Monday, April 29, 2013

HBO Game of Thrones Recap: Kissed By Fire

This week's episode starts with the trial by combat duel between Beric Dondarrion and Sandor Clegane, The Hound. As mentioned last week, Thoros is a priest of R'hllor, the same god that Melisandre serves. He intones a prayer that the Lord of Light show the truth. As befits the champion of a god so infatuated with light and fire Beric fights with a flaming sword. The Hound is famously afraid of fire. Prayers are chanted by all and the fight is on. It's a classic battle royale with The Hound's strength and size matched against Beric's speed and fire. They go head up for quite some time before The Hound's brute force starts to turn the tide and he cleaves Beric from collarbone to kidney. It's a death blow. The Hound has won the fight but he and Arya are both shocked to see Beric still alive after a quick prayer by Thoros. The Hound is free to leave, albeit without all his gold. An infuriated Arya is prevented from killing the wounded Hound. Arya is further disappointed when Gendry announces he intends to stay with Beric. Gendry thinks the social distance between Arya and himself is too great to allow for true friendship. Arya is personally hurt that Gendry won't trust in her big brother Robb, as she most assuredly does. It's ironic that Gendry is indeed Robert Baratheon's son and thus, illegitimate status aside, could indeed be Arya's future husband. 

Beyond the Wall Tormund and Orell continue to distrust Jon Snow. They interrogate him about the Night Watch and the Wall, specifically how the various castles are manned. Jon gives some answers but finally starts to show a little anger at the disrespect. They threaten him but before the men can engage in more figurative "sword" measuring, Ygritte shows that she'd like to do a little literal "sword" measuring of her own. In a scene Freud would have had a field day with she steals Jon's sword and runs with it into a warm cave. If he wants his sword back he'll have to .. Well you know what happens next. 

Ygritte has decided that her hints and flirting just aren't working with Jon Snow so she lays it on the line. Jon Snow shows that he may not have been a master debater but he is indeed a cunning linguist. After they've done what any healthy non-related heterosexual duo would do when there's no one else around Ygritte recalls some of her previous unsatisfactory experiences. She wants to know where the formerly virginal Jon got skills, especially the special kiss. Jon says he was just doing what came naturally and would prefer not to hear about Ygritte's previous paramours. Ygritte is head over heels in love.

Locke brings Brienne and Jaime to Bolton at Harrenhal. Bolton, however appears angry about Jaime's mutilation and Locke's sadism. He is courteous to both Brienne and Jaime and orders Jaime's wounds treated by Qyburn. Qyburn is a former maester who was expelled from the Citadel for unauthorized and unethical experiments. Tyrion meets with Olenna Tyrell to complain about the cost of the wedding between Joffrey and Margarey. Showing that she knows exactly how important the Tyrells are, Olenna reminds Tyrion in great detail of the soldiers, food and wealth that the Tyrells, which is to say Mace, which is to say Olenna, are providing to the Lannisters and how untenable the Lannister situation would be without the Tyrell backstop. She also points out that weddings are important diversions for otherwise troublesome lower classes. Nevertheless she agrees to split the cost. Meanwhile Cersei has not let go of her distaste for the Tyrells and tasks Littlefinger to find something on them.
In a scene that is a bit too rushed and didn't quite have the sense of betrayal required, Lord Karstark and his retainers murder the Lannister child prisoners. Robb is very upset by this as he's fighting for justice and can't have his men murdering children. This could obviously put his sisters' lives at stake. Edmure, Talisa and Catelyn all remind him that whatever the rights and wrongs of the matter are, Karstark leads a key part of Robb's army. When brought to account Karstark shows no remorse and is downright contemptuous of Robb and Catelyn. That does it. Even if he had doubts Robb no longer does. He orders Karstark's retainers hanged and executes Karstark himself, just like Dad would have done.

While Arya is reciting her prayer for vengeance against those who have wronged her and her family, Beric explains that Thoros has brought him back from the dead six times but that he loses more of himself each time. When Thoros and Beric sadly explain this process won't bring back Ned, Arya is further embittered.
Stannis finally goes to see his wife, Selyse. He is ill at ease and in typical Stannis fashion wants to admit his adulterous wrongdoings with Melisandre . He is taken aback to discover that Melisandre has already told Selyse everything. Selyse is not only okay with it but downright happy. Stannis may be a true believer both in his right to be King and in R'hllor but Selyse is a fanatic on both levels. In fact Selyse is downright creepy as she has evidently saved her stillborn children in glass bottles. Yeah. Stannis leaves his wife to see his daughter Shireen, who suffers from greyscale, a disease akin to leprosy. We see that Davos is still in prison. Shireen considers him a friend.

Jaime goes to the same pool as Brienne to take a bath, something which puts her ill at ease. He insults her, almost for old times sake, but immediately apologizes. He explains that everyone calls him "Kingslayer" for killing the Mad King but that by murdering the king, he stopped the king from incinerating King's Landing and also avoided the worse sin of patricide, which is what the king had just ordered him to do. Brienne is shocked and wonders why Jaime never told anyone this before. This is a pretty powerful scene.
Daenerys is on the march. The Unsullied have chosen their own leader, Grey Worm, to speak for them with Danerys. Jorah and Barristan talk about the good old days, even though they were often on opposite sides. Jorah is still suspicious of Barristan and old man or not, doesn't want Barristan having clear access to Daenerys or authority over him. Typical friend zone behavior. Unfortunately there apparently isn't a bard in either Westeros or Essos who's written any song like Tell Her About It. So Jorah still hasn't made his move. Jorah is curious as to whether Barristan was on the small council.

We see the limitations of feudal as opposed to national armies. Karstark's men have left the army. Their primary loyalty was to Karstark, not Robb. In a scene that echoes the comments of our own Fed Up, Robb admits that he's lost purpose and direction, primarily because the Lannister armies won't engage him anymore yet he lacks the ability to siege King's Landing. Talisa suggests going home to retake the North but Robb knows if he goes north he won't be able to get his remaining bannermen to come south again. Robb decides to attack Casterly Rock and draw out the Lannisters. To do that he'll need more men and that means making peace with Walder Frey, whom he rejected as a father-in-law when he married Talisa.

Sansa and Margaery (cleavage alert!) are watching Loras spar. A squire is flirting with Loras and later they do what any healthy homosexual duo would do. It turns out that the squire was one of Littlefinger's prostitutes. Littlefinger learns that Loras is to marry Sansa. Littlefinger doesn't confront Sansa with this information but when Sansa demurs at leaving with Littlefinger, claiming that it's too dangerous, Littlefinger says he understands and hopes that Sansa considers him a true friend. He then promptly passes this information on to Cersei.
Tyrion visits his father to report on progress cutting costs. He is somewhat dismayed to find Big Sis there looking like the cat that swallowed the canary. Tywin dismisses Tyrion's report of wedding cost containment as small potatoes. Cersei has told Tywin of the Tyrell marriage plans for Sansa. As it is widely believed that Robb and Sansa are the only Stark children left alive that makes Sansa not only a very valuable hostage but also the heir to the North.The Lannisters don't want the Tyrells to have her. Tyrion wants to know what that has to do with him and soon picks up through his sister's smirk and his father's glare that he is to marry Sansa. Tywin has made up his mind and won't hear differently. Tyrion says Sansa is still a child but in Westeros old enough to bleed means old enough to breed. Tywin has another order however. He intends that Cersei should marry Loras. This was a surprise to Cersei and she likes it even less than Tyrion did. But Tywin is master of this pride of lions and browbeats both of his children into sullen submission, saying that they disappoint him. From his perspective the Lannister name and power is far more important than his children or their happiness.

I enjoyed the shifting of perspectives regarding Jaime and the nature of good and evil. Stannis and Melisandre have a very Manichean view regarding morality. Either a man is good or he is not. An onion with rot in it is a rotten onion, period. Even Ned Stark was probably closer to this view in some ways although he was more forgiving than those two. However Jaime has a more flexible sense of morality. We are introduced initially to the evil side (trying to murder a child, sleeping with his sister, cuckolding the king, being snarky and arrogant to everyone not a Lannister, killing a distant cousin in an attempt to escape, murdering the king he was sworn to protect) but recently we've seen that for at least some of those actions he had very good reasons, reasons we might even claim were moral. We've also seen him try to protect a woman from rape. GRRM's work challenges the usual depiction of good and evil in fantastical/historical literature. Benioff and Weiss have captured that aspect pretty well, I think. We also see as Sansa did not, that the Tyrells may not be as abusive or evil as Cersei or Joffrey are, but they are quite definitely self-interested. 

*This post is written for discussion of this episode and previous episodes.  If you have book based knowledge of future events please be kind enough not to discuss that here NO SPOILERS. NO BOOK DERIVED HINTS ABOUT FUTURE EVENTS. Most of my blog partners have not read the books and would take spoilers most unkindly. Heads, spikes, well you get the idea....

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Movie Reviews-The English Teacher, Fresh Meat, Yellowbeard

The English Teacher
directed by Craig Zisk
I always liked Julianne Moore ever since the movies Hannibal and Boogie Nights, which is why I was interested in watching this film. I hadn't seen her in a comedic role before. The English Teacher is a successful mix of comedy and drama. And like (500) Days of Summer, it has a few important things to say about life. Unlike (500) Days of Summer I wouldn't say this was a must see movie but it is unusual in that it actually accepts that people over a certain age still have desires and that people under a certain age aren't necessarily dumb.

I liked the setting and background for this movie. Most of it takes place in a school, a gym, or someone's home. Everything looks and feels very real. The sound levels are well done as well. You can hear everyone. The character motivations might occasionally be described as broad but again they are very true to life. People get lonely and do stupid things. People gossip and try to protect their jobs.

The plot is that Linda Sinclair (Julianne Moore) is a Pennsylvania area high school English teacher. She has incredible zest and passion for her work and her students. But she doesn't quite have that same feeling in the rest of her life. Life is basically passing her by. In a voiceover, an older female narrator (her conscience?, her fear?) explains that Linda is an incurable romantic and thus thinks that any man she meets should live up to the men found in works like "Pride and Prejudice" or "A Tale of Two Cities". Of course most men don't and in one of the film's running gags, when Linda (rarely) goes out on internet initiated dates, she immediately judges and grades the men. Negative comments in red ink appear on screen. No, Linda is happy most days just to go home alone and read or watch TV. And the voiceover says that's just the way it should be, thank you very much.

Things change when she bumps into a former student Jason Sherwood (Michael Angarano). The last she heard Jason had gone to NYU's writing program and on to Broadway but Jason ruefully explains that he washed out of NYU and is under increasing pressure from his father, Dr. Tom Sherwood (Greg Kinnear in an excellent albeit small role) to attend law school. Linda thinks this is a shame because she still believes Jason has real, world changing writing talent. Feeling encouraged, Jason shares with Linda his masterpiece play, something he claims is based in part on his own life. Linda reads it and is transformed by the artistry and tragedy on display. She shares it with the hammy drama teacher Carl Kapinas (Nathan Lane), who can't stop telling everyone about the time he auditioned for Soderbergh, as well as the school principal Slocum (Jessica Hecht) and vice principal Pelaski (Norbert Butz). I really liked Slocum and Pelaski as they reminded me of my own high school principal and vice-principal. Slocum is always calculating the proper political move to try to keep everyone happy when she's not worrying about budgets and lawsuits. Pelaski doesn't know very much about art but does know kids need suspensions and detention and an occasional kick in the behind. And he's happy to oblige.

Based on Linda's and Carl's enthusiasm for the play Slocum and Pelaski decide to allow the play to be cast and performed at the school. Positive it will be a success, Linda even agrees to pay for any cost overruns out of her own pocket. Linda gets Jason to act as consultant and producer. Linda is excited by the prospect of "saving" Jason from law school and working closely with a creative person. And Jason is excited by Linda. And that's when Jason shows Linda how hot for teacher he really is while Linda shows Jason how to make a lady smile. After that obviously things go wrong. The play, Linda's reputation, her job, her career are all at stake. It is an interesting phenomenon that illicit sex can harm or help a man's reputation but virtually never helps a woman's. Them's the breaks. Linda's jealousy and defensiveness don't help matters, either. When you spend too long lying to yourself you lose the ability to tell when other people can see through your lies. Students "coughing" and saying "ho" are the least of Linda's problems.

This was, to me anyway, a surprisingly funny film. It doesn't have any obvious bad guys. It's just a slice of life that doesn't take any sides other than giving the very clear message that whoever you are, whatever you do, you need to get up and enjoy life because it's too precious to waste away. Check this one out. It's not groundbreaking or anything like that but there are worse ways to spend your time.

Fresh Meat
directed by Danny Mulheron
I watched this movie because of Morrison. This was a New Zealand horror movie that with a few changes could have reached the over the top zaniness shown by director Peter Jackson in his classic grand guignol horror film Dead Alive. As in Dead Alive, the protagonist has a secret and doesn't quite fit into their family. You've probably seen this story before. A bunch of would be hard cases decide to take someone hostage only to discover that the hostages aren't quite what they seem to be. This film is a horror comedy but it doesn't quite work well as either one. A few interesting subplots start but then stop before they go anywhere.

The film's protagonist is Rina Crane (Hanna Tevita), a Maori nubile teen who has been sent to a girl's boarding school by her father Hemi Crane (a slumming Temeura Morrison) who intends that his daughter remain virginal until marriage. Well Rina may be only technically virginal or perhaps only virginal in a heterosexual sense as the film opens up with Rina successfully using the old "I don't have any soap" opener with a fellow classmate in the communal shower. Fun ensues. Rina strongly prefers her own gender, something to which her father is oblivious. Hemi is a college associate professor.

For break, Hemi picks Rina up from school and returns her to the family home. At home Rina's mother and Hemi's wife Margaret (Nicola Kawana) is completing shooting the latest TV episode of her celebrity chef show. Hemi is genially jealous of his wife's greater material success. He's worried she may have cheated on him. Hemi believes that his status as associate, as opposed to full professor, is because of racist pakehas (whites) and may have cost him Margaret's respect. But before Hemi and Margaret can get started on their mutually enjoyable rounds of snide insinuations and subdued accusations, Rina discovers a human hand in the refrigerator. It appears that Hemi, Margaret and Rina's brother Glenn (Kahn West) have taken to cannibalism. They were going to tell her but the time was never quite right. The impetus for this came from Hemi, who having read about cannibalism and the Solomites cult, thinks the time is right to reintroduce the practice, for selected people only, of course. To Hemi this practice has religious and cultural utility and has the added benefit of giving him superpowers.
But before Rina can truly get into it with her apparently insane family their home is invaded by four bumbling desperadoes, the multiracial Tan gang. The gang includes leader Richie Tan (Leand Macadaan), who was broken out of prison by his group but looks like the only thing he can lead is the line to the all you can eat buffet, his idiot cokehead brother Paulie Tan (Ralph Hilaga), Johnny (Jack Shadbolt), an even dumber gang member who knows a little something about cooking, and Gigi (Kate Elliot) Richie's putative girlfriend, the group's only remotely intelligent member and Rina's immediate lust object. The feeling may be mutual.

This was a movie that had a few funny moments, mostly provided by Morrison, but it's not something that is a must see or even something you would rent at full price. The Haka makes an appearance in a scene that is both funny and highly inappropriate. However, this film is not as funny as it thinks it is. If you want to experience Morrison in much better surroundings and truly see what a skilled actor he is please check out Once Were Warriors, which unlike Fresh Meat, really is a must see film.

directed by Mel Damski
This is a Monty Python film in all but name as it stars Python players John Cleese, Eric Idle and Graham Chapman. However it also stars Americans Peter Boyle, Martin Hewitt, Madeline Kahn, and Cheech and Chong. So the result is a mix of British and American humor styles that doesn't quite work as well as you might have expected. It's more a collection of skits than a seamless comedy film. There are some places where you will laugh out loud and a few others where you might think, well that didn't really work did it. I recently rewatched this. It wasn't as funny as I remembered it being but we all change over the years, I guess. There are a number of jokes that would be considered extremely inappropriate by today's standards. This film is not GLAAD or NOW approved.

The title character (Chapman, he wrote the film) is a murderous English pirate who's been captured by the English government, convicted of tax evasion and locked up for decades. The character is a parody of both Blackbeard and Al Capone. Despite being in the worst prisons they have, virtually starved to death and tortured daily for information, Yellowbeard has steadfastly refused to tell anyone where he buried his greatest treasure.

Despairing of ever getting their hands on the treasure, the government decides to heed a suggestion by Commander Clement (Idle) and simultaneously increase Yellowbeard's (about to end) sentence by a ridiculous amount and turn a blind eye when the enraged Yellowbeard escapes from prison. The obvious hope is that Yellowbeard will lead them to the treasure. Clement also has a secret agent watching Yellowbeard, Yellowbeard's former first mate Moon (Peter Boyle). Moon has to be careful about getting too close to the over the top savage Yellowbeard as he previously lost a limb when he annoyed Yellowbeard. Yellowbeard is known for being one of the world's most evil men, prone to such atrocities as slicing off victims' lips and making them eat them.

Yellowbeard puts his old crew back together. Strangely he doesn't go after the treasure immediately but rather searches out his wife Betty (Madeline Kahn) and son Dan (Martin Hewitt). It turns out that these two people unknowingly have some information that Yellowbeard needs. And that sets off a great treasure hunt. I liked this movie but it was uneven. Chapman is outrageously over the top. He gets most of the good lines. When he scornfully asks Dan how many men he's killed and Dan replies that he thinks he killed one or two, Yellowbeard angrily responds that Dan will never kill anyone if he goes around thinking! He fondly recounts all the horrible things he had done before he was Dan's age. Cheech and Chong show up as Spanish religious refugees who aren't so holy as not to want a piece of the action. James Mason is a bored and sadistic ship captain who prevents every sailor on the ship (except for himself) from bringing women onboard. As mentioned, this film wasn't quite as hilarious overall as I remember it being but parts of it are quite funny. It was also Marty Feldman's last movie.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Fight Over Online Sales Taxes: Marketplace Fairness Act

Occasionally I might or might not purchase items from Amazon and other online retailers. When I file my tax returns the State of Michigan insists that I give it a listing of online purchases and estimate and provide the sales tax I then owe to the state. Now it takes more than a bit of chutzpah to bogart your way into a private transaction that neither involved you nor took place in your jurisdiction and then claim that the actual parties to that transaction owe you a cut and need to let you wet your beak, or else. But that's how states tend to behave when there's money at stake.

For obvious reasons I won't discuss my answers to my state's nosy little questionnaire. But in general some higher sales tax states and "brick and mortar" retailers aren't pleased with the explosion in online sales. Apparently some of my fellow true blue Americans don't see the point of paying taxes to their state for transactions in which that the state had no role. Even excessively honest people tend to get amnesia about the $1500 or so they spent online last year without paying sales tax. Retailers who aren't primarily online get annoyed with people using their stores as a showroom or to price check for items they intend to purchase online. Some consumers visit a bookstore or electronics shop with no intention of purchasing anything therein. All they're doing is getting a hands on experience before ordering elsewhere. This makes some retailers rather peeved, as you might imagine. They have less money to kick up to their mob captain, state.

Some people have come up with a solution. That is a solution from their point of view, not necessarily mine. This solution will of course require you to pay more taxes. It's only fair right? I mean why should some states go without what they view as their tax revenue just because some consumers have decided it's better to order things online on occasion.
Legislation that would empower states to tax online purchases cleared a key hurdle in the Senate on Monday after winning an enthusiastic endorsement from President Obama. 
Senators advanced the bill in 74-20 procedural vote on Monday evening, just one vote short of the backing it received in a test vote last month. Twenty-six Republicans joined Democrats in moving forward with the bill..
Major retailers are putting all their lobbying muscle behind the legislation, arguing it would close an unfair loophole that benefits online merchants over brick-and-mortar stores. The National Retail Federation, which represents chains such as Macy’s, and the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA), which counts Target and others among its membership, announced it would score lawmakers’ votes. But signs of trouble for the bill also emerged as Wall Street groups urged the Senate to slow down and eBay began marshalling its users in a massive campaign to kill it.
The Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association and the Financial Services Roundtable said the measure could pave the way for financial transaction taxes on the state level, an idea that Wall Street and its supporters fiercely oppose.  “It’s important for Congress to explore all the possible outcomes and costs of the proposal, especially the impact on consumers,” Scott Talbott, the senior vice president of public policy for the Roundtable, said in a statement...The Marketplace Fairness Act would empower states to tax out-of-state online retailers, but would exempt small businesses that earn less than $1 million annually. 
Under current law, states can only collect sales taxes from retailers that have a physical presence in their state. People who order items online from another state are supposed to declare the purchases on their tax forms, but few do. The proposal has the support of a host of governors, including Republicans Chris Christie of New Jersey, Rick Snyder of Michigan and Bob McDonnell of Virginia. Passage of the bill could bring billions of dollars in new revenue to state governments. The bill has split the tech industry, pitting eBay against the retail giant Amazon. 
In email to eBay users, eBay CEO John Donahoe argued that the bill would “penalize small online businesses,” urging the site’s millions of users to contact their members of Congress and voice opposition.The company is lobbying for Congress to increase the small-business exemption from $1 million to $10 million.  Donahoe also took a shot at Amazon, a key supporter of the legislation. “Amazon, for example, has fought harder than any other company to require all businesses to collect sales taxes online, while also seeking special tax benefits as it expands its warehouses throughout the country. It’s bad tax policy,” Donahoe wrote....
So as you can see some of this is a case of the elephants fighting and the grass getting trampled. I don't think that Wall Street cares about whether I pay the proper use tax on books or cd's I order online. But Wall Street is very concerned about states attempting to put financial transaction taxes on services that take place in cyberspace. For example California, which has a political class much friendlier to higher taxes than some other jurisdictions, might decide that every transaction which takes place between consumers in California and bankers or financial service companies based in say New York, is now subject to a California tax.
This sort of backdoor tax was disallowed in a 1992 Supreme Court ruling in which North Dakota attempted to tax Quill Corporation, a business which had no sales force, retail outlet or other physical location in the state. Amazingly North Dakota tried to argue that Quill's floppy disks and sales flyers were physically located in the state and therefore so was Quill. The Court rejected this line of reasoning but evidently said that Congress could change the law if it wanted to do so. And now it looks like Congress wants to do so.

I think this is a bad idea and also unfair. If you're a business who is only physically located in one state why in the world should you have to figure out the tax policies of 49 other states, and various counties, cities, townships and territories. That's expensive. Additionally this new online tax proposal would seem to discriminate between online purchasers and physical purchasers. There are states who do not have sales taxes or have different sales taxes than my state. That's their right. If I happen to drive across the border to purchase goods or services that's my business and my right to do so. My money doesn't automatically belong to my state or the businesses that reside within. If I order something online from a state with no sales tax like New Hampshire my state wants to be able to track that transaction and get its cut. But if I drive to New Hampshire and purchase something my state is just out of luck? Does that makes sense? Or is Michigan also going to try to put GPS on my car to track down any such trips? 

If the states feel that their tax structure is no longer feasible because of a change in consumer behavior then they are free to do things more efficiently OR raise other taxes on businesses or individuals within their state. I don't think states should be able to compel other businesses or other states to adopt their tax policy on "their" citizens. I think all this law would do, if passed, would be to squeeze out smaller businesses. It's not coincidental that Amazon is in support. Amazon just happens to be selling new tax policy software and has already negotiated tax exemptions for itself. Or maybe I'm just being selfish. Maybe I'm just opposed to paying my "fair" sales taxes on goods I hypothetically order online...

What's your take?

Future Libertarian Voter Tells It Like It Is

I think the Libertarian Party needs to sign this young lady up as a spokeswoman, that is once she finishes teething. She concisely sums up my frustrations with the various busybodies of the world, no matter their age, political persuasion or familial or business relationship to the people they're trying to tell what to do. And she's funny as can be. 

Monday, April 22, 2013

HBO Game of Thrones Recap: And Now His Watch Is Ended

I don't know that episodes have themes but if they do this one was certainly about the dangers of underestimating people. Folks are not always what they seem to be. Not realizing that and not looking beneath the surface can be dangerous.

This week's episode starts with the travelogue of Jaime and Brienne. Jaime is forced to wear his severed hand as a necklace. He's the subject of much mockery from Locke and his men, particularly about his incestuous relationship with his sister. When Jaime falls off his horse from exhaustion and dehydration, Locke gives him horse urine to drink. Despite this Jaime is able to pull off the same trick he did last week with Brienne and steal a sword in an escape attempt. Brienne tries to come to his aid but is prevented from doing so. Jaime was limited by being manacled last week but now it's painfully obvious that he simply can't fight left-handed. Westeros' greatest swordsman is now laughably inept. It's like watching Ali get beat by Spinks or Holmes. After Jaime's disarmed he's beaten some more and Locke tells him not to try that again unless he cares to lose his other hand. Later, Jaime has all but lost the will to survive. Brienne finds this disgusting and challenges Jaime's manhood. When a 6'4" woman tells you to stop acting like a little b**** you're probably going to pay attention.

In King's Landing Tyrion visits a rather busy and distracted Varys. Tyrion wants proof that Cersei was behind his attempted murder. Varys says he has no proof, just word on the street. Varys knows that Tyrion wants revenge. Varys explains that, as a child, a magician castrated him. That's why he was pleased that the Melisandre assisted Stannis didn't win King's Landing. Varys explains that it took YEARS of enduring some very unpleasant circumstances and actions before he could move from the streets to his current level of power. And that is when Tyrion sees what's in the box that Varys is excitedly opening. It's the magician who castrated Varys. The moral of the story is that revenge can take time and patience.

Varys gets a debriefing from Roz. Evidently Podrick Payne is blessed with what his Daddy gave him because the prostitutes who didn't charge him said Podrick was hard to describe. But sex gossip is not all that Roz has to share. She lets Varys know that Littlefinger is leaving for the Eyrie and hasn't lost interest in Sansa Stark. Varys is concerned about this.
Joffrey leads Margaery on a Red Keep tour complete with special detail to kings who died violently or better yet from Joffrey's pov, made other people die violently. Margaery kisses up to Joffrey, although Cersei can see through this pretty easily. Margaery leads Joffrey out to greet the public. Olenna Tyrell and Cersei commiserate about the realities of male dominance and how neither sons nor husbands listen to the women in their lives. Perhaps feeling emboldened by this estrogen fueled discussion Cersei goes to see her Daddy, Tywin. Just as he was when Tyrion came to see him, Tywin is very busy writing letters and by his body language (and I LOVE Charles Dance in this role) would just as soon not be bothered. Cersei says she wants to be sure Tywin is doing everything he can to get Jaime back. Tywin says he didn't even like Tyrion but he started a war to get him back. So what do you think he's doing for the son he actually likes? DUH! When Cersei still won't leave a noticeably annoyed Tywin wonders what her real issue is. Cersei says that she thinks the Tyrells, Margaery particularly, are a bad influence on Joffrey. She also thinks her father is overlooking her talents because she's a woman.

Tywin says he doesn't overlook Cersei because she's a woman. He doesn't trust her with everything because she's not THAT smart and from what he's seen, given the mess she's let Joffrey make, perhaps some outside influence could be a good thing. Cersei angrily challenges Tywin to take a hand (ha-ha) with Joffrey and Tywin says he'll do just that. Tywin is serenely unflappable. Say what you will about the man but I want him on my team when it goes down hard.

Meanwhile the unknown young man (UYM) is leading Theon to Deepwood Motte, which has been taken by Yara, Theon's sister. The UYM claims to be an Iron Islander forced to work for Theon's torturers. Desperate for someone to talk to Theon shares his guilt at having killed two boys and having pretended to everyone they were Bran and Rickon Stark. Theon also shares his frustration at both hating the Starks and wanting to be one of them. Poignantly he says Ned Stark was his real father. However while he's having his Lifetime approved heart to heart he fails to notice that the UYM has keys to various gates and doors. UYM tells him that his sister is upstairs but in fact he's led Theon right back to the torture chamber, where Theon is promptly strapped to the rack again on the UYM's orders.
At Craster's home the Night's Watch members mutter about how the whole Night's Watch experience isn't what it was cracked up to be. Later, at a funeral of a brother crow, other men blame Craster for keeping all of the good food for himself and starving them. For his part Craster is tired of the Night's Watch. He boasts about how he's killed his boys. He suggests orders that the Night's Watch leave now, killing its wounded or leaving them to Craster to kill if they lack the guts. Arguments break out and insults fly. Lord Commander Mormont is losing control. Craster grabs an axe and things temporarily calm down but when Craster is insulted again, blood must flow. Craster is murdered. Mormont is also murdered when he tries to settle things down. Full mutiny breaks out and the Night's Watch starts to fight among itself. Sam, knowing that more rape and murder are imminent, runs to save Gilly and her new son. There's a short sequence with Bran dreaming again.

Varys goes to see Olenna Tyrell, who is immune to his flattery. Varys claims to want to help Sansa because he couldn't help Ned. He also states that Littlefinger is dangerous and that he doesn't want Littlefinger to marry Sansa. The Queen of Thorns claims the solution is obvious and sends Margaery to talk to Sansa. The upshot of their conversation is that when Margaery is Queen she can arrange marriages as she sees fit and hopes that Sansa will consider a marriage to her brother Loras. Sansa seems interested in this.
Arya and Gendry and The Hound have been taken to the Brotherhood Without Banners' secret hideout. The Hound insults everyone claiming they aren't soldiers but is surprised and worried to learn that Beric Dondarrion, who is a soldier, is their leader. Ned Stark sent Beric to capture or kill Gregor Clegane, The Hound's brother. Now the BWB is a popular resistance force to not only the Lannisters but anyone who harms the land's peasants and non-nobles. The BWB accuses The Hound of various atrocities. He sneers and correctly points out he didn't do them. The Hound only takes responsibility for things he did. It's only when Arya speaks up and reminds him of her friend, Mycah, a 12 year old boy that the Hound murdered on Joffrey's orders, that Sandor admits to the crime. In a pretty good example of how people justify horrible things the man who just 30 seconds ago was advocating for individual moral responsibility now says it's not his role to question orders from royals. Beric says he will face the Hound in trial by combat.

And in this episode's best scene, one which stays close to the books, in Astapor, Daenerys brings her chained largest dragon to the slaver Kraznys. Jorah and Barristan look worried. Once he has the dragon's chain, Kraznys gives the whip, the symbol of authority over The Unsullied, to Daenerys. Her dragon, Drogon, is screaming and whimpering for Daenerys with an almost human tone to its cries. It seems that's just the price Daenerys had to pay. However Danerys establishes control over The Unsullied. Only Missandei notices this as Kraznys is still trying to get control of Drogon. It's only when Kraznys makes one last sexist insult that he realizes that's he's made something of a rather critical mistake. It will be his last.
Daenerys answers him in his own language, or rather her own language. Targaryens are after all Valyrian and speak and understand their mother tongue perfectly. She explains to him that he can't enslave the dragon because dragons aren't slaves. Daenerys orders The Unsullied to kill all the slavers; she orders Drogon to burn Kraznys alive.
Later she asks The Unsullied to follow her of their own free will, which they do. I loved these ending scenes. The Daenerys reveal was a nice little surprise that was reminiscent of Tolkien's Witch King, who could be killed by no man, discovering that he was fighting a woman or Macbeth, confident that no man born of woman could slay him, learning that Macduff was delivered by Cesarean section. In short you should always read the fine print. Never underestimate people. Daenerys is coming into her own.

*This post is written for discussion of this episode and previous episodes.  If you have book based knowledge of future events please be kind enough not to discuss that here.  NO SPOILERS. NO BOOK DERIVED HINTS ABOUT FUTURE EVENTS. Most of my blog partners have not read the books and would take spoilers most unkindly. Heads, spikes, well you get the idea....

Sunday, April 21, 2013

That's Whats UP - The Urban Politico Radio Hour: Sunday, April 21st @ 5PM EST

That's What's UP - The Urban Politico Radio Hour
Join us Sunday, April 21st 5pm (ET) as we talk about the Politics of the United States and beyond.

This week's discussion:
  • Boston Attack
  • National Security and Due Process
  • Immigration Debate
  • Failed Gun Control Legislation
Listen Live Online HERE and Call in to join our discussion (424) 675-6844

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Book Reviews-The Job, Avalon, Take The Rich Off Welfare

The Job
by Douglas Kennedy
Do you play chess? Do you know the feeling of dread when you're playing against a far superior player who manipulates you into a situation where your only available moves are bad and worse? There's often a sick sensation in the bottom of your stomach when you must finally admit to yourself that you were outmaneuvered and slaughtered because you weren't as smart, experienced or as skilled as your opponent. You didn't see the moves and possibilities they saw until it was far too late. You're making moves that you think are in your best interest and you find out later that the moves you were making were truly in the best interest of your opponent.

Well, theoretically anyway, unless you really are dumb,  you can read and learn more about chess, practice and play this person over and over and over again and get better and better until at some time in the not too distant future the game's outcome is no longer a foregone conclusion. You might be able to make this person sweat some and even beat them on occasion. It all depends on how hard you work. Life is different. The stakes are much higher and unlike chess, if you lose you don't necessarily get to reset the board and start over. That's this book's theme although the book has nothing at all to do with chess. It was just an example I found useful.

The protagonist is Ned Allen, a high flying computer ad salesman for a NYC based company. He's a top salesman and executive who is second in command to Chuck Zannussi, the branch lead and good friend. Ned's married to Lizzie, a similar up and comer in the PR business. They make a lot of money and don't have any kids yet. You'd think they'd be banking it. Nope. As some on this blog have pointed out, Manhattan is an expensive place to live. The couple (especially Ned) lives only for today. Though he's earning over six figures, Ned is pretty deep in consumer debt. He's quite dependent on his next paycheck and year end bonus. Ned lacks much savings to rely on let alone retirement or emergency funds. He's juggling credit card payments, club membership fees, and other creditors.

When Ned's company is sold to a German conglomerate, Ned thinks his prospects for advancement are looking up. But much like another fictional Ned, Mr. Allen is rather naive about how the world really works, how the game is played, who his friends really are and how tenuous his status is. In short time he's out of work, blackballed from his industry, homeless and on the verge of divorce. The book bluntly details Ned's decline, the constant pressures salesmen face and the impact on their lives and marriages. Some of them don't make it. I found this quite realistic. If you lost your job today and were vindictively prevented from working in your field again, how long could you survive?  If you're married how long would your spouse really be patient with your failures and excuses? It's a cold world and as Ned discovers, money talks and bull**** walks.

Ned runs into an old high school associate, Jerry. Jerry hires him for a job with a private equity fund that's owned from afar by Jack Ballantine (I thought of a combination of Donald Trump and Dan Marino), a former NFL superstar who has become a real estate giant, financial market sharpie and motivational speaker guru. Ballantine wants Ned to find the next big company for the fund to invest in. But Ned is warned that he is not under any circumstances to disclose Ballantine's ownership. Despite noticing a few other oddities, Ned is not in a position to turn down a job offer. Things get much worse from there. 

Again I liked how little moves early in the story set the stage for much greater later betrayals and slip-ups. In another life I used to sell financial products. I appreciated how well the author depicted the salesman's barely hidden desperation, the customer's genial indifference and the relentless pressure from the boss who must quickly fire anyone who isn't meeting their quota. Nothing personal, just business.

The book is told from first person perspective which works well for this story. Often the wife can come off unsympathetically in stories like this but that's not the case here. Lizzie has good reasons for acting as she does. Most (not all) of what goes wrong is Ned's fault. Of course as Lizzie would point out Ned tends to claim too much responsibility for things because he's controlling and secretive so you may or may not be sympathetic to Ned. I liked this book. It was just under 500 pages. So it was a little long but rarely dragged. In a bit of a stereotype, Ned has an Italian-American buddy who owes him one and happens to "know people who know people".

by Anya Seton
I remembered reading (skimming?) this book as a child. It was my mother's book. Recently I was able to find the original 1965 edition with the blue cover and re-read it. I was somewhat chagrined to discover that in some very real ways it's as much romance novel as it is historical fiction. Go figure. Likely if it had had the modern cover which is more obviously aimed at the romance novel crowd I never would have picked it up. Still as historical romance or mystery intrigue it's a great read and probably goes a way towards explaining my lifelong interest in Dark Age and Middle Age times. It's quite a story. The book takes place in the 10th century.

Although battle and violence are always close at hand in this book it's really a fictionalized telling of the life of the French Saint Rumon. And the important thing in Rumon's life is his always interrupted relationship with Merewyn, a Cornish girl who claims descent from King Arthur. Do you have or did you have someone in your life where the timing was never right between you two? When you wanted them they didn't want you? When they wanted you, you just got married? When they're begging to sleep with you you've just taken an oath of celibacy? 

That's basically the story of Rumon and Merewyn. The book starts with Rumon meeting Merewyn, who is six years younger than he. Rumon is 20 and a well read, well spoken handsome nobleman who boasts descent from both Charlemagne and King Alfred the Great. He was shipwrecked on the English coast. He intends to visit his cousin the English King Edgar. Not to be outdone Merewyn can't stop talking about her own royal descent, though since she lives in a hut with her dying mother, it must not mean that much. Rumon learns from the mother that the attractive but not beautiful Merewyn is actually the product of a rape by Vikings. The mother begs for and gets Rumon's oath not ever to tell Merewyn. She charges Rumon to take Merewyn to court with him, as it's not safe for a young girl on the verge of womanhood to be alone. 

And that kicks off a detailed and satisfying story of royal intrigue, murder, glorious last stands and true love. Over decades Rumon's and Merewyn's lives diverge, go on parallel tracks and intersect. Both Rumon and Merewyn go through hell and back but the story doesn't end up the way you think it might. Modern love stories have cliche scenes where someone frantically must make it to the airport, train station or bus station before their baby leaves them forever. Well imagine that transposed to ships at a time where Viking raids were quite common and nobody in Europe even knew about Greenland let alone America. So that part was fun.

And if you like dirty plans hatched in secret you will enjoy the goings on at court, where Rumon falls under the spell of Queen Alfrida, a beautiful and power hungry woman who will stop at nothing for her own son to be on the throne, even if means the current heir needs to have an "accident". Rumon will have a lot to answer for because of his involvement with Alfrida but no one will judge him more harshly than himself.

Seton flows back and forth between Saxon England, Ireland, Iceland, Greenland and North America. If you like George Martin's work I suppose you might be positively disposed to this. There are some big differences though. First off, Seton gives excellent detailed descriptions of how the peasants lived. Merewyn spends a great deal of her life in relatively modest circumstances. Next, religion and belief in God are very real parts of everyone's life. Even evil people believe in God and though they may not all come to bad ends, many are shown to seriously fear Hell. Next, although there are no women warriors and rapes are a big part of what motivate Viking attacks, women also have power not just as wives but in their own right as noblewomen and abbesses. And obviously Seton knew more about being a woman than Martin does. So her depiction of the Middle Ages world is more balanced and probably more accurate than Martin's admittedly fantastical work in that aspect. Seton was famed for doing a lot of research for her work and it shows in every page. You really do feel like you've gone back in time. This book was just over 400 pages and a pretty engrossing read. It's sad but I think you, like the characters, will have gained wisdom after it's over.

Take The Rich Off Welfare
by Mark Zeppezauer and Arthur Naiman
Regardless of the actual demographic profile of the population on welfare or the actual definition of the word, the connotation of "welfare" often brings up the idea of a loud, aggressive and obese woman of African or Hispanic ancestry who may have multiple children by multiple partners and seeks to avoid paid work the way Billy Gibbons avoids razors.

This book is not interested in the sexual habits or racial characteristics of those Americans who receive public assistance. This book seeks to explode the myth that public transfers of money to private individuals only happen from rich to poor in terms of welfare. This book examines the myriad methods by which we all give money to the rich in order to help them get rich in the first place or become richer. 

This book is really more of an extended pamphlet. It is about 200 pages and is lavishly and extensively footnoted. It's also somewhat dated having being written back in 1996 but the underlying issues are exactly the same today and the numbers (the authors' lowball estimate of what they call wealthfare is $448 billion per year or 3.5 times the amount spent on welfare for the poor) have if anything worsened since 1996.

So what are some of the issues the authors rail against? Well there are a lot of them. And you may not think of all of these as unearned rents or wealthfare but most of them go to the well-off disproportionately or are specifically designed for the wealthy and well connected to use. These include such items as favorable tax treatment for capital gains, subsidies for sports arenas, export subsidies, tax breaks for oil and gas exploration, excessive government pensions, accelerated depreciation tax breaks, subsidies to agribusiness, legalized tax avoidance by multinational corporations, mortgage interest deductions and 1031 exchanges, Pentagon waste and fraud, cheap prison labor and so on. 
The authors definitely are impassioned. Some would say they have an axe to grind. The writers would say there is a fundamental difference between helping someone to survive and avoid starvation on one hand and "helping to finance industries that pollute our air, water and soil". They point out the insanity of some subsidies such as (and I don't know if this still exists) an Interior Department program which subsidizes irrigation water for agribusiness and an Agriculture Department program which pays those same companies not to grow crops with that water. The companies sell the subsidized water back to local governments at a nice little profit. This book has something to say to people across the political spectrum whether you are a libertarian who's opposed to any government picking of winners and losers, a liberal who wants more spending on the poor, or even a conservative who's uneasy about the large corporate march away from the free market.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Catherine Kieu and Domestic Violence: Double Standards

Driving into work this morning unfortunately there was nothing on the sports stations I was interested in listening to so I decided to check out the talk show host Mildred Gaddis. She splits her show between political sections and relationship sections, with the latter coming second. I was running very late this morning so I caught her show in the relationship segment. She, and most of her female callers were laughing at something. Most of the male callers didn't think whatever they were talking about was funny at all and that, (paraphrasing one) "the woman should spend life under the jail". I was intrigued but still didn't know what they were talking about. And I was getting closer to work. There were a few commercial breaks. Finally, after one woman caller said "the man deserved it", another woman caller said "it's too bad the garbage disposal didn't work better" and another woman caller said that "she allowed him to call 911, how bad could she be?" and yet another claimed "men need to learn how to act" ,all of which was met with roaring laughter by Gaddis, it started to click for me. They were talking about the beginning trial of alleged (although it's conceded she did it) genital mutilator Catherine Kieu , who in a fit of jealous rage, poisoned her estranged husband, chopped off his penis and threw it in the garbage disposal.

Remember this story?
SANTA ANA, Calif. - A Garden Grove man tearfully testified Wednesday that his estranged wife "murdered him" the night she allegedly laced his food with a sleep drug and tied him to his bed before castrating him and tossing his penis into a garbage disposal.
Catherine Kieu, 50, is accused of slashing off her the victim's penis with a kitchen knife on July 11, 2011.
"She murdered me that night," he testified Wednesday afternoon.
According to the prosecution, Kieu was furious that her estranged husband was dating a former girlfriend, so she drugged him by lacing his meal with Ambien, and when he passed out, tied him up, castrated him and tossed his penis into the garbage disposal.
Catherine Kieu's attorney countered that his client suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and did not have the required mental state to be convicted of the charges she faces -- aggravated mayhem and torture, with a sentence-enhancing knife-use allegation.
If convicted, she faces up to life in prison without the possibility of parole....

As I mentioned, I was way behind schedule this morning due to an unfortunate series of events so I did not have the interest or opportunity to check all of the various reactions over the past two years to this crime. But as far as I know the victim has to this day not been invited to the White House to discuss any Violence Against Men Act nor has any Senator or Congressman/woman adopted him as a cause celebre in the struggle against domestic violence. No one with mainstream media access has angrily pointed to his case as an example of the need to teach women not to mutilate. I do remember that when this story first broke, some women, just like the women I listened to on the radio this morning, thought that cutting off a man's penis and throwing it down the garbage disposal while he bleeds out was quite humorous. In fact one claimed that if she were Maria Shriver, that's what she would have done to Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Ok. Well we're all adults. Sometimes we may find things that are horribly inappropriate funny. Everyone has a different sense of humor after all. But see I'm a bit confused. We're constantly bombarded with messages that there's no excuse for violence against women, rape (of women) is never funny, dongle jokes aren't funny, fat jokes aren't funny, stop blaming the victim, blah, blah, blah. 
Fair enough. But violence against anyone should be deplored, not just that against women. 
And when some of the same people that would howl the loudest if someone made a joke about male on female domestic violence yuk it up over a woman permanently mutilating her estranged husband, it sends a mixed message at best. At worse it shows that some people are some horrible hypocrites.  Domestic violence against men is much more common than people realize.

If we're going to teach people that domestic violence is wrong it has to go both ways.  No matter how angry (justifiably or not) someone may become because their partner isn't doing what they want or is cheating on them or whatever, there must be a firm no hands rule enforced equally regardless of gender. Violence, particularly horrific violence that changes someone for life, isn't funny. Kieu is someone who should be locked up for life. Her victim is someone who deserves sympathy, not mockery. Your spouse, significant other or provider of thy nookie is "yours" only in the sense that they want to be. You don't own them. You can't punish them as if they were children or dispose of them as if they were property. When people forget that, male or female, they get into trouble. The fact that Gaddis ,and many but not all of her listeners, thought this story was funny and that the man somehow deserved it, says something not very good about gender relations. I can't imagine too many male media personalities making fun of a maimed female victim and keeping their jobs.