Saturday, January 13, 2018

Patient Dumping in Baltimore

"This place is cruel; nowhere could be much colder /If we don't change the world will soon be over"
Stevie Wonder "Living For The City"

There are things you are allowed to do and things you are not allowed to do. When no one is looking, for many people it's tempting to do the things they aren't allowed to do, particularly if it saves them or makes them money. For an auto company engineer this could mean ignoring a defective transmission part and letting a poor design go to market. Why should she jeopardize her bonus and next promotion for something that may not even be discovered for another decade? She can reason that those drivers could have had fatal accidents anyway. Maybe a banker sells a young couple a horrible mortgage with sub-prime interest rates and balloon payments, reasoning that as long as they sign on the dotted line it's not his responsibility to save them from themselves. A restaurant owner might choose to use the moldy jalapenos in the rear of the freezer or fry up the wormy meat that fell on the floor. Margins are tight and state investigators will never know. 

Or maybe a hospital, already dealing with lower reimbursements and higher costs than it can handle, decides to eject the patients who either lack insurance or lack more remunerative private insurance. This is called patient dumping. A psychotherapist good Samaritan named Imamu Baraka, apparently by happenstance, witnessed a woman being dumped outside near the bus stop on a cold winter night. The woman was incoherent. She only had a gown on. 

BALTIMORE (AP) — The man who said he came to the aid of a woman discharged from a Baltimore hospital wearing only a gown and socks on a cold winter's night, says he was left outraged and stunned at how she was treated.

Imamu Baraka, identified in local reports as the person who sought to help the woman, told The Associated Press he was so angry he decided to record Tuesday night's events on cellphone video, fearing no one would believe him if he reported a woman being left at a bus stop like that.

Book Reviews: Killers

by Howie Carr
If I had realized just who the author was before I picked this book up on a 2 for 1 sale at the local bookstore I probably wouldn't have purchased it. It's always tricky to figure out how much of a book's or fictional characters' worldviews are things that are created by the author separate from his or her own views. Fiction and reality don't necessarily have anything to do with one another. And politics and artistic skill don't correlate either. But there are authors with very strong political or personal views that not only bleed into their creative works, they inspire the creativity in the first place. The view points are the reason for the creative work. They give the author a way to purge himself.

Howie Carr is a Boston area conservative racist radio host and Boston Herald columnist who has played footsie with birtherism, claimed that President Obama was given everything because of his race, and mocked Senator Elizabeth Warren with "Indian" war whoops. Boston has always had a certain reputation for xenophobia and bigotry. Although Carr is not a Boston native, he seems to fit in well. Carr is an expert on New England area organized crime. Famously he attracted the negative attention of Winter Hill gang boss Whitey Bulger, who regretted not murdering Carr when he had the chance.

Depiction is not endorsement as any creative artist would tell you. However, I think that most readers are smart enough to tell the difference between someone who creates racist characters because he's a keen observer of human nature and someone who creates racist characters because he sympathizes with those viewpoints. As a reader there are only so many sentences decrying "a fat female Obama voter yakking on her Obamaphone" or snide asides about uncivilized jungle areas in Boston (Roxbury) that I can tolerate. Killers was right at my limit.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Movie Reviews: Flatliners, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

directed by Niels Arden Oplev
Flatliners is a remake of the 1990 film of the same name that starred such Hollywood luminaries as Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, Oliver Platt, and Kevin Bacon among others. The story is a familiar one. People cross boundaries that shouldn't be crossed. Initially the people who broke the rules seem to be doing well. In fact they are doing better than ok. They have abilities and knowledge that can't be explained. But there's no such thing as a free lunch. The transgressors start to have problems. Big problems. There are things that we aren't meant to know. Hopefully the smarter or more moral of the protagonists can find the key to making things right before everyone has to pay with their lives or sanity. 

There aren't too many surprises when a story adheres to this theme.  What counts is the style, not the details. Flatliners starts out with style and creepiness but almost immediately falls back on the same generic jump cuts and did or didn't I see that spookiness that make up the majority of horror/thriller movies today. This movie was almost the definition of bland. A medical student is fascinated with the idea of what lies beyond the limit of death. There is still some brain activity beyond the point of what we call death. What's going on in the brain for those few seconds?

Movie Reviews: Oldboy, The Dark Corner

directed by Spike Lee
This is a remake of the classic South Korean movie of the same name. Sadly I hadn't seen the original in full because of an unfortunate chain of events with a now defunct video rental store. I was thus only slightly familiar with the story. I had no idea of any plot twists or turns, which of course won't be discussed here. I had heard mostly negative things about the Spike Lee remake. I was still willing to give this movie a chance because in some circles it's become popular to bash Spike Lee regardless of whether the film he directs is actually any good. I wanted to make up my own mind. Although there were certainly a few directorial choices I didn't care for, this remake of Oldboy wasn't anywhere near as bad as many people claimed. This film was a box office failure. I think that some people want Lee to only stick to a certain kind of movie. I think because the original is so iconic that some people wouldn't have cared for any American remake regardless of the producer or director. I might well feel the same way about a remake of the South Korean movie Train to Busan

But people probably shouldn't be so snobbish about remakes. People always like seeing movies in languages they understand with actors they already know. It's just human nature. And some important American movies like The Magnificent Seven are remakes. So just because it's a remake doesn't mean it's a bad movie. Just because it's a Spike Lee film doesn't mean it's a bad movie. There are just a few points in this movie where it's obvious to the casual viewer such as myself (not a film student or professional) that this is a Spike Lee film.

Music Reviews: Billy Joel's Laura

Although I am a modest Billy Joel fan I didn't hear this song until recently. "Laura" was on The Nylon Curtain album. The only songs I was familiar with from that album were the ones like "Allentown" and "Pressure" which got heavy radio play and "Goodnight Saigon" which shows up routinely on greatest hits compilations. The Nylon Curtain came out after John Lennon's death. The album in general and this song in particular had a strong Beatles influence. The guitarists on "Laura" sound like George Harrison while Billy Joel appears to be doing his best John Lennon vocal impression. And the backup vocals are very Beatle-esque. All in all "Laura" sounds very much like something Lennon or McCartney could have written. The lyrics contain the only profanity which Joel had used up to that point, perhaps his only profanity ever as far as I know. Perhaps that is why I never heard this song on the radio back in the day.

For the longest time (heh-heh) Joel was cagey about what had inspired this song or what the lyrics meant to him. When pressed he would say that the lyrics could be about anyone (family member or romantic partner) who knew just when and where to push your buttons for maximum emotional damage. This action might or might not be malicious on their part. After his mother's death, Joel admitted that the song was about his complicated relationship with her. As Joel mentioned, the line about the umbilical cord should have been a dead giveaway. 

Movie Reviews: Invincible

directed by Ericson Cole
This is an older feel good sports drama based on the true story of an everyday man who beat the odds and made the roster of a professional sports team, the Philadelphia Eagles. It ought to go without saying that the writers, studio and director made all sorts of changes to the storyline to make it more of a melodramatic tearjerker. YMMV. A lot of that wasn't necessary in my opinion. But just about all movies based on true stories take some liberties with the facts. It is what it is. These sorts of films aren't designed for deep viewer introspection or documentary level accuracy. Films like Invincible are designed to make the viewer feel better about his or her life. If the person in the story can try, fail, keep on trying, find love, and then ultimately succeed then perhaps the person watching can do the same thing. Invincible is an entertaining movie that will hopefully make you think about the challenges that you have faced in your life. Did you succeed? Are you still seeking out challenges?

Most of us aren't going to make the roster of an NFL team but a big part of the American Dream is that with hard work, determination and love of friends and family a man or woman can overcome obstacles and do anything that they want. A more cynical negative person might dismiss this sort of stuff as horrible capitalist individualistic propaganda that prevents people from making the sorts of systemic group changes that need to be made in society. Perhaps. But all the same art is not necessarily bound to political needs. Sometimes art is just art. And people do need dreams.

Prison Abolition: Good Idea?

I can't remember the cartoonist's name but somewhere in my home I have an old newspaper comic cut out that shows a smirking sheriff about to hang a depressed looking criminal. The comic's caption is a quote from the sheriff. It reads something like "Of course I realize that society is partially to blame for your crimes. Unfortunately I only have enough rope for you!"

If you talk to most people about their ideas on individual responsibility, punishment, crime, rehabilitation and the like you will find that many people tend towards one of two differing schools of thought. Many (not all) conservatives will be clustered around the idea of "If you can't do the time, don't do the crime!". Some will (knowingly or not) have a pretty healthy dollop of bigotry mixed in as well. They think the individual is responsible for committing the crime, and must pay the cost. Punishment is important. These folks usually aren't that concerned with rehabilitation or repayment. They are interested in punishment. They are often indifferent to why someone committed a crime. If one group of people commits more crimes or has more run-ins with law enforcement than perhaps those people have some personal problems to fix. People who think like this can be still be persuaded to look beyond punishment as the key purpose of the criminal justice system but only if other important (to them) points are raised like cost. Saying that prison is too harsh usually won't evince too much sympathy from these citizens. They will retort that the criminal should have realized that before they committed a crime. There is an axiom that a liberal is a conservative who just got arrested. With the opioid epidemic in full swing some conservatives have suddenly become open to non-prison alternatives for those who look like them.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Trump vs. Bannon

I have never been fired from a job. I came close once but ultimately avoided it. No one likes being told by their boss or employer that they aren't good enough to do the job they do and need to leave. Now. Right this minute. Steve Bannon is apparently no exception to that rule. The right wing publisher, former investment banker, former Navy officer and previous adviser to President Trump was let go by Trump back in August of 2017. At the time Bannon denied that he'd been fired but said that he hadn't planned on staying with Trump for much more than a year. He said that he could be more effective outside of the Administration. Some sources said that it was Chief of Staff John Kelly who asked Bannon to resign. Other sources said that Bannon and Trump still talked regularly and that any claims of disagreement or dislike between the two men were wildly overblown. Well. It appears that like most other people who got a tap on the shoulder from a supervisor and were ignominiously walked out of the door by security, Bannon is nursing some grudges against his previous employer.

In an upcoming new book by Michael Wolff, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, Bannon launches several personal and political attacks on Trump, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, his daughter Ivanka, and his son Donald Trump Jr.

In his latest book, Wolff quotes former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon calling Trump's daughter Ivanka Trump "dumb as a brick" and denouncing his son Donald Trump Jr. and son-in-law Jared Kushner as "treasonous" and "unpatriotic." The quotes sent the White House scrambling and drew condemnation from Trump, his family and White House officials. Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called the book "trashy tabloid fiction."

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Movie Reviews: Project Almanac, Dunkirk

Project Almanac
directed by Dean Israelite
This older sci-fi film works the same side of the street as such stories/films as A Sound of Thunder and to a lesser extent Looper and Predestination. Unlike the two latter films Project Almanac doesn't have any deeper underlying story or external clash between good and evil. The struggles are almost entirely internal and prosaic. It's been too long since I've read any physics texts or explanatory books but my understanding is that although faster than light travel is impossible time travel into the past may well be possible. There's some books on this I'm looking forward to reading in the near future that will hopefully explain some of this stuff in layman terms that I might more easily understand. College physics was a long time ago. The problem with time travel of any sort though is causality. If you are already here than obviously you can't go back in time and kill your grandparents before they had your parents because apparently you already failed. And everything that exists today is the result of an infinite number of decisions that were taken by many different people as well as chance. If you change any of those inputs, perhaps you don't have the same outcome. Or perhaps you can't change the outcome in your universe but do so in another universe. Perhaps there are an infinite number of universes that branch off from every possible decision made by every human who ever existed or who ever will exist. We may never know.

Project Almanac examines those questions. Rather than place the characters in a dystopia where government agents or hit men are the time travellers, this movie puts the time travelling protagonists in high school. 

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Book Reviews: The Escape

The Escape
by David Baldacci
This was another book that I picked up on sale. Although it was part of a series, and not the first, I didn't know that before I purchased it. And it really does stand alone. There was never a point in this story where I thought that I should have read the other books before reading this one. The author gives you just enough back story to let you know the major points. But because of how the story is set up and progresses, there's really very little back story needed. So if you are a person who normally refuses to read an installment in a series before you've read the first one I don't think you'll need to adhere to that rule in this case. If you do you'll miss an entertaining story.

This book opens up with a bang, literally. In Leavenworth, Kansas there is a very bad thunderstorm. During this storm the generators and the backup power supply go out at the United States Disciplinary Barracks. That's not supposed to happen, ever. All the cell doors open. There are apparently shots fired. And that's pretty scary because none of the guards are supposed to have guns at this military prison. When power is restored, the guards do a headcount. It looks like every prisoner is accounted for except for one, perhaps the most important prisoner. Disgraced Air Force Major Robert Puller, previously convicted of treason and espionage, is missing. And there's an unidentified dead man in his cell. Until his conviction, Robert Puller, a certifiable genius, was on the fast track to high rank and great responsibility in the Air Force. Robert's areas of expertise included military intelligence, WMD verification and cyber-security. 

Robert would have been one of the youngest Lieutenant Colonels, youngest Colonels and eventually one of the youngest Generals. But right now Robert is just an escaped convict whose capture is considered one of the nation's highest national security priorities.