Monday, May 18, 2015

HBO Game of Thrones Recap: Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken

"House Lannister has no rivals."
With this installment HBO's Game of Thrones has officially moved from an adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire to something that is inspired by A Song of Ice and Fire. This was a tough episode to watch for a number of different reasons. More on that in a minute. At the House of Black and White Arya continues to clean and wash corpses, but isn't allowed in the secret rooms. When Arya wants to know who the creepy girl is and why Arya isn't allowed to do anything more than the basic tasks the girl gives Arya a very convincing story of her exile from Westeros before asking if Arya really believed that story. Evidently lying is part of the training or "game". Arya may not yet have the ability to tell truth from lies but her sensei Jaqen H'ghar does. He asks Arya questions and whips her every time she tells a lie. Curiously one of Arya's lies is apparently that she hates The Hound. Imagine that. We also hear that Arya left the Hound to die. While Arya is cleaning floors a man comes into the House of Black and White with a sickly dying daughter. He can't afford to pay for any more treatment or take care of her any longer. He wants a mercy killing. Acting like she saw Jaqen do, Arya comforts the child and tells her all sorts of lies before giving her a poison drink. Jaqen watches from the shadows. Afterwards, when she is cleaning the child's body a door is left open, and Jaqen leads Arya into the sub basement. There are many pillars there all with human faces hanging from them. Jaquen says that although Arya is not yet ready to be no one she might be ready to be someone else. So Arya is making progress on something. For what purpose we're not sure yet. I don't think that mercy killing and murder are what Ned and Catelyn would have wanted for their little girl but they're not around any more are they. That's life in Westeros and truth be told our world as well. Things don't always work out. Get used to it.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Book Reviews: Damn Few: Making the Modern SEAL warrior

Damn Few: Making the Modern Seal Warrior
by Rorke Denver w/ Ellis Henican
When is the last time you really challenged yourself? It doesn't necessarily have to be a physical feat like weight loss or exercise. How often do you learn a new language, close an important deal at work, continue professional education, volunteer for a difficult assignment, write a novel, start a blog, change careers, or otherwise leave your comfort zone to improve yourself?  You can improve your knowledge and become a better human being by stretching yourself beyond your boundaries. By definition, most of us fall within the normal distributions of human accomplishment. Some people have the drive and discipline to improve and test themselves continually. They are working their plan, not someone else's. And a small percentage of people decide for whatever reason to join the Navy and become SEALs. It's the story of those men that Rorke Denver, a Navy SEAL, combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan,  Bronze Star recipient, SEAL training director and Commander in the SEAL reserves tells in Damn Few. The very first thing that you notice in this book is that unlike some other central figures in military stories, Denver comes across as humble. He's not looking to prove anything to the reader or to anyone else. I think that's in part because of his makeup and also because he's already proven himself to his wife, family, fellow military teammates and most importantly, to himself. So even when he's discussing things that are very difficult or seemingly superhuman he maintains a matter of fact and occasionally self-deprecating tone. So this was a very easy book to read. I doubt that Denver is telling us everything that he knows about being a SEAL or everything he's done in the military but he does provide a very interesting look inside the Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL school or BUD/S, and the many other schools and classes which prospective SEALs must pass before receiving their trident and becoming a SEAL. There are (or were when Denver wrote the book) roughly around 2500-3000 active duty SEALs at any given time. It's an elite organization. Denver talks about how pre 9-11 there wasn't as much for SEALs to do. Few people outside military circles knew of SEALs. After 9-11 everything changed. SEALs were on the front lines, but were also taking on some very critical secret missions. Denver finds good and bad in this raised profile. Civilian leadership and military brass were impressed with SEAL capabilities. They wanted more SEALs. The lower ranking SEALs and training instructors enjoyed the acclaim but didn't want to lower standards to make more SEALs. Denver mentions that he wouldn't be too eager to lead a platoon of men who needed more than a few chances to pass various physical or mental tests. Mistakes and lack of attention to detail get people killed.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Legendary Blues Singer B.B. King Dead at Age 89

Legendary Blues Singer B.B. King Dead at Age 89
LAS VEGAS — B.B. King, whose scorching guitar licks and heartfelt vocals made him the idol of generations of musicians and fans while earning him the nickname King of the Blues, died late Thursday at home in Las Vegas. He was 89.

His attorney, Brent Bryson, told The Associated Press that King died peacefully in his sleep at 9:40 p.m. PDT. He said funeral arrangements were underway. Clark County Coroner John Fudenberg confirmed the death.

King’s eldest surviving daughter Shirley King of the Chicago area said she was upset that she didn’t have a chance to see her father before he died.

Although he had continued to perform well into his 80s, the 15-time Grammy winner suffered from diabetes and had been in declining health during the past year. He collapsed during a concert in Chicago last October, later blaming dehydration and exhaustion. He had been in hospice care at his Las Vegas home.

Rest In Peace.

Here is my favorite memory of B.B. King:


Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Michigan State Senator Virgil Smith and Domestic Violence

The Bible tells us that only the person without sin should throw stones. It also informs us that we should judge not lest we be judged. That might be good moral advice but of course a working society requires that we do judge certain sins and crimes and punish those who engage in them. That's just the way it is. Although I think everyone has dealt with lust, jealousy and anger at some point in their life not everyone lets these sins get the better of them. You have to maintain control over your actions. The result of losing your temper could be disastrous for you and those around you. Michigan State Senator Virgil Smith (D-Detroit) is finding this out the hard way as new details and conflicting stories are emerging about a confrontation between Smith and his ex-wife that turned physical.  Two sides emerged Monday in the story of a lurid domestic shooting involving a state senator with longtime family connections to the the halls of power in Detroit and Lansing. State Sen. Virgil Smith told police that opening fire at his ex-wife’s Mercedes-Benz with a rifle early Sunday morning was “the most stupid thing” in his life. In a statement Smith gave to investigators, he said his ex-wife, whose name is being withheld by The Detroit News, “was banging on (the) bedroom window,” at about 1 a.m., a Detroit Police report said. Smith said he opened the front door, and his ex-wife, “kicked the door open and pushed (past) him. 

Monday, May 11, 2015

HBO Game of Thrones Recap: Kill the Boy

"Kill the boy and let the man be born."
The Unsullied are said to be the finest warriors in the world. They ask for no quarter and give none. And yet so far they've yet to impress with their battles against the lightly armed and generally unarmored Sons of the Harpy. One reason for this is that the Unsullied are not designed or trained for police or occupation duties. As mentioned before, seven to nine foot spears can be devastating when properly massed on a battlefield. But in a street fight the weapons and tactics of The Unsullied might be more hindrance than help. The Sons of the Harpy have forced The Unsullied to fight when and where their supposed advantages are neutralized. GRRM and to a lesser extent the show creators are apparently making commentary on the types of wars the US and other Western colonial nations have fought since World War Two. Often the stronger military is unable to completely or thoroughly defeat the indigenous resistance and must come to terms of some kind. Sometimes they even get ignominiously kicked out. The White Man's Burden gets heavier and heavier over time. Obviously Daenerys Targaryen doesn't see herself as a colonialist. She thinks of herself as a liberator. Her primary opposition is more akin to the southern terrorists in post-Civil War America than it is to the Kenyan struggle against British colonialists. All the same she is down two of her military leaders thanks to the rebellious Sons of the Harpy. Ser Barristan is dead while Grey Worm is unconscious for three days. Angered, Daenerys flirts with the idea of just feeding all of the upper class leaders to her dragons, whether they are guilty or not. She makes an object lesson of one. The dragons burn him alive and squabble over the smoking remains. The others, including Hizdahr, are arrested and imprisoned.  Daario thinks that Daenerys needs to retrench in one section of the city and slowly go house to house looking for insurgents Sons of the Harpy.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Movie Reviews: Avengers: Age of Ultron

Avengers: Age of Ultron
directed by Joss Whedon
This was a good summer movie that was very obviously aimed at a worldwide audience. You did not have to speak English as a primary language in order to understand or enjoy this movie. In some aspects I guess that's a good thing but in other ways it wasn't. But you don't go to movies like this for character development or long soliloquies that only are of interest to aspiring screenwriters. You go to movies like this to watch things go boom and to enjoy (depending on the angle of your dangle) the fleeting down blouse shots of attractive women or shirtless shots of attractive men. The dialogue, when you could hear it was pretty snappy, but as mentioned forget about character development. This will be an atypically short review because of time constraints and because this film is not at all that different from the first Avengers film. If you liked that film or generally enjoy comic book movies you will enjoy this film. The differences are few. I am not an Avengers expert but my brother, who is, assures me that this storyline and primary villain was created long before the somewhat similar storylines in Terminator and The MatrixIf you will permit an aside some of the oldest myths and actual histories feature a creator begetting children who will kill him/her. The Greeks had the Uranus-Chronus-Zeus cycle. King Arthur had Mordred. The Roman emperor Nero murdered his mother (and alleged lover) Aggripina. The Norse Aesir will do battle at Ragnarok with some of their own monstrous offspring and lose. And so on.

Maybe there is something in human nature that continues to be called back to this theme. Perhaps Freud was onto something. Or maybe not. Who can say. Anyway that old myth is what drives this movie. It's updated technologically but it's the same story. The mad scientist/creator brings his "child" into being. But the created child doesn't want to play his assigned role and proceeds to attempt to destroy or take over the world. It goes without saying that it has a special dislike for its parent. It resents its parent and wants to show that it is better than its parent.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

NSA bulk metadata collection found unlawful

The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals just ruled that the NSA bulk collection of phone records or metadata was unlawful. It is not authorized by Section 215 of the Patriot Act. You can read the entire 77 page decision for yourself here if you are really into such things. I'm no legal expert but I am quite happy to see that at least somewhere in some part of our government there are some people who still take seriously the idea that the government doesn't automatically have the right to know EVERYTHING about you. Many people have cursed Edward Snowden and called him out of his name but this metadata tracking warrantless program was one of the things he revealed. This is why I think Snowden is and remains a hero and a whistleblower. Now that the legality of warrantless metadata collection has been found wanting, I hope that both the legislators who will be tinkering with the relevant sections of the Patriot Act and the citizens whom they purportedly represent will take some time to cogitate on what kind of world we want to build. Laws that are written in haste and panic as the Patriot Act was can often have some unforeseen and unpleasant consequences. But if we truly believe that a citizen has, absent individualized suspicion of wrong doing, a right to be left alone then we should applaud this ruling. This decision could start to ever so slightly hinder the government's "eye in the sky" as it were from rifling through our every communication and digital thought.  

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Handicapping Major Party Declared Presidential Candidates

Hillary Clinton
Why she can win: 
Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated. All your votes are belong to us. Clinton has the money, the name, the media attention, and the air of invincibility. For those voters who really, really, really want to see a woman in the Oval Office, she could also be the culmination of years of dreams. And right now there's no one else in the Democratic Party who has the name or the organization to compete. The Clinton machine is sucking up a lot of the available donor money and the professionals who are needed to run a multi billion dollar campaign. Clinton is in it to win it. She obviously wants to be President very badly. There's no shame in that. There is in some quarters a nostalgia for middle class accomplishments during her husband's Presidency. Clinton is ready to take any and all rivals to poundtown. She's back. And this's personal.

Dave Goldberg CEO of Survey Monkey and Husband of Sheryl Sandberg Dead at the Age of 47

Dave Goldberg CEO of SurveyMonkey and the husband of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, died on Friday while vacationing with his family in Mexico. Goldberg, 47, collapsed while exercising and died shortly after from blunt head trauma. 

Monday, May 4, 2015

HBO Game of Thrones Recap: The Sons of the Harpy

This episode walked right up to the edge of fan fiction. However it also made the strongest hints yet to a fan favorite theory which GRRM has not confirmed but is pretty much accepted as gospel among his fans. I liked this episode a lot more than I thought I would. One of the things which GRRM has done in his books and that the showrunners have done with their version is to show that different people can have wildly different interpretations of the same events, even to the point that different conflicting realities are constructed. It's the fantasy version of Rashomon. How do you know what you think you know? More on that in minute. First let's start with everyone's favorite lonesome loser Jorah Mormont. He steals a boat and sails off with Tyrion. Groaning thru his bonds Tyrion finally convinces Jorah to take the gag out of his mouth. The first thing Tyrion asks for is wine but of course receives none. But a sober Tyrion is an even sharper Tyrion than normal. When Jorah tells Tyrion that they're going to see Daenerys, even though Jorah hasn't identified himself Tyrion quickly figures who Jorah is from his accent and family crests. Tyrion also remembers that Jorah was a spy and deduces almost instantly that Jorah must be on the outs with Daenerys. Unfortunately Tyrion isn't smart enough to keep his thoughts or scorn to himself. Jorah belts him one. I guess unrequited love can make a fellow pretty mean. Mace Tyrell, the pompous in-over-his-head Master of Coin, informs the Small Council that the Iron Bank is calling in 10% of the debt that the Crown owes to it. He says the Crown can only afford 1/2 of that but that the Tyrells could make up the difference. Cersei declines the offer but suggests orders Tyrell to go overseas to work on terms with the Iron Bank. To ensure that he goes she sends Ser Meryn Trant as "protection". 

We start to see that just as you should never count your chickens before they hatch it's not very wise to laugh at lionesses when you're on the same side of the cage as they are. The meek Cersei of last week is gone. She goes to see the High Sparrow. Cersei pretends dismay that the war has seen the robbing, raping and murder of septons and sisters. She gives permission to the Church to arm itself again both to protect itself against such crimes and to root out sinners. And by the way Cersei happens to know where a few high placed sinners might be hiding. The High Sparrow says all sinners are equal in God's eyes.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Movie Reviews: Hyena

directed by Gerard Johnson
The evil that police do has been in the news a lot of late. In some communities it's never far from people's minds. Whether it's killing people, beating them, robbing them or even going into business with other criminals, a few bent cops can do a lot of harm to a society precisely because society is not designed to protect itself from the police. Hyena is not really interested in the larger societal issues around police brutality and corruption but rather stays focused on the internal and individual costs of such activity, primarily to the corrupt cops. In this way the film is almost a homage to such flicks as Bad Lieutenant, Filth or Rampart. Other than a few of the victims there aren't too many sympathetic people here. The default "hero" who has his conscience jogged may be as much motivated by lust or ethnic prejudice as by anything else. This film also serves as a reunion of sorts for the two leads from Kill List, though they are decidedly secondary players here. The accents aren't that bad or more likely I've just gotten used to them. More than the story what I liked about Hyena was the settings, cinematography and lighting. The film uses all of this to ooze griminess and realism. The leads are mostly not square jawed white toothed heroes nor are they people who would automatically invite distrust once you see them on screen. They are very realistic middle aged men who may have had a few too many rich dinners over the years. Many of them are going to seed physically. But of course generally speaking they don't have to rely on physical brawn to intimidate people. They're cops. Most of the people they brutalize or steal from are not going to have the guts to fight back. The cops know this and revel in it. Their badge is literally a license to do whatever they want to do.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Should this Baltimore Mother be Declared a Hero?

If you haven't seen this video, please watch.......

Monday, April 27, 2015

President Obama, Liberals and TPP

"L'etat c'est moi"
President Obama recently invoked a surly and petulant tone when he lashed out against critics of the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership fast track trade deal (TPP). TPP is a so-called free trade agreement that would theoretically increase economic integration among twelve Pacific Rim countries with the notable exclusion of China. President Obama claimed that the critics of the legislation didn't know what they were talking about. President Obama said that if this deal wasn't good for working Americans he wouldn't support it. It's ironic that at the same time President Obama was telling Senator Warren that she didn't know what she was talking about and angrily denouncing anyone who would question his advocacy of certain trade deals that he also had temporarily to break stride and apologize for bombing and killing people who shouldn't have been bombed or killed. In other words he made a mistake. He was wrong. I might discuss the drone situation sometime later but contrary to what the Boxers among us might think, Napoleon President Obama is not always right. Like many corporate bosses when things go well, (Bin Laden is dead), the President takes credit. When things go wrong some supportive media suddenly releases detailed information on how the drone program doesn't need the President's signoff for every target and so mistakes really aren't the President's fault. Fascinating. The President might want to remember that just because he supports something doesn't mean other people need to accept his judgment without question. The President's interests are not synonymous with America's interests. If he was wrong about something like a drone program, he just might be wrong about a trade deal. President Obama's good intentions do not necessarily make something good. There was no need for President Obama to make policy differences personal, but I guess when you don't have to run for election again you can drop certain masks. So it goes.

HBO Game of Thrones Recap: High Sparrow

"I've heard that it's best to keep your enemies close."
"Whoever said that didn't have many enemies."
Hmm. Imagine that in the film adaptation of Mario Puzo's Godfather novel instead of Michael Corleone being the one to kill Sollozzo and McCluskey, Francis Ford Coppola filmed the scene with Clemenza as the assassin. Now in the short term maybe it doesn't matter that much but looking past the immediate such a change would alter many character developments and motivations as well as the larger story themes and threads. Some of this might be for the good but then again perhaps not. I felt that kind of way after watching Sunday's episode. I'm not sure if all the changes worked. However, given that the showrunners have run out of published material for some characters they may have had no choice but to alter events while presumably still trying to tie things into George R.R. Martin's ending. They know the ending and we don't. There are small butterfly changes which are adding up to increasingly huge differences between text and screen. I will write more about that after the season. Multiple book storylines were shot in the back of the head and dumped in the river in last night's episode. Again, I urge you to read the books. Anyhow. We have a creepy open in the House of Black and White where Arya watches as Jaqen H'ghar gives a man a drink. Arya is impatient to get on with the business of becoming a world class assassin instead of just sweeping up but Jaqen reminds her she's not ready for that yet. That drink Jaqen gave the man was apparently poison as the fellow drops dead. Jaqen says everyone must serve the one god, death. Another young woman is apparently jealous of Arya's precocity and attacks her with a riding crop(?) wanting to know who she is. 

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Book Reviews: Half A King

Half a King
by Joe Abercrombie
Like George Martin, Joe Abercrombie writes grim dark fantasy that deconstructs many of the tropes that were used in fantasy literature post-Tolkien. I think this was necessary. How many times can one really read about ancient evil returning, kindly old wizards, grim but loyal warriors who never use their strength to do wrong or incompetent sheep herdsmen who turn out to be the lost heir/chosen one/world savior that everyone has been awaiting? After a while it gets predictable. In his First Law trilogy Abercrombie, like Martin and to a degree Moorcock before him, overturned all the chairs in the stuffy old temple of fantasy literature, using his sharp whips of cynicism and realism to drive out the lazy moneychanging clones of Tolkien and Anderson. However in his trilogy and a few of the stories he's written since then I thought that occasionally Abercrombie could go too far in the other direction where everything that happens is bad and everyone is only out for himself or herself. So I was pleasantly surprised to see that that wasn't the case in his book Half a King. Prince Yarvi is the second son of King Uthrik. Yarvi is an ongoing disappointment to his cold and stereotypically masculine father. Yarvi not only lacks the aggression, leadership qualities and violent streak much prized in men by his people, but even if he had those things it's unclear as to whether he could use them. Yarvi was born with a clubhand and withered forearm (on his left if memory serves correctly) and thus can't really properly bear a shield, swing a two handed battleaxe, or perform many of the military or athletic activities that are expected in men of his class and nation. In open despair, Yarvi once moaned to his father that he didn't ask to be born with half a hand. His father coolly replied that he didn't ask for half a son. There are only three close people in Yarvi's life who show something besides quiet contempt for him. They are (1) his beautiful, intelligent, perceptive and occasionally cruel mother Laithlin, who constantly gives Yarvi lessons on pragmatism and leadership, (2) his watchful uncle Odem who is one of the few people who doesn't laugh or turn away in disgust when Yarvi ineptly practices battle skills, and (3) Mother Gundring, who is the ruling family's minister (think doctor, biologist, philosopher, librarian, lawyer, advisor, and priest all in one person).