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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

BLEG TWICE

I have a couple of requests today I want to offer.  I know this is a tough time of year, and despite the news reports, most people are doing badly in the economy but if you can possibly help, please do.
The first person who could use some help is my cousin Kevin. He was clearing tree branches away from the house and fell off the ladder, breaking his neck.  He lived, but was almost paralyzed and has to spend three months at least immobilized in bed.  Always an active, energetic guy, this is driving him nuts, but he has a bigger problem.
He didn't have much in the way of health insurance, and is self employed as a concert promoter - he's done some pretty big shows and has been successful but he's far from wealthy and is making much less money now that he's not out there with his contacts and personality.  So he could use some help with the bills, if possible.

The second is Gerard Vanderleun, who runs American Digest.  His blog is a great one with plenty of interesting and thoughtful posts, analysis, poetry, and some profoundly deep thinking, as well as a sidebar that is packed with fun and thought-provoking bits.  He's in a bit of a jam and could use some help as well:
My recent move seems to have drained my never-too-overwhelming reserves. Hence, after eleven years, I thought I might pass the hat among my readers for the first time. I'm new to this "Donate" business but I am informed that Paypal's Donation button here should work. Let me know if it doesn't and I'll work to fix it. To paraphrase Chicago politicians, "If you feel the need to donate, donate early and donate often."
Just wanted to pass along some needs, if you can at all help.

Friday, November 14, 2014

UNDER - RATED (clap clap clapclapclap)

"Your time will be gauged along with a rating of one to ten on your style, which will be judged solely by me and my vast expertise of skiing technique."

I got into a discussion last night with some people online about the movie To Live and Die in LA with William Peterson (now better known for his run on CSI).  Directed by William Friedkin, it has a heavy Michael Mann feel to it, and while this film is not very well know it is a very, very good crime drama.
TLADILA is one of those stories that doesn't go anywhere you expect but has a very satisfying and reasonable story arc, and was very well acted and shot.  It has some of the most shocking and amazing sequences and events I've ever seen in a movie, and introduced me (and millions of others) to bunji jumping before it was really known anywhere.
Evidently, the film makers brought in a convicted counterfeiter as a consultant and actually made counterfeit money, some of which evidently got into circulation and the treasury department picked it up.
But it got me thinking about other underrated films, classics that people missed and really ought to see.  Like The Hidden, a 1987 sci fi gem featuring a young Claudia Christian (from Babylon 5) as a stripper turned alien death machine.  This is a film that was very low budget but worked very well probably in part because it didn't have a large budget. Kyle MacLachlan starred in it, a very early role for the block of wood.
Better Off Dead is such a favorite I forget a lot of people have never even heard of this film. Its one of the best teen comedies of all times, and while its pretty 80s dated it still holds up for raw humor.  John Cusack was at his best in this kind of role, and the whole film is just a bundle of surreal events and absolute hilarity.  Trivia in this movie: Lane's mom is played by Kim Darby, the girl from True Grit!
The Long Kiss Goodnight was a very solid, interesting action movie (and used the "my spouse is a spy??" bit before True Lies)  but never got much attention largely because the previous Geena Davis attempt was the godawful pirate movie Cutthroat Island.  When that terrible, budget busting disaster bombed, people just figured this movie would be more of the same, which is too bad.
Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood is certainly in the running for the longest title contest in film history, but its also one of the funniest movies I've ever seen.  Done before the Wayans brothers totally lost their way, this spoofs every "hard hitting inner city" gang movie ever made, and in the process actually has better and more effective social commentary than the serious films ever did.  Often crude and foul, but always hilarious, this film was a great time.
Ang Lee's Hulk gets a lot of grief for the CGI dogs, which I agree were pretty weak.  But the overall film was very powerful, and the slow reveal of Bruce Banner's pain was incredibly well crafted storytelling.  Nick Nolte steals the film as the amoral, demented scientist father who ends up a cross between the Absorbing Man and Zaxx and the Hulk does some amazing Hulky stuff.  Its a lot better than people say, but the problem is they got a thoughtful story rather than Hulk smashing, so they were disappointed by expectations.
Last Action Hero is starting to get some second looks, because after all this time people can finally detatch from what they expected from Arnold and what they got.  Its a hilarious send up of Arnie's earlier over-the-top action films with touching and thoughtful themes that are actually quite well handled.  Its just a ton of fun and I could never figure out the hate it received.
The Batman Adventures animated series surprised everyone with how well done, interesting, and well-crafted it was.  This style of animation has spawned a whole industry of comics, games, TV shows and more.  And one thing that came out of it was a series of films that didn't get nearly the attention they deserved Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was one such film, a terrific moody and emotional piece that explored an unknown part of Bruce Wayne and Gotham City's past (lets just say Batman wasn't Gotham City's first masked vigilante).
Blood Simple was the Coen Brothers' first film together and its an independent classic but little known to non film buffs.  Its a great noire film with terrific performances from some major but lesser known talents.  A dark, bloody film of crime gone wrong and the efforts to break out of it, this is classic Coen Brothers writing done on a shoestring budget.
There was a horror film put out in the late 80s with the usual brat pack suspects called Flatliners that got a lot of attention but had a pretty weak story.  It was a decent film but not nearly as good as a film that came out about the same taime called Jacob's Ladder which scared the crap out of me.  The overall film is as confusing as it needs to be with shockingly dark and frightening imagery as someone tries to figure out what the hell is going on, almost literally.  I won't give away what is actually happening because in part that's never 100% clear but its a great, spooky film.  Of course, I haven't seen this since Tim Robbins lost his mind during the Bush administration and became so indelibly obnoxious, so perhaps it might not be as enjoyable now.
The Tailor of Panama is a spy movie Pierce Brosnan made while making Bond movies which is a pretty amazing boldness on his part.  Its also a little-known film that was very well done and was largely ignored by the public.  A much more realistic and well-crafted story about spying than the Bond films, and a great example of how good an actor Brosnan really is, but gets little credit for.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a film everyone should see.  Just about the first movie Robert Downey jr made after he turned his life around, and the last movie Val Kilmer did before he put on the weight and stopped caring about being a matinee idol, its a hilarious but gripping detective movie.  It doesn't go the way you expect it to, and Downey plays very much against type but does an amazing job of it in the process.
Another lost gem was the movie Drive with Ryan Gosling in one of the most underplayed, understated performances ever.  Its such a quiet, almost soothing movie with real excitement in it that it kind of defies category or explanation.  You just have to watch it to see.  I think again this film confused viewers by being thoughtful and emotionally compelling rather than exciting violence and Fast & Furious driving.
And finally Alien3 which was a much better film than people came away thinking, but it was simply hated by critics and a lot of viewers.  I think the problem is that they went into it expecting Aliens part two and got an atmospheric tragedy instead. Again a victim of mistaken expectations, this was a really enjoyable film and it showed how the basic concept of the predatory alien could be done in so many different ways, like a film school experiment.
I looked at some lists of underrated movies in the past and kept running into films that I remember being very well received and praised, such as Open Range, Miller's Crossing, and Copland, so its tough to decide what really belongs on a list like this or not.  I'm sure commenters have a few thoughts on the matter as well.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

LEGAL WEED

"Universities must have policies in line with the federal Drug Free Schools law or risk losing federal financial aid for its students"

Voters in Oregon have passed a legalized marijuana law.  It really was just a matter of time, given that pot is one of the state's largest cash crops (off the books) and the general trend of society.  The actual legalization doesn't take place until next year, but people are already celebrating by smoking since the state's attorney general has announced they won't be busting anyone for weed that's legal under the upcoming law.
The biggest reason for the shift is that Colorado made huge tax dollars off of pot sales (although I strongly suspect that will taper off dramatically over time), but years of weed being popularized and used publicly without any consequence played their part as well.
When I was in school, drugs were looked down on as being used by losers.  Weed was the stuff your annoying trashy older brother and sister used, the old hippies you wish would just go away.  It was in the 90s that rappers brought it back into the public eye as being "cool" again, and after a while it seemed police just didn't care if you had a few joints on you, unless they really needed a reason to pick you up.
I'm conflicted on this one.  On one hand, doing stupid stuff to yourself has to be permitted in a free society and the federal drug laws are unconstitutional (the constitution gives no power to the federal government to regulate drugs within state borders).  On the other hand, smoking pot is bad not just to the person involved but to others around them.
Cops are very opposed to legalizing any drugs because they have a hard enough time handling drunk drivers without making more stoned drivers hit the road.  As I wrote about a while back, pot actually can make you a bad driver, but unlike alcohol, there is no useable, reliable field sobriety test for weed.  Stinking of bale isn't enough of an indication.  And it really does stink.
And there's a deleterious effect on productivity for most users.  As the ZMan writes:
I’m OK with the repairman sucking on a cancer stick while he repairs the lift. Nicotine helps concentration. The same repairman doing bong hits before working on the lift is probably about to kill a bunch of people. Of course, he probably called out of work so he can play video games and eat chips all day, but that’s another story.
The thing is, it varies.  Chemicals never affect two different people the exact same way.  In fact, they can vary from day to day on the same person.  Both marijuana and alcohol are depressants, but we all know at least one person that gets more violent and aggressive while drunk.  Certainly reducing inhibitions in some people is a very bad idea.  We've seen example after example of mass shooters and serial killers being pot users and that's no coincidence.
So pot won't necessarily result in someone doing poor, sloppy, inattentive, or sluggish work.  It probably will, because that's its typical effect on human beings, and almost certainly will with the great majority of people, but it won't always.
Smoking pot is a stupid, stupid thing to do.  Its a very nasty carcinogen and its bad for your brain, as studies have shown conclusively.  It tends to make you more lazy and less productive, effectively removing you from being a useful member of society, particularly as while every pot smoker claims they can control it and only use it once in a while, its rare that is true.
But at the same time, being no benefit to society is not a punishable negative.  its not something society should take action against.  Certainly its not something that society should take an effort to assist in or compensate for: if you are too worthless and stoned to get a job, I don't think anyone else should be compelled to pay for your rent or even food. 
But liberty has to include the freedom to do stupid self destructive stuff.  If you want to eat lousy food, or too much, or smoke, or skydive, or jam metal spikes through your skin or distort and stain your skin by being stabbed thousands of times with dyed needles, that's your problem.
What the long-term effects of legal pot will be is anybody's guess.  I can see it being overall a negative, but how much of one is unclear.  Its likely that the more states that make weed legal, the less tourism countries like the Netherlands will get - and not propping up their ridiculous economic system will only benefit the world by showing how untenable it is.
One of the great myths of legal drugs is that it will reduce drug-related crime.  But drug-related crimes are generally caused by people who need their drug and will break the law to feed that need.  And the more someone is under the control of a drug, the less under control of themselves they are - and the less productive and likely they are to have money to pay for drugs.  So more people using drugs means a greater likelihood of drug related crime, not less.  Especially as government shops overcharge grossly, encouraging smuggling and illegal sales that legalization was supposed to end.
The problem is that legal pot changes a lot of things that aren't immediately obvious.  Businesses need to add pot to their rules and guides just like alcohol.  You can't come to work drunk and expect to keep your job - you can't come to work stoned, either.  Even a little buzz will annoy employers.
And its not just businesses.  Seattle University recently suspended students for selling pot brownies on campus.  Now I always understood that marijuana tasted awful, but apparently there are ways to cook it that reduce that nasty flavor.  But the problem is, these "medical" brownies were being sold all over campus, and its not permissible in the college to sell drugs of any kind.
Plus, colleges and universities rely on significant amounts of federal funding and eligibility for grants and other student financing.  By violating federal drug laws, they risk losing that all and money is truly the bottom line for these organizations.
And this is what it comes down to right now: just because its legal, doesn't mean you ought to be doing it.  You can legally strip naked but that doesn't mean you can do so in the line at McDonald's.  Its a matter of when and where, of learning limits and boundaries.
But in the modern era, the concept of "appropriate" is considered a horrible tyranny and some brutal oppression.  And societal limits are seen not as a structure to maintain a polite coherent culture, but targets to rip down and mock.  So a change like this, which might have found out its reasonable limits in time decades past now is likely to be very a real problem.
We'll see how it turns out over time.  But I'm not sanguine.

Monday, November 10, 2014

INJUSTICE PROJECT

"Once they convinced Simon it was for his own good, he was all in."

In 1999, a man was set free from death row by the confession of another man for his crimes.  This and the storm of publicity around it from the Innocence Project ended up ending the death penalty in Illinois.
The confession was to the Innocence Project, and was taped and given to police who investigated and the man ended up in prison.  Strangely, despite the confession, he claimed innocence all the time in prison.
And it turns out that perhaps he really was innocent, because he was recently set free after 15 years in prison.  The man, named Alstory Simon, was set free from a 37 year sentence after a Cook County state's attorney investigated the case and the Innocence Project its self.
Innocence Project is a coalition of lawyers and activists working to end the death penalty.  They are convinced that lots of people who didn't commit the crime at all are on death row, despite it being one of the most legally difficult cases to prove; a death penalty sentence is extremely challenging to achieve.
The Innocence Project claims it has set many people free who were wrongly convicted, and that this proves that the death penalty is evil and should be stopped.  After all, they argue, if someone is dead then they can't be set free from an unjust conviction were they actually innocent.
But the Cook County investigation is throwing some doubt on the project and its tactics.  Jim Stingle writes in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:
The investigation by the Innocence Project, she said, "involved a series of alarming tactics that were not only coercive and absolutely unacceptable by law enforcement standards, they were potentially in violation of Mr. Simon's constitutionally protected rights."
...
But that neat and clean narrative unraveled with the discovery of how the confession by Simon was obtained. Protess discovered that Green's mother had mentioned Simon was with Green and Hillard at the park the day of the murders, so Protess went after Simon in an effort to clear Porter.
Members of the Innocence Project showed up at his house posing as cops.  They told him that they knew he was the real murderer, and he needed to confess if he wanted to avoid the death penalty.
Now, lets stop right here. If you're a cop, you already know what's coming, but think about it: what leverage did this group use to get a confession?  What is going to get a hardened criminal not that concerned about jail time to confess, saving the state time and money, and maybe even give up fellow criminals?  A penalty worse than the one he's comfortable with.
So by their very actions, this group showed the value of the death penalty as a potential threat.  The irony is thick in this story.
But we go on.  The fake cops then showed him a video of his ex-wife implicating him for the crime (she later recanted on her death bed in 2005), and another video of a supposed witness to the crime.  Except that witness turned out to be an actor.  So they pressured him into confessing to something based on an embittered woman's anger and an actor.
They coached Simon through a videotaped confession, promising him a light sentence and money from book and movie deals on the case. Simon, admittedly on a three-day crack cocaine bender, struggled to understand what was going on.
Oh, but it gets worse.  They set Simon up with a lawyer, for free.  Except that lawyer was a friend to the victims of the crime.  Further, that lawyer - Jack Rimland - was in on the fix and part of the Innocence Project effort.
Basically they railroaded a stoned guy who didn't know much of what was going on to confess to a crime he never committed, using lies and deception, violating his civil rights and foisting an attorney hostile to his cause on him, to set a guilty man free.  And they did it for a "higher cause" of ending the death penalty.
This is what I call "ethical pragmatism" where the end justifies the means.  What they were trying to achieve was considered so holy and righteous that anything they did to reach that goal was thereby sanctified.  It wasn't wrong to lie and frame an man innocent of this crime and set a murderer free, because the goal was so lofty and just.
The man behind it (David Protess) has been suspended at Northwestern University (he is a professor of journalism) but is the president of the Chicago Innocence Project chapter.
Perhaps this is the only case where the Innocence Project distorted the system and lied, cheated, and violated human rights to get their job done.  Perhaps every other time they were perfectly ethical and just in their actions and Protess was just an exception in his zeal and drive for personal status, or something.
I have no doubt that many, perhaps most if not nearly all of the cases the Innocence Project has managed to overturn have been valid and proper justice.  I am sure that many innocent people have been put in prison through history - we can all think of at least a few (such as Corrie Ten Boom for instance).
But like a dirty cop, this casts doubt on every case the Project has been involved in.  It makes you wonder about all the people they've set free.  The fact that a reporter, several students, and a professor were so willing to utterly ruin and frame a black man to achieve their goals makes me wonder about the entire Innocence Project.
Certainly a valuable project would be to dig closer into all their work so far.  Because they've demonstrated at least once that the Project is willing to do anything and ruin anyone to accomplish their goals.