Saturday, November 26, 2016

The latest Al Pennyback mystery - Murder on the Menu

Competition in the restaurant industry is cutthroat, but it’s not supposed to be literally fatal. When Al and Sandra accompany Buster Mayweather to upstate New York to attend the opening of a new restaurant by Buster’s old college friend, things take a turn for deadly when the restaurant’s head chef is found frozen to death in the freezer.
Was it an unfortunate accident, or was the chef the victim of one of the town’s many long-standing feuds? Buster, a DC cop, is outside his jurisdiction, but when a friend’s in need, jurisdiction be damned. Al just hates to see injustice, and is a sucker for a difficult problem, and what’s more difficult than a murder with no motive, but a town full of suspects?

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Can Trump put the racist, misogynistic genie back into the bottle?

In his successful run for the presidency Donald Trump activated several demographics that don’t normally play a significant role in national politics. He tapped into their anger and frustration, and ultimately won just enough Electoral College votes to be declared the winner.
I’m not happy with the election’s outcome, but I’m willing to honor it because that’s the way our system works. The candidate who wins the Electoral College gets the job.
The problem, though, is that among those Trump spoke to, there are those for whom his signature phrase, ‘Make American Great Again,’ means make it Anglo-Saxon again; those who aren’t satisfied that women in the workplace still make less than 90 cents for every dollar a man makes, but would, I fear, rather see them back in the situation where a woman needed her husband’s signature to get a loan or buy a car—or, even worse, when a woman was considered a minor and a ward of her father or husband.
The problem with having activated this group, if Trump is to truly be the President for all Americans, he will have to find a way to curb their baser instincts, and prevent the violence and instability they can bring to society. This will be easier said than done I’m afraid. Already, there are signs that the cage has been opened and these feral beasts are roaming free. At the University of Pennsylvania, black students were enrolled, without their consent, in a frankly racist, and scary, Web site. There was an unverified incident where a young black woman was accosted at a gas station by four white men; called vile names, and threatened with a weapon. This might not be true, but the fact that such a story would arise is troubling enough.
I wish I could say that these are isolated incidents, outliers that won’t be repeated. Unfortunately, this type of behavior has a stimulus effect. Just hearing about it, even if the incident was fabricated, is likely to inspire copycats.

Trump has let this genie out of its bottle. Now, we’ll have to wait and see if he is able—or willing—to do what’s necessary to put it back in.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The world didn't end, but it might never be the same

I went to bed last night before the results were in, but it wasn’t looking good. When I woke up this morning, my worst fears had been realized. The American electorate took leave of its senses and elected a failed businessman, con man, reality TV personality, misogynist, bully as president.
Now, while I am not at all pleased at the outcome of this election, unlike the designated winner, I’m willing to accept the expressed will of the voters even if the candidate I supported didn’t win. That’s what American democracy is supposed to be about. Rather than bemoan the results or whine about a ‘rigged’ election, I’ll just say I hope Mr. Trump is as savvy a businessman as he claims to be and will figure out that the bombast that got him the job is totally inappropriate once he’s actually in the job.
You see, now the real job begins. There’s the matter of staffing the administration. One can only wonder what caliber and quality of individual will step forward to serve in senior leadership positions in a Trump administration. Bullies tend to attract bullies, and I can think of a few that I worked with when I was an appointee in the George W. Bush administration who will be at the front of the line—and, heaven help the country under their stewardship. The wrong people in one or two key positions can create a lot of havoc over a four year period.
Next is the question of how Trump will address the issues he stressed during a down and dirty campaign that appealed to the anger and frustration of a demographic of people who, angry at the ‘establishment’ for letting them down, decided to express that anger and frustration by electing him. They’ll be expecting him to address their frustrations. But, globalization and the inexorable march of technology is at the root of a lot of their problems, along with the apathy of citizens (themselves included) who sit and wait for someone else to solve their problems. I can’t think of a thing any president can really do in the short term to address these problems, and we know that Americans are not long-term thinkers. I predict that many of the core Trump supporters will be pissed at him before the first year of his administration is out.
That’s the big issue, but there are also the specific issues he hammered home again and again, issues that he’ll have to address in one way or another or his credibility will go down the drain in a big swirl of toilet water.
-         The Wall. A logistical and political nightmare, if not an outright impossibility, the wall between the US and Mexico (which he’ll make the Mexicans pay for) is going to come back to bite him in the ass if he doesn’t figure out a way to put it to sleep.
-         A ban on Muslims entering the country. A policy that raises constitutional and legal questions in addition to the foreign policy imbroglio trying to implement such a ridiculous policy would unleash.
-         Bombing the shit out of ISIS. A little shorthand there. He also said he’d support bombing members of their families and using any methods (read torture) to extract information. The military and intelligence community has already taken a beating on these issues, and I don’t think they want to go back into that barn.
-         Make NATO countries pay more. Again, a little shorthand. As usual, he took a valid issue and wrapped it in bullying bombast. The bottom line is, we need our NATO allies as much as they need us, so using harsh, ‘my way or the highway’ language with them is just plain stupid.
-         His relationship with Russia and Putin. A lot of questions here that need answers. One can only hope the mainstream media pulls its head out of rectal defilade and digs into it.
-         Putting Hillary Clinton in jail. Sounding like a third world dictator, Trump averred that if he was elected, he would prosecute Clinton for unspecified crimes. This is a no-win issue that he might be better off keeping his mouth shut about.
-         Working with Congress. His party still controls both houses of Congress, but during the campaign, he slammed them as much as he did the Democrats. Now, he has to figure out a way to work with them across a broad range of issues. I predict it’ll be like watching a pack of hyenas fighting over a wildebeest’s carcass.
-         His own legal and credibility issues. The ‘grab them by the p***y tape,’ allegations of rape and sexual assault, the Trump University legal suit, and the many times he’s been proven to have lied. If he or any in his camp think these issues will go away now that the election is over, they are in for a hu-u-u-uge surprise.

Watching Washington over the next four years promises to be interesting. Presidents are a target for comedians, caricaturists, and op-ed writers, and their every fault will be chronicled across the globe. A president has to have a thick skin and be able to roll with the punches. The American voter has just elected a man with a very thin skin who doesn’t take at all well to being attacked. In a perverse way, this will be fun to watch.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Representing America abroad - a tough row to hoe

Even a blind squirrel gets the occasional nut, and sometimes,
it seems, out diplomatic success abroad is such a nut.
 In the 1950s and 60s, with many former colonies gaining independence (many of them in sub-Saharan Africa) and the U.S. and the USSR struggling for dominance in these newly independent countries, American diplomats faced an uphill struggle. How could the overwhelmingly white US diplomatic corps convince the governments and citizens of nonwhite nations that it had their interests at heart when at home we segregated, exploited, and lynched our own citizens of color?
American diplomats were, nonetheless, sent abroad like sheep in wolves clothing to convince the world to support us because we knew what was best. And, regrettably, they still are.
I spent 30 years as an American diplomat, from 1982 to 2012, and even though U.S. civil rights legislation has eliminated legal Jim Crow and there are no longer ‘legal’ barriers to advancement by people of color in America, I faced my own challenges representing my country abroad. Pushing other countries on their performance in the area of human rights is difficult when you have the level of gun violence, gender violence, and violent acts based on gender orientation that exist in the U.S.; when we have a larger percentage of our citizens in prison than any other country. When, after over 200 years of elections, we have the ‘hanging chad’ election of 2000, it is a bit embarrassing to criticize a developing country for not performing well on its third ever election.
Despite those challenges, though, I am just glad I don’t have to represent this country abroad in 2016. The election campaign of 2016 has, in the eyes of many foreigners, undercut almost every positive image of America. We’ve seen on live TV, scenes that one would expect to see in a tin pot, third world dictatorship; or a movie parody of such a government. We’ve seen a candidate threatening to jail his opponent if he wins, or not accepting the outcome of the election if he loses. We’ve seen that candidate encourage his followers to ‘beat the sh-t out of a demonstrator at one of his rallies. And, if that’s not enough, we’re now seeing attempts at voter intimidation that would make any foreign despot proud – out of state supporters of one candidate pushing to be allowed to ‘observe’ voting in certain neighborhoods where large numbers of people who don’t support their candidate live. In a voting precinct in one state, armed police will be stationed at polling places, and in the state of Arkansas, the early election ballots misspelled one candidate’s name, inserting an insult in it, and then claimed that this was just an ‘error.’
I’d hate to be a diplomat abroad right now trying to explain that to an audience of inquisitive and concerned foreigners. Worse, I’d hate to have to explain why so many people are happy to support a man who believes that because he’s a star he can get away with anything, who had a long track record of fraud, duplicity, and lying; much of it proven by his own words, because they don’t ‘like’ his opponent—mainly because of the rumors about her, many of which have not been proven, and most of which have been overblown. How can you explain voters like my friend who has decided not to vote because he doesn’t ‘like’ either candidate, or the friend of a friend who will vote for a bombastic bully because he didn’t like the people around the bully’s opponent when she was secretary of state? He feels that the bureaucracy will be able to control the bully. Are you hearing that? The bureaucracy, according to this individual, couldn’t control the bully’s opponent but they’ll ‘control’ him. How, as a diplomat, do you explain such stupidity and complacency to people, some of whom have risked their lives to vote?

As my grandmother would say, ‘It’s a hard row to hoe.’ I’m just glad I’ve left the farm.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

How to be a great boss

During his tenure as Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage often met with newly appointed American ambassadors just prior to their departure to their countries of assignment.  In one such meeting in 2002, he gave the following admonition to an ambassador, “You can negotiate treaties, write great political dispatches, and make the officials of the host country like you.  But, if at the end of your tour of duty, the staff of your embassy can’t say they were better off for your having been there, you’re a (expletive deleted) failure.”
Never one to mince words or dance around an issue, Armitage outlined in these few words the key to being a great boss – focus on your people.
The U.S. military has a motto, “Mission first, People always.”  What this means, and how it relates to the Armitage directive is simply this; if you as a leader take care of your subordinates, they will take care of you, and get the job done.
As a boss, you are responsible for the job getting done, not doing the job yourself.  That’s what the other people in the organization are there for.  Your task is to create conditions that enable your team to, in the words of Larry the Cable Guy, “Get ‘er done.”
Easier said than done, you might say.  When you’re the person in charge, you’re expected to get results, and you have no time to experiment with leadership fads.  The flat organization with empowered people sounds good on paper, but how do you make it a reality?  First, let us acknowledge that leadership is not easy.  But, the philosophy of empowering people is no fad.  From infantry platoons to factory floors, history has shown that leaders who care for and motivate their people are more successful in the long term.
So, how do you go about becoming a ‘great boss?’  Here are a few hints on how to become the boss you’d like to have, and the kind of boss you need to be if you want to be successful.
-          Let your people know that you value them as individuals.  Every individual, given the right training and resources, can make a positive contribution to the organization.  It’s your responsibility as the boss to ensure they have what they need to succeed.  Their success is your success, and if they know that you value their success, they will work to achieve yours.
-         Encourage work-life balance.  People who are encouraged to develop themselves as well-rounded individuals bring more value to the workplace.  Family and friends provide a support structure that enables the individual to be more effective at work.
-         Use positive reinforcement.  People do what they are rewarded for.  Singling out good performance and publicly acknowledging it, fosters further good performance, not just in the individual honored, but all others who observe it.
-         Learn to listen.  No one has all the answers.  Learn to listen to your subordinates and use their knowledge to build your own.
-         Lead from the front.  The U.S. Army infantry motto is “follow me.”  If you are out front and demonstrating the direction in which the organization should go, others will follow.
-         Take the blame, give the credit.  As the boss, you will be credited by your superiors for the good things your organization does.  Never forget, though, without followers committed to your goals, you achieve nothing.  Give them the credit for the organization’s achievements.  In the same vein, if the organization fails, you are the person responsible.  Never blame your subordinates for failure; instead, look at what you could have done to make it possible for them to succeed.
-         Make the hard decisions, and then move on.  Your job as the boss is to make the decisions, good or bad.  This sometimes means you will have to do things that will make someone feel bad.  As long as you communicate clearly the reason for the decision, and then don’t dwell on it, the people in the organization will understand and respect you for it.

-         Walk the talk.  Set the standards of achievement and behavior for your organization, and then model those standards in everything you do or say.  Whether you like it or not, your subordinates will look not at what you say, but what you do, and their actions will be shaped by that.  The key to effective leadership is to gain the trust and respect of your followers.  

My election prediction as of November 2, 2016

Click the map to create your own at

2016 Presidential Election Interactive Map

2016 Presidential Election Interactive Map: Interactive map for the upcoming 2016 presidential election. Use it to predict which candidate will reach the necessary 270 electoral votes.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

James Comey's ethical dilemma: a no-win situation

 When FBI Director James Comey chucked protocol out the window and took it upon himself to hold a press conference to announce that no charges would be recommended against Hillary Clinton in the private email server case, rather than passing his recommendation to the Justice Department as is usually done, he put himself, the FBI, the Justice Department, and the American electoral process in a difficult situation.
Apparently unaware of the old dictum, ‘when you’re in a hole, stop digging,’ Comey on Friday, Oct. 28, publicly announced that in the investigation of former congressman Anthony Weiner for possible criminal violations, there might (my emphasis) be emails on a computer shared by him and his wife, Hama Abedin (a Clinton aide) related to the investigation of Clinton’s use of a private server when she served as secretary of state. According to news reports, this announcement was made over the objections of the Justice Department and some senior FBI officials, because, coming as it did just days before the election, it could be seen as impacting the outcome of the election (intended or not).
Now, while many have excoriated Comey for his actions, others have sprung to his defense. The Republicans who damned him for not recommending Clinton be prosecuted, are now hailing him as a hero. Even some of his critics are saying that he is an honorable man who has done the wrong thing for the right reasons.
I’m not going to get into the argument of Comey’s honor or lack thereof, but there are some things about this situation that bother me, and I do believe they should be considered.
One: during the first press conference in which he said he would not recommend prosecution, he went on to make some snarky comments about Clinton’s judgment, which had no bearing on whether or not a crime was committed. During the second, however, he said these new emails might be related to the email server case (which means that they also might not), but he gave no details, nor did he make any editorial comments. The fact that the FBI didn’t even get a warrant to search the computer in question until Sunday, two days after the announcement, leads me to believe he hadn’t even seen them, so was, therefore, only speculating on their relationship to the previous investigation, which then causes me to wonder why he couldn’t have waited until carrying out the search and knowing whether or not they bear on the case.
Oh sure, there was the fact that his fellow Republicans had savaged him before, and if he didn’t come forward now, and the emails later turned out to be the smoking gun they’ve been looking for, he’d be accused of withholding evidence. That, of course, nicely ignores the fact that coming out with incomplete information before the election, which fed the GOP rumor mill for an entire weekend, could affect the outcome of the election, and if it turns out that there is no there there in this situation, what a shame that would be. This is one of those ethical dilemmas people in government sometimes face, and in this case, I believe Mr. Comey failed the test. In worrying more about his reputation than the integrity of the electoral system, he has set a bad precedent, and has put himself and his agency in a no-win situation. Will the FBI now ignore Justice Department rules and make public announcements in sensitive cases based on the personal feelings of the director? Will partisan pressure be what determines what is made public and what is not?
Maybe James Comey felt pressured and took the actions he did to relieve some of that pressure. Maybe it was not his intent to influence the outcome of the upcoming election (a blatant violation of the Hatch Act if he did). Whatever his intent, his actions have set a dangerous precedent in an era when hyperpartisanship is the rule rather than the exception, and will have a long term effect on the conduct of elections in this country.

Maybe he should have given a bit more thought to that before opening his mouth.