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.