The Thinker

Second Viewing: Star Trek: The Next Generation (Season 2)

Yes, it is strange to go back and see this series again nearly thirty years later. It was a wonder I stayed with it after the first season of this Star Trek reboot. Even so, the first season was no worse that the second season of STTOS (Star Trek: The Original Series). It must have been the franchise that kept me watching. Either that or it was Patrick Stewart.

Thankfully Season 2 is a big improvement on Season 1, but does not come close to the last five years of the season, and it introduces us to the Borg. But there are some peculiarities in this season. Most strange is the introduction of Dr. Katherine Pulaski (Diana Muldaur) as Chief Medical Officer. McFadden (Beverly Crusher) was fired at the end of Season 1 for reasons I don’t understand. She returns suddenly in Season 3, probably as a result of fan pressure. Curiously, Crusher’s son Wesley (Wil Wheaton) wasn’t sent packing. Supposedly Beverly was at Star Fleet Medical School. Muldaur is okay as Pulaski, but showed little energy in the role, while “Acting Ensign” Wesley wanders the ship like he’s missing mommy.

Still, we do get Colm Meaney, who shows up as Chief Transporter Officer. Like Stewart, Meaney was probably too good for Star Trek and his role was beneath his capabilities. We also get Whoopi Goldberg as Guinan, whose role is mysterious but who seems to have some sort of special relationship with the Captain while mostly tending bar in the ship’s lounge, Ten Forward, also new in the show. In reality, Goldberg was simply a devout Trekkie who leveraged her stardom for a recurring role. Since she had done The Color Purple just a few years earlier and probably worked for the union minimum, she was likely too good a deal for the producers to turn down. We also get Gene Roddenberry’s wife Majel Barrett back as Deanna’s mom and Q (John de Lancie) makes a reappearance. In addition Commander Riker grows a beard. These changes seemed to settle things down a bit. A writers’ strike reduced the season to 22 episodes.

I watched them to reacquaint myself with the series, but it also gives you the opportunity to skip the chaff and go straight to the wheat, if you read my capsule reviews below:

  1. The Child. A surprisingly touching tale of the mysterious pregnancy of Counselor Deanna Troi by some spiritual entity that delivers a boy that gestates and matures in a matter of days. No virgin birth here but it’s hard not to wonder about the biblical parallels. B+
  2. Where Silence has Lease. The Enterprise gets sucked into a void — basically to be toyed with by a mysterious entity. There are lots of episodes like this in STTNG that doesn’t really make much sense but do pad out a season. C
  3. Elementary Dear Data. Crewmembers get caught in a viral holodeck program based on Sherlock Holmes. It’s innovative until you think about it a bit: whoever programming holodeck software did a really crappy job with the security controls. You would think Worf (security officer) would insist on deactivating the thing. C
  4. The Outrageous Okona. This is mediocre love story hiding under a transparent interplanetary Indiana Jones character. Data continues his endless quest to become human-like through failing to understand humor. C-
  5. Loud as a Whisper. The Enterprise ferries a renown negotiator who is also dumb (cannot speak) and who has agreed to try to bring peace to two warring tribes on a planet. Little mystery to this one. You know the plot, but it is competently made. C+
  6. The Schizoid Man. A strange episode where a dying old man/scientist with affectionate feelings for his much younger and prettier lab assistant occupies Data’s circuitry when his human body dies and then puts the move on his assistant. This episode feels incestuous and weird. D
  7. Unnatural Selection. Another back-to-back creepy episode, this one where a planet full of people who can only clone each other (and who don’t do sex) capture a bunch of Enterprise kids including Wesley before all the cloning ruins their gene pool. Dr. Pulaski of course figures out a solution just in time. D
  8. A Matter of Honor. Riker takes on the challenge of a temporary assignment as first officer on the Klingon vessel Pagh and handles the culture shock with aplomb. Quite a bit of fun but you kind of anticipate that his conflicting interests to both the Enterprise and the Pagh will be predictably tested. B+
  9. The Measure of a Man. Is Data a person even though he is an Android? This episode deservedly won all sorts of awards. See it! A
  10. The Dauphin. The Enterprise meets a shape shifter and Wesley develops hormones, only his crush is not quite the young lady he thinks she is. B-
  11. Contagion. The Federation and the Romulans fight over possession of a portal on a planet in the neutral zone that can take people to various periods of time while a mysterious computer virus ravages both vessels. One wonders if their operating system was Windows. B
  12. The Royale. The Enterprise is shocked to find gambling going on in a casino on an otherwise lifeless and inhospitable planet. Apparently a third rate crime novel is constantly replaying and the away team has to figure out how to end it so they can beam back up. Nothing special here except Picard’s reaction from reading the badly written book. C
  13. Time Squared. The Enterprise finds its captain in one of its shuttlecraft, which is surprising because Picard is still on board. Apparently they are in another weird time rift. You see these a lot on Star Trek but this one is very well done thanks mostly to Stewart’s great acting. A-
  14. The Icarus Factor. Riker is offered a command and meets his estranged father with whom he has bad karma. Wesley helps Worf have a Right of Ascension ritual. B-
  15. Pen Pals. The Prime Directive gets in the way again when Data develops a pen pal relationship with a girl over subspace on a rapidly dying planet. Wesley gets to try leading a team that seems hostile to his youth. This plot feels overly contrived. C
  16. Q Who. Q (John de Lancie) is back to harass the enterprise, but this time for a good cause: to introduce them and the Federation to the Borg, still the scariest space villain of all time. If the episode is about the Borg, you know it’s good and this initial encounter whets your appetite for more at the end of Season 3. A
  17. Samaritan Snare. Picard has a bad heart that must be repaired which forces he and Wesley (who is on the shuttle to take a Starfleet entrance exam) to awkwardly occupy a shuttle. Meanwhile Riker tries to help a vessel seemingly piloted by imbeciles who have an unexpected strength. C+
  18. Up the Long Ladder. Two early settler colonies from Earth in the same star system find a reason to hook up, literally, although they could not be more different. Thirty years later the Irish stereotypes look pretty offensive. Still, it’s kind of fun. B-
  19. Manhunt. Troi’s mother Lwaxsana (Majel Barrett) makes life miserable for Troi and Picard. Troi’s mom is going through a menopause, which makes her horny and particularly indiscreet. Frankly these episodes with Majel (also the voice of the computer) are tedious and unfunny. No exception here. D
  20. The Emissary. Worf meets his match and a potential mate in a half human-Klingon woman he both loathes and loves. She arrives to help the Enterprise deal with a Klingon vessel on a 75-year mission finally returning home. They have to figure out a plausible way to tell them the Klingons are not still at war with the Federation. This is a fun episode and goes to prove that Michael Dorn (Worf) is an excellent actor. B
  21. Peak Performance. With the Enterprise in a war game practicing for a Borg attack, Riker gets to see if he can outsmart Picard. Then the Ferengi appear out of nowhere. B
  22. Shades of Gray. A poisonous plant stings Riker during an away team mission. This allowed the producers to do numerous flashbacks, giving fans effectively half an episode and half of the cast sent home early for the season. Feels and is contrived, probably in reaction to the writers’ strike. Deeply unsatisfying. F
 
The Thinker

Unwinding the crazy (or why Obama and Mitt Romney need to talk)

So my daughter has been chatting with me on Skype. She wants to know: “Dad, have politics ever this crazy?” She would actually take some comfort in knowing that demagogues like Donald Trump have actually arisen before and have had a stake put through their hearts.

I had to tell her no, not in my lifetime anyhow and not within the United States. There are plenty of demagogues out there all the time, but few come around as Donald Trump has to create cyclones of ill will all for the purpose of acquiring something close to the pinnacle of political power in the world: being president of the United States. I see him getting the Republican nomination; hopes of a brokered convention are just fantasies. There have been deeply evil politicians and presidents. Richard Nixon comes to mind but at least he was trapped by a political system of checks and balances. It’s not clear if Trump becomes president whether the system still has the backbone to deal with someone like him. I’d like to think so, but I am skeptical.

Over the years this blog has been around, I’ve made something of a second career cataloguing these demagogues. Democrats are not entirely clean, with John Edwards leaping to mind. Both sides of the party can be pandered to and inflamed. Mostly though these demagogues have limited appeal. Some of the many I have blogged about include Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck. I have read enough history though to know that Donald Trump is not quite unprecedented. Early in our history we had a president arguably as bad as Trump: Andrew Jackson whose portrait mysteriously adorns our ten-dollar bill.

We’ve also had our share of bad presidents but who were not demagogues. Woodrow Wilson was a racist who purged blacks from the government. President Harding dropped his pants for more than one woman not his wife and got embroiled in the Teapot Dome oil scandal. Herbert Hoover and a top-heavy Republican congress ushered in the Great Depression. Lyndon Johnson made the Vietnam debacle much worse. And I’ve shown 12 years ago that Ronald Reagan was pretty much a disaster of a president. Then of course there is George W. Bush. Still with the possible exception of Jackson none of these presidents rise to Trump’s level. None had the mentality that the ends justified the means. Trump’s success makes him a singular danger to our democracy.

So sorry daughter, we are living the Chinese curse of living in interesting times. Polls suggest a Trump election win will be quite a stretch, but if anyone could pull it off Trump is demonstrating he has the skills and oratory to do it. Trump though is not unique, but simply the most articulate spokesman for the Republican brand. It’s a brand full of chest thumping, racism, classism and staking out unequivocal positions that have devolved into concerns about the size of Trump’s hands and penis. They are all doing it without qualification, except possibly John Kasich. These candidates will denounce Trump on the one hand but won’t take the next obvious step: saying they will not support him if he wins his party’s nomination.

This is because for all their claims of principle they really don’t have any. It’s not principle that drives them; it’s the lust for power. This puts them ever further on the extreme right as well as makes them back down from taking principled stands like saying they won’t support Trump if he wins their party’s nomination. They are all jockeying for power as best they can by keeping their options open. I was puzzling through Chris Christie’s endorsement of Donald Trump shortly after dropping out. Why was he doing this? The easy rationalization is that both are bullies and he identifies with a fellow bully. But the same can be said for most of the Republican candidates. I think Christie is hoping to be nominated as his running mate. I think he is further expecting that if Trump wins office he will eventually be impeached and removed, leaving him as president. It’s a tactic worthy of Frank Underwood; he was just the first to go there. While Christie may admire Trump for being a master bully, I think his real motivation is simply a lust for power.

The larger question is how do you undo something like this? It’s not like we are at the precipice. Lots of people are already jumping off the cliff into the political unknown. It’s time for the grownups not just to speak up but also to take real action. Mitt Romney says he won’t vote for Trump but did not suggest an alternative, which is hardly helpful. Establishment Republicans are trying to persuade voters in keystone states like Florida and Ohio to vote for someone else, but they appear too late to the game to change the dynamics. President Obama recently spoke out, but it was at a fundraiser. Changing the dynamics here though is pretty much impossible when the other party will refuse to even listen to you. Just for starters Republicans in Congress won’t even allow Obama’s budget director to present his budget, the first time this has ever been done. A Republican Senate also refuses to entertain a nominee for the Supreme Court.

We need an elder statesman with mojo and credibility to bring the parties together to tone down the rhetoric and is some marginal way change the conversation and up the civility factor. There is no one such person, unfortunately. Jimmy Carter comes to mind but Republicans would dismiss him.

We urgently need a national timeout. All these key muckrakers need to have a private conclave and hash this out. If I were President Obama I’d be on the phone with Mitt Romney. I’d be penciling in a date in a couple weeks at a private retreat like Camp David and use the power of shame (if it works) to bring all these blowhards together in one place to hash this out. This would include Republican and Democratic leadership in Congress and all the presidential candidates on both sides. It would also include chairs of the Democratic and Republican national committees. I’d include trained facilitators and psychologists to help ensure the meeting moves forward productively The topics would include: setting baselines for acceptable political behavior and setting up a process involving some compromise so that Congress and the President can work together in some minimal fashion through the election.

Would it work? The odds are against my proposal but someone needs to step forward and we need two brave people on both sides of the aisle. I don’t see any others who can play this role.

Sadly, nothing like this is likely to happen, but it needs to happen. Is there a grownup in the room?

 
The Thinker

Review: Witch

Witch, now playing in theaters is something of a head scratcher. Just what is director and writer Robert Eggers trying to say in this movie of a New England family circa 1630? Chances are that you will emerge from the movie as baffled as I was, so perhaps its meaning (if any) is intended to be in the eye of the beholder. The movie probably won’t leave you satisfied. If there were a “downer of the year” movie Witch would probably win the award and it’s only March. Boy, is it bleak!

That’s not to say this movie about a family ostracized in their New England plantation is not without merit. The acting is quite good and aside from the parents William (Ralph Ineson, who I mistook for Geoffrey Rush) and Katherine (Kate Dickie) it’s otherwise virtually an all-kid cast. Eggers gets fine performance out of these children, some of the best I’ve seen from kids since Haley Joel Osment’s portrayal of Cole in The Sixth Sense. It is also suitably creepy in an M. Night Shyamalan way, who of course took off big as the director in The Sixth Sense. This ostracized and overly religious family (no small thing by Puritan standards) leaves the plantation to make their own path with no compromise in their worship of God. They end up on a creepy meadow at the edge of a forest that reminds me of my new digs here in Western Massachusetts. Except it is always overcast on this meadow next to the forest, and William and Katherine’s reverence doesn’t seem to be of much help. It seems like God has mark against them. Something in their dreary lives they must have inspired his animosity. Maybe it was from all that praying and prostrating of themselves.

All this is a hint to expect nothing in the way of humor or levity in Witch. Get your Pilgrim spirit on and start channeling sermons like Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”. For it’s calamity after calamity in Witch and actual witchcraft seems to be at best a figment of their imaginations. Still, what else but witchcraft could cause their infant son to be mysteriously snatched away from them? It certainly doesn’t help matters when their blossoming daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), perhaps as a small act of rebellion against all the excessive Christianity, suggests to her younger siblings that she is a witch. Mostly Thomasin like most of the family seems to be dealing with PTSD. Their family may aspire to be devout but needs a lot of family therapy instead not to mention some fertile land. But all they have is each other and their good book and it’s not enough.

One thing is clear: the movie couldn’t have cost much to make. One short plantation scene and we are out in the middle of nowhere for the rest of the movie. Their farm is mostly a hovel and their efforts at farming aren’t working out. Is it the hunger and malnutrition that cause them to do loopy things? William takes his boy Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) into the woods to try to shoot their way to prosperity and William only manages to hurt himself all while hiding this from his wife.

Meanwhile director Eggers keeps throwing metaphors at us that you don’t know whether to take seriously or not. A wild rabbit eludes being shot and shows up at moments of great crisis. A sign of fertility? Things happen in the woods that may involve a witch but it’s hard to tell. Is it that or is all the PTSD causing the kids to hallucinate? They are obviously not getting their daily Flintstone vitamin. Whatever is bad goes to worse and it won’t be spoiling much to say it all devolves into the worst. Moreover, it’s a violent movie and quite gross in many places.

So that’s what you get: a lot of really good acting, an intimate story of life in the wilderness in early Puritan New England, metaphors like the rabbit and a ram and — not to spoil too much – a lot of people in this family will meet untimely ends. Thomasin seems to be the one most between a rock and a hard place. Her mom suspects she is a witch and wants her banished, but is too busy dealing with other traumas to do much about it. William is trying hard to be godly and devout but the harder he tries the more nature and real life proves his better. All this plus a lot of 17th century dialog that is accurate for the period but hard to parse; it’s like listening to Shakespeare but without the poetry.

So I think you will either walk out of the theater feeling unsatisfied or you will find some solace in the fine acting and directing and maybe see a meta-meaning to the film. This is one puzzle you can’t put together. Maybe it’s a movie designed to be a Rorschach test. Maybe it’s just a mess. Build your own answer. It’s a dreary bit of cinema but it is well done for whatever that is worth.

2.7 on my four-point scale. Generally this movie should be avoided unless movies with metaphors intrigue you, you want to scratch some Wiccan tendencies (and this will likely leave you unsatisfied) or you want to see really good child actors for a change. Scrimshaw does have an amazing death throes scene. You might want to go just for that.

Rating: ★★¾☆ 

 
The Thinker

Ending the privileged caste

Perhaps you’ve seen the “This is water” video. If you haven’t, spend nine minutes or so watching it:

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately and if you keep up on contemporary American politics it’s not hard to understand why. We tend to take for granted what is given to us. For example, I appreciated my father who passed away last month but at the same time I took him for granted. I assumed most sons had fathers of his caliber. It wasn’t until many decades later – and particularly after having gone through the fatherhood process myself – that I realized how exceptional he was. I was barely able to emulate him for one child. He did it for eight of us.

Most of us go through life vaguely aware at best of the enormous resources expended on our behalf. Like a fish in a fishbowl, we take them for granted. The easiest ones to appreciate are our parents, who also become the easiest to despise if they don’t live up to our expectations. It takes a village to raise a child, Hillary Clinton opined in her book, but it takes much more than a village. It takes resources from the family level to the international level. These include clean water (something the residents of Flint, Michigan no longer take for granted), committed teachers, police, our military, ministers, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, doctors, orthodontists and even diplomats. The list is endless. In general, the more you can avail yourself of these resources, the higher the standard of living and your opportunities are likely to be.

Some of us are more favored than others. As we grow to understand this, our privilege becomes painful to acknowledge and sets up cognitive dissonance. At some level we of some privilege realize that our privilege was purchased at the expense of someone else’s. The dissonance generally results in denial. I am seeing it played out on the national stage, particularly in the candidacy of Donald Trump. Trump is riding collective white cognitive dissonance to a likely Republican Party nomination. Why? It’s because it is easier for many of us whites to support someone like this than to acknowledge, or worse address the bald fact that we are greatly disproportionately privileged. It’s not that we are better than other people, it’s that we got special treatment because we live inside a privileged caste generations in the making. Just as the fish is not aware of the water most of us choose to be deliberately ignorant of our privileged status.

In fact many whites in the United States are not privileged at all. Visit Appalachia and you will see plenty of them. Their lives are just as unprivileged and harsh as is a black child’s living in public housing in Southeast Washington D.C. and may be worse. Nonetheless, many of these whites won’t acknowledge this. They sincerely believe that because they are white they are better than the non-whites. In fact, Trump and other Republican candidates are exploiting them by pretending to throw the shield of white privilege over them, privileges that largely do not exist.

The Republican message is in two parts. First, it’s that because you are white you are better and deserve privilege and if you vote for the others you will lose that privilege. Second, is that you are “temporarily impoverished millionaires”. You just need to do a few things by yourself (never with the help of others) to become successful.

Both these messages are lies but are lies that most of us cannot acknowledge even to ourselves. On the first point, we all know innately that skin color has no more bearing on your capacity than does eye color. We even say these words while doing largely the opposite, and most of us aren’t aware of our inconsistency. On the second point we also know this is a myth with only a tiny kernel of truth. This perhaps had some truth in the past, when there were fewer hurdles to success. It’s painfully obvious that today to really succeed you need lifelong coaching and resources, plus a certain amount of tenacity and luck. You cannot rise from humble shoeshine boy to Elon Musk through tenacity alone. In Musk’s case you have to inhabit a rich technological world and have both the talent and resources to ride these changes to your own success and profit. This won’t happen to poor working class Appalachians or black children in Southeast Washington D.C. It’s not completely impossible, but your odds of winning the lottery are much better. Perhaps that explains why so many middle and lower income people play the lottery in the first place.

For someone like me who is white, privileged and can see that his success is largely a result of the rich nutrient “water” in which I was raised, the question then becomes what should I do about it. Should I emulate Jesus and give all my riches to the poor? Should I help out in soup kitchens? Just how much of my treasure and time should I give back? Of course, I give back already. I do give money to charity; in fact it’s an item in the family budget, currently $250 a month. Much of it goes to Planned Parenthood, environmental causes, a local food bank and a local abused women’s shelter. On the latter, I recently had coffee with an outreach director of the local women’s shelter and offered my time as a volunteer, coach and mentor; however I could be of use. Since I am otherwise retired, I don’t have lack of time as an excuse.

Perhaps my efforts deserve a pat on the back, but considering how privileged I have been in this life it deserves not even that. Of course I am quite interested in changing the dynamics, which is why I am a Bernie Sanders supporter. It’s quite clear to me that this institutional racism and classism is baked into our laws. To truly address these problems, laborers first have to be paid a living wage. Needless to say Donald Trump and all the other Republican candidates are running away from this idea, which has the effect of keeping the same failed policies in place. This in turn ensures more decades of inequality and will effective keep the others in poverty and in their place for future generations. Increasingly, we are the others and we are voting against our own best interests. Most of the lemmings following Donald Trump are being used to their own disadvantage.

I do know at some point I will inherit some money. My father left everything to my stepmother, but their wills are similar. When she dies all of us children (including our stepmother’s) will get 5% of their estate. I have no idea how much their estate is worth, but I’m guessing it’s about a million dollars. So perhaps I will inherit $50,000 or so.

I have been talking about this future windfall with my wife. We should not need the money to improve our standard of living and in our case $50,000 really doesn’t buy a change in our standard of living anyhow. Our daughter will get a hefty share of our estate when we are gone. $50,000 though can do a whole lot for someone further down the food chain.

When the windfall finally arrives, I plan to find one underprivileged but promising person and use it to move them a rung up the ladder. Aside from greatly reducing my own standard of living (which is actually reasonably modest but better than most), giving away my inheritance is the only significantly meaningful thing I can do, but only if done right. If it moves one poor but talented person from a life behind a fast food counter to doing something that gives them both meaning and income, it may set about a cycle of virtuous changes that may take many generations to flower. I am unlikely to witness these, as I will be planted six feet underground. It seems that the best I can do to make amends is to plant a seed, water it while I can and hope.

 
The Thinker

Craigslist casual encounters weirdness: March 2016 (Worcester, MA) edition

In my monthly samplings of weird but reasonably local Craigslist casual encounters postings, I’ve missed Worcester (it’s pronounced “wooster”), Massachusetts. It’s about an hour east of where we are living. I don’t think about it principally because I haven’t visited it, just driven through it instead. But it is Massachusetts’ second largest city with close to 200,000 people. Situated a bit outside Boston’s outer beltway, it’s had a reputation for being a faded industrial city, one of many here in the Northeast. It also has its own Craigslist community so it’s likely to have plenty of people into weird stuff. I’ll get to that in a minute.

But first, let’s take a look at my February Craigslist post statistics. It’s been a very slow month for fans of my Craigslist posts. I can document at only 156 web hits in February, but site traffic in general was very slow last month. There were just 1514 web page views, so my Craigslist traffic was just ten percent of total traffic. 69 of those hits were for my popular May 2015 post about Hartford’s Craigslist casual encounters postings.

There is a light snow falling here today. Let’s see if this is suppressing the creativity of posters in the Worcester area. Pulling up the first page of posts I see:

  • 25 men looking for a woman
  • 61 men looking for man
  • 4 men looking for a couple
  • 2 men looking for a transgender
  • 5 women looking for a man
  • 0 women looking for a woman or a couple
  • 0 couples looking for anyone
  • 1 transgender looking for a man

So right off the bat it looks like men will be dominating the posts this month. Here we go!

  • Do you know what a tribute is? I mean in the kinky world of Craigslist. I had to look it up but it apparently involves a man jerking off on a picture of a hot woman and perhaps sending it to the woman hoping she will be aroused. If I were a woman and received one of these I would be calling the cops not to mention running for the Purex! In any event here’s a definitely weird post from a 52-year-old man from Acton looking for a man who will jerk him off on a picture of his wife. Curiously you have to do this while he is actually watching her, albeit surreptitiously, clothed or naked. Wow! This is exactly the sort of gem that makes this area so special! Just when you think you have seen it all, something new pops up. And it was the first post at the top of the page!
  • Even if you are “gurl” friendly, you will want to avoid this ugly “woman” from Milford. “She” gives you plenty of pictures just in case the first one isn’t enough to convince you to hurry to the next ad. Maybe you should choose this 37-year-old gurl.
  • I’m definitely behind on how sex reassignment surgery is done. Not feeling the inclination myself, it’s a mystery to me how the surgeons do this magic. Apparently in male to female surgery, the surgeon gets to shape the new woman’s private parts including her most sensitive spot, the clitoris. And that’s what this 51-year-old Worcester man is looking for: a new woman with an extra large clitoris. Presumably nature doesn’t provide this naturally to many women. It also helps if you are a “squirter”. Anyhow, if you got one, hit him up! He’d best not wait by his mailbox for replies.
  • He’s 52, divorced, from Shrewsbury and has a sandbox he wants a woman to play in with him. Ladies, bring your plastic shovel and bucket!
  • This is strange: a man looking for a couple so the woman can watch while he deep throats her husband. All this plus he’s 58. He must be particular however as you must live in Worcester.
  • If you are a 23-year-old male virgin perhaps making your first sexual experience with a couple is not a bad way to get introduced to sex. It’s unclear what role if any the husband has in this other than as voyeur. Just in case the couple ad doesn’t work out he also has a more traditional ad.
  • He’s 46-years-old, a recent widower and actually from Rhode Island and needs a fuck buddy while presumably he works through his grief. Or maybe since he’s looking he’s beyond that stage. Anyhow, unlike most of these posters he looks like a normal guy, so hit him up, ladies.
  • There are lots of bad things that can happen in a casual encounter, but a lot that can be avoided. Here’s a gay 45-year-old man from Winchendon who wants you to bring a camera so you can join him in taking pictures of them naked. As I’ve noted before, testosterone makes men suggest crazy things and this is definitely one of them.
  • He’s 42 and from Webster and is looking for Jennifer Sherman so that he can peak at her through her window again. I do hope this was consensual last time. Any Jennifer Shermans in the Webster area should lie low for a while and if asked say it must have been that other Jennifer Sherman. Which brings up another unwritten rule for these encounters: if you are stupid enough to go through with them, never tell him your last name.
  • He’s young, from Worcester, has nice abs and wants to see you (a woman) gain weight. No, really!
  • She 27 and really likes dominant men, so much so that her dominant husband is not dominant enough. So hubby needs help from a second super dominant man to finally put her in her place.
  • In a similar vein, here’s a couple from Worcester looking for a gay or bi guy to join them because she gets off on seeing man on man, or at least a man enjoying her husband. That sounds fair given that so many men are into watching lesbians. The ultimate goal here is double penetration of the same orifice.

While few women are posting in Worcester, I am impressed by the weird postings mostly from men in Worcester, so it’s definitely worth a return visit.

More in April.

 
The Thinker

Review: Spotlight

It’s not too hard to find the year’s best picture in theaters immediately after it wins the award. That’s where we were yesterday, in part because Tuesday means cheap date night: only $5.75 a ticket all day. If nothing else a Best Picture award suggests the movie is unlikely to be a loser. Spotlight won the award this year, against a host of other worthy contenders and my personal favorite of the bunch (of those I’ve seen), Mad Max: Fury Road. But first, a little rant.

Can anyone recall a Best Picture that was not released near the end of the year? I can’t. Why is this? It’s unclear to me but it is unfair. My personal suspicion is that those in the Academy who have voting privileges suffer from long term memory loss. But they do remember what they have seen recently, which is why it seems these pictures always seem to win in the end. Recognizing the reality the studios probably deliberately hold what they think is their best stuff for the end of the year. At least Mad Max: Fury Road was nominated even though it was outside of the cycle as was The Martian.

Anyhow, I set my expectations high for Best Picture, which left me leaving the theater after seeing Spotlight somewhat disappointed. It’s obviously not a bad movie. If you’ve seen All the President’s Men forty years earlier, you’ll know the plot. In this case the bad guy is not the President of the United States, but the entire Roman Catholic Church. Spotlight is the story of a group of Boston Globe reporters who broke the sex abuse scandal within the Roman Catholic Church, but more specifically within the Boston archdiocese. Boston though was just the tip of this iceberg, actually the tip of the tip. The excitement, such as it is in this movie, is from understanding the magnitude of the abuse, as it becomes clear at the end of the movie. It also comes from understanding why these crimes are so horrendous.

So it’s an interesting story full of twists and turns as you would expect but like All the President’s Men you know how it’s going to end up. The priests mess up a lot of kids, but no one actually dies, except possibly their souls. There’s not even a car chase. What comprises an exciting moment is definitely relative, but there is one near the climax as you would expect when one of the reporters (Mike, played by Mark Ruffalo) runs to the courthouse to get copies of some recently unsealed documents before the competition does. You take what you can get.

What you get is certainly good acting but nothing hugely out of the ordinary. Spotlight is an investigative team at the Globe overseen by Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton). Robby’s two reporters Sacha (Rachel McAdams) and Mike do most of the tedious grunt work. Fortunately they are well supported by the Globe’s staff, which is undergoing some reorganization. The big change is the new executive editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) who basically gives the Spotlight crew their marching orders. At first it’s unclear how this new fancy pants editor from Florida will do in cold and Catholic Boston, but he ends up fitting in pretty well with these Boston-bred reporters. This includes in their managerial chain Ben Bradley Jr. (yes, son of the editor featured in All the President’s Men) played by John Slattery of Mad Men fame.

There is no Deep Throat or dramatic scenes in parking garages in this movie. Much of the action takes place on doorsteps or in cafes where the reporters interview attorneys and abused victims. They form a tight and driven ensemble but soon sense a stonewall, which is the Catholic Church, which is deftly defending itself from potential legal action through a lot of cash payments, victim intimidation and legal tricks.

The best parts of the movie are the interviews with the abuse victims. Even if you are tuned into the scale of the church’s cover up, it still feels astounding when reporters fully uncover just how large of a cover up this is. Mostly the team succeeds through tenacity and wearing out lots of shoe leather.

The grubby feeling of the Boston Globe is well done, as are the cubicles stacked with papers where the reporters work. The makeup is minimal in this movie. Michael Keaton (whose Bird Man movie last year won Best Picture) is not aging well; in fact he looks much older than he is. Kudos perhaps to the actors for not caring. Ruffalo too looks incredibly ordinary and no Bruce Banner. McAdams was hard to recognize under all that frosted blonde hair. All held back much of their acting prowess, which was probably a good choice on the director’s part because it made the movie feel more plausible. Still, you pretty much get the movie you expect. I just did not get a movie that felt to me like it deserved to be in the Best Picture category.

3.2 out of four-points.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

 
The Thinker

The art and value of meeting up using meetup.com

Meetings once consumed my life. It was hard to get actual work done because I was too busy attending meetings. Shuffling from conference room to conference room all day drove me nuts since so little of the conversation was productive. Over time and mainly due to changing jobs more of my meetings became virtual. There were still plenty of meetings but they mainly involved conference lines and Webex sessions while you sat at your desks. Teams stared at virtual shared screens, where usually someone was pasting notes, but often we were off to look at websites collaboratively. When we were not in meetings there was continuous email and instant messaging streaming back and forth. You tried to work while all this was going on.

Mostly this went away when I retired. At first it was welcome but over time it felt weird. I am not wholly retired. To keep myself busy I started consulting part time. My work happens from home but my clients are all over the Internet. Mostly I use email, but occasionally when I need some face time I will kick up a Skype session with a client. POTS (plain old telephone service) works too for my clients who are less technologically fluent. My instant messaging service now is just Skype and it’s mostly with family.

Meeting in person is becoming a lost art. But when you work alone, as so many of us do these days in our new telecommuting universe, too much alone time is not good. You want to meet new people but it can be hard. There are the neighbors. Fortunately I live in a very social 55+ community, so there is plenty of neighborliness to be had, including a monthly guys-only dinner night and various social events. There is church but I’ve been slow to reengage in Unitarian Universalism since I moved. There are people you might chat with at the store, on the bike trail or at the park, but these are ephemeral. So mostly I talk to my spouse and my cats these days.

Being introverted it doesn’t particularly bother me to be somewhat socially isolated, but I did miss communing with fellow tech-heads. It used to be I lived in a nutrient-rich tech universe during my working hours. Now I can read stuff online but it’s not the same as direct person-to-person exchange and collaboration.

So I have been meeting up instead. In the 21st century this means going to meetup.com and finding events worth attending where you get to sit down with people who are essentially strangers and chat about something you have in common. Locally there are all sorts of meet ups I could attend, some of them pretty weird. For example, there is a Dr. Who meet up that I’ve encourage my wife to go to, since she is a Dr. Who fan, which I am not. There is a group for polyamorous people. For you unenlightened, this means people who feel pulled to having more than one intimate/romantic relationship at a time, ideally in the same household, and often with different genders, where ideally no jealousy is happening. Okay, whatever, not for me. Looking at my local meetup.com calendar I find that there are all sorts of stuff going on. Local atheists are meeting tomorrow night to take on Scientology. Guided mediation and shamanic drum journeying is happening on Tuesday. There is a Yoga & Beer meet up on Wednesday. I don’t know what they could possibly have in common.

Still, you go to meetup.com to find people like you. Given that I’m a techie I’m interested in techie meet ups. Surprising there is quite a bit of this stuff out here in Western Massachusetts. At first I found the experience a bit nervy, since I’m not the type to go into bars and talk with strangers. But to go to a restaurant or a meeting room in a library and talk with a bunch of tech people, well, all-righty then!

It started last summer when I ventured to a “Webdive”, which is basically a bunch of tech people (usually just guys) meeting at a watering hole in downtown Northampton, Massachusetts. There they drink beer, eat bar food and yammer on mostly about technical stuff. The bar food didn’t impress me but the quality of the technical conversation did. There was quite a buzz about AngularJS, a Javascript framework, and its many virtues. I was still in the jQuery world. It was useful to know this is where trends were going in many instances. Without the meet up, I likely would never have known.

Still, it’s hard to hold a meaningful conversation in a noisy bar. I didn’t need the calories either, although it was useful to find out how much tech was actually going on here in Western Massachusetts, where it seems hidden. So I started attending another meet up in Easthampton, Massachusetts. There in an old industrial building I met others in a startup’s office interested in “full stack” development. This turned into a much more interesting meeting, as the topics were topical and relevant. Wednesday night found about a dozen of us watching a demonstration of Travis, software used to continuously compile, test and deploy complex software systems. It’s neat stuff.

Last night I was at yet another meet up, this one across the Connecticut River in Amherst, on search marketing for websites. I happened to be friends with Roger the organizer, who I did some work for. While not particularly technical it was fascinating to learn how search engines (Google in particular) rank websites and what you can do to make your website more noticed by search engines. There is a lot of misinformation out there. We all found it relevant and useful. Not one of us walked out. We were so immersed in the stuff that we almost missed the library’s closing time.

Meet ups, principally facilitated by meetup.com are turning out to be important to me, both to meet like-minded people but also to keep up my technical prowess. There is also a lot of marketing going on between attendees. You learn not just to bring a notebook and take notes but also to bring business cards, because someone or more will probably want one. Curiously, these business cards come in handy. I got a query from a local network of technical people who needed some fast turnaround on a WordPress job. I was swamped, but I pulled out the business card of a guy who gave me his at a meet up. I recalled that he had the skills this person was looking for. He got some work and he sent me a little thank you note afterward.

So meet ups can be both interesting and profitable. There is no substitute for face-to-face encounters, particularly if you work alone. Meet ups are an easy way to market yourself and to keep up your skills, as well as meet other people you might want to collaborate with on future projects. You will often learn about local opportunities or listen to some interesting suggestions on markets in the area that need to be filled.

All this, plus I feel less socially isolated. I guess I’m a meetup.com kind of person after all.

 
The Thinker

State of the presidential race

And we’re off with another of my analyses of the 2016 presidential campaign. We’ve now had a few primaries and caucuses. Super Tuesday is a week away. Its results will clarify a lot of things and may very well show that my analysis today was quite off the mark. So it goes sometimes for us pundits. But these analyses are what people seem to want. I do notice that to the extent that posts get liked or shared, it’s from these posts.

On the Republican side, Jeb Bush has finally dropped out. Perhaps he felt he needed to make one last attempt in South Carolina to minimize family shame. Also gone are Carly Fiorina and Chris Christie. It appears that only three are really in the running now: Trump, Cruz and Rubio. Kasich is hanging in there along with Ben Carson but at this point those two are outliers. My betting is that Trump will be the nominee. I’m actually rooting for Cruz, not because I like him but because he’d be the easiest for a Democratic candidate to beat. He is so nasty. Rubio is the Democrats’ biggest threat. I expect that the Republican establishment will rally around Rubio but like with Jeb it’s probably a lost cause. Simply speaking, the Republican establishment simply doesn’t represent the Republican voters anymore. Republican voters don’t care about conservatism as they do about personalities. (Witness Trump’s recent takedown of George W. Bush on the Iraq War. It hasn’t affected his poll numbers.) They want someone who best channels their fears. Trump seems to do this best and is adroit and fending off competition. There is a slim chance of a brokered convention but such a convention would likely be the death of the Republican Party. Trump will bring the “establishment” in his coattails, with much wailing and gnashing of teeth from them.

On the Democratic side, Martin O’Malley is gone. Clinton showed a little moxie by winning the caucuses in Nevada on Saturday, but only by five points after Sanders predictably shellacked her in the New Hampshire primary. In actual pledged delegates she and Sanders are tied at 55 each, but Clinton claims a huge superdelegate lead. Superdelegates however tend to move toward the people’s choice. Clinton should know this best as she was boasting about this eight years ago. By the time the convention rolled around the superdelegates dutifully got behind Barack Obama, their party’s choice. So don’t pay much attention to the superdelegate buzz. However, Super Tuesday does favor Clinton. Eleven states are in play plus American Samoa and Democrats abroad. My predictions:

  • Clinton wins Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee and Texas
  • Sanders wins Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Vermont and Virginia

Of course the system is not winner take all, but the big prize is Texas (222 delegates). My guess is overall it will break 60% for Clinton and 40% for Sanders. Clinton should have some momentum coming out of Super Tuesday, but wins will be primarily a factor of the values in the states and especially the number of African Americans voting in these states. The national and state polls are mixed, but overall Sanders is catching up with Clinton. He must catch up quickly otherwise the delegate math will work against him.

Democrats need Sanders to win the nomination. This is because (like Obama in 2008) Sanders gives Democrats a reason to show up at the polls. Clinton (like Trump) is judged more unfavorably than favorably by voters and it’s unlikely that will change. However, Republicans are highly motivated in this election and they will be most motivated if Trump wins the nomination. So Democrats will need to at least match Republican motivation to win and Clinton is hardly a reason to get enthused. Polls consistently show that Sanders will win against any of the Republican candidates.

Understandably some Democrats are unenthusiastic about a Sanders nomination. Some don’t see him as a true Democrat because he only joined the party recently, having caucused with Democrats in the House and Senate. There are concerns that his socialist platform won’t sell or that he is too idealistic to be a good president, and would be a poor commander in chief. Clinton arguably addresses these concerns, but it comes at the expense of a higher probability of losing the general election. Sanders however is also likelier to have longer coattails and should bring in a new wave of younger and enthusiastic Democrats. You can’t really govern well without Congress behind you. Sanders is betting the farm on Democrats retaking the Senate and with a massive turnout in his favor Democrats could even retake the House.

One wild card is whether former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg runs for president as an independent. Should Clinton win the nomination (and particularly if Trump wins the Republican nomination) then a Bloomberg run is good for Democrats. The worst case is that Americans choose Bloomberg, which negates the worry that Trump would win. The likelier case is a repeat of the 1992 election when Ross Perot’s independent run effectively kept George H.W. Bush from being reelected, and put Bill Clinton in the White House. No independent has ever won the presidency so Bloomberg’s odds are slim at best, even with all his money, something he should know. He would also be effective in taking down Trump. It may take another billionaire to bring down Trump.

Anyhow, that’s how I read the tealeaves at the moment.

 
The Thinker

Book Review: The First Salute, by Barbara Tuchman

Barbara W. Tuchman (1912 – 1989), a noteworthy historian and author, churned out eleven histories in her career. I have read a couple of them over the years. Some, like A Distant Mirror can be challenging reads but all are flawlessly researched and illuminate periods of history that generally need illumination. Her last book, The First Salute is ostensibly about the American Revolution. In fact, the American Revolution feels sort of shortchanged in this 347-page book published a year before her death. It’s still interesting reading, but it’s just not what you expect from the subtitle: “A View of the American Revolution”.

And a view it is, principally from the Dutch perspective. I certainly had no idea that the Dutch had anything to do with our revolution. So I didn’t get quite what I was hoping for in learning about the American Revolution. Many battles of that war are at best alluded to, such as the Battle of Brandywine, rather than covered. Only the last year or so of the war is covered in any real details. You do get a new perspective of the war. The book’s main contribution is to illuminate who funded our Revolutionary War, and that turned out to be not just the French but also indirectly the Dutch.

To cast light on this part of our history, Tuchman takes us deep into the Dutch empire at the start of the Revolutionary War. You might think the Revolutionary War revolved around Lexington, Concord and Yorktown but much of the action actually happened out of country. Tuchman’s tale takes us frequently to St. Eustatius, a tiny island of just eight square miles in the Dutch West Indies, on the far eastern edge of the Caribbean Sea.

It was at St. Eustatius that the Dutch became the first government to salute a U.S. Navy vessel, thanks to its free-market governor. It was an act that effectively thumbed the Dutch nose at the British government. The Dutch were notorious free traders and St. Eustatius was the principle trading point for vessels of all sorts, mostly going between Europe and the Americas, and hence a strategic location that knitted together its empire. If you know anything about the Revolutionary War, you probably learned that colonists were upset by the British government’s taxation policies. It required that colonists buy British imported goods only. Living in the colonies was expensive, but doubly so when you had to pay usury rates for goods from the British East India Company. Americans involved in commerce quickly used their wide geographical disparity to run around these rules, mostly through smuggling as I noted in 2005 in a review of To Rule the Waves.

Since the Dutch didn’t like the British, but tried not to go to war with them, American vessels found it convenient to trade goods at St. Eustatius, often under the watch of British ships. The British tolerated St. Eustatius for many years but it eventually became too much for them. Sir George Rodney, a British admiral, eventually was given the task of invading St. Eustatius and other Dutch islands in the area, principally to help cripple this illicit trading with the United States. These acts though started a war between the Netherlands and Great Britain, a war Great Britain thought it could win but simply proved to show how overextended its empire had become as it fought wars with many great powers simultaneously.

Great Britain was at least empowered by the weak Dutch government and which had off and on again wars with Spain, which claimed territory nearby. Still, trade was the lifeblood of the Netherlands. Having its trade with America reduced made them angry and caused their economy to tank. The British were liberal boarding its vessels looking for contraband, and these actions too caused a lot of resentment.

Eventually the French allied with America but the Revolutionary War nearly sputtered to a halt simply from lack of funds to feed it. Funds bought what the Colonial Army really needed: basics like guns and gunpowder. Pay for troops was sporadic at best. The American public itself was divided on the war, roughly half supporting those wanting a new nation and half wanting America to remain a colony, but few willing to risk life and limb to achieve it. One of the most interesting aspects of the book was to learn just how precarious our army was, which was mostly a ragtag group of militias and volunteers frequently hungry and impoverished.

The first half of the book sets the stage for the second half, which finally takes us mostly into America and follows George Washington as he tries to maneuver his troops intelligently across the colonies. This was a time that preceded the railroads. Moving troops by sea was usually not an option due to the British blockade, so troops had to walk, often surreptitiously around British strongholds like New York City. With often little more than cattle tracks between cities, movement of troops took a lot of time. Lots of volunteers found it too much and simply went home. Intelligence was spotty at best. It took a lot of British bungling, good fortune and Washington’s strategic thinking to bring the war to its end in Virginia with Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown. It also took the French, and French General Lafayette’s help to neatly box the British inside the Chesapeake Bay, to end the war and start a new nation. It’s curious how few of us know that the French army and navy helped win our independence.

Tuchman’s major accomplishment is this backstory, particularly how important the Dutch turned out to be in our revolution. It was not through much in the way of overt aid but in how the British discovered that bloodying the Dutch proved counterproductive, and engaged other macro forces that found it to their advantage to support America. George Washington and his colonial troops (plus troops supplied by Lafayette at the end of the war) certainly won the war in the United States, but it’s unlikely it would have succeeded had not engagement with the Dutch kicked off all sorts of events elsewhere in the world. This would move so many pieces on the chessboard that these actions far from America’s shores would prove pivotal in our eventual victory.

 
The Thinker

Justice Scalia’s untimely departure

One week later and I’m finally back blogging. Mostly I was out of town attending my father’s memorial service and all the family events that go along with it. It was all quite a blur. While my family grieved, reconnected and moved forward, the world kept moving forward too, I just wasn’t paying much attention. In politics this included a Republican and Democratic debate (which events forced me to miss) and the sudden death of Justice Scalia on Saturday, which I did not miss.

We were winding down from family events at a friends’ house when the news of Scalia’s death was announced. Almost in the same breath everyone had moved past the death of a man and onto the many political implications of who would replace the conservative jurist. It was embarrassing on both sides. Within an hour Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) announced the Senate would not take up the confirmation of an Obama nominee. A couple of hours later President Obama was saying nice things about Scalia while letting everyone know he was going to nominate a new justice anyhow. Scalia’s body had not even cooled!

And then the real craziness began. Candidates for president started chiming in not on Scalia’s career but on what they thought should be done about his replacement. CNN and all the news channels went into overdrive with mostly poorly informed opinions about what this transition means. Liberals cheered while conservatives started filling the moat with crocodiles and raising the drawbridge. In some ways this was everyone’s worst nightmare. The timing of Scalia’s death was disastrous. Even Democrats would have preferred that he finish the current year before expiring. As if we needed one more reason to heighten the importance of the coming election!

I’ve been sorting out all the opinions and analysis out there about what it all means. As a public service, I thought I’d distill it all down for you.

First, this is going to upset the Supreme Court applecart for the first time since Richard Nixon was president. For four decades the court has been balanced between liberals and conservatives, with decisions generally leaning toward the conservatives thanks to mostly Republican presidents. Scalia of course is perhaps the most prominent conservative on the court and certainly was its loudest one. Brass and opinionated with little interest in judicial decorum, he mouthed off all the time about stuff he should have saved for a memoir. Virtually anyone who replaces Scalia will by definition be less conservative than he is. The only chance Republicans have is if (a) a Republican president is elected in November, (b) he turns out to be very conservative and (c) the Senate does not switch to a Democratic majority again, which is at least a 50:50 probability. So it’s virtually certain that the balance is going to be tipped, at least in the more moderate direction, whether it happens soon or with a new president.

Second, not confirming a new justice will in many ways make things worse for Republicans. Scalia was a reliably conservative vote on the court, so with just eight members during this term decisions will break toward the liberal side. Tied decisions will either revert to the decision made by the appellate court or justices could decide to rehear the case at a later time. Since judges appointed by Democratic presidents control roughly two thirds of the appellate courts, most decisions will bend left minus Scalia’s vote. If the Senate approved another justice it would allow the possibility that at least some of these cases could bend toward the right. Another possible ripple: it may give Democrats extra incentive to turn out to vote, perhaps in larger numbers than Republicans, in which case it may enlarge expected electoral losses by Republicans. In short, by being unnecessarily obstructionist and dogmatic, Senate Republicans are effectively stomping on their own feet.

Third, there is nothing in the constitution that says the president may defer action simply because he is in his final year of office. President Obama is required to make a nomination. Not making a nomination would actually be grounds for his impeachment. The Constitution is quite clear in the Appointments Clause by using the word shall (which is legally binding); it’s a solemn duty he must perform. The Senate must approve or reject the nomination. Excessive delays by the Senate are potentially unconstitutional too. We could see a court case to determine if the Senate must vote on appointments within a reasonable period of time. So suggestions that Obama simply defer nominating anyone would be perilous politically and constitutionally.

Fourth, there is legal precedent for Obama to make a recess appointment for a temporary justice to see out his term. The Senate is currently out of session and a previous Supreme Court ruling stated that such appointments could be made if the Senate is out of session for three days or more. Justice William Brennan got a recess appointment this way from President Eisenhower; Brennan was subsequently confirmed. I don’t expect Obama to go this route but if Republicans are adamant that they won’t hold a vote until after he leaves office, this is one method that appears to be legal that he could use.

Fifth, Scalia’s death and the extreme reactions by Republicans to filling his seat point to the tenuous hold that Republicans have on Congress. It doesn’t seem that way, particularly with their commanding majority in the House. Their House majority is largely a result of gerrymandering following the 2010 census. However, America’s demographics are quickly changing in a more liberal direction. Not only have Republicans done little to address these facts, they’ve made their problem worse by doubling down on policies that inflame voters that might otherwise vote for them. My suspicion is that ten years from now we’ll look at Scalia’s death as the beginning of the end of Republican control of government.

 

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