Saturday, August 27, 2016

Terry Foster: Hypertension and Health

It's important to keep in mind how fragile and precious your health and life really is.
No one knows the day that he or she will leave this world or how he or she will depart. But sometimes life gives us little reminders that nothing is guaranteed. Local writer, sports radio talk show host, and former Detroit News journalist Terry Foster was reminded of that recently when he had a mild stroke that was apparently brought on by hypertension. Foster was already dealing with Type 2 diabetes. Hypertension and Type 2 diabetes often occur together. Although it appears that Foster had his blood glucose within safe levels he did not have his hypertension under control. So what happened, happened. This is just another reminder of how important it is for people, particularly African-Americans, to avoid these conditions in the first place or stringently deal with the conditions if they are unfortunate enough to have them. Proper diet and exercise are not only what we owe to ourselves and our loved ones as joyful payment for being alive but good food and vigorous movement are also some of the most effective tools we have to fight hypertension and Type 2 diabetes. Some people still consider it a sign of virility to avoid seeing a doctor. I think that the wiser move is to treat going to the doctor the same way you would maintenance on a car or home-- a routine if occasionally unpleasant task that must be done in order to avoid larger costs down the line. The scary thing about hypertension is that you may have it for quite some time and feel no ill effects. You'll feel fine right up until the moment when you have a stroke, go blind or undergo even worse experiences.

Highly engaged listeners and video stream viewers could have noticed a few weeks ago that Foster seemed to be having difficulty with some words. He says now that he was in denial.
“I was struggling with my speech and my fine motor skills in my right hand were off,” Foster said. “I was typing slower, I had slower reaction times and I thought it was the effect of a bad cold that I had, but obviously it wasn’t and I was on the air for a couple of days and I was struggling with my speech. At some point, I was kind of getting scared and said ‘I need to go in and see what’s going on’ and that’s what that was.”
What was the last straw?

“It was slurred, I couldn’t say ‘971 The Ticket,’ I was like saying ‘nine-one the Ticket, like that. There were certain words that I could not say or they were child-like when I said that,” Foster said. “And so, I think, to compensate I started talking louder and slower and that was the big symptom right there.”

Now, he has a message for his listeners, the men, especially. Don’t skip doctor’s visits. And no matter how strong you feel, no one is invincible. Foster said he hadn’t been to the doctor and didn’t know he had high blood pressure, which was 220 over something he can’t remember when he showed up at Henry Ford Hospital in West Bloomfield suspecting something was wrong. Like most, he was eating inconsistently, high-fat foods sometimes and healthy meals other times.

Below Foster talks about the literal bullet he dodged and some of the warning signs he ignored. I thought this talk was worth sharing. Each of us may have inherited some weaknesses from our parents. We can't do anything about that. But we can control what we do with our body and how we treat it. There's a wealth of information available on how to eat better and exercise more often. Doing those things just might save your life.

Blood Pressure
Dash Diet

Book Reviews: Almost Infamous, Finders Keepers

Almost Infamous
by Matt Carter
I thought that this book was very funny. It put me in mind of similar work which I reviewed before here.  It's not quite as deep or as biting as the Dr. Brain.. book was but it pushes many of the same buttons. The title is apparently a pun and reference to the Cameron Crowe movie Almost Famous , which was about a feuding rock band on the way up. This makes sense not only as a joke but because the lead character in Almost Infamous and his friends experience life as would be rock stars. They're motivated by the same dreams of fame, fortune and women (or men depending on which friend is doing the dreaming). They have the normal rock star problems of greedy business types, internal team rivalries, career burnout and substance abuse. And like many would be rock stars they must decide if their success is worth doing what many people might see as selling out for the almighty dollar. The book is told in first person, which I'm usually not a fan of but having completed the story I don't see how it could have been told in any other way. This was a relatively short novel, but there weren't any wasted words. There is no skimming this book. Every sentence or seeming sub theme has a purpose. The reader doesn't need to be a comic book fan to enjoy this story. The humor is broad enough so that even someone who avoids comics or claims not to understand parody and satire will probably get almost all of the humor contained within. Although I think you will rather quickly pick up on where the plot is going the joy is in getting there. Like the Dr. Brain.. book Almost Infamous imagines a world in which superpowers, mutant or otherwise are real and have been for quite some time. Not only are superheroes and supervillains a reality but so are the lost continents of Lemuria and Atlantis, both of which have exchange student programs with the greatly expanded United States. Aidan Salt is a bored high school student who could probably be described as lazy, if he cared to do enough work to reach that status. No, Aidan has only a sub average life waiting for himself. He's not stupid but no one would call him smart either. Aidan's primary interest is in getting the pretty girls in his high school to notice him and help him shed his unwanted virginity. So far neither of those things has happened, much to Aidan's irritation. But as Aidan's father once said, Aidan is something of a late bloomer.  Although superpowers usually manifest at puberty, at eighteen, Aidan suddenly develops superpowers of telekinesis. And these powers seem to be all the stronger for having been delayed. Like the John Lee Hooker song states, "It's in him and it's got to come out!".

Although anyone with these powers is immediately required to turn themselves over to the government for training and monitoring, Aidan decides that he has a much better chance of getting fame, fortune and  of course women by becoming a supervillain. All the previous supervillains have been captured and imprisoned by the various superhero groups, most notably The Protectors. Reasoning that the novelty of being a new supervillain should soon have him rolling in money, Aidan rechristens himself Apex Strike and starts a life of crime. Things don't go as planned. A lesser hero interrupts Aidan's heist. Not knowing his own telekinetic strength, Aidan kills the man. Soon afterwards some of the deceased hero's comrades capture Aidan. They don't kill him, something which surprises the less than courageous Aidan. The heroes offer a deal to Aidan and several other would be villains. Since the heroes won the recent War on Villainy and locked up all the real bad guys the heroes aren't getting the sort of acclaim and groupies they're used to getting. In fact some governments are cutting back or altogether eliminating funding for superhero groups. After all without villains, who needs heroes. The heroes want to remind everyone of how important they are. The heroes will train Aidan and others to be supervillains. The new supervillain team will commit a number of crimes and "battle" the heroes. But for the most part no one will get hurt and only a few of the villains will ever go to the soul crushing prison known only as The Tower. Heck, the heroes will even let the villains win a few times, just to keep up interest and stoke fear among the rubes. Aidan accepts the offer, in part because he's intrigued by fame and fortune, but mostly because the heroes make it crystal clear that saying no means immediate death (they've inserted control, detonator and monitoring devices inside Aidan and the other "recruits") or worse, going to The Tower. Over time Aidan starts to wonder if he made the right choice and who is really the hero.

This book relentlessly satirizes reality television (the new supervillains have to compete on Death Island to win a spot on the New Offenders team), pro wrestling (every "fight" is tightly choreographed right down to the villains' looks, costumes and catch phrases), the music industry (the rotating sacrificial villain who gets sent to The Tower is called the drummer from the belief that rock band drummers are interchangeable) and of course comic books. Every other chapter or so the author drops an origin story about a villain or hero and what can be learned from their mistakes. These little asides are among the funniest parts of the book. I was also put in mind of the no capes scene from The Incredibles. There's more than one spot where I laughed out loud. I thought the book was dead on accurate about exactly what motivates an eighteen year old man. Almost Infamous is also surprisingly sweet in that it gently explores what makes us like or love each other, in both an erotic and platonic fashion. Aidan is of course initially interested in the erotic but may discover that the platonic is just as important. Aidan can't do what he does without his friends. If you like to laugh then you will enjoy this book. Read it. 

Finders Keepers
by Stephen King
This was book two of what's now referred to as the Bill Hodges trilogy. Since I already read the concluding book, I knew ahead of time that certain characters would survive. It was a good thing then that King didn't spend much time on characters I already knew. I thought that this book was less about the bad guy du jour (he's both pathetic and very dangerous) and more about how fictional stories change us and give us new perspectives on life. As he did in his previous work Misery, King also examines how different ideas about who owns fictional work can cause no end of grief between author and reader. At some level, obviously, it is ridiculous and even childish for anyone to get overly upset with whatever an author chooses to do with his characters. It's not real. But on the other hand the very best authors, and King certainly is among them, are able to invest their creations with such verisimilitude that readers almost can't help but respond as if the characters are actually living. Anyone who felt some sort of way reading or watching The Red Wedding knows of which I write. Still, even though most authors would likely be satisfied to know that their work can evince strong reactions from readers, they would also presumably insist that the author, not the reader, gets to decide what happens next. After all if you don't like someone else's story you are free to create your own. In 1978, this is a problem for one Morris Bellamy, a small time criminal with an English professor mother and delusions of grandeur. Morris, via his mother, has inherited and nurtured a love of reading that sets him aside from the normal hoodlum. Morris' favorite author of all time is John Rothstein, a reclusive literary giant (I thought ot Salinger or Phillip Roth) who ended his trilogy on what Morris considered a downbeat and nonsensical conclusion. This ending angers Morris so much that he decides to organize a home invasion of Rothstein's residence. He tells his co-conspirators that's there's money in Rothstein's home. 
There is cash but what really excites Morris is the chance to confront Rothstein face to face. Morris wants to make Rothstein confess his sins against literature before being punished. And the real treasure Morris is after is a collection of notebooks. Rothstein has long been rumored to have continued writing new but unpublished books in the trilogy. The home invasion doesn't end well for anyone except Morris. He hides his treasure in what he thinks of as a safe spot. Unfortunately for Morris he ends up committing another serious crime and is convicted and sent away to prison. The slightly built Morris finds prison an extremely hostile environment for all of the reasons that immediately came to your mind. The only thing that keeps him going is the hope that if he is ever released he has the unpublished Rothstein books waiting for him. He didn't get to read them. In the present day Tom Saubers is disabled by Brady Hartsfield's actions in the first novel. He and his wife undergo tremendous stress in their marriage. This is aggravated by the couple's lack of money. However they manage to stay together. Some angel has been sending them money over the years-enough to keep the lights on one month-enough to pay for Tom's rehab the next. What Tom and his wife don't know is that their son Pete has found the treasure Morris buried. He's been giving his parents the money anonymously. By the time the money has run out the imminent threat of divorce has passed. Pete is also a huge Rothstein fan. Unfortunately for Pete though, Morris is finally paroled. He's pushing sixty but just because you're old doesn't mean you're not capable of being menacing. Morris thinks of himself as an old wolf who can still bite. His prison experiences have not changed him for the better. Morris wants the books. Pete, now in high school, doesn't recognize that he might be in over his head. But Pete's little sister does. And she's friends with Jerome's little sister. And Jerome is of course friends with Bill Hodges.

This was a good read. If you are super sensitive to violence you might want to pass on this one. King's occasionally twisted sense of humor is on full display. YMMV on this but King can make me laugh at things that most people wouldn't consider to be very funny. Pete is a very strongly realized character. Books really can be life changing, something that both Pete and Morris recognize. Morris is in many ways, an older Pete, gone tragically wrong. The scary part, at least from Pete's perspective, is how much he and Morris understand each other.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Trump Hints At Flip-Flop On Illegal Immigration

If you pick an issue, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has probably been on two or more sides of it. He has explained this as growth and as good business. For Trump, business exigencies require that you really do run with the hares and hunt with the hounds. Fundamentally Trump seems to be about doing whatever is best for Trump. He doesn't appear to have very many fixed ideological commitments. Fame, fortune and adulation seem to be what motivate him. Still when you enter the political arena, Hillary Clinton's "I'm not Trump" campaign notwithstanding, it usually helps to have a few key issues where you put your foot down and define yourself. This will hopefully animate your base. If done properly a politician's strong stance on an issue can even win grudging respect from the other side and/or attract independents to his team. For Trump and his successful quest to become the 2016 Republican nominee for President this defining issue was illegal immigration. Illegal immigration in today's environment is also a magnet or pointer for a host of other associated themes such as ethnic and economic nationalism, fears about the browning of America, crime, disdain towards cosmopolitan bi-coastal elites, anger over the hollowing out of good paying middle class jobs, deindustrialization, declining male status, nostalgia over the loss of the "good old days", and many others, some of which Trump didn't have to say out loud. Some of his supporters certainly picked up on what he was putting down. One such supporter was writer and media critic Ann Coulter, who was, to put it mildly, in support of Trump's heretofore, strong stance against illegal immigration.  But like the song says, everything must change. Recently speaking to Fox News personality Sean Hannity, Trump gave himself a little, well a LOT, of wiggle room regarding his intentions towards the illegal immigrants who are currently living in the US. 

Trump earlier this week said he may be open to some "softening" in the immigration laws."There certainly can be a softening, because we're not looking to hurt people," Trump told Fox News host Sean Hannity during a town hall earlier this week. During that event, he raised the idea that people living in the country illegally would pay back taxes, "but we work with them."  
Questions have been raised about Trump's stance on immigration after his campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, said last weekend it was "to be determined" whether Trump's plans would include a deportation force to remove the 11 million people living illegally in the country.
“They’ll pay back-taxes, they have to pay taxes, there’s no amnesty, as such, there’s no amnesty, but we work with them,” Trump said. Trump claimed that his supporters have urged him to soften his stance on immigration, even though he has staked much of his campaign on his tough stance on immigration and portraying immigrants as “rapists and criminals.” 

“When I go through and meet thousands and thousands of people on this subject, and they’ve said, ‘Mr. Trump, I love you, but to take a person who’s been here for 15 or 20 years and throw them and their family out, it’s so tough, Mr. Trump,’” he told Hannity. “I have it all the time! It’s a very, very hard thing.”
From Trump these statements are akin to Hillary Clinton going on MSNBC to muse that Planned Parenthood gets too much government funding or to say that National Right to Life occasionally makes a good point. It's not what the base wants to hear. Coulter has stated (paraphrase) that if Trump loses the election America is over. She's commenced a tour in support of her new book In Trump We Trust. So you might guess she wouldn't be too thrilled with the timing or content of Trump's comments. And you'd be correct.  Coulter said Trump was making a mistake. Coulter made a series of sarcastic tweets attacking Trump and retweeted a picture from #NeverTrump Republican consultant Rick Wilson. This Coulter retweet was surprising because Wilson had previously attacked Coulter in an extremely scurrilous manner

As Trump has been all over the place no one should have been surprised by his seeming new found "flexibility" on the immigration issue. That is, no one except the true believers. Heck by the time this post appears Trump and/or his surrogates may well have put out new statements disavowing what was previously said and/or saying that everyone misunderstood what was said. Because we're all stupid losers. Or so on. The question going forward is will Trump voters see this signal towards a softer stance on illegal immigration as a betrayal most foul or merely as their guy making the noises he has to make in order to get elected. Remember that Trump once boasted that he loves the poorly educated. He claimed he could shoot someone in the middle of NYC and not lose a vote. Well we shall see. All of the current polls show Trump losing badly to Clinton. There are red leaning states which have become competitive for Clinton that probably wouldn't be competitive to a different Republican.  Trump could lead the Republicans to an electoral beatdown of Biblical proportions. So Trump could be belatedly trying to turn to the middle and win over moderate Republicans, Republican women and/or conservative leaning independents. Most people, even most conservatives, Coulter notwithstanding, don't like angry or mean political leaders. Trump's positions are very easily understood as such. There are not enough angry white nationalist voters in the US to give Trump a victory. He must expand the bloc Republican voters. I think that (1) Trump may have underestimated how important this illegal immigration issue is to the ethno-nationalist primary voter who initially flocked to him and (2) how toxic he is (because of this issue) to the Democratic base voter and several left leaning independents. 

Although it's not too late for Trump to win the election it probably is too late for him to change his stripes on illegal immigration. People who disagreed with him about his hardline stance won't believe him or vote for him. And people who agreed with his hardline stance would be so disgusted that they would stay home.  If Trump does try to find a kinder, gentler policy on illegal immigration I will respect those conservatives who don't drink the Kool-Aid and instead stand up for their beliefs.  Trump is likely gambling that he has little to lose at this point and can afford to reach out towards the middle because his base hates Clinton so much.

What's your take?

Is Trump turning over a new leaf?

Or is this just a clumsy attempt to get some moderate voters?

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Movie Reviews: The Brooklyn Banker, Criminal

The Brooklyn Banker
directed by Federico Castelluccuio
Federico Castelluccuio is an Italian actor and painter who is probably best known to American viewers as Furio, the handsome, tall, vicious, intense, lovestruck mafioso bodyguard/hitman on HBO's series The Sopranos. This film was his feature directing debut. Well not everyone hits a home run their first time at the plate. This movie was enjoyable enough at times but overall because the subject matter has been so well trod over the years, a film really has to shine in order to stand out in this genre. The Brooklyn Banker is a quiet little film that purports to tell a story of what once was, when Italian American organized crime, the Mafia, ran the streets of the titular borough. This film was looking to be gritty but not excessively violent. It name checks and tries to model itself after the early work of Martin Scorsese, most notably Mean Streets. But I thought that the male lead of The Brooklyn Banker was ever so slightly miscast. Or maybe the character wasn't written well enough or with enough detail. In any event although the character is someone that I should have had some sympathy for or identity with, a middle class striver who gets mixed up with the wrong crowd, I didn't have much sympathy for or interest in the character at all. There were a number of times that I thought he was something of a jerk. I was not invested in his success or well being. To paraphrase a presidential candidate, he was low energy. And that impacted almost everything else in the movie. This movie uses most of the familiar tropes and cliches that make up Italian-American crime stories, the street smart wife, guys in the neighborhood upset about THEM moving in, religious festivals which bring everyone together, the priest who knows what's what, Sunday family dinner, making the sign of the cross, etc. You've seen this story a million times before. That's okay. As discussed some people think that there are really only a handful of original stories once you strip away all the fluff.  But if it's unfair to demand amazing originality from every last movie, it's not too much to demand entertainment. And I didn't think that The Brooklyn Banker rated all too highly on that front. It wasn't something that left much of an impression on me.

In 1973 Brooklyn, Santo (Troy Garrity) is a VP at a local bank branch. As he wryly remarks to someone in the neighborhood, that's not as prestigious as you might expect. It's a national bank. There are a lot of VP's. He's married (although it's questionable as to how happy he is as apparently Garrity's contract disallows all smiling) with two kids and a third on the way. He wife is constantly reminding him that an apartment that was ok for two adults and one child will not be ok for two adults and three children. They need to move to a nicer neighborhood and buy their first house. Presumably like some of her co-ethnics, she's also not crazy about the slow influx of Puerto Ricans and Dominicans into a formerly predominantly Italian/Irish area. Santo hears his wife but he doesn't think his salary can support a move just yet. They'll just have to deal. Santo's father-in-law Benny (Paul Sorvino), perhaps looking to help his daughter, son-in-law and grandkids, mentions Santo's job and amazing facility with numbers to the local mob chieftain Manny (dead eyed Sopranos veteran David Proval). Manny would like a small favor from Santo, just one you see. What could be wrong with that? And Benny works for Manny so as far as Manny is concerned Santo is virtually family already.  Can you really turn down family? Santo's upset that Manny even knows his name. Santo looks for advice from the local priest Father Matteo (Sopranos alum Arthur J. Nascarella), his uncle. Matteo goes back, way back with both Manny and Benny. He knows more than he tells and sees more than most realize. Matteo wasn't always on the straight and narrow. But he's Santo's conscience. There's an undercurrent of a theme about family responsibilities and legacy- Santo never knew his father, a plot point which will become important later on- but because Santo mostly seems uninterested in the events he's a part of, it was very difficult for me to care about what happened to the character. Father Matteo, a skilled morra player, was very cool. I would have liked to have spent more time with him. He seemed to have a more interesting backstory than Santo. 

The film looks good, if a little too clean for the gritty era it's depicting. It gets the wide ties and lapels right. There's a minor but underdeveloped theme about how prejudice can be felt and experienced, whether it is by the Hispanic women who attract the Italian hoodlums' disdain or by Santo himself, who is being ethnically profiled by both his boss and law enforcement. Basically you can flip a coin about watching this movie. It's meh.

directed by Ariel Vroman
This is a film with an impressive A list cast along with a few up and comers. But the central premise is faulty. If we really could seize the memories and for lack of a better word, soul, from a dying human, why wouldn't we just download them to a computer. If we did that there wouldn't be ethical concerns or pragmatic worries about losing the fading memories inside of someone else's reassertive personality. But if we downloaded one man's memories to a computer instead of to another man then that we wouldn't have this movie or any reason to peer down Gal Gadot's clingy blouse. Snicker. So obviously the thing to do is to download critical world changing information that multiple murderous organizations are seeking into the mind of a man who is brain damaged, murderously unstable and morally empty. What could go wrong? Well I'm not going to say that this was an unambiguously bad film but it could have been much much better. The chase elements are well done but almost a little too well mannered. Considering what the stakes were the movie might have done better to go even further over the top. Despite the cast the story is pretty painfully formulaic. But if you can turn your brain off and just go with the flow the film is entertaining enough. But if you spend any too much time thinking about stuff then you won't enjoy this movie. This is a movie which supports the establishment all the way. It takes more than a few low blows at people like Snowden and Assange. This film thinks that anarchists and whistleblowers are at best silly people and at worst downright corrupt and malevolent. YMMV on this. The anarchists seem well, to be a bit too organized and numerous to be true anarchists. They lack any sort of even remotely interesting backstory. Basically just think of them as generic bad guys. They even have their evil lairs, like most would be evil overlords.

Bill Pope (Ryan Reynolds) is your typical cool CIA agent stationed in London. He's eager to get home and get reacquainted with his sexy wife Jillian (Gal Gadot), but first he needs to wrap up a deal with a shadowy hacker known as the Dutchman (Michael Pitt from Boardwalk Empire). The Dutchman has possession of a device which could change the world for the worse. Immediately. Unfortunately for Bill, the Dutchman's boss, the insane evil anarchist Xavier Heimdahl (Jordi Molla) has learned of the Dutchman's betrayal. He wants his property back. And as he is just as skilled with electronic surveillance and computers as the Dutchman, it's child's play for him to manipulate, follow and capture Bill. As you might imagine this doesn't end well for Bill. By the time that Bill's boss , station chief Wells (Gary Oldman) and co-worker Lynch (Alice Eve) are able to track down Bill's location, Bill is virtually brain dead. But as you should know from listening to Miracle Max, virtually brain dead is not completely brain dead. Wells needs to know what Bill knew right now. There's no time for moral qualms. He pulls in neurosurgeon Dr. Franks (Tommy Lee Jones) who has an experimental process to transfer the memories of a dead man into those of a living one. And the man Franks has in mind is a savage, murderous, merciless killer with nothing good inside him, one Jericho Stewart (Kevin Costner). Stewart is not given a choice in the matter. Post surgery a confused Stewart claims not to remember anything or know who Bill Pope was. But when Wells directs his people to dispose of the confused and injured Stewart, we see that Stewart may not have been entirely truthful about what he remembered. This sets off a long chase that involves a number of different organizations, all of whom would like to capture Jericho Stewart alive or failing that find out where the Dutchman is. 

The other question is will Jericho be able to recapture his lost humanity? Oh the suspense. There's a fair amount of violence and as mentioned a little cleavage here and there. Costner slightly overacts. Jones underacts. The special effects are what you would expect. This movie was ok but it wasn't something memorable. 

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Religious Accommodation in a Diverse Society: Is It Still Possible?

We've previously discussed religious accommodations in employment and education. It's hard to find agreement on these issues. What is important or sacred to one person may be minor, downright stupid or immoral to someone else. Even people who have otherwise supported broad religious accommodations have also recognized the danger that unlimited religious exemptions poses to many societal mores or laws. Religious freedom can't be a "I don't have to do anything you say" card. I am not religious though I mostly respect those who are. I don't think that we can make a general rule about when religious accommodations should be made. There are just too many different religions and dissimilar ways of experiencing the world. We must examine situations case by case. Most of us will probably agree that we shouldn't force people to violate their strongly held moral or religious beliefs absent an equally pressing moral claim. We can say that we won't allow religious claims to override actual physical harm to another human (but in the case of circumcision of infant boys we do just that while holding to that belief to outlaw FGM). We either don't permit or strongly discourage people of the Hindu faith from burning offerings and throwing them in the local river. The idea of "physical harm" is of course subject to our subjective ideas about damage. While I grudgingly admit that the relevant or applicable state laws might require it, my personal bias is that I am queasy at forcing an objecting photographer, painter or baker to produce goods or services for a gay wedding. I'm skeptical that the alleged harm outweighs the individual's right to expression. But religious accommodation is available to people of all faiths. Religious accommodation is not just something used by "backwards" conservative Christians to "mess with" liberals and gays. Religious accommodation is about more than gays and birth control. Some Orthodox Jews in NYC have worked it out so that some public pools are separated by gender at certain times of the day. I have a problem with this arrangement because everyone is paying taxes for this. Other Orthodox Jewish men have refused to sit next to women on airplanes. I have no sympathy for their claim. If they want to move they should do so but the woman shouldn't move nor should the plane be delayed. An Orthodox Jewish woman obtained a job offer as a 24/7 oncall data manager but only then informed her putative employer, the Dallas County Sheriff's office, that she would need to leave work before sundown on Friday. Always. Additionally she wouldn't be answering the phone or driving during the sabbath. So if there was an emergency during that time period obviously she would be unavailable. The Sheriff's office withdrew the offer and since this is America the woman sued. I don't think she should get anything because she can't fulfill the job's core requirements. Some Muslims, who are required to pray five times a day, sued their employer because they don't think the employer is making enough of an accommodation to their prayer needs. As the country becomes more diverse these problems will occur more frequently.

I think an employer should try to be reasonable (and that's what the law requires as far as I know) but I also can't have half my staff disappearing for 10-20 minutes or more for three times during the workday, especially if I am in a business where productivity is easily measured and has an immediate impact on profit. Other Muslim taxi drivers have tried refusing to pick up blind people with guard dogs or have refused to allow women to sit next to them. So one person's religious freedom or accommodation is often another person's unfair discrimination or special treatment. I heard about the Charee Stanley vs. ExpressJet case while listening to the radio on my commute home. I thought that it was an example of where things have probably gone too far.
A Muslim flight attendant is suing ExpressJet after it suspended her for refusing to serve passengers alcohol. The lawsuit accuses the airline of “revoking a reasonable religious accommodation and wrongfully suspending her from her employment,” the Council on American-Islam Relations Michigan Chapter said in a release Tuesday.
On Aug. 25, 2015, Charee Stanley was placed on unpaid leave after a colleague complained about her refusal to serve customers alcohol — which she did in deference to her religion. 

Stanley was hired by ExpressJet before converting to Islam, and was later asked to make arrangements for the flight attendant on duty to fulfill alcohol requests. Stanley poured all non-alcoholic beverages. “It was obviously seen as a reasonable accommodation and it was working for dozens of flights — so it was not an accommodation that was burdensome nor restricted people from getting alcohol on the flight,” Dawud Walid, Executive Director of the CAIR-MI, told the Daily News in an interview.

But in August, after Stanley's new partner complained, the airline lifted the accommodation. Stanley was placed on unpaid leave “and on track for eventual termination for her requesting an accommodation of being allowed to not personally serve alcohol rather than abandoning her religious belief and practice,” according to the lawsuit.

It's important to note that the EEOC dismissed Stanley's complaint without deciding if the airline broke the law. Now I don't drink so I would not be impacted by Stanley's refusal to serve alcohol. But just as with the Christian bakers or photographers being forced to provide services to gay weddings, when you serve the public sometimes you end up doing things that don't line up 100% with your religious or moral beliefs. If we're going to play hardball with that baker then we have to do the same with Stanley. If not serving alcohol is of supreme importance to Stanley then the proper next step for her is to find a job that better fits her religion. As a country we can't allow one religion to constantly win workplace accommodations while another religion constantly loses. That's not fair. It adds to bad blood. It seems as if some people suing for religious accommodation are crossing the line between seeking to live according to their religion and making other people live according to their religion. Occasionally serving alcohol is part of the job of being a stewardess flight attendant. It's minor but if you can't do it then you should find something else. You couldn't be a vet or pet groomer and refuse to touch dogs because your religion finds them unclean. Things are starting to get ridiculous in my non-legal opinion when Somali Muslim delivery drivers can refuse to deliver loads which contain alcohol and actually win a $240,000 judgment against their employer. To me it all depends on whether your religious accommodation request involves a critical part of your job. If profoundly devout people or more likely people of certain faiths or sects obtain a reputation for trying to make their workplace bend to their will, there's a non zero chance that some employers will do what they can to not hire certain people, illegal though that is. And that's lose-lose for everyone.

What's your take on these stories?

Has the demand for religious accommodation gone too far?

Music Reviews: Helen Foster: You Belong To Me

When you think of soul music, rock-n-roll, doo-wop and R&B, Nashville is probably not the first Tennessee city to come to your mind. Memphis would likely be. But mid 20th century Nashville not only had a thriving country scene but also plenty of musicians working in other styles. Most of them didn't become as well known as their Memphis counterparts but they were essential to the development of just about every form of popular music in the 20th century. As discussed previously many of the distinctions that people make with music are often more marketing descriptions than important or rigid differences. Often a working musician had to be proficient in a wide variety of styles if he wanted to eat. For example, future music legend and jazz saxophone giant John Coltrane could be heard on a few Nashville R&B recordings, most notably Gay Crosse's and the Good Humor Six's No Better for You. Musicians have always listened to each other and been influenced by one another regardless of race, gender or ethnicity. Just as Whitney Houston would later have a hit with a song penned by country star Dolly Parton, R&B singer Helen Foster had an early fifties hit with the song You Belong to Me. This song was originally written by country musicians Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart with lyrics adapted from a Lousivile librarian by the name of Chilton Price. The song was a hit in the pop (white) market for singer Jo Stafford. Helen Foster redid it for the R&B (black) market. The song became a standard and was redone by many many singers in different genres. I heard Helen Foster's version on the two CD set Night Train to Nashville: Music City Rhythm and Blues (1945-1970), which you really should purchase if you don't have it already. This song has one of the prettiest melodies I've heard in a while. Foster's voice is clear and pleading. It's sung straight without excessive melisma. The lyrics are simple, direct and heartfelt. Anyone who has ever missed someone or needed someone can understand these lyrics. Thematically the song was a forerunner to the Doc Pomus written 1960 Drifters hit Save the Last Dance For Me. I'm not sure that a song like You Belong To Me would be a R&B hit today. Someone would have to "improve" it by including drum machines and synth or spend 20 seconds warbling around one note. The hot producer of the moment would be recruited to remix it.

See the pyramids along the Nile/Watch the sunrise on a tropic isle
Just remember darling all the while/You belong to me

See the market place in old Algiers/Send me photographs and souvenirs
Just remember when a dream appears/You belong to me
I'll be so alone without you /Maybe you'll be lonesome too and blue 

Fly the ocean in a silver plane /See the jungle when it's wet with rain
Oh my darling till you're home again/You belong to me
I'll be so alone without you/Maybe you'll be lonesome too and blue 

Fly the ocean in a silver plane/See the jungle when it's wet with rain 

Oh my darling till you're home again/You belong to me

Saturday, August 6, 2016

The Simpsons endorse Clinton for President

Everyone should vote for the person they find most qualified to be President. I am going to be greatly amused by the reaction of whoever loses in the fall election because both of the major party candidates are disliked and distrusted by large swaths of the voting population. No one can tell what the future holds but of late Trump has been doing everything he can to alienate not only swing voters but also some of his presumed base. It's not too late for him to turn perception around. But with The Simpsons show painting a picture of both candidates which is pretty true to life, Trump may have some difficulty breaking thru his self-built caricature as a crass loudmouth whose contempt for knowledge is only exceeded by his self-regard. Or to put it another way I found this amusing and thought you might as well.

Book Reviews: I Would Die 4 U

I Would Die 4 U
by Toure
What makes someone become a creative talent? What makes a creative person become a star? And what makes a star become a generational icon? No one really knows. Most of this sort of thing is always discussed in hindsight when everyone is always right. It obviously helps someone's chances of success to be at the right place at the right time but as others have pointed out the harder they work the luckier they seem to become. Toure tries to answer these questions about Prince (this book was published three years before Prince's death). The questions are probably a little too big for Toure or for anyone. Prince was notoriously uncommunicative about his private or family life. He either gave deliberate misinformation or simply refused to answer those types of questions. There are only a few times that he discussed his parents or upbringing with the media. And the target audience would have no way of knowing what was fact, what was exaggeration and what was fiction cooked up for marketing purposes. On the other hand Prince lived for music. He may have, purposely or not shared the answers to those questions in some of his songs. That's where Toure, who did get his share of interviews with the late icon, looks for meaning. Toure also looks into Prince's childhood. Toure argues that Prince's dual rejections by his mother and father left him simultaneously craving a stable family situation and utterly unable to engage in any situation where he wasn't in absolute control. Because Prince shared a broken home with millions of Gen-X children, he became an icon of that generation, or so goes Toure's argument. Similarly Toure posits that Prince's skin tone and occasional androgyny and cross dressing (despite an apparently fierce heterosexuality) allowed him to position himself as a rock crossover icon in a way that wasn't as easy for darker skinned or more traditionalist black male musicians in a time before rap's explosion. Prince played this up by going out of his way to have backing bands that were mixed by gender and race, something that is quite unusual even today. Prince also used the Purple Rain movie to claim that he was biracial (he wasn't). Prince didn't attend either of his parent's funerals, something which at least hints at some unresolved family issues.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Bill O'Reilly and Slavery: Slaves were well fed

We spoke earlier how some people were taken aback by Michelle Obama's reference to the fact that the White House was built in part by slaves. The First Lady contrasted that history with the observation that she and her daughters, black women, now wake up in the White House as its most important residents. Ain't America grand? This was, as far as I was concerned, an obvious, non-controversial and even somewhat trite observation. America had formal slavery until 1865.The White House was built before 1865. It would have been amazing if the White House hadn't had some sort of connection with slavery. But for one Bill O'Reilly, self-styled historian and Fox News talking head, it was important to claim that the slaves were "well-fed and had decent lodgings". Right. Let's say that a man rapes a woman. At the resulting trial he argues for leniency claiming that "Hey let's not forget that I wore a condom!" Would that matter?
Could a commandant at a German death camp circa 1945 point to decent lodgings and continual exposure to Wagner's greatest hits as under appreciated benefits for his prisoners "customers"? 
When a parent spanks their child and sanctimoniously tells them that "This hurts me more than it hurts you!" are they really telling the truth?
The answer to each of those questions is of course no. 
As a matter of historical fact slaves were not well fed and did not enjoy decent lodgings. Some of the people who were there at the time reported that the slaves didn't enjoy the finer things in life, to put it mildly. Abigail Adams, First Lady during the construction of the White House, had this to say concerning slavery
The effects of Slavery are visible every where; and I have amused myself from day to day in looking at the labour of 12 negroes from my window, who are employd with four small Horse Carts to remove some dirt in front of the house. the four carts are all loaded at the same time, and whilst four carry this rubish about half a mile, the remaining eight rest upon their Shovels, Two of our hardy N England men would do as much work in a day as the whole 12, but it is true Republicanism that drive the Slaves half fed, and destitute of cloathing, or fit for  to labour, whilst the owner waches about Idle, tho his one Slave is all the property he can boast, Such is the case of many of the inhabitants of this place
So Bill O'Reilly was wrong. And the people who were enslaved also didn't seem to have much positive to share about the experience:
I have known him to cut and slash the women's heads so horribly, that even master would be enraged at his cruelty, and would threaten to whip him if he did not mind himself. Master, however, was not a humane slaveholder. It required extraordinary barbarity on the part of an overseer to affect him. He was a cruel
man, hardened by a long life of slaveholding. He would at times seem to take great pleasure in whipping a slave. I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood. No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest. He would whip her to make her scream, and whip her to make her hush; and not until overcome by fatigue, would he cease to swing the blood-clotted cowskin.
I remember the first time I ever witnessed this horrible exhibition. I was quite a child, but I well remember it. I never shall forget it whilst I remember any thing. It was the first of a long series of such outrages, of which I was doomed to be a witness and a participant. It struck me with awful force. It was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass. It was a most terrible spectacle. I wish I could commit to paper the feelings with which I beheld it.
But the historical fact of slavery's reality is less interesting to me here than the fact O'Reilly and people who think as he does constantly feel the need to minimize the horror of slavery. It doesn't matter how well I treat you if I have a chain attached to you at all times and promise to beat or kill you if you ever displease me. And I or my children will do the same to your children and your children's children. Would O'Reilly sign up for that life? Would you? No you would not even if I fed you well and gave you particularly fluffy pillows to rest your head on at night.
Because slavery's sin is not just in the maltreatment of slaves, horrific though that was. The primary sin is in owning another human being the way one owns an animal. It's the elimination of someone's humanity and the reduction of them to nothing more than a piece of meat to be used for labor or breeding. My suspicion is that O'Reilly probably saw the First Lady's comment as an attack on white people and wanted to respond. Or maybe some of his ancestors owned slaves. Or maybe deep down inside despite his protestations O'Reilly has a guilty conscience. I don't know. The point is that O'Reilly's statements are part of a long history of people trying to paper over or dismiss the horrors of American slavery. Either they don't think that slavery was all that bad or they resent black people bringing it up. Slavery is one of America's original sins. No one today bears responsibility but the evil of slavery continues to bear toxic fruit. And it will likely do so for many more years. The country will never get past it as long as some people offer backhand defenses of slavery.

ObamaCare Revisited: Premiums Go Up

Surprise, Surprise Surprise! The premiums for most 2017 ObamaCare policies will go up even higher than expected. For example some non-profit companies are considering 60% premium increases

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas, which has about half the state’s exchange customers, wants to increase premiums almost 60 percent for 2017. Scott and White Health Plan wants to ratchet up premiums over 30 percent, and Cigna, 24 percent. Aetna and Oscar are planning double-digit increases, too. UnitedHealth, the country’s largest insurer, is pulling out of the exchange business in Texas and over a dozen other states. In justifying its rate increase to state regulators, the company said it paid $1.26 in claims for every $1 in premiums collected last year. For the state’s largest insurer, that resulted in a loss of $770 million in the individual marketplace. And Blue Cross is projecting another loss this year for its exchange business.

Every day there is a new story about this or that insurance company raising rates, leaving the exchanges or halting expansion plans.

Insurers want to crank up the cost of health insurance premiums by as much as 45 percent for Illinois residents who buy coverage through the Affordable Care Act's marketplace. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, the most popular insurer on the state's Obamacare exchange, is proposing increases ranging from 23 percent to 45 percent in premiums for its individual health-care plans, according to proposed 2017 premiums that were made public Monday. The insurer blamed the sought-after hikes mainly on changes in the costs of medical services.

Aetna (AET) said Tuesday it is canceling plans to expand into five more states next year and will reassess its involvement in the 15 states where it currently offers coverage on the individual exchanges. Aetna -- which expects to lose $300 million (pre-tax) on its Obamacare business this year -- must conclude its review by the end of September and notify states where it intends to withdraw.
" light of updated 2016 projections for our individual products and the significant structural challenges facing the public exchanges, we intend to withdraw all of our 2017 public exchange expansion plans, and are undertaking a complete evaluation of future participation in our current 15-state footprint," said CEO Mark Bertolini in a second-quarter earnings statement.

More health care co-ops are failing. We now know that it is not possible to offer gender specific free services to half of the population, prevent insurance companies from charging age or gender based actuarially accurate insurance rates, force insurance companies to cover anyone with preexisting conditions, increase reporting requirements and transaction costs and still make premiums drop by $2500 for a family of four. Who knew?  Who could have guessed this? Wow! If only someone realized that despite good intentions it's not possible to revoke the law of supply and demand. If only someone could have pointed out that insurance packages priced for older people or those with families or chronic conditions will lack allure to younger people, childless people, single people or healthy people. And so, all else equal, those people won't buy overpriced policies. Or they will game the system to get coverage when they're sick and drop it later. So it goes. I just hope that the next time someone demands that the federal government do something right now because we have an "emergency", that we realize that not all of those opposed are inbred mouth breathing bigots who take perverse prideful pleasure in preventing policy progress. Some are obviously. But others really have examined the facts and reached different conclusions. The people who predicted that contrary to the President's claims, that all else equal exchange and individual deductibles and premiums would rise, not fall, were correct. The PPACA supporters were wrong. This bears repeating. One side was right. The other side was wrong. Sometimes even a broken clock is right. This doesn't mean that PPACA detractors were right about all aspects of the law. They weren't. PPACA supporters can still argue that there were several other reasons to endorse the PPACA. I don't say no to that. But cost of coverage for people who are not 100% subsidized wasn't one of them.
It's not simply a question of loving or hating the President, his political party or his rivals. This is an empirical issue now. People on the exchanges who are not completely subsidized will pay more for health insurance. Unless they all happen to come into inheritances, get themselves a Sugar Daddy or obtain job promotions with salary increases outpacing their increased insurance costs, they will need to make cutbacks elsewhere. Presumably, they won't like that. Some may drop the policies. And although those customers who are subsidized won't be paying the full increased cost, the government (which is to say the rest of us) will be. There's no such thing as a free lunch. Note that the President is not talking loudly about the PPACA cost benefits. Instead he's focusing on expanded coverage and the "moral rightness" of the PPACA. I've always said that the honest and fair policy decision would have been to directly raise income taxes to provide health care coverage for the needy. That path would have had fewer market dislocations. But what's done is done. The PPACA is here to stay for the near future, at least until it collapses under its own contradictions. If you are paying more for a policy on the exchange, I hope that you think it's worth it. Perhaps belatedly recognizing that PPACA cost increases are unpopular some PPACA supporters have retreated to their fallback position that things are fine because areas of the health care market that PPACA hasn't reached yet are doing well. This argument is unconvincing. I work in IT. I create and approve changes to critical company processes. If I delay or break my department year end processing I can't defend the resulting chaos by pointing to the other departments which I didn't wreck. Supervisors wouldn't be sympathetic to that line of reasoning. And the American public shouldn't be either. 

The next President will have the opportunity to make changes to the PPACA. He or she (most likely she) will need to take into account that people respond to incentives, good or bad. Just because it would be nice if people behaved in a way opposed to their economic best interest doesn't always mean they will. You can cajole them I guess but good luck with that. It would also be "nice" for PPACA diehards if companies just agreed to continue losing money for the greater good but life doesn't work that way. To paraphrase Bon Scott, even the kind man is going to ask his friends, what's in it for me? For too many people the answer in regards to ObamaCare will be not much.