Sunday, February 28, 2016

Melissa Harris-Perry and MSNBC

When you work for someone else, as most people do, there are limits on when and how you can express your frustrations with your co-workers and especially your bosses. These limits can vary based on your immutable characteristics. Like it or not, some people can get away with more stuff than others. The limits also depend on your internal makeup. At work, when some people are upset everyone in the room has to know about it ASAP while others grimace, quietly seethe and make plans to depart. But the most obvious limit on what you can say and do at work is how valuable you are to your employer and how in demand you are elsewhere. If you are producing profits for your employer and would be difficult to replace then you can get away with things other workers can't. Money talks and bovine emission walks. But if you aren't producing profits or quality work for your employer your ability to cause work disruptions will be limited. Your boss may be looking for opportunities to bid you farewell. We saw an example of that this past weekend when Wake Forest professor Melissa Harris-Perry (MHP) and former MSNBC host of the eponymous news analysis show decided that she could no longer tolerate what she saw as hideous disrespect from her employer, MSNBC. She decided to boycott her own show this weekend. And she let everyone know why in a scathing letter that implied racial animus:
Dearest Nerds,
As you know by now, my name appears on the weekend schedule for MSNBC programming from South Carolina this Saturday and Sunday. I appreciate that many of you responded to this development with relief and enthusiasm. To know that you have missed working with me even a fraction of how much I’ve missed working with all of you is deeply moving. However, as of this morning, I do not have any intention of hosting this weekend. Because this is a decision that affects all of you, I wanted to take a moment to explain my reasoning...
Here is the reality: our show was taken — without comment or discussion or notice — in the midst of an election season. After four years of building an audience, developing a brand, and developing trust with our viewers, we were effectively and utterly silenced. Now, MSNBC would like me to appear for four inconsequential hours to read news that they deem relevant without returning to our team any of the editorial control and authority that makes MHP Show distinctive. The purpose of this decision seems to be to provide cover for MSNBC, not to provide voice for MHP Show. I will not be used as a tool for their purposes. I am not a token, mammy, or little brown bobble head. I am not owned by Lack, Griffin, or MSNBC. I love our show. I want it back. I have wept more tears than I can count and I find this deeply painful, but I don’t want back on air at any cost. I am only willing to return when that return happens under certain terms.
I have a PhD in political science and have taught American voting and elections at some of the nation’s top universities for nearly two decades, yet I have been deemed less worthy to weigh in than relative novices and certified liars..

You can read her entire letter here.

Now in most professions there is a rule that this move is not the best way to leave your workplace , emotionally pleasing as it might be. That reaction makes finding similar work in the same industry more difficult than it needs to be. I'm not sure that bit of received wisdom applies in this case. It seems that people are more tolerant of ego eruptions in the media business. Also MHP is already an author and tenured professor. MSNBC did not provide her entire income. Effectively her show at MSNBC was a well paid side gig. I'm sure that she'll be just fine financially. Still I think that MHP lost sight of the fact that (1) the ratings for her show weren't very good and (2) during an election season it's not out of line that supervisors ask you to focus a little more on election results and analysis and a little less on the oppression of overweight multiracial transgender bisexual women who suffer from hirsutism, critical though that issue may be. Mentioning a competitor's interest in your situation,as MHP did, will rub your boss the wrong way. If you publicly call out your company co-workers or invited guests as "relative novices and certified liars" then you should expect to be looking for new work soon. Challenge your bosses to fire you; get fired. And unsurprisingly, MSNBC has allegedly confirmed that MHP will not be working for them again. I hate micro managers but sometimes micro managers are created by less productive employees. If I were a cable executive overseeing a low rated show and the producer/talent resisted talking about election politics during an election season I would take a firmer hand with them. I'd want to know what their plans were for improving ratings, what sort of topics they intended to pursue and which guests they felt were worthwhile.

I liked MHP though I didn't agree with her on everything and didn't go out of my way to watch her show. Apparently not many others did either. Again, if her show was must see TV I bet that her bosses would try to find a way to turn the other cheek and tell everyone that this was all a big misunderstanding. But as her show wasn't exactly ratings gold MHP didn't have the leverage that she may have thought she did. Or maybe she knew she lacked leverage but had just had enough. I don't watch much television or MSNBC but when I do watch it seems as if Chris Matthews, Brian Williams and Rachel Maddow are on every last show doing political analysis. I can certainly understand and sympathize if MHP felt overlooked and discarded as she writes in her letter. Who among us doesn't have a story to tell about how someone did us dirty at our job? Everyone has a different tolerance for work nonsense. Joy-Ann Reid, Alex Wagner, and Andrea Mitchell all had MSNBC shows. They all lost them. But they were professional about it. So they still have jobs at MSNBC doing reporting, news analysis or substituting for other hosts. To each her own I guess. If I worked for the MHP show and lost my job because Fearless Leader threw a temper tantrum I don't think I could be even tempered about it. Boyce Watkins and Yvette Carnell point out that with the impending end of the Obama Administration there may not be the demand for black public intellectuals which was partially met by MSNBC. (Unlike Carnell?) I take no glee in this turn of events but neither do I think there is some huge crime here. 

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Book Reviews: The Resort, The Sixth Family, Something from the Nightside

The Resort
by Bentley Little
I continually attempt to write shorter reviews because of time constraints. This book happens to be a perfect test case upon which to try a more pithy style. Bentley Little is a horror writer who uses the Southwest, most frequently Arizona, the same way that Stephen King uses Maine. It's Little's home turf and primary fictional setting. It's what he knows. He brings it to life. Bentley Little does not possess the same talent for characterization as Stephen King does. That's not a knock against Little. Few popular writers have that sort of knack. Little is a fast food horror writer. I don't mean that in any sort of pejorative way. You know what you're going to get with Little. Usually a family or group of people in the Southwest run into some sort of supernatural or extraterrestrial event and are lucky to escape unscathed. Little also has a strong penchant for the perverse. Little often produces easy reading that can manage to make the great outdoors look dangerous. Little's description of the empty deserts, deserted highways and big box stores of the Southwest can give a reader the chills, that is when Little is on his game. An example of Little being on his game would be The Store, his horror parody of big box stores such as Wal-Mart, Target, Sam's Club and Best Buy. Unfortunately I didn't really think as highly of the book The Resort, which reads initially like a homage to Stephen King's The Shining (there's a psychically sensitive little boy and even a reference to room 217 IIRC) but very quickly degenerates into shock for the sake of shock. I don't think my tolerance for gore has decreased with age. The Shining is a masterpiece. It also had some graphic violence and sex. The Resort has more graphic sex and violence than The Shining but has less of a story to tell. Where The Shining used clues and hints throughout to ratchet up the sense of foreboding while giving the reader increasingly detailed sneak peeks at The Overlook hotel history, The Resort just throws weird gross sex and violence at the reader while not bringing together any themes until the very end where Little hits you over the head with the proverbial kitchen sink. I just couldn't get into the story because so much of it didn't make sense. After a while I was looking ahead to see how many pages were left before the end. I got far enough into the book that I felt obligated to finish it. 

A California man named Lowell Thurman, his wife and their three sons decide to vacation for a week at a fancy out of the way Arizona hotel, The Reata. Lowell's primary reason for doing this is to avoid his 20th high school reunion. Lowell is a college graduate with econ/business training. But currently he has plateaued out as a grocery store middle management supervisor. His work pays the bills, but Lowell's not happy he has a job instead of a career. His job can find him working with accounting spreadsheets and figuring profit margins or occasionally working a register during a busy time. Lowell is happy to be out of California and away from all his high school "friends". The family has trouble even finding The Reata and things go downhill from there. Someone steals their room and also steals some of the wife's clothing. There are raucous parties in restaurants and in rooms that are supposedly unoccupied. Dionysian gardeners leer at female guests. Someone urgently warns them to get out but won't tell them why. Something is in the pool. Their car breaks down and somehow neither AAA nor hotel management can get it fixed. The events coordinator wants to sign up Lowell for various sports activities and won't take no for an answer. Hotel employees suddenly become rude and bellicose with no warning. And throughout all of this the Thurmans and some of the other everyday guests find themselves inexplicably not wanting to leave The Reata. Ever. The concept wasn't bad but I didn't like the execution. Because most of the characters are flat you don't feel a sense of danger or loss when bad things happen. I was never captivated by any character. The gleeful exploration of body functions added little. There were just too many disjointed occurrences to make this a worthwhile read for me. It also ran longer than it should. As always, YMMV.

The Sixth Family
by Adrian Humphreys and Lee Lamothe
Although some assumptions behind the premise of this book proved to be incorrect and more recent events have made some information contained within woefully dated, this was still a very good read for organized crime buffs. For those who aren't the book is written in an easy to understand style, not quite conversational but definitely informational. What we know as the American Mafia was not only transported from various Italian criminal traditions but also changed and altered by conflict and cooperation with other racial and ethnic groups in the United States as well as by the contrasting social conditions between the United States and Italy. The virtual freeze on immigration to the US between 1924 and 1965 was also an important catalyst in Americanizing the mob and pushing it to develop along more practical business lines. Although they did not, as rumored, exterminate all of the old school mob leaders derisively known as "Mustache Petes", 1930s mob leaders such as Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky and Frank Costello were key architects in building a nationwide syndicate that ran on interests and loyalties defined by profit rather than bloodlines. They also endorsed a "five family" system in New York City which has endured to this day. But not everyone was as avant-garde as Luciano. Some people still believed in restricting mob membership to Sicilians and limiting intimate business relationships to members of their blood family or exceedingly close friends. Mob boss Joseph Bonanno, founder of the NYC family which bears his name, was younger than Luciano but far more traditional. He continued to work closely with Italian mobsters, Sicilians preferred. Bonanno sent men to Montreal where he claimed hegemony. The Montreal Mob was divided into Sicilian and non-Sicilian factions, although both technically owed allegiance to the Bonanno Family. Over time, the Montreal Sicilian group, headed by at first Nicholas Rizzuto and later by his son Vito, became more powerful. This group took over all of Montreal and several other areas in Canada. The Rizzutos were very clannish and took pains to hide their true strength from both their enemies and their supposed New York friends. The Montreal group had worldwide business interests and blood relations working on at least four continents. Gradually they became far wealthier and more powerful than their New York "bosses" though they pretended otherwise to avoid law enforcement interest. Sicilians linked to Montreal were involved in the murder of recalcitrant Bonanno Family captains and most infamously the self-proclaimed Bonanno boss (and their former patron) Carmine Galante.
This book is a very interesting look at the sprawling businesses and rivalries of the Montreal leadership and top hierarchy. Most of the the top people were related to each other by blood, by marriage or occasionally by both vectors (apparently first cousins are legitimate romantic/sexual interests in some circles) which made it difficult for law enforcement or other criminal rivals to penetrate the Montreal group. This book also examines the problems which immigrant Sicilian Mafiosi caused for their American and Canadian counterparts. Not only did the Sicilians have a well deserved reputation for violence, more importantly there were regular disputes and debates about organizational structure. Could a Sicilian mobster be a leader in an American group if he was still a member of a Sicilian Family? Could an American tell a Sicilian what to do? If a Sicilian arrived in North America and opened up a business or racket that competed with a preexisting one, who could sit in judgment? Would a violent reaction from a North American start an international conflict? As mentioned this book will be mostly of interest to organized crime aficionados. The Montreal Mafia had rivalries and partnerships with various other criminal groups, most notably the Hells Angels. If you are curious about organized crime outside of America this would be a good read. After this book was published, Vito Rizzuto, the Montreal boss, was sentenced to ten years in an American prison. Evidently either there was long suppressed rancor in the Family or outsiders saw their chance. In a relatively short period of time Vito's brother-in-law, close friend, son and father (the former boss) were all murdered. After his release Vito led a campaign of retribution but soon after died from lung cancer.

Something from the Nightside
by Simon Green
If you like private eye stories, swoon for detective stories with a hint of the macabre and magical, enjoy stories where the hero is not necessarily a "good" guy in the classic square jawed Dudley DoRight mode, relish dry sardonic British humor or just appreciate tales where the protagonist has a secret heritage that may make him extremely powerful or extremely vulnerable then you might want to check out this Jim Butcher approved first book in Simon Green's Nightside series.

The Nightside is a sort of twin pocket dimension linked to London. As the name implies it's the shadow to London's light. It's probably bigger than London. Time and space do not work the same way in the Nightside as they do in the regular world. "It's always night in the Nightside. It's always three o'clock in the morning, and the dawn never comes. People are always coming and going, drawn by needs that dare not speak their names, searching for pleasures and services unforgivable in the sane daylight world. You can buy or sell anything in the Nightside, and no one asks questions. No one cares. There's a nightclub where you can pay to see a fallen angel forever burning...

The Nightside is also the former home of one John Taylor. His father abandoned him once he discovered that John's mother, whom John knows little or nothing about, wasn't human. John grew up rough in the Nightside, making both enemies and friends. He probably made more enemies. When things got too dangerous, John split for London, saving both his life and sanity. Now he makes a living as a private detective. John's primary talent, besides a smart mouth, is that he's able to find anyone or anything in any plane of existence, whether that person or thing wants to be found or not. So you probably have a secret weakness or lust. John can find that. The way thru a minefield? John can find that too. The exact sequence of events to cause the Apocalypse? Give him time he can probably find that. Even so, John Taylor is between jobs and dodging bill collectors when an attractive wealthy woman named Joanna Barrett walks into his office and demands that he find her missing daughter, Cathy. There's just one problem. Joanna has good reason to believe that Cathy has somehow gone to the Nightside, the one place John swore he'd never visit again. There's a lot of bad blood waiting for John in the Nightside. Even some of his former friends like Shotgun Suzy or Razor Eddie might not be thrilled to see John again. But John needs the money, and he's not usually the type to turn down a lady in distress. But God help anyone who's trying to play him. You wouldn't like John when he gets upset. 

This is a short book that is just over 200 pages. There are a few hints about John's heritage and why some people are deferential to him while others would like to kill him on sight. There's some comedy. This was a fun introduction to a good series. The cliches are there but they work.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Unstoppable Donald Trump?

Donald J. Trump has won three out of the first four Republican primaries or caucuses. He's gleefully ignored or changed the rules on what is proper political speech and prudent behavior in a Republican political race. Trump has insulted and feuded with Fox News personalities, made fun of war hero Senator John McCain, mused about being able to commit felonies and still win, said good things about Planned Parenthood and the necessity of some sort of national health system, called his opponents liars and derogatory names for women's genitalia, retweeted white supremacist talking points, talked about punching protesters in the face, joked about shooting Muslims with bullets dipped in pig's blood, called Bush a liar and blamed him for 9-11, joked that if his daughter wasn't his daughter he might, well you know, and on and on and on. That's not even the half of it. Statements that would have quickly sunk another campaign either have had no impact on Trump's supporters or have actually increased their admiration and fervor. Unless there is some sort of unforeseen meltdown (someone gets footage of Trump doing a Ray Rice on his wife Melania) it's a pretty good bet that Trump will be the 2016 Republican nominee for President. Trump's recent win in Nevada where he both inspired record turnout and received 46% of the vote makes it unlikely that anyone on the Republican side will beat him. Trump even got 45% of the Hispanic vote. This was a little surprising considering that the received wisdom has been that to criticize illegal immigration is to throw away the Hispanic vote. Apparently that's not true with Nevada Hispanic Republicans. Of late Ben Carson has consistently been making lame jokes about being surprised and grateful that the debate moderators ask him questions. He's the only one still laughing about his dumpster fire of a campaign. Rubio hasn't won a contest anywhere but constantly talks as if he's the front runner. Confidence is good I guess but there's a thin line between that and delusion. Rubio is in the process of crossing it. Trump is currently polling ahead of Rubio in Rubio's home state of Florida for goodness sake! Cruz likes to talk about how he's the only man who has beaten Trump. And that's true. But he's only done it once. Can Cruz beat Trump again? Can he do it consistently? I don't think so. Kasich has so far been an after thought.

Some are convinced that if Trump is the nominee that the Republicans will lose in a historic landslide to Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee. So some Republican "establishment" types or hardcore conservatives who don't believe in Trump's dedication to anything other than himself are now calling for everyone except either Rubio or Cruz to drop out of the race so that Rubio or Cruz can get all of those non-Trump votes. The problem with this is that Donald Trump is someone's second choice too. There's no guarantee that a narrow field gives the anti-Trump candidate 51% of the vote. Once Carson and Kasich depart, Trump's numbers could go up. There was some data from the 2012 election which showed that white turnout, especially among non-college educated Midwest middle class and lower-class whites was down. This just happens to be a group with whom Trump is currently resonating very strongly. Although I still think it very unlikely it's possible that in the fall election this group comes out in such numbers that one or two formerly safely blue Midwest states turn red. And if that happens, well then hello President Trump. Turnout and motivation will mean everything this fall. Should Trump lose decisively to Clinton (after all Florida, North Carolina and Virginia are swing states now) the Republican wailing and gnashing of teeth will be horrible to behold. Losing to a black guy was bad enough but to lose to a woman will make heads explode. But if Trump wins, look for Democrats to rediscover their dedication to strict separation of powers, a slow moving Senate and a reigned in executive branch. We live in interesting times. If nothing else we should learn from Trump's rise that there aren't quite as many Republicans as we thought who are ardent free trader interventionists dedicated to low capital gains taxes, low tariffs and porous borders. Class and nationalism (and its uglier kissing cousin racism) still have roles to play. The idea of making America great again is enticing some people. And it's not just because they're racist, though many are. There are people who feel forgotten and overlooked. And some of the medical data is confirming that. I think that Trump is lying to those folks but he's the only one even talking to them. And that apparently counts. In tonight's debate look for Cruz and/or Rubio to come after Trump with everything they've got. Time is running out.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Movie Reviews: The Visit

The Visit
directed by M. Night Shyamalan
This is a found footage thriller or horror film that combines a hidden intelligence with plenty of references to classic Western fairy tales. And of course as it is a Shyamalan film there is going to be a very big twist that takes the story somewhere different. As you know that going into the film it reduces the shock just a bit but nonetheless the film still manages to be interesting and mildly surprising. I guessed wrong on a few surprises. Perhaps I am just dumb but at the very least I was entertained by some of the surprises. Smarter or more discerning viewers may think that some of the plot twists are too predictable. So as always YMMV. If you are fortunate enough that some or all of your grandparents are still alive and cogent then you should take every opportunity remaining to talk to them and learn from them. They may have insights into who your parents are and indeed into who you are. And if nothing else it can be humorous to watch parents who demand strict deference/obedience from you give a modified form of this deference to their own parents. Grandparents are also usually great ones for spoiling their grandkids and passing down family knowledge and heirlooms from days long past. With all of this in mind fifteen year old Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and her thirteen year old brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) decide that the time has come to visit their maternal grandparents. Their divorced mother (Kathryn Hahn) has long been estranged from her parents because of her marriage to Becca's and Tyler's father. But she won't give any details about what happened (besides the marriage) to cause her and her parents to refuse to speak or visit with each other for over a decade. That's her business. She's not the sort of parent to share painful private things with her kids, than you very much.

Now that her mother is happily dating again, Becca, a budding young filmmaker, thinks that it would be great to visit her grandparents, find out some family secrets, make a documentary about her family and hopefully arrange a reconciliation. Tyler, a would be rapper with serious OCD issues arising from his parents' divorce, doesn't mind tagging along with big sis on this visit. So the dynamic duo of siblings go over the river and through the woods to finally meet their Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop-Pop (Peter McRobbie). The grandparents are delighted to at long last see their beloved grandchildren. And this feeling is shared by Becca and Tyler. At first anyway. When they reach the farmhouse the kids learn they will need to share a room. Nana is not crazy about being on camera and seems to regard her granddaughter with something approaching suspicion. Pop-Pop is very forgetful and prone to mumbling to himself. He tells the children that he and his wife like to turn in early so he would greatly appreciate it if Becca and Tyler would stay in their room after 9:30 PM. Pop-Pop is serious about this. When the siblings talk to their mother via Skype she assures them that old people like her parents have all sorts of physical and mental frailties. So it's no biggie. And their mother would love to chat more but she's on a cruise with her new younger boyfriend. She has certain emotional and physical needs of her own which must be met. So she's gotta go. So Becca and Tyler are on their own for the week that they're staying with Nana and Pop-Pop. Becca and Tyler gradually decide that they are less interested in finding out about their mother's disagreements with her parents and more interested in learning why Nana and Pop-Pop are just so weird. And that's just about enough plot description I think.

This movie does a a good job in slowly ramping up the sense of dread. Little asides that you may not even have noticed turn out to have meaning later on in the narrative. Although it's an ensemble film Dunagan (especially) and McRobbie steal most of the scenes in which they appear. There is a fair amount of comedy between the two oft bickering siblings which may resonate with folks who aren't only children. It's hard for a found footage movie to legitimately come up with reasons why certain events would be on film but The Visit manages to get around most of the objections a rational viewer would have on that front. There are all the normal horror film cliches which you have come to know and love (or hate). This was a  PG-13 film which did not have a huge amount of depicted violence. Nevertheless it does have some legitimate scares for the unwary. It mixes a healthy amount of unease with occasionally offbeat humor.

Game of Thrones Season 6 Teaser

Even with the death of you know who we haven't yet had any Game of Thrones trailers which would indicate if he's still (implausibly) alive or not. I'm pretty sure he will be brought back to life somehow because I think the story absolutely requires him to be. But I've been wrong before. Who knows what GRRM or rather Benioff and Weiss have in store for us this season. The showrunners are playing things pretty close to the vest for the late April Season Six premiere. So far all we have is this teaser, which has no footage from the new season at all. So make of it what you will.

As you may have heard GRRM recently announced that he had not completed The Winds of Winter, the planned book six in his A Song of Ice and Fire series. It would not be available before the April Game of Thrones premiere. GRRM felt bad about this but it is what it is. This means that even if HBO extends the series to eight seasons instead of seven the ending will most definitely be seen on television instead of being revealed in print. This conclusion was actually obvious last year as Season Five moved into uncharted territory but GRRM's announcement made it official. So I guess in one aspect we are fortunate that HBO insisted that GRRM share his planned ending with Benioff and Weiss. Still it has been five years since book five. It's a fair question as to what GRRM has been doing with his time. Noted fan Conan O'Brien couldn't tolerate not knowing what was going on so he did a little investigating. See video below.

Friday, February 19, 2016

The Professor and The Police

As I've made clear on many occasions in this space I'm not overly fond of the police. Just as a general rule if police are talking to you for any length of time something has probably gone wrong in your day. All else equal police are usually quicker to initiate and escalate aggressive action against Black citizens than they are against Caucasian ones whether it it be shooting people only armed with wallets or toy guns, choking people accused of selling loose cigarettes, arresting professors who are entering their own home or writing people tickets for incredibly obscure and vague traffic violations which only ever seem to be enforced against Black people. There is a problem with policing in this country. After saying that though police do have a job to do. They are necessary. I don't want police not to arrest anyone. Humans aren't saints. We never will be. I just want police to stop being needlessly violent, racist, brutal or bullying. When I first saw this story headline I was primed to find fault with the police officers' action. But after reading the story I couldn't see what the police did wrong. And believe me I looked.  A black Princeton professor is protesting her arrest during a traffic stop last week, saying she was mistreated because of her race by two white police officers who searched her and handcuffed her to a table. The police chief in Princeton, N.J., however, said the officers had followed department policy in arresting the professor, Imani Perry. The arrest of Dr. Perry, a professor of African-American studies, and the divergent views of how it was handled have reignited a debate on social media over police tactics and racial profiling. The arrest came after officers stopped Dr. Perry around 9:30 a.m. on Saturday for driving 67 miles per hour in a 45 m.p.h. zone, Capt. Nicholas K. Sutter, the department chief, said in a telephone interview on Tuesday.
While Dr. Perry said in a message posted online that she was arrested over “a single parking ticket,” Captain Sutter said that the officers who stopped her — a man and a woman — learned during a routine check that her driving privileges had been suspended and a warrant had been issued for her arrest over two unpaid parking violations from 2013. “The warrant commands the officer to take the person into custody,” Captain Sutter said. The officers searched, handcuffed and placed Dr. Perry into a squad car, the captain said. At the police station, she was handcuffed to a workstation and booked. After paying outstanding fines totaling $130, he said, she was released. Dr. Perry, who declined to comment via email on Tuesday, wrote about the episode on Twitter and Facebook on Monday, saying it had left her humiliated and frightened.


So I'm not sure what the good professor expected the police to do in this situation. If you are really doing 67 mph in a 45 mph zone chances are good that the police will notice that and stop you. If you're doing 22 mph above the speed limit, no matter what your race there is a good probability that you will receive a ticket. Once the police have stopped and identified you, if they discover that you're driving on a suspended license and have an outstanding arrest warrant, your travel plans are going to change. It's virtually a sure bet that they will ask you to (and by ask I mean make) accompany them to the nearest local police station or jail to get things sorted out. And being police they will likely use the imperative mood and imperious tones of voice that are guaranteed to rub you the wrong way. 
Now the original underlying parking tickets may well have been issued by racist cops looking to mess with black people for their own amusement or to meet revenue quotas. I wouldn't have been surprised at all. We've seen that sort of thing all over the US, most infamously in Ferguson. The tickets may have been ridiculous. But if you are a victim of such an occurrence your choice is to fight them in court or pay them. Doing neither will simply make matters worse as we saw in this situation. Maybe I'm missing something but from the article it appears that the police did what they were supposed to do. It is a fact that police routinely mistreat black people or other non-black people whom they perceive as being powerless. It is also a fact that in any given individual case you have to show some form of mistreatment. And I just didn't see that in this case, even predisposed as I am to expecting it. Of course maybe the police are lying. Maybe they were already profiling the professor. But if so it's not apparent from anything the professor says. There are very real cases of bias in the world. Mentioning this incident in relation to them trivializes more dangerous police encounters.  Again I understand that the professor did not like her run-in with the police. Most people don't. I certainly haven't.  But in this individual case I think some perspective is of use.

Omarosa and Bra Sizes; Killer Mike and Uteri

In the early days of Donald Trump's reality show The Apprentice, one of the more unpleasant contestants was one Omarosa Manigault. She was combative, sarcastic, dishonest and above all, snide. Of course, being a jerk can make for good television. Omarosa took pains to point out that she was there to win the contest (she didn't win), and that behavior which might otherwise be considered within the normal modes of competition was considered underhanded and nasty when practiced by a woman, especially a black woman. Maybe so. Omarosa has said that the television shows edited depictions to show storylines which producers felt were more entertaining. Probably so. If you're watching reality tv and thinking it is real, you might need help tying your shoes every morning. On the other hand sometimes when there is smoke there is fire. Fast forward 12 years and after a number of other reality shows, Omarosa has resurfaced as a Trump media surrogate. Recently she was on Fox Business Channel defending her preferred candidate against questions about his seriousness from Fox contributor Tamara Holder. But perhaps unintentionally reflecting both the insult happy nature of Donald Trump and the foolishness of all thing Fox related while revealing her own bile, Omarosa decided to engage in some ad hominem (ad feminem?) attacks on Holder. These attacks were centered around Holder's chest size. Okay then. I guess Omarosa felt threatened in some regard? Or maybe she was just saying what she thought Trump might say in a similar position. Or perhaps she really is just an unpleasant individual. I am not seeing what someone's physical attributes have to do with pronouncing their name correctly but such logic is not necessarily shared by everyone on this planet. I was always taught that in a professional environment that you do not comment on anyone's body parts. I'm trying (and failing) to imagine saying something similar to anyone at work. That wouldn't and couldn't happen. But if it did take place I suspect I would need to look for other employment. And I wouldn't even have to wait two weeks to start searching.

But Omarosa wasn't the only campaign surrogate to raise some eyebrows by impassioned defense of her preferred choice for President.
As we discussed earlier Hillary Clinton has suggested, via surrogates and less frequently via her own statements, that people, especially women, should vote for her in part because she is a woman. It is true that in that aspect Mrs. Clinton would be different from all previous Presidents. It's not clear though that just being a woman necessarily means that you would bring about the sort of change that most US voters, even most US women, would find of value. The backlash and resentment against a woman President might be greater than the realistic change in economic, political and social standards that she could create. And of course women differ on all sorts of things just as any other arbitrary group of people would. In the media there have been plenty of recent news and opinion pieces quoting women of various ages and races explaining that for a variety of reasons that Clinton doesn't have or deserve a lock on the women's vote, or their vote. Shared chromosomes don't imply lockstep voting. Bernie Sanders' surrogate, the rapper/activist Killer Mike, who does not share chromosomes with Clinton or any other woman, recently took to a stage at Morehouse to explain that your gender should not determine your vote or your morality. However he was accused by some Clinton surrogates of being sexist. Now Killer Mike was quoting the noted anti-racism activist and feminist Jane Elliot. Perhaps the words sting less coming from a woman than from a man. But no matter what gender speaks those words, I don't see them as being sexist. To be sexist would mean stating that being a woman is all by itself a disqualification for being President of the United States. And that's not what Killer Mike said. While it's inaccurate and unfair to suggest that Clinton or her supporters have said that Clinton's only qualification is being a woman, certainly Clinton is appealing to what she hopes is a desire among women voters to put "one of their own" in the big chair. That's understandable I guess. But there are other candidates who evidently want the job just as badly as Clinton does. It is unrealistic and unfair to expect them to stand down or not try to challenge Clinton's qualifications, intentions or abilities. Compared to the Republican battles so far the Democratic scrum for the nomination has been relatively collegial. I'm not saying whether that's good or bad. There are benefits and costs to each approach. Certainly the more the candidates poke, push, and prod each other the more prepared they will be for what is sure to be a very nasty general election. On the other hand there are some things which once said can't be unsaid. And these statements often are noticed by the opposition party and used in a general election fight. As the race between Sanders and Clinton tightens up look for much less politesse.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia Dies at Age 79

Justice Antonin Scalia, arguably the United States Supreme Court's most conservative Justice, was apparently found dead today in Texas:

Per NY Post:
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Antonin Scalia was found dead Saturday on a luxury resort in West Texas, federal officials said.
Scalia, 79, was a guest at the Cibolo Creek Ranch, a resort in the Big Bend region south of Marfa. said he died of apparent natural causes.
Scalia arrived at the ranch on Friday and attended a private party with about 40 people, the website of the San Antonio Express News said. When he did not appear for breakfast, a person associated with the ranch went to his room and found a body
Obviously, this has huge implications not only for the current make up of the Supreme Court (which until Scalia's death was a 5-4 conservative majority), but it also places the issue of appointing a Supreme Court Justice front and center in this 2016 Presidential election at a time when things were already beginning to heat up.

Before we address the impact of Scalia's death on the current Political climate, let us take a brief moment to look back at the man, Antonin Scalia.

Scalia was born in Trenton, New Jersey in 1936 to Italian immigrant parents.  He attended the prestigious Xavier High School in New York City where he emerged as a brilliant scholar, and later went on to graduate with honors from Georgetown University and Harvard Law School where he earned a position on the Harvard Law Review.   After graduating from law school, he went to work for the Ohio office of the large and prestigious law firm Jones Day for several years before becoming a law professor at the University of Virginia.  A few years after he arrived in Virginia he was appointed by President Nixon to the Office of Telecommunications Policy, which placed him in the spot light of fellow conservatives who respected his intellectual firepower.  Nixon soon appointed him as Assistant Attorney General of the President's Office of Legal Counsel where he helped to defend the Nixon Administration during the infamous Watergate scandal.  Scalia leveraged his political connections from the Nixon administration to catch President Reagan's attention, and Reagan appointed him to the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in 1982.   He held that seat for four years until Reagan appointed him to the Supreme Court in 1986.  On September 17, 1986, Scalia, confirmed by the Senate 98-0, became the first Italian-American Justice of the Supreme Court.

Upon being appointed to the Supreme Court, Scalia earned a reputation as the intellectual powerhouse for conservatives.  His opinions often dismantled any liberal opposition with ease.  Towards the latter part of his career, however, Scalia's opinions began to border on conservative rants more appropriate for talk radio than for the Supreme Court.  We have written about him several times here, here, here and here.

As far as what this means for today's political climate, President Obama, in theory, will have the right to appoint another Justice to take his place.  However, any proposed Justice must be confirmed by the Senate, which is currently majority Republican.  This makes getting any Obama pick an uphill battle.  If Obama is able to get a confirmation through the Senate, that will significantly change the ideological make up of the Supreme Court from 5 conservatives, 4 liberals, to 5 liberals, 4 conservatives.  It is also a strong possibility that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (age 82) would likely take this opportunity to also retire, giving Obama yet another opportunity to place another progressive voice on the bench.

To date, Obama has placed two Supreme Court Justices on the bench, and both have been women: (1) Sonia Sotomayor; and (2) Elena Kagan.  He will have the opportunity to place a third (and possibly fouth) Justice on the bench, which is historic for any President (the record being 11 Justices by President George Washington, and second place going to President FDR with 9 appointments).

Whether Obama is able to appoint Scalia's replacement or not, the appointment of the next Supreme Court Justice is guaranteed to rise to the forefront of the 2016 Presidential Election. Look for both sides to use this issue to their advantage on the campaign trail in order to motivate people to vote.

Your thoughts?

Movie Reviews: Misconduct

directed by Shintaro Shomosawa
This is a passably entertaining movie that ultimately doesn't live up to the promise of the cast. I thought that with Anthony Hopkins and Al Pacino I'd be getting something a little more solid but each of these gentlemen turn in graceful but strictly limited performances. They aren't the leads in this film. I wouldn't say they are just there to pick up a check. Even talent that coasts is still talent. But this isn't their film nor do they have many scenes together. This is a noirish legal drama that is less about the law (I don't recall any courtroom scenes though there is a short tense deposition) and more about the pressure to perform that might lead any of us to cut a few ethical corners or look the the other way on semi-legal activity as we try to become more materially successful. Of course there are some people who are claim to be more or less immune to the seduction and allure of more money, greater power and nicer homes so for those folks perhaps this film can serve as an interesting field study into how other people think and live. Misconduct jumps around in time in order to hide some critical narrative information and character motivation. I liked that. I liked that even as the movie concluded you weren't entirely sure who was the bad guy and who was the good guy. I didn't like that about two-thirds of the way thru the movie the writers/director had poorly developed characters doing remarkably stupid things for presumed entertainment value. The tonal clash in the final portion of the movie stunk. It was as if two different movies were grafted together. But the graft didn't take. And the dialogue in the film was nothing to write home about, again, especially near the ending. So your mileage may vary.

Ben (Josh Duhamel) is a hardworking lawyer at a New Orleans law firm. He is somewhat unhappily married to Charlotte (Alice Eve), a beautiful nurse who works just as hard as he does. The couple seems to be disappointed in each other. The primary reason for this is that their work schedules and desire for intimacy rarely coincide. When one wants to get busy the other is late for work. When one has an important personal appointment, the other one has forgotten all about it. And in something of a cliche, Charlotte is still working through her feelings over her recent miscarriage. So the couple has a lot of half-sentences, bitten lips and silent stares. Although Ben is a lawyer who is presumably well paid, he's not making the big bucks like the firm partners such as Hill (Gregory Alan Williams) and Abrams (Pacino). Ben is busting his behind working hundred hour weeks and occasionally cheating to bring in settlements for the firm. But to his bosses he's just an easily replaced drone. When Ben runs across his long lost old flame Emily (Malin Akerman) on social media he's intrigued enough or is it horny enough to arrange to meet her in person. And wouldn't you know it but Emily is the current girlfriend of shady billionaire pharmaceutical company CEO Denning (Hopkins). Emily claims to be very disaffected with her much older paramour. We see her arguing with Denning about something. Emily has a few things she'd like to give to Ben. Her first would be gift is the obvious. But the second is "proof" that Denning initiated, approved and engaged in illegal behavior involving clinical drug trials. This information is gold to a trial attorney. If Ben can use this proof in a court of law he might be able to put himself in a corner office reserved for partners. Ben might even be able to help put Denning behind bars. As Ben didn't go to an Ivy league law school he has a bit of a chip on his shoulder. He thinks that he has to go above and beyond to impress his bosses, especially Abrams, who uses pens that cost thousands of dollars.

But Ben has to be careful because apparently it matters a great deal legally just how evidence is attained. I guess you can't stand up in court and say my ex stole this evidence and later gave it to me for services joyously rendered. Who knew. I learn something new every day. But even a man like Ben who will cheat and lie in the course of his business might think twice about cheating on his wife. After all, a spouse knows you better than a boss or jury and is better situated to know when you're lying. Before you can say "And Bob's your uncle!" Ben is involved more deeply in all sorts of morally murky behavior.  He starts to wonder who is pulling his strings. Ben is under pressure because his bosses have told him that either he gets a nine figure settlement or that getting fired will be the least of his worries. There's a dapper East Asian man known only as the Accountant (Byung-hun Lee), who is apparently randomly murdering people who know Ben. Emily is kidnapped. Brusque hostage return expert Jane (Julia Stiles) wonders if Denning really wants Emily returned safe and sound. I'm leaving out the trailers for this film as they are needlessly packed with spoilers. This is not a horrible movie. It is not a great movie.  It's something that with a little more skin/sex would have been in constant rotation on Cinemax back in the day. It's fun but is not super memorable. It would have been better off if it had more courtroom drama. The music is the normal sort of overly dramatic stuff you get for these kinds of films. The film is visually very attractive but the writing is just off. I thought that Eve and Akerman might have been better served switching roles in this movie. The last minute plot contrivances are more irritating the more you think about them so it's best you don't and just go with the flow. This is definitely a lazy weekend afternoon sort of film. Don't think too much and the film is decent.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Random thoughts on 2016 election and New Hampshire Primary

This post was actually supposed to be written on Monday but my supervisor at my Day Job is becoming more unpleasantly demanding and nastily watchful in his later years. I will have to ensure that my pay keeps up with his demands. Lately it doesn't seem like that's the case. No sir, not at all. Anyway this is going to be a short post so I can swiftly return to the virtual salt mines that provide a way for me to earn my daily bread. Since the last time I was able to write on the race to become the next POTUS, also rans and longshots like Mike Huckabee, Martin O'Malley, Rick Santorum and Rand Paul all dropped out of the race. None of that was surprising as either the political time had passed them by (Paul) or there was never any evidence that there was strong voter desire for their services in the first place. Santorum and Huckabee had little to say on issues beyond abortion, grits and gay rights. Paul's movements away from his father's hardcore libertarianism didn't win any voters. And O'Malley had little to say besides "I'm not Hillary Clinton". Yawn. But there were two interesting events in both the Republican and Democratic contests which made news and are worthy of discussion while New Hampshire primary voters make their choices. The first was the remarkable display of emptiness by Florida first term Senator Marco Rubio at the Republican debate Saturday night. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie attacked Rubio's relative lack of experience, leadership and tendency to repeat memorized lines regardless of context. Rattled, Rubio tried and failed to think on his feet and swat away Christie's attacks. In fact he retreated to the same talking points 3 times(!!!) even as Christie seized the opportunity to tell everyone to watch Rubio mess up in real time. Both in terms of content and appearance it was a serious body blow to Rubio's debate standing. I don't ever think he quite recovered. It was a man putting a boy in his place. I was reminded of Rocky Balboa in the first fight against Clubber Lang. Rubio wasn't strong enough to keep Big Chris off of him. And he got hurt.

Christie was relaxed, confident and in command of what he was saying. His body language demonstrated aggressiveness and control. His tone was direct and dismissive. Rubio was nervous, sweaty, high pitched and floundering. His body language gave me the impression of someone who is applying for a job without the necessary skill set and who just got called out on it by the interviewing manager. It was an entertaining political display. Rubio has to hope that it doesn't become a defining one. We'll see tonight. The reason that Rubio keeps trying to turn every question back to President Obama's alleged malfeasance is that it's impossible to criticize President Obama for lack of experience when you (Rubio) have the same lack of experience.
The second event that was interesting to me is that Hillary Clinton, faced with a photo finish win in Iowa which may be revisited and an expected loss in New Hampshire, has started to take the possibility of losing to Senator Bernie Sanders seriously. She and her supporters have said some very nasty things about Sanders and his supporters, accusing them of sexism (President Clinton), claiming that Sanders' female supporters are thinking with their reproductive parts (Gloria Steinem) or just stating that female supporters of Sanders will burn in hell for not supporting a woman candidate (Madeleine Albright). Clinton is also banking on a firewall of black voter support once the race for the nomination turns south though as this piece from 3chicspolitico makes clear, there are at least some black people who are not huge Clinton fans. Hillary Clinton, to me, doesn't have a lot of passion or excitement to her campaign. She's a real life Tracy Flick. She may well be the "most qualified" depending on whom you ask but elections are not just a sober assessment of arbitrary and oft ill-defined qualifications. After all none of the people running have done this job before. You have to make people excited to vote for you. You have to provide a vision of how you will govern. Sanders is doing this better than Clinton is now. Clinton has missed the anger in the Democratic base towards the perceived unfairness of the economic structure. I still think at this time that she'll win the nomination but Sanders is going to make things much closer than anyone realized.  If Clinton only wants to be not quite as right-wing as a Republican, that leaves a lot of room to her left. And if Clinton and her deputies don't drop the entitled attitude that she deserves votes by dint of her gender, well, say hello to nominee Sanders.  

Okay. I'm sure my boss has probably noticed my absence from the salt-pit by now so I must depart. I will be very interested to see the primary results this evening. Trump and Sanders should win. But I want to see where Christie and Rubio finish. I also want to see if Carson, who missed his cue to go on stage Saturday night, will recognize that the time has come to take his campaign out to the back yard and bury it.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Music Reviews: Earth, Wind and Fire, Moving in Stereo

I was not the most intense Earth, Wind and Fire fan out there. In general, I preferred their earlier jazzier raw work to the pop-funk they later did. As you probably heard, Maurice White, the group leader, founder, and guiding producer and songwriter behind the band just passed away after a long struggle with Parkinson's Disease. Although he had not toured with the band in quite some time because of health concerns the band would not have existed without him. White combined jazz musicianship (at one time he was the drummer for jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis) with a showman's style to produce music that was quite different from near contemporaries like James Brown or Parliament-Funkadelic. It might not be common knowledge but Maurice White did a lot of session work for Chess Records, better known as a blues label and home of legends like Muddy Waters, Etta James and Howling Wolf. By the early sixties Chess was expanding its footprint from just hardcore Chicago blues to include updated blues rock, jazz, funk and soul. White was involved in a lot of that. White, along with some other jazz musicians, was one of the first people to deliberately reintroduce some African sounds into African-American pop music. This was of course best symbolized by White's use of the mbira or kalimba, a thumb piano, which is found in different forms and with different names throughout the continent. Anyway here are four EWF songs, most of which everyone knows. These songs make me very happy whenever I hear them no matter what sort of mood I might have been in previously.

It is really a blast to have SIRIUS XM in my vehicle. I get to hear all sorts of oldies. I remember this music from Fast Times At Ridgemont High. It is playing when Judge Reinhold's character is watching Phoebe Cates' character leave the swimming pool. It's funny how music gets associated with certain images. I think I will be ordering a collection of The Cars' greatest hits. Good stuff if you are from a certain time and place I think.

Customer Service: Speak English and keep your opinions to yourself

Recently, while driving home, I heard about these two stories on a local radio show. I thought that in different ways they were both interesting. I think the underlying connection between them is customer service. What makes good customer service? What makes you want to be a return customer to a business? Also if you feel that you are mistreated then what is the appropriate response? Do you shrug it off, pay your bill and simply shop elsewhere? Is a quiet word to the manager or a terse letter to the regional vice-president enough to satisfy your need for justice? Some people want to have it out verbally with the offending party right then and there to let them know that no one gets anything over on Mr. or Miss so-n-so. And a small minority of people aren't averse to laying hands on people should they find it necessary. Other people avoid or are downright incapable of direct confrontation. These people tend to go home or pull out their smart phone and start ranting on social media about their horrible experiences. In the first story a Kansas woman and her thirteen year old daughter were shopping for dresses for a school formal. I don't remember having such things at that point in school but it's been a while since I was thirteen. The mother picked out a dress that she thought her daughter might like. As children will do the daughter tried on the dress to please her mother though she told the mother that this dress wasn't her style. The saleswoman apparently thought that the dress was not particularly flattering to the young lady and suggested that the youngster needed to purchase and wear Spanx. I didn't know what Spanx was but apparently Spanx is underwear, primarily though not exclusively for women, designed to slim figures. I don't know if the mother was more upset by the saleswoman's tone or by what she said but either way she was angry enough to write a facebook post criticizing the saleswoman and defending her daughter's weight and shape. Of course every parent thinks their child is beautiful. That's human nature. But I'm not sure the mother's zeal to defend her daughter was best served by putting her daughter's pic in the public sphere. I suppose there are some saleswomen or salesmen who just want to move product and don't care what you look like in their clothing. But I've also bought clothes from people who were honest enough to tell me what looked good and what didn't. If I were buying an expensive suit or shoes or whatever I'd like to know ahead of time if something clashes, accentuates negatives or simply doesn't work. But that's just me. There are polite and yet direct ways to let me know that.

In the second story the reality tv personality/author Bethenny Frankel had her Jules Winnfield English MF do you speak it??!!! moment. Frankel was shopping at a K-Mart and apparently was peeved that not only were there not enough registers open but also that at least some of the workers (unclear if she's referring to floor clerks or those operating the registers) either did not or would not speak English. Today's world being what it is Frankel put this on twitter. People reliably surfaced to call her racist. 

I don't know much about Frankel and am not interested in learning more. She could be the worst bigot out there. She could be a nice person. Don't know. Don't care. But just wanting to speak English in a non-niche business in the United States of America is not in my view enough to mark you as a racist. If you and the person to whom you're speaking do not share a common language communication becomes more difficult. It is not necessarily racist to get upset about this though obviously, racist or xenophobic people by definition probably have a much lower threshold of tolerance for this sort of thing. Although Michigan is not a super diverse state in comparison to say, New York or California, there are still a fair number of people for whom English is not the first language. At least once a month or so I can hear Arabic, Chaldean, Spanish, or Korean being spoken in businesses that serve the wider public. I am really not bothered by this. It would only bother me if the owner or clerks refused or were unable to speak English to me. If I moved to another country it would be presumptuous of me to expect people there to speak English to me. I'd have to learn their language. Similarly, for its stores in the US, K-Mart should hire people who can speak English if they are going to be interacting with the public in any way. Maybe at some future point everyone in the US will be speaking Mandarin, Cantonese or Spanish. I doubt it though. You could make an argument that it's unfair that English has become the common business language or (heh-heh) lingua franca of the world. Perhaps. But it's not going to change anytime soon in this country that English is the common language. If you made the choice to come here then you should also do your best to learn the language. There are times when the ability to communicate clearly could be of critical importance. It's not just about K-mart and reality stars.