actual conspiracies

Conspiracy theorists aren’t afraid of hard work.They’ll cheerfully concoct massively complicated theories with multiple interacting elements that require flow charts to understand how and why Hillary Clinton was responsible for the murder-by-plane crash of some obscure businessperson in Arkansas. But one of the many many problems with conspiracy theorists is they prefer fantasy theories that fit their worldview over actual theories that may contradict it.

Let’s take a very quick look at the arrest last weekend of former FBI big hat, Charles McGonigal (which is a lovely patronymic name, by the way; from the Gaelic Mac Conghaile, meaning the son of Conghaile which basically means ‘brave as a hound’). Your man McGonigal had what appeared to be a stellar FBI career, dealing with counter-espionage primarily. He joined the FBI in 1996 and was initially assigned to the New York Field Office, where he worked on Russian foreign counterintelligence and organized crime matters. When he retired in 2018, he was the Special Agent in Charge of the Counter-intelligence Division for the New York Field Office.

Why was McGonigal arrested? For money laundering and for helping Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska–a close friend and ally of Vlad Putin–dodge US sanctions imposed against him.

Right now, the MAGA crowd likes to depict the FBI as Trump-haters, largely because they searched Mar-a-Lago and found a hoard of classified documents that Trump had illegally taken and refused to release to the National Archives. But back in 2015-2016, when Trump was running for president, Trump supporters celebrated how much the FBI loved him. The New York Field Office in particular (and remember, McGonigal was in charge of a major FBI section of that office) was openly referred to as Trumplandia. It was the NY Field Office that got FBI Director James Comey to inform Congress (and therefore the news media) of the possible existence of new information that might lead to re-opening the closed investigation of Hillary Clinton’s e-mail server. Comey’s letter to Congress, which was written even before the FBI obtained a warrant to explore the possible new information, was made public ten days before the 2016 election. It almost certainly influenced the election result in Trump’s favor. And, of course, it turned out there was no new information.

It was McGonigal’s Counter-intelligence unit that handled the investigation of Donald Trump’s ties to Russia. Remember, Trump and most of his presidential campaign’s inner circle–his sons and daughter, Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, Rick Gates, and others–had major business interests in Russia. Many of them had business dealings with Oleg Deripaska. In fact, in 2016 Deripaska was suing Trump’s campaign manager, Manafort, for US$25 million over a failed business deal in…wait for it…Ukraine. Manafort was instrumental in changing the 2016 Republican Presidential Platform to remove support for supplying defensive weapons to Ukraine. Why was the US giving weapons to Ukraine in 2016? Because in 2014, Russia (on orders from Putin) invaded and “annexed” the Crimean peninsula and a big chunk of eastern Ukraine.

2016 is also apparently the year in which McGonigal began secretly working with/for Deripaska. That same year, his unit investigated allegations that Russia was interfering with the US election process in support of Donald Trump. Although that investigation was later conducted under the aegis of Robert Mueller as Special Counsel, it was McGonigal’s agents who continued to investigate the matter. Mueller’s report concluded the Trump campaign DID welcome Russian interference in the election and they expected to benefit from it, The report also noted that pervasive obstruction of justice by witnesses made it impossible for McGonigal’s agents to obtain sufficient evidence to claim Trump committed a criminal conspiracy. In addition, there was/is a policy against charging a sitting president with a crime. Mueller did, however, note that Trump could be charged with obstruction of justice (or other crimes) after he left office.

“Rabbits are ruining your garden!” shout the crows.

So just to recap. 1) Putin/Russia seizes parts of Ukraine, 2) Russia leans on the Trump campaign to resist helping Ukraine, 3) the campaign complies, 4) Russia interferes with the election to help Trump, 5) the FBI investigation into that interference is conducted by McGonigal, who 6) is secretly being paid by an ally to Trump, and 7) the investigation fails to find any criminality. Also? 8) in 2019, President Trump lifts most of the sanctions against Deripaska.

This is all well documented in several public news sources. This is an actual conspiracy, a broad and wide-ranging criminal conspiracy.

Can we expect Congress to investigate? Nope. They’ll be too busy trying to figure out how Hunter Biden’s laptop was used by Bill Gates to create a secret Satanic community of cannibalistic pedophiles by secretly releasing a phony ‘plague’ manufactured in China by the Deep State Uniparty to weaken the rights of parents to decide which books their children should avoid to keep them from being groomed by drag queens and harvested for the lymph nodes celebrities need to stay young.

Let’s give the next-to-last word to William Gibson:

People find conspiracy theories fantastically comforting not because they’re more frightening than reality, but because they’re less frightening than reality.

We have nothing (aside from dick pics) to fear from Hunter Biden’s laptop. We have a great deal to fear from people willing to undermine democracy in return for wealth and power.

me and edgar

Okay, good news. This morning I learned I’ve been nominated for an Edgar. The Mystery Writers of America have been handing out Edgar Allan Poe awards for short fiction since 1951. The nominations are announced on Poe’s birthday, which is today. Getting nominated is a pretty big deal in the mystery and detective fiction biz.

The nomination is for a short story called Red Flag, which deals with red flag laws (hence the clever title). It’s a story about a man whose career was ended by a mass shooting. He returns to his home state of Michigan, tries to live a quiet life, but gets reluctantly drawn into a situation. A mother is concerned about her son–an alienated young man she’s afraid is thinking about committing a mass murder. Because the young man has broken no law, local law enforcement can’t do anything. So the protagonist cobbles together a sort of plan in the hope of disrupting what he sees as the inevitable mass murder attempt.

It’s an odd story. I was having lunch in a brew pub in a small Iowa town when I learned Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine was going to publish it. I was delighted. The very next morning, there was a high publicity mass shooting in a Michigan high school; four students were killed and seven wounded. Lots of people were aware of the shooter’s emotional problems–his parents, school officials, other students. They all knew he’d made vague threats about a mass murder. They knew he had access to a firearm. A red flag law would have allowed the police to remove that firearm, which might have prevented the tragedy.

The coincidence of selling a story about a potential mass murder in Michigan and an actual mass murder in Michigan less than 24 hours later was weirdly discomfiting. Obviously, there was no connection. And yet, it bothered me. Still does, in fact.

So I have mixed emotions about the story, about its publication, and about this nomination. I’m obviously chuffed about it. But I can’t entirely enjoy it. I’ll always associate this story with tragic events. And since I live in the United States, there’ll always be another tragic event.

Today is January 19th. So far this year there have been at least 33 mass shooting incidents in the US, resulting 48 deaths and 128 wounded. There’ll almost certainly be another one today.

I’m incredibly pleased to have been nominated for the Edgar. But I sort of hope I don’t win. I hope more people will read the story. I hope we can change our culture. I have hope.

But not very much of it.

return of the sunday salon

I’ve been shooting photographs for most of my life. I’m a competent photographer. But for most of my life, I was also pretty ignorant about the history and culture of photography. Oh, I knew the names of some of the Big Hats in photography and could probably recognize some of their photos. But I had no real understanding at all of what had been done in photography, or who had done it, how they’d done it, or what they were thinking when they did it. I was the Jon Snow of photographic culture. I knew nothing.

So I set out to correct that. I decided to educate myself. I did it in a fairly haphazard and casual way– picking a photographer who’d caught my attention for some reason and doing some research on them. I also decided to share what I’d learned. At the time, I was the managing editor for Utata, an online collective of smart, creative, funny, curious people who enjoyed photography and discussion in equal measure. So I wrote a short essay on the photographers I studied and used those as a foundation for discussion in the group’s online forum on Flickr.

It was fun at first. I did an essay every week. Then after a while, it was every other week. It was still basically fun, and I learned a lot. But after a few years, it became a chore. A pleasant chore, for the most part, but still a chore. And like one does with a chore, I began to find reasons to avoid doing it.

And then I stopped.

I just didn’t want to do it anymore. I continued to read about photographers and think about their work, but the idea of writing an essay about them…well, it was simply too much unpaid labor. The last Sunday Salon was published in July of 2017.

A year or so later I learned a change in Flickr’s API (I have no idea what an API is, but it changed) had essentially gutted the Sunday Salons; they were no longer available online. Nobody could see them. I was okay with that. I didn’t really care. The salons had been a personal project, after all, and I’d accomplished what I wanted to accomplish. If they were gone, they were gone.

A few years went by. A few folks would occasionally mention something they’d learned from the salons, but I gave them little or no thought. Until about a year ago, when I got the urge to write another one. But I didn’t do it. I mean, why write an essay for a site that couldn’t display them? But I got in touch with Utata’s tech ninja, David Winkinson, who is one of the most thoughtful, generous, and considerate tech ninja’s ever. Would it be possible to resurrect the old site? The answer was ‘Not entirely; not the photos.’ But he said he could restore the text and establish it on his personal server. And before I could say, ‘Don’t bother’ he went right ahead and bothered.

And there it was. 170 or so essays. Somewhat buggered up, to be sure, but all the bones were there. They just needed to be collected, put in order, and fleshed out with photo examples from each photographer.

So I’ve spent the last few months sporadically noodling around, rebuilding the damned thing. I have absolutely NO skill at graphic design. I’m not even sure ‘graphic design’ is the appropriate term for what I’m talking about. But I cobbled the Sunday Salon together after a fashion. I’d have spent more time trying to figure out how to make it more presentable and more useful, but last week Adolfo Kaminsky died.

Violinist, 1945, by Adolfo Kaminsky

Odds are, you’ve no idea who Adolfo Kaminsky was. But you should. So I wrote a Sunday Salon about him (yes, I know today isn’t Sunday, but c’mon, let’s not get fussy at this point). Click on the link if you’re interested.

So here you go. The return of the Sunday Salon. You can find them all right here. Or just click on the Sunday Salon link at the top of the page.

workin’ in the house of maga

It’s the fourth day of the new Republican-controlled House of Representatives, and it’s astonishing to witness just how much stupid, horrific shit they’ve managed to spread in that short time. There’s the big, obvious stupid, horrific shit–like the stupid, horrific new House Committee on the Weaponization of Government, or the stupid, horrific way they’ve gutted the Office of Congressional Ethics just as they’re examining the Members of Congress who refused to honor the subpoenas issued by the Jan. 6 committee. But the House of MAGA has also given some attention to smaller and less obvious stupid, horrific shit.

For example, they went to the bother of changing the name of the House Committee on Education and Labor. It’s now called the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. Why, you ask, would they change ‘labor’ to ‘workforce’? Because changing the name complies with the House of MAGA’s prime directive: piss off the libs.

“Hey, good news! We’re no longer laborers! Now we’re part of a workforce!”

The Chair of the new House Committee on Education & the Workforce is Virginia Foxx of North Carolina. Rep. Foxx has a long Congressional history of being stupid and horrific. Back in 2005, she voted against the aid package for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. She claimed the murder of Matthew Shepard was “a very unfortunate incident” but not a hate crime (“We know that that young man was killed in the commitment of a robbery. It wasn’t because he was gay“). She opposed Obamacare, saying “We have more to fear from the potential of the Affordable Health Care Act passing than we do from any terrorist right now in any country.” She voted against Comrade Trump’s impeachment twice. She was one of the Members of Congress who opposed the certification of the 2020 vote. And she opposes all abortion, even in the case of rape, incest, or the health of the mother.

The House of MAGA; The Intersection of Stupid and Horrific.

Rep. Foxx, in her role as Chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, offered an explanation for the change in name.

“‘Labor’ is an antiquated term that excludes individuals who contribute to the American workforce but aren’t classified as conventional employees. ‘Labor’ also carries a negative connotation that ignores the dignity of work; the term is something out of a Marxist textbook…. The Left prefers the term labor because it creates a sense of enmity between employees and employers which union bosses and left-wing activists seek to stoke for political gain…. Though the Left likes to treat employers like predators, we know that most job creators have their employees’ best interests in mind”

See, the ‘Left’ is only interested in workers the workforce for political gain, which is unAmerican and unpatriotic and therefore wrong. Employers, on the other hand, are only interested in financial gain, which is very American and patriotic and therefore right. Okay, maybe worker productivity rose more than 60% over the last forty years while worker workforce pay rose less than 18% (after adjusting for inflation). But hey, they’ve still got plenty of that ‘dignity of work’ to keep them happy, right? Where’s the dignity in ‘labor‘?

Also? Workforce sounds like they could be a team of Marvel superheroes. Isn’t that as good as money? Would Workforce America! ™ ask for safe working conditions? Hah!

Over the next two years we can expect to see much more stupid, horrific stuff across every scale of government. They hope we will be numbed by the barrage of stupid, horrific stuff. There’s a danger they could be right.

cool down papa, don’t you blow your top

The buzzard told the monkey you are choking me.
Release your hold and i will set you free.
The monkey looked the buzzard right dead in the eye,
And said your story’s so touching, but it sounds just like a lie.

Irving Mills / Nat king cole

Two scenarios:

Scenario One: President Uncle Joe Biden’s lawyers, while going through files in an office in a private policy institute Uncle Joe used in the period between being Vice President and President, come across two files that appear to be classified. They notify the Department of Justice and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), and return the documents without being asked. The Attorney General immediately appoints a prosecutor to investigate. (Edit: apparently there were ten documents, not two.)

Scenario Two: President Comrade Trump has multiple highly classified documents transferred to his home, which is shared with a public venue. Four months later, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) asks for the return of those documents. Trump returns two dozen boxes of material, including some of the classified documents. NARA informs Trump that they’re still missing some documents, and ask him to return the rest of the material he took from the White House. Seven months later, Trump returns another dozen boxes of material. A year after Trump left office, NARA informs Trump he STILL hasn’t returned all the documents. The Department of Justice is notified. Sixteen months after Trump left office, the DOJ issues a subpoena for the return of those documents. Trump claims he’s returned everything. Eighteen months after leaving office, a federal judge issues a warrant for the FBI to search and seize the still-missing documents. They find nearly 200 classified documents, including some labeled TS/SCI (which are so secret they’re only to be read in a secure room in which no cameras or recording devices are allowed). In total, around 13,000 documents Trump wasn’t allowed to take are recovered from Mar-a-Lago. The Attorney General appoints a prosecutor to investigate the matter 23 months after Trump removed the documents.

The News Media: Both Trump and Biden in possession of classified documents! Prosecutor to investigate!

Attorney General Merrick Garland hears Trump’s attorneys.

This is absolute bullshit, of course. Biden and his lawyers acted properly. They discovered the two documents, notified the appropriate agencies, and acknowledged the mistake. Trump did the exact opposite. He deliberately removed thousands of documents, he and his lawyers resisted returning them, lied about them, and the FBI was forced to go to Mar-a-Lago in order to retrieve them.

Attorney General Merrick Garland delayed ordering a prosecutor to investigate Trump’s handling of classified documents for nearly two years, but immediately ordered one to investigate Biden’s handling of them. Why? To appear non-partisan. To avoid giving MAGA Republicans a reason to claim the DOJ is unfair. As if MAGA Republicans have any interest in Fact or Truth. MAGA Republicans will, of course, claim the two scenarios are exactly the same.

The only question is whether the news media will have the integrity to report this matter accurately. And sadly, I think we know the answer to that. Is there anything we can do about it?

Nope, not really. And let’s face it, there are more equally stupid but far more critical issues we’ll be dealing with in the very near future. In this on particular case, maybe we should consider the advice of Nat King Cole: “Cool down papa don’t you blow your top.”

getting shit done

Here’s the problem one of the countless problems with the modern Republican Party: they’ve completely abandoned the idea that the purpose of government is to get shit done.

They say they want shit done, but they’re not willing to engage in the process required to get it done. I suspect some of them mean it when they say, “There’s shit we need to get done.” But there’s a hefty chunk of the GOP that actively interferes with getting shit done simply so they can blame President Uncle Joe for failing to get shit done. They love telling everybody “Shit that needs to get done is NOT getting done, BUT if you elect us, we’ll do all kinds of shit.” Except, of course, when they get the power and authority to get shit done, they…well, they shit the bed.

We’re witnessing that right now in the food fight over electing a Speaker of the House. The most telling (and probably least discussed) aspect of this fuckparade is the simple fact that apparently nobody in the Republican House can count votes. Each of the political parties in Congress has a semi-formal position called a Party Whip. The job of the Whip is 1) to find out how members are going to vote, and 2) to try to ensure they vote the way the party wants them to vote. Right now, ain’t nobody in the House GOP doing that. Nobody seems to have reliable information on how many people are going to vote for or against Kevin McCarthy for Speaker.

Electing a Speaker of the House

As I write this, the House is getting ready for the 7th attempt to elect a Speaker of the House. With any normal political party, this would be a formality. It’s been a formality for around a century. With any normal political party, there wouldn’t BE a vote until the party was certain they had the votes necessary to win. A normal political party would want to elect a leader who’d demonstrated strength of purpose, personal integrity, strong policy views. But the modern GOP isn’t a normal political party; the man most of them want to be their leader has cravenly given in to the threats of the GOP’s most extreme elements. He’s demonstrated a moral and ethical flexibility that offends both his supporters and his opponents. Kevin McCarthy stands for nothing other than a desire to be Speaker of the House.

Here’s a True Thing: governance is about getting shit done. It’s about the dull, grinding, detailed work of talking to people you disagree with and finding ways to compromise. The modern GOP isn’t willing to do that. The modern GOP isn’t capable of that. If the Republicans, as the majority party in the House, aren’t even able to elect a leader, they’re certainly not going to be able to get any meaningful shit done.

The modern GOP is more focused on doing shit TO others than in getting shit done. They’ve ceased to be a political party; now they’re basically acting as an incubator for future Fox News hosts and right-wing media darlings.

It’s going to be a long, long two years in Congress. Assuming the House ever manages to elect a Speaker.

another ordinary day

Wake up, get myself dressed, wander into the kitchen, remember the cat isn’t going to be there, make coffee, read the news, get distracted by…something. That last bit? Getting distracted by…something? Story of my life, right there.

I’m not driven by ambition or security or responsibility or success (whatever that means), but I am ridiculously weak to curiosity. I have a compelling need to know stuff. Unfortunately, it’s rarely useful stuff. If you’re looking for somebody who knows how to repair something mechanical or build a cabinet or replace an electrical outlet, I’m completely fucking useless. But if you ever want to know the name of the brother of the last Saxon king of England or the history and etymology of ‘spatula’ or why jamon iberica is the best ham in the world, I’m your huckleberry.

I only know these things because I allow myself to be distracted by something. And following that distraction led to something else, which led me to something else, which ended up with me accumulating still more useless information. And that’s exactly what happened to me this morning.

In an online forum devoted to readers of the historical fiction of Dorothy Dunnett I came across a passing reference to St. Mary’s Loch–the site of a band of mercenaries in Dunnett’s work. Being familiar with the novel, I had a general notion of where the loch was located in Scotland, but (and this where it always starts…with that but) I decided to look at a map to get a more exact location. And I was curious why the loch was named for St. Mary.

The answer to that last question was both obvious and easy to discover. It was named for a church dedicated to St. Mary. That church is gone now, but the graveyard is still there (and since this is about useless information, the difference between a graveyard and a cemetery is that a graveyard is associated with a churchyard, which requires a church; so this grave site is still a graveyard even though the church is gone).

St. Mary’s graveyard.

Information about the burial site led me to somebody’s blog post about St. Mary’s Loch, which included a reference to “the Hamlet of Cappercleuch with its couthy old, corrugated iron village hall.” Multiple sources of distraction here. What the fuck does couthy mean? (Spoiler: it’s a Scots term meaning ‘sociable, friendly, congenial, comfortable, snug.) And who wouldn’t want to see a couthy old, corrugated iron village hall?

That led me to Google Maps and Google Street View of Cappercleuch. It turns out that a corrugated iron village hall is…well, just that. It’s basically a rather ordinary, disappointing metal shed. Not particularly old, and certainly not very couthy.

St. Mary’s Hall at Cappercleuch — neither old nor couthy.

Still, as long as I was noodling about with Google Street View, I figured I may as well spend a few minutes looking at St. Mary’s Loch and seeing what else Cappercleuch had to offer. And within ninety seconds I came across another distraction. This:

What the hell is this?

Reader, now THIS is a serious distraction. Just what the hell IS this? I mean, I can see what it is: a small, cross-gabled, distinctively decorated, phone-box sized structure. But what is its purpose? Why is it located just off the A708 motorway in Cappercleuch? (And if you’re curious enough to look for this on Google Maps, here’s a shortcut for you.)

The first thing I learned was that the A708 was one of the five most dangerous roads in proportion to traffic in all of Scotland. Or at least it was between 2007 and 2009. Not particularly helpful information, unless many of those accidents were because drivers were distracted by this weird boxy structure.

We can assume it’s not a Scots Tardis, but it has that ‘police box’ aura about it. It’s something official, certainly. The carefully crafted logo seems to confirm that. If we look closely, we can sort of see that it has the number 723 on the side. So, of course, the only thing for us to do is Google Box 723 Cappercleuch. And that gives us this:

I’m just going to assume you’ve made the same leap I did. AA stands for Automobile Association. It’s the UK version of AAA. AA boxes were an early form of roadside assistance in the UK. The first AA boxes were introduced in 1911. They were lit by oil lamps at night, and were sometimes referred to as “the lighthouses of the road.” The AA boxes contained maps to help folks who were lost, as well as a fire extinguisher, a lantern, and a telephone available to contact the AA for assistance. Members of the Automobile Association were issued with keys that fit all AA boxes in the UK.

By 1919 the AA had established a well-connected communication and assistance network of over a thousand roadside boxes, many of which were manned by yellow-uniformed ‘sentries’ who were there to offer free assistance.

Improvements in technology eventually made the AA boxes obsolete. By the late 1960s, the AA began to phase them out. In 2002 only 21 call boxes were still standing; AA shut down the entire network and made plans to dispose of the structures. The following year the boxes were listed as historic landmarks, and efforts were made to physically restore them. Apparently nineteen boxes still exist.

There’s a part of me, of course, that wants to use Google Maps to find them all. It shouldn’t be hard to do. There is absolutely NO REASON for me to do that, but at some point I probably will. Because that sort of pointless activity is my wheelhouse.

But it won’t be done today. I’ve learned some minimal self discipline over the years.

I’ve no idea how much of my day is spent giving in to my curiosity. I’m going to guess at least a couple of hours every day. There are folks who’ll consider this an inefficient use of my time.

Ain’t it great?