Friday, January 31, 2014

Warren Michigan Police Officer Cuts Off Woman's Weave

I don't have much to say about this. Perhaps it was jealousy of the other woman's hair? Maybe the officer is just always that abusive? Or maybe it's just a bad person using bureaucracy to do wrong.  To some cops being arrested is not bad enough. They need to make sure that the citizen feels completely humiliated. I don't know. The good news is that Officer Najor no longer has the authority of the state to hide behind. Her boss fired her. Although unnecessarily removing someone's hair is not as bad as a beating I am sure the shock and humiliation are similar. And I get the feeling that the officer intended to send a message about who was in charge and who wasn't. So ladies, if you have extensions or weaves, be careful about getting arrested in Warren, Michigan. Because the police might try to cut your hair. Watch news story below the jump.
At many jails, prisoners are required to remove hair extensions that clip in because they could be used as a weapon or to commit suicide. But Charda Gregory didn’t have clip in extensions. She had a weave that was sewn right into her real hair. Charda Gregory is a young mother who loves her hair. And the 22-year-old hair dresser loves changing her style often by using weaves. But Gregory’s hair changed dramatically after an encounter with a Warren Police Officer. 
Even though there’s no audio on the video from inside the Warren Jail, you can see Gregory kick her legs and writhe in pain as the officer plunges scissors into her hair, hacking away at the weave that was sewn into braids on her scalp. “There’s a real simple thing: it’s called right and wrong. And to me this is something that I won’t tolerate, I don’t think the citizens of Warren will tolerate it,” said Warren Police Commissioner Jere Green. Green says Najor’s explanation that she had to remove Gregory’s weave because of alleged threats of suicide makes no sense.
“I don’t buy that’s the proper way to treat a human being.  I don’t think it’s decent, I don’t think there was any reason to do it, and when I look at it – that bothers me,” said Green. Green says as soon as he learned about the incident, he placed Najor on leave and she has since been fired.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Handymen and Stay at Home Mothers

Do you think that traditional gender roles still have meaning?

Recently on Facebook one of my younger female cousins posted that she and her unmarried friends were running into a lot of male poseurs who claimed to be looking for traditional women insofar as such things as cooking, cleaning, and possibly even who works and who stays at home. She found it a bit upsetting though that when she or her friends challenged these men on their proficiency at such traditional male responsibilities as fixing things around the house, repairing automobiles or other machinery and doing other unpleasant but old school male chores these men were either clueless about such jobs, had to pay other men to do them or claimed that in today's day and age such chores ought to be equally shared between men and women. Showing the somewhat "shady" humor which tends to run rampant in my family one of my male cousins pointed out that although he might not be able to fix a woman's car he was more than capable of unplugging her pipes. He even had references, heh-heh. When I liked my male cousin's post my female cousin goodnaturedly told both of us that we were on timeout. Snicker.

Anyway this got me thinking. My paternal grandfather was a general contractor. So many of his sons, both via knowledge passed down and their own curiosity gained a lot of my grandfather's do it yourself type skills. This included my father. It was a very rare day indeed that my father ever paid someone to do anything around our house or on his vehicles. He normally did it himself. Lots of people in his social peer group did the same both because that's just how they were raised and because they grew up in either extreme poverty or in lower middle class areas where money was very very tight. People were expected to make do with what they had or repair it until they could afford something new. I think that back in the day high schools had more shop classes. These have been stereotyped as holding rooms for people who aren't going to college but I think some people might be surprised at the number of college educated people who are still able to adequately perform some supposed blue-collar work. I don't seem to remember shop class in my high school but it's probably something I wish I could go back and take. Although sadly I have nothing near my father's mechanical skills and deeply regret not paying more attention back in the day I have still picked up some basic things over the years. I find a sense of accomplishment in being able to fix simple things around the house, change my home environment, save a few bucks here or there, or at least have a vague idea when a contractor is quoting me a ridiculous estimate. To me that is a critical streak of self-sufficiency that I think is important for both genders as adults but is 100% necessary for men. This could be why I'm not overly fond of asking for help when I think it's something I ought to be able to do on my own. Ironically I remember changing a flat on the expressway all by myself because that's what the Old Man would have done only to arrive home and be told to call AAA next time instead of taking such a stupid risk. HA! So it goes. Of course as my brother always says his idea of masculinity means that he makes enough money to PAY other people to do that kind of work. And so he does.

From the opposite perspective for whatever reason a woman named Amy Glass felt that she needed to ridicule not only stay-at-home mothers but also the very concept of congratulating people (women) for getting married and having children. She did so in what I considered to be a rather nasty way. 
Do people really think that a stay at home mom is really on equal footing with a woman who works and takes care of herself? There’s no way those two things are the same. It’s hard for me to believe it’s not just verbally placating these people so they don’t get in trouble with the mommy bloggers.
Having kids and getting married are considered life milestones. We have baby showers and wedding parties as if it’s a huge accomplishment and cause for celebration to be able to get knocked up or find someone to walk down the aisle with. These aren’t accomplishments, they are actually super easy tasks, literally anyone can do them. They are the most common thing, ever, in the history of the world. They are, by definition, average. And here’s the thing, why on earth are we settling for average?
If women can do anything, why are we still content with applauding them for doing nothing?
I want to have a shower for a woman when she backpacks on her own through Asia, gets a promotion, or lands a dream job not when she stays inside the box and does the house and kids thing which is the path of least resistance. The dominate cultural voice will tell you these are things you can do with a husband and kids, but as I’ve written before, that’s a lie. It’s just not reality.
You will never have the time, energy, freedom or mobility to be exceptional if you have a husband and kids.
I don't see anything wrong with congratulating people on getting married or having children. Although it might not be your cup of tea, that doesn't mean you need to knock it for someone else. Whatever happened to live and let live? Although it could certainly be considered oppressive to reduce every woman's worth to solely her reproductive and marital status I think it's just as wrong headed to assume that a woman's worth is only and should only be based on paid work outside the home. The unpaid work that mothers and fathers do can't be valued but is critical to raising healthy productive human beings. For me to congratulate someone else for getting married or having children is not saying anything negative about those who have chosen to walk a different path. Again, I think that some feminists are too quick to over glamorize what they see as the male role and eschew what they see as a female role. Ultimately I think this turns into internalized (and practiced) misogyny, ironically what feminists loudly and reflexively accuse everyone else of doing all the time. I can't speak to what Amy Glass experiences as a woman but I do happen to know and be related to and descended from women who are exceptional who are married and have kids. So I happen to think Glass is full of it on this instance. And as you might imagine plenty of other people did as well. Some of them were women, strangely enough. Go figure. I guess when you tell millions of women that they are just average and will never be exceptional a few of them are going to be upset enough to come at your neck. Who would have thought.

What do you think?

Are men under greater pressure (internal or external) to be self-sufficient?

Is there anything wrong with congratulating women for marrying and having children?

Are gender roles here to stay no matter what we do?

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Music Reviews: Howlin' Wolf, Tuvan Throat Singing

Howlin' Wolf
The men don't know but the little girls understand
If I had to pick one bluesman who was the quintessential blues deity that man would be Howling Wolf, or as the IRS knew him, Chester Arthur Burnett. He was named after the President. I don't remember the first time I heard him but he impressed me. He impressed many people with his stentorian gravelly baritone-bass voice that sounded like crushed glass and radiated unrestrained masculinity. Producer Sam Phillips said that Howling Wolf was the literal soul of man who never died while fan and musician Bonnie Raitt talked of the sudden impact that just seeing and hearing Wolf had (from afar) on her lady parts. Howling Wolf stood 6-6 and weighed over 300lbs in his glory days. He received his nickname not just for his unusual howling vocal abilities but because as a child he was quite taken with the Little Red Riding Hood stories he heard. He reminded me of my maternal grandfather. Although it was Howling Wolf's surprisingly expressive, deep and oft sinister voice that most people noticed, he was also a fairly talented harmonica player and decent guitarist. Wolf's voice was such that I imagined that he woke up every morning and gargled with road salt and nitroglycerin. 

Howling Wolf's primary vocal influences were people like Charley Patton, Son House, Tommy Johnson and Jimmie Rogers. Elmore James and Wolf also had similar vocal styles. Wolf toured with Robert Johnson and learned harmonica from his brother-in-law, blues giant Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller). So Wolf was literally a blues Founding Father. Wolf's yelps, howls and vocalizations were unique. As Wolf said "I couldn't yodel but I could howl. And I been doing just fine."

Howling Wolf was an extremely demanding bandleader who did not suffer fools or glory hounds lightly. Wolf once stopped a show to berate guitarist Hubert Sumlin for mistakes and pedestrian playing. He kicked Sumlin off his stage. Wolf sent Sumlin home, warning him not to return until he could play. Sumlin, who later became Wolf's primary foil and soloist, credited that incident with forcing him to improve. Wolf had no problem putting hands on people if he thought they did him wrong. He once knocked Sumlin's teeth out. There was one incident when he and fellow giant (literally and figuratively) bluesman Albert King fought. There were rumors about people that Wolf had badly hurt or worse, down south. Because he grew up in horrible poverty and segregation and often worked around people who were drunk, violent or armed, we shouldn't be surprised that Howling Wolf could be a suspicious martinet. It didn't help his outlook on life that his mother had essentially abandoned him after her divorce from Wolf's father. Wolf grew up with a great-uncle who could have been charitably described as violently abusive. Wolf finally ran away to rejoin his father and siblings. But the maternal rejection left lifelong scars. As adults, mother and son had a conflicted relationship.Wolf's mother, a spirituals singer, thought that blues was the devil's music and that her son was going to hell. 

Wolf was unafraid to tell people, black or white, what he thought. As Vaan Shaw, a blues guitarist whose father worked in Wolf's band said, "He was not necessarily a likable person. If you told him "good morning" he might answer with something like "'Well I don't know how good it is. Let's wait and see"". Working with younger avant garde blues/funk musicians in the late sixties, Wolf told future Miles Davis' guitarist Pete Cosey that "(Cosey) should take all of his pedals and wah-wahs and throw them in Lake Michigan on his way to get his hair cut". Cosey, who had a massive afro, remembered the incident with fondness. Wolf later bluntly described the album he did with Cosey as "dogs***". Generally, musicians who worked with him didn't have problems if they did their job and didn't get on the oft moody Wolf's nerves. Buddy Guy said he never had a cross word with Wolf.

Howling Wolf took his music and life seriously. He despised drunks. He was contemptuous of musicians who allowed alcohol to control them. Even his mentors and heroes like Son House could come in for caustic criticism from Wolf for this reason. Although when Wolf left home he was illiterate, he ultimately remedied that condition. He even briefly went to school to study guitar theory and learn how to arrange horn parts for his band. Wolf was one of the first bandleaders to start withholding Social Security and unemployment insurance from his band employees' salaries, guaranteeing them at least some money in retirement or in unemployment. Wolf was a stickler for paying his employees on time and in full. As Wolf was always fond of reminding people, especially fellow label mate, blues legend and close "frenemy" Muddy Waters, he was already a star before arriving in Chicago. Unlike Muddy Waters Wolf tried to keep the Chess Brothers at arms' distance. He refused to be paid in Cadillacs. He wanted his money. Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf were the premier Chicago post war bluesmen. They did not mind stealing each other's gigs, musicians or occasionally songs. They occasionally assisted each other as well.

Wolf's early Memphis music featured musicians like Willie Johnson, Pat Hare, and Ike Turner(who also played piano), all of whom were fond of a raw distorted guitar sound. The Memphis sides are the beginnings of rock-n-roll.  "House Rocking Boogie" and "Just My Kind", with Willie Johnson on guitar, show this. The early work is not necessarily what we might consider today to be well recorded but occasionally that works better I think. What is a true aural performance? Today we have multi-track recordings, the ability to easily fix vocal or instrumental mistakes in the mix, multiple channels and microphones dedicated to each instrument and other modern advances that make the producer more important. But sometimes it's good to put one microphone in front of the singer and have one or two room microphones for everyone else. That might be closer to what we'd really hear in a concert. Much of Wolf's music swings and swings hard. Although Wolf was not a jazz musician, there's little difference between some of Wolf's more relaxed cuts and some bluesy jazz from the forties and fifties. In other cases Wolf was playing funk music before it was called that. He influenced the next generation. For example Funkadelic's "Music For My Mother" has Howling Wolf's fingerprints all over it, right down to a (false) harmonica solo and a not so humorous reference to a town named "Keep Running, Mississippi".

Much of Wolf's late fifties and early sixties output was overseen, produced and occasionally written by blues bassist, songwriter and  producer extraordinaire Willie Dixon. This wasn't necessarily Wolf's idea. Dixon and Wolf weren't the best of friends. Wolf would occasionally opine that Dixon's lyrics and music were too simplistic, too personally identifiable with Dixon, and too sexual while Dixon often said the best way to get Wolf to do a song was to claim that Muddy Waters was thinking of recording it. Wolf thought that some Dixon written "big man" songs like "Built for Comfort" were silly. Wolf was also suspicious that Dixon was too close to the label owners, the Chess Brothers. Listen to Wolf and Dixon share verses on "Going Down Slow". Dale Hawkins' hit Suzie Q was inspired by Wolf in general and by his song "Smokestack Lightning" in particular. It's both ironic and possibly fitting that Wolf's classic stream of consciousness song "Smokestack Lightning " is being used for Viagra commercials. The ominous song "No Place to Go" and its close relative "How Many More Years" each define existential dread and mystery."Mr. Airplane Man" uses the same melody found in "Smokestack Lightning".
"Evil" reminds me of Louis Jordan's similar musings on domestic relationships. "My Mind Is Rambling" has a delicate tricky beat. When I hear that song I always think of a bull dancing in a china shop and not breaking a single item.
Drummer and Army veteran Earl Phillips had one leg shorter than the other which could be what caused him to place extra emphasis on the "one" of the bass drum's beat. You can hear this most famously in songs like "I'll Be around" and especially "Forty Four". I can't decide whether "I'll Be around" is a classic stalker song, someone begging his woman to change her mind, or a warning from beyond the grave. It could be all of those. Anyway I'll be Around" is a great song with MASSIVE distortion via overdriven amps, microphones and recording board. When Wolf starts playing harmonica it's as if the speakers are going to explode. Wolf's voice is like something from another dimension here. It's scary. "Do The Do" gives a nod to Bo Diddley with its tom-tom heavy rumba riff and avoidance of cymbals. Wolf earnestly explains just what sort of woman he likes and why. ("34 bust, 22 waist, everything else right in place") . "Spoonful" is a song about how small things matter. "Moving" was recorded near the end of Wolf's life while he was suffering from kidney and heart disease and finally cancer. You can hear someone (Eddie Shaw?) feeding Wolf the lyrics. But as Wolf boasts, his name still rings everywhere he goes. "Hidden Charms" sees Hubert Sumlin reel off an extended inventive solo that shows why he was considered to be Wolf's definitive guitarist. "Commit a Crime" is a sinister one chord vamp. It bemoans a murderous woman. Wolf tries to survive long enough to leave. "I Ain't Superstitious" is another Dixon written tune that combines Dixon's favored stop time rhythms with lists of African-American superstitions.

But on "Just Like I Treat You" Wolf is not paranoid and hassled but very happy. The insistent song with a locomotive rhythm is a hymm to male female domestic equality. Wolf knows his wife will return his treatment of her for good or bad. And he wouldn't have it any other way. "Howling For My Darling", "Ooh Baby (Hold me)" and "You'll Be Mine" all express frank appreciation for life's female principle. In "Shake For Me" Wolf explains to a woman who rejected him that she returned a little too late because he's found a woman who shakes like jelly on a plate. It's a blues song but with something close to an Afro-Latin beat. A brokenhearted Wolf begs his woman for an explanation in "Tell Me What I've Done". "Killing Floor" is a famous song that was later "redone" by Led Zeppelin as "The Lemon Song" without proper credit. Wolf plays slide on "Down in the Bottom" which has the same theme as "Back Door Man": Wolf as a Lothario who must depart before his girlfriend's husband returns. "Sitting on Top of the World" is a classic traditional blues that Wolf probably learned from Charley Patton. Long Distance Call (w/Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley)  is actually Moaning at Midnight". It is from a late sixties session featuring Howling Wolf, Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters. The version of Little Red Rooster with Wolf on acoustic slide is quite pretty. If you're unfamiliar with this music I think you missed something. Songs that Wolf wrote or performed are blues or blues-rock standards. Howling Wolf was a giant of American music. 

Tuvan Throat Singing
Although the tone and sound of Tuvan Throat singing has some surface similarity to what Howling Wolf was doing it is completely unrelated and is actually musically something quite different. All the same some blues and other musicians have been fascinated by this sound and have performed with Tuvan style singers. After all humans are brothers and sisters once you get down to it and if you search for a while you can probably find something in common with anyone, no matter how small.
What throat singing does is allow the singer to create more than one pitch at the same time. There is the fundamental pitch and then the overtones. Effectively throat singing allows the singer to become a virtual human bagpipe. In males especially it can come across as a distorted growl with almost electronic sounds that are something akin to a Moog synthesizer.

This is most definitely an acquired taste but I happen to have it. The best stuff to listen to if you are curious about this music is the release "Fly Fly My Sadness" which features the Tuvan throat singer group Huun-Huur working with the female Bulgarian chorale group Angelite. The two music styles fit pretty well together I think. This for me anyway is trance music. It's something you can listen to when you're just reclining in a dark room with your eyes closed and meditating. It's repetitive. It's most definitely not for dancing, or at least not any sort of dancing I would be familiar with. Maybe you could do some sort of odd (to me) interpretive modern dance to the music. Maybe in Siberia and portions of Central Asia this is considered dance music. Dunno. But I doubt it. Although obviously I don't understand any of the lyrics, just like with opera or salsa or various other musics in languages I don't speak, the feeling of the music transcends language. At least for me. As mentioned this isn't for everyone. Nothing is. Some people I know find this music about as relaxing as listening to a broken garbage disposal that won't stop running or a belching contest. So YMMW. All that said though check it out if you want to hear something completely different.

Legend  Lonely Bird  Orphan's Lament   Fly, Fly My Sadness

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Jayru Campbell Arrested

There was a lot of talk recently about whether or not Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman is a thug. I don't think he is. Generally speaking most thugs, in the most basic understanding of the word, don't attend Stanford or score 1400 on their SAT's. My snobby class bias aside though more importantly I think that your actions, not your words, hair style or skin color make you a thug. Speaking loudly and animatedly without cursing, about your success over a rival player after a big win does not a thug make. See a thug could be someone who body slams a school security guard. That would be Cass Tech QB and Michigan State University (MSU) verbal recruit Jayru Campbell, who was arrested for his actions in the video below. The security guard is of course somewhat fortunate to be alive as getting body slammed on a hard floor without any protection can lead to all sorts of bad outcomes, especially if your head impacts the floor as it did here. I didn't attend public schools until high school and certainly did not attend Cass Tech High School or MSU. Cass Tech has traditionally been considered one of the better public schools in Detroit but I've heard that in recent times (over the past 10-15 years or so) that's akin to boasting that you're the skinniest fat person at fat camp. My brother first brought this to my attention. He didn't attend Cass either. Smirk. Of course these things are not common but stereotypically this explains why people, black and white, racist or not, have been fleeing Detroit Public Schools. 

We hear a lot about about how certain people are improperly disciplined in schools and thus set up for a school to prison pipeline. That's true. A child who is boisterous, loud mouthed or questioning of authority isn't necessarily "disturbing the peace" or "special needs" or a "threat". The flip side of that though is that there are some children who are indeed threats and need to be removed from the school ASAP for the safety of others. Evidently Campbell was given second chances and missed them. So it is what it is. Of course in our society even where there is a video like this the accused is still presumed innocent until proven guilty. Just ask the cops who beat Rodney King. However, unless there is evidence that the security guard was assaulting Mr. Campbell or attempting to molest him or something like that I am not seeing how this ends well for Mr. Campbell. I think he gets expelled from school and convicted of any criminal charges. And I'm okay with that. I am both descended from and related to people who worked or still work in schools. I would hate to see something like this happen to them. Watch video below.

The quarterback of the Detroit Cass Tech High School football team has been arrested in connection with an attack on a security guard.
Jayru Campbell was arrested Wednesday by the Detroit Public Schools Police Department because of an incident that occurred inside Cass Tech at dismissal time. But in a departure from earlier DPS statements, district spokeswoman Michelle Zdrodowski said this afternoon that Campbell has not been charged, describing the earlier statements as a misunderstanding on the district’s part.
In an e-mail this afternoon, Maria Miller, a spokeswoman for the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, said her office has now received paperwork on the case, but she cautioned against making any assumptions. “It would be premature to indicate what if any charges (we) will issue until we have reviewed the paperwork and a formal decision has been made,” Miller wrote in the e-mail.
Campbell, a junior, verbally committed to play college football at Michigan State, but commitments are nonbinding until national letters of intent are signed in February 2015. Per NCAA rules, college coaches are not allowed to comment publicly on unsigned recruits. Campbell committed to MSU in August, turning down scholarship offers from Alabama, Notre Dame and Wisconsin, among others. He is rated as a four-star recruit by The alleged assault marks the second incident in recent months involving Campbell, who was suspended from school and for the first game of the 2014 season for throwing a punch after Cass Tech’s state semifinal loss to Novi Detroit Catholic Central in November.
Do you think that Cass Tech should expel Campbell?

Are you curious as to what Campbell's side of the story is? 

Should MSU reject Campbell because of this incident?

Would you be willing to hire/work with someone if you saw them do this?

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Black Man Arrested for Drinking Arizona Iced Tea

This could just be reason # 345,754 as to why I generally don't like the police. I view them as at best a necessary evil. Police often escalate situations unnecessarily. Below the jump check out a May 2013 video from Fayetteville, North Carolina that somehow I missed but that The Janitor brought to my attention. It was hard even for me to believe that it was real at first just because the person arrested literally wasn't doing anything questionable, let alone wrong. The blog lawyers can discuss if any laws were broken. What I took away from this is that some police assume:
  1. any black men gathering anywhere must be up to no good 
  2. no black man anywhere has any right to not be pushed around by any cop. 
There's a lot of talk about school bullying or online "bullying" because someone implied on facebook or twitter that someone else could stand to drop a few pounds or wasn't the most beautiful person. I think this is real bullying. The citizen Christopher Beatty, a military veteran, is indeed lucky that the cop didn't shoot, tase or beat him. I think the cop made a wrong assumption. To pump up his ego and show Beatty who was the boss, he invented a reason for arrest. Fundamentally this is because some police and their enablers do not concede that black people have a right to public spaces. Watch the initial video and the updated interview video below. We've got driving while black, shopping while black, walking while black, and now standing and drinking iced tea while black. To be fair though it's not just a race thing. Police make mistakes and bad assumptions all the time with white people too. Such incidents are why I think that "victimless crimes" or "lifestyle crimes" should be decriminalized. Police should have limited reasons and authority to interact with or detain their fellow citizens. And no matter who you think you are I don't want your hands on my food or drink. It's just a pet peeve...

Book Reviews: Gates of Fire, Darkfall

Gates of Fire
by Steven Pressfield
Gates of Fire is the literary equivalent of the films Saving Private Ryan or Glory in that from the outside looking in it seems to capture not only the horror but also the courage and randomness of combat. Although the style of warfare depicted in Gates of Fire is extinct, war and death remain the same across time and place. I wonder if combat veterans think this book accurately illustrates the experience. The author is a Marine veteran. The book is on the reading list at West Point. Gates of Fire details the Battle of Thermopylae in which 300 Spartans allied with roughly 3-5000 Greeks from other city-states held off a Persian invasion force of at least twenty times their number for seven days before being betrayed, surrounded and annihilated in a last stand that has resonated throughout history as a definitive example of stubbornness, determination and total bada$$ery. To the very last, the Greeks disdained surrender, fighting with broken spear shafts, dented shields, blunted swords and finally their bare fists, feet and teeth. Sparta was not only famous for its military prowess but also for its wit, from which we have derived the word "laconic". This battle, or the legends that grew up around it, provided some famous quotations illuminating the particular and peculiar Spartan warrior ethos, which was considered extreme even by the standards of the time. Some of these include:

  • Come and get them! (King Leonidas' retort to a Persian envoy's demand that the Greeks lay down their weapons)
  • Good. Then we'll have our battle in the shade. (General Dienekes' response to a Greek refugee's claim that the Persian arrows would blot out the sun)
  • Eat hearty men for tonight we dine in hell with ghosts! (King Leonidas' exhortation to his soldiers upon news that they had been surrounded)
After King Leonidas was killed, his body became a rallying point for the remaining Greeks. In these last frantic minutes two brothers of the Persian Emperor Xerxes were killed. Enraged, Emperor Xerxes ordered King Leonidas' body to be decapitated and crucified, something considered sacrilegious by everyone. As the Persians are burying their dead and tending to their wounded they discover that one Spartan warrior is still alive, though slowly dying. Instead of having him killed Emperor Xerxes orders his own doctors to treat the man's wounds. Emperor Xerxes regrets the mutilation of King Leonidas' body. He wants to know more about the Greek, specifically the Spartan, way of life and of war.

This dying Greek soldier is Xeones. He is not a Spartan by birth but that rarest of things, a Spartan by acculturation. In childhood, Xeones' home city was sacked by rival Greeks. His parents were murdered. His cousin and likely betrothed Diomache was raped. Believing that Sparta could have stopped such injustice Xeones eventually migrated to Sparta, where he grew into manhood. He became something more than a helot and something less than a citizen. To make Xerxes understand why in defiance of common sense, the Spartans flatly refused to submit, Xeones tells his life story.

This story of course ends in The Battle of Thermopylae. There are a lot of old tropes here that are easily recognized but can still be enjoyed by the reader. Polynikes is a vain aggressive drill sergeant and war hero, who upon discovering that a raw recruit (whom he dislikes anyway) has made a mistake, proceeds to humiliate and brutalize that recruit and his entire platoon until they get it right. Obviously this recruit, thought soft and effeminate, eventually proves his mettle under unthinkably harsh conditions while Polynikes shows that he will sacrifice everything for his city and his brothers in arms. This is as much a philosophical and ethical meditation as it is a battle story. Gates of Fire asks what exactly makes a man willing to suffer great wounds, kill and die, when every instinct tells him to flee. The answer would seem to be both fear and love. The Spartan training replaced the fear of death with the fear of letting your unit down and substituted the love of life's comforts with the love of your fellow soldiers. I don't mean that last necessarily in any sort of erotic sense. Aristotle for example, thought that homosexuality was rare among Spartans precisely because their women had too much independence, were too attractive (Helen of Troy was a Spartan) and were too healthy. He considered this a bad thing. Go figure.
Spartan military prowess came at a cost, for its men and women. As King Leonidas haltingly and gently explains to a Spartan woman who angrily rebukes him for taking her husband on what is sure to be a suicidal mission, he chose his 300 not for their strength or battle prowess but for the emotional and mental strength of their wives and mothers. The Spartan system could never have survived without women's support. For example, two Spartan warriors, having become virtually blinded in battle, were sent home by King Leonidas. One refused to leave and fought and died with the rest of his troop. The second returned to Sparta. There the women (including his own relatives!) led the citizens in scorning him. He was called "The Trembler" and shunned by all. Desperate to restore his name he later threw himself into suicidal charges in the Battle of Plataea. In Gates of Fire, even though Dienekes has massive respect from his Peers, he himself often defers to his wife Arete. As Arete points out the men are said to rule Sparta but women rule men. Arete will take steps that simultaneously increase her husband's fame, save the life of her unacknowledged nephew Rooster, and make her chances of becoming a widow virtually certain.

Gates of Fire examines the ugliness that supported the Spartan life style. Sparta's standing army required total mobilization of Spartan men and constant training. Accordingly, many of the other masculine jobs in society were handled by servants or more precisely helots (slaves). In Gates of Fire one of the helot leaders is Rooster, the illegitimate son of a deceased Spartan hero. Rooster is Dienekes' nephew by marriage. But Rooster despises Sparta and despite Xeones' urgings regularly refuses opportunities to be legitimized and become Spartan. This could cost Rooster his life as the Spartan secret organization known as the Krypteia routinely kills helots who are thought seditious. Although Xeones has put down roots, gotten married and had children his mind still turns to his cousin, Diomache, for whom he has never stopped searching. And the Lady Arete might be able to help Xeones find her. To sum up this is really good well researched historical fiction. It's not just about a battle. Although we know how the story ended in broad terms, it is fascinating to look beneath the big picture to see how these ancients fought, lived, loved and died. We're not so different.

by Dean Koontz
This is one of Koontz's older books. I recently reread it. I think it's better than some of the stuff he does currently though it's not necessarily his best. It is very creepy though. I'm surprised it hasn't been made into a movie or at least a mini-film.It's about 400 pages but it was very quick reading. I think it's a good introduction to Koontz's style if you're not familiar with him. This is a perfect book to read if you have to travel or wait for someone in a hospital lobby or something similar.
It takes place in New York City. Jack Dawson is a recently widowed NYC homicide detective with two small children. He's not a self-righteous sort but he is fundamentally a good man who tries to see the best in people. He's also starting to have feelings for his new partner, Rebecca Chandler, a beautiful but cold woman whom everyone assumes is either a harsh feminist, a lesbian or both. He's not sure if Rebecca feels the same way. She's very tightly wound.

But while Jack is wondering what to do about this (and taking good natured and not so good natured joking from fellow officers) an evident gang war breaks out in NYC. Several members of the Carramazza Crime Family are found dead in very suspicious circumstances. Some of them have been killed in locked rooms. Many of the dead men emptied guns without apparently hitting anything. The coronor and medical examiners don't know what to make of the bodies since the bodies all appear to be chewed or stabbed to death. But they can't figure out what the weapon or animal being used would be. And some of these men were heard screaming and begging for mercy. These men were all hardened thugs and killers. 
Both from word on the street and an unpleasant meeting with the head of the Carramazza Crime Family himself, Jack and Rebecca learn that it's not a mob war. It's a blood feud. Someone has some very personal reasons to eliminate not only the Carramazza Crime Family but the entire Carramazza bloodline. And this person is just as evil as the Carramazza Boss, only far more powerful. Jack has already done some private investigating on his own and come up with a few ideas that Rebecca doesn't like and can't even bring herself to examine. Jack is openminded when it comes to the supernatural while Rebecca only believes what she sees. But when Jack's own family is threatened both Jack and especially Rebecca have to put aside their skepticism and deal with the fact that magic and hell are real. As mentioned this was a fast read. Apparently Koontz did some research on Vodou. The villain is not completely cartoonish but from other reading I've done I'm not sure that the Western Christian concepts of good and evil or heaven and hell necessarily translate all that well to other civilizations. So I think Koontz was making a lot of things up. Even so this book might have you wondering what was that sound on the stairs late at night.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Who Runs Kansas Schools: The Courts or The Legislature

Kansas is a centrally located state that has often been ground zero for a number of social changes, some good and some bad. John Brown made his bones in Kansas. It was after all Kansas that rang the death knell for enforced legalized school and other forms of racial segregation in the Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education. The author Thomas Frank chronicled the slow rise of conservative and occasionally racist populism in his noted book "What's the Matter with Kansas". Part of Frank's thesis posits that fiscal conservatives use hot button cultural issues to whip up resentment among the socially conservative base in order to get said base to support policies and ideologies which are bad for them economically. To add insult to injury it was rare that conservative politicians even delivered on promises to the socially conservative segment of their base, instead preferring to promote fiscal conservatism. This theory was really popular among some progressives as it tended to confirm some of their deepest beliefs about conservatives. Frank's thesis is a little out of date since the national energy on one of the hotter social issues of the day, gay marriage, seems to be almost entirely with the liberal pro-gay marriage supporters. 

However another key tenet among the conservative base is the importance of having the people, and not the judges, decide what is correct among competing political ideas. "Activist judges" remains a powerful epithet for many on the right. Some fervently hold to the idea that a great deal of mischief is caused by know it all, elitist, out of touch, Ivy League, smug judges who arrogantly substitute their own preferences for plainly written law or long agreed upon custom.

Or to put it another way some conservatives just throw a fit and start hurling insults when their favored position loses in court. People on the other side are hardly immune to this of course. Check out the liberal reactions to the Supreme Court's Heller decision. Temper tantrums seem to have become more common for everyone. Still, this conservative sensitivity and hostility to the very existence of judicial review was touched recently in Kansas. Like many states Kansas is seeing new battles over education and social spending. Conservatives and liberals almost by definition usually have quite different political preferences for the spending levels in those categories. These battles have not only been touched off by tax cuts or other reductions in spending but by the recession driven crash in property values in many localities. So even if some states wanted to keep the same level of school funding, it was sometimes very difficult to do so. States can't print their own money. States, unlike the Federal government, are generally constitutionally forbidden to run deficits. Still in Kansas, it appears that politics, not necessity is the primary driver of the latest contretemps. It's not necessarily that Kansas politicians can't spend the money. It's that they don't want to do so.
Kansas’ current constitutional crisis has its genesis in a series of cuts to school funding that began in 2009. The cuts were accelerated by a $1.1 billion tax break, which benefited mostly upper-income Kansans, proposed by Governor Brownback and enacted in 2012.
Overall, the Legislature slashed public education funding to 16.5 percent below the 2008 level, triggering significant program reductions in schools across the state. Class sizes have increased, teachers and staff members have been laid off, and essential services for at-risk students were eliminated, even as the state implemented higher academic standards for college and career readiness.
Parents filed a lawsuit in the Kansas courts to challenge the cuts. In Gannon v. State of Kansas, a three-judge trial court ruled in January 2013 for the parents, finding that the cuts reduced per-pupil expenditures far below a level “suitable” to educate all children under Kansas’ standards. To remedy the funding shortfall, the judges ordered that per-pupil expenditures be increased to $4,492 from $3,838, the level previously established as suitable.
Rather than comply, Governor Brownback appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court. A decision is expected this month. A victory for the parents would be heartening, but if it comes, would Governor Brownback and legislative leaders uphold the right to education guaranteed to Kansas school children? The signals thus far are not promising. If the Kansas Supreme Court orders restoration of the funding, legislators are threatening to amend the state’s Constitution by removing the requirement for “suitable” school funding and to strip Kansas courts of jurisdiction to hear school finance cases altogether. And if the amendment fails, they have vowed to defy any court order for increased funding or, at the very least, take the money from higher education.
So what's your opinion. Most state constitutions make it clear that the state has the responsibility to provide for public education for all. As in most things though the devil is in the details. On the one hand the state can't dodge that responsibility. On the other hand, times are tough all over. If the elected politicians of Kansas decide that their state is best served by a 16.5% funding cut to education, isn't that their business? Or is it ultimately the Court's job to determine what the mix of expenditures should be? Public school outcomes are never just about money in the system but on the other hand are there public schools that have provided better results with much less money? I can't think of too many where I grew up.  You can't cut a school system off at the knees and demand higher performance can you? Or can you? Who should prevail in this battle?

What's your call?

Are legislators and/or executives ever justified in threatening to ignore court rulings they dislike?

Monday, January 13, 2014

HBO Game of Thrones Season 4 Trailer

In case you missed it HBO released its first (I am sure there will be many more) trailer for Season 4 of its hit series "Game of Thrones". The show starts again on Sunday April 6. Enjoy the trailer below the jump if you are into that sort of thing. And as always if you happen to have read all of the books or be one of those know it all people who just looked up the published books' endings, kindly do not ruin it for everyone else, who may wish to watch the series in unspoiled anticipation. The Red Wedding may have been the series' biggest shock (to me at least) but there are several more surprises, twists and turns that may be coming along. My understanding is that the new season will cover at least the second half of book three, A Storm of Swords, which for my money is the most powerful and most disturbing book in GRRM's series. But who knows what the show's writers, producers and directors will choose to include or leave out from that book, how many new storylines they will create from their own imaginations, or how much material they will pull ahead from books four and five. We'll just have to wait and see.

December Jobs Report and Unemployment

In December the U.S unemployment rate fell to 6.7%. This should have been good news. Being below 7% should be a good thing. It should have been something that was seized on by economists as a sign that the US economy was continuing to recover and move out of the doldrums. We should have seen Democratic partisans run to the nearest microphone to take credit for Presidential economic policies that have led us to this point. (BTW the ability of ANY President-- Republican or Democrat-- to take credit or blame for a single data point in the massive system that is the US economy is far overstated but that never stops supporters or detractors from trying to give him credit or blame in good times or bad).

But this time there was no Vice-President Biden braying and bragging about a "recovery summer" on the way. That's because the greatest nation on the earth, a place that put a man on the moon and defeated Hitler and Tojo in just four years, was only able to create a net 74,000 jobs. Even by the standards of the so-called recovery we've been having this was a horrible number. The average net increase for 2012 and 2013 was a net 182,000 jobs. Even those numbers were just barely short of what was needed to keep up with population growth. The unemployment rate is only below 7% because more people gave up and moved out of the workplace. It's not because companies are on hiring sprees. They're not. At least they're not hiring in the United States.

So this number is hopefully something of a statistical fluke. Maybe there was something that was going on in December that won't be repeated again. Maybe this was the initial impact of ObamaCare. The health care sector lost 6000 jobs. Maybe this had something to do with colder weather. Maybe someone didn't get a clean compile on a program and so the number will be adjusted upwards in the coming months. We shall see. For now all we have is this data. What's more troubling than the unemployment rate is the reason why it's fallen. The overall labor participation rate is hovering at 62.8 percent, which is the lowest level in some 35 years. This is weird. I've always wondered about this because for me, there's no choice but to either be working or looking for work. I'm not yet rich enough to retire. There's no one who would be willing to work in order that I could pursue a life of leisure. So if I lost my job I'd have to keep looking for another one and/or create my own business. And I don't think I'm alone. So what are these discouraged workers doing? That's a mystery. Clearly some of them are working off the books, going back to school, relying on family and friends for food, shelter and income, going on disability or retiring. 

If the low labor participation rate was being primarily driven by retirements, that is by an increasingly older population, well then it would be nothing to worry about. The problem is though is that it's not being driven by retirements. The labor participation rate for workers 65 and older has been on a near inexorable rise since 2000 or so. People are increasingly delaying retirement because they simply can't afford it. Those old people you see in grocery stores or big box stores working as clerks or greeters aren't there because they're bored. No, they need the money, thanks in no small part to the financial sector's destruction of their retirement wealth I would guess. And even among younger workers aged 45 to 54 the labor participation rate is 79.2%, which is the lowest since 1988. As I've wondered before, we may be in a situation where thanks to automation, weak unions, outsourcing and wholesale transfer of industries overseas, the US economy simply doesn't need as many workers as it did before. Period. The average duration of unemployment calculated for December was 37.1 weeks. It was 38 weeks a year ago. So it's not as if this economy has been doing well for a long time now.

The other interesting thing about the job numbers is that not only were most of the gains in low wage sectors (retailing, leisure, and hospitality) but for the first time since 2007 ALL of the net job growth went to one gender. Women. Men had a net loss in jobs. Again, this may all be "statistical noise" which will be corrected in coming months. But right now it looks to me like we have an economy that excels in creating low wage jobs and bailing out banks but doesn't seem to be able to create jobs which support a strong middle class. As usual the black unemployment rate was twice that of the white unemployment rate while the "did not graduate high school" unemployment rate was three times that of those with a college degree. And although both political parties will use this report in their battle over extending unemployment benefits again, I think this report and the mostly anemic jobs reports that came before it only support my belief that we need some radical changes in economic policies.
Growth in jobs slows sharply

What do you think of the jobs report?

If you lost your job how long could you last without a new job?

Should unemployment benefits be extended?

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Movie Reviews: We're the Millers, Elysium

We're the Millers
directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber
I guess that Jennifer Aniston and/or her agent(s) would like you to know that she is still an attractive actress. Maybe this would explain in part her character's striptease in We're the Millers which echoes but sadly doesn't really live up to her similar turn in Horrible Bosses as a sexually harassing dentist. There, the storyline, absurd as it was made sense in its own wacky way. There was a point to it. But in We're The Millers, well it's pretty much just an excuse to see Aniston in bra and panties. Not that there's anything wrong with that of course (ha!) but because the story is so lacking I found the display to be pandering and desperate. This could have been a better movie but unfortunately at every single decision point it chooses to go for the cheap laugh and the lowest common denominator. Jokes around incest, gay sex, lesbian sex, sexually repressed evangelicals, underage sex and more gay sex abound. In fact these jokes are pretty much the film's meat and potatoes. It's a shame because every so often you happen to see a funny joke unrelated to the above topics or you realize that Aniston actually has pretty good comic timing, given the proper material.
But so it goes. This film was quite financially successful. There's even room for a possible sequel. I don't want to sound like I can never appreciate films like this because sometimes I can. I guess I just wasn't in the mood for that stuff when I watched the movie. As always YMMV. At its best this is like a much raunchier and lower-brow Three's Company with the usual misunderstandings and sexual innuendo. There is very little here that is subtle.

David Clark (Jason Sudeikis) is a sad sack middle aged drug dealer. At an age when the more ambitious drug dealers have long since either moved up to management or out of the drug business entirely, Dave is still working the streets selling bags of pot to all comers, including, in an embarrassing scene, a former college classmate who's happy to see him but wonders what he's still doing on the streets. Dave has a thing for his apartment building neighbor Rose (Aniston) a stripper who is highly contemptuous of both Dave's lack of financial success and severe lack of game, among other things.
When Dave has a strange unexplained attack of conscience and tries to protect another neighbor, the virginal and somewhat mentally slow Kenny (Will Poulter), and a sharp tongued homeless girl Casey (Emma Roberts) from being assaulted by local thugs, he himself becomes the victim of an assault and home invasion. Dave's entire stash of marijuana and cash is stolen. This isn't good because his ultimate boss Brad (Ed Helms), another former college buddy of Dave's, doesn't want to hear excuses about missing drugs or money. As Brad is a cheerfully manipulative sort, rather than have Dave murdered in a variety of different ways, he suggests that Dave do a pickup of a drug shipment in Mexico for him. This will settle the debt and he'll even pay Dave a small fee (small by Brad's standards) to do the job. As the alternative is to be thrown in Brad's orca tank, be beaten to death, or simply be shot on the spot, Dave agrees to the job.

Not being completely stupid Dave decides that a family traveling to Mexico will be less suspicious than a single male. So by hook and by crook he convinces Rose, Kenny and Casey to pose as his wife and children. Dave believes it will be a simple run across the border as Brad has already identified a corrupt border agent to facilitate their travel. Of course nothing goes as planned. The foursome have to deal with dangerous drug lords, corrupt Mexican police who are bent on rape, repressed horny evangelicals and of course their active and extremely profane dislike of each other. Obviously and somewhat predictably they also learn more about each other as they travel together.

There is some female toplessness, male nudity, and crude jokes virtually non stop. I laughed a few times but ultimately this demented road trip movie was only so-so for me. Take it or leave it.

directed by Neil Blomkamp
Do you work hard for your money? Do you have a place to stay that is warm and dry? Do you have access to health care? Do you have money in your pocket and extra room in your home? Can you easily get enough to eat? Do you have clean drinking water? Do you make more than $2/day? Well if you do you're pretty privileged compared to a number of people on this planet, believe it or not. You didn't create this world or the system you live under but you're benefiting from it all the same. Now what if that homeless man you gave a dollar to on the way home decided that there was really no good reason why he and his shouldn't have access to all the nice things you had in your life. And he was going to come home with you whether you liked it or not so that he could enjoy such things. Would you think this good? It all depends on how you see your duty towards your fellow man and woman. Your answer might also change depending on whether you thought that you bore responsibility for this man's plight or whether he needed to pick himself by his bootstraps and do better. There is after all a point where letting someone else on the lifeboat causes the boat to capsize and everyone to die. That's no good. But neither is sabotaging all the other lifeboats but yours on a sinking ship and laughing maniacally at the people drowning for lack of a boat. Does the US and/or Europe have any responsibility to the teeming masses of India, Africa and China?

The movie Elysium doesn't bother to excavate too deeply into certain ethical questions, preferring very broadly drawn good guys and bad guys but all the same the movie definitely takes a side. It has an easily identifiable subtext around such issues as illegal immigration, equality, and health care. Although some of the villains are over the top evil, all the same a few of them have some uncomfortable points to make about scarcity and who gets what.  Anyway it's the year 2154. Earth is overpopulated (apparently mostly with darker people), degraded and half-destroyed via war and environmental problems. Everyone is poor and has poor health care. The rich people (disproportionately Caucasian though there are quite a few South Asians among their number) have decamped to a MASSIVE space station named Elysium. There they enjoy artificial gravity and atmosphere, clean water, good food, low population density and most importantly state of the art health care that can quickly cure such things as leukemia, cancer of any kind, and just about any damage to the body. Obviously this life is not for everyone. Elysium is a democracy but Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster) has accrued more power to herself. She takes a very hard line on "infiltrators" from Earth, preferring to kill them instead of deporting them. She uses Kruger (Sharlto Copley from District 9) to handle her dirty work on Earth. Delacourt was originally conceived as a man but I can't imagine anyone else but Foster in that role. Icy.
Back on Earth, factory worker and parolee Max Da Costa (Matt Damon) works for Armadyne Corporation, the Elysian owned corporation that builds the machines and robots that enforce curfews and act as brutal police to keep the Earth's population in line. The irony of this isn't lost on Max. He dreams of one day getting to Elysium as well as taking the (mostly unrequited) love of his life Frey (the beautiful Alice Braga from City of God) and her daughter along with him. Max and Frey grew up together but for a variety of reasons those two brave strangers never could really get it right.

As you might imagine the CEO of Armadyne John Carlyle (William Fichtner) is dismissive and contemptuous of the risks to his earthly workers. He doesn't even want earthly people to breathe on him, let alone do anything so outrageous as protest for better wages or workplace safety. This attitude is reflected in all the lower management ranks. So when a supervisor orders Max to do something risky or lose his job, Max feels he has no alternative but to comply. But doing so exposes him to severe radiation poisoning. He has 3-5 days to live. He could easily be cured if he were a resident of Elysium but he's not. So Max has nothing to lose. He's now a very dangerous, motivated and desperate man. Max goes to local criminal/smuggler/hacker Spider (Wagner Moura from Elite Squad) to get Spider to smuggle him into Elysium. But Spider has his own interests. And involved in a power struggle with President Patel (Faran Tahir), Delacourt and Fichtner lose control of something big which everyone will be interested in, but especially Spider and the brutal Kruger. It could change the entire relationship between Earth and Elysium.

There is a fair amount of violent action and sci-fi effects. I really liked Copley's work here. His character epitomizes barely restrained savagery. And if he slips his leash you had better run. I thought this was a fun film that was definitely worth checking out.