Stephen W. Browne Rants and Raves

April 30, 2013

I adore Lenore

Filed under: Education,Personal — Stephen W. Browne @ 1:39 pm

Note: Cross-posted on my professional blog at the Marshall Independent.

Lenore Skenazy is a columnist who usually writes from a light humorous perspective.

Not surprising, she used to write for MAD Magazine back when it was still good, and is the author of “The Dysfunctional Family Christmas Songbook.”

She’s also “the worst mother in the world” according to quite a few people a few years back after she let her 9-year-old son go home alone from midtown Manhattan on the subway.

Aside from her column, which you can find over at creators.com under “liberal opinion” she has a blog “Free Range Kids.”

And Skenazy authored a book for parents, “Free-Range Kids, How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry).”

Skenazy explained the origin of the Free Range Kids movement on her blog:

“Somehow, a whole lot of parents are just convinced that nothing outside the home is safe. At the same time, they’re also convinced that their children are helpless to fend for themselves. While most of these parents walked to school as kids, or hiked the woods — or even took public transportation — they can’t imagine their own offspring doing the same thing.

They have lost confidence in everything: Their neighborhood. Their kids. And their own ability to teach their children how to get by in the world. As a result, they batten down the hatches.”

I have to confess, I’ve shared these fears. I’m a single dad raising two kids. My son is eleven and a moose so I don’t worry two much about him. But my daughter is six and just entirely too bold for my peace of mind sometimes. She insists her brother does not need to walk her home from school (all of three blocks).

OK, I’m good with that. But the other day she went and crossed a busy street by herself…

I have to remind myself when I was six I walked to and from school every day in Castro Valley, California. There were two ways. I could either go down the street, round a corner and walk up the street, a distance that was probably at least a half-mile.

Or I could take a short cut up a hill and across a cow pasture.

I try to remind myself of that every time my heart starts pounding and my breathing gets rapid.

There’s a term for parents with unrealistic fears and uncontrollable anxiety about their children, “helicopter parent.” It goes waaaaay beyond a healthy concern for our kids’ welfare to the land of Phobia. And unfortunately it’s institutionalized in our schools due to our lawsuit culture, and yes a lot of sensationalist journalism.

Lenore has the cure, and one could do worse than have a look at her blog.

April 28, 2013

Review: Oblivion

Filed under: Movies — Stephen W. Browne @ 12:25 pm

Note: This appeared in the print-only TV Guide of the Marshall Independent.

Then out spake brave Horatius, the Captain of the Gate:
“To every man upon this earth, death cometh soon or late;
And how can man die better than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of his Gods,

“Horatius at the Bridge” by Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay

Don’t worry, it’s good and I’m going to recommend it. I have a weakness for movies that use good poetry as crucial plot elements.

But I’m also going to vent about a nonsensical plot element.

“Oblivion” is visually beautiful and tautly-paced as it moves through a set of revelations that All Is Not What It Seems. Revelations that always kept a step ahead of me, and I’ve read a lot of science fiction.

The movie is based on an eight-page treatment for a graphic novel, written by Joseph Kosinski who also directed.

Kosinski previously directed only “Tron: Legacy,” a short feature and some commercials. His background is in architecture and it shows. I REALLY want a tower house like he designed for the film.

The casting is as minimalist as the decor of the living quarters. There are seven actors with speaking parts, only four of whom have more than a few lines of dialog.

In the year 2077 Commander Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and his partner and lover Victoria Olsen (Andrea Riseborough) are two of the last people on Earth, or so they believe. They live in a tower house high above an earth ravaged by an alien invasion. Humanity won the war, but the Moon was destroyed and Earth so damaged the survivors are moving to Titan, a moon of Saturn. Or so it seems.

Gigantic machines are pumping the oceans into the sky to make Titan habitable, or so it seems. Jack’s job is to fly around in a very cool craft repairing robot drones that keep the last of the “scavs,” machines left by the alien invaders, from sabotaging the strip mining of Earth. Victoria stays home as ground control, and communicates with Sally (Melissa Leo) at Mission Control on the orbiting Tet, a gigantic spacecraft that will eventually carry the survivors to Titan. Or so it seems.

Jack and Victoria have been given mandatory memory wipes, for security purposes. But Jack has been having dreams of a beautiful woman who seems to be part of his past on Earth before the war.

You can guess he’s going to find her, and he does, in suspended animation in the wreckage of a crashed spaceship. Jack saves her after the drones kill all the other survivors.

Her name is Julia (Olga Kurylenko) and when he revives her, she looks at him and says, “Jack.”

The film moves very quickly from there, in ways of course I can’t tell you.

There are other survivors. The mission is not what it seems. Jack is not what he seems.

There is some good stuff in here that raises questions about what it means to be human, and what the price of knowledge is. Jack realizes what he thinks he knows doesn’t jibe with what he sees, and is determined to find out what is real.

That’s where “Horatius” comes in. He finds a copy of “Lays of Ancient Rome” in the ruins of a building and reads the verse that presages his fate.

Victoria ultimately does not want to know. She wants to cling to her comforting illusion, and in the end Jack cannot save her.

Between them stands Julia, and what she means to Jack’s past.

Kurylenko’s role in the film is so crucial it’s a bit surprising to realize how little dialog she has. With Kurylenko you don’t really care, she had a major part in one movie in which she played a mute (“Centurion” 2010), and makes overalls look like haute couture.

Morgan Freeman as Malcolm Beech, leader of the last survivors on Earth, is in only three scenes but the whole outcome hinges on his part.

There are some nice touches, such as the question Sally ends every communication with, “Are you still an effective team?”

You don’t realize the importance of that question until the answer is, “No.”

There are some cute allusions, loving tributes to the SciFi movie genre and of course who could miss Tetris.

They’ve even managed to end with both heroic sacrifice and a happy ending.

Now my personal kvetch. Oceans of ice are available essentially free in the cometary belt and ice moons of Saturn, minerals in the asteroid belt. There is no conceivable reason for aliens to go deep into Earth’s gravity well for either.

Guys could you please use your imagination and come up with a plausible excuse for aliens to invade the earth? I bet it would generate some pretty neat story ideas too.

April 23, 2013

Boston

Filed under: Op-eds,Terrorism — Stephen W. Browne @ 2:27 pm

Note: This is my weekly op-ed column.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev is dead and his brother Dzhokhar is in custody, which is the way it ought to be by rights. Yet there are people unhappy about it.

The two brothers were from Chechnya, a majority Muslim territory in the Caucasus, occupied but never completely subdued by Russia since 1834. After the breakup of the Soviet Union the Chechens attempted to win back their independence, a rebellion that was broken with Soviet-style brutality.

Chechnya has been on my radar for a while, since I was living in the former Soviet Bloc countries during the First and Second Chechen Wars. Polish friends of mine were involved in projects to take humanitarian supplies overland to the Chechen resistance leader Dzhokhar Dudayev, before he was killed by the Russians.

The brothers were taken in by the United States as refugees, nurtured, accepted, and educated by this marvelously diverse, tolerant, and welcoming country.

They repaid us by murdering a little boy and two young women, one a guest in our country who was deserving of its protection. They maimed dozens more, then killed a cop and wounded another as they sought to flee.

From the beginning a number of us thought this was most likely the work of Muslim jihadists, though the more responsible waited for more definite indications.

Usually when the terrorism comes from any of the jihadist organizations gathered under the loose coordinating group called Al-Queda there is a claim of responsibility after a short period.

That there wasn’t an announcement wasn’t surprising though. More murders and attempted murders than we are comfortable acknowledging are perpetrated by

Muslims who’ve been living in this country for some time before they explode in what scholar Daniel Pipes labeled “Sudden Jihad Syndrome.”

In these cases we usually find a pattern of radicalization of alienated immigrants fostered by Islamic centers run by jihadist sympathizers, sometimes online as in the case of Major Nidal Hassan, the Ft. Hood murderer.

This presents problems to deal with in terms of immigration policy, police surveillance, etc.

But we can handle it. The response of the people of Boston, the people of America, and friends abroad has been magnificent.

There are reports of runners knocked down by the blast who picked themselves up and staggered over the finish line. Bystanders obeyed their first impulse after the blasts and ran, not away but towards those they saw needed help.

The Boston Red Socks traditionally play “Sweet Caroline” in the middle of the eighth inning. Neil Diamond showed up at Fenway Park and asked to sing it in person.

Runners in the London marathon observed a moment of silence before the beginning of the race, many wore black ribbons.

“We will join together in silence to remember our friends and colleagues for whom a day of joy turned into a day of sadness,” said the announcer. “Let us now show our respect and support for the victims of the tragedy in Boston.”

And something I find both ironic and inspiring, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was treated in Beth Israel Hospital by medical personnel he would have cheerfully murdered.

And then there’s these statements by various prominent journalists in the aftermath of the bombing.

“…if you care about everything from stopping war to reducing the defense budget to protecting civil liberties to passing immigration reform, you should hope the bomber was a white domestic terrorist.” David Sirota, in Salon online magazine

“Normally, domestic terrorist people tend to be on the far right, although that’s not a good category. Extremists, let’s call them that.” Chris Matthews, MSNBC.

“Obviously, nobody knows anything yet, but I would caution folks jumping to conclusions about foreign terrorism to remember that this is the official Patriots Day holiday in Massachusetts, celebrating the Battles at Lexington and Concord…” Charles P. Pierce, Esquire.

“The thinking, as we have been reporting, is that this is a domestic extremist attack. Officials are leaning that way largely because of the timing of the attack. April is a big month for anti-government and right-wing individuals. There’s the Columbine anniversary, there’s Hitler’s birthday, there’s the Oklahoma City bombing, the assault on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco.” Dina Temple-Raston, National Public Radio “counterterrorism correspondent.”

You can find this kind of stuff all over, though many posts are being deleted as fast as possible, along with vicious personal attacks on anyone who first suggested this might be the work of Islamic jihadists.

What kind of people openly prefer to believe that a murderous attack on our country was perpetuated by their own countrymen, make that their first assumption, cling to it as long as possible, and refuse to apologize when proven wrong?

April 22, 2013

I used to like Reese Witherspoon

Filed under: News commentary — Stephen W. Browne @ 2:22 pm

Note: Cross-posted on my professional blog at the Marshall Independent.

Darn it! Another case of Celebrities Behaving Badly, and this time with one I kind of liked.

Reese Witherspoon and her husband Jim Toth were arrested and very briefly held in Atlanta, he for alleged DUI and she for allegedly disobeying the police officer’s instruction to remain in her vehicle during the traffic stop.

Instead she allegedly got out and said, “Do you know my name?”

When he officer answered, “No, I don’t need to know your name.”

Witherspoon replied, “You’re about to find out who I am … You are going to be on national news.”

The lady has since publicly apologized, saying, “Clearly I had one to many to drink,” and that she was “deeply embarrassed.”

Well, she should be. The apology was well made, but that “Don’t you know who I am?” attitude rankles.

You’re a person Reese, a citizen of the United States just like the rest of us. Entitled to all of the same constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure, arbitrary arrest, right to remain silent (which I bet you’re wishing you’d exercised now) etc.

But no more!

This is America, we’re not suppose to have privileged classes here.

Yes I know, there are people who act like they are, and too durned often they get away with it. But that’s not the way it’s supposed to work and where do you get off copping an attitude like it should work that way for you?

That order to stay in the car was for your benefit! Routine traffic stops are one of the two situations cops most often get killed in. The other is domestic disturbance calls. If hubby was being belligerent as alleged, that cop was likely getting nervous.

And how’d you get that notion you’re entitled to special treatment from the law anyway? Your dad was a military doctor just like mine, not Hollywood royalty. You grew up in the South, not Beverly Hills.

Sure you’ve been a model since you were seven years old, and now a movie star and producer.

But didn’t somebody named Reese Witherspoon once say, “I just don’t see any of it as that remarkable. Maybe that’s the attitude I choose to have to keep me sane and keep my feet on the ground.”

You ought to listen to that gal.

April 19, 2013

Review: 42

Filed under: Movies,Social Science & History — Stephen W. Browne @ 9:50 am

Note: This appeared in the print-only TV Guide of the Marshall Independent.

According to Entertainment Weekly, “42” made Hollywood history with the highest-grossing premier of any baseball-themed movie. Which is true but almost beside the point. It’s not just about baseball, it’s about honor.

It’s about men doing the right thing at a time when it was unpopular and dangerous to do so.

It’s good for people dissatisfied with current progress towards universal equality to remember things were once a lot worse. And it’s good for those so proud of conspicuously having all the correct attitudes to remember there was a time when wearing those convictions on your sleeve carried a price.

“42” is the story of Jackie Robinson’s first season with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946-47, that broke the color line in baseball. The number was Robinson’s, and the only number to be retired by all of baseball.

The movie, like baseball, has a star but it’s about a team.

Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) president and general manager of the Dodgers, wants to break the color line. Because he’s deeply offended by the stain of racism on the game he loves passionately. Because he’s been carrying the humiliation for years of not having done enough for a black man who was his friend.
And because he sees a tremendous opportunity in the huge number of black baseball fans and the chance to have first pick from an untapped reservoir of talent.

There’s an important point there. It’s good when people start to realize something is wrong, better when people realize it’s not only wrong but unprofitable.
Rickey needs just the right player, an extraordinary athlete but one who can keep his temper under the worst provocation.

He finds him in Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman). Robinson plays baseball, football, basketball, and even tennis well. He’s intelligent, articulate, and high-spirited. That last characteristic having gotten him a court-martial in the Army when he refused to move to the back of a bus.

Rickey tells him he’s going to have to watch that.

“Are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?” Robinson asks.

“No,’ Rickey replies, “I’m looking for a negro with guts enough not to fight back.”

And it takes guts for sure. The film does a great job through a series of scenes showing the daily casual humilitation Robinson and his new bride Rachel (Nicole Beharie) have to put up with. And for a while it only gets worse, mounting in viciousness as Robinson goes through training and then takes the field with the Dodgers.

But they also have a lot of support from friends like African-American sports reporter Wendell Smith (Andre Holland) and a redneck-looking workman who approaches them, initially terrifying Rachel.

“I want to tell you something,” he says. “I want to tell you I’m behind you, a lot of us are. I figure if a man’s got the goods he ought to have a chance.”

And that’s what “42” is all about. There is no affirmative action in sports. A player has the goods or he doesn’t, and there’s no excuse for failure and no hiding ability.

Robinson had it, and once he got on the field there was no denying it.

“I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a ****n’ zebra. I’m the manager of this team, and I say he plays. What’s more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you cannot use the money, I will see that you are all traded,” says Leo “Nice guys finish last” Durocher (Christopher Meloni).

And therein lies the point about discrimination, and honor.

Any man of honor will be offended by discrimination. Because if you don’t give a man a chance, you’re never going to be sure you’ve deserved your accomplishments, or got them because somebody else was denied the chance.

“If he can take my job, he’s entitled to it,” says shortstop Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black).

Reese has something to prove by standing up for Robinson publicly in front of his Southern relatives. This is brilliant shown in a scene in which a young boy is starting to pick up on the detestable behavior of the grownups around him – until Reese walks over to Robinson and puts his arm around him before a game.

Many who stood up for Robinson were Southerners, and some of the worst bigots were Yankees, and thank y’all most kindly for making that point.

“42” makes all these points and more, but doesn’t hit you over the head with them. If there’s anything at all to be regretted it’s that you don’t see more about some extraordinary people, but it might just inspire you to learn more about Rachel Isum Robinson, Reese, and how people like Dixie Walker (Ryan Merriman) eventually changed and grew.

Highly recommended.

April 13, 2013

Review: The Host

Filed under: Movies — Stephen W. Browne @ 1:20 pm

Noe: This appeared in the print-only TV Guide of The Marshall Independent.

There are great movies, good movies, bad movies, and awful movies. Then there’s movies like “The Host” which are just kind of blah.

The movie is based on the book by Stephanie Meyer, a writer of great wealth and surpassing awfulness who makes every writer who can string a coherent set of sentences together wonder why he’s reviewing this swill instead of writing it?

“The Host” lies within the alien possession sub-genre of science fiction. A theme which has been explored in literature by no lesser lights than Robert A. Heinlein (“The Puppet Masters”) and John D. MacDonald (“Wine of the Dreamers”), and in classic SciFi movies such as “The Brain from Planet Arous” (1957) and “The Hidden” (1987). It was an important plot element in the “Babylon 5” series and the “Stargate” universe.

The movie opens after an alien race who call themselves “Souls” have invaded Earth and taken possession of almost everybody. Almost.

A few feral humans have managed to hide out including Melanie Stryder (Saoirse Ronan), her brother Jamie (Chandler Canterbury) and her boyfriend Jared Howe (Max Irons).

While on a food scavenging expedition Melanie is found out and jumps out of a high window, determined to die rather than be possessed by the Souls.

No such luck. She survives, is healed, and her body given to a soul who calls itself Wanderer.

Alien possession in fiction is typically done by an organic being who attaches itself to a host externally or internally, an incorporeal alien much like demonic possession, or a corporeal alien with technological aid such as an implanted chip.

The Souls are corporeal aliens resembling bioluminescent jellyfish who enter the host through a surgical incision at the base of the skull. The logistics of how most of the human race got strapped down and operated on in this manner is unexplained.

Once in control a Soul suppresses the consciousness of its host, makes their eyes glow, and gives them an uncontrollable desire to dress all in white and drive cars with a mirror finish.

Except sometimes a host won’t go to sleep. Wanderer wakes up in Melanie’s body with Melanie screaming inside her head to get the hell out of her.

This conflict is noticed by a Soul named Seeker (Diane Kruger) who helpfully suggests a change of bodies, after which Melanie will be… disposed of.

Melanie half-convinces half-fools Wanderer to go on the lam looking for other wild humans, and winds up prisoner of a band which includes her brother, boyfriend, and Uncle Jeb (William Hurt).

Here Meyer attempted to introduce some interesting and original plot twists on the classic theme. And blew it.

One is that the Souls think they’re doing good. Humans are violent Melanie/Wanderer explains. The Souls brought peace to the Earth.

“They have made a desert, and they call it peace,” Gaius Cornelius Tacitus once said about the Roman Empire.

Another is that Wanderer develops feelings for a member of the band Ian O’Shea (Jake Abel), while Melanie within is pining for Jared.

Well, maybe an entity possessing a human body might experience all the hormonal urges of the flesh it possesses, but what explains Ian reciprocating Wanderer’s affections? That’s a thousand-year-old alien inside that pretty girl you’re talking to Dude!

By now, some Souls are beginning to question the rightfulness of their occupation. Wanderer switches sides, convinces the humans that Melanie is still awake inside her and starts helping them survive and fight back.

So after having possessed involuntary hosts on seven planets it finally occurred to Wanderer that taking somebody else’s body might be… you know, wrong?

Melanie warms to Wanderer and starts to think of their relationship as more symbiotic than parasitic. An idea lifted from F. Paul Wilson’s “Healer.”

Stockholm Syndrome anyone? Melanie or Wanderer?

Wanderer proves she’s on the level by teaching the humans how to remove a Soul without killing the host, first making them promise they won’t kill the Souls but put them back in their clamshell-sized spaceships and send them away.

So let me get this straight. You come to our world uninvited, possess our bodies and suppress our consciousness, and we’re supposed to give a damn whether you live or die?

Right.

Furthermore you want us to send you off to be somebody else’s problem, somebodies who never bothered us? And what does that make us?

There is much that could have been done with this. The cast is first-rate, the set design attractive, and there are good ideas to play with. My six-year-old daughter was very taken with the idea of having a friend inside your head.

The reason it doesn’t gell is like so many other failed flicks, lies in the writing. The least expensive part of the production.

April 5, 2013

Is this the time?

Filed under: News commentary,Op-eds,War — Stephen W. Browne @ 7:43 am

Note: My weekly op-ed.

The late great science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein once told a crowd at a convention, “Some of you will see a nuclear war within your lifetime.”

The crowd, to say the least, did not want to hear this.

A few years ago when I was the world’s oldest journalism intern in Washington, D.C., I coined the term “no-name nukes,” in the context of the sentence, “We’re living at Ground Zero for the no-name nuke.”

During my three months residence in D.C. I repeated that statement many times on many occasions.

Not once did anybody ever call me crazy. Heck, not once did anybody ever disagree with me!

Well once actually. A gentleman at the National Press Club thought I was way too optimistic when I said sometime in the next generation a rogue nuke was going to take out D.C.

“Oh I’d say within the next five to ten years,” he said.

I actually got to pose the question to former Secretary of State John Bolton at a small gathering.

Bolton was as forthcoming as it was possible for him to be. He didn’t actually address the question of what we could do if a nuke of unknown origin detonated on our soil, but he did point out where terrorists would get them.

Iran for one of course. Currently run by bona-fide religious crazies who are actually looking forward to Armageddon. How close they are to getting nukes is a matter of some controversy. Some say soon, some say long time to never.

The latter is the more comforting belief, which is why we should consider very carefully whether this is a realistic assessment, or wishful thinking.

Then there’s North Korea. They’re a bandit state with nukes, and Bolton pointed out, they’ll cheerfully sell them to anyone for hard cash.

Now they’re rattling their sabers and threatening to nuke American bases in the Pacific, or even a West Coast city.

It’s hard to tell how seriously to take the Norks. On the one hand, they do a lot of saber rattling. On the other hand, sometimes they do more than just rattle their sabers.

For decade they raided the coast of Japan, kidnapping Japanese citizens. They’ve landed commandos in South Korea for obscure purposes, though we can assume they’re up to no good as they tend to commit suicide to escape capture. They’ve torpedoed South Korean ships and murdered American military personnel at the Demilitarized Zone.

Worse, they’ve done it without consequences.

And that’s nothing compared to what they’ve done to their own people. Estimates of famine-related deaths range between 240,000 and 3,500,000. As many as 200,000 political prisoners are held in North Korean concentration camps under conditions at least as bad as anything in Soviet gulags during Stalin’s reign.

What’s worrisome about this kind of thing is not that it’s evil, but that it makes no sense. What do they gain by this? Evil we can deal with. Crazy is another matter.

If the Norks were merely evil we could appeal to their self-interest, mainly their desire not to be nuked down to bedrock. Same thing that kept the Cold War cold.

Now it could be the Kim family’s kingdom is acting for perfectly sensible reasons. North Korean saber rattling has traditionally prompted massive donations of food from abroad. This could be of no more significance than an infant throwing a tantrum because it’s hungry.

Or maybe they’re just crazy. The scary thing is, we can guess but we just don’t know.

At the end of World War II in the Pacific, after the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the U.S. government heard nothing from the Japanese for three days. So they dropped another one. Five days later as a third bomb was being assembled, the emperor broadcast his decision to surrender – and there was an attempted military coup by diehards who dreamed of a glorious death for their entire nation!

And the Japanese weren’t crazy, just alien to our ways of thinking.

It didn’t make a big splash, but we’ve been threatened with nukes before. During the Clinton administration the Chinese were saying openly but without bluster that they figured we weren’t as attached to Taiwan as much as we were to Los Angeles or San Francisco.

That was scary enough, but made sense. The Chinese stated what they wanted, and their judgment of the risks involved. They might be wrong, but their reasoning was perfectly straightforward.

About the North Koreans we mostly just don’t know. A history of oriental despotism, plus two generations of Japanese occupation, plus three generations of communism equals… what?

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