Sunday, August 3, 2014

ALLERGIC TO SELFISH


Right now there is a humanitarian crisis happening that should not be ignored. It is happening right in our own backyard, and yet the response that the Republican Right wants the U.S. to have towards the people suffering as a result of it is to send them right back into the dangerous situation they so desperately need to get out of. I'm not talking about people sneaking across the border to "steal" American jobs. I am referring to the people fleeing Central America to escape the increasingly out of control gang violence that is destroying their home countries.

All along the border, the hate that these so-called "God-loving" Americans are showing to children looking for refuge from an ever more dire situation is absolutely shocking. The same people who insist that life begins at conception, and who claim that so much of what they do is for the welfare of "the children", when faced with children actually in need of their help do what they so often do in such situations, turn their backs to the problem.

To make matters worse, while there are certainly many factors that contributed to the current situation in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, one of the chief reasons things have turned out the way they have is the U.S.'s own drug policies. The very same drug policies that the Right so ardently supports. These policies, combined with a lack of economic development, have allowed those countries to become havens for violent gangs, where there is a now constant threat of abductions and shootings. Unfortunately, the Right does what it always does when faced with the consequences of their own actions and greets them with a combination of blame-shifting, denial and ignorance. If this same situation were occurring anywhere else in the world many of us would be outraged at the host countries response, so where is the outrage towards those who want us to be so cruel when we are faced with refugees at our own doorstep?

Saturday, August 2, 2014

MID-EAST PIECES


It's increasingly disheartening to see the stories coming out of the Middle East. With ISIS threatening to send Iraq immeasurably backwards it's hard not to feel as though the only thing the United States accomplished in going there was to make military hardware manufacturers richer. That might have been the real goal all along, but it still would have been nice if at least something genuinely good had come out of the whole mess. But perhaps the worst example of how the meddling of us in the Western world has had disastrous results in the region is the dire situation in Israel and Palestine. Realistically, had the UN not decided to carve a country out of an existing one, things would be considerably calmer in the region. And the only "good" reason for putting the country in that particular spot was the religious considerations of the Israeli people, never mind what it would mean for the religious considerations of the people who were already there. The idea that anyone expected this plan to work out is absolutely ludicrous, and wound up putting the US and its allies in the precarious position of having to defend their decision, no matter how violent the Israeli government was willing to get in response to past hostilities from the Arab world.

However much it may upset some people to hear this, it would seem that it is almost certainly far too late to actually fix the situation, if in fact it ever really was fixable. And one would certainly be justified in laying all the blame in the laps of the countries who helped create the modern state of Israel, but that really leaves out what is perhaps the biggest culprit in the conflict, and maybe even in most or all of the conflicts currently taking place around the world: religion.

I am not anti-religion, or at least I don't have anything against the idea. If following the teachings of Jesus or Muhhamad or Buddha or the Flying Spaghetti Monster or perhaps even craziest of all, L. Ron Hubbard, helps you to deal with the variety of hardships we all must face in our everyday lives, then by all means, take the help wherever you can get it. But as many of these religions are repeatedly used to oppress or harm those who disagree with believers, it's hard to maintain an open attitude towards them. I can't even begin to count the number of times I see a piece about the violence Israel has recently been unleashing on the Palestinian people (or the violence they have a history of unleashing on the Israelis) and find myself thinking the whole thing is so stupid. Because they each believe whatever it is they choose to believe, they feel the need to kill each other. Of course the events of the last several decades have added a bit more to their respective motivations than that, but it really all boils down to the fact that if they all just believed in scientific facts rather than a bunch of glorified fables only occasionally even grounded in actual history, this whole conflict might not ever have happened. I hope I am wrong about the hopelessness of the situation and that a real, lasting peace can be achieved, but I fear that as long as people continue to cling to religion, for whatever reasons, it is just not possible.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

LET 'EM BAN US

The more things change, the more they stay the same.


Remember back in 2012, when people were calling for a boycott of Chick-fil-A because of the company's financial support of openly anti-gay organizations? Many conservative pundits, and some representatives of the fast food restaurant itself, decried the effort as unfair and even unconstitutional, seeing as the chain was only practicing its rights of freedom of religion and expression. Never mind that the boycott itself would simply represent those offended by the company's actions practicing their own constitutional rights, as apparently said document can only really apply to those whose opinions are aligned with those of said pundits.

Now however, those seem like better days. Sure, Chick-fil-A was trying to have its cake and eat it too; on the one hand being allowed to funnel some of its profits to groups that were strongly invested in trying to make life less livable for gay people, while also earning some of those profits off of the very same homosexuals. Flash forward to 2014, and as most of you most likely already know, several states have been trying to pass laws allowing businesses and employees to refuse to serve gay people in any capacity on the basis of religious beliefs. This has many people understandably upset, and upon first hearing about it I was certainly amongst them. Of course realizing that these sorts of laws would almost certainly never actually come to pass, and even if they did would have even slimmer odds of surviving the inevitable judicial challenges they would incur, means there is not too much point in getting overly worked up over them. Even more comforting, is the fact that even if by some twist of fate these laws did manage to pass, and held up in court, there would likely be very few businesses willing to turn away an entire segment of the population for any reason. And as for those businesses who would, I say let 'em.

I can't say I agree at all with the idea that individual employees would be allowed to refuse someone service because of their sexual orientation. Firstly, because how would the employee even know who is or isn't gay barring seeing a same-sex couple make out in front of them, but secondly, and perhaps most importantly, because if your employer tells you that you have to serve everybody, then you do, regardless of what your religious beliefs dictate. If someone got fired from the supermarket because they refused to wear pants on religious grounds, no sane person would come to their defense. So, in the event that a gay couple walked into the same supermarket to order a wedding cake (which as Jon Stewart pointed out is not very likely) and an employee refused to bake it, the store should be allowed to take whatever disciplinary action it sees fit in response, including firing the employee.

But if there is a shop out there that really wants to post a sign in the window barring gay customers from entering, fine. Put it up. If somewhere there is a restaurant owner who wants to kick people out because they perceive them to be homosexual, fine. Do it. I have no interest in giving my money to people who hate me so much that they don't want me in their business, and at least this way I would know for certain which businesses those are. There are plenty of other shops and restaurants out there, and the odds are that one being run by such bigoted people wouldn't be great enough to be missed anyway. And when many of their straight customers turn away at the sight of a "No Gays" sign on the door, or when people stop coming in because they read about their LGBTQ friends being kicked out on Facebook or Yelp, and their business dries up, they'll have only their prejudice to blame. Let's let these businesses do what they want, and we'll see how it affects their bottom line when there isn't a line of bottoms at their door.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

AMAZON PILOT SEASON 2014

Amazon's first attempt at "Pilot Season" last summer was somewhat of a mixed bag. It did wind up producing the pretty decent series "Betas" and "Alpha House" (and unfortunately wound up passing on the promising "Onion News Network"), but the other shows were really pretty awful, and even the best of the bunch didn't really have anything about it that would make them catch on in a meaningful way. This year, they seem to have pulled out all the stops and released a very promising batch of shows for us to view and vote on. Yesterday I sat down and watched all 5 of the pilots that are targeted towards adults (the other 5 are children's or family shows) and I have to say I was largely pretty impressed. My thoughts on each from least to most favorite below.



5. TRANSPARENT

While not really a bad show, this is easily the weakest of the bunch. Basically the somewhat depressing story of a Los Angeles family coping with their myriad issues and secrets, it suggests that the writers have as tenuous a grip on the word "comedy" as the Hollywood Foreign Press. That being said, the cast does some pretty consistently good work and when the big reveals start coming at the end of the half hour, it's hard not to find one's interest level in the whole thing going up. Still, I think this would probably work out better as a Sundance movie and I don't know that I could really see myself wanting to sit through an entire season of it.



4. THE AFTER

From this point on I can honestly say I really liked the remainder of what Amazon had to show me, which made ranking spots 4, 3, and 2 somewhat of a challenge (picking #1 was easy, but we'll get to that later). The worst thing about this whole process is that I have to assume that most of these shows will not get ordered to series, and aside from "Transparent", I would really be kind of upset not to find out what happens next. And in all fairness, I'm more than a little curious to follow up with that show too. As for "The After", it takes place during the beginning of what appears to be the apocalypse, although the exact nature of what is transpiring is kept a mystery. I won't spoil what little bits of information the show doles out during the pilot, but I will say that it is pretty consistently exciting and it definitely has me anxious to find out more. That being said, these kinds of shows often run into problems sustaining the level of suspense and engagement that they open with and it's impossible to know if it will be worth it in the long run. Creator Chris Carter has shown how well he can manage a web of supernatural conspiracies over several seasons with his previous hit "The X-Files", but on the other hand, that show didn't really wind up finishing all that strongly, so it could go either way. 



3. THE REBELS

Of the 3 "comedies" presented in the group, this is easily the funniest. The story of a woman who is forced to take control of her recently-deceased husband's struggling football team, it manages to introduce an ensemble of characters that are pretty instantly likable, a decent amount of clever NFL satire (note that there is no actual reference to the NFL by name or any of its associated properties), and some entertainingly silly slapstick. Think of it as the football "30 Rock", although closer to that show in its first season, before it really found its footing. Given that the only really funny show last time didn't get picked up ("Onion News Network") I can't say I have high hopes for this one, although it would be nice if there was more than one genuinely funny web comedy out there (the other one is Netflix's "Arrested Development" in case anyone was wondering).



2. BOSCH

There is certainly no shortage of crime dramas on TV at the moment, and they all do pretty well ratings-wise, so it should come as no surprise that the internet should want one of its own. Luckily for all of us, this first go at it is considerably more interesting than any of its ilk currently on American television. Co-written by best-selling author Michael Connelly, based on his books, this is closer in tone to some of the darker British police dramas or the original Swedish version of "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo". Season 1 looks to be setting up to follow detective Hieronymus "Harry" Bosch as he investigates the possible murder of a young boy while simultaneously standing trial for shooting a serial killer, who may or may not have been unarmed. With it's dark, noirish tone and engaging plotlines, this could wind up being a big hit for Amazon.



1. MOZART IN THE JUNGLE

I don't know if this necessarily has the hit potential of "Bosch", but it is nonetheless my favorite of this year's batch of favorites. Following the members of a fictionalized New York Symphony as they deal with a litany of behind the scenes drama along with the ups and downs of life in the Big Apple, it once again stretches the definition of "comedy", although it contains at least enough witty dialogue to make a degree of sense being labelled as such. The backstage romances and power struggles are perhaps somewhat to be expected from this sort of show, but the smart script, incredible cast, and gorgeous music all elevate it to new heights. I said before that it was easy for me to pick this as my absolute favorite of the bunch and it was, if for no other reason than I felt absolutely exhilarated watching it, actually sitting up with that rare feeling one gets upon discovering a new piece of pop culture that has instantly pushed itself into your all time favorites list. If this actually makes it to series, it is the one I can most easily see myself talking up to other people, and is also the one most likely to get Amazon the Emmy attention it seems to be so eagerly hunting this time around.

Monday, February 3, 2014

ADVENTURES IN INTERNET GAMBLING, PART 1

As you may or may not know, real-money online gambling has been legal in New Jersey for a few months now. While I would not say that I am a heavy gambler, I do periodically enjoy a trip to the casino, so I was certainly intrigued by the idea of playing at home. And I can honestly say that I have always thought that not being allowed to do so seemed more than a little silly. As such I decided to give it a go. The Borgata is one of my favorite casinos in Atlantic City, so I headed to their site first [http://casino.theborgata.com/]. As luck would have it, they give out $20 in slot play just for signing up, which gave me even more incentive to give it a spin. After finishing up the registration process, which asks for quite a lot of information, I looked through the other available promotions, and instantly wound up winning another $10 in free slot play because it was Chinese New Year. That all being wrapped up, I took the $30 of house money and headed off to the slots.

There is a fairly decent selection of slot "machines" to pick from, although many of them don't sound particularly inspiring. Unfortunately, on January 31, I was unable to get a single one of them to actually work. Initially I was attempting to use the site through my browser, but since that was getting me nowhere I went ahead and downloaded their app onto my computer. That part went fine and so I again tried to play a slot machine. The first time I received a message saying that the particular game I was attempting to play was not installed on my PC and asking if I would like to install it. Upon allowing it to install, I would then receive no action at all in response to my attempting to open it. After around 10 minutes of messing around with all that I gave up and played Skyrim instead.

Today, I thought I would give it another try before my free slot play credits expired. This time when I attempted to launch a game it would open another window, indicating that something was happening, but that window would remain black and empty. Repeated attempts at relaunching a slot machine resulted in the same result until finally I decided to just click a random spot in the dark void and see what happened. Sure enough that made the window load and I was off to a game, finally. Alas, those next attempts were also not to be, as I was promptly greeted by error messages several times, until finally, I got one to actually work. Unfortunately, I found the graphic design of it to be exceptionally displeasing and promptly left to find another machine.



I next settled on a Monopoly themed slot machine, which was much more professional looking. The machines all seem to be penny slots for now, so there weren't any large payouts, but it did keep giving enough small ones to slow the stream of money from my account, and it was entertaining enough. When I was down to only a few remaining dollars I decided to mix things up and try another machine. This time I went with one that featured a weird mix of Leonardo DaVinci's works and jewels. While not designed with quite as much sheen as the Monopoly one, it proved to be exponentially more entertaining, and much kinder with doling out small rewards. After playing for awhile I actually found myself back up over $10, and since that was now my money and no longer the free credits I decided to call it a day. All in all it was a fun experience, although they are going to need to do some work on the vast technical issues. Anyone in New Jersey who wants to give it a go and doesn't mind the potential frustration should definitely check it out. Just remember not to gamble away your rent money. Sure I wound up ever so slightly wealthier than I started, but that is certainly not the norm. The house always wins, even when it's your house.


Sunday, February 2, 2014

COLLECTIBLE CARD CRACK



I've never attempted to play any of the variety of collectible card games that have come out before. Back when Magic: The Gathering was first becoming popular I was still in school and the aura of nerdiness that surrounded that game made it seem like something I would be best not to become associated with. Since then I have come to accept that I pretty much am at least nerdy enough to be involved with such things, and when Blizzard's new game Hearthstone was released into public beta mode, I decided to give it a try.

Due to my lack of experience with the genre I really had very little idea of what to expect of it, but I have to say I have been very pleasantly surprised. The gameplay is simple enough that the basic gist of it can be figured out pretty quickly, but it is also deep enough that developing a strategy can present a much greater challenge, especially to those unfamiliar with similar games.

The main concept is that each player begins with 30 health points and a customizable deck of cards. Each of those cards have a variety of attack points, health points, and/or special powers which can be used to weaken your opponent and defend against his/her attacks. Like I said, simple enough right? Well, each of the possible characters have their own unique abilities and certain cards that are exclusive to them. And then there is the strategy of how to arrange your deck. Do you want to fill it with higher energy cards that can only be used later in the game, but that offer stronger attack bonuses? Or do you want to try and wear your opponent down early with weaker, cheaper cards? Or do you want to try to find the perfect balance of both? Any of these strategies is made more challenging by the random dealing of the cards in your deck, adding a hint of luck to the equation.




















This can all add up to a situation in which, especially at the beginning, you find yourself losing. A lot. But when you do finally get a decent deck put together and find yourself beginning to win at least sometimes, it is a very satisfying feeling. Especially when you wind up with matches as closely fought as the one above (which I lost, incidentally). The game is still in beta, so some things about it are likely to change, and perhaps rightfully so as it is sometimes more than a little frustrating. But it is still insanely addictive, and a game that I highly recommend everyone check out, whether they've ever played this type before or not.