Conspiracy Theorists Beware

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Title: Bad Monkeys

Rating: 4 Stars

If you’re a tin-foil conspiracy theorist, this is the book for you. There is an invisible battle taking place between good and evil that no one knows about.  Neither one is a government entity. They are both very large, very private, very rich enterprises.  One is out to wreak chaos and the other is out to kill evil.

The protagonist, Jane Charlotte, has been arrested for murder and is now in a mental institution. The book unfolds as a series of interviews that a doctor conducts with her. As she’s telling her story, the doctor is trying to convince her that she is a delusional paranoid.

She is a member of the organization dedicated to good. This organization is made up of several divisions with names like Panopticon (surveillance), and Bad Monkeys (assassins of evil people).

She tells the story of her recruitment, training, and missions. Her final mission is to try to rescue her brother Phil, who has been kidnapped by the evil organization, brainwashed, and is now one of its most powerful leaders.

I found it to be an entertaining read. It starts out very strong, kind of looses steam in the middle, gets pretty frenetic towards the end, but ultimately is redeemed with a strong ending.

It’s not going to be read in literature class a hundred years from now, but once I started reading it, I was pretty compelled to finish it.

Great Moments in Space

Below is a verbatim transcript from the Apollo 10 mission, as reported in Packing for Mars, by Mary Roach

CERNAN:  …You know once you get out of lunar orbit, you can do a lot of things.  You can power down…And what’s happening is —
STAFFORD:  Oh—who did it?

YOUNG:  Who did what?

CERNAN:  What?

STAFFORD:  Who did it? [laughter]

CERNAN:  Where did that come from?

STAFFORD:  Give me a napkin quick.  There’s a turd floating through the air.

YOUNG:  I didn’t do it.  It ain’t one of mine.

CERNAN:  I don’t think it’s one of mine.

STAFFORD:  Mine was a little more sticky than that.  Throw that away.

YOUNG:  God almighty.

[And again eight minutes later, while discussing the timing of a waste-water dump.]

YOUNG:  Did they say we could do it anytime?

CERNAN:  They said on 135.  They told us that—Here’s another goddam turd.  What’s the matter with you guys?  Here, give me a—

YOUNG/STAFFORD:  [laughter]

STAFFORD:  It was just floating around?

CERNAN:  Yes.

STAFFORD:  [laughter] Mine was stickier than that.

YOUNG:  Mine was too.  It hit that bag—

CERNAN:  [laughter]  I don’t know whose that is.  I can neither claim it nor disclaim it. [laughter]

YOUNG:  What the hell is going on here?

And that’s why we need a space program.  Save NASA!!

Being There and not Really Being There

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Title: The White Album

Rating: 2 Stars

I was excited to read The White Album. I’d been reading a lot about the 1960’s and 1970’s and I find much of the New Journalism school to be interesting reading, by and large. So, when I saw that Joan Didion had published a collection of essays about her life in California during the 1960’s and 1970’s, I thought that this would be right up my alley.

Of all of the essays, I did enjoy the first, the eponymous The White Album. She was in the middle of a critical time in America. She writes about time spent with Black Panthers, Manson Family members, and with The Doors. Those three subjects right there constitute a huge chunk of the importance of the 1960’s.

Even in that essay, I sensed a remoteness from the subject. It was clearly the context of an observer observing. I felt no emotional connection to the events. To me, it barely qualified even as basic reporting. My experience with New Journalism is that it usually seems much more intimate, immersive, and personal. I felt almost an antiseptic quality to the writing.

I felt this same level of remoteness with all of the stories, none of which seemed as interesting to me as The White Album. There were essays on orchids, on Nancy Reagan, on Doris Lessing, even on lifeguards. They all were clear and well written. I just did not feel personally engaged really with any of them.

 

Slavery Version 3.0

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Title: The New Jim Crow

Rating: 5 Stars

A fearless, remorseless, heartbreaking, unarguable condemnation of the War on Drugs as just another way to oppress minorities in the US.

It’s a pretty straightforward argument:

  • Blacks were first deprived of all rights by being enslaved
  • After fighting a civil war, Blacks were freed from bondage
  • After about a decade or so of freedom, blacks became oppressed and disenfranchised by Jim Crow laws
  • After the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s, the Jim Crow laws were overturned
  • After about a decade or so of freedom, the War on Drugs was started, which despite drug usage being consistent across all races, ended up overwhelmingly targeting black / brown men, thus oppressing and disenfranchising entire generations of minorities yet again

This is a thin book (somewhere around 250 pages). I heard about it and I figured that I’d quickly read it over a weekend. What is written here is so shocking and infuriating that I found it difficult to read more than ten pages at a time. It took me close to two weeks to finish it.

One of the horrible beauties of the war on drugs and the resulting mass incarceration is that this gave cause to poor white people who were suffering at the expense of affirmative action to hate on black people for being criminals. Similarly, since black communities are themselves being destroyed by the War on Drugs, many in the black community are supportive of the police presence in their neighborhood.

The War on Drugs was started in the early 80’s. Later when the crack epidemic hit the inner city neighborhoods, the War on Drugs was used as a weapon of convenience to attack the black communities. The fact that there is substantial evidence that the crack epidemic was to some degree facilitated by the CIA as a means to provide cash in support of the Contras in the Central American wars is doubly heartbreaking.

I also find it interesting that blacks have been so stalwart in their support of Hillary Clinton as she runs for president. The War on Drugs led to unprecedented draconian sentences, of which Bill Clinton was a huge proponent. He refused to let the Republicans get to the right on him on the crime issue, thus condemning millions of predominantly black and brown men to a veritable lifetime of deprivation and disenfranchisement.

The Supreme Court are also complicit.  Their rulings have increasingly given essentially unlimited powers to police to pull over anyone they want whenever they want.

Prosecutors have essentially unlimited powers to bring any charges they want. They routinely overcharge people to force innocent people to plead guilty. The public defenders’ office is seriously underfunded. Indigent defendants accused of even serious crimes spend literally minutes with their public defender.

Once you plead guilty you are in the system. Even after imprisonment, you cannot vote, you cannot be live in public housing, you cannot even get a job. How is this anything other than a recipe to commit more crime?

With increased federal funding from the War on Drugs, police forces are now militarized. In some places, all drug raids must be performed by SWAT teams. This is nothing more than a military force bearing down upon domestic US citizens.

The forfeiture laws reward communities for making drug arrests. Auctions become a significant source of revenue, and therefore, not illogically has been abused. A husband caught smoking a joint in his wife’s car has led to the wife’s car being confiscated as being part of the crime. Police have seized ninety-eight cents in a drug bust, essentially forcing someone to empty their pockets and calling that forfeiture.

The alleged point of the War on Drugs was to capture and imprison the drug kingpins. Ironically, thanks to forfeiture laws, it is precisely the drug kingpins that have the most assets to seize. They negotiate with cash hungry governments to limit their jail time by forfeiting heavier fines. Thus, the people with the least assets get the heaviest jail terms while the wealthy kingpins get off with the lightest. It’s been estimated that forfeiting $50,000 leads to an average sentence reduction of 6 years.

Although usage of drugs is consistent, regardless of race, eighty to ninety percent of all drug arrests are to black / brown people. The criminal penalties are heavily weighted towards the type of drugs minorities are most likely to use.

Police are allowed to pull over anyone, even for the most minor of traffic offenses (eg signalling a turn either too late or too early). They are allowed to be suspicious and can ask to search a vehicle for the slimmest of contexts (eg person is too calm or too nervous).

Drug activity takes place in all neighborhoods. Police target minority neighborhoods nearly exclusively.

Despite widespread, convincing, conclusive evidence that racial bias exists at all levels of law enforcement, the Supreme Court has ruled that no case can be overturned based on racial bias unless there is overt proof that it has taken place in that specific case. Since there are very few cases in this day and age where the police / prosecutor make overt racist statements, the systemic racial bias that routinely occurs goes unchallenged.

There is no incremental progress on this issue. We must acknowledge and deal with the fact that we do not live in a colorblind society. The War on Drugs must be stopped.

Samurai Shakespeare

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Title: Ran

Rating: 5 Stars

I already talked about how important this movie was to me. It not only led to a lifelong love of non-mainstream movies but also to a lifelong love of Shakespeare.

I had not seen this movie in over twenty years. I saw that a revival of it is playing at a local theater, so I hustled down and watched it.

As before, I was enthralled. In my limited experience with Kurosawa as a director, he just seems custom made for Shakespeare.  This seems especially true of King Lear. The violence, tragedy, and insanity is perfect for him.

The plot is similar to King Lear, except that Lord Hidetora has three sons instead of daughters. As with Lear, the youngest child, who most loves him and is the most honest, ultimately ends up being banished for his honesty. The two remaining sons almost immediately turn on their father and ultimately onto each other.

There were differences between Ran and King Lear.

There is no equivalent to the Gloucester/Edgar/Edmund sub-plot.

The original King Lear is more about poor judgment that is mistaken for aged wisdom (Thou shouldst not been old / Till thou hadst been wise). Here you see that his afflictions are not only his current poor decision / judgment but also based upon previous acts of evil that he committed during his reign.

Which brings us to the main plot point difference, Lady Kaede. She is married to Taro, Lord Hidetora’s eldest son. The main castle, where she now lives with Taro, who has taken over for Lord Hidetora, was the castle of her childhood. Lord Hidetora, in his battles, conquered her father and took over the castle. In the process, Kaede’s family was wiped out. Swearing revenge, she is now in a position to have it. She manipulates Taro into forsaking his father. When Taro dies and the second son, Jiro, takes over, she manipulates Jiro into an ill conceived war. She is the primary agent in the destruction of the Hidetora dynasty. This is the biggest example of Lord Hidetora’s past coming back to destroy his present.

Visually, the film is stunning. There are mass battles of samurai graphically fought. Castles are burned. Obviously, this was before the age of CGI. In fact, not even miniatures were used. A castle was built for the sole purpose of burning it down. Many long shots are used to emphasize the beauty of the scenes. In fact, the last shot is that of a young man, blind (actually blinded by Lord Hidetora himself in a different castle battle early in his reign, yet another example of heedless violence from him echoing to the present), alone, desolate, forsaken in the ruins of a castle.

Lord Hidetora, much like King Lear, transitions from a bold leader to a ruined wreck of a man during the course of the film. The short reunion with his youngest son, Saburo is his only solace.

So, yes, this is an awesome movie and I’m glad that I had the opportunity to see a restored version of it in a theater on a big screen.

Stay Faithful

I went to see Cory Booker, senator from New Jersey.

He is absolutely a rock star politician. I’ve seen politicians talk before, but never like this.

He was supposed to talk for about 30 minutes. He ended up talking more than an hour. He spoke completely without notes. Granted, I’m sure that there’s probably a stock core to the speech, but he kept it vibrant and apparently spontaneous. It was a bravura performance.

His whole message centers around love. People speak about tolerance. Tolerance should be the absolute floor of feeling. Tolerance implies that you let the other person live but that you would not be affected if the person would cease to exist. We should all aim for the higher plane of truly feeling love for each other.

This could easy have been a self-righteous, sanctimonious, holier than thou sort of speech, and in less capable hands, it probably would have been. Throughout his entire speech, he was self deprecating and frankly admitting all of the ways that he himself does not live up to this ideal, but failing at an ideal is not an excuse to stop attempting the pursuit of it.

He was passionate. He told a deeply moving story that connected the help that his father received that in turn led directly to the charmed life that Senator Booker leads to a young man in Newark that was murdered that he tried to mentor but then kind of lost track of while he was caught up being the mayor. He was near tears as he told this story. The story is too long to tell hear, but is the source of this blog’s title.

He told a story that made a connection between his father’s ability to buy a house in a middle class neighborhood that in turn gave Senator Booker education opportunities that propelled him on the path that he’s on today with Bloody Sunday , a day in which civil rights workers, including most famously John Lewis, were attacked as they crossed over the Edmund Pettus bridge during their march from Selma to Montgomery. State troopers attacked the non-violent marchers. This attack inspired a lawyer to support Booker’s father in his attempt to own a house in a neighborhood that previously was whites only.

He told another story connecting an act of kindness that he did for a mother with two young children on a cross country flight to his later mayoral elections in Newark.

The message is that acts do matter. Acts do have a butterfly effect that can cause significant ramifications.

I found it interesting that Senator Patty Murray was there as well (in the audience). He was clearly stumping her candidacy by repeatedly trumpeting her many accomplishments and describing what a role model she is. Senator Murray has been a senator for 24 years. Senator Booker has been one for 2 years, and yet, it was Senator Murray that was trying to ride his very charismatic coattails.

As a black man, he seemed to walk a narrow tightrope on race issues. On the one hand, he was very forthright about the racial injustice that is still rampant today. I’ve just read the New Jim Crow and he cites those same statistics and describes how the war on crime has been an attack on minorities. He did this all in a non-threatening manner. After all, he was in Seattle. The audience, by Seattle’s measurements, was diverse, but still probably at least 70% white. His response to these issues seemed calm and measured, especially in comparison to some of the passion that he showed in earlier parts of his talk. I’d be interested to hear him speak in front of a predominantly black crowd to see how much he tunes his speech to the audience in front of him. I’m sure that all politicians do this.

By the end of his talk, he completely had the crowd in the palm of his hands. He received three standing ovations. He was by far the most inspiring person that I’ve ever heard speak. It’s distressing that he’s not running for president this year. I think that his message of love and optimism could have truly been a uniting factor and if, God helps us, Trump wins the Republican nomination, would have absolutely overwhelmed him.

I think, in all seriousness, that he could be the man that could change our nation.

 

Deconstructing Juliet’s Nurse

Today I went to a talk by Lois Leveen, who wrote the novel Juliet’s Nurse. It’s Romeo and Juliet, told from the perspective of Juliet’s nurse. I was drawn to the presentation because, from way back when I last read it, I remember the nurse as being an interesting character.

Leveen was somewhat trapped writing another novel when the phrase Juliet’s Nurse popped into her head. She re-read Romeo and Juliet. She first of all found that the nurse actually has substantial lines. In fact, she has the third most lines in the play, including a couple of lengthy speeches which hints at a complex back story.

That inspired her to dive deeply into the character and the historical background in which she lived.

Leveen is not a historian, but she does do deep research. In fact, she’s made interesting discoveries. Strictly using clues from Shakespeare’s text, she was able to pinpoint the time of the play’s events to somewhere in the mid to the late 14th century (based upon references to plagues and the existence of a prince of Verona).

Once she could tie it down to a location (Verona) and a time (mid 14th century), she could do a significant amount of research to determine what life was really like then. This level of understanding and detail is crucial to historical fiction. As the author you have to be able to transport the reader to that time and place.  In fact, she said that one of her challenges writing is having the fortitude to throw out historical facts / anecdotes that are very cool but that just can’t be fit into the story.

An interesting subject that she touched upon was the wet nurse occupation. First of all, she points out the absurdity that Juliet’s nurse is still in the household, considering that Juliet is 14 years old (probably no longer needing a wet nurse, I’m guessing). More interesting, during that time it was considered imperative that a wet nurse have fresh milk. Practically, what that meant was that a wet nurse offering her services could very well have just had a newborn baby herself that has recently died.  In one of the nurse’s lines, she mentions the death of her newborn daughter.

Can you imagine that?  Your child has just died and then you use that opportunity to suckle another child? Apparently, in that time, the child often left the parent’s house to live with the wet nurse. So, not only, in your grief, you’re having to suckle another woman’s child, but effectively you’re actually raising it? Crazy times.

Another interesting tidbit she discussed was the nurse’s husband. In Romeo and Juliet the husband is only mentioned in a couple of lines.  However, from those brief mentions, she was able to extrapolate a fully formed character.  That strikes me as an interesting challenge for a writer.

All in all, it seems that the nurse is portrayed as a knowing, bawdy, wise woman of the world that has suffered multiple misfortunes but has emerged from them stronger and resigned to her suffering and to her place. I imagine that she and Chaucer’s Wife of Bath would have many stories to share and would get along famously.

 

The World’s Worst Software Developer

Between college and work, I’ve been surrounded by software developers for close to 35 years.  In that time, I’ve known many hundreds of them.  They come in all sizes and shapes from all over the world and have a very interesting variety of personalities.

Most developers that I’ve worked with are reasonably skilled.  Some are insanely awesome while others are at best mediocre.  Early in my career, I worked with a lot that did not have a computer science background, so they weren’t necessarily versed in the theory, but they’d understood the basic concepts and generally speaking were able to get the job done.

There were a couple of exceptions, though.  People that should never have been allowed to touch a keyboard.  People that Boeing would have been better off paying them to stay at home than to have them come in and attempt to write software. This is one of those stories…

I had just started at Boeing.  I was 22 years old, freshly armed with my computer science / mathematics degree.  I had been at Boeing (and hence, the corporate world) for a grand total of 2 months.  My manager came in and talked to my lead.  He said that there was someone at his church who was looking for a software development job.  He could vouch for him and was bringing him into the company (note that this was substantially before the days of formal on-line job requisitions, resume filtering, and behavioral interviews).

One day, a guy shows up.  Tom was his name.  He was in his late 30’s and was wearing an ill fitting suit.  My lead (Tony) turned to me and told me to ‘show him the ropes’.

I’m like WTF?  I’m 22 years old and I’ve been there like two months.  Exactly what ropes was I supposed to show him?  It turns out that it would be the rope that I’d want to hang myself with.

I showed him to his computer.  This was in the 80’s, so this was a dumb terminal with a modem that dialed into an HP3000.  On the HP3000, the command to log in was ‘HELLO <user.account>’.

I told him to type in the word hello. He says OK.  He points his finger at the top row of the keys (the numbers) and scans across the top row.  He then points his finger at the second row and scans across the row.  He then points his finger at the third row and scans across the row.  Halfway through, he spots the letter H and triumphantly strikes the H key.

He then points his finger again at the top row (let me reiterate, the fucking number row) and scans across the row.  He points his finger at the second row and scans across it.  Three letters in, he finds the E key and strikes it.

I’m watching this, absolutely horrified.  It takes him 5 minutes to type the HELLO command and log onto the computer.

It turns out that attending our manager’s church was his sole qualification for this job. Not only did he not have experience on the HP3000, not only did he not have any software development knowledge at all, not only could he not type, but it turns out that he didn’t even have a high school education.  His previous jobs were lumberjack and missionary in Haiti.

This struck me as a problem. I went to talk to Tony.  His attitude (remember this was Boeing in the 80’s) was that the boss could hire whomever he wanted.  It was our job to make it work.  And it was my job to ‘show him the ropes’.

Over a period of months, on top of my normal software development duties, I basically had to teach Tom how to type, how to develop software, and how to make software run on an HP3000.  He would come over several times an hour and I’d have to set aside whatever I was working on to help him.  I needed to explain about for loops.  I needed to explain the difference between a goto statement and a return statement.  I needed to explain what a database is and how tables in a database relate to each other.  I had to proofread all of the documentation that he wrote since he had the writing skills of a 5th grader (and no, I’m not exaggerating).

Needless to say, I made a botch of it.  He somehow (and again, this says something about the Boeing company in the 80’s) managed to hang in for a couple of years.

After he finally left (got a transfer to Tulsa, IIRC), years later I would come across some software that he’d written.  I’d take a five minute look at it, and inevitably would just throw it away and write it from scratch.  It was significantly easier to start over than it would be to make the abortion that he wrote work. It was about this time that I realized that maybe, just maybe, I could actually make it in the real world.  If someone like Tom could somehow muddle through, things were really looking up for me.

Stranger Danger Rescuer

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Title: 10 Cloverfield Lane

Rating: 4 Stars

This was an outstanding thriller that works on multiple levels.

A woman gets in a car crash. She wakes up chained to a bed. There a man greets her, claims that everyone is dead and that he has saved her. She’s understandably suspicious but later receives conclusive proof that he is right. She tries to adjust to her new situation, but then discovers that her savior may in fact not be the good man that she now thinks he is.

Did the world really come to an end? What does the man intend for the woman? What has he done to other women in the past? These are the questions that permeate the movie and make for engaging watching and thought.

This is a small movie. There are essentially three characters, and most of the action takes place in a below ground small bunker.

John Goodman as the potential rescuer does great work giving his character the shading that hints at his character’s complexity.

John Gallagher Jr is the good natured ne’er do well who manages to make it into the bunker and is trying to make the best of the situation.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead is the captive woman. At the beginning I was worried that this was going to be another damsel in distress situation, but no, after some initial confusion and adjustment, she turns into a smart, resourceful, bad-ass willing and able to do what’s necessary to survive. She was a strong, compelling heroine.

There was one thing that was grim, though. I love going to the Cinerama. It has great seats that allow you to lean back, leg room aplenty, a wonderful screen, great projection, great sound, and of course, chocolate popcorn. The concessions are even reasonable. If you ask for a small drink and a small popcorn, you do not get a 64 ounce drink and a tub of popcorn for $20. You get a reasonable sized drink and popcorn for a reasonable price. This could totally be a non-money making Paul Allen vanity project, but if so, keep it going!

However, from the previews, it looks like the upcoming movies will be: Batman vs Superman, the next Captain America, and the next X-Men. Ugh! Please, someone stop the Marvel / DC movie takeover! I might not be going back there for a while.

Murder and Show Tunes!

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Play: Assassins

Rating: 4 Stars

I knew that I was going to have to go this show and I had no idea what my reaction would be. My first inclination would be that I wouldn’t like it. I am not a fan of musicals, especially of the Broadway variety. It just seems so bizarre to me that people can be having a conversation and then just break into some dancing show tune or some maudlin ballad. I find myself, at the beginning of such shows, counting the number of songs that are in the play and then doing a count down to see how much longer I have to endure.

On the other hand, I do like my assassinations. I have read (and enjoyed) books on the Garfield assassination (Destiny of the Republic), the McKinley assassination (The President and the Assassin), the Lincoln assassination (Manhunt), and I am much embarrassed to admit, in my younger days I read several books regarding who really JFK (here’s a hint, a guy named Lee Harvey Oswald). So, this was my subject area.

My disdain for musicals or my love of history? Who would win?

History!

I did enjoy it. Some of the songs were ridiculous and annoying, but they were also entertaining, and at times, provocative.

There were nine assassins profiled. I’m not sure what it says about me that only one was new to me (Guiseppe Zangara, who tried to assassinate president elect Franklin Roosevelt). I knew of the attempt but did not know any details of the assassin.

They got most of the assassin details right (at least as much as you can when profiling nine assassins in a 90 minute musical). There were a couple of exceptions.

They called John Wilkes Booth a pioneer. History geek wanted to jump up and shout, what about Richard Lawrence, the crazed unemployed house painter who fired two pistols at Andrew Jackson (they both misfired, after which, a badass Andrew Jackson repeatedly clubbed the would-be assassin with his cane)? As far as I know, that was the first true presidential assassination attempt.

Or how about John Flammang Schrank, who actually shot Teddy Roosevelt in the chest? Teddy, being another example of badass, continued on and gave a 90 minute speech before going to the hospital. Schrank belongs on the list more than Samuel Byck and his vague plans of hijacking a 747 and flying it into the Nixon White House.

Also, it kind of implied that Sara Jane Moore and Squeaky Fromme were somehow in cahoots and maybe even did their assassination attempt together. Granted, they both tried to assassinate Gerald Ford, but their attempt were seventeen days apart. There was no, as far as I know, connection between them.

OK, history geek will now stand down.

Charles Guiteau, Sara Jane Moore, and Samuel Byck are all portrayed as deranged. Charles Guiteau in particular is cheerfully deluded. Guiteau and Moore play off each other for comedic effect.

Czolgosz and Zangara are the political radicals. They stomp around the stage in a glowering rage.  Oppressed immigrants with no access to the American dream, their acts are purely of a political nature.

I did find it interesting that they’d run this during a presidential election year (not coincidentally). It does bring up interesting questions regarding how, in a democracy, what outlet people have who feel so out of the system that they consider themselves fundamentally disenfranchised. The assassins here are all misfits, failures in life. The assassination attempt is the only thing that kept them from completely dying in obscurity.