Saturday, April 22, 2017

All the Time in the World

I’ve authored many books and short stories and I’m often asked which is my favorite. I usually answer whatever I’m working on at the moment, because that’s where my enthusiasm will be. But there’s one book that may well be my best; I believe it’s certainly the most important I’ve written. If you have a moment, I’d like to tell you about it.

The book is part of a three-book series I crafted for teenagers and young adults. I wanted to re-create the adventure series of my youth but tailored to the modern reader. Anyone who grew up watching HBO and cable TV, and exploring the nether regions of the Internet, would find books from my childhood too tame and rather boring. So I sought to create a poignant adventure series, packed with action and cliffhangers, that would deal with issues relevant to young people today.

Our protagonist – I won’t call him a hero because he doesn’t want to be one – is a teenage boy; one part Peter Parker, one part Archie Andrews, and one part Marty McFly. It’s a coming-of-age story told in three books. In the first novel, The 25th Hour, 13-year-old Mackenzie Mortimer finds a pocket watch made by his long-missing inventor-grandfather. He discovers the watch can freeze time around him, which comes in handy dealing with bullies and school lockdowns. Of course there’s a girl: not Vanessa,  the one he’s infatuated with from afar, but his BFF Marlene who’s struggling to free herself from the friend zone.  Mac learns his first coming-of-age lesson: With great power comes great responsibility.

In the second book, The Tomorrow Paradox, Mac learns the hard way that the watch can be used to travel through time. Life in the future is very different but some things never change: Mac still finds action and adventure at every turn; and of course, there’s a girl: Gemma, a clone who’s legally considered property, not a person. Didn’t we fight a civil war over that? Mac learns the second coming-of-age lesson: If you have the power to make a difference when no one else can, then you have a moral obligation to do so.

But it’s in the soon-to-be published conclusion, All the Time in the World, that Mac learns his most important coming-of-age lesson. Mac experiences fascism firsthand in occupied Belgium; encountering the Resistance, the Hitler Youth, the SS, and a concentration camp. These experiences change Mackenzie Mortimer, just as writing about them had a profound impact on me. I hope it’s the best book I’ve written; I know it’s the most important. You can pre-order All the Time in the World now from these vendors:

The e-books will be published on April 29 and the paperback will be available on Amazon.
Even better: Get all 3 books! The Adventures of Mackenzie Mortimer Young Adult SF trilogy in paperback, Kindle, and EPUB:

The 25th Hour (Book 1)

Thursday, March 30, 2017

The final part of The Adventures of Mackenzie Mortimer Young Adult SF trilogy will be published April 29!

Available in paperback, Kindle, and EPUB! Order the whole trilogy now:

The 25th Hour (Book 1)

The Tomorrow Paradox (Book 2)

All the Time in the World (Book 3): pre-order from:

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Traitor in Washington

Devin Nunes, chairman of the House of Representatives intelligence committee, is an American traitor. What he did yesterday was so profoundly wrong that by comparison Benedict Arnold is an American hero. Nunes betrayed his office as a member of Congress; he betrayed his role as chairman of the intelligence committee; he betrayed the other congressmen and members of his committee; but worst of all, David Nunes betrayed the trust of the American people.

The committee he is in charge of is investigating the Trump administration’s ties to the Russian government. There is mounting evidence members of the Trump campaign – possibly even Donald Trump himself – colluded with the Russian government. If this proves to be the case, it would mean Americans acting as agents of a foreign government manipulated an election to place a Manchurian candidate in the White House. The magnitude of the situation cannot be exaggerated. Such a scenario, if proven, would be a thousand  times greater scandal than Watergate (in comparison, described accurately by Richard Nixon as “a two-bit burglary”). So it’s extremely important to get to the truth of the matter.

Congress has determined the best way to get to the truth is to let the House Intelligence Committee investigate the matter. But as with any investigation, the evidence must be kept secret as it is being collected. That’s why it’s important the committee members be individuals of integrity. They must be able to be trusted with confidential and Top Secret information. Yesterday, Devin Nunes showed himself to be a man totally devoid of integrity.

As soon as he was entrusted with confidential information, Nunes did four things in rapid succession culminating in one of the most shocking and scandalous displays Washington has ever seen.

First, Nunes held a press conference and revealed what many had suspected but was not confirmed: that the subject of wiretapping was not Donald Trump, but rather Russians targeted by FISA warrants. This means no one was bugging Trump or Trump Tower; the bugs were at the other end, probably on the Russian ambassador’s phone line and that’s how his conversation with former Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was recorded. And that means President Obama didn’t order a wiretap on Trump: U.S. presidents cannot even do that as a FISA warrant comes directly from the FISA court. All FISA information is Top Top Secret, just as the FISA court proceedings are secret. Yet the chairman of the intelligence committee called a press conference to reveal such confidential information.

Second, Nunes deliberately did not reveal any of this information to the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee. This is a break from protocol and ethics never before seen in Washington, DC. Nunes is supposed to share confidential information that comes to the committee with the ranking committee member of the opposition party; instead he shared it with everyone else but the ranking member. Right after the press conference he told House Speaker Paul Ryan about it. But he still never told the ranking Democrat on his committee.

Third, as soon as his press conference ended, Nunes rushed to the White House to brief Donald Trump on what he had learned. As Trump may be considered a possible subject of the investigation, this is akin to a police detective hurrying to a suspect to show him what evidence they’ve collected. The information likely came from a federal employee who, as a whistleblower, is protected by law. But how likely are future potential whistleblowers to come forward after watching the committee head they’d entrust with their information immediately run to go show their boss? Can you say “chilling effect”?

Fourth, Nunes then held a second press conference after speaking with Trump! Nunes obviously has a need for attention even greater than that of the Donald. But here is the man entrusted with the nation’s secrets as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee gathering the media to blab secrets while still not finding the time to say a word to the ranking Democrat on the committee.

Nunes has destroyed the integrity of the investigation and possibly corrupted it to a point where it cannot continue, at least not through his committee. He has leaked confidential information four times in a single day while managing to not tell the one person he was required by protocol to tell.

Why would Nunes possibly commit such an egregious breach and betrayal? Shouldn’t the head of an investigatory committee proceed in an unbiased manner to arrive at the truth and not be a surrogate for the Trump administration, as ranking Democrat Adam Schiff described him? What possible reason could explain Devin Nunes’ outrageous behavior? Perhaps the first sign of bias came on February 27 when Nunes made headlines warning against “a witch hunt” over Trump-Russia ties. "We still don't have any evidence of them talking to Russia," Nunes said. Then the FBI produced the evidence. Ironically, that same day Nunes said he was “concerned about leaks of classified and sensitive information.” Apparently, he’s not as concerned when he’s the one doing the leaking.

But there’s one thing I didn’t mention about Devin Nunes that might explain his behavior and his apparent bias in favor of the Trump administration in lieu of the impartiality one would expect from a committee chairman assigned to ferret out the truth: Republican Devin Nunes was a member of President Donald Trump’s transition team.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Guest Blog - Reader Submission

In my last blog post, I introduced the concept of a Cthulhu Moment. I also asked my newsletter subscribers to submit their Cthulhu Moments and promised to choose one to publish on my blog. After wading through all the submissions, I’m pleased to present this Cthulhu Moment shared by Linda S.

From Linda S.:
My first one happened when I was 14 and moved from Massachusetts to Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. I was shocked at how kind, warm and approachable people were here. I looked back at my old home and saw it in an unforgiving light. My more recent one was a mixture of the U.S. election campaign, the election itself, and the reality we are now facing. It dismays me to see things so divisive, polarized and frustrated. I thought that the world was in a colossal mess, but I now realize that even though I had a relatively clear view of the world, I had no idea the depths that it could sink to in such a short period of time.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Have You Ever had a Cthulhu Moment

Cthulhu, a creation of fantasy horror writer H. P. Lovecraft, was a cosmic entity from another planet. Cthulhu and his brethren were worshiped as elder gods by cultists. These elder gods were so unbelievably hideous that no human could look upon their true form without going mad. One of Lovecraft’s major themes was the complete irrelevance of humanity in the face of these cosmic horrors that ruled the universe. Remember Jack Nicholson’s line from A Few Good Men, “You can’t handle the truth”? That’s what happens in Lovecraft’s universe. It turns out mankind’s not in control of its own destiny and humans aren’t at the center of the universe… They’re an afterthought, only a byproduct of creation. When they discover the truth – that everything they thought they knew about reality was completely wrong – they’re driven insane. They think the world is like this, but it’s really like that, and their brains can’t process it.

So a Cthulhu moment would be one in which you discover everything you thought to be true… isn’t. It’s when you realize you’ve been living in a false reality. Perhaps it’s the moment you see your spouse in a new light and realize “this isn’t the person I thought I married; I need to get a divorce.” Or maybe you were watching the election results, saying “No, that can’t be right.”  Or a lifelong friend suddenly says something that makes you realize this person hasn’t ever really been your friend. Or you see increasing hatred and violence throughout the country and shake your head, thinking this isn’t the country you grew up in.

Cthulhu moments may be uniquely personal or may be a shared experience. Have you had a Cthulhu moment? Tell me about it in the comments section below. 

Friday, March 17, 2017

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Buy Now

A drunken Irishman stumbles across a man he believes to be a leprechaun, who shows him the true treasure he already has but doesn't appreciate. A short story by Keith B. Darrell. 4,041 words.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Nothing to See Here

Washington is abuzz after the Saturday Night Massacre in which the Trump administration abruptly fired all 46 remaining U.S. attorneys general. The federal employees, fired without warning, were given 24 hours to clear out their desks interrupting many ongoing cases as no replacements were named. But keep moving; there’s nothing to see here.

Attorneys general are political appointees which means they are subject to the whims of partisan politics. When a new president is sworn in, political appointees routinely submit their resignations and the president selects those, if any, he chooses to retain. President Trump acted completely lawfully in firing all 46 U.S. attorneys general. Keep moving; there’s nothing to see here.


It’s unheard of to throw the U.S. justice system into a state of turmoil by firing all of the attorneys general without having lined up replacements for them. At best, ongoing legal cases and investigations will be delayed substantially until replacements are appointed and have time to be brought up to speed on all the open matters; at worst, ongoing investigations and lawsuits may be dismissed as the clock runs out on them, or due to failure to prosecute, especially should the eventual replacements choose not to pursue some of these matters.


Shortly after his election, President Trump met with New York Atty. Gen. Preet Bharara at Trump Tower in New York City and told Bharara he could stay on as attorney general. In fact, Trump went so far as to suggest Bharara hold a news conference following the meeting making the announcement, which he did. Retaining Bharara was not only a smart move but it was good politics.  Bharara has established a reputation as an honest, fair, legal bulldog who had prosecuted Wall Street crooks and indicted 17 prominent New York politicians without regard to partisanship: although appointed by a Democratic president, 10 of the 17 politicians he indicted were Democrats. Still, nothing to see here; keep moving.


No one was calling to remove Preet Bharara – perhaps because of his nonpartisanship in his prosecutions;  or his efficiency; or his doggedness in pursuing justice no matter how difficult the case or how prominent the target. He was that rare example of a public official who excelled at his job, and despite having been a political appointee, conducted himself in a nonpartisan manner. So it was odd that President Trump decided to fire him, especially after having assured him his job was secure. And especially as no one was calling for his removal.


For Fox News commentator Sean Hannity. Two days before the firing, the Fox showman publicly urged Trump to fire all the Obama holdovers, including Bharara. Much has been written about Trump’s obsession with right-wing media and his religious viewing of Fox news shows. Many pundits have speculated Hannity’s plea was the impetus for Trump’s surprising action. Bharara was investigating Fox News over its alleged failure to inform shareholders about multiple legal settlements concerning sexual harassment and assault allegations against former Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes and other executives. Nothing to see here; keep moving.


A leading contender as the Trump administration’s choice to replace Bharara is Marc Mukasey, the son of former U.S. Atty. Gen. Michael Mukasey, a Bush appointee and prominent criminal defense attorney whose client list includes… Roger Ailes. If Marc Mukasey does end up with Bharara’s job and decides to continue the Fox lawsuit it could make for interesting conversation around the family dinner table. Nothing to see here; really, keep moving.


The New York state attorney, whoever he may be, has jurisdiction over criminal legal matters arising in New York State and that jurisdiction includes the Donald J. Trump Foundation in Woodbury, New York and Trump Tower in Manhattan: home of the Trump campaign, the Trump transition team, and the Trump organization. All of which does not mean Donald Trump might have any motive to remove an investigative bulldog to prevent him from digging up bones in his backyard. Absolutely nothing to see here; keep moving.


For the Russians. German bank Deutsche Bank was fined $630 million over a $10 billion Russian money-laundering scheme after enabling some of its Russian clients to transfer rubles out of the country and into offshore accounts and then convert those rubles into dollars. Deutsche Bank is also the largest known lender to Donald Trump's businesses, having loaned the Trump empire hundreds of millions of dollars.  Preet Bharara was conducting an investigation into Deutsche Bank – the operative word being “was”. Donald Trump fired him.

Rumors that Bharara was fired because of the Fox investigation are likely merely a smokescreen, perhaps even advanced by the Trump administration with the help of Hannity. As all good reporters know, if you want to get to the truth of the matter, follow the money. And in all matters Trump, follow the money… and the Russians.

Nothing to see here. In the immortal words of Ferris Bueller: “You’re still here? It’s over. Go home. Go.”

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Divide and Conquer

In my previous two posts, I focused on one of the dual motivations driving Russian President Vladimir Putin: Greed. Already arguably the wealthiest man in the world, Putin is not satisfied. He wants more. A half-trillion dollars more for starters. His greed is insatiable, but so is his other motivator: an unquenchable thirst for power.

Most men would be content to have achieved a position of ultimate power within their geopolitical sphere as Putin has. But Vladimir Putin is unlike most men. His quest for power, like his insatiable desire for riches, knows no bounds… Or geographical boundaries.

The worst day of Vladimir Putin’s life was undoubtedly when he witnessed the fall of his beloved Soviet Union. Putin had risen dramatically in the Soviet state, becoming a high-ranking officer of the KGB. That the Soviet Union was a morally and politically bankrupt ideology that harmed rather than helped its citizenry does not matter to Putin; for him, as part of the elite, the Soviet state was a true paradise.  He dreams of restoring the Soviet Union, and perhaps even going beyond it to obtain global hegemony.

Even at the height of its power, the Soviet Union was no match militarily for the United States. Russia, as it stands today, is even more outclassed militarily despite being a nuclear power. Russia is nothing more than an enormous gas station in a barren wasteland. Putin is a shrewd man and he realizes he cannot achieve his dream of making Russia great again through military force. Instead, he has turned to an ancient stratagem of warfare when faced with a monolithic enemy: divide and conquer.

Putin’s enemy is the post-World War II Western alliance formalized as NATO and led by the United States. NATO is a construct emanating from the move toward globalization after the war. We had two world wars in the first half of the 20th century; we have not had a third world war and the reason for this is globalization. The free nations of the world have voluntarily entered into alliances – political, military, and most importantly economic – that have allowed them to achieve mutual objectives with economies of scale and have so integrated their economies, and to a certain extent their cultures, that war would be unthinkable because the nations are interdependent. Declaring war on one another would be self-destructive.

If you’ve ever lived in a community with a homeowners association, then you understand the concept of globalization. Neighbors banding together form an organization, contribute money and labor, and use its combined buying power to provide for the security and maintenance of all its members and doing so with greater bargaining power achieved through their economies of scale. In this case, it’s neighboring nations that band together through organizations like NATO and the European Union to provide for the security and well-being of its member states. Homeowners associations provide valuable services to their members but sometimes their rules and regulations can become onerous, motivating members to sell their homes and move from the community. That’s what we saw happen on an international scale when Britain voted to leave the European Union in what has become known as Brexit.

Putin’s stratagem of divide and conquer rests on breaking up the Western monolithic entities such as the European Union and NATO. As I said, he cannot do this by force so he is doing it by subterfuge. The antithesis of globalization is nationalism. A group or team is made up of cooperative members working for the common good; if each member were encouraged to focus inwardly as an individual and not as a team player, then the team would disintegrate. Economists have seen this happen with cartels which fall apart when the individual members put their interests ahead of the cartel. For Putin’s stratagem to succeed, he must make the individual nations look inward and place their well-being ahead of anyone else’s. Britain first. France first. America first. Divide and conquer.

Putin realized the way to conquer the West, and perhaps the world, was not through guns and missiles but rather through stroking the flames of nationalism. This meant identifying the outliers, the fringe element, in those nations that were advocating nationalism or isolationism over globalism, and doing everything it could to support them. The nationalist parties work from the same template: they promote nationalism over globalism, often with a slogan of (Name of country) First!; they are vehemently against immigration; and they target a particular ethnic group as scapegoats.

Who are the leaders of the far right, nationalism movements throughout Europe?
Britain's Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, successfully campaigned for the Brexit vote.
France's Marine Le Pen leads the anti-European Union, anti-immigration National Front party. She took over from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, an avowed anti-Semite and Holocaust denier.
Heinz-Christian Strache leads Austria’s Freedom Party (FPO) founded by Anton Reinthaller, a former Nazi official and SS officer.
Frauke Petry leads Germany's Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) which is poised to become Germany’s third largest political party  — and the first overtly nationalist party in the German government since the Third Reich.
Geert Wilders heads The Netherlands' Party for Freedom, and is currently on trial for hate speech.
Gabor Vona leads Hungary’s third-largest party, Jobbik – an anti-immigration, populist, and economic protectionist party. Considered anti-Semitic, it rails against “Zionist Israel” and supports criminalizing homosexuality. Hungary's xenophobic Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been criticized by human rights groups for his hard-line policy on migration.
Jimmie Akesson leads The Sweden Democrats party, which has roots in the white supremacist movement. Its platform calls for heavily restricting immigration and a referendum on European Union membership.
Nikolaos Michaloliakos is the head of Greece's neo-fascist, anti-Semitic Golden Dawn, the nation’s third-largest political party. Golden Dawn, described by the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner as “neo-Nazi and violent,” promotes extreme anti-immigrant views and favors a defense agreement with Russia.

What do I mean when I say these people have extreme anti-immigrant positions? Germany’s Petry suggested police should have the right to shoot illegal migrants at the border "if necessary." Her deputy Beatrix von Storch took it a step further, emphatically stating "yes," border guards should fire on illegal female refugees with children. After a public outcry, she backed down, stating "The use of firearms against children is not permitted," but added "women are a different matter." Petry’s most disturbing comment, at least in my opinion, was her justification for her anti-migrant position based on the premise that Germany must control who is living in the country: not who immigrates, legally or illegally, to the country but rather who may live within its borders. It struck me as reminiscent of a right of determination German Chancellor Adolf Hitler espoused.

Putin would love to see each of these leaders rise to power within his or her own nation and take their countries away from globalism and international cooperation, and turn inward in rabid nationalism. It would benefit Putin’s vision for world hegemony but it would not be beneficial for the world, or for the individual countries who go down that path and especially not for minorities living in those countries.

Donald Trump and members of his campaign and administration have met with many of these far right-wing European leaders. Trump has espoused the same far right wing philosophy of nationalism over globalism, even adopting the historically tarnished slogan of America First! ; Trump is vehemently against immigration, having built his campaign around the concept of literally walling off America; and Trump has targeted members of a particular ethnic group as scapegoats, in his case Muslims. As more revelations come to light regarding the connections between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, we should keep in mind Putin’s ultimate objectives and Trump’s actions and rhetoric and look for their convergence.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Ten Little Indians (Russians)

Would you kill a man for $5? Robbers in New York did. Three robbers were willing to kill Moises Rivera for $5.18. In Cobb County, Georgia, Anthony Welch was murdered for a $5 piece of costume jewelry. In Indianapolis, 19-year-old Terry Williams was killed for $5. There are people all over willing to commit murder for as little as $5. How many deaths would $500 billion buy? Maybe 10? Let’s count them.

My previous post discussed the half-trillion dollars in lost oil profits that would have flowed from a deal between Russia’s state-run oil company Rosneft and Exxon-Mobil had it not been for sanctions placed on Russia by President Obama. Sanctions Hillary Clinton would have kept in place, and that Donald Trump’s campaign operatives discussed ending in meetings with Russian officials. Russia then interfered with the U.S. presidential election. Trump was elected. Details of the secret meetings are surfacing. And so are the bodies.

Dead men tell no tales. Who knows what the man The New York Post calls Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “favorite driver” might have overheard chauffeuring Putin and others. We’ll never know because he was killed in a car crash in September.

Ten months earlier, Putin Senior advisor Mikhail Lesin – founder of RT, the Russian propaganda news organ instrumental in spreading “fake news” during the U.S. election – was found dead in a Washington hotel room. Russian media claimed the cause of death was a heart attack, but the medical examiner reported ”blunt force injuries.”  Who knows what plans Lesin might have been privy to regarding the upcoming U.S. presidential campaign? He’s certainly not talking now.

Russian diplomat Sergei Krivov died at the Russian consulate in New York on the morning American voters went to the polls to choose a new president. Initial reports said the cause of death was “blunt force trauma” after falling from the roof; but when journalists arrived on the scene the consulate changed the story to say Krivov had died from “a heart attack.” Apparently Russian heart attacks are much more violent than American ones. Buzzfeed reports Krivov likely "helped transmit cables (coded messages) in and out of the heavily guarded (consulate)." He was a man who would have known the details of any messages to the Kremlin from, or about ,the Trump campaign. Buzzfeed also quotes U.S. intelligence officials as saying "it's an open secret" that "the consulate is a staging ground for Russian intelligence operations." 

In my last post, I referred to the Steele dossier compiled by the highly-reputable former MI6 agent Christopher Steele that showed how the Russians had gathered compromising material that could be used to blackmail or pressure Donald Trump. Ex-KGB chief Oleg Erovinkin is believed to have assisted in drafting the dossier. Erovinkin knew a lot about Putin and Russian oil deals because he was an aide to former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, who now runs Russia's state-owned oil behemoth Rosneft. Vox describes Sechin as "a shadowy figure who is widely seen as second only to Putin in influence" and a "friend and business partner" to Trump's Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. It was reportedly at Sechin's request that Putin awarded the Russian Order of Friendship to Tillerson in 2013. Erovinkin was found dead in the back of his car the day after Christmas. 

Christopher Steele fled his home in Surrey, a county southwest of London, and went into hiding, fearing for his life. He’s a smart man. He’s also an experienced intelligence operative who knows how the game is played. The British newspaper The Telegraph quoted Steele’s friend as saying after his name and nationality were revealed, Steele had become “terrified for his and his family’s safety.”

Russia's Ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov, was assassinated on live television during a photography exhibition in Ankara on December 19. Hours later, Russian diplomat Petr Polshikov was found in his Moscow apartment with a bullet wound to his head. The gun was found under the bathroom sink. The details surrounding the shooting are unknown, but first reports suggest it may have been a particularly aggressive form of Russian heart attack. Andrei Malanin, the Russian Consul in Athens, Greece, was found dead in his apartment on January 9. There has been no official cause of death. Alexander Kadakin, Russia's Ambassador to India, died two weeks later on January 27, following a "brief illness." A month later, on February 20, Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin died in New York of an apparent heart attack.

Sergei Mikhailov was the senior Russian cyber-intelligence official who reportedly oversaw Russia's hacking of the American presidential election. In late January, a few days after Trump’s inauguration, Mikhailov was dragged out of a meeting in Moscow with a bag over his head and arrested on charges of treason. Friends fear he may be at risk of a heart attack.

In my previous post, I told you about a meeting between Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen and Trump’s Russian former business partner Felix Sater that led to Cohen delivering a Kremlin-backed proposal to National Security Adviser Gen. Michael Flynn’s office immediately before Flynn resigned. Presumably, the plan was for Trump to use Russian-provided blackmail to force out the current Ukrainian president so Andrey Artemenko – Russia's man in Ukraine – could become president and legitimize Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea. The meeting was arranged by Alex Oronov, reportedly a resident of Trump Hollywood, a group of condominiums in Hollywood, Florida controlled by Trump and a real estate partner. Oronov, a Ukrainian-born naturalized American and in-law of Trump’s attorney Cohen, "died suspiciously" yesterday.

Of course, these deaths could all be coincidental. To assume otherwise, one would have to believe that Vladimir Putin – a KGB agent from the day he graduated from college in 1974 until 1991 and head of its successor organization, the FSB – would be willing to murder at least 10 men to cover up any investigation into the Trump-Russia scandal. Is it conceivable Putin would order these men killed to protect a $500 billion oil deal? On the other hand, men have killed for far less.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

The Russians are Coming

“The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming!” was the hue and cry of the eponymous 1966 film in which Carl Reiner headed an all-star cast. In this classic Cold War satire, a Russian submarine runs aground on the shore of a sleepy coastal American town leading its inhabitants to believe they’re being invaded. A half-century later, the Cold War is now back on for real and the Russians are popping up on our television screens and in the Trump White House.

We’ve seen Gen. Michael Flynn resign as national security advisor after lying to Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with Russian ambassador  Sergey Kislyak . We’ve seen Attorney General Jeff Sessions recuse himself after lying to Congress about his meetings with the Russian ambassador. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner met with Kislyak at Trump Tower after the election. Carter Page, a Trump campaign foreign policy advisor, claimed he didn’t have any contacts with Russians, at least not “outside of Cleveland” during the Republican Convention. Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort resigned when his lobbying work for the pro-Russian government in Ukraine came to light and he was implicated in a scandal involving payments from a Ukrainian political party aligned with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The infamous dossier compiled by former MI6 intelligence agent Christopher Steele alleges Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen met with Russian officials in August 2016. The New York Times reports Cohen discussed a plan to give Russia long-term control over Ukrainian territory it seized in 2014, in a meeting with Russian-born developer Felix Sater and Ukrainian politician Andrii Artemenko.

It’s beginning to sound as if the Russians are already here. Then there’s Trump’s Secretary of State, former Exxon-Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, who has a history of close business ties with Putin during his 40 years with America’s largest oil company. Before becoming Exxon-Mobil’s chairman and CEO, Tillerson was the corporation’s head of operations in Russia. He made many deals with Russia, among them one in 2011 that gave Exxon-Mobil access to Russian Arctic oil in exchange for allowing state-owned Russian oil company OAO Rosneft to invest in Exxon-Mobil’s overseas operations. In 2013, the same year the Kremlin gave Tillerson a coveted Order of Friendship award at a Moscow banquet where he sat beside Putin, Tillerson cut a deal with Russia to pump oil out of 60 million acres of Russian territory. But there was one snag: the oil flowed through pipelines in Ukraine, which placed a heavy tax on it. The following year, Russia invaded Ukraine, seizing the Crimean peninsula and taking control of the sea ports, enabling it to transport the oil by sea, tax-free.

President Obama placed sanctions on Russia in response, curtailing oil production from all but three of the 60 million acres. Tillerson complained the sanctions were “harmful.” Flynn discussed the sanctions with the Russian ambassador following the election. Putin, whom Rachel Maddow says is arguably the wealthiest man in the world, is rumored to own a substantial interest in Rosneft. The Steele dossier speculates the Russians may have offered Trump a 19.5 percent stake in Rosneft through secret Cayman Island accounts. Lifting the sanctions would bring in an additional half-trillion dollars in oil revenue – flowing tax-free through Ukraine.

At present, the Russian affair is a jigsaw puzzle but the pieces are rapidly coming together and the picture is taking shape. It involves some of the world’s wealthiest men, America’s largest oil company, Russian spies and diplomats, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and his closest associates, trillions of dollars… And a plot more convoluted and unbelievable than a Russian submarine beaching itself on the shore of a small American town.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Looking through the Overton Window

Politicians are a cowardly lot. They fear saying anything that will alienate voters so they stick to the mainstream of public opinion. They identify the sweet spot of moderate positions on the issues and the liberals fall slightly to the left of that while conservatives align slightly to the right. But both fastidiously avoid going too far from the center into the fringe.

The late Joseph Overton, a vice president at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Michigan think tank, coined the eponymous phrase “the Overton Window” to describe the range of ideas  deemed palatable in public discourse. Every political issue sits on a spectrum of public opinion. Take drug use for example. On the far left of the spectrum is the libertarian notion that any drug use should be unregulated and completely legal based on the precept that individual should be able to do whatever they wish. On the far right of the spectrum, an ultraconservative position would be that recreational drug use be illegal and violators should be put to death. Those are two extreme positions. The sweet spot, of course, would be in the middle:  a moderate position that makes some drugs like alcohol and tobacco completely legal, some drugs decriminalized with lesser penalties, and some drugs heavily criminalized with long prison terms as penalties for violators. The Overton Window defines what’s politically acceptable. The extreme positions would fall outside the Overton Window because they would be considered radical and unthinkable, whereas positions inside the Overton Window would be viewed as mainstream. There’s lots of room within the Overton Window for conservatives and liberals to squabble but both would agree anything outside the window would be a fringe position far too radical and controversial ever to be seriously advocated.

Remember when I said politicians are a cowardly lot? They don’t lead social change, they follow it. They’re like weathervanes, pointing in whatever direction the political wind is blowing. Our political leaders are not leaders, they’re followers. They follow public opinion because they always have their eye on the next election. Because of this, political change almost always follows social change. Over time, the Overton Window shifts to the left or the right on different issues and what was once considered radical and unacceptable (e.g., civil rights, homosexuality) becomes mainstreamed, and conversely previously mainstream positions (e.g., slavery, smoking in public places) become unacceptable.

Thus, social pressure leads the Overton Window to shift over time, turning fringe positions into mainstream positions, and likewise transforming previously acceptable social or political views into politically incorrect taboos outside the window. This means the Overton Window doesn’t move in response to political pressure from politicians (remember, they seek the sweet spot within the window) but rather from societal pressure when the society that elects the politicians changes how it sees the issues. This has the effect of leaving most politicians behind and scrambling to catch up whenever the window shifts.

Intrinsic to the Overton Window is the idea of acceptable boundaries for public discourse. Two hundred years ago, a candidate might well have campaigned on a platform supporting the institution of slavery. Since then, the Overton Window has shifted and any candidate attempting to do that today would be considered so far out of the mainstream as to be a “fringe” candidate and completely unelectable. The two-party system, for all its faults, has always ensured stability within the nation because its nominees have always taken positions within the Overton Window. America has other political parties such as the Communist party, the Socialist party, the American Nazi party, and the Green party but they have always been considered fringe parties well outside the Overton Window and therefore politically irrelevant. Unlike other nations, America does not have a coalition government because all but the two major parties are considered to be outside the Overton Window. Mainstream means either Democrat or Republican, and at least in presidential elections only a nominee from one of these two parties will be elected. Conversely, the label of “Democrat” or “Republican”  is an imprimatur assuring voters that the candidate, no matter how liberal or conservative, remains squarely within the Overton Window, assuring the stability of the nation will continue.

The election of Donald Trump saw a seismic shift in the Overton Window, creating faultlines that threaten the stability of American democracy. David Brooks framed the election as a choice between “an ardent nationalist, which Donald Trump is sort of a European-style blood-and-soil nationalist, versus a candidate on the Democratic side who is more of a globalist.” Trump consistently took positions considered well outside the mainstream and thus beyond the Overton Window. He was a populist, a nationalist, and an anti-globalist. He argued for protectionism and tariffs; isolationism that included withdrawing from NATO and the UN; and an “America First” policy including massive deportation of illegal immigrants, construction of a border wall, and a travel ban on Muslims entering the country.

The Overton Window continues to shift, as the unthinkable becomes politically acceptable: The president installs a white nationalist in the White House as his de facto Chief of Staff; the president routinely lies to the American public; the president names the most unqualified cabinet in history; the president bans the New York Times and the BBC from press conferences; the president declares the news media to be “the enemy of the people” and states the press should not be allowed to use unnamed sources; the president attacks and insults America’s allies like Australia while cozying up to its longtime enemy Russia. A national registry based on religion is now a topic of debate. What was once unthinkable has become normalized.

It would be frightening to believe one man could shift the Overton Window in such a brief period of time. A popular consensus among civil libertarians is that Donald Trump, through a cult of personality based on his years as a media figure culminating in his reality TV show star status, was able to mainstream the pernicious Alt-Right agenda riding a wave of populism and anti-globalism. But the truth is even scarier and represents a greater threat to American democracy.

Trump did not shift the Overton Window; he merely realized before the media or anyone else that the Overton Window had already shifted. Remember, most politicians are always behind the curve. Apparently the media were too. Trump tapped into the zeitgeist of the American public: the feeling that globalization has left the ordinary citizen behind economically while benefiting only the large multinational corporations; the xenophobia and resentment toward immigrants, especially illegal ones; and the racism inherent in populism.

Trump manipulated the news media by staking out positions outside of what most considered to be the Overton Window. By taking such apparently controversial positions, Trump received more than $2 billion in free media coverage while spending only $10 million of his own campaign funds during the primaries. Trump’s media coverage routinely eclipsed that of Bernie Sanders who drew significantly larger crowds throughout the campaign. Trump received the coverage because he was viewed as an oddity, a fringe candidate despite his continuing success throughout the primaries, because he was constantly espousing positions presumably well outside the Overton Window.

Because the Overton Window has shifted so dramatically, social and political consensus will be difficult to achieve and there will likely be a greater political polarization and less civility in society. But the most important point, and the greatest threat to democracy, is that Donald Trump did not shift the Overton Window: he merely revealed that its boundaries have been realigned by American society. The American people did this. Our values as a nation have changed, and not for the better. The ideas on which America was founded – freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, a nation of immigrants, a melting pot, separation of powers, judicial review – are being devalued, denigrated, and ultimately disregarded. The foundations of democracy, which generations of Americans fought and died to preserve, are being discarded under the guise of populism.

Trump has seized on this and ridden the wave of populism into power. But the underlying problem and the threat to democracy itself stems from the American people who no longer understand or appreciate the unique government the founding fathers fashioned. Whether due to a lack of education in areas of civics or American history or the dumbing down of society through popular culture, Americans themselves have shifted the Overton Window and made the unthinkable a reality. The problem with the Overton Window is that once the unthinkable becomes normalized we accept it as the New Normal. If that becomes the case this time, then democracy will be lost and history has shown freedom lost is not easily regained.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Are You Prejudiced? The Answer is Yes.

I attended a writers group meeting this week where I was asked to critique a writer’s work. On the second page the writer, a retired white man, had described his protagonist getting into a cab driven by “a black driver.” I asked why he had described the driver as “black”. Was the protagonist a white character in Harlem or some setting where there was a reason to describe the cab driver’s ethnicity or color? He told me there wasn’t. On the next page, the protagonist passed “a brown-skinned woman”. I asked how her skin color was important to the story. He replied it wasn’t, as we never saw this character again. Two paragraphs later, his protagonist encountered “a woman”.

Since she had no adjective preceding her, I had to ask him, “Would I be correct to infer she’s a white woman?” The writer said yes, she was. “But you didn’t put “white woman,” I said. “You simply wrote ‘woman’ because she was a normal person?” He nodded. “And the other characters weren’t normal,” I continued. I could hear the penny drop, the tiny light bulb turning on behind his eyes, as he realized where I was going with this.

“As a white writer, you don’t feel the need to tell your readers your characters are white because you’re assuming your readers are white, and white is the normal skin tone for all characters unless you want to add some ‘color’ to your story. But what you’re saying is white is the default, normal skin tone and race, and anyone else differs from the norm. Imagine how you would feel if you were not a white reader reading the story. You wouldn’t be able to put yourself in the mind of the protagonist because he views you, the reader, and every nonwhite person he encounters throughout the story as ‘other’, ‘not normal’, or ‘different’. Instead of writing something that’s inclusive for your reader, you’ve made it exclusive.”

He asked if I thought anyone would be offended. “I was,” I replied. “And I’m white. This isn’t the 1950s. We live in a multicultural society, and thanks to the Internet as authors our work is read worldwide. The more successful we are, the more our work will be read by people of all races, colors, and cultures.” I explained it’s not just the current population of potential readers, but those who will be reading our books in the decades to follow. About 50 percent of American children under age 10 are nonwhite. Think about that. Half of the potential readership for the young adult book you’re working on today is not white. By the time it’s eventually published, you’ll have excluded half your audience.

Our readership has become more ethnically diverse. In America alone, our society encompasses Hispanics, Asians, and African-Americans of varying skin color. Not only should a Caucasian writer not assume the reader is white, he should not want to give that inference. Unless there’s a good reason to do otherwise, the protagonist should be a chameleon who can take on the characteristics of the reader.

That’s not to say race or color should never play a role in character description. For example, in my Halos & Horns fantasy series I have a character named Asabi whom I have made clear is black. Asabi is an emere: a mythological being who is able to travel between Heaven and Earth. Emeres come from the legends of the Yoruba People in Africa. It’s important that Asabi be black because his origins stem from ancient African legends. It would be insulting in my opinion (or to use the god-awful politically correct term ‘cultural appropriation’) to cast Asabi as anything other than black.

When Asabi had his first romantic relationship, with Cassiopeia, it was important to the plot that I describe her as a white woman. But most of my other characters, unless required by the plot, were never described by the color of their skin. Readers may have assumed the two main characters, Gabriel and Lucifer, were white, but they could just as easily have been black. I left that to the imagination of the reader, and perhaps white and black readers imagined them differently.

The truth is, we’re all prejudiced to some degree simply because of the insular environments in which we were raised. We’ve been brought up to think of the world as pockets of “us” (defined as those who share similarities with us) and “them” (defined by those who differ from us). I know the writer I met this week is not racist; yet he let the vestigial prejudices we all have slip into his writing. For those of us who are writers we must take extra care to make sure our words are not unintentionally exclusive. 

Monday, February 20, 2017

She's Too Important!

“The business of America is business.” So declared the 30th president of the United States, Calvin Coolidge. American business is the great engine of commerce that has made the United States into a global economic powerhouse. It’s what enabled us to switch rapidly from manufacturing for a consumer economy to manufacturing for a wartime economy during World War II. And it’s what helped define the prosperity of the Eisenhower years in the 1950s, the golden era of American consumerism.

We’re no longer in the golden era for American business; to the contrary, American business now languishes in a tarnished era. This is not good for our country or our society. We must restore the business standards that enabled American business to thrive generations ago. To do this, we must first identify the problem. That’s what I’ve tried to do in my recent series of posts on the sad state of American business.

When I was growing up there was a saying that “the customer is always right.” Now obviously, no one is always right but the point of the aphorism was the recognition that the customer is the most important element of any business. If no one buys your product or service, you don’t have a business. This is the foundation of the concept of customer service. It was perhaps best embodied in an advertising campaign by the Avis car rental company; noting its competitor Hertz had been ranked Number One in the industry, Avis cleverly launched a series of ads with the tagline “We’re Number Two: We have to try harder.”

That was then; this is now. I received an incentivization letter from my car dealership inviting me to speak to them about my expiring lease so as to lease a new car. I realize they send these form letters to every customer but as it was signed by a specific individual, I called and asked to speak with her. The young salesman who took my call insisted he could help me. When I insisted on speaking to the person for whom I had asked, he told me the woman was "too important to speak to me."

Now, I’ve spoken to congressman and senators, governors, and even the president of the United States (not the current one). I've spoken to famous actors and entertainment celebrities, and to many well-known public figures. I've spoken to many individuals considered to be the most preeminent in their fields of endeavor. Yet I have never been told by them or their assistants that they were "too important" to speak with me. This is an all-time low for customer service experiences, particularly in sales. I've worked in sales and you never tell a customer that someone in your operation is too important to speak to them, or conversely, that the customer is not important enough to speak to one of your employees. Mind blown.

Well, that was an amazing phone call. This is a major automobile dealership. Where is the employee training? These employees will one day move into management positions without having learned the basics that any student would learn his or her first year in business school. This portends a major problem for American business, which will spiral into a further decline.

Ten minutes later, I received a call from the same young man telling me he had walked over to her office and "she's out sick today." How convenient. But, he added,  if I tell him what I wanted to talk to her about, he could handle it for me. (I told him she could call me when she feels better). This was an obvious lie from which I could infer two possibilities: Either the salesman never left his seat and simply called back 10 minutes later in an attempt to make a commission, or he did go to her office and was told to tell the caller she was out sick. So either he was lying on his behalf or on her behalf. Neither is an acceptable business practice.

It’s also a dumb sales move. Sales is about establishing trust between the buyer and seller. Starting off any relationship with lies, let alone offensive comments, is pure stupidity.

Yes, the customer is not always right. But establishing and accepting a business culture in which employees believe they are more important than the customers they are there to serve, and that it is acceptable to lie to customers or demean them, is further evidence of the decline of American business to the detriment of our society as a whole. Corporate executives and middle managers must become cognizant of what is happening within their own businesses further down the food chain and take corrective actions to reverse this decline.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Looking for love in All the Wrong Places

Now that everyone is connected to the Internet and it’s become a ubiquitous part of our daily lives, people are shopping for everything online. Take me, for example. This week alone, I've bought shoes, toothpaste, a calendar, and a set of dining room chairs, all purchased online. But many people are taking it one step further and shopping for their significant other in cyberspace.

Dating – or at least the quest for Mr./Miss Right – (or Mr./ Miss Right Now) has moved online for the same reasons everything else has: it’s quicker, easier, and you can do it at 2 a.m. in your pajamas. Typically, dating sites feature a prospective match’s profile (Unless you’re on the prowl for Mr./ Miss Right Now, in which case, you can use the one-paragraph short form, known as Craigslist, and list the acronyms – NSA, SWF, D&DF, etc. – you’re looking for. Don’t put too much thought into this process, because it doesn't matter what you list; Craigslist readers will ignore your criteria and contact you anyway).

In addition to the profile, date seekers usually post a photo of themselves. Usually, but not always. Sometimes, they post pictures of their dogs. Depending on the breed, it may be hard to tell the date seeker from the dog. About a third of the time, the dog turns out to be the better choice. Beware of photos in which the date seeker is hiding his/her face: either not facing the camera, wearing dark glasses, or in costume, or where the thumbnail photo cuts off the head (Alfred E. Neuman lookalike) or body (Sea World reports a whale escaped) … Or where there is no photo at all. There’s a reason why he/she didn't want you to see the hidden feature.

Then there are the misleading photos. The Technically Honest One: it is a photo of the date seeker, however it was taken 10 years ago; The Best Friend: the date seeker with his/her much better looking friend, whom you’ll be disappointed to learn is already taken; The Guess Who: see if you can pick out the date seeker from a group photo shot. Finally, there’s The Glamour Shot: a stunningly beautiful photo that makes you think the date seeker should be a model – it turns out, she is a model and some scammer has used her photo on a fake profile. A word of caution: if it looks too good to be true, Google Image Search the photo.

Avoid profiles that are too short. If the date seeker is continually answering essay questions with “ask me anything you want to know” or “we can talk about that later” it shows he/she has put less thought and effort into meeting you than into writing the weekly grocery list. At the other extreme, if the date seeker has indeed written a long grocery list of specific qualities, characteristics, or other requirements a prospective match must meet, then this person is too picky and shallow to become involved with.

Peruse other date seekers’ profiles to learn what they do right, and more importantly, what they do wrong. I found three examples on one site in the first five minutes, this morning. In response to the question “What are you doing with your life?” she wrote: “Studying hard to become a charter accountant.” Obviously, she wasn't studying hard enough, because if she had been, she would've known her chosen occupation was a chartered accountant. If you’re too stupid to know what you are studying to become (or worse, so careless that you don’t check what you've written before you post it … not a good idea, by the way, for detail-oriented professions like accounting), then you’re not dating material (and I certainly don’t want you doing my taxes, either).

The second profile I saw today featured a chubby girl in a string bikini. Now, health concerns aside, there’s nothing wrong with a potential match being a bit overweight. We can’t all look like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. But when marketing yourself, you should always lead with your strongest features, not highlight your weakest attributes.

The third profile began – and ended –  by stating the woman was “Not interested in casual sex”. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being upfront about what you are, or are not, looking for in a relationship. But don’t send mixed messages by labeling the same profile with the username “Cutie2PlayWith”.

Remember, online dating is all about marketing yourself. You are the promoter, as well as the product. Prospective daters will assume whatever image your profile conveys is the image of yourself that you've carefully chosen to present. While the zombie costume may have won raves at a Halloween party, it’s not a good choice for your dating profile photo. Your rant about your ex might be justified, but is your dating profile the right place for it… is that the first thing you want a potential date to read?

Successful marketing begins with truth in advertising. Don’t lie or mislead. Be upfront about your weaknesses, but lead with your strengths. Put the time and effort into writing a profile that shows that you think finding the right relationship is important. And if all else fails, at least you can still buy shoes and toothpaste on the Internet.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Happy Valentine's Day

 A paranormal coming of age story. Brendan has a hard time fitting in as the new kid in town, especially on Valentine's Day. Although he hasn't made any friends at his new school, there is one girl he hopes will be his Valentine. But will their holiday end in newfound romance or heartbreak? A short story for young adults by Keith B. Darrell. 2,564 words.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Love Potion No. 9

Love spells on eBay? Going once, going twice, sold. Apparently there is nothing that can’t be purchased on the Internet. Although the auction site banned the sale of spells and hexes in September 2012 –  at which time, CNN reported eBay’s Spells and Potions category had “more than 6,000 active listings and happy feedback from quite a few satisfied buyers”  – a quick check of auction listings reveals there are still plenty of spells to bid on.

There’s the “Full E-mail Love Spell” for only $9.99 (free shipping!). You may want to hurry though; with Valentine’s Day approaching, there are only three spells left from this seller.

If you haven’t found your true love yet, you can always purchase a Soulmate Spell for a mere $10. The Soulmate Spell comes with the following warranties: “Will not interfere with any existing spells or work done by other spellcasters. My spells are completely safe and will not backfire or cause any harm. This spell is permanent and will not fade over time.”

Of course, if your intended is proving resistant to your natural charms, you may have to resort to “The Most Powerful Black Magick Love Spell”  At $36.99, it might seem a bit pricey, but it does come with this guarantee: “If you do not see results in 60 days from when your spell was cast and are not completely satisfied please email me and I will perform a new spell service free of charge.” Even more reassuring, in the fine print of the eBay auction details, the seller assures us that the love spell does not involve the sacrifice of animals.

If things go really well for you on this Valentine’s Day, you may wish to purchase the “Fertility Conception Pregnancy Spell” for only $1.75. Presumably, this spell would require some physical effort on your part, which you may enjoy repeating as necessary.

Of course, the flip side of love is hate. Need a voodoo doll? Where else, but eBay? (Pins not included; batteries extra). The seller states: “This order is for the voodoo ritual service only. We do NOT send out any physical item. We have hired a traditional Haitian Voodoo priest named Houngan Louidor, who is in charge of magic rituals and is a link between humans and the Voodoo spirits, also known as Loas.” The scary thing is, that of the three available, two have already been sold.

But when simple incantations are not enough, eBay will still help you find the right hex to put the whammy on someone. What could be more appropriate than the “Total Vengeance Black Magic Spell Book”?  Granted, at a mere 48 pages, it’s hardly an arcane tome, but it features some sure-fire winners, such as the General Turmoil Spell, the Enemy Affliction Spell, and instructions on how to create an “Enemy Doll”. I can tell it’s user-friendly because it comes with an  Easy Hexing Spell, and I’m already composing a list of victims for the 6-Day “Shut Up” Spell.

Of course, returns could be problematic.

     Dear eBay:
     I am writing to request a return authorization for a spell I purchased on eBay last week. The incantation was supposed to turn my ex into a horny toad. Instead, it just made him horny and now he is humping every girl in town except me!
     Sincerely yours,
            Witch Hazel
             666 Devil's Lane
             Salem, MA

Perhaps for this Valentine’s Day, you’d be better off doing your bewitching with flowers and candy.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Here We Go Again!

I just attempted to download a copy of my monthly bill from Walmart’s website. Even though I went to the URL printed top of all of my Walmart bills, after 10 minutes of searching its site I was still unable to find a download link. So I called the phone number on my Walmart bill that was listed right below the website URL. I was greeted by the ubiquitous “Press 1-Press2” automated call system which I bypassed by repeating the phrase “operator” until I wore out the machine and it changed tactics, asking me for my Social Security number. As there was no way in hell I was giving that out I continued repeating “operator” at every prompt until a mechanized voice finally said, “I understand you’d like to speak to an operator, is that right?”

So the fine folks at Walmart transferred my call to an overseas phone center in the Philippines. That’s right, yet another American company – the twelfth I’ve called this week – is outsourcing jobs overseas while unemployed Americans are looking for work. Every American business that does this should be publicly vilified. Immigrants are not stealing American jobs; greedy American corporations are sending the jobs overseas.

A nice Filipino lady informed me I could sign up to receive all my bills electronically. I told her I didn’t want to do that; all I wanted was a copy of this month’s bill. She told me that was not possible unless I signed up for electronic billing to replace receiving my bills by mail. In fact, despite telling her I was not interested in signing up for electronic billing she proceeded to attempt to sign me up three more times.

Once again, here is an example of what’s wrong with American business: An American business that goes out of its way not to have human contact with its customers by employing automated call systems; makes it difficult for customers to obtain the information they need; outsources jobs overseas; and employs foreign workers who are unresponsive to the needs of its customers.

American businesses need to trash their automated call systems and go back to the days of hiring American workers to answer their phones and speak directly to their customers. American businesses need to make it easier, not more difficult, for customers to interact with them. American businesses need to hire Americans and make their products in America to support our country and our citizenry, the way we as consumers support them by buying their products and services. And American corporations need to be responsive to the needs of their customers: this means listening to them; engaging with them; and having employees who are capable of, and empowered to, assist them.

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Candyman

I find Donald Trump to be quite likable. There’s a pleasant cadence in his voice that’s reassuring, unlike Hillary Clinton’s shrill harping. And while I agree with almost everything Bernie Sanders has said, the way he says things irks me. “Do you want to know what I think of that?” Sanders will reply to any question. “Let me tell you what I think about that.” Just spit it out, Bernie. That’s what Donald would do. Donald is a master of brevity and succinctness. He speaks in sound bites, not drawn out exposition like Barack Obama. And Donald doesn’t use any of those big words like the political analysts do. Donald speaks to me like a comforting friend using words like “great” and “terrific”. His speeches are always written in an easy-to-understand fifth-grade vocabulary. He doesn’t explain foreign policy in terms of bilateralism or trilateralism; instead, he tells Mexico if it doesn’t clean up its act then he’ll go in after “the bad hombres.”

When Donald Trump says something on TV, I find myself agreeing with what this likable man is saying. Somehow the way he phrases things just makes it seem like common sense. But then I turn off the TV and examine what he’s actually done. Things that sounded good and made so much sense are suddenly troubling. A change that causes mortgage interest to go up; torturing people; starting trade wars; threatening real wars; cozying up with our enemies like Russia while offending our allies like Australia, Canada, and Europe; saying we should pull out of NATO and the UN; walking away from a treaty that will give a huge economic advantage to China while hurting the E.U. and America; approving pipeline projects that will add only 36 permanent jobs but forever damage America’s natural resources; appointing ill-qualified individuals to cabinet positions; naming an anti-Semitic white supremacist as his top advisor; attacking American intelligence agencies and removing their permanent representation at the National Security Council; dismantling healthcare for millions of Americans; firing long-time career State Department employees; placing a gag order on federal government officials; promising to spend $14 billion to build an ineffective wall to keep out Mexicans when that money could be spent on infrastructure to repair roads and bridges throughout the country; and engaging in a systematic attempt to delegitimize the news media.

But then I’m distracted by the charming gaffes. You know the type: President Gerald Ford constantly bumping his head or stumbling; President George W. Bush’s malapropisms; and now President Donald Trump’s gaffes, like banning immigrants on Holocaust Remembrance Day; not mentioning Jews on Holocaust Remembrance Day; and citing Frederick Douglass in remarks on Black History Month in a way that made it obvious he didn’t know who Douglass was or that he had died more than a century ago. And then there’s Donald’s ego. Some say it crosses the line into megalomania. I won’t comment on that, but I will note that one of his first official acts was to declare his inauguration day to be a "National Day of Patriotic Devotion."

Yet I still like Donald Trump. When I hear him, I feel like a 10-year-old boy being called to by a much older man in a white van offering me candy. Somewhere deep inside me I know I shouldn’t listen, but I like candy and he seems so nice. My friends say I should give him a chance and go along for the ride. After all, what’s the worst that could happen?

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Putting the Pieces Together

Quite possibly the most important event in the history of the world happened yesterday and no one is talking about it.

It’s important because it involves the United States, the most powerful country in the history of the world.

It’s of particular importance to U.S. citizens because it affects their lives. I don’t mean their day-to-day routine; I mean whether they live or die.

The American president less than two weeks ago swore an inaugural oath to protect America “from all threats foreign and domestic”. Remember those last three words.

The National Security Council (NSC) exists to protect America from threats from abroad and from within the homeland. Normally the latter would conjure images of foreign spies or sleeper agents plotting against us from within.

Until now, the Director of National Intelligence (who oversees the intelligence agencies like the CIA, the FBI, and the NSA) and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (who oversee the four branches of our military: Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines) had a permanent seat on the Principals Committee - the last stop before taking a major national security decision to the president. This makes sense, of course.

But the new American president has made two shocking changes to the composition of the NSC: the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff will no longer have a permanent place. Instead, the Trump White House says, they’ll be “invited” to meetings when it’s appropriate. This begs the question, When would their presence not be appropriate at a national security meeting?

The answer is when the definition of “national security” is rewritten. What if it no longer was defined as foreign threats against America from without or within the country? What if internal dissent, i.e., any opposition to administration policies, were redefined as a threat to national security within the purview of the NSC?

That might explain the president’s second shocking change to the composition of the NSC: the appointment of his political advisor Steve Bannon – previously a propagandist for the alt-right white nationalist and anti-Semitic publication Breitbart News – as a permanent member of the Principal’s Committee of the NSC at the same time the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have lost their permanent positions, now relegated to be occasional guests by invitation only.

What perceived threats might a hatemonger like Bannon “protect” us from? What recommendations would he give a delusional president who sees massive inaugural crowds that don’t exist; five million illegal voters who don’t exist; thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheering the fall of the twin towers, who don’t exist; and the nonexistent threat of massive Mexican illegal immigration at a time when such Mexicans have been leaving the U.S., not coming to it?

Make no mistake: this could very well be the beginning of an apparatus to squelch any domestic dissent against a fascist regime. And in the uproar over other Trump administration actions, no one has noticed. That’s how fascism starts. And by the time citizens do notice, it’s too late.

How to Right the Sinking Ship

I’ve spent the past week writing about personal experiences that illustrate the failings of modern American business. Some of you may wonder why I’ve bothered. You’re thinking, What’s the point? We’ve all encountered the same type of situations whenever we have any contact with American businesses. The sad truth is it wasn’t always this way; you’ve just learned to accept shoddy service and products as par for the course. When you hand a cashier your money you no longer even expect to hear a ‘thank you’ in return. More likely, they act as if they’re doing you a favor. Customer service has become a lost art.

When I was younger, problems like the ones I’ve discussed this week would have been resolved with a single phone call. A customer would not have encountered robo-calls, voice mail, and automated phone menus. The customer would’ve called the business and been connected immediately to a human being. If that person couldn’t solve the problem, then the customer would have been directed to someone who could. Business owners were not annoyed by customer complaints; they welcomed them. They were grateful for the opportunity to learn what was going wrong with their company so they could correct it. You may have seen a throwback to this time on the television show Undercover Boss, in which corporate CEOs go to work for their own companies disguised as low-level employees to learn firsthand what really goes on within their companies. Often the CEOs are surprised and angered by what they discover and return vowing to make changes. But all too often today, business owners don’t want to hear complaints from customers, employees, or vendors. They don’t see it as an opportunity to improve their company, but rather take it as personal criticism that is to be avoided.

Employees no longer take pride in their jobs; they’ve become clock watchers whose only interest is the end of the business day. Employee morale is low and management is to blame for that. Management no longer motivates employees; in fact, corporations often expect employees to work longer hours, pay them low wages, and hire them as part-time workers – often for 39 hours a week – so that they will be relieved of the obligation of paying overtime or healthcare benefits. Consumers also suffer because the quest for higher and higher profits has resulted in the establishment of planned obsolescence and the corresponding introduction of low-quality, shoddy products. Publicly-held companies are even more consumed by the shortsighted focus on quarterly earnings to the detriment of long-term growth, which has resulted in a stock market that rewards daytraders and penalizes long-term investors.

Businesses spend a fortune on marketing: a thirty-second Super Bowl ad costs $5 million. Ironically, despite how much they spend to acquire new customers, American companies do little to retain them; in fact, the experiences I’ve related this past week show U.S. business practices evince an utter disregard for their customers’ satisfaction with their products or services. This makes no sense and it wasn’t like this in the past. But it will continue if consumers accept it as the “New Normal.”

Customer service entails responding to customers in a timely manner. In an age of instant communication by phone or email that doesn’t mean two days later. It requires an open portal of communication between the customer and the company, through which the customer can reach a live human being who understands the company’s products and services and can either directly provide assistance or refer the customer to another employee who can. It means not outsourcing American jobs to overseas call centers whose staffs are ill-equipped to resolve problems or often even to speak English in a clear manner. It also means viewing customer complaints not as a problem but as an opportunity to improve the business and retain customer loyalty.

Proper customer service also requires taking a holistic approach: every component of the business is interrelated. When I informed Sears I had received another customer’s appliance part, the employee should have realized that meant there was another customer who was also being inconvenienced as he would not be receiving the part that had been incorrectly shipped to me. The employee should have acted on that information proactively and not waited for the second customer to call in days later after he discovered the error. It’s bad enough for Sears to be using robo-calls but to include a nonworking phone number as the reply phone number is outrageous negligence. If a company asks the customer to call back, it should provide a working phone number. A business should never leave a customer on hold for nearly an hour. And it must make sure all of its employees – regardless of their job function – have a basic knowledge of the company’s products or services.

If businesses want to retain their customers then they need to start treating them with respect. The first step would be to eliminate automated call systems. Customers don’t want to ‘Press 1’ or “Press 2’ and jump through endless hoops as they tumble down a fiber-optic rabbit hole; they prefer to speak to a live human being.

Mistakes happen. Customers understand this. But when a business messes up, it not only needs to rectify the situation but to do so in a manner that shows the customer it acknowledges its mistake and cares about the customer’s ultimate satisfaction. If the wrong item is shipped to the customer, then ship the correct one by overnight delivery. If the service was unsatisfactory, refund a portion of what the customer has paid. I once did business with a successful manufacturer of retail display racks. Whenever I ordered from them, they would always include something extra with the order as a matter of policy because they wanted to show the customers how much they appreciated their business. Twenty  years ago, when my massage chair broke and the company had to reschedule a repair appointment, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a hand-held massager along with an apology for the delay. It made a lasting impression on me and when the time came to replace the chair I was more favorably predisposed to that company than to its competitors. This is how customer loyalty is created and retained.

American businesses in sad shape. The ship is sinking but there is still time to right it. Hopefully business leaders will read these blog posts and re-examine the way they run their companies, and consumers will read them and re-examine the standards they are willing to accept from the businesses to which they give their hard-earned money. Consumers must stop acting like an abused spouse, returning to the business for further abuse or seeking out a new business identically abusive to the one with whom the consumer has just ended its relationship.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Fall of An American Icon

If there’s a poster child for what’s wrong with American business, it must be Eddie Lampert, the CEO of Sears Holding Company, based on my recent experience and Lampert’s own history as the head of the company. To review, I first contacted Sears to repair my washing machine 17 days ago. It took a week for the repairman to show up, and when he did he still couldn’t fix it because he needed to order a part. I paid for the part and a package from Sears arrived six days later, only it was the wrong part. Fortunately—I mistakenly thought—I had the foresight to open the package immediately and inform Sears of its error that Monday. I told them if they overnighted me the correct part I could still have it in time for the next appointment on Friday when the repairman was scheduled to return.

But on Thursday I received an automated call (because nothing soothes an aggrieved customer better than a robo-call) informing me I had to call Sears back to reschedule the appointment. Obviously, the part would not arrive on time and I’d have to readjust my own schedule (nothing says “You are a valued customer” like wasting two entire afternoons of your customer’s time). I dialed the number given to me by the robo-call and got a recording telling me this Sears phone number was no longer in service.

I called the Sears Home Repair phone number I had used in the past and was connected to a call center in the Philippines (because nothing says “We care about our customers” more than hiring people who don’t even live in the same country to speak to them). It was a difficult conversation because the heavy accent of the Filipino Sears representative made it hard to understand what he was saying. I would think corporate phone etiquette would include representatives who could enunciate clearly in English, but perhaps that was the whole point of hiring someone who couldn’t. He pulled up my record on the computer and told me what I had already guessed: they did not have the part yet. However he offered to schedule a new appointment for the following Wednesday.

“Let me get this straight,” I said. “You don’t know where the part is. You don’t know if it’s in transit, in your warehouse, or possibly even out of stock, and yet you want me to block off an entire afternoon on Wednesday to wait for the Sears repairman when you have no idea if the part will have arrived by then?”

I asked to speak to a supervisor. Naturally, I was placed on hold. Ten minutes later, I was speaking to a Filipino woman with an equally thick accent. For all I know, she was another rep sitting in the next cubicle. She had no idea when I might receive the part, either. She suggested I call back in two days. I explained I had already been waiting 17 days. That was when I called Eddie Lampert.

I assumed no matter how messed up a business may be, the executive at the top would be a capable businessman eager to set things right. But I didn’t get to speak to Eddie Lampert. I didn’t even get to speak to Eddie Lampert’s secretary. I got a recording. That’s right; the CEO of Sears, an iconic American company with $25 billion in annual revenue and $11 billion in assets, and whose personal compensation package runs between $4-and $6-million per year apparently can’t afford a receptionist. Maybe Eddie doesn’t get a lot of calls; there may not be many people who want to speak to him. One business article’s headline reads “Sears’ Edward Lampert Is the Most Hated CEO in America.”  Based on CEO ratings and employee satisfaction reviews from Glassdoor, 24/7 Wall St. found only 19 percent of Sears employees approved of Lampert. Sears’ shareholders probably aren’t too fond of Eddie either, since its stock price has plummeted 80 percent during his tenure. Gee, I wonder if that might be because my experience with Sears is not the exception but the rule. Forbes describes Sears as “bleeding cash”. Ironically, Eddie Lampert writes a blog about how to improve the ailing Sears business he’s running.

I called Sears Home Repair again. Sure enough, the call was routed to the Philippines again. A different woman told me the part was in stock and had been reordered for me the previous day. I asked why the part had only been reordered on Wednesday when I’d inform Sears of its error on Monday. “What did the Sears employee I spoke to do for 48 hours before logging onto her computer and ordering the part?” I asked. I guess she wasn’t in any hurry; she wasn’t the one with nearly three weeks of unwashed clothes accumulating. But at least I knew the part would now be on its way.

“When will I receive it?” I asked, naïvely assuming Sears might wish to overnight the part to make up for its error. She told me it would take at least seven days from the time the order was placed. I pointed out the previous Sears representative I had spoken with minutes earlier tried to make a new repair appointment for six days from now. Had I not called back, I would have wasted a second afternoon. “What’s the point in scheduling an appointment the day before the part arrives?” I asked.

She recognized the logical fallacy and said rather than make a new appointment I should call back when I received the part. The problem, of course, is that when I do call back a week later they’ll tell me it will be another seven-to-10 days before they can fit me in on their calendar. So I suggested she email me the tracking number of the package as soon as it became available. She said she couldn’t do that, and I’d have to call back over the next two days. Why? How am I supposed to know when they receive the tracking number? Once again, rather than offering customer service, the Sears representative wanted me to waste my time making a series of hit or miss phone calls over several days when it would’ve been much more logical for them to send one email when they received the tracking number. The message is clear: Sears does not value its customers’ time any more than it values its customers.

Tomorrow will be Day 18 without a working washing machine. I know from the above conversation my washing machine will not be repaired before Day 25 at the earliest. The repair saga may continue into the next month. Ironically, on the first day I contacted Sears the employee tried to sell me a Sears warranty to cover all of my appliances for $600 a year. If this is an example of what a Sears customer has to go through to get a single appliance repaired, I’m glad I didn’t purchase the Sears warranty for all of them.