to get people coming back. So Ailes and Fox over the years graduated from simply hammering Democratic politicians to making increasingly outlandish claims about an ever-expanding list of enemies.

Soon the villains weren't just in Washington, but under every rock, behind every corner. Immigrants were spilling over the borders. Grades were being denuded in schools by liberal teachers. Marriage was being expanded to gays today, perhaps animals tomorrow. ACORN was secretly rigging vote totals.

Hollywood, a lost paradise Middle America remembered as a place where smooth-talking guys and gals smoked cigarettes, gazed into each others' eyes and glorified small-town life and the military, now became a sandbox for over-opinionated brats like Sean Penn, Matt Damon and Brangelina who used their fame to pal around with socialist dictators and lecture churchy old folks about their ignorance.

The Fox response was to hire an endless succession of blow-dried, shrieking dingbats like Laura Ingraham, author of Shut Up and Sing, who filled the daytime hours with rants about every conceivable cultural change being the product of an ongoing anti-American conspiracy. Ingraham even derided muffin tops as evidence of America's decaying values.

Ailes picked at all these scabs, and then when he ran out of real storylines to mine he invented some that didn't even exist. His Fox was instrumental in helping Donald Trump push the birther phenomenon into being, and elevated the practically nonexistent New Black Panthers to ISIS status, warning Republicans that these would-be multitudinous urban troublemakers were planning on bringing guns to the GOP convention.

The presidency of Donald Trump wouldn't have been possible had not Ailes raised a generation of viewers on these paranoid storylines. But the damage Ailes did wasn't limited to hardening and radicalizing conservative audiences.

Ailes grew out of the entertainment world – his first experience was in daytime variety TV via The Mike Douglas Show – but he later advised a series of Republican campaigns, from Ronald Reagan to George H.W. Bush to Trump.

So when he created Fox, he merged his expertise from those two worlds, mixing entertainment and political stagecraft.

The effect was to politicize the media, a characteristic of banana republics everywhere. When Ailes decided to cordon off Republican audiences and craft news programming targeted specifically to them, he began the process of atomizing the entire media landscape into political fiefdoms – Fox for the right, MSNBC for the left, etc.

Ailes trained Americans to shop for the news as a commodity. Not just on the right but across the political spectrum now, Americans have learned to view the news as a consumer product.

What most of us are buying when we tune in to this or that channel or read this or that newspaper is a reassuring take on the changes in the world that most frighten us. We buy the version of the world that pleases us and live in little bubbles where we get to nurse resentments all day long and no one ever tells us we're wrong about anything. Ailes invented those bubbles.

Moreover, Ailes built a financial empire waving images of the Clintons and the Obamas in front of scared conservatives. It's no surprise that a range of media companies are now raking in fortunes waving images of Donald Trump in front of terrified Democrats.

It's not that Trump isn't or shouldn't be frightening. But it's conspicuous that our media landscape is now a perfect Ailes-ian dystopia, cleaved into camps of captive audiences geeked up on terror and disgust. The more scared and hate-filled we are, the more advertising dollars come pouring in, on both sides.

Trump in many ways was a perfect Ailes product, merging as he did the properties of entertainment and news in a sociopathic programming package that, as CBS chief Les Moonves pointed out, was terrible for the country, but great for the bottom line.

And when Ailes died this morning, he left behind an America perfectly in his image, frightened out of its mind and pouring its money hand over fist into television companies, who are gleefully selling the unraveling of our political system as an entertainment product.

The extent to which we hate and fear each other now – that's not any one person's fault. But no one person was more at fault than Roger Ailes. He never had a soul to sell, so he sold ours. It may take 50 years or a century for us to recover. Even dictators rarely have that kind of impact. Enjoy the next life, you monster.

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Thursday, May 25, 2017

A four-year-old has a bigger heart than he does

"What's wrong with our children? Adults telling children to be honest while lying and cheating. Adults telling children not to be violent while marketing and glorifying violence. I believe adult hypocrisy is the biggest problem children face in America." — Marion Wright Edelman, American children's rights activist and president and founder of the Children's Defense Fund

PAUL AND I spent time not long ago with a treasured young mother and her cherubic four-year-old son. Because Ansel loves kitty cats, and we do too, we looked at pictures of the ones who live at our house. I mentioned to his mom that we're seeking a home for one of them. (Shadow is FIV-positive, and to safeguard the others, has his own room.) Ansel overheard and was worried about him. "He can come and live at our house!" he exclaimed anxiously.

The day before Easter, Paul and I were with four sweet, little girls ages two to six. There were small gifts for all four and cards . . . just three cards, however, because they were intended to be opened the next day when only three girls would still be there. Each envelope also contained a bag of coins for the girls' piggy banks. 

But the cards were discovered and opened, and when three-year-old Elleny saw that everyone got a bag of shiny, jingly coins except her, unsurprisingly she promptly burst into tears.

Lauren's grandma moved quickly to get the change jar so Elleny could grab a handful, but four-and-a-half-year-old Lauren had already literally run to the rescue. She put her arms around Elleny and said, "Here, you can have some of my money, cuz' look, I have lots of it," and held out the coins in her hand to Elleny

Paul and I were immensely impressed by Lauren's instantaneous, instinctive kindness and generosity. And so, I believe I rather agree with this New York Times writer. I think four-year-olds have it all over number 45.

Ansel and I look at pictures of our kitty cats.

The White House Easter egg roll.

4-Year-Olds Don’t Act Like Trump

By Alison Gopnik

May 20, 2017

The analogy is pervasive among his critics: Donald Trump is like a child. Making him the president was like making a 4-year-old the leader of the free world.

But the analogy is profoundly wrong, and it’s unfair to children. The scientific developmental research of the past 30 years shows that Mr. Trump is utterly unlike a 4-year-old.

Four-year-olds care deeply about the truth. They constantly try to seek out information and to figure out how the world works. Of course, 4-year-olds, as well as adults, occasionally lie. But Mr. Trump doesn’t just lie; he seems not even to care whether his statements are true.

Four-year-olds are insatiably curious. One study found that the average preschooler asks hundreds of questions per day. Just watch a toddler “getting into everything” — endangering his own safety to investigate interesting new objects like knives and toasters. Mr. Trump refuses to read and is bored by anything that doesn’t involve him personally.

Four-year-olds can pay attention. They do have difficulty changing the focus of their attention in response to arbitrary commands. But recent studies show that even babies systematically direct their focus to the events and objects that will teach them the most. They pay special attention to events that contradict what they already believe. Mr. Trump refuses to pay attention to anything that clashes with his preconceptions.

Four-year-olds understand the difference between fantasy and reality. They certainly enjoy pretend play, imagining that the world is full of villains and that they are all-powerful heroes. But studies show that they know they are pretending and understand that their imaginary companions are just that: imaginary. Mr. Trump seems to have no sense of the boundary between his self-aggrandizing fantasies and reality.

Four-year-olds have a “theory of mind,” an understanding of their own minds and those of others. In my lab we have found that 4-year-olds recognize that their own past beliefs might have been wrong. Mr. Trump contradicts himself without hesitation and doesn’t seem to recognize any conflict between his past and present beliefs.

Four-year-olds, contrary to popular belief, are not egocentric or self-centered. They understand and care about how other people feel and think, and recognize that other people can feel and think differently from them. In my lab, which studies the cognitive development of children, we have found that even 1½-year-olds can understand that someone else might want something different from what they want. They understand that someone else might like broccoli, even though they themselves prefer crackers, and they will help that person get what he wants.

In fact, children as young as 1½ demonstrate both empathy and altruism: They will rush to comfort someone who is hurt, and they will spontaneously go out of their way to help someone. In one study, if 1-year-olds saw a stranger drop a pen and strain to reach for it, they would crawl over obstacles to find the pen and give it to him. Mr. Trump displays neither empathy nor altruism, and his egocentrism is staggering.

Four-year-olds have a strong moral sense. Children as young as 2½ say that hurting another child is always wrong, even if an authority figure were to say otherwise. Babies will avoid a puppet that has been mean to another puppet. Mr. Trump admires authoritarian leaders who have no compunctions about harming their own people.

Four-year-olds are sensitive to social norms and think that they and other people should obey them. In one recent study, seeing a puppet play a game involving particular rules led children to follow the rules themselves and to expect other people to do so. Even 2- and 3-year-olds protested when they saw someone break the rules. Mr. Trump has time and again shown his contempt for norms of behavior in every community he has belonged to.

Now, all this is not to say that a 4-year-old would make a good chief executive. Being president is certainly a grown-up job. Still, most adults, even most presidents, and certainly the best presidents, manage to retain some of their childlike traits — curiosity, openness to experience, intuitive sensitivity to others.

We’d all be better off if Mr. Trump were more like that.

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Saturday, May 20, 2017

Yup, he really IS as hollow as he seems

“When I look at myself in the first grade and I look at myself now, I’m basically the same.” — Donald J. Trump, 2014

IF THAT quote doesn't succeed in scaring the pants off of you, I don't know what will. This is the guy to whom we've given the nuclear codes. Someone who is six, maybe seven years old.

In 1987 Tony Schwartz ghost-wrote The Art of the Deal for Donny, and in the process spent almost a year observing and listening to him. Based on that experience, Mr. Schartz can affirm . . . and has . . . that SCROTUS (so-called ruler of the United States) is natively unintelligent. Scarily so. (FYI: He wrote about SCROTUS' child-level, 200-word vocabulary in an article for The Huffington Post that I shared with you some months ago in a post called Even Worse Than We Thought, If That's Possible.)

Here's the deal: we can probably survive a dunce 'serving' as President. After all that's undoubtedly what we had in George W. Bush. But worse than that, so so much worse — SCROTUS is utterly devoid of a moral compass. It's certainly always seemed like that, but Mr. Schwartz had the opportunity to witness it, and it goes all the way back to childhood.

And at the risk of becoming repetitious, let me just say this one more time, "Oh my god, we live in a stupid country!!!" 

It's not like any of this is news! It's not like DJT has been hiding who he is! Nope. But we elected him anyway. So I guess we deserve whatever happens to us.

Below is a piece from The Washington Post that my pal from my graduate school days at Washington State University, Bill Arthur, hipped me to.

I wrote ‘The Art of the Deal’ with Trump. His self-sabotage is rooted in his past.

The president's behavior, explained.

By Tony Schwartz 

May 16, 2017

Why does President Trump behave in the dangerous and seemingly self-destructive ways he does?

Three decades ago, I spent nearly a year hanging around Trump to write his first book, “The Art of the Deal,” and got to know him very well. I spent hundreds of hours listening to him, watching him in action and interviewing him about his life. To me, none of what he has said or done over the past four months as president comes as a surprise. The way he has behaved over the past two weeks — firing FBI Director James B. Comey, undercutting his own aides as they tried to explain the decision, disclosing sensitive information to Russian officials and railing about it all on Twitter — is also entirely predictable.

Early on, I recognized that Trump’s sense of self-worth is forever at risk. When he feels aggrieved, he reacts impulsively and defensively, constructing a self-justifying story that doesn’t depend on facts and always directs the blame to others.

The Trump I first met in 1985 had lived nearly all his life in survival mode. By his own description, his father, Fred, was relentlessly demanding, difficult and driven. Here’s how I phrased it in “The Art of the Deal”: “My father is a wonderful man, but he is also very much a business guy and strong and tough as hell.” As Trump saw it, his older brother, Fred Jr., who became an alcoholic and died at age 42, was overwhelmed by his father. Or as I euphemized it in the book: “There were inevitably confrontations between the two of them. In most cases, Freddy came out on the short end.”

Trump’s worldview was profoundly and self-protectively shaped by his father. “I was drawn to business very early, and I was never intimidated by my father, the way most people were,” is the way I wrote it in the book. “I stood up to him, and he respected that. We had a relationship that was almost businesslike.”

To survive, I concluded from our conversations, Trump felt compelled to go to war with the world. It was a binary, zero-sum choice for him: You either dominated or you submitted. You either created and exploited fear, or you succumbed to it — as he thought his older brother had. This narrow, defensive outlook took hold at a very early age, and it never evolved. “When I look at myself in the first grade and I look at myself now,” he told a recent biographer, “I’m basically the same.” His development essentially ended in early childhood.

Instead, Trump grew up fighting for his life and taking no prisoners. In countless conversations, he made clear to me that he treated every encounter as a contest he had to win, because the only other option from his perspective was to lose, and that was the equivalent of obliteration. Many of the deals in “The Art of the Deal” were massive failures — among them the casinos he owned and the launch of a league to rival the National Football League — but Trump had me describe each of them as a huge success.

With evident pride, Trump explained to me that he was “an assertive, aggressive” kid from an early age, and that he had once punched a music teacher in the eye and was nearly expelled from elementary school for his behavior.

Like so much about Trump, who knows whether that story is true? What’s clear is that he has spent his life seeking to dominate others, whatever that requires and whatever collateral damage it creates along the way. In “The Art of the Deal,” he speaks with street-fighting relish about competing in the world of New York real estate: They are “some of the sharpest, toughest, and most vicious people in the world. I happen to love to go up against these guys, and I love to beat them.” I never sensed from Trump any guilt or contrition about anything he’d done, and he certainly never shared any misgivings publicly. From his perspective, he operated in a jungle full of predators who were forever out to get him, and he did what he must to survive.

Trump was equally clear with me that he didn’t value — nor even necessarily recognize — the qualities that tend to emerge as people grow more secure, such as empathy, generosity, reflectiveness, the capacity to delay gratification or, above all, a conscience, an inner sense of right and wrong. Trump simply didn’t traffic in emotions or interest in others. The life he lived was all transactional, all the time. Having never expanded his emotional, intellectual or moral universe, he has his story down, and he’s sticking to it.

A key part of that story is that facts are whatever Trump deems them to be on any given day. When he is challenged, he instinctively doubles down — even when what he has just said is demonstrably false. I saw that countless times, whether it was as trivial as exaggerating the number of floors at Trump Tower or as consequential as telling me that his casinos were performing well when they were actually going bankrupt. In the same way, Trump would see no contradiction at all in changing his story about why he fired Comey and thereby undermining the statements of his aides, or in any other lie he tells. His aim is never accuracy; it’s domination.

The Trump I got to know had no deep ideological beliefs, nor any passionate feeling about anything but his immediate self-interest. He derives his sense of significance from conquests and accomplishments. “Can you believe it, Tony?” he would often say at the start of late-night conversations with me, going on to describe some new example of his brilliance. But the reassurance he got from even his biggest achievements was always ephemeral and unreliable — and that appears to include being elected president. Any addiction has a predictable pattern: The addict keeps chasing the high by upping the ante in an increasingly futile attempt to re-create the desired state. On the face of it, Trump has more opportunities now to feel significant and accomplished than almost any other human being on the planet. But that’s like saying a heroin addict has his problem licked once he has free and continuous access to the drug. Trump also now has a far bigger and more public stage on which to fail and to feel unworthy.

From the very first time I interviewed him in his office in Trump Tower in 1985, the image I had of Trump was that of a black hole. Whatever goes in quickly disappears without a trace. Nothing sustains. It’s forever uncertain when someone or something will throw Trump off his precarious perch — when his sense of equilibrium will be threatened and he’ll feel an overwhelming compulsion to restore it. Beneath his bluff exterior, I always sensed a hurt, incredibly vulnerable little boy who just wanted to be loved.

What Trump craves most deeply is the adulation he has found so fleeting. This goes a long way toward explaining his need for control and why he simply couldn’t abide Comey, who reportedly refused to accede to Trump’s demand for loyalty and whose continuing investigation into Russian interference in the election campaign last year threatens to bring down his presidency. Trump’s need for unquestioning praise and flattery also helps to explain his hostility to democracy and to a free press — both of which thrive on open dissent.

As we have seen countless times during the campaign and since the election, Trump can devolve into survival mode on a moment’s notice. Look no further than the thousands of tweets he has written attacking his perceived enemies over the past year. In neurochemical terms, when he feels threatened or thwarted, Trump moves into a fight-or-flight state. His amygdala is triggered, his hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activates, and his prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain that makes us capable of rationality and reflection — shuts down. He reacts rather than reflects, and damn the consequences. This is what makes his access to the nuclear codes so dangerous and frightening.

Over the past week, in the face of criticism from nearly every quarter, Trump’s distrust has almost palpably mushroomed. No importuning by his advisers stands a chance of constraining him when he is this deeply triggered. The more he feels at the mercy of forces he cannot control — and he is surely feeling that now — the more resentful, desperate and impulsive he becomes.

Even 30 years later, I vividly remember the ominous feeling when Trump got angry about some perceived slight. Everyone around him knew that you were best off keeping your distance at those times, or, if that wasn’t possible, that you should resist disagreeing with him in any way.

In the hundreds of Trump’s phone calls I listened in on with his consent, and the dozens of meetings I attended with him, I can never remember anyone disagreeing with him about anything. The same climate of fear and paranoia appears to have taken root in his White House.

The most recent time I spoke to Trump — and the first such occasion in nearly three decades — was July 14, 2016, shortly before the New Yorker published an article by Jane Mayer about my experience writing “The Art of the Deal.” Trump was just about to win the Republican nomination for president. I was driving in my car when my cellphone rang. It was Trump. He had just gotten off a call with a fact-checker for the New Yorker, and he didn’t mince words.

“I just want to tell you that I think you’re very disloyal,” he started in. Then he berated and threatened me for a few minutes. I pushed back, gently but firmly. And then suddenly, as abruptly as he began the call, he ended it. “Have a nice life,” he said, and hung up.

Tony Schwartz is the chief executive officer of the Energy Project, which helps companies tap more of people’s capacity by better meeting their core needs so they can perform more sustainably. He is the author, most recently, of “The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working.”

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Watch this video

“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.” — Stephen Hawking

YOU'VE probably been hearing a great deal about the Dunning-Kruger effect of late — the phenomenon in which an incompetent person is too incompetent to recognize his own incompetence. In the video at the bottom of the page, following a short Huffington Post written intro, the astute and exceedingly intelligent Stephen Fry explicates the Dunning-Kruger effect and Salience Bias

Stephen Fry Explains Why Some People Believe Everything Donald Trump Says
“The incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence.”

By Ed Mazza
May 12, 2017

Some supporters of President Donald Trump believe just about everything he says, even when he’s wrong. And Trump himself seems to have absolute confidence in his own beliefs ― again, even when he is demonstrably wrong.

But there is a psychology lesson that could help explain it, according to Cambridge University-educated actor Stephen Fry, who was voted the most intelligent person on TV in the United Kingdom.

For example, researchers found students who were least proficient often overestimated their own abilities.

“The skills they lacked were the same skills required to recognize their incompetence,” Fry said. “The incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.”

That’s now known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.

In a new clip that Pindex put together, Fry also explains how Salience Bias and the power of repetition help shape views more than facts.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The world's fate in the (tiny) hands of a child

“If you love friends, you will serve your friends. If you love community, you will serve your community. If you love money, you will serve your money. And if you love only yourself, you will serve only yourself” — Stephen Colbert

THE ONLY thing keeping me sane — or as close to it as I hardly am these days — are The New York Times, The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert's The Late Show. Below, from The New York Times.

When the World Is Led by a Child

By David Brooks
May 15, 2017

At certain times Donald Trump has seemed like a budding authoritarian, a corrupt Nixon, a rabble-rousing populist or a big business corporatist.

But as Trump has settled into his White House role, he has given a series of long interviews, and when you study the transcripts it becomes clear that fundamentally he is none of these things.

At base, Trump is an infantalist. There are three tasks that most mature adults have sort of figured out by the time they hit 25. Trump has mastered none of them. Immaturity is becoming the dominant note of his presidency, lack of self-control his leitmotif.

First, most adults have learned to sit still. But mentally, Trump is still a 7-year-old boy who is bouncing around the classroom. Trump’s answers in these interviews are not very long — 200 words at the high end — but he will typically flit through four or five topics before ending up with how unfair the press is to him.

His inability to focus his attention makes it hard for him to learn and master facts. He is ill informed about his own policies and tramples his own talking points. It makes it hard to control his mouth. On an impulse, he will promise a tax reform when his staff has done little of the actual work.

Second, most people of drinking age have achieved some accurate sense of themselves, some internal criteria to measure their own merits and demerits. But Trump seems to need perpetual outside approval to stabilize his sense of self, so he is perpetually desperate for approval, telling heroic fabulist tales about himself.

“In a short period of time I understood everything there was to know about health care,” he told Time. “A lot of the people have said that, some people said it was the single best speech ever made in that chamber,” he told The Associated Press, referring to his joint session speech.

By Trump’s own account, he knows more about aircraft carrier technology than the Navy. According to his interview with The Economist, he invented the phrase “priming the pump” (even though it was famous by 1933). Trump is not only trying to deceive others. His falsehoods are attempts to build a world in which he can feel good for an instant and comfortably deceive himself.

He is thus the all-time record-holder of the Dunning-Kruger effect, the phenomenon in which the incompetent person is too incompetent to understand his own incompetence. Trump thought he’d be celebrated for firing James Comey. He thought his press coverage would grow wildly positive once he won the nomination. He is perpetually surprised because reality does not comport with his fantasies.

Third, by adulthood most people can perceive how others are thinking. For example, they learn subtle arts such as false modesty so they won’t be perceived as obnoxious.

But Trump seems to have not yet developed a theory of mind. Other people are black boxes that supply either affirmation or disapproval. As a result, he is weirdly transparent. He wants people to love him, so he is constantly telling interviewers that he is widely loved. In Trump’s telling, every meeting was scheduled for 15 minutes but his guests stayed two hours because they liked him so much.

Which brings us to the reports that Trump betrayed an intelligence source and leaked secrets to his Russian visitors. From all we know so far, Trump didn’t do it because he is a Russian agent, or for any malevolent intent. He did it because he is sloppy, because he lacks all impulse control, and above all because he is a 7-year-old boy desperate for the approval of those he admires.

The Russian leak story reveals one other thing, the dangerousness of a hollow man.

Our institutions depend on people who have enough engraved character traits to fulfill their assigned duties. But there is perpetually less to Trump than it appears. When we analyze a president’s utterances we tend to assume that there is some substantive process behind the words, that it’s part of some strategic intent.

But Trump’s statements don’t necessarily come from anywhere, lead anywhere or have a permanent reality beyond his wish to be liked at any given instant.

We’ve got this perverse situation in which the vast analytic powers of the entire world are being spent trying to understand a guy whose thoughts are often just six fireflies beeping randomly in a jar.

“We badly want to understand Trump, to grasp him,” David Roberts writes in Vox. “It might give us some sense of control, or at least an ability to predict what he will do next. But what if there’s nothing to understand? What if there is no there there?”

And out of that void comes a carelessness that quite possibly betrayed an intelligence source, and endangered a country.

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Sunday, May 14, 2017

A different kind of Mothers' Day story

“Sometimes the strength of motherhood is greater than natural laws.” — Barbara Kingsolver, American author

ALTHOUGH today, here in the United States, we celebrate mothers, I believe we should celebrate all women: those who are mothers, those who wanted to be mothers but didn’t get the chance, those who once were mothers, those who mother those around them including other people’s children, animals, wounded adults, the elderly, all of nature and the earth. Because women so often are the nuturers and the caretakers of all life around them.

Below is a story from the Des Moines Register about a mother who’s trying her best to still mother.

For these kids, mom’s voice comes in the mail — from prison

By Courtney Crowder

May 10, 2017 

MITCHELLVILLE, Ia. — Kristine Gordon walks swiftly toward a table replete with books, each bright, multi-colored cover staged upright with pages outspread just so or placed in a fanned stack for easy browsing.

But Gordon wasn’t interested in perusing. She knew exactly what book she wanted.

Gordon and her 9-year-old daughter have a deal: Every month they switch off who gets to choose the title Gordon is recorded reading to her little girl. This month was her child's turn, and she wanted “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.”

As an inmate living at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women, Gordon is nervous. She can’t just order any work off Amazon or request a specific title; she is at the whim of donations. So her eyes darted from book to book until she found “Wimpy Kid’s” bright red cover. “Yes!” she whispered, clutching the book close.

For 20 years, the Storybook Project of Iowa has recorded offenders reading books and has mailed the text and the recording to their children. They’ve weathered changes in the prison system in their mission to promote literacy and strengthen the sometimes strained relationship between children and their incarcerated mothers. 

Rooted in the idea that strong families are the building blocks of a successful society — and children feel deep affection for their parents whether locked up or not — organizers said the Des Moines-based Storybook Project provides a highly controlled opportunity for children to connect with their mothers without having to visit a prison. 

“Most kiddos are impacted negatively by any separation from their mom, and these women are still 'mom' behind bars,” said Tabby Kuehl, director of the Storybook Project. “Most kiddos don’t know what has happened. They just know mom is not around and they miss her. So if I can do this one thing to get mom to read to her children, and encourage them and help them build confidence and be able to better address whatever is going on in those kiddos' lives, I’m going to do that.”

 It's natural for children to want to have a bond with their parents. Pop culture is peppered with shows about people seeking out birth mothers, and Facebook abounds with requests to help find long-lost fathers. As University of Iowa professor Rachel Marie-Crane Williams put it: It’s not fair to punish an incarcerated women’s children, who just want to have a relationship with their parent like most other kids, simply because of crimes committed by the mother.

While Iowa hasn't seen a dramatic increase in female prisoners recently, Department of Corrections predictions show the population of women inmates stands to grow by almost 30 percent over the next decade. In Iowa, about 58,000 children, or 8 percent of the child population, have experienced parental incarceration, according a report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a philanthropic nonprofit tracking child welfare issues.

Familial incarceration can lead to children experiencing “disenfranchised grief,” according to the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated. And kids with incarcerated parents are also more likely to endure household instability or live in poverty, the center reported.

“Having a parent incarcerated is a stressful, traumatic experience of the same magnitude as abuse (and has) a potentially lasting negative impact on a child’s well-being,” including increasing children’s mental health issues like depression and anxiety, said the Annie E. Casey report. 

Storybook, which is run by the nonprofit Visiting Nurse Services of Iowa and funded through donations and the occasional grant, hopes to counteract those negative outcomes by allowing parents and children to bond over books. The program is a win-win in the eyes of Williams, who pointed out that in Iowa, about one-third of children in kindergarten through third grade do not read at grade level. 

The group of about 25 women who read every month includes women who are in prison for life, said Betty Trost, a retired lecturer in family and consumer sciences at Iowa State University and one of the founders of the Storybook Project in Iowa. Often, volunteers don’t know the women’s crimes, but if they did, it isn’t their job to judge, but to help them and their families as they are now, Trost said.

Gordon, 30, is in the midst of a 17-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter and leaving the scene of a crash resulting in death. She apologized profusely during her trial, the Register previously reported, and members of the deceased’s family spoke on her behalf in court.

When Gordon came into the system about five years ago, she was aware the statistics said her daughter would be adversely affected by her imprisonment. But as she atoned for her crime, she made a promise to better herself as a mother. 

Enter: Storybook.

“Storybook makes me feel like I can do something positive, that I can be a positive influence,” Gordon said. “Being able to send her books and the recordings makes me feel like I’m doing something good for her, and it can be hard to feel that way when you are incarcerated.”

“Wimpy Kid” in hand, Gordon and a volunteer walk over to a table that’s been separated from the room by a small divider splashed with images from “Thomas the Tank Engine.” All around the meticulously organized library, these little dividers — painted with characters from “Dora the Explorer” and “The Simpsons” — offer touches of life on the outside, but the distractions are only momentary.

As Gordon begins to read, the prison PA system goes off, its stern voice loudly offering a jarring contrast to the lilt she is using to emote.

Gordon, a bookworm herself, started with Storybook in an attempt to get her daughter to read more.

“When she was younger, she struggled with reading,” Gordon said, “so it was nice to give her books that I thought she might enjoy, that might catch her attention.”

Her daughter ate the books up, and her reading improved greatly, said Joshua Potter, the daughter’s father. Almost five years later, Gordon’s daughter can barely contain her excitement when she knows a book is coming, Potter said. The Register is not naming the daughter at the request of her family.

Education is where researchers see the greatest disparity between children with incarcerated parents and those without, said Kristin Turney, a sociologist whose research focuses on the intersection between criminal justice and family life.

“Kids with incarcerated parents are less likely to graduate high school, less likely to go to college and more likely to have worse grades,” Turney said.

Reading to young children, as women who participate in Storybook do, is one way to combat those figures. Getting a child to read stimulates brain development and helps with critical thinking, vocabulary and social skills, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

There isn’t much data on how programs like Storybook affect kids, but Kuehl and her volunteers regularly survey the inmates they serve to better understand what they hear from their children.

Almost 70 percent of inmates “reported that their child talked to their caregiver about the book they receive,” Storybook found in its 2016 survey, and more than 60 percent of children have “requested a specific book" for their mom to read to them. More than 80 percent of inmates also “reported that Storybook has helped strengthen their relationship with their child.”

Gordon’s daughter loves the books she gets, Potter said, and chats with him regularly about what she thought about the story and the characters. He believes the program has "definitely" helped his daughter maintain a relationship with her mother.

For Gordon, the physicality of sending a book means her daughter will have something tangible to hold when she needs to feel close to her mom.

“It has always been comforting to know that with Storybook she didn’t have to miss me because she could sit in her room and listen to the recording and read the book that I had read to her,” Gordon said. “It meant we could stay connected even when we weren’t.” 

A few lines in, Gordon realizes there are a lot of drawings in “Wimpy Kid.” So after she reads each page’s text, she goes back and describes the pictures she sees, sometimes offering asides like, “That’s silly!” 

Unlike many other moms in prison, Gordon has a lot of contact with her daughter. Potter brings their daughter to the prison often because he believes “it’s important for a girl to know her mother no matter the circumstances.”

Also unlike a lot of other female prisoners, Gordon had a good relationship with her own mother.

“Growing up, my mom and I, our bonding time was she sat and read a book, and I sat and read a book, and we would bond over reading books together,” she said.

She lived a fairly normal life, swimming at North High School and winning the state title for two-person controversy debate as a sophomore. She graduated from North in 2005 and gave birth to her daughter in 2007.

But she was plagued by addictions after high school and had many run-ins with the law. She had been barred from driving due to her fourth OWI when she fatally hit Clayton Evan Payne, 58, in 2013.

Gordon told police she thought she hit an animal and pulled over, but panicked and fled when she saw a crowd gathering around a person, the Register reported. Pedestrians always have the right of way in a crosswalk. However, witnesses told police that Gordon had a green light, wasn’t speeding and swerved in an attempt to avoid Payne.

In court, Gordon told the Payne family that at the time of the crash, she’d recently lost her father.

“Knowing that I caused that pain to another family is tearing me apart,” she said. “It will haunt me forever.”

Some of the deceased’s family members met with Gordon in the weeks before her sentencing, according to Register reporting at the time. They wanted to caution her against ending up like Payne, who had struggled with drug and alcohol addiction and was living in a halfway house at the time of his death.

Joanne Payne, Clayton's mother, hasn't forgiven Gordon, but said she isn't troubled by Gordon finding ways to connect with her daughter.

"It's probably a good thing," she said.

In prison, Gordon has remained sober and on good behavior. She believes that despite her past, she can still affect the world in a positive way. "I made mistakes," she said, "but I am not the same person that I was."

“She is a hard-working, solid offender,” said social worker Sheri Floyd. “She has a job. She doesn’t get in trouble, and she volunteers for different programs, and that is true for most of the readers.”

Gordon dreams about her daughter listening to her recordings, she said. She can see in her mind’s eye her daughter carrying around the books and cracking their spines when she wants to feel close to her mom. 

More than anything, Gordon says she wants to be a positive influence on her daughter, to teach her right from wrong as a person who has been on both sides.

“I want to be able to show her that being a girl isn’t something that is limiting,” she said. “You can do anything you want even if you are a girl...I want her to know that she is smart and capable, and if she wants to do something and sets her mind to it, she can do it.”

Most mothers will eventually leave prison and face the formidable task of re-entering society. In Iowa, 94 percent of female inmates will leave the prison system at some point, according to the DOC.

And when Gordon, who is due for release in 2021, and her fellow inmates do get out, they will confront a family system that has grown and changed while they were away. For many prisoners, life on the outside will be tough, said Williams, a University of Iowa professor. It will be hard for them to nail down a job, to find adequate housing or possibly to get custody or visitation rights to their children.

“A felony is akin to a civic death, but if you have strong family connections before you get out, you reduce your chances of failing and going back into the system,” she said.

Even though Gordon has stayed in contact with her daughter, she still worries about how difficult it will be to get involved in her life on the outside. She wants her daughter to know that you can make mistakes and still figure out a way back to right.

"Just because you have made bad choices doesn’t mean you are a bad person, so it is OK for her to make a mistake,” she said. “I hope they are not the same mistakes that I have made, clearly, but Storybook enables me to influence her in a positive way and show her that positive things can happen even if you are in a not-so-positive situation."

As Gordon finishes "Wimpy Kid's" first chapter, she marks the page with a specially selected animal bookmark and tells her daughter to continue reading. She ends her recording with an enthusiastic, “I love you.”

Gordon walks over to the check-in desk, fills out the mailing envelope and writes the book and her daughter’s name on a blank CD.

She pauses over the envelope, now stuffed with a book and a CD, and holds her hand over her daughter’s name as if trying to will more love into the package. A smile crosses her face, and she pats the envelope before looking up at the volunteers.

“Can I sign up for next month?” she asks.

How to donate:

The Storybook Project of Iowa is most in need of monetary donations, but is always looking for mailing supplies and books. Digital donations can be made at, and any other gifts can be mailed to The Storybook Project, c/o Tabby Keuhl, 1111 9th St., Ste 320, Des Moines, IA 50314. Call 515-288-1516 for more information on volunteering or contributing.