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.

Flat Earthers Are Stupid

It seems that there has been something of a slight uptick in media attention paid to people who believe that the Earth is flat. The number of people who believe in a flat earth is growing. Some celebrities have endorsed the idea that the world is flat or claimed uncertainty. It doesn't matter to such folk that science, logic, and observation have conclusively shown that the world is round. Flat earthers remain unconvinced by such proofs. People are free to believe whatever they like. The problem with believing such a ridiculous notion as a flat earth is that the flat earther is going to be more open to all sorts of nonsense. One minute you're stating that you have scientific evidence that the world is flat because you took a level on a airplane flight, the next you're claiming that the Atlantic Slave trade and American slavery never took place. It's not so much just that believing in a flat-earth is wrong, but that deliberately ignoring science and data is wrong. 

I'm not claiming that science always leads you to the proper moral or factual point of view. It doesn't. For example, we probably agree, to a lesser or greater extent, that men and women have differences. That's biology. That's science. That, for some grudging, baseline agreement has little to do with whether we think a given society's gender roles are correct or just. I am saying that believing in a flat earth has a domino effect that leads to the dismissal of more and more science, math, and facts. The flat earther must throw away his reasoning ability in order to hold on to an incorrect conclusion. A political system with dumb voters will have trouble sustaining itself. We may be seeing the outcome of that mindset right now. The same people who claim that the earth is flat are never able to take anyone to the edge of the earth. Not every belief is worthy of respect. Watch the below video in which a Maine meteorologist takes five minutes to debunk the flat earth theory.

John Henry

John Henry was a little baby, sitting on his papa's knee
He picked up a hammer and little piece of steel
Said "Hammer's gonna be the death of me, Lord, Lord
Hammer's gonna be the death of me"

The captain said to John Henry
"Gonna bring that steam drill 'round
Gonna bring that steam drill out on the job
Gonna whop that steel on down, Lord, Lord
Gonna whop that steel on down"

John Henry told his captain
"A man ain't nothing but a man
But before I let your steam drill beat me down
I'll die with a hammer in my hand, Lord, Lord
I'll die with a hammer in my hand""

Now the man that invented the steam drill
Thought he was mighty fine
But John Henry made fifteen feet
The steam drill only made nine, Lord, Lord
The steam drill only made nine

John Henry hammered in the mountains
His hammer was striking fire
But he worked so hard, he broke his poor heart
He laid down his hammer and he died, Lord, Lord
He laid down his hammer and he died

John Henry" is a folk-blues song that is more closely associated with the Appalachian-Piedmont blues tradition than the Mississippi one. Like many of the best folk songs, it may have been based on real life events. It was certainly used as a rallying song during the civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties. It has foreboding, superhuman heroic acts, and of course, death. In the very first stanza of the song the hero, then just a child, knows that he's not long for this life and will die in a heroic sacrifice. Of course, the nature of the sacrifice is debatable, especially in today's post-industrial world where physical labor often is considered suitable only for people not smart enough to do anything else. There are many different interpretations of this song. As with most blues songs there are several different lyrical variations. But every version hits the key points. John Henry was a steel driving man who, when threatened with loss of his livelihood via automation, takes up the challenge and beats the machine, but only at the cost of his life.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Trump's Tax Bill Passes

The Republican Tax bill passed the House and Senate. Trump will soon sign it. I've written elsewhere about why I think it's not a very good idea. I'll probably save a few bucks. Some very wealthy people I know will save much more. Most of the people I know will probably break even, give or take a few hundred dollars. I do not think that the change in tax policy will bring about the alleged stated benefits. We've run this experiment many times before, most recently in Kansas. Supply-side economics doesn't work. I do think that Republicans will use the increased deficits to justify slashing their real targets of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. You can read for yourself why my favorite economist believes that this "tax reform" is a terrible, horrible, very bad, no good policy move, here, here and here. I'm not necessarily interested in rehashing all of that though obviously I generally agree with his take. There were three points that intrigued me about the tax bill and the Democratic reaction to it.

While driving home listening to Democratic or liberal politicians and pundits on various SIRIUS XM stations, I was grimly bemused by how many of them were outraged that the Republicans were able to pass this bill without a single Democratic vote. They seemed to think that this was proof positive that the bill was illegitimate. Well, what goes around comes around. Republicans used the same talking point about passage of the PPACA. Democrats were just as scornfully dismissive of those complaints then as Republicans are today. What matters is do you have the votes. And Republicans did. 

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Book Reviews: If He Hollers Let Him Go

If He Hollers Let Him Go
by Chester Himes
I've been reading works by Chester Himes of late. This was Himes' first full novel. Although it has been compared to such works as Black Boy and Native Son, I thought it was a forerunner of such later works as Catcher In The Rye. I was impressed at how thoroughly this book captured its setting of time and place, 1940s California, and at the same time discussed and displayed many issues common to 2017 American culture. The book is an examination of racism and many of the other isms you might imagine. In the past election cycle many black public intellectuals blasted Bernie Sanders for seemingly only understanding race issues as a subset of class issues. 

Although I thought their dismay was somewhat overblown, there is indeed a certain type of left wing activist who would rather talk about class as the primary or even sole issue worth addressing, while ignoring race issues. Himes parodies this type in at least two different story characters.  One character means well while the other doesn't but both think race is a secondary concern. The protagonist, a black man named Bob Jones, is a rarity. He is a foreman at the Atlas Shipyard, overseeing a crew of black workers. Normally, Bob is not allowed to supervise white workers. Most of Bob's white co-workers consider it intolerable to work closely with or take orders from a black man. Many white workers hail from from the Deep South: Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana and Alabama. And these people would rather sleep six feet in their grave before they let some n***** tell them what to do. This is especially the case for most of the white female workers. No one wants to risk being known as a n**** lover. Whenever white female workers are in close proximity to black men, other whites watch both people closely for any sort of untoward behavior. Even a smile or touch is enough to set off nasty gossip or worse reactions.

Happy Birthday in Classical Styles

The pianist Nicole Pesce provides a humorous demonstration of how various classical and baroque composers might have interpreted the song "Happy Birthday". It probably helps the listener to be a little familiar with the styles she's utilizing here but I think most people will recognize the different composer styles. Victor Borge also did a demonstration like this some years ago. Of course serious musicians may quibble as to whether Pesce's Mozart or Chopin was quite right but I think demonstrations like this aren't meant for serious musicians so much as they are aimed at people who enjoy music and like fun.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Alabama U.S. Senate Election

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Democrat Doug Jones shocked this state, and the country, by defeating Republican Roy Moore in Alabama’s Senate special election Tuesday, a victory that sounds a loud warning to the White House and the Republican Party.
President Trump had thrown his full support behind Moore, who was a controversial figure even before multiple allegations emerged that he had pursued inappropriate relationships with teenagers as an adult.
Jones’ victory is a shot in the arm for Democrats, who are hoping that anger at Trump and congressional Republicans will fuel a “wave” election in 2018, flipping the U.S. House of Representatives, and perhaps even the Senate, blue.

“Tonight is a night for rejoicing,” Jones told a jubilant crowd in Birmingham after defeating Moore 670,551 votes to 649,240, with 100 percent of the vote counted.
Sometime after 8 PM EST tonight we should know if Alabama voters have decided to send Democratic former prosecutor Doug Jones or Republican former judge Roy Moore to the U.S. Senate. As you may have heard Moore has been accused of molesting and pursuing young women below the age of eighteen, including some as young as fourteen. Even in Alabama, fourteen is under the age of consent. However for all sorts of current and historical reasons, Democrats are so politically toxic among the majority of Alabama voters, that even with seemingly credible accusations of pedophilia Moore is still in the race, though it is closer than he would like. After a brief pause in Republican support to see if Judge Moore's campaign imploded, the RNC and President Trump have apparently decided that Moore has a good chance to win. They've thrown their support behind him. Democrats would obviously like to reduce the Republican margin of control in the Senate but likely wouldn't be overly upset if Moore won. Democrats would attempt to label Republicans the harassment or pedophilia party. They would play this up in the midterm elections and/or attempt to shame Republicans into removing Moore from the Senate. 

The problem with this strategy is that (1) it's unclear as to whether Republicans have any shame on this issue and (2) political tribalism has reached such levels that many people in both major parties no longer really care what their guy/gal did. They only care about stopping THEM from reaching their goals.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Movie Reviews: Baby Driver, House of Strangers

Baby Driver
directed by Edgar Wright
Classic action film with familiar storyline and twist ending
I wasn't planning to watch this movie because I thought the story had to be similar to Drive or a million other movies where the hoodlum with a heart of gold has to do a final job for the Big Bad before he and his innocent but oh so sexy gun moll make a run for the border, pursued both by Johnny Law and the Big Bad's minions. Been there, done that. But my brother insisted that I watch this film. So I decided to give it a look see. This is a story which you have seen or read many millions of times before on screen or in print. You will be able to call out the plot twists and turns as they occur. The ending was something different but that aside there weren't too many surprises. But the lack of originality didn't matter as much because the acting of the two leads was organic and exciting. 

Whenever I started to think that this film felt unoriginal the director bopped me over the head with an adrenaline charge of a car chase or foot chase. Baby Driver, much like The Princess Bride, had something positive to say about True Love. Almost by definition that message never feels completely hackneyed. So there was that.

Secret Santa in New Jersey

It's often useful to remember that although we can be a selfish, greedy, bigoted species we also are just as likely to be kind, generous, altruistic and helpful. We all have seeds of kindness within us. And I think that ultimately there are probably more good people than bad. Otherwise we wouldn't have made it this far.

It might not be Christmas yet, but one Secret Santa in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, is already bringing the holiday cheer. CBS News anchor Pat Gallen was reporting from a Toys "R" Us in Cherry Hill when a man identified only as "Charlie K" came to get some Black Friday shopping done. Instead of buying just a few items for his son, he decided to pay for all 350 layaway orders — a total of over 8,000 toys — and asked everyone in the store to pick out three toys to be donated to Toys for Tots, an organization that distributes toys to kids whose parents can't afford them on Christmas.

“I’m trying to bring some happiness to people, to the community that brought happiness to me and my family,” he told CBS News. “I love this community and I am trying to provide back to it.”

Ann Arbor Deer Cull

If you happen to live or work in Ann Arbor, Michigan and have noticed that there seem to be more deer around than usual, do not worry. The word has come down from the top. It's a green light on deer. But you might want to be careful. Snipers will be shooting deer not just in designated public parks but on private property, including in some people's backyards. As you might imagine this plan has engendered some pushback, not only from people who would prefer not to see "nature management" up close and personal but from those who are worried that they or theirs might catch a bullet to the head from a sniper who makes a mistake. That would be a bad thing, to go outside to look at the stars, or take out the garbage, or clean up after your dog and be shot down by someone who mistook you for a deer. None of this would be necessary if wolves were allowed to do what they do but this sort of wildlife management is the price we pay for being human and forcing so many alterations in the food chain. I say the price "we" pay but of course we won't be paying the price. It will be the deer. 

ANN ARBOR, MI - The fatal shooting of a woman who was reportedly mistaken for a deer in western New York, an incident that recently made national headlines, has some Ann Arborites fearing a similar tragedy could happen here during the city's upcoming deer cull.
"Accidents happen when you shoot guns in neighborhoods after dark," said Ann Arbor resident Sabra Sanzotta, expressing concerns at a City Council meeting this week.

"Some of the parks you are planning to shoot in this year have playgrounds, and certainly the neighborhoods' backyards where you're planning to shoot have children and pets," Sanzotta told council members. "So it's an accident waiting to happen." Other residents spoke out at the meeting Monday night, Dec. 4, and shared similar concerns.

Sexual Harassment: What Now?

He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.

Show me the man and I'll show you the crime
-Lavrentiy Beria

Over the past seven weeks since the allegations of current and past harassment and assault first broke against Hollywood film producer, studio head, and distributor Harvey Weinstein, many people have made or revealed many other charges of rape, assault, harassment, and just downright nasty demeaning behavior against several other powerful men in politics, business, media and entertainment. We've seen a deluge of complaints. Most of these alleged actions are pretty obviously unethical and/or criminal. For what it's worth I believe most of the accusers. A few incidents might be charitably understood as misunderstandings or inept attempts at expressing romantic/sexual interest. But there's not much charity around today. It seems as if every day some new man is revealed as an alleged serial harasser or rapist. Since I started writing this post about six or seven men were accused of bad behavior. Horrible stuff. Senators and Congressmen are resigning. My employer requires frequent training on treating co-workers with respect. Avoiding sexual harassment is part of that training. I think it's essential for both moral and practical reasons to ensure that every employee or co-worker understands that no means no, that making someone's hiring, retention, promotion, assignments, workplace environment, or good performance reviews contingent on sexual access is wrong and illegal, that even consensual workplace relationships can be fraught with danger, and obviously that grabbing anyone's private areas without consent is a despicable thing to do. 

Most people of good faith would probably agree with all of the above. However, there are a few people who are not of good faith. They view the current wave of alleged sexual crimes as decisive proof that one half of humanity is wicked, broken, and ready for reprogramming or replacement.

Dumb Man Cements Head Inside Microwave

It's one thing when young children or even teenagers do stupid things. We expect that. They don't have the life experiences that adults have. Their brains are still growing. They aren't old enough or smart enough for society to demand that they take full responsibility for their actions. But when adults do remarkably stupid things, I sometimes wonder if society wouldn't be better off letting the adult suffer the full consequences of his stupidity.

 A British YouTube prankster cemented his head inside a microwave, but the stunt backfired so badly that he almost died, and had to be rescued by the fire brigade. Jay Swingler originally planned to fill a store-bought microwave with quick-dry cement, bury his head in it, and wait for it to harden. He hoped to stay alive in the meantime by using a breathing tube in his mouth.
Five firefighters spent an hour working to release a YouTube prankster who cemented his head inside a microwave. The 22-year-old and a group of friends mixed seven bags of Polyfilla before they poured it around his head, which was protected by a plastic bag inside the appliance. Their intention was to use the microwave as a mould, and by the time emergency services arrived at 1.49pm on Wednesday to the garage of a house in Fordhouses, Wolverhampton, the group had already been trying to free him for 90 minutes.

Detroit foreclosures are big business

Detroit is making something of a comeback. Or to be more precise, certain areas of Detroit are making something of a comeback. The downtown area and the area just north of downtown formerly known as either the University District or the Cass Corridor and now rebranded as Midtown have attracted a lot of business investment, police protection and new residents and customers from the suburbs and other places. And certain high profile neighborhoods (Indian Village, Boston-Edison, Palmer Woods, etc) have seen bidding wars for area homes. However those sections of Detroit have always received a fairly outsized amount of attention and resources, even under previous mayors. Those areas were like Detroit's living room. If you have guests over and don't have time to clean or repair the entire house, then at the very least you will clean your living room as that is likely the first area your guests will see and where they will spend most of their time. Hopefully they won't venture into the kitchen where the dirty dishes are stacked or go down the hall to use the smelly bathroom with the leaky faucet and toilet that won't stop running.

The rest of Detroit is still like those rooms in your home that haven't been cleaned up enough to allow important guests to visit. Many of the public schools are a mess. There's still an unacceptably high level of violent and property crime. And there are not enough good paying jobs for an impoverished Detroit population. Many of these problems stem from a vicious legacy and current day practice of segregation and exclusion. In many ways Michigan is Mississippi North. But the specific issue of foreclosures is even knottier. Banks have often discriminated against Black customers, saddling them with loans they can't afford. And because the tax base is so shaky in Detroit the city has been resistant to properly valuing homes. The city and county have overvalued homes in an attempt to strain blood (tax revenue) from a stone (the Detroit taxpayer). 

Saturday, December 2, 2017

MSNBC Host Joy Reid Attacks Bernie Sanders; Jane Sanders Responds

Politics is a contact sport. People can get hurt. The spouses of political figures know this. That's the life they chose. That said, it is a a fool's errand to pretend that you know exactly what is going on between a husband and a wife unless one of them tells you. And even then you usually won't get the full truth. So it's usually a good idea not to speak authoritatively about someone's spousal relationship other than your own. Jane Sanders, Bernie Sanders' wife, recently reminded MSNBC host and frustrated would be White House Press Secretary, of this fact. Reid, as she is wont to do, was taking another shot at Bernie Sanders. There was no real rhyme or reason to this other than the fact that Reid does not like Bernie Sanders and blames him in part for Clinton's loss in the 2016 Presidential Election. Fair enough, though perhaps someone should remind Reid that Sanders lost the nomination to Clinton. Anyway Reid decided to attack Bernie's feminist credentials by alleging that he mistreated his wife. Mrs. Sanders wasn't having that. She responded.

This isn't really worthy of notice other than to point out that (1) attacking alleged mistreatment of a wife based on nothing more than your strong dislike of the husband is exactly what then candidate and now President Trump did to Khizr and Ghazala Khan and (2) if you are going to charge mistreatment you should talk to the alleged victim. That would seem to be Journalism 101. But Reid is not really a journalist.

Movie Reviews: Sweet Virginia

Sweet Virginia
directed by Jamie Dagg
Occasionally I watch some of the true crime shows on the Investigation Discovery cable channel. Trashy I know, but I blame one of my cousins for introducing me to this stuff. As she jokes, if I ever come up missing, thanks to her experience with this channel she'll know where to start searching for the killer. One of the homicide detectives whose case work is recreated on the network is a very deadpan fellow. He points out that people are quite predictable. The detective says, and I doubt that he originated this bromide, that when people kill someone it's usually for one of just three reasons, sex, money or revenge. Find the motive and you'll usually find the killer pretty quickly. Sweet Virginia is a noir drama that shows the truth behind that saying. Sweet Virginia is a very dark film. I don't mean in terms of subject matter. I mean that the director has chosen a color palette and sound levels that make it challenging to both see and hear what's taking place. This makes sense for the story if only because everyone in this movie has secrets and hidden agendas. They aren't necessarily truthful with themselves let alone other people. 

I liked that this movie was something of a throwback to classic films of the sixties and seventies. There were a lot of long unhurried takes showing people engaged in mundane everyday activities. From time to time there would be something referenced that later proved to be critical, but this was rarely done in such a way that the viewer would pick up on it immediately. Or perhaps I should write that this was rarely done in such a way that I would pick up on it immediately. You may well be ever so much smarter and more perceptive.

Dogs are smarter than cats

In breaking news that shouldn't really surprise most people, let alone people lucky enough to own a dog, we have received more scientific evidence that dogs are probably a little smarter than cats. Because cats can be so standoffish and snobbish while dogs are often the opposite, cats have obtained an undeserved reputation for being smarter than dogs. Well that's not really the case. It turns out that there's more going on inside a dog's brain than a cat's. I'm not surprised. After all, the dog understands the concept of going outside to use the bathroom. Cats still haven't worked that one out. Dogs look at us and try to read our emotions and state of mind. Cats look at us and want to know why we haven't filled the food bowl yet. It may be that what we think of as supercilious feline disdain is simply the blank stare of a dumb cat. Or perhaps this breaking news is all just canine propaganda...

Half of you will love this, and half of you will hate it: An international team of scientists says its research strongly suggests that dogs are smarter than cats.

A paper accepted this week for publication in the journal Frontiers in Neuroanatomy reports that dogs' brains have more than twice as many cortical neurons — the cells linked to thinking, planning and complex behavior — than cats' brains do. The team, working at universities and zoos around the world, counted the number of cortical neurons in eight carnivorans, a large class of mammals that have teeth and claws that allow them to eat other animals. (That's different from carnivores, the much larger class of all meat-eating animals, including bears, raccoons and seals.) 
They found that dogs have about 530 million cortical neurons, while cats have about 250 million. 

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Taiyesha Baker Fired from Indiana University Health

As has been discussed previously many times you do not necessarily have First Amendment protections if you say or write something widely considered to be offensive and your employer lets you go. This may get a tad more complicated if your employer is a public (governmental) entity and not a private one. But even with public employers, if you run afoul of laws or employer policies regarding speech that is harassing or hateful you can often find yourself unemployed. The First Amendment means the government can't stop your disagreeable speech. It's about preventing the government from putting you in prison or fining you for your speech. You are free to say whatever you like. But your employer is also free to decide that your speech is not something with which it wants to be associated. Just as social media has made people more comfortable with sharing a lot of private and personal information, many people seem to forget that social media is NOT you talking to your spouse, relatives, close friends, boyfriend, girlfriend, or even long term business associates. Many of these people probably share some of your world views. And even those who don't usually won't take something you told or wrote to them in confidence and tell everyone without your permission. But when you post something on social media you're sharing it with the world.

Taiyesha Baker, a former nurse at Indiana University Health, apparently forgot that when you're not independently wealthy you occasionally have to consider whether the entire world needs to hear your unedited opinion on sensitive issues.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Movie Reviews: The Signal

The Signal
directed by William Eubank
This low budget older film is a science-fiction thriller that in the same way as the original The Matrix film asks what it means to be human. It's relatively light on action/violence so it might be worthwhile for those people who prefer films without a lot of explicit carnage. There is some violence here of course, but most of it is either implied or cut away from at the last minute. One problem with the film is that because most of it takes place in only a few rooms it really would have worked better as a "Twilight Zone" or "Tales From The Crypt" episode. The Signal occasionally felt like the story was being stretched to meet a certain running time. I can't say that I saw the ending of the film coming from a mile away but probably more attentive people will. I thought the creators of The Matrix probably should have called it a day after the first movie. The Signal has room for a sequel. I would like to know what happens next, but only if the next chapter installment moves more quickly. 

If you are the sort of person who demands that a film be self-explanatory and complete in itself this may not be your cup of tea. There's a lot that isn't clear. And multiple viewings won't necessarily help. Some people will find this deep, challenging and impressive. Others will find it irritating and pretentious. I can't call it, but if you decide to watch this film know that all your questions won't be answered. Or maybe you are super intelligent and will find this film's answers obvious and silly. The film is good looking with pristine cinematography and colors. Of course it probably helps that as much of the film takes place in a medical facility of some sort, everything is shiny white. There's a detached, clinical feel to the film which is often used as counterpoint to the emotional volatility of the main characters.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Movie Reviews: Blade of the Immortal, Downsized

Blade of the Immortal
directed by Takashi Miike
When I watch these stylized samurai action films either in their original Japanese form like this one or in the American homages like Kill Bill, I always wonder why doesn't anyone wear armor. It's probably because as an arrogant and somewhat loony character in a Joe Abercrombie novel disdainfully stated "Armor is part of a state of mind in which you admit the possibility of being hit." And all of these warriors, assassins and magicians are convinced that their awe-inspiring skills preclude anyone wounding or killing them. Most of them are wrong of course. The real reason that armor is often non-existent or non-functional in these movies is so we can watch the blood sprays when arteries are severed and internal organs are pierced by cold unyielding steel. And this movie is all about the violence. It is a true vision of bloody mindedness. Obviously if violence is not something you care to watch then this movie isn't for you. It is based on a manga.

The storyline suffers a little bit from the brute force overemphasis. Blade of the Immortal only occasionally displays the dramatic tension and release which is essential to really good revenge themes, whether played straight like Man on Fire, Kill Bill, True Grit, The Hound demanding chickens in Game of Thrones, or deconstructed in films such as Gran Torino or Unforgiven. This movie lacks the emotional center that normally animates such films. It's very rare in this movie that there's a sense of impending bloodshed and the apprehension that accompanies it.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Senator Franken Apologizes to Leeann Tweeden

Often what's done in the dark is going to come out in the light whether we want it to or not. Harassment and bad behavior is not limited by political considerations. Democratic Senator Al Franken apparently behaved badly on a 2006 USO tour with one Leeann Tweeden, then a Playboy, FHM and Fredericks of Hollywood model, now a radio show host. Although I'm pretty sure that we are only finding out about this now because of the brouhaha over embattled Alabama Republican U.S.Senate candidate Roy Moore, it's still a potent reminder that people (by which I mostly mean men) need to be careful about what they do. It's such a simple thing to get consent first. According to Tweeden, Franken, then a comedian, did not have consent to kiss her or grope her. If this picture had come out before Franken's successful 2008 campaign to become the junior Senator from Minnesota, it's a good bet that he wouldn't have been elected. 

The answer to these sorts of issues isn't necessarily to demonize half of humanity, though some folks would like to do just that. Rather it has to be drummed into some people's heads that even though they work in the entertainment or political arena, they still need to get consent to do certain things, just like everyone else. 

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Movie Reviews: Micmacs, The Lords of Salem

directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Micmacs is a French film. Jean-Pierre Jeunet also directed Amelie, reviewed here. English subtitles are available. I haven't heard or spoken French in a very long time so movies like this are always fun for me to watch. I understand less and less of French as time passes by but I still enjoy occasionally turning off the subtitles to see how much I can comprehend. Not much as it turned out. Still whether you speak French fluently or have to watch each and every subtitle this was a good movie to watch. Unlike with Amelie the romantic theme in Micmacs is not central to the movie. You might even say it's an afterthought. The primary similarity between Micmacs and Amelie is the color palette which simultaneously invokes surrealistic imaginings and hyperrealisism. Jeunet evidently used digital color manipulation to create a Paris that never existed but still feels all too real. Micmacs provides a wealth of visual riches that draw in the viewer. This film is hypnotic. You can get lost just watching the camera linger on a particular piece of architecture. This is a great film to watch on a snowy or rainy day when you're just going to snuggle on the couch. 

It's well cast and acted even if the writing is occasionally a bit suspect. Micmacs is a very optimistic film, despite the subject matter. If you are the sort of person who believes that most people are good and that it's all going to work out in the end then you will probably enjoy this movie. And even if you are a cynic the film may still make you smile. The movie is plot driven not character driven. The protagonist and his friends are all just there to move the story, nothing more. I laughed at the lead character but I never really felt super sympathetic towards him. So this movie is not as memorable as Amelie. But the visuals and music may make up for that. When Bazil (Danny Boon) was a child his father was killed in Africa while trying to defuse land mines.

Book Reviews: Titus Andronicus

Titus Andronicus
by William Shakespeare
Sex and gore that would make Tarantino squeamish
You can make an argument that there is very little that is new under the sun. Shakespeare's play Titus Andronicus would be a good exhibit for that point of view. 

At various times creative artists as disparate as Stephen King, George R.R. Martin, Quentin Tarantino, Rob Zombie, Robert Bloch, Tom Six, Marilyn Manson, Lady Gaga, and Richard Laymon have been accused of playing to the cheap seats, of marketing cheap sex and grotesque violence for no other reason than to shock people. Some of those accusations are true. 

Some of them are not. But certainly Titus Andronicus is a rebuke to those who believe that humans have radically changed over the centuries or to those who still hold that Shakespeare only wrote high minded comedies/tragedies designed to uplift the human spirit. Shakespeare could be as nasty and dirty as any modern splatterpunk novelist. This play was apparently when he wanted to be way out there. Titus Andronicus was so out of the ordinary for Shakespeare that for the longest time some scholars refused to believe that he wrote it. Others argued that everything was so ridiculously over the top that Shakespeare meant this to be a comedy.

If I recall correctly there isn't any incest or homosexual activity in Titus Andronicus, but Shakespeare includes almost every other taboo in the play, his first tragedy. Shakespeare describes adultery, murder, rape, lots of mutilation, cannibalism, and filicide. Shakespeare offers the reader a big scary black man who does evil for evil's sake and makes a (white) Queen his willing sex slave. There's a fair amount of racism, often portrayed uncritically. 

This is a part of Shakespeare's contribution to the Western canon as much as Hamlet or The Tempest. Virtually no character is likable. Anyone who is nice seems to get it in the neck almost immediately. The story feels modern even though it's set in pre-Christian times or at least semi-Christian times. No one in this play is familiar with the Golden Rule or wishes to turn the other cheek. The highest values in Titus Andronicus are not to love thy neighbor as thyself and return good for evil but rather to unquestionably follow the orders of your family head and avenge yourself sevenfold upon any who assail you.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Roy Moore Child Abuse Allegations

It would be ideal if we all could soberly and objectively judge allegations based on evidence and how truthful we think the accuser and accused are being. That's difficult to do even in a court of law. It's almost impossible to do outside of it. This is especially the case when the time between the alleged crime and the reveal of the alleged crime has been years. So we shouldn't immediately believe the worst of people that we don't like for political reasons or even prejudicial ones. At the same time we shouldn't dismiss allegations against people that we do like or people who share certain immutable characteristics with us. It can be true that victims can wait for years to speak out for valid and understandable reasons. It can also be the case that people make accusations that aren't true. My automatic belief of an accuser's story is limited to my relatives, loved ones or people that I know pretty well. With other people having some evidence besides their word is a good thing. In cases where the alleged crime is long past I want to know if the alleged victim told someone about the crime at the time it occurred or made a change in his or her behavior. If that happened then I'm more likely to believe them. Abuse of a child is one of the most heinous crimes out there. There is nothing to excuse it. And yet we excuse things like that all of the time. There are too many musicians to name who have had "consensual" relationships with groupies under the age of consent. There are some filmmakers who have sexually assaulted people. We still recognize their artistic talent. Maybe that's starting to change? Or maybe this breaking news is all a conspiracy. That's certainly what some will believe.

Leigh Corfman says she was 14 years old when an older man approached her outside a courtroom in Etowah County, Ala. She was sitting on a wooden bench with her mother, they both recall, when the man introduced himself as Roy Moore. It was early 1979 and Moore — now the Republican nominee in Alabama for a U.S. Senate seat— was a 32-year-old assistant district attorney. He struck up a conversation, Corfman and her mother say, and offered to watch the girl while her mother went inside for a child custody hearing.

“He said, ‘Oh, you don’t want her to go in there and hear all that. I’ll stay out here with her,’ ” says Corfman’s mother, Nancy Wells, 71. “I thought, how nice for him to want to take care of my little girl.” Alone with Corfman, Moore chatted with her and asked for her phone number, she says. 

Saturday, November 4, 2017

General John Kelly and The Confederacy

I want you to imagine any US general or politician saying that Nazi Gestapo/SD head Reinhard Heydrich, a prime architect of the Holocaust, was "a principled man and skilled violinist who gave up a promising career in the performing arts to serve his country with honor and dedication. Now we may disagree with his principles but that was a long time ago. Things were different then. We shouldn't judge people by today's standards. Heydrich made the decision to soldier for his country. And that's not something to be lightly dismissed".

Such a statement by anyone with anything to lose would probably not be made during normal times because the statement is so profoundly callous and ignorant about the evil that Heydrich committed. But we are not in normal times, as Trump Chief of Staff General Kelly recently demonstrated.

“I would tell you that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man,” Kelly told Ingraham. “He was a man that gave up his country to fight for his state, which 150 years ago was more important than country. It was always loyalty to state first back in those days. Now it’s different today. But the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War, and men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand.”

“I think we make a mistake, though, and as a society and certainly as, as individuals, when we take what is today accepted as right and wrong and go back 100, 200, 300 years or more and say what those, you know, what Christopher Columbus did was wrong,” he said. “You know, 500 years later, it’s inconceivable to me that you would take what we think now and apply it back then.

Red Wedding Pakistan Style

You tried so hard to kill me, woman it just was not my time.
You put poison in my coffee, instead of milk or cream.
You put poison in my coffee, instead of milk or cream.
You bout the evilest woman, that I ever seen.
You mixed my drink with a can of Red Devil lye.
You mixed my drink with a can of Red Devil lye.
Then you sat down, watching me, hopin that I might die

Howling Wolf "Commit A Crime"
I don't believe in arranged weddings though I work with some people who do. I don't believe in marrying your relatives either although again I have worked with people who surely must have been the result of such couplings. If I were unfortunate enough to be raised in a culture where both of those things were normal I guess I would have to run away to the big city or stand my ground and refuse to marry my cousin/aunt/half-sister. What I probably wouldn't do is agree to the marriage long enough to calm the suspicions of my family/in-laws so that I could plot a massacre that would make Walder Frey quail at my ruthlessness. Pakistani citizen Aasia Bibi does not share my qualms. The 21 year old woman already had a man, one Shahid Lasari. Apparently they were happily doing their thing together (though given the importance placed on female virginity at marriage in some circles it's unclear as what exactly the unmarried couple was doing) What is clear is that Bibi's family had marriage plans for her. The family wasn't going to take no for an answer any longer. And those plans definitely didn't include Lasari. Well Bibi wasn't going to sit still for that kind of stuff, thank you very much. She took matters into her own hands.

A 21-year-old Pakistani woman, unhappy in her new arranged marriage, is charged with murder after poisoning her husband's milk that some two dozen members of his extended family later drank, resulting in 17 deaths, according to police. The alleged incident took place in a rural village near the city of Multan in the eastern Punjab Province. 

Music Reviews: Wild Little Girl

You may remember Debra Devi from the interview she previously did here. Now the author, former magazine editor and self taught Jersey City based professional singer-songwriter-guitarist has released a 6 song EP (on the digital release the sixth song is a live version) entitled Wild Little Girl. I believe that this is her first official release since Get Free. This was all in all a very good release. I really really liked one song which I will discuss below. The remaining balance of the material was pretty good. This is an EP. None of the songs are longer than five minutes. Sometimes I like that. Sometimes I do not.

So just like a collection of short stories, if there's something that's not really your particular cup of tea just wait a while because you can be certain that something better is coming up shortly. On the other hand there were at least two songs that I wished had gone on for a little longer. Maybe that will happen on the next release. Although blues is ultimately at the foundation of a lot of the music that Devi creates, for this installment of her creative output she is blues based but not blues bound. This music is rock with a bluesy feel. The music here put me in mind of The Black Crowes, Prince, and Little Feat. Vocally Devi is a dead ringer for Sheryl Crow. I happen to like Crow's voice so for me this was a very good thing. Perhaps at some point in the future people will be saying that Crow's voice is a dead ringer for Devi's. Time will tell. If I had to classify Devi's voice I'd guess she was an alto. What's she's not is a belter. She has arranged the songs to recognize this fact. 

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Book Reviews: Hard Magic

Hard Magic
by Larry Correia
I enjoyed this book. I think I enjoyed it more because it was written in the third person. Therefore it wasn't really a given, as most first person narrated books tend to be, that the protagonist survives. In some aspects Hard Magic is miles apart from Correia's Monster Hunter books and in others it's pretty similar. A hero of large size and rough demeanor with a complicated family past joins a band of not so lovable losers, misfits and outright criminals who are nonetheless tasked to save the world. This story also put me in mind of the X-Men Professor X: Magneto conflict as well as the classic Doc Savage pulp novels. This book took me a little longer to read than usual. At 600 pages, Hard Magic isn't a quick read. But mostly it took me longer to read because my lunch hour seems to keep shrinking. In a perfect world I would have finished this book in about two weeks. 

Hard Magic imagines a world where at some point in the 19th century magic or as people call it "power" became a reality. The book is set in the 1930s. Correia doesn't just dump information on the reader. It takes a while to put everything together.  The reader discovers things in time, not all at once. As clues Correia has quotes from notable 19th and 20th century personages opening each chapter. They all explain how magic has changed their life and plans or those of other people for better, or often worse. Some populations have more magic users than others only because different cultures reacted differently to magic. Other people combine both inborn magic and external use of magic.  Some people are able to use magic: cast spells and make enchanted items. Other people were born with magic powers. These people are called Actives. There are all sorts of different Actives. These include but are certainly not limited to:

Kiki Alonso Hit on Joe Flacco

It seems as if Thursday night football is almost unwatchable. I don't know why the NFL insists on having Thursday night games anyway. It doesn't seem fair to the players involved to have a short week to prepare to engage in such a brutal contest. An incident in the most recent Thursday game reminded me of football's unchangeable savagery. Miami Dolphins linebacker Kiki Alonso put a hit on Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco that knocked Flacco out of the game and at least into the middle of next week. Flacco had to have stitches and is in concussion protocol. Alonso was penalized for unnecessary roughness, but wasn't ejected from the game. At the time of this writing, the NFL has not decided if Alonso will be suspended. I think it's likely though.

The NFL has tried to cut down on helmet to helmet contact. It has tried to reduce the hits that quarterbacks take. The NFL has, compared to the bad old days of the 70s and 80s, limited how defenders can hit offensive players. We know more about the human body and brain than we did thirty or forty years ago. And people want to see scoring. When there's no scoring people don't watch the game. 

But all the same you can not take young muscular men between 200 and 400 pounds and repeatedly crash them into each other at high speeds without someone getting hurt. It can't be done. And as other players have pointed out, when a quarterback steps on that field, he is subject to getting hit--like everyone else. Football players are trained to play until the whistle. If they don't they won't be employed for very long. Quarterbacks have faked slides and continued to run past defenders who have let up. I'm not sure that by the rules of the game Alonzo's hit on Flacco was "dirty" but it certainly looked painful. The hit was questionable enough for Flacco's teammates and coaches to start a ruckus. Once a quarterback starts to slide he's really not supposed to be hit. That's kind of the whole point of sliding. Watch below and sound off.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Fats Domino Passes Away

Fats Domino was a founding father of rock-n-roll. He passed away at 89. My brother always joked that a lot of the classic rock-n-roll and R&B songs out of New Orleans all sounded the same. I would counter that it was distinctive. Although the music may have seemed simple, when you listen to later rock bands (often unsuccessfully) attempt to cover songs Domino wrote or performed, it became apparent that there was more going on rhythmically than one might have initially assumed. Fats Domino stood at the interstices of a lot of popular music.

Without Fats Domino rock-n-roll would have been much impoverished. Reggae and Calypso would be very different indeed. Listen to "Be My Guest" for a example of proto-reggae/ska. His music swung. It is immediately recognizable. And I really love the clear crisp production with deep bass and upfront vocals. Even his sad songs were somehow still optimistic. A joy runs through all of his music. Fats Domino was apparently something of an introvert. And even on stage he preferred to let the music do the talking. Domino very rarely displayed the wild performance styles of fellow rock-n-roll pianists like Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis. And since the piano isn't a portable instrument like the guitar, Domino rarely deigned to swivel his hips and drive the ladies wild like Elvis Presley, Ike Turner, or Chuck Berry. Nonetheless Fats Domino, as much as anyone else and more than most, could claim to be a King of Rock-n-Roll.

Fats Domino, the New Orleans rhythm-and-blues singer whose two-fisted boogie-woogie piano and nonchalant vocals, heard on dozens of hits, made him one of the biggest stars of the early rock ’n’ roll era, has died in Louisiana. He was 89. His death was confirmed by his brother-in-law and former road manager Reggie Hall, who said he had no other details. Mr. Domino lived in Harvey, La., across the Mississippi River from New Orleans.

Mr. Domino had more than three dozen Top 40 pop hits through the 1950s and early ’60s, among them “Blueberry Hill,” “Ain’t It a Shame” (also known as “Ain’t That a Shame,” which is the actual lyric), “I’m Walkin’,” “Blue Monday” and “Walkin’ to New Orleans.” Throughout he displayed both the buoyant spirit of New Orleans, his hometown, and a droll resilience that reached listeners worldwide.
He sold 65 million singles in those years, with 23 gold records, making him second only to Elvis Presley as a commercial force. Presley acknowledged Mr. Domino as a predecessor. “A lot of people seem to think I started this business,” Presley told Jet magazine in 1957. “But rock ’n’ roll was here a long time before I came along. Nobody can sing that music like colored people. Let’s face it: I can’t sing it like Fats Domino can. I know that.”

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Trump Tax Plan

President Donald Trump and his team of economic advisers recently released their plan for tax "reform". You can read some of the highlights here

On September 27, 2017, the Trump administration released its tax reform plan. The Unified Tax Reform Framework would cut income tax rates, lowering the top rate to 35 percent. It doubles the standard deduction but eliminates personal exemptions. The plan would reduce the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 20 percent. It allows a one-time repatriation of corporate profits earned overseas.

The Framework would lower the maximum corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 20 percent. The United States has one of the highest corporate tax rates in the world. But that doesn't hurt large corporations. Most of them don't pay more than 15 percent. That's because they can afford tax attorneys who help them avoid paying higher taxes.

Trump's plan lowers the maximum tax rate for small businesses to 25 percent. That includes sole proprietorships, partnerships, and S corporations. Many of those are real estate companies, hedge funds, and private equity funds. As a result, 85 percent of the tax cut benefits the top 1 percent of earners. Most mom-and-pop small business won't benefit from the reduction. They don't earn enough to qualify for the top tax rate. The Framework does not mention increasing the tax on some profits, called carried interest. That's taxed at 15 percent instead of the income rate. It benefits private equity funds. Trump campaigned on making them pay their fair share.

Trump's plan would almost exclusively benefit the extremely well off. The people that Trump sent out to defend this plan couldn't speak with a straight face about the plan's benefits to the middle class or working class. There are few benefits to the working class or middle class.This plan is warmed over supply side trickle down economics, which is the discredited but never truly dead idea that if we would only reduce taxes on our "betters" then they would be inspired to open more businesses and hire more workers, and not instead buy another vacation home or more stocks or bonds.

Movie Reviews: Wish Upon, The House

Wish Upon
directed by John Leonetti
The good thing about this bland horror film is that it generally avoids jump cuts. That's unusual these days. There are deaths. It's unusual to make a horror movie without them, but by genre standards Wish Upon is not a particularly bloody or grotesque film. Unfortunately it's only infrequently a scary film. The film has pedestrian writing. I've seen much better writing and acting on early Supernatural or Friday the 13th episodes. After ten minutes of Wish Upon the viewer will know how the story will turn out. The only question is who is going to get it in the neck along the way.  This movie reminded me that time waits for no one. I am used to seeing certain people as the curvaceous sultry babe or young dashing rake.  They are now playing respectable, stolid, wrinkled, greying, middle aged parents and neighborhood residents. If they are still around in another fifteen years or so they'll be playing grandparents. So it goes. Anyone who has seen any horror movie knows that if you find an antique of uncertain provenance with warnings in languages that aren't easily understood, it's not a good idea to bring that item home. Anyone who has watched horror movies also knows that when you get something that's too good to be true, it is too good to be true. 

We always pay a price for what we do. I guess that it says something about human nature that this basic lesson is one that we must constantly relearn. There are no free lunches. So maybe we use horror movies to illustrate moral lessons.