Wednesday, August 2, 2017

What Does Russian Meddling Really Mean?



     American politics and news media are going ape over Russian Meddling in the 2016 elections.  It's not just Democrats.   Senator McCain and former Vice President Cheney have called it an "act of war." Okay great, I can get behind a war with Russia that destroys the entire universe, but first I want to find out what exactly this "act of war" actually is.   "Meddling" has no strict definition. So perhaps we should turn to specific actions.  
     
    Things we know the Russians do and have done include 

    a.  Creating fake Facebook and other social media personalities, in order to spread false information.  The Russians are not as good at is the Republicans and Democrats, but that is not the point.  

      b.  Making up fake stories and disparaging information about American politicians.  Again, we do a better job of this than the Russians.  

        c.  Hacking different political sites.  The feds say that they are the ones that hacked the DNC and released emails from Hillary Clinton, leading to confusion.   The emails for the most part are legit, it's just the timing that was objectionable.  
    
    What has not happened, as far as I can tell, is Russian sponsored voter registration fraud.  Zero fake voters creating fake votes.  Zero hacked voting machines or vote counting software.  The Russians did not hand the election over to Donald Trump, as implied by Hillary Clinton.   
     I'm not even sure if any of this is a crime.  Possibly hacking is illegal, but spreading lies about political candidates is an American pastime.  My favorite was an email alleging that John McCain fathered an illegitimate child with an African American woman.  However, this was done by the Bush campaign during the 2000 primaries, not the Russians, and it was totally legal because it was done in the form of a question.  Rather than putting Republicans in jail for spreading lies about a candidate, we stand up and applaud.  
     We used to call obtaining information illegally "spying" and yet Russia does it to us and we do it to them.  We even spy on our so-called allies in Europe.  In that sense, the US "meddles" in elections of other countries, and probably even hacks computers in other countries, and Russia does that also.  But that is not new or out of the ordinary.  
    Is this really worth starting a war over?  Killing a multibillion dollar economic deal?  It would be different if it were found that the Russians committed voter fraud in America  or hacked the vote tallying process.  But that has not occured as far as anyone this side of Hillary Clinton can tell.  
    For some "meddling" is so terrible that war with Russia may be the only solution to alleviate our national humiliation. Maybe someday they will get their way.  But if by some miracle the world survives a third World War, people are still going to make fake Facebook personalities.  

Hello! Captain Jack Sparrow, please, not Comedian Jack Sparrow

 I hope for the sixth installment of Pirates of the Caribbean, we get to see Captain Jack Sparrow again.  Some of this character has been lost.   In the early Pirates movies, Captain Jack was a lying, conniving con man and philanderer, and it was funny to watch him try to con his way out of difficult predicaments.  But he was still the Captain, and his crew loved him and (usually!) would gladly follow him to the ends of the earth.  That was cool.  


Johnny Depp is a Great Actor!  Just not nearly as great as he thinks he is.  


     Later on, the Captain gave way to Comedian Jack Sparrow.  The problem is, when you let Johnny Depp do whatever he wants, that's what he does.    Now, when Jack faces a life threatening predicament, his first priority is to make a joke and create an amusing facial expression, rather than saving his life.  That is a huge distraction.   
       It's very hard to worry about Jack's life, when Jack himself does not worry about dying.  The same can be said for his Co-Star in Dead Men Tell No Tales, Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario).  "Ah, facing an imminent painful death, eh?  Well let us engage in witty repartee!"   
    The jokes were not that funny, and at least in the theater I attended, no one laughed. 
      Still the reason I liked Dead Men Tell No Tales was that we did catch a glimpse of the Captain, when  (SPOILER ALERT)  he has a flashback to a brilliant naval maneuver he once used when being chased by a heavily armed attacking ship.
        It's not that the Captain can not be funny, it's just that being funny should not be the focus of the film.  He's supposed to be a Captain of a Pirate ship, rather than a guest on a talk show.
      I hope we can see more of that charismatic leader next time, and less of the B-rated comedian.    )
 



Saturday, July 15, 2017

War of the Planet of the Apes--Off Beat But Entertaining

The Shakespearean Cast of War of the Planet of the Apes
I am definitely willing to suspend my disbelief and accept the premise that in some apocalyptic world, apes may be as smart as humans.  Heck, I think they could give our Congress a run for their money right now.  It's part of a long running series of movies that have mainly flopped, but they keep making enough money to pay for the next generation of gorilla suits.  The latest installment is quirky and thin on plot, but I was interested in the movie all the way through.  Not better than Wonder Woman, but maybe close to Spider-Man.  
     Surprisingly the acting is at a very high level, and it is possible to really believe in the characters even though they all are apes.  They are engaged in a battle with humans, and struggle with their temptation to give into racism (specie-ism?).  I didn't think it was a war though.  You're supposed to believe that there are almost no humans or apes left in the world after a series of apocalyptic events.  Still, the main drama involves a small group of apes, and maybe a battalion of humans.  I found that confusing.  Why is a battle with just a few characters considered a world war?   Meanwhile we find out that there is some other group of humans left, probably the Russians, though they never really do much in the movie.  
     But okay, if you're willing to settle for a Battle for a county involving apes and humans, it's a decent movie.  It could just as well be a cowboys and Indians movie, with the Cowboys tending towards treachery, and the Indians showing much higher morality.    

     You could also draw a parallel with Hogan's Heros, in which the humans play the part of the Nazis.  They are mainly bad, but not very bright and do a lot of dumb things that allow the apes to take advantage of them.  To some extent the apes are also kind of dumb.   I mean if you take some of them prisoner, maybe next time you will remember to post a guard to prevent them from plotting an escape.  
   
       The movie succeeds as a drama, probably not Oscar material, but not that far from it either.  As a science fiction story it's a bit of dud because the story line is weak.  The battle scenes are fairly realistic, and there may be some blood and guts spilled.  Maybe your ten year old doesn't need to see that.  But if you like science fiction, apes, cowboys vs Indians and Hogan's Heroes, you will like this movie. Overall I give it a B.  

    

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Petition: Deny Health Care Insurance Coverage to Congress

I started an online petition to make it a federal crime to offer ANY healthcare insurance to Members of Congress, if they vote to take away coverage from US citizens. They need to know what it feels like to not have the opportunity to protect themselves in their families, if this is what they want millions of Americans to do. To clarify, I'm not saying to simply force them off their current plan and get private insurance, but to actually DENY ANY healthcare insurance for Congress. Fair's fair. You want to take away insurance from us, we're going to take it away from you.  And by the way, if the American people are mad enough, we can indeed force you to pass this law.
Feel free to comment and paste a link on social media.
Make it a crime to give health care insurance or discounted medical service to members of Congress if...
WWW.THEPETITIONSITE.COM





http://www.thepetitionsite.com/131/789/907/deny-health-care-insurance-coverage-to-congress/?taf_id=39032501&cid=fb_na#bbfb=843414347

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Spider Sense Tingling---I'm Think I'm Going to Hurl!

   Marvel inexplicably botched the new Spider-Man movie, after finally wresting control of the franchise back from Sony.  Everyone liked the new interpretation of Spidey in Captain America:  Civil War.  Young actor Johnny Manziel does a great job being a high energy, cocky kid, and that performance carries over to Spider-Man homecoming.  The actors are all rather good, but the script is a bit of a letdown.  

    Marvel realizes the importance of minor characters in carrying the movie, and tried to do something great with Spider-Man's friends. Plus they did a great job of getting an ethnically diverse cast.  The problem is that the characters seem to have been written for Welcome Back Kotter, in which a whole group of kids get into trouble, have precarious romances, squabbles with the school bullies, school dances, sporting events, part time jobs and all sorts of stuff that is just not interesting.  You have to have some of that because Peter Parker is a high school kid, but the movie shouldn't be about high school.  There are over a dozen characters in the movie who derived from decades of stories, and it is simply not possible to develop that many characters in a two hour movie.  I like the characters, like the casting, but there are too many of them and they are not interesting enough to carry the film.  Put them in an entire season of Welcome Back Kotter, but they should not have been crammed into a single movie.
     We see cameo appearances from other Marvel heroes in this movie.  It is totally believable that the Avengers would be a major presence in New York City, so why not?   It seems natural to bump into one or two.
    The bad guys in this movie are basically organized crime figures who have some really high tech illegal weapons for sale, probably made by the Acme company preferred by Wile E. Coyote for catching road runners.  Or perhaps it's the company that services the Evil Dark Side in Star Wars, because none of their weapons are actually as good as a decent M-16, and I don't think they were actually able to shoot anyone in the whole move. They have complete dolts in charge of marketing, which is why the bad guys can't make much money.  
As it is, they are kind of like an Army surplus store gone bad.  A single Wal-Mart store definitely makes more money than they do even with super-villainry.  So why be a Super-villain?  Well, I guess if you love your work, it's okay.  Let's just say that the bad guys don't make much sense, and their bark is worse than their bite.  
    I was glad that we didn't have to suffer through the death of Uncle Ben for the fiftieth time in moviedom, nor do we have to hear that with great power comes great responsibility. The problem is that we replaced those campy features with other campy high school dramas.  
     So if you like superhero movies and you liked Welcome Back Kotter, then this is the movie for you.  If you love Spider-man but not Kotter, you still have to see it but keep your expectations low.  It's not that great of a movie, despite it being one of the most enormously popular franchises in movie history.    


Geez, is it just me who thinks so, or is Spider-Man played by a younger version of Johnny Manziel?  

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Tom Cruise is Top Bomb in the New Mummy Movie.



Don't even watch the new mummy movie, because it is just a trailer for Mummy 2, and I'm not sure that is really going to happen.  The producers are so greedy they are already promoting it in the current Mummy movie which ought to be called Top Bomb.  They might be disappointed, as I predict people will stay away from this stale movie in droves.  Spoiler alert:  Normally I never give away elements of the plot, but in this case I actually give away a lot.  But the events are so stupid I'm confident you won't believe me unless you've actually seen the film. 



The Mummy Lady throws up in this movie.  I almost did too.  

Tom Cruise is almost old enough to remember when the pyramids were being built, but he's actually rather good as the lead actor.  Then Annabelle Wallis is fine as the incredibly-beautiful-for-no-reason government scientist, Sofia Boutella is the mummy (semi-sexy but not much), Jake Johnson is Tom's sidekick, and I have no idea what Russell Crowe is doing.  I think he showed up for the wrong movie. They were filming a remake of Dr Jekyl and Mr. Hyde next door and he went to the wrong studio and showed up in the Top Bomb movie by mistake.   Honest, that's what happened. 
Speaking of casting, I was happy with the performances, but once again, another movie fails to have an ethnically diverse cast.  It's basically a bunch of white guys messing around with evil Egyptian magic.  

The essence of the movie is about collecting the right sort mumbo jumbo needed to use ancient Egyptian magic to prolong life. It's complicated.  Let's see, you need to make friends with a bad Egyptian God so that they will give you an ancient magic curse.  Or maybe you need a spell to read, and a magic knife. No wait, you need a magic jewel too or it doesn't work.  Or maybe you can use modern chemistry to make a potion to skip all the worship-related stuff and that might work about as well.  

Then you have to decide who is going to stab who and whether or not stabbing is helpful or harmful to your desire to come back from the dead.  And if they do come back from the dead, will they be in a good mood when they come back?  
I give up.  I can't explain how the coming back from the dead thing workds.  I have no idea why, but some people die and come back in this movie and some don't.  It would be better if they had all stayed dead, frankly.  

Everyone wants to stab Tom Cruise and most of the time it's kind of a friendly, laid-back California style stabbing.  They just hope he is basically okay with it, and try to talk up the idea of being stabbed to death. It could be good for science! Good for religion!  It might save your girlfriend!   Whaddya say, Tom?  


Well, all the rules are very confusing, and sorting through the rules of immortality substitutes for a plot.  There is in fact no plot at all.  I still am not sure why some people become zombies and some don't.  Plus some retain most of their personality and other's don't.  

I also dislike the minor mummies and miscellaneous zombies, who are thrown into the movie in case someone wants to make a video game out of it (they won't).  Anyway these tiny mummies are about as dangerous as chipmunks, and just annoying.   

The movie does a good job of providing startling surprises, so if you like being scared it's okay to watch.   Don't let little kids see it though; I imagine a 10 year old might get really scared at certain points.  

Friday, June 9, 2017

What Did We Learn from James Comey?



It seems to me that former Director Comey is highly ethical and principled.  But he wouldn't participate in coverups for Secretary Clinton or President Trump, so of course everyone hates his guts.
     Yesterday's hearing of testimony from James Comey was illuminating on many issues, but still left me wondering about the investigation of American ties to Russia.  Senators Richard Burr and  Mark Warner are to be congratulated for carrying out a truly bipartisan hearing at a professional level. It's proof that it can be done.  But they needed more specificity.   

    First of all, let's drop the jailhouse rhetoric.  Nobody is sending James Comey to jail for leaking UNclassified information.   That's not illegal.   By the same token, you're not going to send the President to jail on Obstruction of Justice, when it is his constitutional duty to be the supervisor of the Director of the FBI.  Of course he has the right to fire him.  It might have been a bad decision, but you are not sending the President to jail for that (I refer you to Alan Dershowitz's analysis of that fantasy).   So let's drop the sensationalism for a minute and ask what was actually learned from the testimony.  

      The answers were seemingly very clear, but in reality some of the questions were way too broad, and didn't elicit much information.  For example, consider the following exchange below (Blue type used for the actual transcript, my comments are in black).

BURR: Do you have any doubt that Russia attempted to interfere in the 2016  elections?
COMEY: None.

Well, what do you mean by "Russia?" Does it mean President Putin actually ordered operatives to attempt to swing the election to Trump?  Or was it some agency of the Russian government?  Or are we talking about independent hackers?  And what does it mean to interfere?  The question isn't specific enough to understand Comey's true conclusions.  Some clarification appears below:

BURR: Do you have any doubt that the Russian government was behind the intrusions in the DNC and the DCCC systems, and the subsequent leaks of that information?
COMEY: No, no doubt.

I think this means that the Russian government agencies hacked email accounts in the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Community.  Others may also have hacked them but Russian spy agencies were definitely involved in some way, in Comey's opinion.  According to legal sites on the web, "Hacking" can range from a misdemeanor to a Class B Felony punishable by 20 years in jail if you get caught. However, what I would like to know is whether the Russian SVR intelligence agency pulls these shenanigans as standard operating procedure, or did a high official (President Putin or SVR Director Sergey Naryshkin, for example) order up something special for the election?  Can we be sure that this sort of activity goes way beyond the norm, and that the US, for example, would never do this to Russia or some other sovereign government? 

BURR: Do you have any doubt that the Russian government was behind the cyber intrusion in the state voter files? COMEY: No.

Again, this is a hack and likely illegal in America.  In Russia, it's probably not illegal and in fact people are getting paid to carry out such activities.  So I want to know whether this is part of an ongoing cyber war (are we in a secret war with Russia, and nobody bothered to tell us??), or whether the SVR cooked up something special specifically for this election.  


BURR: Do you have any doubt that officials of the Russian government were fully aware of these activities?  COMEY: No doubt.


Senator Burr, what officials?!  Do you mean Putin?  The head of the SVR?  or some bureaucrat who is paid to make mischief?  "Fully aware"  suggests  explicit understanding and approval if not direction of the activities?   

I have another question that I haven't seen asked in the press.  I've heard that some of the most effective operations involved the use of social media.  In other words the maximum damage to the voting base was created via LEGAL means. For example, they are said to have infiltrated Facebook and social media, and to promote "fake news" about the candidate.     Maybe these damaging narratives were hatched in Moscow.  If so, it is terrible, damaging and alarming and also effective in turning votes.   But does it actually violate any US laws??   I believe it is legal to create fake accounts in Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Making propaganda is also legal.  Lies about politicians are welcome in the American system, not criminal, not considered libel.    It may even be legal to ask for volunteer helpers from outside the US.  Unethical, yes. Tacky, yes.  But does it violate a US law?   I'm not a lawyer, but I don't see how.
     Turning it around, American politicians often express admiration or outright endorsement of foreign politicians.  That is legal, isn't it?  And what if Americans publish a slew of websites for some political party or another using fake identities.  What crime would they actually be charged with, and has anyone ever done time for it?
    In the internet age, it may be very hard to bring charges against a foreign person who wishes to deceive Americans about specific people or political parties.