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The Thinker

Two movies reviewed

Star Trek Beyond

If you like action movies, you will like Star Trek Beyond, the third installment of this latest franchise reboot. It moves crazily fast, so fast you might want to hold onto the arms of your seat for its 122-minute duration. It is visually dense. Director Justin Lin won’t allow your attention to linger for a second. It also looks crazily expensive.

However, because it’s an action movie, it doesn’t really take you to brave new worlds. You’ve seen variants of this plot many times and in many shows and movies. For me the best Star Trek shows, or at least its best episodes, was when I was taken to these new worlds, or at least new thoughts. Here we have a standard villain Krall (Idris Elba) who wants to destroy the Federation. He only respects warriors and wants the universe full of Spartans like himself. In other words, he’s very much a Republican and he has a problem with the whole “let’s peacefully get along” meme. So maybe his real target is the late Gene Roddenberry. Can Kirk, Spock, Bones and the rest stay true to the ideas of the Federation when confronted by such a pathological killing machine?

It won’t spoil too much to let you know that the Enterprise is his first big target and Krall and his fleets of crazy Ginsu knive-shaped ships are going to do more than kick its fenders. Lin seems to be going for what worked in Star Trek’s best movie, The Wrath of Khan. Its plot is not all that dissimilar but at least Lin succeeds in making it not feel like an imitation of that movie.

As for character development, there is a bit of that. Bones (Karl Urban) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) get to spend too much time together in tight quarters causing Spock to sound more human than Vulcan at times. We learn about a minor tiff between Spock and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and that Kirk (Chris Pine) is feeling his age a bit, as his birthday is upon him and he’s older than his father when he died. Frankly though none of these characters need more development and have had their personalities dissected many times. What we need are new characters to care about. With the untimely demise of the actor Anton Yelchin (Chekov) maybe we’ll get some in the next movie.

While not exploring any brave new worlds, you are unlikely to care. You won’t have time to analyze your feelings until sometime after the movie, but you will appreciate being taken for a hell of a roller coaster ride. Lin steps into J.J. Abrams’ big shoes to direct this movie, and he does a great job of it, giving it a fresh look … the warp effects are particularly well done. It’s clear that it cost a bundle and it’s so well done, just not particularly nourishing. Here’s hoping in the next movie we get less action and more inspiration. That would make Gene Roddenberry happy but perhaps not Paramount’s stockholders.

3.4 out of 4 stars, however.

Rating: ★★★½ 

Ghostbusters

Speaking of rebooting a franchise, 32 years after Ghostbusters we get this reboot where four women audaciously play the comedic roles played by Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson and Harold Ramis in 1984. And crazily enough that’s a problem for some people who think casting women in these roles is somehow to cheapen the films. Jeebus, it’s a comedy people and Democrats have just nominated the first woman to be president of the United States! Get out of 1950 already!

I think the real sin of director Paul Feig is to go with “body positive” women. It makes a change to have a few plus sized women for the lead roles in movies, including Melissa McCarthy (Abby) and Leslie Jones (Patty). It makes it harder for men to fat shame women when they are normalized on the screen. One of my complaints about movies is that actors are predominantly thin and pretty. Obviously it’s a successful formula if you are chasing profits but for a comedy the rules can be relaxed. All four women including Kristen Wiig (Erin) and Kate McKinnon (Jillian) will keep you engaged in laughing in this pointlessly silly plot about ghosts taking over Manhattan. It makes no sense whatsoever and adds little in material to the premise, but 32 years have elapsed. Many of those coming to see the movie were not even alive when the original came out.

It’s harmless good fun and if you are old enough to remember the original movie you will see some actors that look familiar, just older and greyer. These include Bill Murray and Sigourney Weaver in bit parts. (Dan Aykroyd stayed behind the scenes as one of the writers.) It certainly captures the spirit of the original movie while of course not being quite the same. The four women develop quite an ensemble, and Chris Hemsworth (probably best known as Thor, but here he plays “Kevin”) proves he has comedic talent too, this time as their receptionist.

A better than average piece of comedic fluff.

3.1 out of four points.

Rating: ★★★☆ 

 
The Thinker

Debbie’s sin and Hillary’s penance: appoint Bernie Sanders the next DNC chair

Debbie Wasserman Schultz is suddenly out as the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Thanks to a WikiLeaks dump of DNC emails and likely due to the largess of the spies for the Russian Republic we have access to all sorts of interesting/trivial/nauseating emails from the staff of the DNC. It paints the not pretty picture of the staff eagerly engaging in activities long suspected: to undercut the candidacy of Senator Bernie Sanders and to promote the candidacy of favorite Hillary Rodham Clinton instead.

Favoritism had been documented before the WikiLeaks event. Last December the Sanders campaign had its access taken away from the DNC’s voter database when the DNC didn’t like queries it was making. Access was restored a day or two later perhaps due to a court challenge from the Sanders campaign that cited “irreparable harm” as it needed to target voters in Iowa and New Hampshire. This WikiLeaks dump though paints a pretty grim portrait of DNC staffers and Chair Debbie tipping the scales toward Clinton’s campaign.

So these revelations are not a surprise, but Chair Debbie has hardly been neutral on her feelings about who she thought was the better candidate (hint: she’s a she). She of course is entitled to her opinions, but in her role as DNC chair though she is required to be strictly unbiased, which should have disqualified her from the start. Moreover, she is supposed to set the ground rules and tone for the staff to follow. It was at best a “wink-wink nudge-nudge” game of portraying neutrality. Now with the record of these various emails out there, there is no ambiguity about it and Chair Debbie has walked the plank. She is out, at least as DNC chair.

Also out is any speaking role for her at the convention that the chair would nominally open and close. With Sanders supporters rallying in Philadelphia for the convention, the timing could not have been worse. (It’s unlikely that the WikiLeaks timing was accidental.) Chair Debbie was booed today at a meeting of the Florida Democratic delegation and shortly thereafter she decided not to open and close the convention. She could do Democrats a favor by quietly returning to Florida for the duration of the convention.

You may be wondering why any of this matters. Like me you probably see the leadership of both parties rife with insider corruption. As much as I dislike Donald Trump’s nomination, at least he succeeded where Bernie didn’t, perhaps in part because Republicans don’t have superdelegates. In reality of course the Republican establishment pulled out all the stops to stop Trump, realizing the likely disaster in November. The rank and file though wouldn’t have it and Trump had the money to keep going anyhow. It’s quite clear that Trump was the people’s candidate.

The Sanders campaign was given a more complex chessboard. It’s quite clear now though that he likely could have waged a better campaign, and possibly won the nomination if the DNC had acted impartially as it should have done. By tipping the scales, the DNC hardly lived up to the “democratic” in its name. This of course is the real problem: a party based on democracy (one person, one vote) is not true to itself if it won’t act this way. This is absolutely wrong.

Believe me there are plenty of people at the DNC and institutional Democrats in general that have no problem with these events. “That’s how the game is played,” is what they will tell you: those that run the institution effectively set the rules. They have been doing it for many years, feel they have paid their dues so have few qualms about tipping the scale. Those newbies storming the gate: what do they know? Damn little whippersnappers, acting all so uppity!

No, it is not okay. Here’s why. A party needs to represent those that actually belong to it. When voices in the party that don’t align with the establishment are effectively depreciated, you get a party that is not representative of its members. And that’s important particularly in this election because people are looking for candidates with new ideas.

Of course it’s entirely possible that Clinton would have won the nomination even if the scales had not been tipped to favor her. But we’ll never know for sure. It’s hard for even a Clinton supporter to deny that there was far more energy in the Sanders campaign. Die-hard Sanders supporters were out in the streets of Philadelphia today, many saying they would never vote for Clinton. I doubt they would have been this vocal had the nomination process actually had been fair. These energized Sanders supporters, like them or not, are the future of the Democratic Party. Without them the party will lose touch with its grassroots and become moribund. More importantly the Sanders voters are entitled to the same seat at the table as any Clinton delegate. Disenfranchising Sanders voters actually sets up the Democratic Party to lose future elections. This is the worst sin of all.

It should be not just a firing offense but actually against the law for a political party to favor one candidate over another within its party. Unfortunately each party sets its own rules. Also unfortunately, candidates have to run using with the system they got. When Bernie Sanders calls for a “political revolution” he is saying in part that the way we nominate candidates is broken because it disenfranchises new voices. He tried really hard to break through that. Through bullying and using his wealth Trump made the system work for him. Sanders raised more money than Clinton but with its superdelegates and insider help the Democratic deck was stacked against him. No question. And for that Democrats should be ashamed.

I’m certainly hoping Trump loses, and loses badly in November. If Clinton wins though her victory will always feel a bit tainted. A truly democratic Democratic Party needs to clean house. If the party truly wants to make amends, it’s quite clear who the next party chair should be: Bernie Sanders.

Hillary, I’m waiting to see if you have the leadership to do what’s right here. I’m not holding my breath, but I will hope that your sense of fairness and better nature will prevail.

 
The Thinker

Republicans jump off the cliff

National party political conventions happen only every four years. This week’s Republican convention in Cleveland though makes me seriously wonder if Republicans will have one in 2020 at all. I’m not alone. No less than former President George W. Bush is wondering if he is the last Republican president.

If you managed to tune into the convention, it’s hard not to escape the feeling of doom unfolding there. The Republican Party shows every sign that they have careened right off the cliff. It’s being bungled in just about every way a convention can be bungled. In case you haven’t had your nose to the news, here’s a small slice of the craziness going on in Cleveland at their convention:

  • At the start, there was a brief but doomed floor fight when delegates from Iowa tried to call for a vote that would have allowed delegates to vote their consciences. It appeared to have the support of enough states to actually get a vote, but the chair ignored it, thereby cementing Republicans’ reputation for not actually following a parliamentary process.
  • Melania Trump’s speech lifted whole sentences from Michelle Obama’s 2008 convention speech, the sort of plagiarism that if done in school would get you a failing grade. It turns out that Melania admires Michele, a major problem for any true Republican. She said she wrote the speech herself, but later we were told that a speechwriter did, who eventually took the fall.
  • Last night former candidate Texas Senator Ted Cruz spoke, told delegates to vote their consciences and never endorsed Donald Trump, which got him plenty of boos. They let him talk anyhow even though he told them he would not be endorsing Trump. Trump eventually came out to take the spotlight off Cruz and back to where it belongs: on his glorious self. This will likely be mostly what people will talk about for days, rather than Trump’s convention speech but at least it puts the focus on Cruz and 2020. However, if Trump is true to form, his acceptance speech will likely be an incoherent ramble, so maybe not.
  • Less noticed was that House Speaker Paul Ryan also refused to explicitly endorse Trump at his convention speech. Like Cruz, he seems to know the ship is sinking and he wants to be one of the first rats to jump when it is politically safe to do so on November 9.
  • Tuesday was supposed to be a day to talk about how Republicans would fix the economy. Instead it became a day of vitriol where speaker after speaker went on the attack against Hillary Clinton, many calling for her to go to prison. One woman who lost a son in the Benghazi incident held Clinton personally responsible for his death, even though she did not explicitly authorize the ambassador’s trip to Benghazi. A state legislator in West Virginia called for Hillary Clinton to be hung causing United Airlines to suspend him as a pilot.
  • Apparently Ohio governor John Kasich was sounded out to be Trump’s running mate. The offer, apparently from from Trump’s son: you will do the actual management part and my dad will do the “Making America Great Again” part. Strangely, Kasich declined. It appears Trump is bored with the whole manage the country part of the presidency, and wants to outsource it.

Oh, and so much more! Tonight is likely to be equally as memorable as the first three days. Perhaps more memorable than the convention itself is the stunning lack of coherence out of the convention and the epic mismanagement behind the stage. Trump does not know how to delegate. He has a hard time getting people to work for him because he requires non-disclosure agreements and routinely sues employees who he feels have stepped out of line. His roster of speakers is mediocre and often surreal (Scott Baio, really?) and it’s not even clear if he really chose Indiana Governor Mike Pence as his running mate. It appears he had second thoughts and futilely tried to change it at the last moment.

Watching the convention on TV itself is just appalling. There is no way for an impartial viewer not to get the impression that Republicans are passionate and crazy lunatics. Democrats were pretty pissed at George W. Bush at their 2004 convention, but no one suggested that he was a lawbreaker, should be put in jail and hung. It never occurred to Democrats to be this kind of lunatic crazy. But we heard it from speaker after speaker, day after day at this convention. So how can you not escape the conclusion that Republicans are dangerously unhinged?

A convention is normally scripted and carefully stage-managed, but also the organizers think carefully about how they want to present the party to the voters. No one seemed to be doing either parts of this job, bungling the most important part of their sales job prior to the election. Also not going well: fundraising. The typical RNC donors cannot seem to pull out their wallets. Few staff are being hired to go into the field and organize voters. Trump himself seems wholly unconcerned about the party and his campaign’s anemic fundraising, assuming that force of personality will be enough.

The 2012 Republican convention looked like one where Republicans were teetering on the borders of respectability. This is clearly off track, off message and has little of what can be called organization. No wonder George W. Bush is concerned he may be the last Republican president. Republicans seem to be doing everything possible not just to lose, but also to lose epically.

To Democrats, this Republican train wreck has been coming for years. With a few exceptions though today’s Republicans just don’t see what’s coming. But if you want to destroy a party, well, have a party doing so! It feels like this convention will touch all the markers for what not to do. You had best stand aside of the wreckage.

 
The Thinker

St. Louis

It’s been thirty plus years since I was in St. Louis, and that was for an unmemorable business trip. If you are to visit though, it’s hard to pick a better location than the downtown Hyatt, as it is virtually in spitting distance of the Gateway Arch. I am here because NetRoots Nation 16 is being held here in one of America’s most chocolate cities. Their choice of St. Louis is perhaps in response to last year’s conference in Phoenix. There then new Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders encountered some virulent Black Lives Matters protesters, and epically failed to respond appropriately, as did its mostly white attendees.

That’s no problem this year. These liberal but predominantly white attendees at Netroots Nation have since gotten fully educated in this Black Lives Matters thing. While attendees are predominantly white, there is plenty of evidence of more people of color, perhaps about a third altogether. Still, it’s an often awkward dance between whites and people of color here. This is not an issues with the LGBTQ community, where seeing a black transgender in high heels asking to be pointed to the men’s bathroom is wholly unremarkable. (This happened to me yesterday while volunteering at the registration desk. Up the escalators and make a U turn, I told her while noting that her high heels and gams would be the envy of many women here.)

Getting vertigo looking up at the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, MO

Getting vertigo looking up at the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, MO

There might be more people of color here if this convention were more affordable. The official convention hotel rooms are $200/night and a discounted registration runs more than $300. The non-subsidized rate is $800. So with airfare it’s easy to spend $1500 or so for the privilege of communing with fellow progressives for three days and perhaps seeing an important politician or two. The cost is apparently not an obstacle for the 3000 or so attendees, and wasn’t for me although I chose the Hyatt because it is considerably less expensive with my AAA discount.

A driving tour of St. Louis last night facilitated by my longtime friend Tim left me impressed. The St. Louis area reminds me a lot of Baltimore with many traditionally ethnic neighborhoods. St. Louis is a bright blue dot and the economic engine of the state, but it is still in a red state. Unsurprisingly there are quite a few issues of local concern being discussed, including a so far failed attempt to make Missouri a “Right to Work” state. But it is a surprisingly pretty place and cooler than I expected in mid July, although this may be an aberration. While known for its beer, now owned by European masters, there are lesser known foods of interest. I tried one at dinner last night with Tim: toasted ravioli. Two thumbs up. If the rest of America knew how good it was, its popularity would quickly spread.

St. Louis from the Gateway Arch

St. Louis from the Gateway Arch

St. Louis has a metro, an apparently relatively recent creation undergoing a slow expansion. The trolley lines of a hundred years ago are being put back in in places. Their metro doesn’t go that far, at least north and south, but it does go to Lambert, i.e. St Louis International Airport. I took it into the city on Wednesday and found it both convenient and affordable. You pass stadiums, hospitals and eventually are deposited downtown where walking the mostly empty streets near twilight felt a bit scary. Along Big Muddy (the Mississippi) it is appropriately touristy with amenities like a steamboat cruise and carriage rides. It is often humid at this city at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.

As for NetRoots Nation 16, it seems lower key than in past years based on anecdotes I hear. As I noted last year Bernie Sanders attended. I don’t expect to see him this year, not surprisingly as his campaign is over. So far the only politician of note spotted was Rep. Alan Grayson, annoying for a liberal, who is running for Marco Rubio’s Florida senate seat. Perhaps more notable politicians will show up in time.

Speaking of confluences, NetRoots Nation is a confluence of passionate people embracing so many causes it’s hard for them to concentrate on any of them. There are plenty of well attended seminars where issues and strategies are hashed out. (For two seminars, I volunteered to monitor the stream in case there were video or audio issues.) There are training sessions in how to do non-violent protests or wage a campaign for political office. So stuff does happen here, it’s just seems amorphous at times.

I am pondering what to make of this first attempt to attend a political convention. It turns out that making change is really hard. I’ve attended a number of seminars on the Black Lives Matters movement. It’s hard for a white guy like me to feel up to speed on all their issues. As speakers detailed the staggering challenges they face, it’s hard not to feel how Herculean an endeavor this is or how I can contribute in a meaningful way. Yesterday a speaker pointed out that sixty years ago the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King had approval rates of just 10%. A majority of Americans polled thought that blacks were being too aggressive in their push for civil rights and needed to be nicer and stop trying so hard. Sixty years later while there has been progress there are still staggering amounts of institutional roadblocks that contribute toward the oppression of black people. These include gentrification, those “right to work” laws Missouri is trying to enact, crime, continuous harassment by police (the riots in Ferguson occurred here), under-funded schools, poor air and water quality in their neighborhoods and general poverty. It’s a game of multi-dimensional chess that has to be played simultaneously on many levels. It’s a hard game for blacks to play because they are bearing the weight of oppression so it needs white people like me to fight with them. That is hard to do too when you have not spent your lives unfairly defined by the hue of your skin. And this is just one of the issues that are of great concern to progressives. It’s hard not to feel despair.

Unsurprisingly a lot of the attention here is on the November election and here at least there is a lot of hope. With political power comes the chance to wield it, although there are so many obstacles in trying to wield power (as President Obama can attest) that it’s not hard to feel maudlin even if Democrats win both the White House and Congress. The chances for meaningful change are chancy at best. Realistically, meaningful success is much like those of a tightrope walker without a pole, in the wind with the rope vibrating. It takes a brave progressive to take on these causes anyhow, and a lot of them are here.

The hoopla largely dies down tomorrow night. I fly home on Sunday.

 
The Thinker

Medical robbery

Apparently it’s quite legal to get away with robbery in the United States, at least if you are a health care provider.

I imagine the health care providers don’t see it this way when they send you threatening bills saying you owe tens, hundreds or thousands of dollars. Curiously most of us don’t know we are being robbed. That’s because we naively assume that being legitimate businesses they would not rob us. We assume whatever they put in the amount owed we must owe, so we better open up our wallets and pay up. Payment is always due upon receipt.

Not all health care providers try to rob you, but a lot of them do. When you press them on it, like I did today, they will say it’s a small mistake. However, if you pay their amount due which is more than you actually owe, you are unlikely to hear a thing. They consider it a bonus for services rendered. Thanks! I guess it helps pay for those large country club fees.

Just in case it isn’t clear to you, if you are insured you owe a provider exactly what your health insurer says you owe them. This is usually a copay. Particularly at the start of the year there are deductibles that you have to meet. Thus you end up paying for a lot of it out of pocket anyhow. So near the start of the year, you may owe a $30 copay, and $200 because that’s how much the agreement between your health insurance provider and your service provider specifies. So you may be out of pocket $230 and after you hit your deductible, the next visit is just for the $30 for the copay.

What a lot of health care providers do though is they bill you for the list price of the service. So if their rate for an uninsured person is $300, you will get a bill for $270, which is $300 less the $30 copay. Or maybe you hit your deductible and they will bill you for the $70 and see if you pay up.

This has happened regularly in our household but particularly this year as my wife had an expensive operation in March. Upon release she ended up in the emergency room to deal with a postoperative condition. Blizzards of bills soon arrived, and some arrived a month or two later. There is the surgeon. The hospital. The anesthetist. There were bills for Tylenol and replacing bloody gauzes that needless to say far exceeded the price for similar stuff at the local CVS. Payment was due on receipt, as if I had thousands of dollars of spare cash just lying around. Thank goodness I didn’t pay their ransom demands. In the case of one procedure they said we owed $3000 while the insurance company said we owed $0.

What you owe is what your insurance company says you owe, not a penny more or less. That’s why they send you those statement of benefits. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to play mix-and-match with these dueling statements. Doing it though is critical, unless you are happy to give health care providers gobs of extra money rather than bother to parse through all this stuff.

In our situation with all these disparate bills it was pretty challenging, not to mention frustrating. After a while I moved from frustration to anger. First, how dare they bill us for services beyond what they are legally owed! This should be medical fraud, but I’m betting it’s not simply because I’ve never heard of a case (outside of fraudulent Medicare billings) of providers doing this. It happens all the time! If we are typical, about half of our medical bills make demands for more money than they are entitled to receive.

Second, why don’t they wait until they get a response from the insurance company before sending these bills? Many do of course, but a lot don’t. They just send their ransom demand that they purport to be a set of legitimate charges. What you should do is wait to hear from your insurance company and then send any additional money they say that you owe. It’s not like these providers don’t know we are insured. Every one of them won’t even see you until they get your health insurance information into their system. They even copy my insurance card and license because, you know, I could be a deadbeat.

Third, they bill for all sorts of dubious crap. I went to see a local urologist recently because as a middle aged man I suffer from a temperamental prostate gland. It was a routine visit. I saw the PA (Physician Assistant) instead of the physician. There was no special test this time, no flow test to see how quickly I could urinate. They did test my urine then they did an ultrasound to see how much I retained. They billed not just for the ultrasound but also for “medical supplies”. That was for a dab of that jelly they massage into your skin before the ultrasound. This required me to later write a check for $6 to cover it and also a stamp to mail it. It amazes me that they have the audacity to bill for these minor things and annoys me that my health care provider considers it a valid expense. This is the cost of doing business. Moreover, I was billed as if I saw the physician, not the PA.

Fourth, they don’t like to take no for an answer. A month of so back I got a ransom demand from the physician that saw my wife in the local emergency room. I sent them back a check for what I actually owed, along with a statement from my insurance company saying what I owed. Today they sent me another statement for the difference. It took a call to their billing department (and patiently waiting on hold for a while) before they agreed I didn’t have to pay the amount which I had already documented to them!

I hope you won’t put up with it because all these billing errors/extortions just subtract from your fragile bottom line. It could mean you can’t afford that daily trip to Starbucks or you can’t add that extra principle to your next mortgage payment.

It should go without saying that our current health care system is a really crappy system. It’s great that twenty million people are now insured who weren’t, but doubtless they are going through this crap for the first time too, trying to parse through its pointless complexity. I suspect it costs all but the most vigilant families at least hundreds of dollars a year. Those who need more services are probably paying thousands of dollars unknowingly than they should.

There ought to be a law and maybe there is one. If so, I’d like to see it enforced just once. I can send local investigators plenty of leads.

 
The Thinker

Yes America, we have a race and class problem

In case you missed it, Alvin Toffler died on June 27. The author, principally known for Future Shock (1970), warned us that our future was not going to be easy. The book was a warning that too much change happening too quickly would have predictable consequences. In 1970 change was everywhere. Bellbottoms have since disappeared but we’ve been racing toward the future since then, with economic (industrial to service economies), gender, sexual, class and racial changes occurring far more quickly than most of us can handle them. Future shock is still a thing but with his death at least Toffler doesn’t have to deal with it anymore.

Currently it’s manifested in our racial strife. The fatalities keep rolling in. It’s getting so that when I wake up and read the news I expect to feel a wave of nausea. Not even two days apart there were egregious murders of black men by police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and St. Paul, Minnesota, at least partially recorded on smartphone cameras. It used to be that white people like me could sort of excuse these events as the act of a rogue cop or two, but that’s not the case anymore. Last night of course in Dallas, Texas following a protest on police shootings of blacks more than one sniper killed five police officers and wounded seven other officers, plus two civilians. At least one of the shooters was killed by “bomb robot”, something that sounds like it is from a Terminator movie but is apparently quite real.

Toffler would not be surprised by this reaction. It was neither a right nor a just thing to do, but it was entirely predictable as tone-deaf police departments and officers continue to disproportionately kill blacks in altercations that are at best minor. I mean, killing someone for having a taillight out? There’s little doubt in my mind that if I had been driving that car I would likely have gotten a friendly warning and I would have been on my way. But then my skin is white and that gives me privileges obviously not afforded to many blacks by police.

I once wrote optimistically about our post-racial society. As I look back on it, clearly I was widely off the mark. It’s truer to some extent for the latest generations that are at least growing up in a multicultural world. Post racial for them is the new normal. But it’s not quite as normal as we think. Americans are in general strictly self-segregating along racial and class lines. Having spent more than thirty years in the Washington D.C. area, its multiculturalism became the norm, which was surprising given that I grew up in an area almost exclusively white. Moving to a more white area in retirement seemed quite odd.

You have to wonder how this happened. I don’t think most police officers are overtly biased against blacks. Police officers though work in the real world. Crime tends to occur more often in poorer neighborhoods, which are usually minority and typically black. If I had to struggle to survive like a lot of these people I’d be more likely to commit crimes as well. It must not be hard for a police officer that constantly finds trouble in these parts of town to develop an unconscious bias against the poor and blacks. Their job is to keep society safe so naturally they are going to focus on those areas they perceive as less safe. When you have your wealth and status, there is little reason to cause trouble.

Policing though is a tough job. You deal with life’s nastiness everyday. It’s not for everyone. I suspect if I had been a police officer I too would eventually behave a lot like these rogue officers, simply because of the constant pressure of it all. Despite their training my bet is a lot of these officers are victims of PTSD simply from being officers. It comes with the territory. Clearly we should recruit officers that can keep an even keel, but in reality police officers come from a pool of people with aggressive and authoritarian tendencies. In addition, we don’t pay them nearly enough to deal with the stress they endure everyday.

And speaking of stress, when you are poor, black or really any minority in this country, your life is unlikely to be a bed of roses. You spend much of your life being ethnically profiled. Add to this the likelihood that you will be poorer and live a more challenging life. Unlike me you are unlikely to inherit tens of thousands of dollars when your father passes away. You will struggle for respect, for equal pay and simply to keep the floor under you.

The results are not too surprising. Police officers, many carrying around an unconscious or overt bias against people of color, hired for being aggressive and authoritarian, but also understanding that their place within society in on the lower part of the bell curve will tend to act out their anxieties. And since they literally have the power of life and death, it’s pretty hard to keep your feelings in check when you figure that black guy probably doesn’t like you and has a gun, and you want to make it home to dinner. Meanwhile the black guy, being an otherwise normal human, is sick to death of being pulled over and acting subservient to police officers and white people in general. It all feeds on itself.

But feeding it all are those on top: the politicians and basically those with money, projecting their class and racial biases on those who enforce the law, and tacitly looking the other way so often when incidents like these occur. It’s a rare cop whose behavior will be judged criminal when they happen.

How do we stop this? In reality it is a very complex and multidimensional issue. Getting cops some cultural sensitivity training and making them wear body cameras isn’t enough. A real solution requires a lot of lowering of shields, community discussion and transgressing not just our racial prejudices but our class prejudices as well.

Certainly those we are hiring as cops aren’t getting the right training for a 21st century America. We are in general picking the wrong people for these jobs and not paying them commensurate with their difficult jobs, much like teachers. The overarching issue is really our staggering level of income inequality, if not the downright cruelty of society in general. Recently the Arizona legislature decided it hadn’t made the poor miserable enough yet. Now it’s limiting TANF benefits to the poor from two years total to one year, as if people are only allowed to be poor once. Otherwise, let ‘em eat cake, which in their case may be Twinkies. There is no compassion here, simply on overwhelming disgust from those in power toward those that have none.

In short, it’s going to take a lot of time but mostly it’s going to take a lot of white people like me to stand up and say “Enough!” This is because apparently we’re the only ones the power brokers listen to. Besides posting essays like this, I’m pondering the best way that a white male like me can move the needle on this issue. Suggestions are welcome.

 
The Thinker

Craigslist casual encounters weirdness: July 2016 (Hartford CT) edition

I didn’t quite forget to do my monthly Craigslist posting last Friday. I was just too busy doing real work for a change. I had two clients with high priority work, so I spent a long three days slogging through that instead.

Happily it’s behind me now. It’s a little early for a review of weekend posts (that tend to be the kinkiest) but since I have the time now and a pair of dark glasses handy it’s time to look into the underbelly of the web, a.k.a. the Craigslist Casual Encounters section. There I get to marvel/feel nauseous (sometimes at the same time) at what crazy, stupid and or kinky things people want to do with other people. I doubt many of these hookups will happen. If nothing else this monthly surf through these Craigslist posts remind me that while man is capable of greatness we’re also capable of going to absurd lows. Reading these wants from the id keeps me humble for my species.

During June I noted at least 203 web page views for my Craigslist posts, about 14% of total page views. 110 of them were for this popular post. It was my first look at the Hartford Craigslist section in May of last year and I return there today because it is reliably kinky, a bit crazy and often disturbing. On the first page of postings today I see:

  • 35 men looking for a woman
  • 46 men looking for a man
  • 1 man looking for a couple
  • 3 men looking for a transgender person
  • 1 woman looking for a man
  • 0 women looking for a woman
  • 1 couple looking for a woman
  • 1 couple looking for a man
  • 1 couple looking for a couple
  • 1 transgender person looking for man

So the posters are mostly men but fear not as I will look beyond the first page and into older postings by women to see what nuggets may show up there. Okay, time to put on the dark glasses.

  • Hooray, a man posting on Craigslist has figured it out but he’s at least wiser perhaps because he’s older, 68 in fact and married. He’s looking for a transgender person who can take charge. He says, “No cyber or courtships or ‘getting to you know first’ bullsh*t. This is not ‘Match.com’. Get real.” Maybe there’s hope for at least a few Craigslist posters.
  • I like to think of myself as reasonably sexually sophisticated but Craigslist often surprises me. Here’s a 28-year-old man looking for a woman for AB/DL. I had to Google that one. Basically he’s looking for a woman to diaper him and who shares his fascination for it. I’m not surprised the wife won’t accommodate him. I mean, he’ll even catheter himself to slowly fill up those Pampers. Thank you, poster. It’s exactly these posts that prove there is some wheat in the vast Craigslist chaff. (I think he’s also this poster who wants a woman to shake a rattle at him.) If you prefer to skip the diapering part, this 47-year-old man from Rhode Island wants to watch a lady poop. (Pretty women only, though; he has his standards.)
  • He’s 21, a virgin, super shy and hasn’t even kissed a girl. Any women want to help him with his project?
  • She’s 55, from Farmington, married and plans to be at Hartford’s notorious Art Cinema Saturday from 12-5. Sounds like she’s taking all callers but if you act now you can get a low number. I mean, who likes to wait in line?
  • Sign up now to get a chance to bag this married woman sometime this or next month, whenever hubby says go, along with plenty of other men while hubby watches. Only, gosh, is she particular, but with those golden globes in her picture she can be selective. So if you aren’t young, normal weight and working out at the gym, you basically have no chance.
  • He’s another gay man, age 49, looking … but you got to be stinky. I mean pit-stink stinky.
  • She’s a self-professed pillow princess, age 20 and black, that won’t touch you (a black male) in any way whatsoever. You on the other hand better be into some serious ass worship.
  • Men, if you are into spanking a “naughty little girl”, she’s from New Haven and is scheduling sessions, which suggests while you spank her she’ll be spanking your wallet.
  • Men, she’s 29, a BBW and wants to peg you. She’s a pegging newbie apparently, and she wants to make it an ongoing thing. I’d keep my proctologist on speed dial.
  • She’s from Waterbury, 36 and owns a speculum. She wants a man to probe her with it and do a full examination of the privates. Real or pretend doctors desired.

More next month.

 
The Thinker

Spending spree

Merrill Lynch has relented. For months they put up hurdles that kept me and my siblings from getting money my father left us. You can read the irritating story here if you want. Sometime in mid June though they seem to have surrendered and the funds bequeathed to us finally started to flow. The last batch arrived on July 1 when about $3000 in cash along with a bunch of mutual funds finally arrived. The only real hang up at the moment is not with Merrill Lynch, but Ally Bank. It has a policy that they won’t give you full credit for deposits over $5000 for five business days. Which means I can’t spend much of that money until later in this week.

I am tempted to go wild with $80K or so suddenly in my accounts. It’s not an enormous amount of money, but it’s by far the biggest windfall I ever received. Before I knew we were going to get money, I thought about simply giving most of it away to a few deserving souls. It would not change our standard of living much.

Yet with the inheritance, if I wanted for the first time in my life I could do something truly ostentatious. I could buy a BMW or take the wife and me on a round-the-world cruise, all guilt free. For better or worse, I’m not wired that way. First things first. About half of the money will be used to pay for the solar panels that were recently installed on our house and to pay off our remaining mortgage balance. Both are wiser uses of Dad’s money. Our mortgage balance wasn’t much, but paying it off will give us a couple hundred dollars more to spend or save every month. If the engineers were right then our solar panels would not only generate clean electricity but also add about $150 a month that we would have sent to the power company instead. Giving the gift that keeps on giving would be the sort of thing Dad would like me do with the money as he was relentlessly practical. Pay yourself first.

While I was comfortable with giving a lot of the balance away, my wife soon professed other plans for Dad’s money. Visions of style danced in her head. Take our furniture, for example. Much of it looks nice, but it’s cheap particleboard on the inside with a laminate on the outside. Until now we had always bought furniture when we needed it and had just what we needed. It sort of matched what we had, but not quite. She quickly developed a plan for part of the money that she executed with deftness and aplomb yesterday. For just under $5000 she bought us some quality solid wood furniture, stuff made so well it’s likely to last longer than we do. These included a new living room sofa and loveseat, a china cabinet, two armchairs for the sunroom and a corner TV stand. The wood furniture is in her favorite color (oak). The furniture with fabric on it will have colors and patterns that look nice with our peach walls, plus will be textured to resist cat claws and treated to deter cat vomit. The only downside is we have to wait about five weeks for it, as it is being manufactured in Virginia and Arizona. I haven’t seen her so excited about a project in at least a dozen years.

This doubtless is only the start. We moved into a new custom home last year but it’s still a work in progress. We have another list right behind the furniture, mostly things we used to have that we threw away or did not come with the house. For example, we need top quality screen doors that will probably set us back $800 or so. The old gas grill was discarded when we moved. We replaced it today and I assembled it just in time to try it out for a Fourth of July barbeque. Thanks Dad. What’s next?

I have had the same set of stereo speakers since 1979. Hey, they sounded excellent. All these years later though, it’s probably time to finally retire them. Our stereo system is early 2000s but the reality of stereo systems today is that they are kind of obsolete. Today it’s about projecting high definition audio and video where you need it in the house now, and streaming most content, sometimes between devices with a Roku or Chromecast stick. We’ll still keep a DVD player but I can see it’s already on the way out while a wider and higher definition TV is probably on the way in. Content will come mostly on demand over the Internet. I am baffled by how to do all this magic and not sure how much of it I want to do, but what seemed unwise before now has become, well, what the heck. Dad’s paying!

I’ve already replaced my desk chair to make it more ergonomic. My desk itself needs to be replaced. Cheap particleboard desks have always worked for me in the past but maybe this time, I’ll replace it with something solid wood. I’m confident if we worked at it we could spend it Dad’s money just on stuff for the house. For example, we skipped an upstairs bath to save money when the house was constructed. I could have one put in. Meanwhile, there are less costly items under consideration. My wife is petitioning me for a new top of the line standalone mixer, as she makes her own bread. What about an awning for the deck? A chair for the front porch? Our dining room table has scratches and the chairs need to be reupholstered. Why not just replace them? Dad’s paying. What about the sort of doodads that people with more money than we have usually have around the house? Like real china in the china cabinet. Sterling silver. Large fake potted ferns in the living room. An eight-foot long aquarium filled with colorful fish. Dad’s paying.

Most of this just doesn’t appeal to me. The stuff that matters is generally my computer, my monitor and a high speed Internet connection. I don’t need or want a fancy car. I don’t want fancy threads: t-shirts and jeans are fine with me. A fun indulgence might be a fancy vacation somewhere, perhaps a return trip to Hawaii. Dad can finance it.

Spending the inheritance should be more fun that this. Saving it should be more fun too. But it feels anticlimactic to me. Money can’t buy love, but someone you love can bequeath you money when they die, as my Dad did. It’s a way to show love, but while it buys real things it still feels somewhat hollow. In reality it means little compared to what I lost and Dad that was you. I would trade it all away for just another hour with you happy, healthy, and chatting about the Washington D.C. that you loved. I only have the memories now.

And a fatter bank account.

 
The Thinker

Review: Independence Day (Resurgence)

Before going to see Independence Day (Resurgence), the twenty years later sequel to Independence Day (1996), I made a point of watching its inspiration, Independence Day again. When it comes to movies, my mind is like a sieve so a refresher showing helped me remember who the characters were twenty years ago and whether my assessment back then (a pretty good movie) still stood.

So first a brief second look back at Independence Day, the feel-good 1996 blockbuster summer popcorn movie. Both this movie and the sequel of course required you to suspend disbelief. In 1996 though aliens taking over the earth, while not exactly a new idea for a movie, was at least an infrequent enough a theme where this movie was pretty fresh. And for 1996 the special effects we got were quite awesome. Independence Day had going for it its timing near the holiday but also some really fun acting, principally Will Smith as Captain Steven Hiller, who nailed the role of a super-aggressive fighter pilot. They threw in an odd mash up of characters that managed to entertain us. These included Jeff Goldbloom as the quirky David Levenson, whose wife (Margaret Colin) just happened to be President Whitmore’s (Bill Pullman) chief of staff. Judd Hirsch showed up as his Jewish but not terribly devout father and Brent Spiner had something of an ancillary role as Dr. Okun, whose brain was quickly fried by aliens. Of course the world somehow united (via Morse code, if you can believe it) to defeat these alien invaders/harvesters. Millions died and our capital (including most major cities) was incinerated but in the end of course we won, with the help of a computer virus, Will and Jeff and a vintage 1996 Apple Macbook. There were staggeringly implausible coincidences throughout but who couldn’t cheer when the mothership came down thanks to good ol’ Yankee ingenuity? It was implausible as hell, but it was fun with just the right ingredients to make it engaging and entertaining.

Fast forward twenty years and you can see quickly where this review will end up. First of all, can you think of any summer blockbuster that doesn’t involve the earth or at least some major city like New York getting blasted by super forces? Pick any of the plethora of superhero movies out there and you will know that this plot is (to say the least) tired. Oh so tired. Granted, it’s even more visually stunning in 2016 than it was in 1996. Super special effects in 2016 though are no big deal. Even the cheaper movies can afford special effects, at least like those made in 1996. Trying to go over the top on special effects these days is nigh impossible. We’ve seen it all so many times that it’s a good thing that if we see this movie in a theater we don’t have a fast forward button to skip over them.

Many but certainly not all the characters are back from 1996. Unfortunately the ones who are missing were crucial to sustaining the first movie, principally Will Smith. Jeff Goldbloom is back and looks great twenty years later. Judd Hirsch doesn’t look like he’s aged much either. Brent Spiner is back too and gets more than a bit part. Dr. Okun must have gotten excellent physical therapy while in his twenty-year coma, because he’s hardly out of bed before he is bounding down the halls of Area 51 on his alien hunt. We also learn (or at least infer) that Dr. Okun is gay.

President Whitmore’s little daughter is now in the White House herself, as chief of staff, while her father suffers from what seems to be depression after his leadership saving the world. The earth is supposedly united and peaceful (kicking alien ass will do that to a species, especially when they are worried about a return visit), except possibly in Africa where David Levenson quickly encounters Dikembe Umbutu (Deobia Oparei), and African warlord with enormous pectoral muscles and a hankering for alien meat. Needless to say from tremors on the earth and the moon along with hulking entities that mysteriously appear on radars … they’re back, they’re much bigger and they are pissed. Time for earthlings to come together and invent a new Corbomite maneuver. Unfortunately, there’s no Captain Kirk here, but there is David Levenson and the now fully restored Dr. Okun to puzzle through how humanity will survive this time.

There are new characters. Captain Hiller’s son Dylan in the first movie is channeling his absent dad (dead, but cause of death not quite described) as a fighter pilot like dad, played here by Jesse Usher. How the earth is governed is not quite spelled out but the U.S. president (Sela Ward) seems to have an oversized role amongst all this new brotherhood. Once the alien attack starts though out go our communications satellites. This time though we revert to a newer technology to keep in touch: yes, shortwave radio instead of Morse code!

The movie does move along at a brisk enough pace but the characters this time are far less engaging while the movie suffers from an overdose of alien attack syndrome. The supposedly scientific explanations don’t make much sense and at times troopers are so busy shooting at aliens that it reminded me of a slightly better version of Starship Troopers. In short, this movie may not escape a Rifftrax commentary in a few years. And if you enjoyed the many implausible encounters in the first movie (like between the First Lady and the fighter pilot’s fiancée), wow, buckle your seatbelts because there are heaps more here.

It won’t spoil the plot to let you know that we beat the bugs again, with the help of a little extraterrestrial intelligence. Personally, I would have enjoyed seeing the aliens win. At least that would have been different.

If your standards in popcorn movies are low, by all means go see Independence Day: Resurgence. It’s not a bad movie, just not nearly as engaging as the first one and so rife with cliché and stereotypical characters it’s hard to care if any of the major characters get blown up by bugs. Not many actually do, of course, which means there’s a good chance for another sequel, as the end of the movie makes clear. Maybe based on this experience I’ll wisely skip any next sequel.

2.8 out of four stars here.

Rating: ★★¾☆ 

 
The Thinker

Solar absorption

Two months after starting our solar project, our solar panels are online and producing clean and free energy.

Installation day (June 16) was a big deal for us. It certainly was for our cat Cinnamon who was freaked out by all the noise and strange people inside our house and quickly ran under our bed for the duration. Direct Energy Solar sent four trucks with two guys to do the roof work and two to do the electrical work. The roof work required attaching rails to our roof to hold the panels. Before the panels were attached inverters were placed next to the rails. The inverters convert the direct current (DC) from the solar panels into alternating current (AC) used everywhere. Meanwhile two electricians crawled through our attic, laying cable. This required putting a hole in the roof to carry wires from the solar panels into the house. A hole was also needed on the side of our house so the cables could attach to the outdoor electrical junction box but also into the basement to our circuit breaker box. Only then did the crew on the roof haul up our twenty panels and put them in place, connecting them to the inverter box just underneath each panel.

Installing rails and inverters

Installing rails and inverters

It all went quite speedily, taking about six hours, one of which was spent waiting for the city electrical inspector to show up. However, having solar panels on the roof didn’t mean we could actually use them. Any attempt to do so would have caused a major problem, as we were not yet wired to put electricity back into the grid. So for a week the solar panels adorned our roof while we continued to draw power from the grid.

Wednesday found a man from the power company unexpectedly at our door. He came by to replace our meter. We needed one that would report power we contribute to the grid, i.e. one that would go backward. Happily this was simple to do: the old meter was unplugged and the new one plugged in. It took about five seconds, but it did shut off everything in the house. Still, I was reluctant to lift the switch that would start the flow of this green energy. I figured another inspection was needed first. Thursday night I finally heard from our project manager who said it was safe to turn the system on, which I did first thing Friday morning.

All done!

All done!

We’re not quite done. A building inspector still has to sign off on the project. In addition we are promised some tools. The Enphase inverters report on electricity produced but we need an account with them established so we can see real-time usage and get reports. We’ll have our own webpage and we can monitor our system in real-time anywhere in the world where there is Internet from the convenience of an app on our smartphones.

This time of year we are putting surplus energy back into the electrical grid. What we give back in electricity will count as credits during the darker months when days are shorter. If the engineers who planned our solar system are correct everything should even out. So unless we start adding power-hungry appliances we may never have to pay an electric bill again.

Of course nothing is free. Back in April when I first wrote about this venture, I detailed the costs. Our system cost $21,432.25. Subtracting healthy federal and state tax credits, our net cost is $14,002.58. With Solar Renewable Energy Certificate (SREC) income payable over ten years worth $9,262.50 the true net cost is $4742.08. In effect we are paying only 22% of the system’s cost.

How long would it take you to use $4742.08 in electricity from your power company? Electricity is expensive around here, averaging about 22c/kwh. This is actually good for justifying this investment. For us this is about 21,500 kwh which based on our projected usage suggests the system will pay for itself in four years. After that aside from minor maintenance that may be required, electricity should be free.

Once your system is up and running, it apparently fails to entertain. They tend to be very reliable and as they are solid state, so it’s rare for problems to occur. But I do plan to post updates from time to time, perhaps a year from now after we have some experience and metrics to look at.

 

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