The Morning Jolt


Syria’s Bashar al-Assad Has to Ask Himself One Question: Does He Feel Lucky?

U.N. Ambassador John Bolton speaks before voting against a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s recent attacks in Gaza at the U.N. headquarters in New York November 11, 2006. (Keith Bedford/Reuters)

How do you define a death wish? How about, “using chemical weapons in an area where their effects are likely to be recorded on camera, right before John Bolton becomes national-security adviser”? You don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit into the wind, you don’t pull the mask off the ol’ Lone Ranger, and you don’t mess around with The ‘Stache.

A month ago, then-private citizen John Bolton wrote:

Security Council weapons inspectors monitoring North Korea’s compliance with United Nations sanctions have reportedly concluded that, for several years, the North has been selling Syria materials for the production of chemical weapons. Additional sanctions violations also are reported, but none compare to the gravity of this evidence that Pyongyang is trafficking in weapons of mass destruction (WMD) technology.

Pyongyang’s dangerous behavior today dramatically foreshadows exactly what it will do with nuclear and ballistic-missile technology as soon as it thinks it is safe to do so.

The U.N. report and other sources also indicate considerable involvement by Iran, China and Russia in financing and transporting North Korea’s chemical and other weapons-related materials to Syria. The complex web of business dealings shows serious, perhaps insoluble, problems in the enforcement of international sanctions applicable to both Pyongyang and Damascus.

That certainly sounds like a man fed up with the status quo approach to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. And certainly President Trump’s Sunday morning tweets — the first to criticize Vladimir Putin directly by name(!) — suggest the commander in chief is appalled and outraged at the use of chemical weapons.

Meanwhile, someone — everyone suspects the Israelis — bombed Syrian airbase T4 early Monday morning, a base used by Syrian and Iranian-backed militias.

Former secretary of State John Kerry, in his farewell memo to America’s diplomats, touted the alleged success of destroying 1,000 tons of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles and then added, “unfortunately, other undeclared chemical weapons continue to be used ruthlessly on the Syrian people.” It’s been said that the easiest way to persuade President Trump to do something is to tell him Obama refused to take a particular course of action. Is someone like Bolton going to tell Trump that Obama refused to enact a lengthy campaign of punitive airstrikes, aiming to destroy any suspected Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles?

Get Ready for an Expensive, Tough Senate Race Down in Florida.

Florida governor Rick Scott is making it official: He’s running for Senate in 2018, challenging incumbent senator Bill Nelson. Today in Orlando he’ll announce his bid and call Washington “horribly dysfunctional” because of “career politicians” and call for term limits for members of Congress.

Last May, I talked to Scott, and it was clear he was thinking about a bid, and that he had no real working relationship with Nelson.

“I don’t talk to him,” Florida governor Rick Scott says, referring to his state’s three-term Democratic senator, Bill Nelson, an incumbent up for reelection in 2018.

A few weeks ago at the National Rifle Association’s convention in Atlanta, Scott addressed the attendees and offered a surprisingly explicit argument for replacing Nelson. “I believe it’s crucial that we increase the Republican majority in the U.S. Senate,” Scott told the NRA crowd, after praising Trump’s decision to nominate Neil Gorsuch. “Look at the votes on this Supreme Court nominee, and you can see there are a number of senators who did not represent their states. These senators need to be retired. Unfortunately, one of my state’s senators, Bill Nelson, has veered far to the left.”

Asked about why he called out Nelson before a politically active crowd, Scott insists he wasn’t hinting at a 2018 Senate bid. “You look at Neil Gorsuch, how could you vote against the guy?” Scott said during a recent visit to Washington. “[Nelson’s] the senator from Florida, and that’s why it was relevant to talk about him.”

It’s clear Scott feels no particular warmth toward Nelson, as he explains why he doesn’t talk to his state’s senior senator. “What you learn in this job, I’ll give you a story. My hometown is in Collier County. I know who to call in Collier County to get things done.”

The governor is too careful and even-keeled a politician to really come out and say it explicitly; his version of a smackdown is a pause so pregnant it might as well be having triplets. But the implication is clear: Scott doesn’t talk to Senator Nelson because he doesn’t think his state’s Democratic senator is a guy who can get things done. With a little twist of the knife, Scott says, “I talk to Marco [Rubio] quite a bit.”

Right there, the twin prongs of a GOP message against Nelson in 2018 become visible. For a purple state that’s trending red, the incumbent has become just another Democrat marching in lockstep. And for a three-term senator from an important state, Nelson is an easily overlooked nonentity in the nation’s big debates. It’s bad enough that Nelson’s a liberal, but he’s a liberal afterthought.

Of course, since then, Scott signed gun legislation that raises the minimum age to purchase a firearm to 21 from 18, banned bump stocks, gave law enforcement greater power to seize weapons and ammunition from those deemed mentally unfit, and allows the arming of some teachers if both the local school district and local sheriff’s department agree.

It’s a safe bet the governor won’t be speaking to the attendees of this year’s NRA Annual Meeting in Dallas; the organization is challenging the age restrictions of the new law in court.

So far this year, the incumbent Nelson has enjoyed a narrow lead in polling about the now-no-longer hypothetical matchup.

The Increasing User-Unfriendliness of Social Media

There’s more discussion of allegations that Twitter is “shadow banning” users, as Mickey Kaus and Monica Showalter claim. It’s worth noting that at this point, it’s mostly anecdotal, people saying things like, “I follow Ted Cruz on Twitter, but I feel like I never see his posts on my timeline.” But it sure seems like a lot of people realizing that they feel like they never or almost never see tweets from those that they follow.

Showalter runs some senators’ accounts through web-based gadget TwitterAudit, which:

Takes a sample of up to 5000 Twitter followers for a user and calculates a score for each follower. This score is based on number of tweets, date of the last tweet, and ratio of followers to friends. We use these scores to determine whether any given user is real or fake. Of course, this scoring method is not perfect but it is a good way to tell if someone with lots of followers is likely to have increased their follower count by inorganic, fraudulent, or dishonest means.

According to TwitterAudit, 83 percent of Cruz’s followers are real people, not bots. The same gadget concludes that an astounding 55 percent of Kamala Harris’ followers are not real — which might explain why Harris gets a lot more retweets.

Also as of 2016, 93 percent of my followers are real . . .  and they’re spectacular. I love 93 percent of you.

What’s indisputable is that what we see on social media is heavily shaped by algorithms that are a lot more complicated (and user-unfriendly) than simply, “hey, what’s the most recent thing posted by the people I follow?” Two painfully funny tweets about this on other forms of social media, first from Bethany Mandel:

Facebook [stinks] for a lot of reasons, but one of the biggest is this: Every time I open the page, the same update from 11 hours ago appears at the top of my newsfeed from my high school best friend’s mom about not having power.

And Anthony Carboni’s observation about using YouTube:

Me: *watches a single YouTube tutorial so I can fix my door hinge*


No matter how many times I click “see less often,” Twitter likes to show me tweets that got a lot of reaction from eight to 17 hours ago, statements or posts that are usually outdated or overtaken by events.

Elsewhere in the social-media landscape, over in Wired, Zeynip Tufekci is tired of Mark Zuckerberg’s latest apology tour, and points out that when it comes to user data, we keep seeing the same problems, apologies, and promises from Facebook.

By 2008, Zuckerberg had written only four posts on Facebook’s blog: Every single one of them was an apology or an attempt to explain a decision that had upset users.

In 2010, after Facebook violated users’ privacy by making key types of information public without proper consent or warning, Zuckerberg again responded with an apology — this time published in an op-ed in The Washington Post. “We just missed the mark,” he said. “We heard the feedback,” he added. “There needs to be a simpler way to control your information.” “In the coming weeks, we will add privacy controls that are much simpler to use,” he promised.

I’m going to run out of space here, so let’s jump to 2018 and skip over all the other mishaps and apologies and promises to do better — oh yeah, and the consent decree that the Federal Trade Commission made Facebook sign in 2011, charging that the company had deceptively promised privacy to its users and then repeatedly broken that promise — in the intervening years.

There are very few other contexts in which a person would be be allowed to make a series of decisions that have obviously enriched them while eroding the privacy and well-being of billions of people; to make basically the same apology for those decisions countless times over the space of just 14 years; and then to profess innocence, idealism, and complete independence from the obvious structural incentives that have shaped the whole process. This should ordinarily cause all the other educated, literate, and smart people in the room to break into howls of protest or laughter. Or maybe tears.

ADDENDA: Speaking of the tech industry and social media, I’m currently giggling my way through Frank J. Fleming’s Sidequest in Realms Ungoogled, a madcap fantasy novel where Silicon Valley has suddenly become overtaken by a Lord of the Rings–style fantasy world, and a mild-mannered computer programmer suddenly finds himself trying to survive in absurd mirrored-reality of magic swords, demons, mermaids, fairies, secret societies, and blind dates with women who claim to be from “The Sisters of Torment, Who Serve the Darkness.” (You know, it’s not hard to imagine some of these tech CEOs transitioning quite well to a land of dark lords, conquest and monsters.)

You know Frank from his hilarious blog, IMAO, novels like Superego, and non-fiction humor books like Punch Your Inner Hippie and Obama: The Greatest President in the History of Everything.


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