The Islamic State

Do yourself a favor and watch this VICE News video on ISIS.  Warning: there are some very graphic images at times.

What amazes me the most about the video is how perfectly normal and perfectly matter of fact most of the ISIS people seem.  Well, until they cut off your head or crucify you.  It’s almost surreal.  Their daily experience is so far removed from what we are used to and the veneer on the horrors that they are perpetrating only cracks every once in a while.  What especially got me was the policing of the Sharia Law stuff.  So polite, almost courteous.  So deadly.  It gives me chills.

VICE News is doing some amazing reporting around the world.  Their in-depth reporting is around the best I’ve seen.  It’s what real reporting should be.

Book Review: Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet Of Wonder by Lawrence Weschler

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

The world is an exceedingly strange place.  Take the Museum of Jurassic Technology, for instance.  It is certainly a museum.  But what the heck is Jurassic Technology?  Well, keep guessing, because the museum’s curator, David Wilson, will only give you an answer that is equal parts satisfying and confusing.  The exhibits in the museum are equal parts baffling and revealing.  All are tantalizingly real, with professional audio and authoritative sounding placards.  You want to believe they’re true.  After all, they’re in a museum.  And some of them are real, but you’re never quite sure which.  Thus begins “Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology”.  Weschler describes many of the exhibits on his first visit to the museum and later tries to fact check some of them.  Down the rabbit hole we go.

David Wilson is an anachronism.  Here it is, the 20th century (the book was written in the 1990′s), and here is this beautifully maintained museum of nonsense.  Well not nonsense, but certainly not sense either.  The museum is a throw-back to when rich people collected the oddities of the world and displayed them for public consumption.  Somewhere down the line, logic and reason took over and we now have large museums of peer-reviewed exhibits instead of the hodge-podge collection like Wilson’s.  This is both a blessing and a curse.

The book is split into three parts.  The first part is quite entertaining as it describes both the museum and introduces us to the curator and his family.  I was mildly put off by Weschler’s prolific use of SAT words near the beginning, but I either got used to it or became resigned to the fact that a place as odd as the Museum of Jurassic Technology deserves triple word score words.  The second part kind of lost me.  It goes into excruciating, and often dry, detail of the history of Wunderkammer, or Wonder Cabinets, of which the Museum of Jurassic Technology is a worthy successor.  There is some interesting historical sleuthing here, but Weschler’s use of notes, which can span pages, to add more depth to topics he is discussing really threw me with having to constantly page back and forth from the story to the notes section.  Many of the notes, I was left wondering why he didn’t just include it in the main text.  Part three wraps things up satisfyingly as we travel back to the Museum of Jurassic Technology and are once again treated to the many oddities the Museum has to offer.

The book is a decent read.  It really makes you think.  For instance, after reading about so many truths and half-truths and lies and mischaracterizations associated with the various Wunderkammen, who’s to say that anything Weschler wrote is the truth.  Who’s to say that the Museum of Jurassic Technology actually exists.  After reading “Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder”, you’ll look at the world slightly differently than you did going in.

Movie Review: Lucy

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

Bottom Line: A very fun movie if you don’t think about it so hard.  Decent plot with some great visuals.

Did you know that humans only use 10% of their brain?  You did?  Well you shouldn’t because we don’t.  Regardless, that’s the premise of “Lucy”.  Not a good way to start.  The good news is that they very quickly establish that the science in the film is going to be over the top made up so the 10% lie actually fits.  I would have probably hated the movie otherwise.

Scarlett Johansson does a great job playing the titular Lucy.  Lucy is a woman on an extended vacation in Taipei.  She ends up going on a delivery drop with her boyfriend who ends up forcing her to make the delivery herself.  We are treated to cut over shots of a mouse approaching a trap and then a gazelle being stalked by cheetahs.  I absolutely loved this as a cinematic device.  It helps build the tension in what would normally be just a woman waiting for a person to come meet her.

Of course, you know that Lucy eventually has something happen to her that makes her able to use more than 10% of her brain.  The lead up to that is very fun.  At no point do you really quite know what’s going on.  I assume this is on purpose since you’re basically seeing everything from Lucy’s point of view.

Once Lucy gets her powers, we’re treated to a roller coaster action sequence as Lucy goes on a rampage taking out the people who did this to her.  It is all well done and it’s quite fun watching Lucy attain more and more powers as she unlocks more and more of her brain’s capacity.  We’re treated to her digging into people’s minds to get information, Lucy changing her appearance simply with a thought, and her being able to visualize phone calls that are going on around her and picking the one that she wants to listen to.

Really, the only downside to the movie is the ending where we’re treated to a longish sequence of visuals which don’t really serve much purpose.  Lucy is also quite inconsistent in who she kills and who she lets live.  This is partially because it wouldn’t be much of a story if she killed the main bad guy right away.  I also like to think, though, that her inconsistency is due more to her not even recognizing humanity as alive after her powers manifest to a certain point.

As long as you remember to turn off your brain, “Lucy” is a heck of a lot of fun.  I think this is a requirement for enjoying this movie.  Enjoy.

Book Review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Jean-Paul’s rating: 3/5 Stars

I picked up “Gone Girl” because I had just finished my previous book and because it was both immediately available to download from the library and I had just seen that it was going to become a Ben Afleck movie.  I had heard of “Gone Girl” before, but it never piqued my interest until I saw about the movie, which I will still likely see despite my, as you will see, somewhat tepid review of the book.  As a general rule, I like to read the books before I see the movie.

“Gone Girl” starts out quite good.  The two main characters, Amy Dunne and Nick Dunne, are fleshed out really nicely.  The storytelling for the first half of the book is done alternating between a first person perspective through Nick’s eyes starting the day Amy disappears and a series of Amy’s diary entries retelling events from years ago when Amy and Nick first met up to the day that Amy disappears.  It is a very cool, very effective way to tell a story.  If only the story it had to tell was worth it.

My biggest problem with the story was the incessant bludgeoning of the reader with detective story cliché after cliché.  When the twist comes along, you get to understand that all the clichés are kind of the point, but by that time you already feel like you’re stuck in a crappy detective novel.

What saves the book is that the twist is pretty freaking cool.  I will not give anything away, but suffice to say, I was very pleasantly surprised at it and it fit in very nicely with everything that came before.  Unfortunately, it then proceeds into another series of clichés that again reduces it to more of a tedious than enjoyable read.

The end is a huge let-down.  It does one of those leave you hanging things where you’re left to wonder what happens to everyone.  Normally, I go for this kind of things, but the preceding events are so outside of normal human experience that it’s very difficult to come to any conclusion as to what any of the characters are thinking.  Seriously, there is some effed up psychological stuff going on here, which is again, kind of cool.

In the end, the problem with “Gone Girl” is that it doesn’t really cover any new ground.  It’s the same old ground that twists into the same old ground.  A cool twist is not enough to save a book.  So why would I ever want to see the movie, you may ask?  Because, in the right hands, I think this could make for a very good movie and I am interested in seeing how they bring the twists and ending to the big screen.  We shall see.

Movie Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 2/5 stars

Bottom line: Some good action.  Close to zero character development.  Close to zero laughs.

How do you make Will Arnett not funny?  Star him in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”.  Seriously, Michael Bay, how do you make Will Arnett not funny?  Joining Will Arnett in not being funny was everyone else in the cast.  The saddest thing was you could tell how very hard they were trying to make things funny, but there was no material to work with.  All the comedy was shoehorned in there along with a bunch of poorly executed nudge-nudge-wink-wink references to the old TMNT series.  Please tell me you made a lot of money on this movie, Will.

And then there’s the character development.  Or lack thereof.  You have April O’Neil (Megan Fox) whose entire schtick is telling people how she wants to be a serious reporter over and over again.  Then there’s Vernon Fenwick (Will Arnett) whose entire purpose is to drive April everywhere and pine for her.  There were also four turtles who we get to know by them repeating their names.  I’m Leonardo and I’m the leader!  I’m Michelangelo and I’m the goofball.  I’m Donatello and I’m the smart one, see, I have glasses!  I’m Raphael and I’m the broody one.

There are a few kind of cool action scenes.  The best is the one where they inexplicably choose a semi-truck with trailer as an escape vehicle and go sliding down an inexplicably snow covered mountain with other vehicles in pursuit.  The final battle against the Shredder was also decent enough before being ruined by some unbelievable silliness.

There’s not much to say about the plot.  The origin story is different than the TMNT of old, but it’s not so bad.  The Foot Clan is reduced to machine gunning mercenaries with a few ninjas thrown in for good measure.  Of course, Splinter almost dies and the Turtles need to save his life while simultaneously saving the world.  How they are able to save Splinter’s life is beyond idiotic.  They basically give him an infusion of their own blood because it has magical healing powers.  But, um, wouldn’t Splinter’s blood also have that healing power?  The answer is yes, yes it would.

“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” is decidedly in the do not go to see category.  Save your nostalgia for a rainy day at home where you can loudly lament Michael Bay killing another childhood memory.

Movie Review: Guardians Of The Galaxy

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

Bottom Line: A very enjoyable variation on the Superhero theme of movie.  Lots of likeable characters, some good humor, slightly touching.  The larger ship fight action scenes fall flat because they are mostly impossible to follow.

Well, Marvel has yet another winning franchise.  Who’d a thunk that a movie about a bunch of misfit heroes with pretty much zero name recognition would be both a success and as good as it actually was?  A lot of this has to do with the fine cast of second tier stars.  Chris Pratt started off a little soft and appeared to be a little uncomfortable as Peter Quill (Starlord), but he very quickly pulled it all together to create an incredibly likeable character.  The interactions between Gamora (Zoe Salander) and Drax (Dave Bautista) were entertaining.  Vin Diesel gives the acting performance of his life as Groot.  And Bradley Cooper steals scene after scene as the raccoon, Rocket.

The key to this film’s success is actual, honest to goodness character development.  Marvel seems to be really good at this, but this is really the first time they have gone full-bore introducing five new heroes and yet still cram the story full of character development for all five of them while at the same time telling a pretty decent story.  Another key factor to this movie’s success is the lightness of the story.  Yes, serious stuff is happening all around, but there’s also always time for a well placed and very well-timed joke.  Like when Rocket says he needs the prisoner’s mechanical leg to help them escape.  Classic.

The only real downside to the movie were the way too hectic battle scenes.  The close up action worked really well, but get more than a few ships speeding across the screen at the same time and you really can’t tell what’s going on.  Messy visual spectaculars are all the rage these days, unfortunately.  Of course, it doesn’t really matter what’s going on in those scenes so it’s easy to look past it.

Yep, there will be another “Guardians of the Galaxy” movie, you can all but guarantee it.  This one was too fun and appears to be as successful as it needs to be to make it happen.  It’s a great group of characters and I’m looking forward to seeing their next adventure.  In the meantime, I’m sure I’ll watch this movie again once or twice.

This Is What Progress Looks Like

EqualityChartB2014.07.28

I learned an interesting fact.  Illinois was the first state to rescind it’s anti-sodomy law back in 1961.  From there we had a gradual decline until in 2003 where the Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas ruled anti-sodomy laws unconstitutional.  Then, from that zero point, we quickly see growth in the legality of same-sex marriage and many anti-same-sex marriage laws being struck down by the courts.  I give it ten years tops before we see that graph hit 100%.

Movie Review: Hercules

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

Bottom Line: After a disappointing start, this is a movie that is both entertaining enough and engaging enough to watch from the comfort of your own home.

Let’s get something straight right off the bat.  This movie is not about Hercules the Greek mythological being.  Wait, that’s not quite true.  This movie is about a man named Hercules who is both big and powerful and creates the myth of Hercules the Greek mythological being to help him and his crew of mercenaries land paying gigs.  After some initial disappointment of not seeing a movie based on Hercules’ twelve labors, I found that I liked what they did to spin Hercules’ myth around an all too human, if impossibly large, man.  Keep this all in mind if you plan to see the movie.

With that out of the way, what you have in “Hercules” is basically a better than average Dungeons & Dragons campaign.  You’ve got a rag-tag group of adventurers including a fighter, an archer, a barbarian, a thief, and a mystic who go on various quests for both gold and glory.  After completing a side quest, they are engaged in their main quest to save a village from an evil usurper intent on taking over a peaceful kingdom.  There are plot twists and betrayals and even some tying in character’s back-stories into the main plot.  Now I want to play D&D.

The humor in the movie is decent if a little over-acted at times.  The movie is also surprisingly endearing.  Hercules develops his mercenary followers by both helping them and treating them kindly and this is revealed throughout the movie.  How they do this is pretty cool.  The movie starts with a quick retelling of many of Hercules’ labors as the myths describe them.  Then, throughout the movie, you see the interactions between Hercules and his companions and get to know a little bit of how they came to follow him.  Finally, in the end credits, you are treated to a comic book retelling of Hercules’ labors showing how his friends actually helped him complete each of the labors.

“Hercules” is a fun if forgettable movie.  I don’t think I’d recommend seeing it in the theater unless you want to get your D&D friends together and geek out to it or if you just really like Dwayne Johnson.

All You Need To Know About Economics

There are two things I know about economics:

  1. Making money move makes money multiply.
  2. Money has a tendency to accumulate in one place.

Point number one is a variation on you have to spend money to make money.  The more any given dollar exchanges hands for goods or services, the more robust the economy is.  This should strike everyone as completely non-controversial.  Basically, if money is not exchanging hands, it might as well just be a paper weight.

Point number two is a variation on the rich get richer.  All things being equal, money tends to float to the top and into the hands of a very few people where a majority of it stops exchanging hands.  So what we get is a trillion dollar paper weight at the top of the economic pyramid.  This one is probably a little controversial, but there is enough history to show this to be true unless steps are taken to prevent it.

What do these two points mean?  Well, to me, it means that seeding the lower economic levels with money would lead to an marked increase of economic growth.  The poorest of the poor need to spend money.  They only don’t because they don’t have the money.  All that extra money circulates back into the economy immediately causing goods to be purchased which causes more goods to be made which causes more jobs to be created which causes rich people to make more money.  It’s the great economic circle of life.

So, what steps should we take?

Top on my list would be to treat all capital the same.  Right now, we have this backwards system of taxation that taxes money made from working a job at higher rates than money made from stocks and dividends.  Tax all capital equally and we create an economic playing field that is still woefully lopsided, but at least evens how everyone is taxed on that playing field.  Removing just the capital gains and dividend preferences would also give the federal government about $38 billion per year in extra income.  Next on my list would be raising the top income tax brackets back to the late 1940′s level.  That would make the top tax rate somewhere above 80%.  And before you go complaining that rates that high will hurt economic growth, average GDP growth during that time was over 15%.  That isn’t to say that the high rate helped economic growth, because there is zero correlation between the top tax rate and economic growth, it’s more to show that it won’t hurt it.

And what do we do with all of this extra money?  I’ve always liked the idea of a minimum income.  Every non-dependent adult receives $1,000 or so a month from the government.  Those that have a job would receive more, perhaps $1,500.  This system both provides for those who can’t or won’t find a job and provides an incentive for people to have a job.

I believe this system will prime the economic pump and cause the economic circle to keep rolling.  Booms may end up being less boomy, but busts would also become less busty.

Book Review: Dracula by Bram Stoker

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

“Dracula” is a book with a really good premise written by a man with no idea how to tell a compelling story.  The story is equal parts brilliance and plodding nonsense.  It is written as a series of journal entries that detail the actions of the protagonists.  It’s an interesting literary device, but it mostly falls flat because of the fact that most action happens “off camera”, so to speak, with the journal entries retelling things that happened to other people.  This makes it very difficult for the reader to establish a mood.

Despite that, there are some great parts.  Right at the beginning, the retelling of Jonathan Harker’s journey to Transylvania and his encounters with Dracula and the denizens of his castle makes for some very compelling reading.  Another bright spot is Dr. Seward’s retelling of his encounters with Renfield, who is one of only two interesting characters in the book.  Other than that, there is strewn here and there tidbits of compelling reading, but it never lasts for very long.

To show just how poor Stoker’s sense of pacing is, he goes straight from Harker in Transylvania to an overly long description of Lucy’s courtship of three suitors.  The sole purpose of this is to establish how the three of them end up joining in on the hunt for Dracula.  So we get to read page after page of courtship nonsense just so we can be introduced to Jack Seward, Arthur Holmwood, and Quncey Morris.  Of the three, only Dr. Jack Seward has a real reason to exist as he is the connecting tissue between all of the main characters.  The other two are blandly one-dimensional window dressing.

Interesting character number two is Wilhelmina Murray, or Mina, as she is called throughout the book.  Mina is probably as close to feminist as female characters were allowed to be in the late 1800′s.  She is strong-willed, intelligent, and comes up with almost every breakthrough in the group’s hunt for Dracula.  Of course, it’s still the late 1800′s so she is also the plot device to keep what flimsy of a storyline there is going.  Time after time, we have the men praising her for her strength only to immediately backpedal and go with the “oh, but you are a woman and thus must be protected by us manly men” trope.

The story itself relies on a series of not fully explained details, like Jonathan Harker’s escape from Castle Dracula, and poorly reasoned decision making to keep things moving.  This turns what could have been a page-turning monster hunt thriller into an eye-rolling, saw that coming a mile away, yawn fest.

Despite the book’s many flaws, I can still see why hundreds of years later the world is still enthralled by Dracula and by vampires in general.  Like many good ideas with poor follow through (I’m looking at you H.P. Lovecraft), much that has come since is superior to the source material.  It is still worth while to read where it all began if to only see how far Dracula has come.