Monday, April 29, 2019

HBO Game of Thrones Recap: Final Season Episode 3

The director for this episode mentioned that he was in part inspired by the Battle of Helm's Deep from the Lord of the Rings: Two Towers and Assault on Precinct 13. I don't think this episode quite measured up to the scenes from that first movie but it did put you in mind of the second. So I guess it worked better as a  horror/siege film than it did as a battle. A big problem with any battle/action films is that the director and/or writer must find a proper balance between making everything go by very quickly so that the viewer hardly sees it and slowing things down in a surrealistic way so that the viewer can understand everything that's happening and identify with the heroes/victims. 

There are of course some directors who can do both at once-Spielberg's opening scenes in Saving Private Ryan. Other directors jump back and forth between both styles : almost anything by John Woo and obviously 300 by Zack Snyder. This episode's director's choices included a lot of speed but also a lot of darkness. So it was often difficult to tell who was who and what was occurring. Within the narrative the battle took place at night so on one level that made sense but go rewatch Lord of the Rings: Two Towers and tell me that HBO might not have overdone the blue and black saturation. 

Nonetheless this was an emotionally satisfying episode with the trademark bait and switch that this show has become known for. If we ever do get to experience these scenes in print it will be interesting to learn if GRRM keeps them or if he had something different in mind. His prophecies from the book appear to have not come true, or perhaps have come true in a way that few of the readers saw. 

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Book Reviews: What The Night Knows

What The Night Knows
by Dean Koontz
I used to be a huge Dean Koontz fan. I picked up this 2010 book in a clearance sale. I liked the plot description and theme. But after reading it I was let down. Now bad Koontz is better than most other writers. However I thought that here one of the typical Koontz formulas (a decent man with a horrible secret must protect his beautiful wife and perfect kids from evil with the help of a loyal dog) ran out of gas. This softcover book was over four hundred and fifty pages. When I read a novel that length I expect something either meaty or epic. This wasn't the case.

It's been a while since I read Koontz so I'd have to go back and check his earlier works but I don't seem to remember his writing being so heavily weighted towards prose and away from dialogue. There's very little dialogue in this book. So the story feels very heavy to me, but not in a good way. YMMV. 

There is an extremely disappointing ending. If we continue after death in some form that could be really wonderful news for those among us who are kind, helpful,and decent people. The flip side is that evil doers could continue their malevolent works.

John Calvino is a dashing thirty-something homicide detective haunted by his family's murders two decades ago. Although John killed the perpetrator, John has never been able to forget the last words of the rapist-murderer, Alton Blackwood. When a young man named Billy Lucas commits atrocities and murders that clearly seem patterned after Blackwood's crimes, John is worried enough to visit Billy in a mental institution even though it's not his case. Billy is mostly uncommunicative but shares some private chilling information with John that Billy simply could not have known.

It's getting close to the anniversary of the murders of John's parents and sisters. John is feeling uneasy. There are some things in his past which he has not shared with his loved ones, out of concern for their emotional and mental wellbeing.

Michigan Gerrymandering Case

Gerrymandering is when a political party redistricts in an unfair partisan method so that its political dominance and ability to win elections is maximized while the ability of rival parties or disfavored minorities to do the same are minimized. 

Both parties do this although the Republicans have arguably taken it to new heights, or lows, depending on your point of view. Courts have been reluctant to get deeply involved in such disputes, often taking the stance that with certain egregious exceptions, redistricting is an inherently political process and not so much a legal one. 

Parties compete to win control of government precisely to draw political boundaries for their own benefit. But courts do occasionally step in and force the legislative branches to make changes. We just saw an example of this in Michigan.

Detroit — Michigan must redraw legislative and congressional districts for the 2020 election because current maps drawn by Republicans represent a political gerrymander “of historical proportions,” a three-judge federal panel ruled Thursday. The blockbuster ruling — which a legislative leader said Republicans will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court — requires Michigan to conduct special state Senate elections for certain seats next year, cutting in half the four-year terms that current lawmakers are now serving. 

The “predominate purpose” of the redistricting plan approved by the Michigan Legislature in 2011 “was to subordinate the interests of Democratic voters and entrench Republicans in power,” said the unanimous decision written by U.S. Circuit Judge Eric Clay, an appointee of Democratic President Bill Clinton. 

Monday, April 22, 2019

HBO Game of Thrones Recap: Final Season Episode 2

Episode Two took place entirely in the North-more specifically at Winterfell. This episode was another set up show in which there was a great deal of exposition, a little sex (not from Tormund), a little humor (mostly from Tormund), and a great deal of foreshadowing of presumed future events. We open up at Jaime's, well trial seems too formal, let's say his hearing in front of Daenerys, Sansa and Jon. Daenerys is of course eager to kill the man who murdered her father. Once again Jaime eschews the opportunity to point out that Aerys intended to incinerate King's Landing. Daenerys also gets Jaime to admit that Cersei lied about sending forces to help.  Cersei's armies, augmented by mercenaries, are going to let the North, Daenerys and allies bleed themselves dry. 

Jaime argues that he is not his sister and is at Winterfell because he wants to fight for the living. Tyrion comes to Jaime's defense but that was the wrong thing to do as Daenerys (shades of Michael Corleone's anger at Tom Hagen?) is tired of Tyrion's wrongheaded advice. She wonders if Tyrion knew ahead of time about his sister's treachery.  She basically tells him to shut up; she later wonders if she needs to find a new Hand, perhaps one not so tied to the current occupant of the Iron Throne. 

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Movie Reviews: The Possession Of Hannah Grace

The Possession of Hannah Grace
directed by Diederik Van Rooijen
At first I thought that this was just a distaff remake of The Autopsy of Jane Doe. It certainly had a lot of the same surface similarities. Someone is left alone with a dead body and starts to have hallucinations. Eventually the person comes to believe that the dead body isn't actually dead or at least not dead in the way that we would use the term. As H.P. Lovecraft once wrote "That is not dead which can eternal lie. And with strange eons even death may die." George R.R. Martin reworked the Lovecraft couplet into his own equally impressive Iron Islander chant/boast "What is dead may never die. But rises again stronger and harder."

What made The Autopsy of Jane Doe impressive or at least interesting to me was that the viewer was immersed in the same mystery as the characters. For much of the movie the viewer didn't know that much more than the characters. This allowed the viewer to be alternately surprised and worried right along with the two coroners. In this movie however I think the director/writer took a wrong turn from the start. The first five minutes of the movie explain in detail exactly what the titular character is and what has control over her.  So there's no mystery as to what's going on. 

The majority of the movie consists of watching fake scares and people doing stupid things. Now some cynics would argue that describes most horror movies. Well perhaps. But it wouldn't describe good horror movies, which The Possession of Hannah Grace is assuredly not.

Granny Says Batter Up!!!

There's little worse than someone who tries to harm someone who is thought to be unable to fight back, such as a child or elderly person. However, just because a person is a woman or even an old woman doesn't mean that they can't defend themselves or what is theirs.

Gainesville, Florida resident Clarese Gainey recently demonstrated this lesson of life to one Antonio Mosley. I am sure everyone will have a hearty laugh in prison when Mr. Mosley explains to his fellow inmates exactly how he was defeated by a 65-year-old woman who went oops all upside his head. Oops upside his head.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (WGFL) — It was early Sunday morning when 65-year-old Clarese Gainey heard a noise outside her apartment. As she looked out the window, she says she saw a man in his boxers pulling at her car door handle and knocking on the window, attempting to break in. Before calling police, she took matters into her own hands.
"I grab my bat, I brace myself, and I ease the door open," Gainey said. That's when police and Gainey say 5'6, 300 pound Antonio Mosely charged her.
"I took that bat and hit him upside the head like 'pi-yah!' He said 'Ow!'"

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Should We Make Everyone's Tax Returns Public???

How much money do you make? How many tax loopholes do you use? Do you have a bunch of medical deductions?  Are you or your dependents suffering from some expensive and possibly embarrassing medical condition that you would rather not discuss with most people? Did you properly report all of your income, investment income and capital gains for the past year? 

What has been your rate of income growth over your lifetime? Are you well paid at your job?  Are you a lagging performer? Are you only hanging on to your job because your bosses don't think you're worth the trouble to fire because you earn so little? Do you have a job or do you instead survive on some combination of disability, savings, capital gains, and family or spousal support?  Did you retire early thanks to wise investments, business ownership and inheritances? Well if you're like most Americans I know you probably think that information and data like it is strictly between you, the IRS and any really close friends, family or intimates that you decide have a pressing need to know that information. It's not for public consumption. It's private.

Well at least one person on the NYT editorial board thinks that information should all be public for everyone.

In October 1924, the federal government threw open for public inspection the files that recorded the incomes of American taxpayers, and the amounts they had paid in taxes. Almost a century later, it’s time to revisit the merits of universal public disclosure. Democrats in Congress are fighting to obtain President Trump’s tax returns under a separate 1924 law, written in response to related concerns about public corruption. That issue could be resolved, at least in part, if Congress embraced the broader case for publishing everyone’s tax bill.

Monday, April 15, 2019

HBO Game of Thrones Recap: Final Season Episode 1

In 1066 Duke William the Bastard of Normandy invaded England, defeated the Anglo-Saxon King Harold Godwinson, and became King William the Conqueror of England, changing the course of English and eventually world history. Now his descendants later intermarried with Saxon relatives/descendants of Harold with the result that today's English royal family boasts descent from both William and Harold. But somewhere out there there is likely a person who can claim to be the direct Anglo-Saxon descendant of Harold with none of that Norman-French "taint".  

Is this person the "true heir" to the English throne?  Similarly Britain used to be ruled by the Romans. Maybe in Greece or Italy there is a person who has direct descent from the last Roman emperor who ruled a unified Empire. Is this person the "true heir" to the English throne? These questions go on throughout history. 

They are very much reflected in Game of Thrones. Daenerys Targaryen is insistent that she is the rightful ruler of all of Westeros because her father was and his father before him and all the way back for three hundred years when Aegon The Conqueror and his sister-wives first invaded and conquered much of Westeros. However what is gained by violence may be lost by violence. Robert's Rebellion put an end to Targaryen rule because enough people decided that the Mad King Aerys Targaryen had forfeited the right to rule by his capricious, violent and yes insane actions. Daenerys doesn't see things that way. And she has two massive armies and two dragons to enforce her point of view.  But just saying that you're a Queen or King doesn't make you one, as Tywin Lannister once pointed out to Joffrey. People have to accept it. Will people in the North accept Daenerys? The initial results don't look too promising. 

And given that Daenerys still thinks that Targaryen rule is legitimate how will she react to the fact that even under a Targaryen framing Jon Snow (Aegon Targaryen) has a claim to rulership which is superior to hers? Given what we see, her reaction might not be that stable.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

HBO Game of Thrones Final Season: Martells

Bad Writing Destroys House Martell
Dorne was, depending on who you talk to and how you understand the story, a way to bring in some storylines, settings and themes that weren't 100% based on Northern European patriarchal norms. In the books Dorne was a fantasy meld of Iberian, Welsh, Italian, and North African settings with minor Palestinian or even West African cultural signifiers tossed in for flavor. Dorne was not conquered by the Targaryens but voluntarily joined the realm via marriage. The biggest difference between Dorne and everywhere else in Westeros was that Dorne practiced equal inheritance between male and female. Dorne as a nation was founded one thousand years ago by Queen Nymeria. Nymeria led refugees to Dorne, burned her ships so no one could flee, married a Martell, and proceeded to curb stomp all of the squabbling states and regions of Dorne into one realm which she and her husband ruled as equal partners. 

In Robert's Rebellion, Lannister thug Gregor Clegane (and in books also Amory Lorch) raped Princess Elia Martell and murdered her and her children. The Dornish Prince Doran and his younger brother Prince Oberyn did not forgive or forget the atrocities committed against their blood. Doran played the long game, letting people believe that he forswore vengeance while building up House Martell. Oberyn took a different path. Oberyn went to King's Landing and made it clear to all that he was out for vengeance against Lannisters in general and Gregor Clegane and Tywin Lannister in particular. 

Oberyn had a chance for revenge when he defended Tyrion Lannister in a trial by combat against the fearsome Gregor Clegane. Oberyn showed that speed and poison kills. Unfortunately for Oberyn he forgot that Gregor Clegane, even mortally wounded, is wicked strong and freakishly fast. Don't taunt Gregor until after he's dead. Otherwise THIS happens.

Book Reviews: Drake

by Peter McLean
This book is the first in a series. It's similar to works by Simon Green, Jim Butcher, Mike Carey and other authors who imagine a grimy seedy noirish world in which magic works. Drake is an old school detective/adventure novel despite the magical overlay. It's told in first person, which often, though not always, makes you think that the narrator will probably survive, no matter how crazy things get. Although the protagonists in these types of stories tend to be men of questionable morals, McLean stretches that convention to the breaking point. YMMV with this. It helps that most of the people who are the protagonist's enemies are far worse than he is. It also helps that the hero is trying desperately to turn over a new leaf.

Don Drake is a London magician with a big talent for summoning things. By things I mostly mean demons. Hell is real, along with some other dimensions.  With the help of his Burned Man fetish, a wood statue which binds and channels an archdemon of the same name, Drake is able to conjure up all sorts of things. Unfortunately, Drake has proven inept at monetizing this skill. He's also shown a lack of morals. Drake mostly uses this power to send demons to frighten, steal from or even kill people for a fee. Drake manages to sleep at night and justify this to himself by always making sure that the people these demons hurt are always bad people who are guaranteed to go to Hell anyway. 

Drake never has any money because he's a gambler. Tricked into a game with the human-appearing demon Wormwood, Drake loses more than he can pay. Although Wormwood is a demon he operates more like a Mafia boss.  Wormwood serves Mammon. Literally. Greed is Wormwood's highest principle. As far as Wormwood is concerned Drake is in his debt for as long as Wormwood says so. Wormwood has some jobs for Drake to do, jobs which all involve eliminating Wormwood's human competition-magical or gangsters. After some initial reluctance, which Wormwood promptly has beaten out of Drake, Drake gets with the program.  

Should The Voting Age Be 16?

There are some people, among them US Representative for the 7th District of Massachusetts Ayanna Pressley, who think that the national voting age for federal elections should be lowered to sixteen. 

They say that today's sixteen-year-olds are mature enough to be trusted with the vote. Unfortunately for Representative Pressley, not enough people agreed with her stance. Last month her peers soundly rejected the idea of extending the ballot to sixteen-year-olds.

The U.S. House of Representatives has rejected a measure proposed by U.S. Representative Ayanna Pressley (D-Dorchester) to lower the voting age in elections for federal office to 16. On Thursday night the House voted 126-305 on the amendment, Pressley’s first as a member of Congress.

“Some have questioned the maturity of our youth. I don’t,” Pressley said on the House floor before the vote, according to video provided by C-Span. “A 16-year-old in 2019 possesses a wisdom and maturity that comes from 2019 challenges, hardships, and threats.”

An ally, U.S. Representative Grace Meng (D-New York), pointed out that high school students have been getting more active in political matters in recent years.

Judge says FGM is not a Federal Crime

This story touched a lot of different controversial topics: conservative judicial attempts to limit federal legislative authority, immigrant and religious refusal to hew to American standards, women's rights and feminism, double standards around FGM and male circumcision, and even American civil rights history where the federal government turned a blind eye to racist malfeasance in various states, claiming that it was the state's responsibility to bring charges, not the federal government's. 

Detroit — Federal prosecutors will not appeal a judge's order dismissing female genital mutilation charges in the first criminal case of its kind nationwide, concluding the law is weak and needs to be rewritten. The decision delivers a setback to international human-rights groups opposed to female genital mutilation that have closely followed a case that has raised awareness in the U.S. of a controversial procedure and prompted Michigan to enact new state laws criminalizing the procedure. 

"Although the department has determined not to appeal the district court's decision, it recognizes the severity of the charged conduct, its lifelong impact on victims, and the importance of a federal prohibition on FGM committed on minors," Solicitor General Noel Francisco wrote in a letter to Congress on Wednesday.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

HBO Game of Thrones Final Season: Baratheons

Baratheons show why you should stay out of family feuds
At the beginning of HBO's Game of Thrones, Robert Baratheon appeared to be on top of the world. Robert was King of Westeros. Robert had won the kingdom with his strong right hand, which he used to wield a war hammer so heavy most other people couldn't lift it. Robert had personally killed the previous heir to the throne, Rhaegar Targaryen, hitting him so hard with the aforementioned war hammer that the encrusted rubies on Rhaegar's breastplate were being found in the river months or even years later. Robert had his godfather Jon Arryn as Hand (Prime Minister), his two younger brothers Stannis and Renly as council members and his best friend Ned Stark as backup in case anyone started to act funny. 

Robert married the realm's most beautiful woman, Cersei Lannister. Robert could thus count on his father-in-law's support. Tywin Lannister is the realm's richest and most ruthless leader. With the exception of a brief revolt by the Westeros Appalachia equivalent, Cthulhu worshiping pirates from the Iron Islands, Robert brought and kept the peace. Or so it seemed. Unfortunately for Robert his desire and ability to win the throne and avenge himself upon the people who had stolen his true love Lyanna Stark and murdered his best friend's father and brother were always greater than his desire and ability to rule ably, pay attention to details, or sniff out enemies smart enough to avoid direct confrontation.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Movie Reviews: Act of Violence

Act of Violence
directed by Fred Zinneman
Act of Violence is a noir film directed by Fred Zinneman, who also directed High Noon. Although Act of Violence is not quite as iconic as High Noon, it ought to be. It feels more personal as well. Perhaps it was, dealing as it did with issues of hard choices made during war and what they cost. The director immigrated to the US before the Nazi takeover of most of Europe. His parents weren't so fortunate. They died in a concentration camp. 

It's easy for people in today's world to talk about what they would have done were they enslaved in 1730s Alabama, facing a lynch mob or segregation in 1903 Florida, or locked up in a death camp in 1944 German occupied Europe. Talk is cheap. The reality is that heroism and self-sacrifice are rare. That's in part why we honor them so when we run across them.

Many people will do whatever they can do to survive for as long as they can survive. The threat or promise of death or mutilation can break brave men and women. Just about everyone has a breaking point. This film asks the viewer if someone is a hero because they held out as long as they could or are they a villain because they acquiesced or surrendered to evil? There aren't necessarily easy answers to these questions. They vex generation after generation.

Frank Enley (Van Heflin) is a real estate developer and philanthropist in post-war California. He's also a war hero. Frank is a former Air Force  bomber pilot who was shot down over occupied Europe. He survived in a German POW camp. Frank has an attractive wife Edith (Janet Leighfuture Psycho actress and mother of Jamie Lee Curtis) and a toddler. Everything is looking up for Frank. His future is so bright he's got to wear shades! But the news of Frank's success attracts attention: the wrong kind of attention. Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan), a tall looming grim man with a bad limp, has been reading the newspaper articles about Frank's success. He travels across the continental United States, determined to find Frank and execute a prompt and furious vengeance on him. Joe used to be Frank's best friend. Joe was also in that German POW camp.

12 Year Old Boy Fills Michigan Potholes

Sometimes a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. Or in this case a boy has got to step up and do what his city, county, and state government ought to be doing. I appreciate the initiative, gumption and civic pride that 12-year-old Monte Scott showed in attempting to fix numerous potholes in his specific area of North central Michigan town Muskegon Heights. 

More people should show pride in the appearance of their community. But it's safe to say that the fix for potholes is not going to be kids filling them up with dirt, no matter how much we like their civic concern. And young Master Scott knows that. In a few years perhaps Monte Scott will be in a position to run for office and place some accountability on those who let his roads deteriorate to such a horrible condition. 

A Facebook video posted Wednesday showing a boy taking a pocked Muskegon Heights street into his own hands and filling up the potholes with dirt has since garnered more than 50,000 views. The boy, Monte Scott, 12, told WZZM-TV that he didn't want people messing up their cars like his mom did. 

In the video, Scott is seen working in a red and orange hoodie, using a shovel and a garbage can of dirt to fill up one of the larger potholes on what looks to be a bumpy stretch of street. Passers-by stopped to capture the scene on camera, praise Scott and lament about the state of the roadway. "You're gonna be something too, you're a hard worker," a man is heard telling Scott.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Joe Biden: Clueless, Creepy or just Cordial??

Woman speaking to Biden: You snapped my bra strap!
Biden: I'm sorry I don't remember doing that.
2nd woman talking to Biden: You rubbed my neck and gave me a back massage!
Biden: You really need to be more specific young lady. I give a lot of back massages.
3rd woman speaking to Biden: You grabbed my _____ and called me "Sugar-***"
Biden: Oh yes! Sugar-***!! How the hell are you sweetheart! I missed you!

Former President Joe Biden has not announced that he will be running for President in 2020. But he's pretty clearly thinking about it. I've read some previous speculation that he remains a little miffed at being shouldered out of the way by Clinton in 2016. Usually it's the VP of a successful administration that gets the official nod to be the party standard bearer in the next election, not the Secretary of State. Oh well so it goes. I don't believe in too many conspiracy theories. And there's no evidence of anyone directing any attacks against Biden. But it is "interesting" that Biden, who has by all accounts been a pretty handsy guy with both men and women for all of his political career, has recently been accused by a number of women of behavior that either made them uncomfortable or was downright inappropriate.