Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Jon Stewart To The Media: It's Time To Get Your Groove Back

Jon Stewart made a surprise visit to The Late Show with Stephen Colbert


Monday, February 27, 2017

Eeny Meeny Mini Moe!

Quick! What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the title of this post?
I think of a kid's chant used to randomly pick someone for a team or decide who must perform a certain task. The common second part of the couplet is "Catch a tiger by his toe/If he hollers let him go". This rhyme also happens to be the chant used by the fictional character Negan played by the actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan on the cable show The Walking Dead. Negan is to put it mildly not a nice man. He is the undisputed leader of a community of survivors of the zombie apocalypse. Some might even find the villainous Negan to be an anti-hero of sorts. He does keep his people safe. I say he's the undisputed leader of his group because Negan is prone to using his baseball bat to beat the brains out of anyone who displeases him or challenges him. And sometimes just to make sure people don't forget just who is the Big Dog, Negan will randomly pick among disfavored people to set an example. And wouldn't you know it he uses the rhyme "Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe" to choose. As with most popular shows merchandising becomes an important revenue source. The Walking Dead has licensed T-shirts with Negan's baseball bat and the "Eeny Meeny Miny Moe" phrase depicted. But in the UK, a customer was apparently so offended by the phrase that he wrote to the offending clothing store's CEO. Ultimately the store decided to remove the shirt from circulation. The customer thought the shirt was racist. Outraged Ian Lucraft was so offended by the "explicit" t-shirt that he complained directly to the discount clothing store's chief executive - and Primark has now apologised and removed the men's t-shirt from its branches. Mr Lucraft and his wife Gwen had visited the firm's recently opened branch in The Moor in Sheffield city centre to buy a present for their grandson when they spotted the white t-shirt with the message "eeny meeny miny moe" and a picture of a bloodied baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire. 

The phrase and bat are both used by a character in the hit show. He said: "We were shocked when we came face to face with a new t-shirt with a racially explicit graphic and text. "It was fantastically offensive and I can only assume that no-one in the process of ordering it knew what they were doing or were aware of its subliminal messages.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Book Reviews: Company Man, The Long Last Call

Company Man
by Joseph Finder
This is an older thriller novel by the same author who wrote Suspicion, reviewed earlier here. The book was a little longer than Suspicion. It's around 500 pages or so.  I found the main characters in Company Man to be well detailed and realistic. There weren't many characters who seemed thrown in to make the story move, with perhaps one exception. There's a fair amount of dialog. It probably took me longer to complete this book than usual because my free time continues to diminish. I need to do something about that. Anyway this book is set in Fenwick, Michigan, a town that's a little less than halfway between Grand Rapids and Mount Pleasant. The author took the normal liberties with town size and the like. His Fenwick is a small bucolic town with one main employer. That employer is Stratton. Stratton, and the author swears that Stratton is not a stand in for Herman Miller or Steelcase, is primarily a manufacturer of office furniture. For generations Stratton has provided a middle class or better type lifestyle for hundreds, even thousands of West Michigan residents. 

Everyone in Fenwick has worked for Stratton, retired from Stratton or knows someone who has done both. As is usually the case when one company is so closely identified with a community Stratton executives have taken a paternalistic approach to their workers. Stratton rarely fired people. Resignations were rare. Workers and executives prided themselves on staying in the same job and doing quality work for decades. Stratton offered pensions, not 401K's. If you were a Stratton worker, you could hold your head up high with pride because your wallet was fat. You could provide a good life for yourself, your spouse and kids. But things change. 

The current Stratton CEO Nick Conover is facing increasing market pressures from Chinese and non-union southern competition. These days, consumers aren't necessarily willing to pay a premium for well made US furniture.  Nick has made some accommodations to business requirements by ordering layoffs, spinning off non-critical departments and considering overseas sourcing. Nick is a capitalist albeit one with a conscience. Nick has tried to cushion workers from the new market reality when he can but when push comes to shove he must place the good of the company above all else. Better to fire 2000 people and save 3000 than to lose all 5000 jobs. On some of these decisions Nick has had his hand forced by the new owner of the company, a Boston based private equity firm, managed by one Todd Muldaur.

Todd and Nick have a strong dislike for one another. Although like most people in corporate America, Todd and Nick verbalize these feelings through trite sports slogans, passive aggressive advice or silly sounding acronyms, their mutual disdain is clear. Nick hates Todd's micromanaging tendencies. Nick thought that having worked his way up to CEO he would have near total freedom of action. Todd is only concerned with the bottom line. Todd makes that abundantly clear to Nick. Todd doesn't like Nick and doesn't like Michigan, a place he thinks of as flyover country.

Things I learned from A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones

Twenty things I learned from reading A Song of Ice and Fire

  1. If you discover the evil Queen’s deep dark secret don’t tell her that you know.
  2. If your Dad tells you that the family is leaving and don’t tell anyone, don’t ask the evil Queen to change your Dad’s plans.
  3. Just because someone is beautiful doesn’t mean they are morally good.
  4. If your husband tells you to go home and don’t make any rash moves, don’t nod sagely and then go kidnap the son of the most ruthless man in the nation.
  5. If you made a promise to marry someone, marry her/him.
  6. If you work with someone of questionable loyalty (i.e. he has a flayed man for a sigil and “Team Evil” t-shirts), don’t give him a lot of independence of action.
  7. People don't always want your help and may even dislike you for giving it.
  8. If a man claims to be your wife’s ex and one true love, even though your wife swears on your kids that she friend-zoned that punk decades ago, give some thought to the idea that this dude might carry some resentments towards you.
  9. Sometimes your sister really is crazy.
  10. Appeal to people's self-interest to get them to follow you. Don't assume they will do so because it's the right thing.
  11. Short and/or ugly people have to work harder to get and keep credibility.
  12. If you want your subordinates to follow a critical and complicated plan, explain it to them in detail. Make sure they know exactly what they’re expected to do.
  13. Childhood pain feeds adult resentment.
  14. Just because you’re friends with someone doesn’t mean their family likes you.
  15. Vengeance isn't always worth it.
  16. If you have your enemy down, finish him. Don't talk about finishing him.
  17. If she shoots you in the leg when she could have killed you, it's true love.
  18. Always guard your home.
  19. Always listen to your dog.
  20. Always listen to your Mom.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

President Trump and Lies

You may or may not have seen the President's most recent news conference in which he asserted and repeated statements that weren't true. Trump lies so much that it's hard to keep up. Most of his lies seem to be variations on the theme of how he's the biggest and the best at everything. This seems to indicate some pretty deep insecurities about his life and who he is. Nobody hits a home run every time they step up to the plate. Nobody wins all the time. There's always someone younger, stronger, smarter, better looking, richer, etc. But Trump doesn't seem to be able to publicly acknowledge that he's less than perfect in every way. Why is that? Who knows. What is important is that by saying so many things that are not only not true but demonstrably untrue, Trump is showing that he lives in a relativist post-truth world. Trump isn't just making statements which are open to interpretation depending on your partisanship. He's not just picking the most favorable understanding of an event or fact, as the previous President was wont to do. No. Trump insists upon saying that 2+2 = 5. He then takes offense when someone points out that no, actually 2+2 =4. At best Trump will mumble "Well that's what I heard" and move on to another untruth. It is interesting and ironic to see the press, which has occasionally fallen into a somnolent loyal opposition or establishment balance mode decide to return to more of a watchdog style. As Trump has admitted elsewhere he's a carny barker who is prone to making exaggerated claims to get people to buy what he's selling. Apparently that approach has worked for him in the real estate and branding business, though since he's refused to share his tax returns we have no idea of how well it's worked. But being the President of the United States is a different job than hawking Chinese made menswear. The skill sets are different.

Eat a Bug and Save The Planet!

As mentioned in the review of the film Soul Food Junkies, food is about much more than what you put in your body for nutrition. Food is about comfort. Food is about race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, gender roles, family pride, and many other considerations. Many of us, if we are honest, would probably admit to looking askance at someone else's food choices at some point in our lives. Even though we were usually taught not to publicly deride someone else's diet there's no denying that cultural patterns are often difficult to reject, even if we wanted to break them. We all have taboos under which we live. Some of these taboos (incest, kin-slaying) seem to be almost universal across cultures. These are fundamental to human existence. Society can't exist without them. Other taboos, like those associated with food, may vary widely across or even within cultures. Although the people within a given culture or religion may think that a given taboo is natural and universal, people with different perspectives may find the taboo silly or pointless.  As the culture matures or degrades, depending on your point of view, the taboo against certain foods may be relaxed, eliminated, ignored or forgotten. For example, in the West, dogs are usually companion animals for humans. They may be living tools or toys.They may even be cogs in horrific dog-fighting rings. But they are almost never food. Some other countries do not have this taboo against eating dogs. Similarly in the West most people do not look upon insects as a ready made inexpensive renewable protein source. Eating bugs is still considered to be something pretty nasty and disgusting by most people in the US or Europe. It's something that only poor sad sack people from the Third World would even consider doing. But in some non-Western cultures there is no sense of disgust at consumption of bugs. Food is food. Because meat production, storage and consumption are expensive for the producer and consumer and environment, we may be on the verge of relaxing our taboo on eating insects. There are going to be too many people in the world with tastes for steak and not enough cattle. Insect consumption might be a partial solution to this problem.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Movie Reviews: Soul Food Junkies, Jack Reacher 2: Never Go Back

Soul Food Junkies
Directed by Byron Hurt
When you think of soul food what comes to mind? Well I think of food that is traditionally associated with African-Americans such as slow cooked greens, sweet potato pie, macaroni-and-cheese, grits, ribs, chitlins, black-eyed-peas, fried chicken, spicy rice, and other such items. These dishes and style of cooking really come from different antecedents. Kidnapped Africans weren't blank slates. They brought to America their own varied African palates and cooking styles. Africans, Europeans and First Nations peoples in America all learned and shared, willingly or not, each other's recipes and tastes. And during slavery, obviously slaves didn't get the choicest cuts of meat or the best vegetables. They had to make do with what their enslavers provided for them and/or learn to grow their own food. Over the centuries these pressures all combined to create the style of soul food that most black people know today. However there is a problem. Soul food is often heavy in salt, fat, starch, grease and sugar, all things which in large quantities we know are not ideal for human consumption. Black people in America also tend to have some issues with obesity as well as the diseases and conditions which track closely with obesity. These problems include diabetes, hypertension, strokes, pancreatic cancer, colon cancer, breast cancer, and cardiac disease, among other issues. Soul Food Junkies is a documentary film directed by Byron Hurt. It examines how the diet which black people used to survive in hostile conditions needs to be altered to help black people live longer and healthier. Hurt frames the story around his own family, particularly his father, who was obese and died of pancreatic cancer in his early sixties. This is not however a sad or preachy story. And it's also not a story which is blaming people who were victims of bad information. Not in the least bit. This is ultimately a very optimistic tale.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Book Reviews: The Fadeout (Act One)

The Fadeout (Act One)
by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
This is the first installment of a mid-length graphic novel set in 1948 Hollywood. There are three acts in total. It's a collection of a serial comic. If you like noir stylings, this story has that in spades. You can almost smell movies like In A Lonely Place, LA Confidential, The Black Dahlia and The Big Sleep wafting from the pages of this story. The Fadeout is not just a collection of cliches and tropes though it certainly puts those to good use. It's a pretty fast paced murder mystery that is both firmly rooted in a certain place and time and like most good literature, universalist in message. There is some violence but if you'll pardon the pun it's not comic book violence. This is serious stuff. In some aspects this is a detective procedural with the most unlikely of protagonists. The writers skillfully mix fictional and real characters in the story. This novel takes the reader back to a time when Hollywood was more literally the land of illusions and dreams. There were no 24-7 gossip websites. People with sexual tastes outside of the norm had a big incentive to keep those desires secret. This went even double for the studios. If a Hollywood glamour queen preferred men of a different race than her own or a Hollywood leading man liked men, the studios would do their best to keep that information strictly on the hush-hush and down low. Only those who needed to know knew about such things. What was later called sexual harassment was rampant. And if a powerful man liked starlets that weren't necessarily of age in all 50 states, then he could do as he pleased, as long as his movies were selling. The lead character in this tale of Hollywood Babylon is Charlie Parish, a WW2 veteran with a drinking problem and what would today be called PTSD. Charlie is a writer for one of the big studios. Like many Hollywood writers, Charlie has relatively low social status within the Los Angeles entertainment circles. Sometimes this bothers him. Sometimes it doesn't. But what does bother Charlie is when after a drinking binge and blackout he wakes up in a house where the actress Valerie Summers was murdered while Charlie slept.

Enter Sandman: Metallica, The Roots and Jimmy Fallon

I thought this was fun. You should always remember not to take everything so seriously.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Why Trump's Muslim Ban Is Down But Not Out

As you've likely heard by now, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, in the case of State of Washington & State of Minnesota v. Trump, ruled 3-0 to uphold the temporary restraining order ("TRO") blocking Trump's Executive Order nationwide. The emergency TRO was put in place a few days ago by federal district court Judge James Robart.  After the TRO went into effect, Trump, true to form, took personal shots at Judge Robart via twitter, calling him a "so-called judge," and launched the appeal that led to yesterday's decision from the 9th Circuit (ironically, Judge Robart is a conservative Judge appointed to the federal bench by President George W. Bush).  But this fight is far from over and now the world wants to know what happens next.  Before we get ahead of ourselves, let's break down what has happened and what the options are for the Trump Administration going forward.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Open Carry and Double Standards

There are studies which claim to show that police are more likely to use violence against black citizens regardless of the threat level. That is to say that police, black, white or other, tend to view black skin as a threat in and of itself. Other studies claim to show the opposite. Anecdotally there are numerous examples of police violence against black people. Police have shot black men because police mistook a wallet for a gun. Police have choked black men to death because they didn't think the black man was submitting to arrest quickly enough. Police have tackled and body slammed black schoolgirls because they didn't like their attitude. Police have shot black boys because they thought the black boy's toy gun was real. Police have shot black men who were holding BB guns in stores which sell BB guns. Police have shot black men who opened doors in housing projects. Police have shot black men who called police for help. Police have shot black men who were running away from them. Police have publicly strip-searched black men and black women just because they felt like it. Yada, yada, yada. Some police appear to have a lower threshold for using violence against black citizens. It doesn't take much for a black person, armed or not, to put some police officers in fear of their lives. The flip side of this is that some police appear to, with white citizens, at least be open to the idea that deadly force should be a last resort and not the first/immediate one. Michigan is an open carry state. You may legally carry a loaded firearm on your person. This is highly unusual though. Most people don't do it. And there are exceptions to open carry based on location.

Open Carry activists James Baker and Brandon Vreeland, upset about an earlier run-in with the Dearborn police, decided that they needed to file a complaint. They also decided that the best way to make this complaint was to visit the police station and use cameras to document their grievance. Nothing unusual about that right? Nope. Oh I forgot to mention that along with the camera they took along body armor, masks, and a pistol and rifle. They wanted to test the police department's fidelity to the law and the constitution. They didn't prove anything to me other than not being black has its privileges. They weren't immediately lit up. I can't imagine too many black people in today's world doing what they did and living to tell the tale. Video is below. It's a good thing Baker and Vreeland weren't carrying BB guns. Cause then they might have gotten shot.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Gigi Datome Has Dunk Blocked By The Backboard

Professional basketball player Luigi "Gigi" Datome is an Italian player who had a brief stint in the NBA playing for the Detroit Pistons and later the Boston Celtics. Unfortunately for Gigi it soon became apparent to the decision makers in the NBA that Gigi, smooth as he might have looked in the European leagues, was truly not ready to compete with the men of the NBA. He lacked the speed and strength to keep up defensively. Unforgivably, against tougher competition with the pressure on, Gigi turned out not to be the deadly three point shooter which he had been marketed as being. Like many players stuck on the far end of the bench Gigi became something of a crowd favorite during his short time in the NBA. I still like to think that he could, in the right situation, offer something to a few teams. But that's neither here nor there. Gigi returned, not so triumphantly I suppose, to European basketball where he resumed being a key member of European championship caliber teams. Recently however, Gigi showed why as far as the NBA was concerned his presence wasn't missed. Gigi took off for a bad intentions baseline dunk ala Wilkens/Jordan/Dr. J but somehow managed to have his shot blocked by the backboard. One minute you're in the NBA. The next minute you're the poster child for "Don't try this at home kids" public service announcements. A man's gotta know his limitations. So it goes.

Movie Reviews: The Calling

The Calling
directed by Jason Stone
This movie had a pretty good cast but wasted them in a story that is by turns stolid and confusing. It has greater than normal amounts of exposition. But those explanatory scenes probably won't make the viewer more interested in the story. This film works the same side of the street as Solace and as Seven. But it's not as good as those films. The film is set in Canada but that's not really all that important to the story. Police Superintendent/Chief Hazel Micallef (Susan Sarandon) is the top law enforcement officer in the Canadian town of Fort Dundas. Fort Dundas is a small sleepy place where everyone knows everyone else. About the worst crime Hazel has to deal with is drivers taking shortcuts over someone else's property. It's just as well because Hazel is definitely in the downshifting area of her life. She's old, embittered due to career and romantic setbacks, burned out and for reasons which are wisely not completely explained suffers from serious back pain. As a result of this pain and other emotional problems Hazel has become a high functioning alcoholic and a prescription pill addict. She's low energy. She just wants to arrive late to work, spend all day doing mostly nothing, and go home to have a drink. Hazel would rather not be bothered, thank you very much. Waiting to get home before having a drink is not a requirement as far as Hazel is concerned. These failings are generally but not always overlooked by Hazel's fussy live-in mother (Ellen Burstyn) and her perceptive and empathetic if occasionally impatient second-in command (Gil Bellows). We may not all have had run-ins with addicts but many of us have dealt with people who show self-destructive behavior or just do things which work our last nerve. When the object of your irritation is someone you love, finding a way to tell them about themselves, let alone getting them to stop the bad behavior can be tricky.

Trump New Yorker Cartoon

These smug pilots have lost touch with regular passengers like us. Who thinks I should fly the plane?”
You may have seen this cartoon from the New Yorker magazine. It points out via parody that there really are such things as experts. The obvious comparison is to the election of Trump. An intelligent person wants the expert to be able to do his job without being second guessed by people who lack such expertise. No one wants a non-pilot trying to fly a plane. If you're charged with a crime you want someone who understands and is trained in the law. If your car breaks down then you want it repaired by someone who is mechanically inclined and keeps up with all the relevant certifications. If you discover that you have a life threatening disease then you want someone who has spent the requisite amount of time in medical school and has a proven track record of battling and hopefully curing the malady. Not many people have an issue with any of that, or at least not many smart people. The issue arises when you try to frame this "let the experts do their thing" idea into a rule of thumb for politics. Not only is that not how our system is set up (the only office holding requirements are things like age, citizenship and residency) but this sort of comparison misses the point by a country mile. There are indeed objective criteria that qualify someone to call himself a doctor, lawyer, or auto mechanic. If a doctor tells me that doing x, y and z is a bad idea then I should probably listen to him. If a lawyer informs me that the law means such and such then I should give a little more weight to that opinion. 

Free Speech, Berkeley and Violence

The whole idea of free speech in the United States and to a lesser extent what is referred to as the West is that the State, that is government authority, can not sanction or prevent people from expressing their views. There are of course exceptions to this. I don't really have an interest in detailing or debating every last single court decision or legal argument around such exceptions. I'm not a lawyer. That's not the point of this post. The basic concept of free speech is that each individual is free to distinguish between truth and fiction, good ideas and bad on his or her own, using the logic, free will and intelligence that he or she has been granted by their Creator. In the US at least (again exceptions duly noted) there is no such thing as blasphemy. That is the state generally can't outlaw your speech because the state says it has bad content or is hateful. You can write nasty things about Jesus or Muhammad or Moses. You can make fun of other races or genders. You can't be arrested or put in jail because of bad thought nor can the state prevent you from speaking because of bad thought. These free speech protections do not apply to private actors nor do they allow you to use free speech as part of other illegal actions and claim that the illegal action was protected because of free speech concerns. Free speech doesn't allow you to demand that other people listen to you. Free speech doesn't mean that you can heckle someone and prevent them from being heard. Free speech doesn't mean that you can't be harshly criticized for what you say. Free speech may not even mean that if you say or write something on your own time and dime which your employer or business partner doesn't like that you may find yourself out of a job or business relationship. If you annoy someone on social media that person is under no obligation to talk to you or let you use their platform.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Supreme Court Nominee Neil Gorsuch: Should Democrats Fight or Roll Over?

President Donald Trump, and it still feels funny writing that, nominated Neil M. Gorsuch, Appeals court judge from the 10th Circuit, to serve on the Supreme Court. Gorsuch would replace the late Antonin Scalia and restore the Supreme Court to its full roster of nine justices. Gorsuch, is by the estimation of most of those who work or teach in the legal field, or observe it closely, quite qualified. He has the requisite Ivy League education, pedigree and connections, clerkships, experience and judicial decisions that many would agree that you want in someone who is being considered to serve on the Supreme Court. Most people on the conservative side are predictably thrilled. They see Gorsuch as someone with the intellectual chops of Scalia and the same dedication to conservative outcomes. Of course they would claim that Gorsuch is only correctly applying the law as written. Even some liberal legal scholars are singing the praises of Gorsuch, stating that he's beyond reproach and actually someone even people who may not politically agree with Trump should nonetheless support.

Just as predictably some people on the left are saying that Gorsuch is a very bad choice. And they can point to opinions or statements which would certainly back up their stance. In some respects this is all neither here nor there. Trump was not going to nominate a liberal justice. The only concern that many conservatives have is that Gorsuch doesn't turn into a David Souter-i.e. someone nominated and supported by conservatives who reveals himself on the bench to be a less than reliable conservative vote. Most conservatives seem to think that that won't be the case. Under normal conditions it would probably not be worth having a fight over Gorsuch, especially since he's replacing a conservative voice on the Supreme Court, not a liberal one.