Monday, June 18, 2018

Border Family Separation Needs to Stop

The biggest story in the news recently has been the United States government's policy of separating children of illegal immigrants from their parents. It's a terrible situation on a whole host of levels, it's completely unnecessary, and the President needs to make it stop.
Children and parents are separated in this country for all kinds of reasons. Some are legit, such as abuse, and that's as it should be. Others are financial, such as when a parent is arrested for a crime (whether guilty or not) and can't afford bail. It's been going on for a long time, and we mostly don't notice because the people it happens to aren't in our daily lives. But we're noticing when hundreds or thousands of children are being taken away at the border, and that's by design.

The Trump administration made a specific change to enforcement to enact this separation. As far as I can tell (not a lawyer but I've read opinions by those who are), it's perfectly legal because the actual laws don't say exactly how illegal immigrants should be detained. By the same token, when President Trump says the Democrats or Congress created laws that are causing this situation, that's a lie. There's discretion for the administration to go either way on this, and they're using it.

One argument being put forward is that this is a necessary policy to slow illegal immigration, but that's false. We've managed to deal with illegal immigration for decades without taking this particular step, and the illegal population has been stable or declining since before President Obama took office in 2009. It's not necessary to cause the kind of harm that is being done to these families if your goal is to reduce illegal immigration, as we've been doing for years. On the other hand, if your goal is to break up families for political purposes, then the policy makes sense.

Why do this now? There's a lot of speculation about that. Personally, I subscribe to the idea that Trump is making one of his standard negotiation moves. He says or does something incendiary, gets a lot of people all riled up, then offers to stop if they'll give him something he wants. In this case, that's asking Congress for "tremendous security" on the border...read that as funding for his wall and putting even tighter restrictions on legal immigration. The President wants a big uproar over this issue, and he's getting it.

This is not new. The administration tried the same thing six months ago. Back then Trump was threatening to remove protections for DACA recipients, and demanding more or less the same things in order to keep those young people safe from deportation. There was enough push-back that Trump didn't get what he wanted then, and so the administration decided to try again with a different kind of incendiary action.

I know people who don't think this is a bad thing. "People who can't obey the laws and enter the country legally deserve whatever treatment they get." "We need to make the results of illegal immigration harsh enough to make people stop coming." I understand those arguments, and even sympathize to some extent.

But...you need to draw a line somewhere. If there's no line, we'd just kill everyone trying to enter the country, and pretty much everyone agrees that would be morally reprehensible. The impact on these kids from this experience is going to last for years, and it's completely avoidable. Using those kids' pain to advance a political agenda is well on the wrong side of the moral line, and it needs to stop.

The President can stop this inhumane and unnecessary policy of family separation any time he likes. Don't believe it when he or anyone else tells you otherwise. Make your voice heard on this issue however you can, whether that be through posts like this one, calls to your representatives, protests, or whatever else works for you. And consider making your voice heard where it matters most...when you next vote.

Update June 21: So the President has indeed done what many have been calling for and stopped the family separations at the border. (Despite his repeated claims that Congress had to do it.) This doesn't fix the damage already done, but at least it's a step in the right direction.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

The Moon Etherium by L. Rowyn

The Moon EtheriumThe Moon Etherium by L. Rowyn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The world of The Moon Etherium is a complex magical dimension, inhabited by immortal fey. They gather around sources of aether, which powers their magical abilities, forming societies called etheriums. The Sun and Moon Etheriums are rivals, but similar in that their immortal populations pass the time in complex social and political intrigues.

The story primarily follows Miro of the Sun Etherium and Ardent of the Moon Etherium. This unlikely pair comes together in an effort to rescue Miro's father from slavery, and prevent massive magical destruction in the process. Romance, betrayal, intrigue, political upheaval...all kinds of havoc results before all is resolved.

The Moon Etherium is reasonably well written, but in my opinion it suffers from poor pacing and is overly complex. The first three-quarters of the book contains a lot of world description, various kinds of magical and social maneuverings, and budding romance. The explanation of all the magical wardings and spells and such is particularly long and detailed. I was getting pretty bored, to be honest, until I reached the last quarter of the book. At that point, events move much more quickly as the flow of the story changes...change of viewpoint characters, much less personal relationship development, lots of world-shaking political developments.

For fast readers who don't mind that the story takes quite a while to develop, The Moon Etherium is an interesting read. I think it could benefit from more aggressive editing, but it's still an enjoyable story.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story

Solo: A Star Wars Story is a decent movie. Not a great one, as I suspect many fans were hoping; and not a terrible one, as much of the Internet would have you believe.

Solo is an origin story for Han Solo, that lovable rogue from the original Star Wars films. Starting from his lowly origins as a orphaned urchin on Corellia, Han talks and fights his way into and out of any number of improbable situations on his way to becoming the smuggler we know. Along the way we see him meet Chewbacca and Lando Calrissian, and of course find the Millennium Falcon.

I went into this expecting to see how Han met Chewie, and maybe some other stuff. Which is pretty much exactly what I got out of it. Just about everything involving Chewie was great...I particularly liked that he rescued another Wookie at one point...and the rest of the movie was decent, but nothing spectacular. They filled in a few gaps (like what exactly the Kessel Run was) and expanded on the smuggler's underworld that Han inhabits. Sure, there were some silly bits (like making the marauders into a proto-Rebellion) but I'm used to that with Star Wars. (Midichlorians, anyone?)

I didn't think any of the actors did an exceptional job, but none of them were terrible either. Donald Glover was the best of the bunch as Lando, but his role was too minor to really stand out. Alden Ehrenreich is no Harrison Ford, but that would be true of just about anybody, and I thought his Han was solid but not particularly noteworthy. Neither Woody Harrelson nor Emelia Clarke impressed me much with their performances, but it's not like they were terrible. Just kinda mediocre.

The writers clearly tried to interject some social commentary into the film, most notably with Lando's droid L3-37 (oh, haha, what a clever name) agitating for droid rights. Which, in my opinion, fell completely flat because they couldn't decide whether it should be a serious issue or comic relief. Going back and forth between the two failed miserably.

There's been a ton of angst all over the Internet about how Solo had a poor performance at the box office. I doubt Disney is losing much sleep over that, because they're still going to make millions overall (merchandise, DVD sales, etc). And even if they do lose some money on this one, the Star Wars franchise isn't in danger any time soon.

For Star Wars fans, it's worth seeing Solo for a bit more story about characters that you already know. You'll likely have a good time watching, but I doubt you'll find much that stands out.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Grimoire of Zero

I'm not entirely sure why Grimoire of Zero was a fun watch, but I sure did enjoy it.
Zero kara Hajimeru MahÃ… no Sho, volume 1.jpg
Grimoire of Zero is a very familiar story. It's a medieval world where magic is real, and our heroes are a mercenary fighter and a witch. They should be enemies, but find a way to work together. There's a girl disguised as a boy, witch hunts by ignorant/frightened people, and an evil mastermind. About all that makes this setup different from a thousand others is that the fighter is a beastman, but really any kind of defect/failing that made him a bit of an outcast from society would have worked just as well. And to be fair, the story in the last couple of episodes does veer a bit off the "defeat the evil mastermind" track.

Usually I don't really enjoy shows/books/etc that are very predictable or derivative. But something makes Grimoire of Zero work for me. I think most of it is the relationship between the main characters. It progresses from mutual suspicion to a business arrangement to respect to real friendship (with bumps along the way, of course). That relationship progression is still very predictable, but it's handled nicely and both parties are likable.

It also helps that Grimoire of Zero is well produced, with good artwork and voice acting. And there's very little fluff - at only twelve episodes, there's not a lot of room for anything that isn't part of the main story. There's some minor digressions in the usual anime way - jokes about food, annoying middle-school-level sexual innuendo - but they're short. I'm fairly sure I'd have liked it much less if there had been lots of filler, but keeping the storyline moving meant I didn't have time to lose interest.

If you like the sword-and-sorcery anime genre, it's worth giving Grimoire of Zero a try.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Representative Amash Town Hall (May 2018)

My congressional representative Justin Amash held a town hall meeting in Caledonia at the high school just after Memorial Day. Nice location choice, since it's about a 4 minute drive from home for me.

As always, I appreciate Amash's willingness to hold these public town hall meetings. So many politicians just don't bother, and it doesn't seem to matter much since they keep getting re-elected anyway. Amash conducts his business professionally and in a courteous manner, so no matter how much I may disagree with some of his positions, I respect how he carries out his responsibilities.

The meeting started with the congressman talking about how the legislative process is broken. This isn't new...he's been making the same points in one form or another since I started attending these things several years ago. The short version is that party leadership (both Republican and Democrat) controls the process of writing and amending legislation so tightly that rank-and-file representatives have no real control over what is brought up for votes. That means compromise legislation that might actually be able to pass is never created (via the amendment process) and/or brought to the floor for a vote. Most representatives go along with this because the party leaders control a lot of their election campaign funding, plus it means they don't have to go on the record on controversial issues.

I don't disagree with this assessment, but I feel like Amash is preaching to the choir. We're the district that elected a guy who bucks the system. (Well, not me personally, I didn't vote for him. But the district did.) Telling us about it doesn't help much. What he needs to be doing is using his platform as a member of Congress to reach a national audience, if he really believes that going back to a more open legislative process is a key component to improving how Congress works. Convince voters in other districts to get after their representatives about joining Amash in making changes.

After that came the Q&A session, which was scheduled for about 40 minutes but lasted more like 90. That's pretty common for Amash, in my experience, and very much not what you see from other politicians. He seems to genuinely want to hear from as many constituents as possible. A lot of the questions were about current news items and he didn't say anything really unexpected. Yes, Mueller should finish his investigation into Russia and the 2016 presidential election; no, immigrant children should not be separated from their parents at the border; yes, we should hold our leaders to a standard of telling the truth. He was careful not to call out President Trump directly on any of these things, but otherwise it was fairly standard stuff like you might read in any news story.

One question that was a bit different brought up Amash's vote for the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act back in December 2017. In his response, Amash claimed that the tax cuts were progressive, moving the tax burden toward wealthier Americans. I have no idea what he's referring to. A quick web search will give you any number of opposite assertions, including this one from the Tax Policy Center. And if you add in the corporate tax cuts, which mostly benefit the wealthier folks that can afford to own those companies, it's even more tilted to favor the wealthy. I don't know if Amash was confused, misinformed, or what...I choose to believe he wasn't intentionally lying since he's not done so in other areas to the best of my knowledge.

It's good to hear directly from my representative, even if the answers aren't always exactly what you'd want to hear. It would be nice if my Senators and state legislators would do the same someday.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

A Handmaid's Tale (season one)

There's a great movie or 3-4 hour mini-series in the first season of A Handmaid's Tale. Unfortunately it's spread out over about 10 hours of excruciating repetition.

The Handmaid's Tale intertitle.png
The series takes place in an alternate timeline where world-wide fertility rates have been falling for many years, and finally reached crisis levels in the present day. A group calling itself the Sons of Jacob takes over the continental United States and turns it into a military state called Gilead, where women have no rights except through their male relatives. Fertile women are singled out and made into "handmaids" who are assigned to Gilead leaders to bear their children.

The story follows a woman named June who attempts to escape to Canada with her husband and daughter, but fails and is captured. Her daughter is taken away and June is assigned to Gilead Commander Waterford as a handmaid named Offred. The series splits time following June and the other handmaids in their lives in Boston, and flashing back to how things changed from the world we know to this dystopia.

I enjoyed the first couple of episodes of A Handmaid's Tale. It takes some time to figure out the world that they've built, and for June's terrible situation to really sink in. But then it's pretty much just more of the same. Hours of filling in details about the past which were already implied by prior flashbacks, conflicts between June and Mrs. Waterford, handmaids attempting rebellion and being caught, and so on. You might get 5-10 minutes of actual new information in each episode. The rest is largely just emotional manipulation...sex, oppression, fear, and occasional glimpses of kindness...so the viewer feels like something is happening when it's really just the same stuff over and over. We got all that already, thanks, it's not necessary to beat us over the head with it.

Oh, there are twists, but they're incredibly obvious. I suppose this is technically spoiler territory, but was anyone really surprised that June ends up sleeping with the household driver? Or that one of the handmaids, after giving birth in her assigned household, goes crazy when they take her away to a different household? Or that her husband who was conveniently off-screen when June heard shots that "killed" him turns out to be alive in Canada?

I suspect a lot of the reason that A Handmaid's Tale was received so well is the social commentary. The entire premise is based on misogyny and the twisting of religion to justify it. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to draw a line from the present day to the events in the alternate timeline shown in the series. But to my mind, the fact that the series says some good things doesn't excuse the fact that it gets repetitive and boring.

There's a second season of A Handmaid's Tale being released gradually on Hulu, but I can't say I'm particularly enthusiastic about it. Maybe someday I'll consider finishing it, but I suspect I'll end up just reading the summaries and saving myself a few hours.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

NBC's Timeless

There were quite a few time travel shows that popped up 2-3 years ago. I've written about DC's Legends of Tomorrow on the CW (which has improved greatly since a weak season 1) and Netflix's Travelers. Frequency on the CW was pretty good, but only lasted one season. And on NBC, we have Timeless.

Timeless (TV) logo.png
The world of Timeless: Time travel has been invented with the backing of deep pockets from a shadowy organization called Rittenhouse. They want to use the time ship to entrench their own positions and mold society to their ideals, which needless to say aren't progressive or friendly to anyone outside their group. A small team of uncorrupted government agents and civilians use a prototype time ship to thwart those schemes.

Like most shows based on time travel, you can't think too deeply about the premise of Timeless. The only real restriction is that you can't travel to place where you already exist, and there's ways around that (like recruiting others). The show establishes pretty early that changes made in the past do affect the future, so you have to ignore the fact that it would be incredibly easy to make a mistake that would wipe out your desired result, the development of time travel, or even all life on Earth. So watching Timeless definitely requires you to turn off the bit of your brain that tries to make sense of the whole time travel aspect.

Once you've got that suspension of disbelief going, Timeless is a lot of fun. I like pretty much all the characters, particularly Jiya and Rufus since they're nerds like me. (Younger and smarter and better looking, but then, who on TV isn't?) There's a decent amount of family and interpersonal drama that for the most part doesn't detract from the overall storyline, and in fact usually plays into it. Nice to have writers that make an effort to integrate the emotional drama, not just tossing it in on the side.

But my favorite part of Timeless is the historical characters. Pretty much every week, the crew goes to a different part of history and meets one or more pivotal persons. There's plenty of the usual suspects: the Alamo with Bowie and Crockett, Bonnie and Clyde, the revolutionary war with Benedict Arnold and George Washington, Al Capone and Eliot Ness in Chicago, etc. But some of the best stories are with lesser known characters, like Katherine Johnson at NASA (better known now after Hidden Figures) or blues musician Robert Johnson. Timeless does a fine job of bringing these characters to life, generally with a minimum of deviation from what we know from history. (The Smithsonian does a weekly blog post checking the facts.)

The second season wrapped up recently, with a cliffhanger that shows that the writers are ready to go for season 3. Hopefully NBC lets them keep going, or someone else picks it up.