Saturday, January 27, 2018

States Rebel Against Republican Tax Law

The Republicans changed tax law so that starting in 2018 there will be a upper limit of $10,000 for state and local tax deductions to federal taxes (SALT). If you happen to be impoverished, low income or live in a relatively low tax state the impact of this change on you will probably be small or non-existent. If you however live in one of the relatively high tax coastal states and/or happen to be somewhat well off then the impact will be a bit greater. And it may not be a very nice change. Unless the states make other changes, placing a limit on federal deductions for local taxes means that all else equal some people will pay more in federal taxes. Or to put it another way, the federal government will no longer help shield you in toto from your state's tax policy. States will then have less money available for local initiatives.

This delights many Republicans for at least four reasons. (1)They really do believe in low taxes for the wealthy and low services (at least for the poor and middle class). (2) They deeply resent their perception of federal underwriting of higher tax bases in Democratic leaning states. (3) They enjoy watching people who claim to support higher taxes on the wealthy in general turn around to fight effective higher taxes on their wealthy. (4) Most of the states impacted are "blue" states, not "red" ones. Here it's very important to point out that the cost of living/housing can vary widely from state to state. Someone in say SE Michigan with a household income of $180K and a home valued at $500K may be better off even before taxes than someone in New York City with a household income of $250K and a home valued at $700K. Generally the South and Midwest are lower cost regions than the Northeast and West coast.

Book Reviews: The Rise and Fall of a Casino Mobster

The Rise and Fall of a Casino Mobster: The Tony Spilotro Story
by Frank Cullotta
If crime stories aren't your thing then you know what to do with this review. If you are interested in such tales this concise story may fill some holes in your knowledge. However, the book jumps around in time so much that by the ending the reader will still have some unanswered questions. If you've seen the Martin Scorsese movie Casino starring Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci, Sharon Stone, Frank Vincent, and James Woods, you know this story's general narrative. The author was a technical adviser on Casino.

Up until the seventies and eighties, the criminal organization known as the Chicago Outfit, on its own and through various other satellite crime families, owned pieces of several Las Vegas area casinos and hotels. Over time the Outfit became the dominant crime organization in Vegas, outpacing the New York Families. The Outfit maintained influence over various entertainment unions, talent agencies and actor management companies. Via control of the Teamsters Union, shared with East Coast and Detroit area crime families, the Outfit bankrolled new business ventures across the U.S. The Outfit used these businesses to diversify profits and launder monies from dirtier businesses. The Outfit placed two people in charge in Nevada.

These two Outfit Nevada managers were Mr. Inside (Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal) and Mr. Outside (Tony "Ant" Spilotro). Each man had different responsibilities. Lefty worked inside the casinos. Lefty's job was to hire and manage casino personnel, stay under the radar of law enforcement, maximize casino profits and ensure that the daily skim (the amount of money stolen before taxes were reported) was generated. Spilotro worked outside of the casinos. Spilotro's tasks included making sure the skim got back to Chicago, halting any rival mobsters from extorting Lefty, preventing Lefty or other Outfit affiliated mobsters from skimming the skim, discovering and controlling other criminal rackets for Chicago, and "fixing" any problems. Spilotro's "fixes" could range from bribes to business mergers to threats to torture, beatings or murder. It all depended on Spilotro's mood, his orders from Chicago and how serious the problem was.

Grace, #Metoo, Ashleigh Banfield, and Aziz Ansari

The #metoo movement has emboldened many women to share stories of actual or attempted rapes, sexual assaults, threats, or harassment. Women have also spread stories of uncomfortable interactions that were not illegal.

An anonymous woman referred to as Grace went on a date with Aziz Ansari, an actor, writer and comedian of note, and male feminist. The couple returned to Ansari's apartment. Unfortunately Grace did not enjoy herself. Sadly, it was probably difficult for Ansari to be sure that Grace wasn't enjoying herself as she engaged in a number of sex acts multiple times with Mr. Ansari. You can read her entire LONG account here if you are so inclined

The summary is that by Grace's retelling Ansari was an inattentive and pushy partner. Ansari ordered the wrong wine at the restaurant; Grace's joy lessened from there. Per Grace, Ansari was overeager for what many heterosexual men and women would consider the main event. She declined that. Ansari didn't recognize Grace's non-verbal cues that she wanted to proceed at a slower pace. Ansari made requests. Grace claimed she felt compelled to comply with them. Grace harshly describes many of Ansari's sexual idiosyncrasies or boudoir moves which offended her. Grace was irritated at Ansari's repeated and insistent requests to do that last thing. Finally she left the premises. Ansari offered a qualified defense/apology for anything he may have done wrong:

“In September of last year, I met a woman at a party. We exchanged numbers. We texted back and forth and eventually went on a date. We went out to dinner, and afterwards we ended up engaging in sexual activity, which by all indications was completely consensual. “The next day, I got a text from her saying that although ‘it may have seemed okay,’ upon further reflection, she felt uncomfortable. It was true that everything did seem okay to me, so when I heard that it was not the case for her, I was surprised and concerned. I took her words to heart and responded privately after taking the time to process what she had said.


Cow goes rogue and joins Bison herd

Apparently this cow decided that it was better to risk starvation, death by wolves, cold, or disease than stay safe and wind up in the one way line to the slaughterhouse. I guess that is a smart cow. I've often thought that it is a dirty trick to raise cattle from birth, keep them safe, clean, healthy and well fed only to kill them and literally rip them limb from limb. 

Jan. 25 (UPI) -- A domesticated cow that ran away from its farm in Poland last fall surprised researchers by taking up with a herd of bison for several months.

Biologist Rafal Kowalczyk said he spotted the Limousin cow, a French breed popular in Poland, this week with a 50-strong bison herd in the Bialowieza Forest, three months after the smaller bovine ran away from a farm and was first spotted socializing with the wild animals. "She is not very integrated with the group, as bison act like one organism and she stands out," Kowalczyk told TVN24.

He said the bison herd don't seem to mind the cow's presence, however, and are likely responsible for keeping the smaller animal safe from wolves. Kowalczyk said he is concerned the cow could breed with the bison and contaminate their gene pool with hybrids. "Another danger is that hybrid calves are large, and the cow could die giving birth," he said.


The cow may die in birth but if it did it would also die in freedom.😇

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Michigan Service Pigs

There are certain rules that society has set up by which everyone has agreed to live, more or less. We are all interconnected with each other to a greater or lesser extent. So if you happen to live in a city there are different rules by which you must abide than if you happened to live in the country.  For example, you probably won't be allowed to put your old car up on blocks in the front yard. You may not be able to park your boat in the driveway. You won't be able to run your snow blower or lawnmower before 6 AM or after 10 PM. And you probably won't be allowed to keep livestock in your home. All of these are restrictions on your right to use or dispose of your property. However I think they are all reasonable laws. A local couple disagrees with the last constraint and is fighting it in court.

YPSILANTI, Mich. (WXYZ) - You are welcome to stay- but your livestock has to go. That is the message the city of Ypsilanti is giving a couple living in a house with four potbelly pigs.
Now the couple is arguing their case in court, saying their pigs are much more than just livestock.

“This is Vinny. He is our second oldest,” said Jeffery Rowland as he introduces WXYZ to his pigs. He and his wife Stephanie Rowland say their four pigs are part of their family. They both are on disability and say the pigs ease their symptoms of anxiety or bipolar disorder.

“What you have to have are doctors notes. I have between me and Jeff, eleven doctors who say: they need this,” said Stephanie. 


Video below

Saturday, January 20, 2018

2018 Government Shutdown

Well here we go again.

WASHINGTON — Much of the federal government officially shut down early Saturday morning after Senate Democrats, showing remarkable solidarity in the face of a clear political danger, blocked consideration of a stopgap spending measure to keep the government operating. The shutdown, coming one year to the day after President Trump took office, set off a new round of partisan recriminations and posed risks for both parties. It came after a fruitless last-minute negotiating session at the White House between Mr. Trump and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader. With just 50 senators voting in favor, Senate Republican leaders fell well short of the 60 votes necessary to proceed on the spending measure, which had passed the House on Thursday. 


Five conservative state Democrats voted for the spending measure. Five Republicans voted against it, although one of those, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, did so for procedural reasons. As the clock ticked toward midnight, when funding for the government was set to expire, senators huddled on the floor of the crowded Senate chamber, searching for some way forward. Then, in the early morning hours, Mr. McConnell proposed a measure that would keep the government open for another three weeks, not four as the House measure would have done, and said the Senate would come back to into session at noon Saturday.

Movie Reviews: American Made, The Change-Up

American Made
directed by Doug Liman
When investigative journalists talk about the American government turning a blind eye to or even assisting in criminal activity for reasons of "national security" or pure greed, the public often ignores those people in real time. Mainstream media mouthpieces or military-industrial complex muppets mock such people as loons and conspiracy buffs. It's only after the evidence has become impossible to ignore or many of the major players have passed on that the mainstream entertainment industry feels comfortable depicting some of the events.  American Made is a fictionalized retelling of the life and times of Barry Seal (Tom Cruise), who morphed from a shady and bored airlines pilot to a CIA intelligence asset and supplier of the Nicaraguan contras (Iran-Contra affair) to a drug and gun smuggler for the Medellin Cartel to a DEA informant and military asset. There wasn't always a clear delineation among these roles. Seal made a lot of money; he had multiple bosses in different organizations. Unfortunately for Seal he wound up in a position where he had betrayed the cartel , but wasn't considered important enough for the U.S. government to protect. 

So as the saying goes, live fast, die young and leave a good looking corpse. That last is important for this film as the slender and seemingly ageless Cruise (his only concession to advancing years appears to be some deepening lines around eyes and mouth) looks absolutely nothing like Barry Seal, who was a porcine good old boy from Louisiana. 

Book Reviews: The Troop

The Troop
by Nick Cutter
Stephen King wrote that this book was old school horror that scared the hell out of him. Based on that blurb and other people's ravings about the book I decided to give it a read. Although this is not a new book it is still the best book I've read this year. It's the best book I've read in a while actually. After I finished it I looked up some more information about the writer. I was pleased to confirm my suspicion that Cutter (this is a pen name) is a David Cronenberg fan.While reading this book I couldn't help but think back to Cronenberg films such as They Came From Within or The Fly. The Troop is body horror at its finest. I'm interested in reading other works by the author now. 

It stinks to be sick. For most ailments or infections your body's immune system can marshal some pretty effective defenses to isolate and/or kill anything in your body that is not you. Your body is even smart enough to recognize what it kills and develop immunity to new versions of what it killed and ejected. Occasionally however you run across some creatures, bacteria or viruses that aren't so easily dismissed. Some of these things might even become permanent residents of your particular universe. No power on earth can get rid of them. You have no choice but to deal with them.

Canadian Scoutmaster Tim Riggs and his five teen Boy Scouts are on a wilderness camping trip to a small deserted island, one that will allow Riggs' charges a chance to put their outdoors skills to the test and of course gain more scouting patches. Some of the boys are more enthusiastic about this trip than others. All of them are right around the age where they are becoming more interested in girls than in running around the woods tying knots or identifying edible types of fungus. They are also around the age where they're starting to test how far they can challenge adult authority. 

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

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


Flatliners(2017)
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

Oldboy
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

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."
LINK