On Not Being Funny Anymore


In case you’ve been under a rock for the past 36 hours or so, Donald Trump has won his second primary.

This blog is not about politics. It’s supposed to be about my writing. But current events have taken an eerie, and actually quite frightening, parallel trajectory to my most important writing project.

When I was very young my father told me a story about my grandfather. In the late 1920’s, before he brought his family to the United States, my grandfather opposed the NSDAP (the Nazi party) in an election. My grandfather wasn’t running for office himself, he just spoke out against them.

My grandfather’s word was important because he was respected as a hero from World War I as well as someone educated because he had traveled outside of the village to learn a trade as a machinist.

This led to one of them trying to kill my grandfather (with a scythe) while he was working in the families’ fields outside the village. (Despite his learning a trade, my grandfather ended up responsible for the family farm because his older brother was killed in the war, leaving him the eldest.)

To be honest, even as a kid I found this a little hard to believe. I knew my grandfather as a quiet man, who disliked talking about the war, liked to tell jokes, and work in his garden at home.

A few years later I was in Germany serving in the U.S. Army. A cousin picked me up where I was stationed and took me to Liedolsheim (our family’s “home town”) to meet the family. When he introduced me to some older gentlemen I stopped being “Cousin Eric aus America” and became “Emil’s Enkel” (grandson.) The men treated me like a visiting dignitary. I heard a different version of the story, with my grandfather as a hero and his actions being important and consequential enough to still talk about 56 years later.

But I was 19, and drunk on Campari (which I only drank to be polite)  and the story still seemed unreal to me. While I never really forgot it, I spent several decades not looking into it and not thinking about it much.

Over Christmas I visited my Aunt. I was finally considering trying to write a book about my grandfather’s experience’s at the Somme and in Liedolsheim, but wanted to make sure there was enough there to write about.


It turns out my grandfather’s disagreement with the Nazis was not isolated to a single election, and that the incident with the scythe was only the last in a series of clashes. His opposition to them lasted years, and the incident in the fields was the one that finally led to our family getting him out of the country before he was killed.

Apparently “opposing the Nazis” in the mid/late 1920’s in Liedolsheim meant opposing them in what in the capital of NSDAP activity in that part of the country. My grandfather was the vocal minority, and a troublemaker.

(It’s like we’re not even related.)

The details there, and why I misunderstood the incident when I was younger, is another post.  I only shared this to set the scene for what I have been researching of late, and why.

Trump is frequently compared to Hitler. But comparisons to Hitler and Nazis happen often enough online that it has spawned the oft-cited Godwin’s Law. As a matter of fact one of Godwin’s corollaries (often misidentified as the law) is that the mention of Hitler or Nazis in an online forum ends the discussion. Comparisons to Hitler have been overdone to the point of diminishing the understanding of his evil and impact on the world. It’s hard to take someone being called a “Nazi” seriously anymore.

The real similarity between Trump and the NSDAP is not about building walls and racism. It’s about Trump’s willingness and his ability to tap into and harness anger and dissatisfaction, regardless of the consequences. It’s about the consequences of his campaign, whether he wins or loses.

It’s about the occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, too. And it’s even about the success of Bernie Sanders.

All of these things have one thing in common: anger.

The NSDAP (and several other nationalist groups) surfed a tide of anger in Germany from the end of World War I right up to 1932 when they were suddenly the majority party in the democracy that they then dismantled.

They waxed and waned in the time between WWI and 1932. They were made fun of. (“Nazi” is a pun based on a Bavarian insult.) They were outlawed (as were several other nationalist parties) and then allowed to reform after promising to not rebuild their paramilitary wing.

The NSDAP was not the first right-wing nationalist group, they were just the most successful. The end of World War I did more than set the stage for the great Depression to start early and hit hard in Germany. The formation of the immediately doomed Weimar Republic put a powerful ruling class out in the cold, and they were not pleased. Some of them formed their own parties and paramilitary groups, using connections still in the government to acquire weapons.

While Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch was the most bold and memorable attempt at fighting the Republic by force, it was not the only one. There were several very dangerous groups that engaged in attacks, assassinations, and attempted takeovers.

We would call these people “domestic terrorists.”

Germany surrendered on November 11, 1918. Adolph Hitler was appointed chancellor just over 15 years later. Less than the time it takes us to hold 2 presidential elections.

During these 15 years the right wing groups surfed a tide of anger that raged over the Treaty of Versailles, the poor treatment of the outgoing German royalty, cultural change brought on during the Weimar Republic’s brief period of prosperity, and finally the double-tap to the back of the German economy’s head delivered by the Great Depression.

In 1928, the year my grandfather had to leave Germany, the Nazis lost 2 of their 14 seats in Parliament. Even before they lost those 2 seats they were a distant minority. The 9th of 9 parties.

But they harnessed that anger, and when the other 8 parties, stymied by gridlock, failed to govern, the NSDAP won 107 seats in 1930. Parliament failed again,  and the NDSAP won 123 more in 1932, and suddenly they were the majority.

People were tired of government that didn’t work. They were tired of high unemployment and runaway inflation. When someone told them it wasn’t their fault and gave them an enemy (really several enemies) they believed it and, in the words of Newt Gingrich just this past Saturday night, voted for the guy that will “kick over the kitchen table.”

You know what happened next. He kicked over the table.

People are angry right now. But we are not in the same shape Germany was in after they lost WWI. You might think we are after hearing the stump speeches of Trump, Cruz, or Rubio. You might think we are headed that way listening to Sanders.

But empirically, we are not even close. After severe economic hardships in the early 1920s, Germany saw relatively good times for a brief period. Then the Great Depression hit and their economy collapsed. The government collapsed soon after. Repeatedly. We’re not, by any measure, in such dire straits.

But people are still angry, and that matters. We do have structural problems. People are being left behind by what is a very strange economic recovery. So much so that they have rightly asked: “What recovery?”

So it’s easy for the other party to do what they need to do to win: paint a dire picture of a country in ruins. (Even when they hold both houses of Congress.)

You’re not the first person to watch a video of Hitler and say “Who the hell voted for that guy?” Nor are you the first person to say it about Trump.

The answer to both is: someone who is mad as hell and wants change. Unfortunately those people don’t always make rational decisions. You’re a laughingstock right up until you stop being one.

I thought Trump stopped being funny just before the Iowa caucuses. By that point, after watching his ineffectual opposition adopt some of his more hateful positions, it was apparent to me that he had stirred up enough anger and ill will that we would still be paying for it 8 years from now.

His escapades since then have done nothing to change my mind. I’m convinced that win or lose, his imprint on this country will outlive him.

How to Suck At Security, By Verizon

I switched to Verizon FIOS a couple of weeks ago. I live in the U.S, so I don’t have access to anything resembling a good Internet provider. This is because a central tenet of our form of capitalism is that utilities must be delivered by poorly run and weakly regulated monopolies.

However I do live in area where I have a choice between a slowly dying cable company in the throes of denial (check out that 90s web design) and a company that only exists because the government won an antitrust suit and then let them ignore it.

I switched to Verizon because they finally offered what I wanted: just Internet. Cablevision advertises they will give you that, and then refuses to actually sell it to you.

So yesterday I realized a bill I was supposed to receive from Verizon hadn’t arrived. I wanted to pay it before I ended up in some kind of debtor’s prison, or worse, without access to Netflix. I went to their site, paid the bill, and while I was there I set my password to a stronger one than I had set up during the install, and also set the “secret question.”

Eighteen hours later I received this text message:


This seemed to be an alert regarding the changes I had made. But eighteen hours later? Really?

I decided to be safe and change them again. I could be sure the account hadn’t been compromised somehow and also see how long it really takes to get the alert.

Here’s the options for security questions:security questionsThe idea behind these questions is “something you know” beyond the password. It’s two factor authentication for companies that don’t really give a crap about their customers, but want to avoid a lawsuit.

The problems with Verizon’s pre-canned questions are two-fold:

What if you don’t have a good answer? For example: what if you’re single? What if you’re older than 12 and don’t have a “best friend?” What if you didn’t stay on campus for college or, gasp, didn’t even go? Etc.

This seems like a trivial issue, but if the questions don’t fit well there’s a chance you’ll use an answer that you can’t remember later.

The other problem is: they can be predicted. If another site is compromised and used the same lame-ass questions, those answers can be used to compromise this one, or vice versa.

The right way to handle this is to let me specify the both the question and the answer. It also requires very little additional development and testing.

Assuming, of course, that you are not trying to spend as little as possible on protecting your clients’ information.

Now here’s where you enter the answer:

enter answer

You only enter it once, and you never see it. What could go wrong?

When was the last time you entered a password, credit card number, or the name of your favorite pet, and was worried about someone watching over your shoulder?

Actually, when was the first time?

I’m going to go out on a limb here: fucking never.

This is an idiotic idea, cooked up by someone way too fond of 1974 Gene Hackman movies. Maybe, just maybe, this precaution is merited for cell phones, although if you think about it: if they can read your screen then watching what you type isn’t much of much of a stretch, is it?

But if you think you’ve got a problem  with people reading your passwords over your shoulder at work or at home on a computer you need a divorce lawyer or a recruiter. Or counseling.

At least give us a “show password” check box. Or maybe take a moment to think instead of following the flock over the cliff of shitty design.

Which brings us here:

No LastPass controls.

I use LastPass to manage my passwords. That’s because like most people in 2016 I have a ton of them to worry about. I like my passwords long and unique. (There’s a joke in there. I’ll leave it to you.) When I see a story or get a email that a website I use was compromised, I don’t have to worry. I can just update that one site and carry on.

LastPass creates unique passwords for me and will will fill them out. At least it will fill them out when the website doesn’t make it difficult with fancy pop-ups, lightboxes, and blatant disregard for their users. Some sites, like Verizon, don’t work with password managers.

I don’t blame low budgets for this one. I blame crappy design. Part of designing a login page/control/dialog should be testing compatibility with password managers built into browsers and at least 1Password and LastPass.

Encouraging your users to manage their passwords responsibly is good security and part of being user-friendly.

I wish I could say that Verizon’s crappy website was somehow unique, but it’s not, and I’m willing to bet it’s ample whitespace (literally), sparse design, and fancy lightboxes won some compliments: from people that don’t have to use it.

However, eighteen hours for a security text? That is uniquely bad. That’s “boy who cried wolf” bad.

By the way, it’s been two hours since I re-updated my password and security question. Still no alert.

Maybe I should find another Internet provider. Ha! Just kidding. I’m American.

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