Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke Kills Laquan McDonald

Another day, another black person killed by a cop. Based on past experiences there will almost surely be brain dead trolls popping up like mushrooms across social media who will start bleating "what about black-on-black violence" or claim that unless we are law enforcement officials ourselves that we can never really walk in an officer's shoes and thus have no right to judge. Both of those things are stupid deflections. But just for the record, the black criminals who mostly kill other black people and occasionally kill white people, are usually promptly arrested, charged, tried, convicted and sentenced. They don't have (nor should they have) aggressive unions defending them, bosses who will lose evidence, prosecutors who will delay charging them and a friendly media and supportive public (jury pool) who will often frame the worst actions in the most benign light possible. And to the second common deflection, of course police have the right to self-defense and to use deadly force to protect others. No one questions that. If someone is stupid enough to attack a police officer who is acting within the law and gets themselves shot for their trouble you won't find me shedding many tears. No. And whether they like it or not, police officers are indeed not above the law. When they do wrong they should be held to account just like everyone else. Our society can't or rather shouldn't function with a caste of people who can kill at will with no repercussions or consequences. The problem here is that American police officers are overly aggressive towards black people, regardless of whether said black people are committing crimes or not. And when force is used against a black person, it's often considered to be justified, regardless of the actual facts of the case. Cops are very quick to use force against black people, no matter if there is an objective threat or not. Tennis players minding their own business get tackled. Recalcitrant children are slammed to the ground or dragged across classrooms. Men allegedly selling tax free cigarettes are choked to death. Someone driving without a license who might owe child support is shot in the back. Blackness in and of itself seems to justify the force. We've seen this over and over and over again. The most recent example, or rather the example that we just found out about occurred in Chicago in 2014, where CPD officer Jason Van Dyke killed Laquan McDonald. He shot him sixteen times. He shot him when McDonald was on the ground. According to details of the charges released in bond court Tuesday, Van Dyke was less than an hour into his overnight shift on the night of the shooting when a call came over the police radio at 9:47 p.m. of a citizen holding McDonald after he had been caught breaking into trucks and stealing radios in a parking lot near 41st Street and Kildare Avenue. Another unit responded first and said over the radio that McDonald was walking away with a knife in his hand, Assistant State’s Attorney William Delaney said. At 9:56 p.m., a beat car reported that McDonald had “popped the tire on their squad car,” Delaney said.

At 9:57 p.m., McDonald can be seen in the video walking away from the officers near the center line of Pulaski Road. Van Dyke and his partner got out of their marked Chevrolet Tahoe with their guns drawn, and Van Dyke took at least one step toward the teen and opened fire from about 10 feet away, Delaney said. “McDonald's arm jerks and his whole body spins around and falls to the ground,” Delaney said.
Alvarez said the video showed McDonald lying on the ground while shots continued to strike his body and the pavement near him, with puffs of debris kicking up and his arms and body jerking as he was hit. In all, Van Dyke was on the scene for less than 30 seconds before he started shooting, and the first shot was fired about six seconds after he exited his squad car, Alvarez said. About 14 or 15 seconds passed between the first and last shots fired by Van Dyke, and for 13 of those seconds, McDonald was on the ground, she said. According to interviews with other officers at the scene, McDonald never spoke to them or responded to commands to drop the knife. Witnesses who were stopped in traffic on Pulaski told authorities that McDonald seemed to be “looking for a way to get away from the police,” Alvarez said. “He never moved toward, lunged at or did anything threatening,” she said. Story link You can see the full video at the end. I don't know how long it will be up. Now again, if McDonald had rushed the officers that would be one thing. But he didn't. And the initial police report claimed that McDonald had lunged at the cops and died of one shot to the chest. Surprise, surprise, police officers lie. Allegedly some other cops tried to delete footage from local surveillance cameras which showed the event. The only reason we're learning about this is that whistleblowers inside the city administration or police department or elsewhere worked with journalists unconvinced by the official narrative to reveal the truth. The city has already settled with McDonald's family to the tune of $5 million. And the fact that Van Dyke was charged with first degree murder is literally unprecedented. That just doesn't happen often with police officers, particularly in Chicago. It remains to be seen whether Van Dyke is convicted of first degree murder. My understanding from friends, family members and associates who are attorneys is that the charge is a very high bar, especially for a police officer who is acting as part of his official duties. It doesn't make me feel great that the district attorney took a year to file charges. She apparently only did so because the video was going to come out.  That doesn't seem like a profile in courage or integrity but perhaps better late than never. Time will tell.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Book Reviews: The Grey King

The Grey King
by Susan Cooper
This book was a gift from my maternal aunt all those years ago. It's something I like to pull out and re-read or just skim from time to time. It always brings back good memories of Washington D.C and North Carolina and other southern places. It's funny how gifts can become associated with particular times and places. Anyway, nostalgia aside this book holds up and then some to the fantasy series of today. Like the best books which are aimed at children, this book can be understood at different levels by children and adults. Cooper didn't write down to children nor did she dumb stuff down.  To be fair this book is probably aimed at older children. Although obviously children wouldn't always understand or relate to many of the sexual or violent urges that lay behind a culture's unifying myths, children certainly understand jealousy, fair play, betrayal and meanness. And all of those things are on display in The Grey King. The Grey King is the fourth of Cooper's five book series, The Dark Is Rising. I believe I read one of the earlier entries in the series. One day I will need to go back and read the series from start to end. But The Grey King stands alone. It helps to have read one of the previous stories but it's not necessary. As you can no doubt guess from the title of this series this is about, what else, the epic battle between Good and Evil (Light and Dark) for all the marbles, life, the universe and everything. What makes this book interesting among other characteristics is that, much like F. Paul Wilson does in his Repairman Jack series, Cooper posits a good that at its core is something which is beyond human capacity to understand or accept.  After all if you are concerned with the entire universe, whether one human finds love, lives or dies is perhaps not of much import. As one character says: "But those men who know anything at all about the Light also know that there is a fierceness to its power, like the bare sword of the law or the white burning of the sun. Other things, like humanity and mercy and charity, that most good men hold more precious than all else, they do not come first for the Light. Oh sometimes they are there; often indeed. But in the very long run the concern of you people is with the absolute good , ahead of all else. You are like fanatics. Your masters, at any rate. Like the old Crusaders--oh, like certain groups in every belief, though this is not a matter of religion, of course. At the centre of the Light there is a cold white flame, just as at the centre of the Dark there is a great black pit bottomless as the Universe."

Humans are fortunate that The Light seeks not to enslave humanity but to help it. The Dark seeks enslavement and degradation of humanity before the destruction of everything. Usually, neither The Dark or The Light can directly physically harm a human being. Humans are mixtures of Light and Dark and thus open to influence by either.The Dark, being the Dark is much less likely to take no for an answer. Most humans are not aware of the Light and would be unable to successfully interface with it if they were. The people who can interface with the Light and wield its powers are known as Old Ones. They are all immortal and can't be killed. Some of them live outside of time; others are constantly reborn. The English boy Will Stanton is one such Old One. Actually he's the last of the Old Ones to be born. He's currently in the body of a pre-teen boy. As this book starts Will has amnesia and is also ill. At his mother's and doctor's request, he's sent away to Wales to recuperate at his aunt's and uncle's home. There Will meets and befriends a strange albino boy named Bran and starts to remember what his mission is. Bran knows a lot more about The Light and The Dark than he should, and may be able to help Will on his quest. Bran's dog (and constant companion) is named Cafall. Dogs, and other canids, play an important part in this story. Unfortunately Will soon becomes aware that the most powerful of the Lords of the Dark, the Grey King, is nearby and intends to prevent Will from succeeding at his quest. There are certain rules, however, which bind even The Dark. But The Grey King could get other people to do his dirty work. These people aren't bound by the rules of the conflict. Some of those people are predisposed to dislike an English boy who talks and acts as if he's much older than he is. This book is crammed full of Welsh mythology with a few shoutouts to Arthurian, Norse and Christian lore. Much as with similar work with L'Engle and Tolkien, Cooper's world balance can change drastically on small decisions made by people of seemingly little import. The small stuff matters. It's important. Human choices, love and hate can alter the entire universe. Again, some of the themes in the book are not things which would be understood by children but are certainly familiar to any adult. There's a lot here about loneliness, longing and need. In hardcover version this book was just over 200 pages. None of them were wasted. This book has such vivid description that it could make you fall in love with the Welsh countryside and language. 

Friday, November 20, 2015

Twerking, Sexual Assault, and Double Standards

We've previously discussed the differences between men and women insofar as who's more likely to initiate declarations of sexual interest (men) and who's more likely to reject them or become offended that someone said something offcolor (women). I believe that these tendencies are virtually hard coded between the genders though obviously there are coy men who play hard to get and aggressive women who demand immediate no strings attached sex. But generally men initiate (often after a woman sends a signal) and then women respond. I think that's just the way humans are made. Obviously each culture regulates this dance of life differently.  Some men get in trouble by misreading signals that were meant for someone else or seeing signals that weren't even there.  Serious protocol violations can lead to verbal/physical conflict, police involvement or worse. On the flip side some cultures attempt control over all expressions of a woman's sexuality to the point that her travel is restricted. And in some areas an accusation that a woman was speaking to a man who is not her husband or relative can have very negative results. We generally give negative attention to men in public spaces who shout out double entendre salutations or ruder statements to women. In some quarters this is called "street harassment". Men who do this rarely seem to achieve their desired result though as with lottery winners there's no doubt someone out there who has hit the jackpot. Most women seem to dislike this verbal attention though paradoxically some women who complain about it the most also complain when they no longer receive it. Whatever. Everyone's different. Although reasonable people can disagree about the timing and propriety of approaching a woman on the street, no one could disagree that putting hands (or other body parts) on someone without her permission is grounds for assault charges. It's just not something you do. Well the door swings both ways.
Recently, in what appears to be a "man bites dog" event two women in a Washington D.C. gas station decided to physically harass a man who was rather obviously not interested in buying what they were selling. And selling is probably not a figure of speech here. At least one of the women has been charged with prostitution before. The women ground themselves against the man and touched his chest, backside and manhood. The man claimed that he feared for his life.  One of the women has since been charged with third degree sexual abuse. On a local radio station some hosts derided the man's "feared for my life" claim or the idea that the women should be criminally charged.  

The way I see it Mr. Tharpe, a middle school teacher, had no idea who those women were, if they were armed, or where they had been. He didn't know if this was a police sting operation. He didn't know if the women had pimps or other associates who were watching him and preparing to rob/extort him. And would you want some street hooker of either gender making a grab for your privates? I'm thinking not. Perhaps for any of a thousand reasons Tharpe doesn't want to be touched by or have sex with nasty women whom he does not know. That is his right, after all. The idea that men should always be (ahem) "up" for sex at any time for any reason with anyone is balderdash.  As he explains it was a lot more than twerking.

So society should be just as intolerant of unwanted touching/abuse/assault from women as from men. I don't think that we're there yet though. I don't know why it is so difficult to get people to understand that you need to keep your hands to yourself. It's a very simple concept. Ask first. That will usually clear up any unpleasant misunderstandings. Or if you make a move and someone reacts as if they just touched a live wire and starts screaming for their Mommy, chances are they aren't interested in doing anything with you. Take the hint.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Paris, Terrorism and Politics

On Friday the 13th the group ISIS attacked a concert hall and stadium in Paris because well that's what they do. Over one hundred people died. Many more were wounded. The proximate cause was retaliation for France's support of the bombing campaign against ISIS targets in Syria. The deeper cause could be revenge for a long history of Western intervention in the region. And the deepest cause of all could be, well that the sorts of people who attack civilian targets are cowards and a$$holes. Today France struck back on the ground.The button men are all over the street looking for anyone and everyone who had something to do with the attacks. With few exceptions, these attacks will just make most people even stronger in their previously held convictions. People across the political spectrum immediately used 11-13 to demonize their political opponents or argue that events proved their pet political theory correct. If you are on the right these attacks may have strengthened your conviction that immigration or refugee movement (particularly of racially, culturally or religiously disparate people) needs to be slowed, halted or reversed. Unlike the United States, which theoretically has no formal or informal link between race, religion, ethnicity and citizenship, many other nations in the Old World, especially in Europe, are more or less ethnic homelands of very long standing. When you say that someone is French or German or Japanese that usually brings up a different image in your mind than to say someone is American. This has changed in Europe, particularly Western Europe after WW2, but there are plenty of shall we say self-proclaimed "indigenous Europeans" who strongly dislike these changes. That at least some of the people who carried out the attacks were apparently European nationals of non-European origin will give fuel to various political parties across Europe who want to stop any further demographic transformation. Many people who will vote for a LePen or a Orban are stone cold racists. Nevertheless just as the US didn't accept massive immigration from Germany during WW2, there just might be something to be said for not accepting immigration from countries you're currently bombing. Because some of those folks will surely hold grudges. The fact that some of these grudges are beyond ridiculous (the people who carried out the Madrid bombings were still po'd about the Reconquista) doesn't matter.

Now if you are of the Left you may see attacks like this as reminders that France must try harder to live up to the slogan of "liberty, fraternity and equality". Why, for example, does France apparently have more of a problem assimilating non-white non-Christian immigrants than the US does? Why has France outlawed Muslim headwear or in some cases refused to provide non-pork meals at public schools? You may argue that France needs to do more to make its Muslim immigrants welcome so that they no longer identify with a crazy warped version of end times Islam. This is not about political correctness as much as it's about building a society that is both fair and cohesive. You might ask why has the atrocity in Paris attracted so much attention when ISIS and fellow travelers have committed similar crimes in Kenya, Nigeria, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. Some French who found the ISIS attack on Russia humorous are presumably no longer laughing. The West has been bombing in the Middle East, South Asia and the Horn of Africa almost non stop over the past twenty-five years or so. Has that worked? And turning to the US in particular, although some governors have claimed that they will refuse to accept any Syrian refugees and some Presidential candidates have suggested only accepting Christian refugees, the truth is that the law doesn't allow for religious discrimination in the refugee process. And the Federal government, not the 50 states, gets to decide refugee status. Governors can talk smack but in the face of a sufficiently determined President, they would have to shut up, take it and smile. But this is just demagoguery. The US has accepted fewer than 2000 Syrian refugees. Hilarious is not the word to use but it is blackly humorous how people's willingness to restrict civil liberties depends on whether they think they will use the liberty in question. Some people on the right don't think very highly of the Fourth, Fifth or Sixth Amendments so in the wake of 11-13 there are calls from that segment of society to increase surveillance, shut down mosques, establish government backdoors to encrypted communication, consider collective punishment and generally chip away at the presumption of innocence (at least for those people). The people calling for these steps are often the same folks who stoutly resist private background checks for all gun sales and are unmoved by arguments that saving lives requires limits on gun ownership. And some other people (often but not always on the Left) who would like to strongly discourage or even eliminate private gun ownership because somewhere somebody might commit a crime appear to be blithely unconcerned about letting in people who might want to get some payback on the country that bombed theirs

So what's the answer? The problem is that there is none
Or rather there is no quick answer or one that can be sufficiently dumbed down for Ben Carson to get it. I don't think that you can ever blame any sovereign nation state for taking swift action when someone murders your citizens and basically says "Yeah we did it. So what are you going to do about it b****?" But look at the Afghanistan War. It started as a righteous crusade to get Bin Laden and put the fear of God into the people who took down the Twin Towers. It is currently in a pointless stalemate featuring moral atrocities such as the bombing of wedding parties and hospitals and US soldiers being ordered to ignore child sex abuse. ISIS would not exist if the US had not post 9-11 gotten the bright idea to invade Iraq and thus further destabilize the entire region. The Taliban would not exist if Russia had not invaded Afghanistan, causing the US and Pakistan to arm and train people who would later execute 9-11. So will more intervention solve the problem? I doubt it. The only sort of intervention that might work would be a multi-generational crusade/colonial project that would put Western troops on the ground from Aleppo to Mecca. And that's not going to happen. All that can be done now is to manage the conflict. That's unsatisfactory but that's reality. This is going to include a lot more death and mayhem before things get better. Something else we can do is to start to put the squeeze on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States to get with the program. Some elements in those nations provide ISIS material and ideological support. Some leaders in the Middle East simply don't see ISIS as the worst group. They have other concerns. I do think that there will be some permanent changes in how European nations manage and accept refugees and immigrants. That train has left the station. Expect certain political parties in Europe to find more success with messages of unabashed nationalism, immigrant restriction, xenophobia and not so hidden bigotry.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Book Reviews: Devil Dog, The Wheelman

Devil Dog
by David Talbot
The United States was created in a revolution against monarchy. So there is a long standing anti-authoritarian and anti-colonialist streak that runs weakly or strongly through huge portions of the American body politic. On the other hand many of the people who led the revolt against monarchy were slaveowning traditionalists who had no problem with colonialism and hierarchies based on race, class and other immutable characteristics. They were, even while piously making universalist claims about human rights and morality in their revolt against the British throne, eagerly engaged in exterminating or expelling the indigenous peoples in what would become the United States. And of course they wanted the ability to put down slave revolts or revolts of poor whites who got too uppity. (Shay's Rebellion/Whiskey Rebellion) To do this Americans also needed an appeal to authority, a glorification of militarism, aggressive policing, and a strong central government. So these two different streaks are both old and equal portions of the general American character. They aren't going away anytime soon. They are us. One man who may have embodied them both in equal measure at different times was Marine Major General Smedley Butler. Although a Quaker by upbringing, Butler was certainly no pacifist in his youth. He received multiple medals throughout his long military career, leading from the front long after his growing rank should have foreclosed such possibilities. He was in his early days by our current standards a racist man of the Right. Butler was best known for revealing a plot by business interests to overthrow President FDR. Devil Dog is not quite a graphic novel though it makes use of some lurid illustrations more typically associated with that genre. The book also utilizes historical photographs and primary source documentation to tell the story of Butler's life.  Butler had a front row seat to much of the imperialist wars and interventions that the United States fought. Butler gradually moved from someone who followed orders without question to someone who was disgusted with doing the bidding of the not so hidden big business interests. He became a man of the Left. Butler made this abundantly clear in the most famous quote from his book War is a Racket writing:

I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902–1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.

Devil Dog skillfully explains together how racism, greed, naivete and jealously of European colonies led the US, having "pacified" the Native Americans, to seek its own empire abroad. This was an ugly business. Butler's hands were figuratively and often literally soaked in blood. Although it's not clear from this book whether Butler actually believed the propaganda about bringing democracy and good government to the darker peoples, Devil Dog does show Butler being increasingly disturbed by the denial of self-rule and unhinged corporate greed that usually followed any interventions in which he was involved. But it wasn't until World War I, in which he was more directly engaged in battling bureaucratic indifference and war profiteering that several lights seem to have gone off simultaneously in his head. Whatever his politics were, Butler always had a well known reputation as a man of integrity who loved his troops, which according to him is why he was approached by the plotters (backed by the DuPont family among others) to oversee an "army" which would maintain order after the coup to take down FDR. The plotters misjudged Butler's loyalty to the military. They didn't realize that his belief in following the rules and having elections was greater than his desire for glory or money. This high quality hardcover book is just under 150 glossy pages. It's a worthwhile view into a piece of our history which has mostly been forgotten.  The title refers to a nickname for a US Marine. The tenacious Butler certainly lived up to it. Always do the right thing is something that is easier to say than to embody but Butler certainly came close by his standards. Sadly were he alive today there is probably very little that would surprise him, politically speaking. If you are unfamiliar with Butler's life or the interventions throughout what today be called Third World nations you might want to check this book out. Many of the arguments, actions and justifications will resonate with today's reader.

The Wheelman
by Duane Swierczynski
I like stories with lots of twists, protagonists with limited or incorrect information, people who are either opposing or supporting each other without realizing it, and protagonists who aren't necessarily angelic. I also like authors who can give you a very strong sense of place without turning you off to the story location. Swierczynski is a Philadelphia native , author, journalist and comic book writer who has set this story in and around Philadelphia. I have never been there nor am I likely to ever visit but after reading this book I feel like I am a bit more familiar with the city. This is a very fast paced novel which is just begging to be made into a movie. If you have enjoyed such films as It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, Drive, Get Shorty, Pulp Fiction, Payback, or Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels then you will enjoy this story. It will feel comfortable and not at all in a bad way. I liked how Swierczynski switched points of view through the story. His characters never have all the information that they need and as a result neither does the reader. There are double crosses, triple crosses, mistaken assumptions, betrayals that don't work out and plenty of nasty surprises for the characters and the reader. Some of these surprises I saw coming but many more I didn't. The author isn't afraid to shape events in a more realistic way. Just because you may like or identify with a character doesn't mean that they're safe. This book was about 250 pages or so. There is some comedy within but it's not really a comedic book by any means. Lennon is a professional getaway driver. He's good at what he does. He works on various heists-specializing in bank robbery jobs. Lennon is not a bank robber per se. Obviously if ever arrested he would be charged with that crime though. He certainly intends to take his share of the loot. No, Lennon stays in the car. While other people plan and execute the actual bank robbery Lennon meticulously plans the escape. He knows where the police are and how long it will take for them to arrive, the traffic flows at the time of the robbery, the layout of the local streets, what his car will do and what it won't do, and anything else he needs to know to keep himself and his partners out of Johnny Law's grasp. 
People like working with Lennon because not only is he an incredible driver but he's also mute. So if things ever go wrong, presumably it will be that much more difficult for Lennon to rat out anyone. But on this deal things go wrong very badly indeed. Instead of splitting up and reuniting as planned later to equally divide the money from the heist, Lennon and his two pals are deliberately targeted in an auto accident.  When Lennon wakes up he is on the verge of being tossed down a drainage pipe along with his dead friends. Being a resourceful man, Lennon swiftly rectifies that situation. However there are a lot of questions that Lennon must address before he can leave Philadelphia. Like for example, who sold out his team? There were very few people who knew the details of the heist.  The one person who did know all the details is the one person Lennon could not imagine betraying him. Where is the money? Why are both the Russian and Italian mobs involved as well as the Mayor? Lennon is not an implacable killing machine by any means. He makes mistakes and underestimates people. But he does want some answers. This story has very concise short punchy sentences. There aren't a tremendous number of wasted words. There are a tremendous number of plot twists. Plot, not character, drives the story. As mentioned above this story really does move very quickly. There's not a lot time given explaining who people are. I mean after all are you going to be too worried about someone's motivations if they are trying to stuff you down a pipe? This is fast food. Good fast food.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Movie Reviews: Ex Machina, Welcome to Collinwood

Ex Machina
directed by Alex Garland
This futuristic science fiction film was very well grounded in both the science and the moral questions that scientific advances raise. Unlike many speculative fiction stories Ex Machina was relatively quiet and didn't spend a lot of time invoking violence or showing off special effects. When it did get to those filmic aspects the movie was that much more impressive for doing so at its own leisurely pace. So if you're looking for something with a tremendous amount of nudity or stylized violence this is simply not that film. That stuff is there but only briefly. Long portions of this film are just two people talking. And talking some more. In many aspects this film reminded me of Splice. It also had some very obvious ancestors in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep/Bladerunner and Pgymalion. There might even be a few feminist or depending on how you look at it anti-feminist themes which are explored. Where does our morality come from? Well everyone has different ideas about that based on their religion or lack thereof, internal ethics and philosophy and culture. But most people would agree that the arc of history in what is called the West at least, has generally seen moral considerations extended to more and more out-groups. Or to put it another way, our sense of who deserves moral treatment, who is us, in other words becomes more sensitive over time. Race, ethnicity, class, gender, religion and sexuality are all important identifiers but with few exceptions most people today agree that those should not impact our moral relation to each other. That doesn't necessarily mean we pretend they don't exist, although there's obvious disagreement on that front. No, all that means is that you can no longer openly treat someone as less than or commit crimes against them and be blissfully untroubled by your actions because of their difference. Obviously not everyone has gotten the memo on this but many people at least give lip service to this idea. And that is quite different from the moral standards of say a century ago or even fifty years ago.

For many people this moral consideration in its strongest form stops at humanity. Despite the often hidden ugliness of killing animals for food or clothing or sport, most humans are not in favor of stopping this. And even those who are in favor of such limitations can be discomfited by the moral comparison of a cattle slaughterhouse or animal medical laboratory to a human slave plantation or concentration camp. Most of us still believe that there is some important difference between humans and everything else. We think that there is something special about us. Perhaps that is the soul? Maybe is it self-consciousness or the ability to create art and language or understand abstract ideas. Ex Machina challenges the viewer to define and understand what makes us human. It doesn't tell the viewer though. Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) is a relatively low level programmer/analyst for Bluebook. Bluebook is a titanic company which among other things runs the world's preeminent search engine. No one is sure just what they are doing with all that data. Smith wins an internal company competition and is chosen to spend a week at the CEO's home. The CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), is a certified genius and cutting edge talent in the field of artificial intelligence. As it turns out he has a plan for Caleb. Nathan has in secret (that whole genius thing again) created a humanoid appearing artificial intelligence. Being a man, he has given this AI female appearance and what he believes are female instincts and nature. He wants Caleb to interact with this AI, named Ava (Alica Vikander) and report back to him if Caleb can believe the AI is human, despite already knowing that it's (or is it she's) not. It's an experiment you see.
This kicks off a series of conversations between Caleb and Ava and between Caleb and Nathan. You could say that Nathan and Ava are each trying to seduce Caleb to their way of thinking. Of course it's arguable as to whether Ava actually has a way of thinking as she is Nathan's creation. But is she his creation as a car is a designer's creation or is she his creation the way a daughter is a father's "creation"? Those are very different concepts with extremely different moral requirements. You own a car. You can never own a child. Caleb is also hindered by the unfortunate fact of being physically and emotionally attracted to Ava. Although Ava's obviously a machine she also has exaggerated feminine characteristics which are suspiciously close to Caleb's internal ideal. Of course being attracted to a machine is problematic for other reasons but that's enough plot description I think. This is a very cold looking movie but that visual style works for the subject matter. Nathan is a cold person who's not fond of outside contact. There are some hidden and not so hidden Freudian motifs. Let's be clear. This is a movie based on ideas and talking and less so on physical conflict and special effects. It will make you think about what it means to be human and how we treat each other. There may or may not be an obvious bad guy in this film. Whether you think there is or not once again depends on how you define and experience your own humanity. Are you able to be described completely by a series of electrical impulses programmed by another human being? Where does your circle of moral inclusiveness stop?

Welcome to Collinwood
directed by Anthony and Joe Russo
This is another favorite older film which bears rewatching every so often. It didn't make very much money. In fact I think it bombed at the box office, despite having a cast of hot names and well known character actors who would only become even better known later in life. This film is worlds apart from the Russos' later work like Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It's a remake of an Italian comedy Unknown Persons.  I like intimate films like this that aren't afraid to show everyday people doing small time things. Although almost everyone in this film can at best be described as a loser I would argue that the film doesn't just laugh at them. It's laughing with them just as much. There are a few scenes which do fall flat however. Collinwood is a working class neighborhood in Cleveland (the Russos' home town) which during most of the post-WWII era was home to a mix of European immigrants and Black and White migrants from the South, all drawn to the heavy industry work available. When the work dried up the area declined. This film is set in the time of that decline. No one has any money. Even the criminals are hard up for cash. These aren't quite hoodlums with hearts of gold but they are by no means mad dog killers. They're working stiffs looking for the big score just as surely as the working suckers lining up to buy lottery tickets. And just like their non-criminal counterparts, the chances of these guys landing the big fish, perfect crime or in their patois, the "Bellini", are slim to none. But a man's gotta try doesn't he?
Local thief, con artist and loud stick up man Cosimo (Luis Guzman) gets busted for auto theft. While in prison he talks to an older con doing a life bid. The older man wistfully tells Cosimo of the Bellini he could never pull off: the burglary of a jewelry store with bad security. Excited, Cosimo tells his girlfriend Rosalind (Patricia Clarkson) that she needs to find him a sap or "Mulinksi" who will confess to Cosimo's crime in exchange for payment, thus freeing Cosimo to pursue this Bellini. She also needs to put together a crew to assist Cosimo once he's out. But it's Cleveland so pickings are slim. For the sap Rosalind picks Pero (Sam Rockwell) a boxer whose incompetence is only matched by his swagger. And the crew she gathers includes Leon (Isaiah Washington), a well dressed and soft spoken man who's dangerously protective of his younger sister (Gabrielle Union), Riley (William H. Macy) a low voiced thug whose desire to throw a beating to someone is frustratingly modulated by the fact that he has to give constant care to his newborn (his wife is in jail), and Basil (Andrew Davoli) who basically defines cluelessness. Pero may look like a sap. He makes many mistakes throughout this story. But he's cagey enough to pull a double cross and try to go after the heist without Cosimo. The crew seeks help from arrogant self-proclaimed burglary expert Jerzy (George Clooney) while trying to avoid the suspicions of Detective Babbitch (David Warshofsky). Jennifer Esposito shows up as a love interest. Michael Jeter is Cosimo's original partner in crime who suffers from some divided loyalties and severe lack of brain power.

The film veers back and forth between more subtle comedy and out and out slapstick. You may find this uneven. There's some shameless mugging, particularly by Clooney, Jeter and Macy. Rockwell plays it mostly straight if only because his character is too dumb to know how dumb he truly is. Actually you could probably write that about a lot of the people in this film. But there is tenderness as well, both from a hidden romance and Riley's desperate quest to make enough money to pay for his wife's bail. He loves his wife and wants her out. This movie runs just under 90 minutes. If you enjoy heist films or comedies that are somewhat offbeat then this movie might be worth your time. These guys are NOT professionals, and some of them know it.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Republican Debate Demands

It is surreal that the Republican party, the political party that likes to posit itself as the implacable foe of political correctness and trigger warnings, the party that likes to claim the mantle of tell it like it is muscular masculinity and heterosexual he-man heroics, is wilting like the proverbial pansy in the face of a few tough or mildly irreverent questions from some debate moderators. The same people who were seemingly on the verge of physical release before grilling Hilary Clinton about Benghazi, her email server and anything else for eleven hours can't handle two plus hours of debate questions. They feel that the questions are biased or unfair. They want greater control over the questions, the tone, the time, the format, and oh yes, the thermostat. Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah! Someone asked me tough questions! Mommy make them stop!! Make them stop! It hurts so bad!! It's not fair!
Watching this is like watching Tombstone and instead of seeing Kurt Russell's Sheriff Wyatt Earp tell his enemies that he's coming and hell's coming with him, we see Sheriff Earp curl up in a fetal position with some soy latte and mumble that he's written a very curt letter to the proper authorities about all the mean things those bad men did.They'll be sorry. Pajama Boy Earp complained about them. This is just pathetic. I thought the Republicans were supposed to be the tough guys? They were supposed to be the ones who stood up and showed the rest of us how to live up to the American ideal of heroic individualism. I know that Trump doesn't like to spend a lot of time doing anything where he's not the center of attention. Bush is desperate to have any positive coverage. Carson probably would rather be sleeping than at a debate. But that doesn't mean that they or other candidates should be telling the media how to do its job by sending out the list of below demands and requirements.
  • Will there be questions from the audience or social media? How many? How will they be presented to the candidates? Will you acknowledge that you, as the sponsor, take responsibilities for all questions asked, even if not asked  by your personnel?
  • Will there be a gong/buzzer/bell when time is up? How will the moderator enforce the time limits?
  • Will you commit that you will not:
    • Ask the candidate to raise their hands to answer a question
    • Ask yes/no questions without time to provide a substantive answer
    • Allow candidate-to-candidate questioning
    • Allow props or pledges by the candidates
    • Have reaction shots of members of the audience or moderators during debates
    • Show an empty podium after a break (describe how far away the bathrooms are)
    • Use behind shots of the candidates showing their notes
    • Leave microphones on during the breaks
    • Allow members of the audience to wear political messages (shirts, buttons, signs, etc.). Who enforces?
  • What instructions will you provide the audience about cheering during the debate?
  • What are your plans for the lead-in to the debate (Pre-shot video? Announcer to moderator? Director to Moderator?) and how long is it?
  • Can you pledge that the temperature in the hall be kept below 67 degrees?

Not only does this show that the Republicans who are supporting this silliness are not really ready for prime time it also shows the weakness of many of the Republican policy proposals. If I'm running for President and have what I consider to be good ideas I should be happy to engage skeptics and show them where they're wrong. If on the other hand I have no answer to as to why my tax proposal won't increase the deficit or how I will bully a sovereign nation into paying for another country's border security other than to pout and cry foul then that should tell likely voters about the seriousness of my ideas. The deeper problem (and to be fair it's not solely a Republican one) is that when you spend too much time only listening and talking to people who agree with you on every little thing, you lose the ability to understand that there are people out there who see things differently. Your assumptions and even delusions become your reality because everyone you talk to shares the same worldview. I will write something else on this later I think because it's worth much deeper discussion. I think the Republican frustration over the debates also stems from the fact that there are so many candidates running that even with the field slightly trimmed there's little room to get a word in edgewise. But that has nothing to do with the media. The more candidates there are the less time any one of them has to get media attention. These are debates, not press conferences. For people who are already media-savvy or have methods beyond debate performance to get noticed this may not be an issue. But for some other candidates, it's a big problem. But in any event, crying like a baby who just dropped a mess in his pants is not going to be a winning formula to retake the White House. I'm no Obama legionary but it's incredible that even today there are racists who insult him and his family, wish for his death and believe he's not American. But if the President should even mention any of that, he's the one being divisive. And here we have Republicans who have not gone thru any of that or in some cases were the ones stirring up racist resentment of the President whining and complaining about questions. 

Maybe in my next management meeting when a supervisor asks about project status I should pull out my inner Republican and start whining about mean questions. Wow. Just wow. Man up.