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Impossible Writing Challenge: Trump’s Apology

October 10, 2016

Recently I’ve been thinking about giving myself “Impossible Writing Assignments.” The equivalent of a Houdini escape. Here’s a handcuff, write your way out of it. For this one, I tried to write a convincing apology for Donald Trump. 

I was struck by something Alan Alda said on WTF with Marc Maron about playing a deplorable character. He rejects Maron’s suggestion that you have to “find the monster inside you” and says, instead, “He may come out as a monster, but you don’t go looking for a monster. You find out why he’s right. Not only do you have to know what he wants, you have to know that he deserves to get what he wants.”  

What Alda is describing is true empathy—one of the fundamental requirements of any good writer. So that’s where I started with this piece, as best I could. What follows may be out of character for the real Donald Trump, but I wanted to write something that I think he should deliver, that might make people see him as someone they can empathize with. 


Photo by Ethan Miller

My name is Donald Trump, and as most of you know, for the past year I’ve been asking you to support me for President of the United States.

I’m running because I truly believe that we are on the wrong course as a country.  We need a drastic change in direction to make America great again. Make America great again for everybody, no matter their background, race, creed, economic standing or political affiliation. That is not just a cynical slogan—that is what I truly believe.

Two days ago, a tape surfaced of me saying things I should not have said. Things I should not even have thought. Things that do not reflect me or my beliefs.

I said things I am ashamed of. And I bear the sole responsibility of these statements. I alone. They should not reflect on my party. They should not reflect on my staff, the good people who are working so hard, day and night because they also want to make America great. But mostly, they should not reflect on my family. Please, do not judge my family by my reprehensible words.

And for those of you coming to my defense, saying that those were things I said ten years ago, or that it was off-record, or just “locker room talk.” Or that all men talk like that in private. Please don’t. I appreciate your support, but please do not defend what I said. I can’t and I won’t defend it. I won’t try to deflect it. The criticism is warranted.

What I said was abhorrent. It degraded and disrespected women. And my greatest fear is not the damage my words will do to my campaign; my greatest fear is that a young man will hear those words and think that that kind of behavior is legitimate and acceptable. Or that a young woman will hear those words and think that’s how men think, will find it a reason to question their fathers, brothers, husbands and sons.

What I said is morally repugnant. What I suggested is illegal. No one should ever even think such things, much less voice them.

So I stand before you and ask your forgiveness. I realize it will be hard. After all, I’m now a politician, whether I like that label or not. What I say will always be viewed by many through the lens of politics. But I ask you as a man, as a fellow human, as a fallible creature, I ask your forgiveness.

I realize I have lost many of you with my words. I sincerely ask an act of charity from you—I ask that in the coming weeks, you allow me to try to earn you back. To prove to you that those words I spoke ten years ago do not represent who I am today or who I would be in the future, as President or not. They certainly do not represent my vision for a better, greater America.

Thank you for your time. God Bless America.

What Worries Me About What’s-His-Face

October 9, 2016


Yesterday, I sarcastically tweeted that more has been written about Donald Trump in the past three months than all collected writing on any topic between the beginning of history and the year 2000. It seems that way. He provokes something in seemingly everyone and spews forth at such a rate that by the time the media is covering the latest provocation, he’s on to something new and better. He’s outpacing the news cycle and almost outpacing social media.

The Don may be the first politician to combine the worst of the past four decades into one id-driven monster— he embodies the excessive greed (and tasteless aesthetic) of the ‘80s financial class, the crass narcissism of ‘90s reality-show culture, the post-factual political tribalism of the 2000s and the virality of today’s social media. None of this is good.

If elected, he would be the most dangerous president ever, no question. But even as a candidate, he is doing severe damage. Ignoring the obvious, easy attacks on Trump the man, here are three things that give me an uneasy feeling in my gut:

Lack of Oxygen

Hardly anything currently being discussed that helps make our country better. Instead of talking about education, poverty and foreign policy, we’re talking about men’s locker rooms, re-litigating Bill’s Clinton’s infidelities and fact-checking a human random-reality generator. Sensation trumps content. The windbag is burning up the oxygen, and everything that is real and important is dying of asphyxiation.


The One-Party System

Ideally, the U.S. would have a political system that supported more than two viable parties. But we like it simple—we like a “good guy” and a “bad guy.” “Us” vs “Them” is an easy story to tell and simplifies our choices. And our two-party system is the minimum required for maintaining balance with extreme forces pulling in opposite directions.

But as an increasing number of prominent GOP voices dump Trump, there is talk of the GOP losing not just the presidency (which is feeling foregone), but Congress too. Dems are getting jittery with glee. I’m wary.

One of the great successes of the American system (and we’re only a couple hundred years into this experiment) is that the pendulum never swings too wildly. In the grand scheme of things, our electable candidates are more alike than different, our legislative course corrections are usually just minor adjustments. We’re fairly straight and narrow. Not awesome for rapid progress, but great for stability.

So anything that makes the pendulum start to swing wider makes me nervous. A landslide reaction to Trump which gives the left an overwhelming majority could easily be offset by an even stronger swing the other direction eight years from now. Big swings are fun in baseball in boxing, not so much in government.

The Trump Effect

The legitimization of racism. The normalization of hate. The acceptance of anger as a campaign platform. The (further) degradation of political discourse. The (further) move away from fact-based reality into opinion-based reality.  Further proof that money, bluster and a willing tribe will get you 90% of the way there. There are a thousand theories about what the Trump’s candidacy means now and later. We’re in the Eye of the Hairicane™ at the moment, so it’s hard to know which predictions will play out. The most frightening are those that haven’t been imagined yet, because so much of this circus has been defined by “Well, it certainly can’t get any worse than this,” only to be proven wrong a day later.  Who knows what the heck the true impact will be, but we can be certain that the term “Trump Effect” will be in our vernacular for the next half-decade, maybe longer. And it won’t describe anything good.


What the Printing Press Can Teach Us About Digital Media

October 4, 2016



I came across this passage today while reading When We Are No More: How Digital Memory is Shaping Our Future by Abby Smith Rumsey.

The subject is the effect of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press in the 16th Century, but it is directly relevant to the impact of digital media in today’s tribal, post-factual, false-equivocal environment (tribal in that we pick a position on any issue based on our professed group identity—e.g. political party—then post-rationalize; post-factual in that we seem perfectly comfortable with any facts that bolster our position, regardless of source, quality or quantity of those facts; and false-equivocal in that we point to any counterargument as proof of a valid counter-position).

“Through print, ideas and opinions acquired physical life of their own and a passport to travel [with today’s digital life of ideas, it’s faster and wider]. Made-up facts were particularly powerful agents of opinion making and persuasion. The mere fact of print carried with it an implicit imprimatur of authority…

In such times, when the confusing circulation of contradictory ideas and so-called facts cry out with equal force to be given credence, we face a crisis of authority. As authorities and institutions fail, we are forced to decide for ourselves which sources are trustworthy and which are not. The question of what to believe becomes, almost imperceptibly, a question of who to believe. Because there is so much information swirling around us, we turn instinctively to the individuals and groups whose authority speak to speak on the matter seems most trustworthy. We turn to friends. And when they fail us, we turn to experts and hope for the best.”

It follows that a deft, insidious, and possibly winning tactic for anyone [e.g. political party] with a losing argument but tribal base is to flood the system with noise and disinformation. Confusion and obfuscation lead not to true fact-finding but a turn to trusted voices—friends, political pundits, public personalities and celebrities.

Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving

September 29, 2016


“Juan Diego doesn’t live with anyone. This allows him to live in his imagination all the time. No wife, no children, too much imagination—this is a dangerous combination. A prescription for a lonely and a fantasy-consumed life.” So says John Irving in one of the three trailers for Avenue of Mysteries, his fourteenth novel.

John Irving’s books spoke to me more when I was younger. This is probably in part because he writes the types of stories that tend to resonate with young men and in part because the novels at the peak of his career—The World According to Garp, A Prayer for Owen Meany, The Cider House Rules­—are masterful stories, modern classics. The third act of his career—I would say after Until I Find You (2005)—has been less consistent. His previous three novels before Avenue of Mysteries all checked so many of the “John Irving Boxes” (his Wikipedia page used to literally have a chart that kept track of repeated elements) that they seemed just different versions of the same story. Avenue of Mysteries has its fair share of familiar elements, but it’s most closely related to Son of the Circus, an outlier in its own right.

Avenue of Mysteries tells two parallel stories. The first is of 14-year-old Juan Diego and his sister Lupe, growing up at the dump in Oaxaca, Mexico. The second is of 54-year-old Juan Diego on a trip to the Philippines. In the story of the children, many of the plot elements are familiar. The strength of that section is the Lupe character—a child with the power to read minds and, less accurately, tell the future, but whose speech is a form of gibberish that only Juan Diego can translate.

In the story of the 54-year-old Juan Diego, he is an author (another common Irving element) and is taking medication that causes him to sleep often and live in a dreamlike world. It’s this medication plus Juan Diego’s active imagination that allows the story to slide back and forth between the present and the past. It’s also the medication that allows for the introduction of the most interesting element of the story—some magical realism. It’s a natural part of the story, with its heritage in Mexican writing. The magical realism also works hardest to make this book unique from Irving’s other novels and is the most interesting part of the story. Characters are introduced who, although flat in terms of development, become more and more interesting as we pick up clues that there might be more (or less) to them than we first thought.




Irving’s greatest strength (and I’m sure I’ve written this in a review before) is not just in developing his characters, but in finishing them off. Even those characters I feel unattached to have an ability to tug on some emotions when it comes time to say goodbye. Such is Juan Diego. Not a great character, but the end of his story is poignant nonetheless.

I would add that I found the redundant nature of Irving’s writing bothersome, but I think I’ve said that about the last few of his novels as well. It’s his style, and it’s very deliberate (I would say too deliberate). His third novel, The 158-Pound Marriage (1974), is the only one I haven’t read. When I do, I imagine I’ll see that he was writing with the same redundancies back then.

Irving’s writing has meant so much to me over the years, but I would unfortunately put this on the bottom half of the list. Definitely not where I’d start in the Irving canon. But as long as he keeps turning out novels, I’ll keep reading them.


Terrible Questions

September 29, 2016

A train is careering down a track out of control. There is a switch up ahead. Currently, the switch is set to send the train down a track where it will hit four people. If you flip the switch, it will go down a different track where it will hit only one person. You cannot warn the people, only choose to flip the switch or not. What do you do?

Okay, now say the four people on the first track are all in their 90s, and two of them are former Nazis. The one person on the other track is a kindergartner. What do you do?

A different scenario:

Your spouse is injured badly in an accident at the home. There’s no time to wait for an ambulance. Is it okay to drive twice the legal speed limit down crowded city streets, weaving in and out of oncoming traffic, to get to the emergency room?

Okay, say that injured person is you. You’re bleeding pretty heavily, and it’s likely that as you drive recklessly down these crowded city streets, you will pass out from loss of blood. Is it okay to try to make it?

These are the kinds of discussions I remember from my ethics class in grad school (along with, vaguely, something called the Potter Box). They were interesting to debate, but almost always contrived hypotheticals.

This morning, I caught a bit of an NPR story about a group being formed to discuss these sort of ethical dilemmas as they pertain to artificial intelligence. We’re in the very early stages of AI, but we’re quickly headed toward a world where computer-controlled machines will be operating out there “among us.” Perhaps the most prominent recent example is the self-driving car.

The thought of self-driving vehicles freaks some people out. But if they’re safer than human drivers (which statistically they are) and are only going to get safer via machine learning, then I wouldn’t hesitate to get into a Johnny Cab if it showed up at my house to take me to the airport.

But what the folks on NPR were talking about were taking those ethics-class hypotheticals and working through them to set industry standards. A person, faced with the unlikely decision of flipping a train switch to save four ninety-year-olds or one kindergartner, wouldn’t run the decision through the Potter Box like in ethics class. In real life, that decision would likely fall more to the reptile brain. It would be instinctual, good or bad.

But computers don’t have reptile brains. A computer couldn’t look at the face of the child and be emotionally moved. It has to be programmed for these situations. Which gets into the morally unsettling territory of assigning quantitative values to human lives. Can a quantitative value be assigned to a life based on age, fitness, accomplishments, transgressions, etc.?

Of course, we do this every day with actuarial science—the mathematics behind insurance. What is the likelihood that someone will die during the term of this life insurance policy? What is the likelihood of an earthquake, the likely loss of life from a bridge collapse, and how does that compare to the cost to retrofit the bridge? And we do it in the military, though maybe with less statistical precision: if we take out that ISIS leader with a drone strike, what is the likelihood of also killing innocent civilians in the market across the street?


What people find unsettling about self-driving cars is that it feels like we’re turning our decision-making power over to a machine. That’s true in some regard, and if it’s a decision of whether to take the freeway or side streets based on traffic data, most of us are fine with that. But when it comes to the life-or-death decisions, that’s when we get queasy.

There are school children in the street. Do you plow through them or jerk the car onto the sidewalk and into the front of a McDonald’s?

If you took a moment to think about that, it’s too late. That is a life-or-death decision, it comes out of the blue and it depends not on a rational deliberation but on an immediate reaction. And that, if we climb into a self-driving car, is what we are really admitting—that the machine can react faster than we could. This is without a doubt true. Automatic braking systems—technology that senses and impending collision and will slam on the brakes if the human driver is too slow to react—are already standard a dozen automobiles. And auto insurance companies believe in them, some giving as high as a 16% discount on premiums.

So what we cede to the machine is the reaction time. We cede the decision to a committee of ethicists and engineers in a room. Who do have time to deliberate, and debate, and apply the Potter box to all kinds of hypothetical dilemmas. They’re asking terrible questions that may, one day, be played out in a fraction of a second in a car that you’re riding in. Or maybe not one that you’re riding in, but one that you own and have sent—driver- and passenger-less—to the grocery store to pick up a few things for dinner.

You start going down this rabbit hole and it’s easy to see why AI is such an inspiration for science fiction. It opens a world of hypotheticals. I listened to maybe four minutes of that NPR story, but here are a few other things I started to spin on:

  • Could I sign my driverless car up for Uber and send it out to make money for me while I sleep? In that case, the transaction is cash for liability—after all, I’d be held responsible if my car did plow into the front of a McDonald’s, right?
  • If my car did plow into a McDonald’s, could I sue the auto manufacturer who programmed it to do so? After all, I ceded my decision to those people in that room. I trusted their algorithm in the same way I trust their brake design.
  • Could I tweak my algorithm in my car? Tell it, for example, that I prefer it just never leave the road, regardless of any situation?
  • What other situations could this instantaneous application of a carefully calculated algorithm be applied? In the news lately, what about an interaction between police and a motorist they’ve pulled over? Instead of putting a gun (and the life/death decision) in the hand of a human police officer, what if there was an armed robot able to make that decision? Plenty of research shows the impact of implicit bias in our decision-making, particularly split-second decisions. A police officer need not be an overt racist for race to influence a shoot/don’t shoot decision. They may not even be aware of their bias (research shows we all have bias, much of which we’re unaware or in denial of). This could potentially be eliminated if the decision is removed from the amygdala of a police officer and given to a robot.
  • Uncomfortable yet? What about robot soldiers? We already have AI baked into our drones, why not ground troops? Wouldn’t we prefer to put a machine in harm’s way than one of our human soldiers? And if we trust AI with tough decisions in cars, wouldn’t we trust the cold, calculating machine (backed by the room full of ethicists and engineers, of course) to decide whether that woman approaching on the street of Rahmadi is friendly or wearing a bomb vest? In these situations with human soldiers, and in the police/suspect encounters, the conflict is so highly charged because there are two lives at stake—the cop/soldier and the civilian. Any error in judgment, an over- or under-estimation of the danger, can result in a death one way or the other. But inserting a machine into the soldier/cop slot, we can weigh the decision more heavily toward restraint, back away from the need to pull the trigger. Because if the AI underestimates the threat, the only thing lost is a robot.

Of course, those robots are expensive—millions of dollars each. So then there is another room, this one full of businessmen and bean counters (no ethicists in attendance), debating whether or not we should tweak the algorithm, just a little nudge toward pulling the trigger earlier. Which puts us back in the more familiar territory of calculating human life in terms of money.


I should stop there. You could do hypotheticals for decades (and sci-fi writers have). The only thing is, these hypotheticals are now getting closer and closer to reality. We’ll see how they play out. In the meantime, maybe I should trust AI to write my blog posts and keep them on the road. A robot would know better.



A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

September 27, 2016


In the late 1990s in Chechnya, an eight-year old girl named Havaa hides as soldiers abduct her father and then burn her home. She flees to the woods, where she is found by a neighbor man, Akhmed. Unsure what to do, he takes her to a nearby hospital where they meet a bone-weary doctor named Sonja. The novel is about these three lives brought united by chance, how they weave together over times past, present and future in a bleak, devastated landscape.

It is a heavy novel with heavy themes—love and war, loyalty and betrayal, courage and cowardice. The writing is very good, and there are moments both in the description and in the observations that are razor sharp. One I jotted down: An exchange between two characters, one of them saying that Marx was right, “religion is a crutch.” The other retorts, “If you step on a landmine, the crutch becomes a leg.”

The narrative is a scatter of scenes that, like the title suggests, paint a bigger picture when considered as a whole. They have the feeling of something blown apart by a bomb, and it takes an effort on the reader’s part to piece them together into something meaningful. Perhaps I didn’t fully have the patience for this one. I admired the craft, from the fantastic opening line: “On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones.” But something about the characters felt distant all the way through. This book has great reviews—so good that I feel like I missed something or wasn’t in the right mood or didn’t pay close enough attention. Occasionally, I read a book that I love but is so off-beat that I hesitate to recommend it to anyone else. This case is the opposite. I didn’t love this book, but I wouldn’t tell anyone not to read it.

Black Flags: The Rise of Isis by Joby Warrick

September 17, 2016


Even with fifteen years gone by, it may take another several decades to understand the full effects of the September 11, 2001 attacks. It’s clearly the catalytic geopolitical moment of the early part of this century. Today, ripples from 9/11 play out in the Syrian catastrophe, the rise of ISIS and the developing proxy war between the U.S. and Russia. While the attacks on that day were horrendous, the damage was compounded by the reaction of the United States and the mistakes we made in the subsequent years. In this Pullitzer-prize-winning book, Joby Warrick traces the path from 9/11 to the current situation, focusing on the rise of the Islamic State.

The three biggest rationales for the post-9/11 invasion of Iraq—1) a link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaida, 2) Iraq’s role in 9/11 and 3) weapons of mass destruction in Iraq—all proved false. But within the attempt by the Bush administration to rationalize its decision to go to war, it made another false claim that would seem relatively minor until a decade later. In trying to connect Iraq to Al Qaida, it pinpointed a Jordanian, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as the link. Zarqawi was indeed an Islamist militant and had operated a training camp in Afghanistan, but he had no connection to Osama bin Laden or Al Qaida. To the average American hearing Zarqawi’s name for the first time when Colin Powell spoke it in his fateful U.N. testimony, it would have meant nothing more than a detail to make the claim of a connection seem more legitimate. But the false claim did something much more important for Zarqawi. It made him famous. In that one instant, this obscure Jordanian militant was now one of the great heroes of jihad, someone like-minded militants could rally around. In that moment, we were a kingmaker of the wrong sort.

Warrick details Zarqawi’s background, his dream of an ultra-conservative Islamic caliphate, his rise to power in the Middle East and how the invasion of Iraq and the ensuing mistakes (disbanding of Iraqi army, deBaathification, failure to provide adequate security, failure to provide basic utilities, shooting of demonstrators in Fallujah, Abu Ghraib, etc.) turned the situation into the perfect cauldron of chaos for Zarqawi’s campaign. Initially, his goal was not organization; it was destabilization. The Americans served their purpose in breaking the country. After that, Zarqawi just needed to ignite a civil war.

Zarqawi was killed in an airstrike in 2006, but his movement carried on, finding another catalyzing moment in the chaos of the Arab Spring. The Bush administration’s great mistake had been to get into Iraq. The Obama Administration’s was to stay out and let the situation fester. But the U.S. was war-weary country and Obama had political campaign promises to live up to. The gains of the 2007-08 surge were largely lost and the total collapse of Syria again provided the kind of chaos in which the jihadists thrived. They re-emerged under the black banner of ISIS (also ISIL or Daesh) and seized a massive territory in Syria and northern Iraq. Videos of beheadings and other atrocities became commonplace. Stories of misery under the caliphate’s barbaric laws leaked out. And the political situation got very, very messy.

There is a line that describes ISIS as “good butchers but bad soldiers.” This is both hopeful and foreboding. Hopeful in that they can be taken out with a unified, concerted effort by any competent military force. But until the will is there, they will continue their butchery.

Warrick draws on a wide range of sources, from high-level CIA agents and former agents to foreigners on the ground (the Jordanian sources contribute heavily to an understanding of Zarqawi). This is a gripping story, and unfortunately it is not fiction. The clear narrative here is that despite our desire to stay out of the Syrian hornet’s nest, we are responsible for it. One source, speaking of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the current, brutal leader of ISIS, said “Had it not been for the U.S. Invasion of Iraq, the Islamic State’s greatest butcher likely would have lived out his years as a college professor.”

There are no easy solutions. In hindsight, there were multiple opportunities to snuff out ISIS before it got a foothold. In hindsight, there were moments that re-engaging would have been a much easier task than it would be today. In hindsight, the failures of the Iraq endeavor will extend far beyond the borders and timeframe of that war. Pundits want to point fingers and argue whose fault this mess is, as if that matters. They will out-rightly deny the facts of history and make up their own history if it helps make their point. When the story can become so skewed based on one’s particular political lens, it’s important to have factual account of what actually happened and why. This is an important book in understanding the truth of how we got to now.