Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Book Reviews: November Road

November Road
by Lou Berney
You may or may not believe that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman who murdered JFK and Officer Tippit before being murdered in turn by Jack Ruby. It is a fact that powerful mob bosses Carlos Marcello of New Orleans and Santo Trafficante Jr. of Tampa both despised JFK and his brother, Attorney General RFK. In 1962 and 1963 each boss made impassioned predictions (really threats) to their associates that JFK was going to be murdered soon and implied that they and/or their friends would have something to do with it.

Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby had tenuous connections to both southern Mob bosses. Ruby was also a low level flunky to the Chicago Outfit fronted by noted psychopath and JFK hater Sam Giancana. All three Mafia leaders were involved with the Cuban exile movement and CIA abortive attempts to murder Castro and invade Cuba. So there's a lot of smoke there. November Road asks the reader to imagine that there's not only smoke but also fire.

Frank Guidry is a loyal (well loyal to money and himself) lieutenant of New Orleans mob boss Carlos Marcello. Frank doesn't handle murder or any heavy work. Frank is a fixer and arranger. He greases the corruption wheels to get things done. Frank and Carlos go back. But Frank's first loyalty is to Frank. When an old friend pops up begging for Frank to hide him from Carlos' executioners, Frank offers help but promptly leaks his friend's location. Hey, people might have seen them together; Frank doesn't want any misunderstandings with the notoriously exacting and unforgiving Carlos. Frank wants to live, dammit! He may only have a life of empty hedonism but Frank believes that's better than the alternative.

However when another mob associate turns up very dead, Frank searches for some common denominators. The common thread is Dallas. 

Friday, January 25, 2019

Trump Caves: Will Open Government Without Wall Funding

As several people have noted Trump is not the big bad muyerfuyer he likes to pretend that he is. He talks a lot of smack and will certainly cheat or behave vindictively towards weaker people over whom he has power but like most bullies when faced with someone who punches back Trump scurries away. 

I knew this was coming when Trump backed down on the State of the Union Speech. Although politics is not a game, you can use game theory to predict results and determine next moves. And the fact is that Trump blinked first. Streets are watching. Everyone will remember this. The question is during the three weeks that the government is open, will Trump make good on his threat to declare a national emergency and build a wall without Congressional authorization? 

President Donald Trump and congressional leaders have reached a deal to reopen the government for three weeks and end the longest U.S. funding lapse ever, the president announced Friday. In remarks at the White House, Trump said he hopes to sign the measure as soon as Friday, the 35th day of the partial shutdown. It would restart government operations through Feb. 15 — without the money he has demanded for his proposed border wall. Trump said he expects Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will bring it to the Senate floor "immediately."

Wilbur Ross Says Stop Making Excuses!!

Some rich people believe that everyone is responsible for themselves and if you can't keep up with the pack, screw you. Now obviously not every rich person or conservative believes that. 

You could make a good argument that one of the reasons we have a President Trump is because of conservatives and other voters who specifically rejected a "free market" every man for himself and God against us all devil take the hindmost approach in favor of a more nationalist take care of our own approach - albeit one where "our own" implicitly and occasionally explicitly excludes people of the "wrong" race/religion/ethnic group. That may well be. But even so the primary concern of many economic elites wasn't even racism or sexism or any other ism. It was making more money and keeping more money at all costs. When you have millions of dollars and the aforementioned worldview, it's easy to forget that most Americans live paycheck to paycheck and are not millionaire. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross recently did this when he expressed surprise that federal workers were living paycheck to paycheck and having to go to food banks.

On Thursday morning, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross — a man whose extraordinarily shady financial history doesn’t get the attention it deserves — appeared on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” to talk about the government shutdown. He expressed bafflement at the idea of unpaid federal workers suffering financial hardship, wondering why they don’t just take out loans.

Movie Reviews: The Frighteners

The Frighteners
directed by Peter Jackson
This 1996 movie was rated R although today it's hard to see this as anything other than PG-13 fare at worst. There are a few chills and a couple of disturbing violent scenes but overall this film leans more towards the comedy spectrum of the horror-comedy mix. IIRC there is no nudity or even cleavage.  The bad guys are not celebrated. 

The camera rarely lingers lovingly on destroyed human bodies. This film shares some DNA with earlier Jackson works such as Dead Alive and even his later work in The Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit trilogies. Director tics that were a bit annoying later on were in this movie muted or even cute. YMMV on the comedy. This clearly could have been a much more serious and perhaps scarier film but that wasn't what Jackson decided to do. Some of the writing fell flat. Sometimes it looks as if Jackson told Chi McBride to "Be funny! You're a big black guy. That's funny right??!

This movie was Michael J Fox's last film before withdrawing from Hollywood because of the onset/impact of Parkinson's disease. This movie posits that the human soul is immortal and survives the death of the body. For whatever reason, good or bad, a small minority of humans don't go on to heaven or hell after they die. Perhaps they need to prove their goodness or evil; perhaps they have unfinished business on this plane or existence, perhaps they are scared of what lies beyond and just want to hang out here for a few centuries. 

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Movie Reviews: Halloween (2018)

Halloween (2018)
directed by David Gordon Green
This is a sequel to the 1978 movie that breezily ignores all the other sequels and reboots that took place in the meantime. It is a skilled sequel that manages to bring back some of the original's mystery and tension while updating some things for modern viewers. That was good. What was bad was that this was also a pretty heavy handed wannabe feminist interpretation (albeit one written by men) in which most of the female characters are competent and serious while almost all of the male characters are incompetent, stupid, clueless, sexually confused, corrupt or of course, murderous. YMMV with this. I just didn't think it was necessary. It was over the top in my opinion. 

Additionally how many people leave their doors unlocked or blinds open at night in our current environment? There's too much information out there about crime now for that to be a routine occurrence, or so I thought. But that might just be the normal horror movie convention. After all you can't have someone who gets slaughtered unless they do something stupid in the first place.

It's been forty years since Laurie Strode (Jaimie Lee Curtis) survived the massacre committed by Michael Myers (James Jude Courtney/Nick Castle). Laurie is AARP eligible but she's not ready to settle down and kick back. Laurie still suffers from PTSD and survivor's guilt. She's paranoid, likes to drink, and is something of a gun-nut survivalist. Laurie lives in a home with impressive security and spends a lot of free time shooting targets. 

Family Kicked Off Flight for Body Odor

I used to work with someone who had such destructive maleficent demonic body odor that people wouldn't want to come within 10 feet of him. It was that bad. In meetings where he would be present folks would do everything they could to avoid sitting next to him.

We all felt sorry for the poor schmuck who arrived late, couldn't find any other seat, and had to spend the next hour or so sitting next to this fellow and trying not to breathe. But we also all felt better him than me! 

We all have our own individual scents which are pleasing or displeasing to various people for a myriad of reasons. Culture can play a part as well. North American culture places a very high value on smelling "neutral" or "pleasant". Most of us do not walk or bicycle to work. Many work in air-conditioned offices. So there is less tolerance for body odors. And I am just fine with that!! There's no one who smells better at the end of a long stressful day than at the beginning of it. But when everyone across the board agrees that something really stinks, as it did with the man I am remembering, chances are there is a real problem. The person in question MIGHT need to go take a shower and actually use soap this time. When I saw this story I was reminded of my smelly former co-worker. If I could have kicked him out of the building, God help me I would have.

MIAMI - A family vacationing in Miami told Local 10 News they were booted from their flight after passengers complained about their body odor."There's no body odor that we have," Yossi Adler said Thursday morning at Miami International Airport. "There's nothing wrong with us."

Reggie Jackson photobombs Blake Griffin Interview

The Detroit Pistons are a bad team. The previous coach/GM Stan Van Gundy proved to be a horrible judge of talent, drafting poorly and overloading the team with bad contracts and incompatible players. Van Gundy was finally fired. The new coach, Dwane Casey is perhaps doing the best he can with what he has. The results haven't been good, though considering the talent level, perhaps Casey is a great coach. 

The one consistent bright spot has been once and future all star forward Blake Griffin, who has provided the only spark of hard play and serious talent. Griffin takes things seriously. Recently after a close win over the New Orleans Pelicans, Griffin was trying to explain how the Pistons need to mature, close games out better and generally stop messing around. Of course point guard Reggie Jackson could not help himself from bombing Griffin's interview and depicting exactly the sort of tomfoolery Griffin was excoriating.

As some older men in my family were fond of telling me, you can't soar with the eagles when you're hanging out with turkeys. I like Griffin, but if he wants to win he would be wise to get out of Detroit.

Australia Requires Back Door to Encrypted Communications

Let's say that you and a close friend or intimate created an impenetrable way of communicating with each other. No one else could understand it. Or perhaps you purchased a reinforced armored steel door for your home that can't be breached by anything short of a tank if the would be breacher lacks the key. Or imagine that you're a whistleblower journalist working on a stunning piece of work that will make the Pentagon Papers look like high school gossip. When you publish you will change American politics and history for ever. If anyone knew you had this information you or yours would have some "accidents" and/or the data would disappear. 

I think that most people would agree that the government shouldn't be able to demand that you provide them a codebook for your private conversations, a key to your door, transparent windows for your home and copies of your notes and contact information for your sources. Or at least the government shouldn't be able to do that unless and until you've been tried and convicted of some crime other than not letting the government know what you're talking about, writing about or doing in the privacy of your own home.

We hear a lot about how China continues to perfect the surveillance state. As it turns out although China is setting ugly new records in that regard, other countries are often doing their best to catch up.

SYDNEY, Australia — A new law in Australia gives law enforcement authorities the power to compel tech-industry giants like Apple to create tools that would circumvent the encryption built into their products.

Monday, January 21, 2019

MLK was a Conservative and other lies from the WSJ

In winter the snow falls. In autumn leaves change color and drop off the trees. Summer's days are long and hot. And in January on or around the MLK  federal holiday, some conservative media outlet, usually but not always the Wall Street Journal, will deploy someone to argue that MLK was colorblind, didn't support affirmative action and lined up with other modern day conservative stances. 
This is of course similar to saying that Jesus' primary message expressed in the Gospels was "Kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out." It's the BIG LIE. This year the dubious honor fell to one Coleman Hughes who makes more fact free assertions in one column than I ever thought was possible. 
In this view, King’s dream of a colorblind America—where the content of our character matters more than the color of our skin—is hampered by progressives’ focus on checking white privilege and stoking black grievance. With regard to the role that racial identity should play in politics, King was unequivocal: First and foremost we are human beings, not members of races. The verbal tic of modern racial-justice activists—“As a black man . . .”—would sound foreign on his lips. Even when fighting explicitly racist policies, he deployed universal principles rather than a tribal grievance narrative.
King also highlighted counterproductive behavioral patterns in the black community—the third rail for today’s racial activists. The current view among progressives is that cultural self-criticism is noble when whites do it but “victim blaming” when blacks do it. In contrast, King held that regardless of racial identity, “one of the sure signs of maturity is the ability to rise to the point of self-criticism,” as expressed in a 1960 address.
King’s contemporary counterpoints were the Nation of Islam and the black-power movement, which emphasized racial division over common humanity. King didn’t mince words when addressing these movements in a 1960 speech at DePauw University. “Black supremacy is as dangerous as white supremacy, and God is not interested merely in the freedom of black men,” he said. “God is interested in the freedom of the whole human race and in the creation of a society where all men can live together as brothers.”
As Paul Harvey might say, and now for the rest of the story.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Movie Reviews: Sicario 2: Day of The Soldado

Sicario: Day of The Soldado
directed by Stefano Sollima
The first Sicario movie was a brooding examination of the moral costs of revenge, the war on drugs, and perhaps the standing of the souls of Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) and Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro). The ending let us know that as majestic and purposeful as one of those characters was, they were definitely going to hell when they died. 

Well that was one way to look at it. The other way is the Old Testament way in which we show no pity and pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot until the bitter cup of revenge is drunk in full by everyone.  The Old Testament is full of people taking righteous and not so righteous revenge upon people who harmed them or just happened to be in the way of some divinely ordered smackdown. 

This "kill em all" way of thinking can often be justified by the "good guys"-just ask any survivor of the WW2 firebombings of Dresden or Tokyo about that-but in most entertainment there's a line beyond which "good guys" don't cross, no matter how righteous the purpose may be. Alejandro crosses those lines in the first Sicario and doesn't appear to be in any need of forgiveness or redemption. He made his choice. You might understand his choice or despair at his choice but there is no denying that the character knew what he was doing. Like Marv in Sin City, Alejandro has decided that there are certain people or concepts worth killing for, worth dying for, and worth going to hell for.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Movie Reviews: Key Largo

Key Largo
directed by John Huston
In some respects this Bogie-Bacall collaboration, their last one, is a noir film and in another it's a movie masquerading as one. Its cynicism hides an optimism and can-do spirit. The other interesting thing about this film is how the actors of the time, even many of the stars, would be considered normal to average looking people today. Although Humphrey Bogart had massive screen presence would women today consider him handsome? I can't call it. Similarly Lauren Bacall could certainly be considered striking but I don't know that I'd call her beautiful. 

And Edward G. Robinson wasn't handsome by the standards of any time. And yet despite that, or even because of that this movie feels real. The stars and the character actors do not stand out from the film; they are the film. Like many films of the time and the genre Key Largo makes judicious use of lighting and setting to set up the internal and external battle between good and evil.  

The impending storms and resulting darkness and shadows match perfectly the emotional and psychological challenges being wrestled with by the main characters. Also this film shows that it is possible to make a tense, interesting adult movie without nudity, cleavage or even explicit violence. This movie produced a Best Supporting Actress win for Claire Trevor.

The Shutdown And The Wall

At the time of this writing it is day 21 of the government shutdown. On Friday January 11, thousands of Federal workers missed their first full paycheck. Although it is unwise to live your life paycheck to paycheck, fully 80% of Americans do indeed live paycheck to paycheck.  

 And that's not just impoverished people. 10% of people with a salary greater than six figures also say they live that way. Of course a six figure income is not what it was twenty years ago. The reasons for that are not really relevant to this post. The larger point is that plenty of federal workers will face some tough decisions over the next few days. The given reason for the shutdown is that President Trump wants $5.7 Billion for the creation and expansion of a hard border Wall. 

The Democrats, who won back the House, are offering $1.3 Billion for border security, some possible fencing, but definitely no Wall. In some ways however the fight isn't really over the creation of a wall. Democrats have voted for walls before. Some border areas already have effective walls. The larger fight is over the symbolism of a wall. Trump's rabid base despises illegal immigration and isn't that crazy about legal immigration. They want to see concrete evidence that Trump is making headway in the battle against both. When Trump looked like he was going to cave conservative enforcers Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh called him out in a mocking personal way.

Twenty Years Since The Sopranos Started

The Sopranos was one of my favorite television dramas. It wasn't the first show to have an antihero protagonist but it was one of the most successful ones to do so. This wasn't just great acting by the series star, the late James Gandolfini, but excellent writing, direction and production by series creator David Chase as well as wonderful support by many other actors and actresses, including Edie Falco. It does seem odd to realize that it has been twenty years since the series debut. Chase and Falco reminisce about the show and of course that ending.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Book Reviews: Gods of Thrones-A Pilgrim's Guide To The Religions Of Ice And Fire

Gods of Thrones
by A. Ron Hubbard and Anthony LeDonne
This is a short (under 200 pages) fascinating book that in part examines the religions of the world created by George R.R. Martin in his series A Song of Ice and Fire and adapted for HBO television by Benioff and Weiss as Game of Thrones. The authors do a deep dive into Westerosi cultures to look at the mores and morals that animate them and how they relate or do not to our own. 

This book is emphatically not just about religion. The authors devote text to comparative philosophy, and psychology, time travel, the Hero's Journey, Jung, Freud, Nietzsche, and all of the other things that make human cultures tick and continue to reproduce themselves. 

The authors explore or debunk fan theories and make a few snarky pleas to GRRM to finish the series. This book assumes that you are caught up with either the televised adaptations or the books. The first of two planned volumes, this book starts with the religion/worldview of everyone's favorite morose Northerners, the Starks. It talks about how animism and pantheism work in their world and ours, Greek tree spirits, and Tolkien's Ents. Next up is the Religion of R'hllor and its links to real world religions such as Zoroastrianism. The authors use Greek and Roman myths to examine Tywin Lannister's parental morality, wonder if Roose Bolton is really a vampire, and critique Robb Stark's leadership style. 

Wife Attempts to Murder Husband with Antifreeze

You put poison in my coffee instead of milk or cream
You about the evilest woman that I ever seen 

You mixed my drink with a can of Red Devil lye
You mixed my drink with a can of Red Devil lye
Then you sit down, watch me hoping that I might die

These lyrics from the song Commit a Crime by blues legend Howling Wolf always scared impressed me. Can you imagine living with someone who is evil and cold enough to mix your drink with lye and sit down and watch you hoping that you might die?  The sheer malevolence of such a move still chills me. You indeed might need to leave that living arrangement before you killed that person or s/he killed you. I could listen to that song and only wonder at the pure malice from which Howling Wolf is trying to escape. Matthew Burke doesn't have to listen to classic blues songs to get a sense of evil that's loose in the world. His estranged wife, Renee Burke, allegedly mixed Matthew Burke's drinks with antifreeze. Apparently the wife wanted full custody of the couple's children. She decided the world would be a better place without her former special rider.

HOLBROOK, N.Y. - A Long Island woman is charged with attempted murder after she allegedly put antifreeze in her estranged husband’s drinks -- while their two children were present. Renee Burke, 40, of Holbrook, is also charged with burglary, assault, two counts of endangering the welfare of a child and two counts of criminal contempt, according to NBC News. “It’s not only disturbing that the defendant attempted to murder her estranged husband, but that she did so in the presence of children,” Suffolk County District Attorney Timothy Sini said in a statement Thursday.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Movie Reviews: Hotel Artemis

Hotel Artemis
directed by Drew Pearce
This was Pearce's director's debut on an American film. However, he's no rookie, having worked in the British market and also having written for large scale American films before. Perhaps that is why he attracted such a big name cast to this B-movie. 

It's not that the cast doesn't give good performances or convince you of their character's veracity. It's just that their skills are such that you expect greater emotions or more compelling stories than this movie offers. Who knows why any of the actors chose this film. Salary? Writing? Favors owed? Not too busy? Chance to do something different? Whatever their reasons may have been I didn't think it made for a super interesting film experience. The actors were good. The storyline was unoriginal. That's okay. Some people have argued there are few, if any, truly original storylines

Someone is put under duress. Someone either changes or does not as a result of that pressure. If they do change they gain wisdom from the experience and rise to a higher level. If they don't change they die. Or they stay where they were before as a living martyr. The trick is to make the viewer identify with the protagonist(s) and/or sympathize with them. In the John Wick movies the world's best hitmen (and hit women) occasionally rest, recuperate, and entertain themselves at the Continental Hotel locations. The Continental management doesn't tolerate any violence at its hotels. Hotel Artemis examines what operating such a sanctuary might look like from the inside.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Movie Reviews:The Predator

The Predator
directed by Shane Black
This movie was rated R but still messed up by mixing too much comedy with its horror. When that works, you get great films such as Evil Dead 2 or Shaun of the Dead. When it doesn't, well you get The Predator. This movie had some nods to the souped up B-movie feel of the original. That was good. However I thought this movie took too much of a left turn by giving the primary protagonist an endearing son (who is also disabled and may be important for other reasons). I thought this entire subplot was saccharine and silly. The film would have been far better off sticking to interactions between the titular aliens and humanity. The ET like inclusion of the kid took me out of the movie. The other thing which annoyed me about this movie is that there are a fair number of logic or continuity gaps in the storyline. 

Anyhow, if you for some reason haven't been paying attention since 1987 or so a Predator is an bipedal alien that looks like a mixture of a lobster, cockroach and human with dreadlocks. It visits various planets to hunt and kill the planet's most advanced or strongest life form. It's obviously violent, armed with technology way beyond human understanding or duplication, far faster and stronger than humans, and pretty much completely without mercy. 

Its only saving grace is that when it's on the hunt it generally won't harm humans who are not a direct threat, unarmed humans, or super young humans. It may break these rules of course, though just like hunters in our world who visit safari farms to murder unsuspecting and trusting animals. 

Arizona High School Labels Kids: You Are Big Dummy!!

If someone makes a mistake or does something wrong how do you motivate them to change their behavior? Some people think that immediate, harsh, and/or public correction is the way to go. They feel that if the error prone person doesn't suffer some unpleasant consequences, no matter how minor, then that person won't have any incentive to alter their approach.

Others contend that negative reinforcement is a horrible way to train or respond to anyone. They believe that the way to improve someone's behavior or skill set is to work with them to improve, giving them plenty of positive feedback when they do well and words of encouragement and hope when they don't. 

I can't say which approach works better overall. I have had both approaches employed on me. I have used both approaches with others. At my age harsh public correction or insult is often counterproductive. I may spend more time resenting the person calling me out than I will correcting my mistake. But there are times when a blunt "You f***** up. Fix it!!" is the only thing that works. Time is often too short to worry about people's feelings.

Mingus Union High School in Cottonwood, Ariz., issues ID badges for all students to hang around their necks — freshmen and sophomores wear red-colored cards and juniors and seniors wear gray, both of which are school colors. But according to the Arizona chapter of the ACLU, upperclassmen who struggle in classes must also wear red badges (aka “scarlet badges” of shame) with numbers that indicate their repeated grade level if their marks don’t improve. 

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Do You Want A Cashless Society?

If you went to pay your bill at a restaurant or wanted to buy something at a grocery store would you be put out of sorts if the business didn't accept cash? I think I would be. I don't always want to put items on credit cards. For me it's far too easy to spend more money than I intended to spend if I use a credit card.

There is also the case that I may not always want the bank issuing the credit card to know where I was or what I was purchasing. However more businesses are starting to refuse cash. Not everyone is happy about this.

Sam Schreiber was mid-shampoo at a Drybar blow-dry salon in Los Angeles when someone from the front desk approached her stylist with an emergency: a woman was trying to pay for her blow-out with cash. “There was this beat of silence,” says Ms. Schreiber, 33 years old. “She literally brought $40.” 

More and more businesses like Drybar don’t want your money—the paper kind at least. It’s making things awkward for those who come ill prepared. After all, you can’t give back a hairdo, an already dressed salad or the two beers you already drank. Ms. Schreiber was tempted to wait and see how the Drybar employees would handle the situation with the customer, who had no credit or debit card with her; instead, she intervened from the shampoo bowl. “I said, ‘I can just pay for her and she can give me cash or Venmo me,’ ” she says.

A few moments later, one of the employees came back to hand her the $40 and expressed thanks on behalf of the stranger. 

Movie Reviews: Venom

directed by Ruben Fleischer
Middling movie with more than a little camp
I didn't see Venom initially in part because so many comic fanboys claimed disappointment with the movie. This film is an origin tale of the titular character, someone who at best might be considered an anti-hero but is mostly, from the comics I remember reading, a straight up bad guy. 

The movie mostly downplayed Venom's unpleasant side either by playing it for laughs (the character constantly threatens to eat the heads of people who displease him) or by simply not showing the more violent actions. This movie is rated PG-13. It probably should have gone for the R rating. 

Because I was only slightly familiar with the character's history, I didn't have raised expectations. This was a decent Sony/Marvel movie that stuck to formula. It felt like I had seen it before. If you're fine with that sense then this could be an okay time investment. Strangely enough the movie has a few nods to Taxi Driver and similar films, but because it shies away from explicit depictions of carnage, never truly convinces in the way that films like say, The Dark Knight did.

Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is an investigative journalist whom most people, including his fiancee Anne Weying (Michelle Williams), would agree is a pain in the tuchus. Anne is a successful attorney. It seems that she's slumming with Eddie. Eddie must have some hidden talents. It doesn't help the film that Hardy and Williams don't seem to have too much chemistry together. And by "too much" I mean any. Williams looks bored in her scenes with Hardy. This is not Robert Downey Jr. with Gwyneth Paltrow, or Brad Pitt with Marion Cotillard.  Nope.