Saturday, October 29, 2016

Movie Reviews: The Infiltrator

The Infiltrator
directed by Brad Furman
Sometimes I wonder about the employee vetting that is done by criminal organizations. It's true that that a middle manager in the organized crime syndicate GREED Inc. can't exactly call up his opposite number in FEAR LLC, and ask if the applicant sitting in front of him really did spend 4 years working in FEAR's murders and executions group and a productive fourteen months overseeing money laundering, import export tax fraud and various other white collar crimes in the Buenos Aires branch. FEAR likely doesn't keep the sort of hiring records and performance reviews that would be necessary to verify such claims. And FEAR might have little interest in sharing personnel information with GREED. All the same, in a milieu where trust is at a premium and various agencies are looking to put you in prison for utterly ridiculous amounts of time, I would think that if you were a criminal you'd want to make doggone sure that the people you're working with were also criminals and not say, U.S. Customs agents. So if someone gives you an Italian name and claims to be connected with certain important people in the New York underworld, wouldn't you try to find out if said person is telling the truth before you bring them into your inner circle and start doing business with them? Well maybe. But on the other hand a lot of criminals tend to be stupid, greedy and very short sighted. That's part of the reason that they are criminals in the first place. And drug use doesn't help. In the 1980s Florida based U.S. Customs Agent Bob Mazur (Bryan Cranston) is at the top of his game. During the day he busts bad guys. In the evening he goes home to his supportive wife Evelyn (Julie Aubry) and their two kids. There's a rather significant difference between Bob's kind helpful nature at home and his much sharper acerbic persona at work. That's probably not different than anyone who has to work though regardless of what their job entails.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Michigan: Michigan State Game

Michigan State has beaten Michigan in seven out of the last eight football games they've played. This has gotten Michigan's attention, perhaps even more so than the number one rivalry with Ohio State. In 2007 an ill-advised, albeit accurate off the cuff comment by former Michigan running back Mike Hart describing Michigan State as "little brother" enraged MSU players, coaches and fans. MSU head coach Mark Dantonio skillfully used that description to play up MSU's sense of resentment and puncture what some saw as Michigan's sense of entitlement. Since 2008, MSU has routinely taken Michigan to the woodshed and given them a whupping. With one or two exceptions the games were not as competitive as the final scores indicated. MSU had better players: bigger, faster, stronger, smarter and meaner. And MSU had the better coach. Former Michigan coaches Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke were mostly hapless against the sharper Dantonio.  For eight years I've had to hear it from relatives or friends who attended Michigan State. Eight long years. Finally the powers that be at my alma mater noticed that the former rivalry game was on the verge of becoming irrelevant. Dantonio's constant jibes probably helped with that process. Michigan hired former San Francisco Forty Niners (and Stanford) coach and U-M alum Jim Harbaugh, making him the highest paid coach in college football.  In his second year Harbaugh currently has the undefeated Michigan Wolverines ranked at #2 in the nation.  Although he has yet to beat the Spartans, Harbaugh has turned around the Michigan football program more quickly than anticipated. Meanwhile, after a long run of success the Spartans have fallen on hard times. They are winless in the Big Ten and have lost five games in a row, including to such powderpuff programs as Maryland and Northwestern. Although nothing is sure in college football (remember MSU beat Michigan last year on the very last play of the game) this year's game between Michigan and Michigan State should see Michigan prevail. 

But I don't want to just prevail. No, no, no that would not do. Not by a long shot.

I want to stomp MSU into whimpering submission. I want to run up the score. I want to go for two after every touchdown. I want to burn down East Lansing and salt the smoldering remains, speaking metaphorically of course. I want to beat MSU so badly that children yet to be born speak in hushed whispers of the 2016 massacre. So hopefully we'll do that this Saturday and start the long overdue process of restoring U-M to its rightful place as Kings of the North and Champions of the West.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Mary J. Blige, Divorce and Money

I don't really keep up with Mary J. Blige. I am not a fan of her singing style. But I wouldn't deny that she has talent and has put the work in to get where she is in life. Like a lot of different people in life she's come to the end of her road with her special someone. It doesn't matter who you are or how much money you make it's got to hurt when, to paraphrase Sam Kinison, your significant other comes home and tells you that s/he doesn't want to share anything with you any more and must drink a six pack each night to keep from decapitating you. Such is life though. If you live long enough that or something similar to that will happen to you. Now if a couple married young and worked and sacrificed and supported each other as they built a fast food franchise that morphed into a real estate empire that purchased a bank that later took over a professional sports team then they really did create something together. If they split in their later years, each person should get 50% of the value of all their businesses. Or if not 50% it should be pretty doggone close. But when one person in a marriage has the job of making all of the money and the other person has the job of spending all of the money I don't think there should be an even split of marital assets upon divorce. I think that just because someone once did something kind or ran through walls for their partner doesn't mean that he or she needs to keep doing that once the thrill is gone. And although I do tend to be more traditional in some aspects I feel this way regardless of the sex of the partner seeking to be taken care of post-marriage. There are lots of things that men and women do for each other when they're in love that are no longer done once the love is gone. That's just human nature. I don't think you can change that. I don't think that you can or rather I don't think that you should force people to continue doing those things with someone that they currently hate. Kendu Isaacs, who is being divorced by Mary J. Blige, is requesting a reported $129,319 in monthly spousal support. 

Kendu Isaacs lived a life of luxury during his marriage to Mary J. Blige, and he is determined to keep it going. Earlier this year, Blige filed for divorce from her husband of 12 years, and on Monday, Isaacs asked a judge to grant him temporary spousal support. But Isaacs wasn’t just Blige’s husband; he was also her manager—until she fired him after filing for divorce. Isaacs claims that Blige made between $1.5 million and $5.1 million over the last two years. Isaacs also insists that although a prenuptial agreement was signed, he did so without having a lawyer present. LINK

As you might imagine the former Mrs. Isaacs doesn't quite see the logic of her dear hubby's request. No. Not at all.

Mary J. Blige starts her concerts by displaying images of tabloid headlines covering her estranged husband's request for nearly $130,000 in spousal support in an attempt to embarrass him, her ex claims in their on-going divorce battle. Martin 'Kendu' Isaacs, 49, believes the R&B songstress is on a 'public campaign to destroy' his reputation, as well as 'shame' and 'financially suffocate him'. The singer 'opens her show by displaying various images of tabloids pertaining to this dissolution in an attempt to paint herself as the victim and Mr. Isaacs as the villain', according to court documents obtained by LINK

The couple has been married since 2003 so I don't think you could automatically claim that this was a short term fling where the non-famous person was just trying to grab the famous person's money. All the same though I would, were a judge, have a great deal of difficulty accepting anyone of sound mind and body claiming his ex-wife owed him $130K/month because he got used to the lifestyle she provided. Women may be the gender that's stereotypically more likely to do this but in my view it's wrong no matter which gender does it. Isaacs should get a small settlement because that's what the law allows. He should not get anything approaching $130,000/month. He's grown. He can and should take care of himself. If I were the judge I would give him one hundred thousand total and a CD of his wife's greatest hits. I don't think that divorce should be something that enriches anyone. If I were running this case Mr. Isaacs would just have to learn to live on his own abilities and talents. And I would say the same to women trying to do what Isaacs is doing.

Time to turn on the heat?

When do you turn on the central heating in your home? Or if you don't have central heating when do you start loading up fireplaces and turning on space heaters? Because I grew up in Michigan I like to think that I am inured to the cold. So I usually don't turn on the heat until the thermostat in the house is below 45 degrees or until mid-November, which ever comes first. It would appear however, judging by the plumes of white vapor I see rising from some homes in my neighborhood during my early morning walks, that not everyone feels that way. We are in fall; temperatures are dropping. I believe the nightly lows have lately been just above freezing. Smart or kind people are bringing in their dogs from the backyards. I was tempted to turn on the heat a few days ago but then I remembered how much I truly hate giving money to the local utility. In January and February when it's truly cold, I will be paying the utility hundreds of dollars a month. That's no fun. So not only would I rather delay the financial damage as long as possible but also because it's fall and not winter, temperatures can fluctuate dramatically. We're supposed to have highs of 70 degrees once or twice in the next ten days. So from my perspective there's not really a need to have the heat on just yet. If people get cold they can put on a sweater, drink some tea or burrow in under a quilt. When you pay your own bills you can finally answer that not so rhetorical question your parents asked you when you were ten and told them that you wanted to turn the heat up. You know the question. "Do you have turn the heat up money?". Then as now the answer was always no.The only exception to this no-heat policy before winter would obviously be guests and babies. A house guest should be made to feel as comfortable as possible while obviously a baby needs warmth. But growing up if I made the mistake of saying I was cold someone would almost certainly say that they had some work for me to do which would take my mind off of the temperature. That was also the same answer I got if I ever said I was bored. Hmm. So I think I will stick to my no-heat policy just as long as I can. I like the current low bills I get from my utility company.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Book Reviews: Waking Up Screaming

Waking Up Screaming
by H.P. Lovecraft
H.P. Lovecraft was probably the most influential horror writer of the 20th century. His influence has touched people as disparate as Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Anne Rice, Poppy Z. Brite, Neil Gaiman, Brian Lumley, John Carpenter, Clive Barker, and many many more. Despite his posthumous fame, Lovecraft made very little money during his life. None of his books was ever published during his lifetime. His primary source of income was writing for pulp magazines, which paid little and not regularly. Lovecraft died of cancer, though the poverty derived starvation may have gotten him first. Lovecraft's primary work was done in short stories though he also created a few novellas and novels. Calling Lovecraft a horror novelist is far too limiting. Probably it is more accurate to call him a creator of weird fiction. Horror, sci-fi and just strange goings on all are found in all of his stories. Lovecraft was a peculiar man who professed to be indifferent to sex. His ex-wife famously said that Lovecraft was "adequate" in the boudoir. Also, even for his time and social/gender group Lovecraft was extremely racist. Just being around those he considered to be his biological and social inferiors could leave him in a quivering rage. So those elements occasionally came through in his stories. Heck some scholars believe that those personal failings are what drove and inspired Lovecraft. You can either deal with that or not. Beautiful flowers can grow from some ugly s***. Women are rarely found in Lovecraft's fictional creations and never as protagonists. Non-whites?  The less said about that the better I think. Let's move along. Anyhow, Waking Up Screaming is (mostly) a collection of Lovecraft's short stories which is tilted towards his early period. If you haven't ever read anything by Lovecraft before this could be a good place to satisfy your curiosity. He had a very distinctive prose style, one that is extremely descriptive, too much so at times. Lovecraft never met an adjective or adverb he didn't like. And the more out of the ordinary or antiquated the word was the more likely Lovecraft was to use it. Lovecraft was, as mentioned, something of a reactionary who thought that the US might have made a mistake separating from the United Kingdom. Lovecraft was a big fan of the 18th century and no doubt would have been happier living during that time.  What Lovecraft didn't like in his writing was dialogue. This can make his writing hard to get through at times. A great many of his protagonists are men such as Lovecraft saw himself, sensitive souls who may go mad when they discover or are forced to confront some other dimensional horror or worse some secret from their past.

The secret from the past and biological determinism were big themes in Lovecraft's work. They are what drive the short story "Arthur Jermyn" and the short novel "The Shadow Over Innsmouth". The latter story also manages to throw in Lovecraft's dislike for seafood. Actually the latter story is a catchall for all of Lovecraft's fears, including but not limited to immigration, what was then called miscegenation, and what Lovecraft saw as the decline of the old American nation. In "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" the narrator says that he will tell the true story of why the US Federal government attacked the Massachusetts seaport of Innsmouth, burned down much of it and arrested or killed many of its inhabitants.  The novel "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" tells us what happens when a naive young man gets too interested in his ancestor's strange history. Some things can reach out from the past and not let go. "The White Ship" finds Lovecraft in full Dunsany mode. It's truly a wondrous piece of writing that will make you look for the magic in your own life. "From Beyond" finds Lovecraft using the advances in physics to imagine worlds which are close to us but which we'd be better off not knowing about."The Lurking Fear" could almost read as a satire of what urbanized New Englanders or other East Coasters think of their less well off countrymen in the weird places of upstate New York. How many horror stories today still use rural people as  a signifier of degradation and danger? "Cool Air" tells us of a doctor who insists that his dwelling be kept as cold as possible.  He has a good reason for that. This short story also uses one of Lovecraft's favorite tricks of revealing the shock/secret in the very last sentence of the story. "Herbert West-Reanimator" is Lovecraft's version of the Frankenstein story, though it is marred in my view by severe ethnic and racial hatreds. "The Temple" discusses a WWI German U-Boat Captain who sees things underwater which can not possibly exist. "The Hound" is a straightforward gothic horror story that shows Lovecraft's debt to Poe. All in all this collection is a fair introduction to Lovecraft for those who haven't read him or a good pickup for those Lovecraft fans who may be missing a few of the stories included within.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Fun and Games in Michigan: False Accusations and No Nonsense Judges

It shouldn't matter but because people often jump to conclusions based on misunderstanding or disliking an argument I would like to point out that I do know people who have been sexually assaulted or molested. It's a horrible crime, almost as bad as murder. As we recently noted the seriousness of sexual assault shouldn't be minimized. But in a time where people are judging movies by what crimes their directors were acquitted of or trying to decide if a Presidential candidate assaulted women, it is important to remember that although we don't like to admit it, some women really do lie about sexual assault. There is debate as to how frequently this occurs. Most reputable studies suggest that only a small percentage of accusations are ever proven to be false. Just because some women lie doesn't mean most women do. In this recent story Leiha Artman lied about being raped and kidnapped. The lie was evidently detected before someone was arrested, charged and convicted. So from what I can tell right now no unfortunate soul who "fit the description" was hauled into court based on Artman's lies. Contrary to the current zeitgeist, women are just as capable of immoral behavior as men are. Just because someone makes a charge doesn't mean that the charge is true. If someone denies a charge or vigorously defends himself we can't assume his actions indicate hatred of women or promotion of rape. Our justice system hinges on the idea that the burden of proof is on the person making the accusation. No one is entitled to be believed automatically without evidence. There are all sorts of reasons someone would lie about being the victim of a horrible crime. To reach the truth it's imperative that the hypothesis that a crime was committed be challenged, tested, poked and prodded. Nothing is perfect. There will be some guilty people who go free and some innocent people who go to jail or prison. In some cases we'll never know what happened. And beyond reasonable doubt doesn't mean beyond all doubt. But ideally our system is designed to minimize the number of innocent people who are convicted. I am glad that in this case the criminal is going to jail. If anything I think her sentence is too light. She could have gotten six years. I definitely would want to give her a sentence that would impress upon her the wrongness of her actions.

A mother has been jailed for making up an elaborate kidnap story claiming she was abducted and raped by four black men. Leiha Artman from Muskegon, Michigan, claimed she was abducted when the men stopped to ask her for directions while she stood in the driveway of her home in March.

The 25-year-old said they threw her in the trunk of their car, beat and sexually assaulted her. During the two days she was missing, her boyfriend received photographs of her in which she appeared gagged, bound and bleeding from the head. She was sentenced to one year behind bars on Wednesday after admitting to one count of making a false report of a felony.

Artman has a 2014 conviction for resisting and opposing a police officer, as well as a felony breaking and entering a building conviction in 2007 when she was a juvenile. She also was sentenced in June to two days in jail and 12 months probation for financial transaction device fraud.
Artman was sentenced in Oceana County in February 2015 for larceny less than $200 and agreed to testify against a co-defendant in return for the dismissal of a breaking and entering a building, the Oceana County Press reported
Fortunately I have not had reason to spend much time in courtrooms. However I have noticed that judges as a group can be very possessive of what they call "their courtrooms". Technically that courtroom belongs to the people but society has given judges a tremendous amount of leeway to regulate behavior in the courtroom. Getting into an argument with someone who can send you to jail or prison just because he or she doesn't like your looks or attitude isn't very smart. Jacob Larsen, an accused stalker and definite big mouth, forgot that needlessly irritating a judge when you are in his court, is a sub-optimum choice.

JACKSON, MI – Clearly growing agitated, Jackson County Circuit Judge John McBain threw off his robe and helped tackle to the ground a defiant man during a hearing on a personal protection order violation.

"Tase his ass right now," the judge shouted as he rushed toward Jacob Larson, who had been talking back to the judge and blamed his alleged stalking behavior on the woman he was pursuing. McBain had ordered the man to spend three days in jail, a period that quickly jumped to 93 days as Larson continued to aggravate the judge during the December hearing.

The resulting takedown was a rare instance of a judge using physical force, one Jackson County Chief Circuit Judge Thomas Wilson said was allowable. "A judge has the power to take whatever action is necessary to maintain order in the courtroom," he said and noted circuit court judges have arresting powers.
Wilson had seen the court recording of the hearing, but there is no review process for such incidents, he said. When McBain's court officer went to take Larson into custody, he resisted. McBain said he was "hand fighting" the officer, Jared Schultz, then a deputized law clerk. Larson would not cooperate, tensed up and made a fist as though he was trying to fight, said Schultz, now working for the state Court of Appeals. McBain noted that he "pretty clearly and unequivocally" warned Larson to avoid contact with the woman.
"She's instigating it," Larson replied and talked about pictures she posted wearing a lot of makeup and with her "hair done and all that stuff, the full nine." He repeatedly made statements about how she would not directly tell him to leave her alone.
Speaking of sexual crimes, let's not forget that this nonsense all could have been avoided in the first place if Larson had stopped contacting his stalking victim either when she asked or when the judge told him to do so. If someone asks you to stop talking to them or sending them emails or calling them or bothering them then you should probably do that. But some people always want to do things the hard way. So it goes. A hard head makes a soft behind.


Saturday, October 15, 2016


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeoning of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul

This is a favorite poem of mine. William Ernest Henley wrote this poem in 1875 when thanks to tuberculosis he had to have one leg amputated. He narrowly avoided losing his remaining leg. So, presumably as a way to avoid saying "why me?" for the rest of his life (Henley lived another 28 years after the amputation), he wrote this poem. It wasn't the only work he ever did but it was his best known work. It's something that has touched people who are motivated by good (Mandela) and evil (Timothy McVeigh). The bottom line is that we all have to make our own decisions in life. And no matter what happens in life we have to keep on going. Though this poem has a grim determination to it I don't think you have to lose a leg, spend 27 years unjustly imprisoned, or blow up a government building to find inspiration in these words. There's nothing guaranteed to us in life so there's no point in crying about your losses. You might as well get up when you get knocked down. After all what else are you going to do? The important thing to remember is that each of us gets to make our own moral choices. You should never let anyone warp or remove your moral barometer. 

Ben Carson Puts His Foot In His Mouth Defending Trump

Let's say you're a campaign surrogate. If people are constructing what you believe is a false narrative around your candidate you must defend your candidate in a way that destroys that narrative. If your candidate is accused of hating black people you can't dismiss that narrative by saying "My candidate loves the darkies! And you won't find a n*****r that says otherwise!" So if your candidate is accused of behaving nastily towards women it's probably not a good idea for the campaign to send out a surrogate who's going to fight with women media figures and ask the male tv host if he would turn off the women's microphones or put a plug in their mouths. Just saying. I don't believe that if you think that a woman is being unfair, rude or dishonest that you need to accept her behavior or her premises. Not at all. In the media Octagon everyone is fair game. But there is a rather large range of verbal choices between "Here's why you're wrong Miss So-n-So" and "Someone shut this witch up so I can speak, dammit!" Unfortunately Trump campaign loony surrogate Dr. Ben Carson, showing more aggression on behalf of Trump than he ever did for his own Presidential candidacy, probably did more on MSNBC to advance the idea that Trump did some of the things of which he is accused than convince people that Trump was falsely accused. Dr. Carson was an enormously skilled neurosurgeon but he has poor political instincts. Having Carson defending you or explaining away accusations against you doesn't work. He's like a fireman who tries to extinguish a fire with gasoline. Trump is verbally pugnacious and belligerent. Carson seems to have picked up his new friend's traits. But you need to understand when, where and how to fight. If you don't get that, as Carson and Trump apparently don't, you run the risk of turning off Republican women who would otherwise vote for you. When you're baited into saying that it doesn't matter if Trump's accusers are telling the truth you probably should stop and review your moves to see how you wound saying something so stupid. Because you're not serving your candidate's interests. You're serving his rival's interests. 

The Democratic journalist Nina Burleigh once said that she would, sexual harassment and rape allegations notwithstanding, be happy to provide [service] to President Clinton for keeping abortion legal. She went on to say that in her opinion all American women should be lining up with their kneepads on to show their gratitude to President Clinton. Burleigh obviously had other concerns besides President Clinton's guilt or innocence. She was pilloried for her comments by conservatives. Now some of those same conservatives, who spoke with disdain about Democrats privileging political goals and party loyalty over personal morality, are doing the same thing. The more things change, the more they stay the same. So it goes.

Book Reviews: When The Thrill Is Gone, Assassin's Code

When The Thrill Is Gone
by Walter Mosley
When I call from work and the phone is busy/I never never never ask who was on the line
When I get home late she don't ask any questions/Cause she's got her thing going on and you know I got mine - One Big Unhappy Family Isaac Hayes
This Leonid McGill mystery novel reminded me of the above Isaac Hayes song about a married couple who stay together for some bad reasons. The book's title references the title of one of B.B. King's best known songs. That song tells the story of a man who informs his woman that her magic doesn't work on him any more. Although he's hurt by her infidelity and will be lonely without her he's leaving for good. In Mosley's book there's a great sense of weariness that the protagonist, a private eye trying with varying degrees of success to live a moral life, expresses. Leonid is thinking a lot about his deceased father. Leonid is constantly remembering things that his father told him and weighing them against how the world really works. Even though Leonid has stayed married to his beautiful blonde middle aged wife Katrina it's an open question as to why. Leonid tells himself that he stays with Katrina for the children but that's probably no longer true. The children, only one of whom is biologically Leonid's, are certainly old enough to realize that their mother and father don't have a happy marriage. Leonid knows that Katrina has taken up with a new man, someone who is only a few years older than her oldest son. Leonid even suspects that Katrina might be using some of the children to cover up her dalliances. Leonid might view his indulgence for Katrina's infidelity as well deserved punishment for his past evil acts. He might turn a blind eye to her running around because being old, short and stout he could struggle to find a woman of Katrina's beauty. Or most likely Leonid doesn't care about Katrina's cheating because Leonid has his own extra-marital interests, most notably his on-again off-again girlfriend/friend with benefits/muse Aura. Regardless of his disconnect with Katrina, who paradoxically is very friendly with Leonid now that another mule is kicking in her stall, Leonid still wants to protect his family. His biological son Dmitri is pining for a foreign femme fatale. Leonid's favorite son, Twill, is getting involved in less than legit activities. Leonid tries to keep an eye on him but Twill is elusive. Twill may not share any DNA with Leonid but Twill definitely has his "father's" ability to shade the truth, keep numerous plans in the air all at once, manipulate people to his advantage, play rough if need be and avoid direct answers whenever possible. If he didn't worry about Twill so doggone much Leonid might admire him more. 

But Leonid must put all of that domestic unpleasantness on the back burner when a beautiful brown skin woman named Chrystal Tyler enters his office and tells him that she believes her husband, an old money billionaire real estate recluse named Cyril Tyler, has lost interest in her and will have her murdered. Cyril's previous two wives died under very mysterious circumstances. Chrystal has heard on the street that Leonid is the kind of man who can make things happen..bad things. Leonid tells her that he's not that kind of man any more but that he will go talk to Cyril, just to get the lay of the land as it were. Leonid needs the money that Chrystal offers. And he knows she's lying about something. He's intrigued. Leonid also gets involved in another case. An old family "friend" who just so happens to be a major power in the Chicago Outfit is asking for a favor. Leonid would normally decline as he's all too aware of what sort of man "Uncle Harry" has become. But having burned a few too many political bridges lately Leonid could stand to have someone powerful owe him one. Uncle Harry swears that this favor won't involve the sort of work Leonid used to do. Out of respect for Leonid's deceased father Uncle Harry is asking nicely...this time.
Leonid goes off into the netherworld where crime, politics and romantic needs all dance together. Many people are lying to him, something  which is normal in his line of work. The police would still like to put him in prison, some for good reason, others just because. Leonid is something of a knight errant. Having been bullied himself in institutions he hates bullies. Leonid often takes risks for strangers. He's secretly helping people he framed. Hurt a woman or child in front of him and you will wish you hadn't. Leonid's age, short stature and less than svelte physique cause opponents to underestimate him. But not every challenge can be overcome by Leonid's impressive boxing/street fighting skills. I really enjoyed Mosley's prose. An example reads: "I believed the young assistant but still had the urge to grab him and hold him over the side of the building just to hear him yelp and beg. This desire caused me, not for the first time, to wonder at my own motivations of late." Wrath and Lust are not only deadly sins but they can also blind us to other people's legitimate needs, something which Leonid will discover repeatedly. 

Although Leonid is a force to be reckoned with I appreciated his (boxing-derived) awareness of his own vulnerabilities. Walking down a dark street with his friend Leonid makes a joke at his friend's expense. However this friend happens to be a semi-retired assassin and serial killer with almost no sense of humor. Leonid suddenly and fervently hopes that his lethal buddy can see the absurdity which Leonid was trying to illuminate. This was a good read. It's not overly violent or crass. It feels real. Sometimes Leonid just sits down and thinks about nothing in particular. I haven't been to New York City in decades but the city feels like a character in this book. Ultimately this is not just a detective story but an examination of how we repair the hurt in our own lives and the lives of those we love. That's not easy to do, especially if we are trying to live morally.

Assassin's Code
by Jonathan Maberry
This book is number four in a series. I reviewed book two here. I don't want to repeat what I already wrote. This story started a little slowly but once it picked up I didn't want to put this book down. I wouldn't call it formulaic because people see that as an insult. But you know what you're going to get when you read a book in this series: a good solid bio-thriller in which there's usually, however convoluted, a plausible scientific explanation for things which appear supernatural. Maberry tells the story in a mix of first and third person. The super secret executive branch agency known as the Department of Military Science or DMS is run by the icy man known only as Mr. Church and his second in command, the acerbic Aunt Sally. Both Mr. Church and Sally have secrets known only to each other. They each have many contacts throughout the world of intelligence and secret military operations. The first person portions of the book are told through the POV of Captain Joe Ledger, a relatively new recruit to the DMS and leader of the most effective strike team. To the extent that Mr. Church likes anyone, which isn't much, he seems to like Joe. Sally thinks Joe is a psychopath waiting to explode. Joe Ledger and his team have bloodlessly rescued some American hikers from Iran. Iran claimed the youngsters were spies. While Joe is preparing to leave Iran he's contacted by a leader in Iran's intelligence services and forcibly given information about a number of nuclear bombs hidden throughout the Middle East and elsewhere. Someone is trying to start a nuclear holocaust by inciting the world's nuclear powers to start warring against one another. Or maybe someone else is attempting to make a killing in the energy market. Either way the Iranian spymaster hopes that Joe can use this information to find and prevent the bombs from going off. This man avoids answering Joe's questions about why doesn't he just take this information to his own government instead of coming to Joe. Joe and especially Mr. Church and Sally don't take anything for granted. If you told them the sky is blue they'd want at least five different independent confirmations. And they'd want them five minutes ago.

Joe's suspicions prove to be well founded. The DMS discovers or stumbles across an interlocking web of coincidences and conspiracies that go back to the First Crusade. Someone is trying to play them, even at the possible cost of a nuclear winter. There are a number of suspects, including a rogue DMS member, rival intelligence agencies, various governments and some super secret religious organizations with disturbingly pragmatic moral guidelines. Joe and his team will be stretched to their physical limits. There's real danger here. Although Joe is a well trained martial artist and former Army Ranger with a leashed hidden berserker side, he's dismayed to barely emerge alive from a knockdown dragout fight with a strange red eyed man who's far stronger and quicker than any man should be. Joe only lived because of a beautiful woman's intervention. This woman, Violin, may or may not be on Joe's side. She has her own interests. And when Mr. Church advises orders Joe to disengage and run away from fights where any red-eyed men or "Red Knights" are involved Joe wants to know why. Because the Ledgers didn't raise their son to run from any fight. And Mr. Church, a surrogate father as much as a boss, has never told Joe to run before. Joe is in a worse mood than usual throughout the book because he's still processing the death of his great love, Grace. And people are even trying to kill his white German Shepherd, Ghost. Joe doesn't tolerate that. 

Once you get past the first few chapters and the early 11th-12th century flashbacks, this story moves quickly. It will appeal equally to action junkies, mystery and history buffs and conspiracy theorists. It is not necessary to have read the previous books to enjoy this one though I suppose it helps here or there. There are a few missteps and stereotypes but nothing overtly malicious.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Trump's Crude Talk About Women

The murder rate is rising. In a slowly improving economy the unemployment rate is ticking up. Russia just made a not so veiled threat against American armed forces in Syria. Another black man was shot dead by the police. The President's signature domestic achievement is undergoing an accelerating implosion, just as predicted here and here. Even the President himself admitted that ObamaCare needed some changes. More illegal immigrants have (allegedly) committed murder. The President, rebuffed twice(!) by the Supreme Court in his attempt to give illegal immigrants legal status and work permits, has nonetheless decided to suspend deportations for the latest round of illegal immigrants arriving from Central and South America (as long as they aren't Haitian). China continues to move forward on its claim to the entire South China Sea. Israel, despite literally unprecedented US financial and military assistance, continues its occupation and settlement of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza. In short there are a LOT of things going on in the world which will impact the standing of the US as a nation and have effects for good or ill on the lives of US citizens. And yet the big news of the day is that in 2005 Donald Trump made some crude nasty profane comments about women that he wanted to sleep with or failed to sleep with. Some of these women were married at the time as was Trump. Here I should probably state again that although I'm not going to discuss which candidate I'm going to vote for it certainly won't be Donald Trump. I despise him. All the same I believe there are plenty of issues to discuss in the debates and among the electorate that are at least as important as what a horny slimeball said in a private conversation eleven years ago. Maybe it's just me but I am given to understand that when men are in all male environments their talk can often turn to women. Shocking I know. And though I have no way to independently verify this information I have heard that women in all female groups sometimes talk about men in a manner that is rather less than ladylike. Imagine that. If you are stunned or surprised by Trump's filthy talk then you haven't been paying attention to what sort of man he is. Does his talk disqualify him for the Presidency? The voters will decide. He certainly wouldn't be the first President to use that sort of language. I think the sort of people who are likely to vote for Trump have already made their peace with the fact that he is a boorish crude man who sees unrelated women primarily in terms of their attractiveness to him. They may not be worried about a President who wants to grab women by their (insert bad word). Apparently Trump's marriage vows were restraints on his wife's sex life, not his. This video is intended to hurt Trump with that group of college educated suburban Republican white women who aren't crazy about Clinton but don't like Trump's persona. Will this video close the door on Trump's candidacy. I don't think so. But it will drag the race even further into the gutter. But with Trump as a candidate could it be otherwise? If Trump is truly surprised that this sort of stuff is coming out it again shows that he's not very smart. Watch video below.

Movie Reviews: The Conjuring 2

The Conjuring 2
directed by James Wan
This movie is not really all that different from the first installment but in this case that is a good thing. If you have reached a saturation point for gratuitous violence and sex in horror movies then this film series is for you. Wan continues to show that you can scare people and more importantly tell a good story without constant blood flow and barely covered heaving mammaries. Not that there's anything wrong with those things of course. Obviously though the previous sentence assumes that you are a horror film fan. If you aren't a horror fan this movie might leave you cold. Even so it's nice to see a horror movie get solid actors/actresses like Farmiga and Wilson to play leads. Their presence and competence give the film a certain gravitas that too often eludes works in this genre. What are the things that scare us most? Among the top three are probably death, being alone and darkness. You could argue that the second item in that list is just a subset of the first in many aspects. Even the most introverted among us still needs some human contact. That's why solitary confinement is a punishment. And death is the cessation of our existence and the ending of human contact-at least on this plane of existence. What could be scarier than that? And as animals whose primary sense is vision, we find it disconcerting to be in complete darkness. The primary method by which we experience information no longer works. Our sense of what's real or not can be shaky. The Conjuring 2 uses all of these primal fears to tell a frightening story of haunting and possession.  You're alone in the dark and someone who is dead is talking to you. Sound like fun?

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Book Reviews: The Bone Labyrinth

The Bone Labyrinth
By James Rollins
This is another installment in a series of thrillers but believe me when I tell you that it's really not necessary to have read the previous books. This book stands alone. I thought that the introduction and first few portions of the story were pretty enjoyable but that the story dragged in the middle. Because this was a very long book I felt that the story could have been cut rather dramatically without losing the good parts. If you like mysteries, thrillers and stories that feature ancient historical whodunit conspiracies this book is solid reading-for at least the first third of the book. The Bone Labyrinth reads as if Michael Crichton and Dan Brown sat down to write together. It's unusual in that instead of making the bad guys inhuman, Russian or Muslim the author draws upon his own unpleasant experiences in a Chinese zoo as well as some of the nastier aspects of Chinese culture to make some very mean Chinese villains. I didn't get any feel of serious xenophobia from this but of course YMMV. The villains aren't cartoon characters. However this is definitely not a book which will be made into a movie directed at Chinese audiences. Rollins doesn't mince words about his disdain for dictatorships with no respect for human rights or life. As the author writes in the book and has stated in real life, the US might want to rethink a university system that instead of concentrating on the education of American citizens, is awarding a sizable proportion of advanced science, math and engineering degrees to foreign nationals, particularly Chinese. This has the impact of funding our own economic and political competition as well as leaving ourselves needlessly vulnerable to various security risks both public and private. The author has also been a veterinarian. Throughout the story, Rollins provides sympathetic description of how animals and humans interact with each other. If you like animals there will be a great deal of tugging at your heart strings interspersed in this story. If you don't like animals or have a tendency to only see them as a means to an end then much of this book may seem a bit mawkish to you. All the same I think it is worthwhile to think about the millions of species who share the planet with us and what our responsibility is to them.

Because the book's plot dominates and almost annihilates characterization it's really not important to discuss character names or their specific motivations. Two beautiful genius level twin female geneticists/archaeologists are on separate assignments in Atlanta and in Croatia. The one in Atlanta is working with a hybridized gorilla to find the limits of animal intelligence and perhaps the beginnings of human intelligence. Her sister is in Croatia where some very strange bones and other items have been found in a subterranean Catholic chapel. Both sisters are attacked; the one in Atlanta is shipped off to China along with her gorilla. The Chinese have been doing their own research into human intelligence. They've reached a point where they need the Atlanta geneticist's help for a stalled military project of their own. Or more precisely they have plans for her gorilla which don't necessarily require the gorilla's long term survival. The Chinese scientists and military personnel are completely without empathy when it comes to animals. The geneticist in Croatia initially avoids capture. The Chinese wanted to use her as a hostage to ensure her sister's good behavior as well as steal her current research. Not only does the geneticist avoid capture she, along with a Catholic priest and a few others, is pulled down the rabbit hole of coincidence, conspiracy, alternate history and unanswered questions about human nature. Sigma Force, a secret military team that answers to the Department of Defense, gets involved to rescue both women although as it turns out both sisters are pretty resourceful individuals all by themselves. We know that modern humans have been around for at least one hundred thousand years but we don't know what made us much smarter roughly 50,000 years ago in what some call the Great Leap Forward. We know that most people of European or East Asian descent have a higher percentage of Neanderthal ancestry than people from other parts of the world. We know that many religions or cultures have a story involving some sort of great flood. Why do certain things in Earth and the Universe seem uniquely positioned to support human life. What does all of this mean? Rollins provides some answers but raises more questions. One thing which several governments are doing or considering doing is to use animals for military research, something which Rollins seems to abhor. Although the Chinese are the specific baddies here all of the heroes admit to themselves that their governments likely would or are doing the same thing. All in all I thought this was an okay book but not something that was great. I didn't care about the characters very much but I was interested in the story.