Saturday, July 21, 2018

I Really Don't Like Westerns. Here's One Worth Watching.

I don't like westerns. Bonanza and Gunsmoke had no appeal to me when I was growing up and they still don't. Please don't get me started on the treatment of Native Americans in most westerns. The portrayal in movies and on most television programs was severely whitewashed to say the least. In recent years westerns were almost completely out of favor which is fine with me.

Despite this I recently watched a short lived western TV series which was made in Canada and aired in 2014-2015 called Strange Empire. Not only that, I'm trying to convince my best friend (who also dislikes westerns) to check it out. Yes, it's that good. There are only 13 episodes because ratings were microscopic in both the U.S. and Canada. Most people I know have never heard of it. Forget what you think you know about westerns. This isn't anything like that.

I originally became interested because it stars Cara Gee who currently plays Camina Drummer on The Expanse. I love her portrayal of the character and the strength she brings to the role. Strange Empire was her role before that, and from what I read her performance in the series directly lead to not only her casting on The Expanse, but a newly expanded character for Drummer, which is actually a composite of several characters in the books.

Then there is the little fact that Cara Gee's heritage/ethnicity is Ojibwe. I expected the treatment of First Nations/native people had to be different from the old time westerns. There is also a transgendered character, though he is never called that because 1869. One of the main characters is autistic, though she is never called that because 1869. OK, so I was curious, at least curious enough to try it. It's currently available on Amazon Video or on DVD.

There is no whitewash in Strange Empire. The show is the darkest, most incredibly grim thing I have ever watched. In the probably realistic portrayal of life in Montana and Alberta in 1869 we see rampant racism, theft, murder, rape, oh, and yes, a bit of the genocide of native people. If you don't have a strong stomach you may not want to watch it. The body count in most episodes is horrendous. Despite all of the horror that would normally have me reaching or even running for the remote to turn it off the story is compelling. It draws you in and doesn't let go.

This is from a review of the first episode:
"Set in 1869 along the Montana/Alberta border, Strange Empire starts with two dead babies and a graveside wedding...

A fun romp this is not, but it is a rich exploration of a time and place we think we’re familiar with — our own country, our own history. We’re wrong.

Some of the preliminary publicity said the men have disappeared, leaving the women to fight for survival. This is true in the sense that the cult members of Jonestown disappeared, or the Donner party got a little peckish, or the dog of your childhood went to live on a farm. Some of the men survived, some have not yet been found, but most are quite dead."
Dark doesn't even begin to describe it. I won't share more because spoilers are no fun. I know most anyone who reads this probably hasn't seen the series.

The crazy thing is that the many science fiction fans among my friends will recognize a lot of the cast. Melissa Farman (Lost) and Tattiawna Jones (The Handmaid's Tale) are Cara Gee's costars. Terry Chen (The Expanse, Continuum) and Tahmoh Penikett (Battlestar Galactica, Continuum, Dollhouse) both have regular roles. Oh, and did I mention that a lot of the show is set in Janestown? No relation to Jaynestown in Firefly.

Here is a trailer:

Monday, September 25, 2017

A Divisive and Self-Defeating Protest

Over the last couple of days I’ve found myself in a few debates on social media over the protest by professional athletes, primarily NFL football players, who have “taken a knee,” stayed off the field or sat during the national anthem. I’ve outraged some of my more liberal or leftist online friends for not following the popular, politically correct line of supporting the players. Before I launch into that let me start with the points where I agree with those to my political left:
  • Racism is a problem in the United States. It always has been.
  • President Trump’s 2016 campaign exploited the many divisions in our country including the racial divide. His statements and tweets as President have continued to sew division.
  • Right wing extremists, including white supremacists, have taken the election of President Trump as vindication and justification of their racist views. Racism has become socially acceptable again after decades where that wasn’t true. The racism was always there. Now it’s out in the open again.
  • Law enforcement and the criminal justice system, like any other large group of people, have proverbial bad apples among them including racists. African-Americans suffer mistreatment at the hands of police in disproportionate numbers. This includes black people who have been killed and clearly should not have been.
Colin Kaepernick’s original protest, when he was the first to “take a knee” as a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, was a protest against what he sees as unjustified police shootings and killings of African-Americans. People in the black community and most on the political left support him. Many on the right were and are outraged. Kaepernick found himself without a contract this year. An NPR News story put it this way:
"This season, no team has signed him, and some supporters believe NFL owners are avoiding him because of the controversy."
In football terms this is the equivalent of being fired, which is what President Trump, during a speech in Alabama and in subsequent tweets, suggested should happen to all athletes who are disrespectful of the flag and the national anthem. I’ll admit freely that I thought precisely the same thing even before he said it. The difference is that I am not the President of the United States and my impact when I do speak out is minimal. President Trump’s statements once again exploited and expanded on the deep divisions in our country in a way almost nobody else can.

Most Americans take great pride in this country. Those who do, myself included, see the symbols of this nation, our flag and our national anthem included, as almost sacred. That sort of nationalism or patriotism is a positive thing. For me it’s part of my gratitude for the opportunities my parents, both legal immigrants, both Holocaust survivors, were given here. Their life story is an example of the American dream. They came here with next to nothing, worked hard, were successful, and built a very good life for themselves and their children. Very few countries in the world offer that level of opportunity. So, yes, when the country as a whole is disrespected it bothers me no end.

Let’s also take a look at the protesters. Professional athletes earn hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars a year. They are highly privileged individuals regardless of the color of their skin. They are wealthy and successful in ways most Americans can only dream about. Yes, that includes most white Americans. These are not victims of oppression. Is it any wonder both the style of protest and who the protesters are breeds resentment?

For my part daring to speak out against these protests has led to accusations of racism on my part. I’ve been told I would not have supported Rosa Parks because she offended the segregationists of the day. In addition to being incredibly insulting it’s a ridiculous statement. Rosa Parks’ act of peaceful civil disobedience struck directly at segregation and the racism behind it.

The Jim Crow laws, including the one Rosa Parks protested, no longer exist. At least in law, and to some significant degree in daily life, the civil rights protests of the 1950s through the 1970s were successful. We are not the same country today. Yet some on the left insist we are still a “white supremacist country” and act like no progress was made. Didn’t we have an African-American President for eight years?

50-75 years ago the opportunities that the NFL players and other athletes have were closed off to African-Americans. They were excluded. American professional sports before Jackie Robinson was a whites only affair. These protests would have been impossible. They are possible today precisely because of the successes of the civil rights movement.

I’ll agree when people say that the struggle for civil rights is not over. I’ll agree if they say more needs to be done. We are nowhere near reaching racial equality as a society. What I will not agree with is the hyperbole of the left that condemns the country as a whole as racist. I also will not agree with protests that attack the institutions and symbols of our country, in effect attacking the country as a whole.

As NPR reported NFL players are anything but unified on this. While most of the Pittsburgh Steelers stayed in their clubhouse during the anthem one,
“Army veteran Alejandro Villanueva, ventured out of the tunnel and placed his hand over his heart during the singing of the anthem.”
From what I am seeing online veterans and those serving in the armed forces are among those who are most offended by these protests.

My point, which my friends on the left entirely miss, is that most of the country is moderate in their views. Most people really aren’t hateful racists. A protest, no matter how well justified, won’t make haters stop hating. However, a protest that offends many who don’t hate will drive natural allies and supporters away. I’m not opposed to peaceful protest in any way. The athletes certainly have a First Amendment right to speak out. That isn’t in question. The problem is that this particular protest offends many of the very people that need to be reached to bring about change. This particular set of protests is self-defeating.

These protests do nothing to help raise awareness of a real issue which exists in law enforcement which needs to be addressed. They do nothing to rally support for changes which are needed. They do not open much needed dialogue. They do not promote racial justice in any way. Rather, these protests damage the chances for real change and real reform. They deepen divisions. The protests buttresses President Trump and those like him who seek to exploit the racial divide in this country.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Viva Digital Music Old and New

I've been a fan of CDs from the very beginning. I hate surface noise, pops, scratches and the like, none of which are an issue on any form of digital media. When CDs first appeared in the U.S. classical music enthusiasts were the early adopters, In the Ft. Lauderdale, Florida area an almost exclusively classical CD only shop opened bringing in imported classical recordings. It was funny because while some audiophiles were (and still are) attacking the sound of CDs and claiming vinyl is forever superior the most demanding music fans in terms of sound quality were the ones adopting digital technologies early on. The same thing happened when MiniDiscs appeared in the early 1990s. A classical station in the area even did a special program dedicated to playing classical releases on MD. Somehow, though, vinyl is hip again. I really don't get that at all.

Today's file based equivalents are lossless digital modes, most especially FLAC (Free Audio Lossless Codec), which is an Open Source and works on almost any computer and a growing number of portable devices. FLAC won't displace lossy MP3 files until higher capacity SSD storage devices become both very small and very cheap. MP3s take up far less storage space and sound good enough to a lot of people. FLAC players have been on the market for home stereo systems for a few years now but they are still very much a specialty item. Some units from China with built in amplifiers are really inexpensive these days.

Getting back to CDs, which young people often dismiss as old tech: sales are way down and both used copies of albums and new multidisc sets have become very inexpensive. It's often cheaper to buy the physical disc and rip the music yourself than to buy a digital download of the same music. You then have the original source as a backup in case your favorite music playing device or hard drive dies. It's the best of both worlds: old school physical releases with artwork and often extensive information and the convenience of file based music.

Anyway, those are my ramblings from a discussion on Facebook about digital vs. analog media for music. For me its digital over analog every time.

Monday, February 15, 2016

An Open Letter To Senate Republicans

Dear Honorable Senators:

I'm a registered Republican in North Carolina. In light of the current threats our nation faces and what I view as the failure of President Obama's foreign policy I had planned to vote Republican this year in the presidential, senate and congressional races in my state and district. The reaction by many of you, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, to the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is causing me to rethink the wisdom of such votes.

Our Constitution gives the duty of nominating justices to the Supreme Court to the President. It doesn't say anything about suspending that duty when elections are almost a year away. It doesn't say anything about the political party or ideology of the President having to match that of a majority in the Senate. Your duty, as senators, is to advise and consent, one would assume based on the merits of a particular nominee. To make a statement that no nominee will be considered for nearly a full year to give our party a chance to capture the White House first is not only an unprecedented action in our history, but I firmly believe it subverts our system of checks and balances. It subverts the Constitution you are sworn to uphold.

I am still very cognizant of the uniquely dangerous external threats our nation now faces. However, I see your proposed action as an internal threat to our system of government and our democracy. Those supporting the idea of blocking any nomination for the next year claim they are waiting to allow the people to decide. The people did decide by electing President Obama not once but twice, and by a sizable margin each time. His term is not up. Justice Anthony Kennedy was confirmed in 1988, an election year, and by a 97-0 vote.

If you choose to carry out your threat I honestly feel I have no choice but to vote Democratic in November, and to do all I can to explain why I, a moderate Republican, have made that choice. I would have no choice but to do everything in my power to persuade others to do the same. I am hoping that, in your wisdom, you decide that the best course of action is to give whomever President Obama nominates a fair confirmation hearing and a vote based on qualifications, not an ideological litmus test, as has been done in the past.

Caitlyn M. Martin
Eden, NC

Saturday, October 3, 2015

A Jewish Defense of Planned Parenthood, Reproductive Rights, and Opposition to Imposing Conservative Christianity on America

With regard to Planned Parenthood there is a lot of right wing propaganda out there which ranges from distortion to outright lies. I am one of an admittedly small minority of Republican women who will say, without reservation: I stand with Planned Parenthood. I strongly oppose the efforts to defund the organization. It is already illegal for ANY federal tax money to be used for abortion. In the case of Planned Parenthood federal funds are used for the other 97% of what they do, which is all about women's health. You know, like cancer screening and contraception. Some Christians also object to contraception. The ready availability of contraceptives reduces abortions, something I see as a good thing.

I'm also a Jewish American. In mainstream Judaism life begins at birth. That's why abortion is legal in Israel. There are times when it is simply a medical necessity. In Judaism abortion is NOT murder. That is a Christian religious view. I wrote about this seven years ago, quoting Orthodox Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in a piece titled A Religious Argument For Being Pro-Choice .

Christian interpretation about what they believe to be G-d's word isn't likely to convince pro-choice Jews. In a recent debate on a pro-choice Jewish friend's Facebook page I put it just this way: Jews are not Christians. We do not share your beliefs. As Rabbi Telushkin pointed out in his book The Ten Commandments of Character, an unborn fetus is simply not a baby in the Torah. In Judaism the Torah (law) takes precedence over Nevi'im (prophets) in all things. Christians reorder and reinterpret our scripture in utterly unacceptable ways to Jews, holding Nev'im and Ketuvim (writings) as equal to Torah. The verse, Jeremiah 1:5, often quoted by anti-abortion, anti-choice advocates does not override Torah.

My message to those who want to impose Christian views on others, including Jews who believe entirely differently about abortion, is straightforward and entirely secular. In the U.S. we have a country where one of our founders, the principal writer of our Constitution, Thomas Jefferson, called for "a wall of separation between church and state". So long as that wall holds Christian fundamentalist views cannot be imposed on the rest of us, hence Roe v. Wade. Christian religious views on abortion are not supported by science or medicine. You want to deny women a sometimes necessary, sometimes life saying medical procedure based on your religion? Sorry, the U.S. Supreme Court, in its wisdom, says no.

Once again, to my conservative Christian readers: please understand that your religious views are not universal and are not accepted by mainstream Judaism. You most certainly do not speak for G-d in my view. My politics may have turned to the right in other areas, and I may have also returned to the Republican Party, but that doesn't mean I need to give up my own religious beliefs or my belief that America is strongest as a tolerant country accepting people of all faiths and imposing no religion upon its citizens.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Compelled To Speak Out

Earlier today, on Facebook, I posted this news story: Jewish woman will be the White House’s first openly transgendered staffer. Anyone who knows me knows that I've remained socially liberal even while turning to the right on foreign policy and security issues. I strongly support LGBT rights and, while I've become a harsh critic of President Obama, in this case I give him a lot of credit.

A friend who read my post sent me a blog post from a conservative Christian attacking the LGBT community, and transgendered people in particular. The blog is called "Compelled To Speak". I felt compelled to respond to it. Here is what I wrote:
"You're right on only one level: gender is not a choice. Sex is the physical thing, what parts we are born with. Gender is what's between the ears, determined by neurochemistry in the womb based on the science I've read on this and experts I've talked to. Sometimes someone, from birth, has a gender that does not match their sex. It isn't a choice nor is it a desire. It just is and is a part of G-d's creation. Even Rev. Pat Robertson has acknowledged this. It certainly isn't sin. It does not contradict the passages from the Hebrew Bible you quote in translation.

Your comparisons to bestiality and pedophilia are both ignorant and hateful. Since you post this as a Christian I wonder how you reconcile this with New Testament scripture:

Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.-Matthew 7:1-2

So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. - John 8:7"

I could have thrown more at her but I feel this was enough to make my point. There is nothing Christian about condemning and judging others.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

'70s Israeli Progressive Rock: Sheshet

I grew up on the progressive rock of the '70s. Mostly we heard US and UK bands in the States, but some European bands, particularly Italian bands like PFM, Le Orme and New Trolls recorded songs in English and had a following in the U.S. Israeli prog? Not so much. First, it never was a terribly popular sound in Israel from what I can gather, and without a big commercial success in their home country these bands just didn't get exported. I only discovered them in recent years and a few were truly exceptional.

Sheshet is my personal favorite, a band that was as good as anything that came out of the US or UK. They had Yehudit Ravitz for a vocalist and acoustic guitarist and Shem-Tov Levi on flute and vocals. He also wrote most of the music, which is an amazing mix of the softer side of progressive rock and Canterbury scene style jazz, plus unique touches of their own. Prog bands always needed exceptional keyboardists and Sheshet had one in Adi Renert.

The 30th anniversary deluxe edition, released in 2007, is a two CD set currently available from Amazon. The first disc is their self-titled debut album, which was exceptional from beginning to end. Some tracks have Yehudit Ravitz singing lead; others have group vocals. Some of the album has Hebrew lyrics but there is also a lot of wordless vocalise. I always loved when Annie Haslam did that with Renaissance. It takes a talented singer to pull that off well and Yehudit Ravitz is up for the task. The one track that was a single in Israel is All Thumbs Samba, a track which really is a samba with Hebrew lyrics. Despite the very different sound from the other tracks it has enough depth added to make it fit seamlessly into the album.

Their second and final album is the soundtrack to the film "The Stretcher March" (1977). It's filled with lovely prog instrumentals and more vocalise. The 30th anniversary deluxe CD reissue of Sheshet's self-titled debut includes all the original, previously unreleased music from the film on a second bonus CD. (The three tracks that appeared on both albums are only on the first disc.) It includes two versions of the theme song from the film. The disc opens with an instrumental version and finishes with a vocal version, with Gidi Gov singing lead. The one set basically gives you everything the band ever recorded. I can't recommend this one highly enough.

Notes: Photos from the CD booklet. This review was originally written for Amazon with some minor differences. Also published on my pro-Israel/Zionist blog.