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I am looking out the window and the trucks won’t stop coming.

This is the first sentence battered women use to identify the purpose of the call when they call Sadie for help.

Sadie (Olivia Wilde) was abused by her husband (Morgan Spector). He was a loner who took his wife and young son into the wilderness in the Adirondacks to practice living off the grid. They would park the car, cover it with a tarp and camouflage it with branches and leaves. They would hike into the mountains and live off the land. To prove toughness, he would break her arm and then reset it himself.

One day she has enough and musters the courage to leave him. When Sadie breaks away, their son gets killed.

On her own, she teaches herself martial arts, fighting and self-defense and makes it her life’s mission to help other women leave their abusive men by coming after the men with the same brutal aggression they have been using on their women. It is not an easy life. Eventually there is the final face off between herself and her former husband.

A Vigilante is full of graphic scenes of despair, terror and anguish. We see women in a shelter telling their stories to each other to try to get closure. We see how Sadie slowly transforms herself from battered wife to ruthless fighter for justice by her own terms. But none of it is credible and works.

The movie is disjointed and choppy. I found it difficult to make out where in the story I was at times, whether she was on a mission to free somebody, or on her own obsessive quest to come after her husband.

Light spoiler ahead:

In the final showdown, she finds her husband, and true to his self, he ties her up and breaks her arm just for good measure. She eventually gets away, and when he finds her, somehow, she kills him. The movie does not show how this goes down. This small woman, albeit trained as a fighter, with one arm broken and temporarily mended by herself with electrical tape, stands in front of the man, tells him she is going to kill him. In the next scene we see her choking him with her one working hand, he is on the ground, rolling his bulging eyes as he dies.

Then she dumps his naked body in the woods and moves on to save another woman.

The critics love this movie, which boasts 91 on Rotten Tomatoes. I differ greatly.

A Vigilante is not credible from the very beginning. It is trying to show the hurt and anguish of battered women, and it does so graphically. Otherwise it’s an unconvincing movie, depressing to watch, with huge plot holes.

Unsatisfying all around.

In almost 12 years of keeping this blog, I have reviewed every book I have read. That’s 294 to date.

I finally decided to create an index to all my book reviews. Check out the page (click on the Book Reviews tab above) and you will find a searchable table with links.

This took some tedious work, but it’s done now.

Next, I will create an index of all my movie reviews.

Reviewing old book reviews on my site, I came across this post from a dozen years ago about Getting Mother’s Body by Suzan-Lori Parks.

I had forgotten all about it.

It’s definitely one of the most captivating first pages of any novel I have ever read. Check it out here:

Getting Mother’s Body

Reviewing and compiling a list of books I have read, I got to thinking about the first books read in each language. I have read books in four different languages. And here they are:

My first German book was Die Smaragdenstadt, a story about a group of children traveling to an Emerald City. It was the first “chapter book” I read when I was probably six years old. I remember how proud I was when I had finished it. Of course, I remember nothing about the substance, but I suspect it was the story of The Wizard of Oz translated to German. In my childhood, The Wizard of Oz didn’t mean anything, but I remember I loved the book.

My first French book was Le Petit Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. This, of course, was a classic in many languages, and we read it as an assignment in my German high school in French class when I was about fifteen or sixteen years old.

My first English book was Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi. I was eighteen, a foreign exchange student in an American high school, and I don’t know why I picked that book of all books to be my first. It was about Charles Manson’s life of crimes. It kept me reading, I kept turning the pages, and I looked up words incessantly in my German-English dictionary. As I looked up the words, I wrote them down and reviewed them nightly, committing them to memory and building my fledgling English vocabulary.

My first Spanish book was Once Minutos by Paulo Coelho. It’s a paperback of 242 pages. I bought it in the beginning of December 2009 on a trip to Oakland, and it took me a number of weeks, much longer than I thought it would. I didn’t like it much, rated it with only one star.

Not in my wildest dreams did I think, that as a Californian, I would ever donate money to a candidate in Kentucky for the U.S. Senate. I just did. I sent $25 to Amy McGrath, a former fighter pilot, who is running against Mitch McConnell.


Click here for more information about Amy.

 

In 1942, the science fiction author Isaac Asimov published Runaround, a short story in which he introduced three laws of robotics:

First Law: A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

Second Law: A robot must obey orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

Third Law: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Of course, in 1942, our most sophisticated imagined images of robots looked something like this picture. Up to today, we do not have any robots to which such laws would apply, and we have no legislation anywhere in the world that applies to robots (that I know of).

When we think of robots coming after people, we have visions of large flying machines attacking humans in apocalyptic movies. The reality is that we don’t have such robots yet. But let’s make no mistakes about it. Robots kill humans right now in 2019.

During a recent trip to Syracuse, I noticed an MQ-9 Reaper drone landing at Hancock Field, which is at the Syracuse airport, where the New York Air National Guard’s 174th Attack Wing is based.

The Reaper is built by General Atomics right here down the street in Poway, California, and costs $15.9 million each. As of 2014, 163 of them have been built, mostly for the United States military, but also used by NASA, the CIA and U.S. Customs. Some have been sold to allied countries.

Here is a short video of a flight.

These drones are semi-automated robots. They can stay aloft for 14 hours when fully loaded. They are actually flown by pilots on the ground in the U.S. but they can be located anywhere in the world. The MQ-9 can attack a village in Yemen or Afghanistan, kill all participants at a wedding or birthday party (because presumably a terrorist was present there), and then the “pilot” can go home at 5:00pm in Syracuse and have a BBQ party with his friends in his backyard. We citizens don’t actually know how autonomous these robots are, but I am quite certain they could fly autonomous missions, without pilots, if we so chose.

Is the Reaper following the First Law of robotics? Certainly not. It’s designed to perform reconnaissance and to kill people. That’s its purpose.

Another robot that recently killed humans by the hundreds is the Boeing 737 Max airliner. Ok, the plane is flown by humans, but the investigation has shown that the humans on the plane were not able to override the flight control system (a piece of robotics). Due to a single faulty sensor, in two separate airplanes, the flight control system pushed down the nose and minutes later all people on board perished. In October 2018, 189 people died in Indonesia, and in March 2019, another 157 people died in Ethiopia. See New York Times article here.

Another type of robot are self-driving cars. People are getting killed in self-driving vehicles. While most experts, as well as insurance companies, agree that self-driving vehicles are safer than human-driven vehicles, we really do not have enough incidents and experience monitoring self-driving traffic and incidents to establish reliable statistics. The bottom line is: we do not know. I personally believe that self-driving vehicles are going to be MUCH safer than human-driven vehicles.

We classify them as Level-1 to Level-5, where Level-5 is fully automated, defined as unconditional (that is, no-limits) automated driving, with no expectation that a human driver will ever have to intervene. Clearly, a Level-5 automated vehicle is definitely a robot. It is only a matter of time before our roads will be full of them. It could be a few years, it could be a few decades. But it is a certainty.

Let’s think, for a moment, about ethics of robotics, going right back to Asimov’s three laws. Let’s say a self-driving vehicle is driving down a narrow street and, due to a stalled car crossing in front of it, it has to stop. Let’s say the brakes of the vehicle are failing. I know this should not be happening, but brakes do fail occasionally. The vehicle detects that the brakes are failing, and it now knows that in 0.8 seconds it will impact. But it has a choice to make. I might add here that 0.8 seconds is a long time for an automated intelligent system to “think” about a problem.

Here is the problem: Let’s say it detected that there is a young woman with two small children in the back in car seats in the stalled vehicle. It realizes that if it hits that stalled car broadside at the current speed, it will likely kill all three occupants of that vehicle. But it can swerve to the right and jump up on the sidewalk. Unfortunately, there is an elderly couple walking their dog. The man is in a walker. The woman alongside him, is holding the leash for the dog. The car knows that if it swerves to the right, it will kill the elderly couple and the dog. It has no other choices.

The robot now needs to decide, in less than 0.8 seconds, which three souls it will certainly kill. How should it decide? Clearly, Asimov’s three laws are not sufficient. Does it go for the old people and spare the children and young woman?

I know this is a gruesome example, but this type of thing will happen, and to some degree it’s going on already. Our American lawmakers are certainly not thinking about this stuff right now. Congress can’t seem to make up its mind about what to do about relatively benign ethical problems like illegal immigration and asylum laws. The laws that apply to robotics are an entirely different matter altogether.

Robots are killing people, right now, as we speak, and we as a society are not yet ready to deal with the consequences.

In April 2013, I reviewed the book Yellow Star by Jennifer Roy. It tells the story of a Sylvia Perlmutter, a Jewish girl in the Lodz ghetto who was liberated in 1945 when she was 12 years old. Out of a quarter of a million people in the ghetto, only 800 survived, and of those 800, only 12 were children. Sylvia was one of them.

When I read the book in 2013, I wrote this in my review:

The Germans, for reasons I do not understand, took all the children away in the latter years and told their parents they were going to care for them better than they could in the ghetto. However, the children, being of no use to the Germans as workers and only a distraction to the adult Jews, were jammed into cattle cars and taken to death camps like Auschwitz, which was only a few hundred kilometers south from Lodz – where they were killed within hours of arrival.

What bestial people take babies, toddlers, small and older children under 14 away from their parents by force, by the thousands – with the full intent to just kill them? My German ancestors did.

The desperate parents went to extraordinary measures to hide their children. When the soldiers went house to house, they kicked open locked doors and ransacked apartments, looking for children in closets, trunks, under beds, wherever they could possibly be hidden. The agony the parents went through is unimaginable.

The agony for the children – well, you need to read Yellow Star to find out.

The key sentence here is:

What bestial people take babies, toddlers, small and older children under 14 away from their parents by force, by the thousands? 


I usually don’t like musicals. When the actors in the beginning of Rocketman all of a sudden stopped talking and started singing, it had me pause. But Rocketman is a biopic about Elton John, who is one of the great singers and songwriters of pop music history. A little musical extravaganza with actors singing and dancing to make their point provides just the right mood.

Elton John burst onto the music scene in 1969 and his career exploded in the early 1970ies. In those years he was the best-selling musician in the world, rivaled only by Stevie Wonder.

Rocketman tells the story Elton John’s life, his childhood dominated by inept and emotionally abusive parents, and the discovery of his talent of being able to listen to a melody and instantly playing it back on the piano. When he crossed paths with Bernie Taupin, who would become a lifetime friend, their collaboration made creative sparks fly and changed pop music history. Most singer and songwriters write their music and then compose lyrics to fit them. Elton and Bernie worked the other way around. Bernie wrote poetry, gave the lyrics to Elton, who pondered the words, built the music around it, and sang it with his characteristic voice. The outcome was true pop music magic.

I was just entering my teenage years, and I remember clearly New Year’s Eve 1973 when I was with my friends, we were awaiting the New Year while with were playing cards, and Crocodile Rock was playing in the background. In the years that followed, Elton John and his music had a huge influence on me and my coming of age.

I remember as an 18-year-old, lying on the carpet next to the stereo with the headphones on listening to the Madman Across the Water and Captain Fantastic albums.

Rocketman brought back all of those memories and feelings.

What I didn’t know was how bad Elton John’s substance abuse was at that time, how destructive it was for all those around him, and how much he suffered from it. This movie, which celebrates his life and musical genius, also serves as one “hell of a warning” to everyone about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse.

The actor Taron Egerton, portraying Elton, sings all his own songs in Rocketman. I was skeptical about this approach before I went to see the movie. After all, how do you imitate the voice of a legend who is a legend partly because of his voice? It seemed impossible, but it worked. Elton John’s music powers through the movie and keeps a relentless pace. For those of us that grew up with that music it is a joy to watch. I don’t know if it has the same impact on the younger generation.

 

 

During the debates of the Democratic presidential candidates last week, I heard a number of stupid things. If the Democrats want to win the next elections, they have to stop this.

Socialism

They need to stop talking about socialism. Yes, we currently have socialism. Our roads, our infrastructure, our educational system, our law enforcement, our fire protection system are all examples of socialism. We all pay for these services, whether we need them or not. We have rampant corporate socialism right now. We’re paying farmers not to grow certain crops. We’re propping up oil companies, and solar companies, and car companies. The problem we have right now with socialism is that the Trump Administration has directed the benefits of socialism to the 1%. The rich and corporations are now getting the benefits, and nobody seems to mind.

But socialism is a bad word in the United States. It has been cast as an undesirable system. The Democrats, and Bernie Sanders specifically, need to stop using the word. They can continue doing exactly what they are doing, but just stop using the s-word. It hurts. It does not benefit. It won’t win the election.

I am going to be facetious now for a moment: Why not call it “national socialism?” Get it? That’s what “Nazi” stands for. National Socialism. Stop using the word socialism!

Private Health Insurance

Most democratic candidates raised their hands when asked whether they would support ending private health insurance for an all-public system. That is an insane position for American presidential candidates to be in. It just won’t happen. There may be 30 million people who are uninsured who want to sign on to public insurance. But I happen to have health insurance, and I am happy with it. And so are 100 million other Americans.

This does not mean our healthcare system doesn’t need work. A lot of improvements are necessary.

But don’t mess with people’s lives! Let people make their own decisions. Standing up for removing all commercial health insurance is not going to get the Democrats elected.

Open Borders

This is Trump’s signature issue. Closing the borders and everything about it. He is elegantly advanced his rhetoric about this, and positioned the Democratic Party as one that wants “open borders” and nobody is fighting that term. I personally do not agree with the administration’s approach to border security and immigration.

Not. At. All.

However, I also don’t think we can have “open borders” in the United States. They have open borders in Europe. You can walk from Germany to France any time. And people do. They have the same currency in both countries. But in general, the French like being in France, and the Germans like being in Germany, so it’s not a big deal.

The southern border of the United states separates a very rich nation from a comparatively poor set of nations, and the inequality in the economies, as well as the social justice system and the presence of endemic crime in Central America has crated a situation where there is a massive pull for people to go north. The borders must be controlled, and immigration laws must be enforced. Otherwise, it would indeed be chaos. The problem is that we have a messed up immigration system, confusing control and enforcement, and we need a proper guest worker program. It’s all called “immigration reform” and we need it badly.

The atrocities the current administration is committing at the border are despicable. But neither side, the administration or the Congress are doing anything reasonable about it. We need to take this issue seriously and handle it. And don’t tell me we don’t have the money. We’re spending $700 billion on the military industrial complex and we’re sending unimaginable amounts of money to the Middle East for no good at all. A fraction of that money could solve our immigration issues for decades to come.

We do not have a problem with immigrants. We have a problem with national priorities. And we have a problem with a lack of morality in our current government.

The Democrats need to make that point and stop allowing the other side to just label them as “open border” advocates.

 

 

When I was 14 years old, I was into “designing computers.”  I bought a book about computers, studied it, and started drawing logic diagrams, cobbled together logic gates to perform the basic arithmetic calculations on notepads. To test them, I used a transformer from my slot car track, bought little lightbulbs and sockets to represent binary memory registers, toggle switches to enter binary data into the system, and wired the various gates using tiny wires and Molex connectors. The stuff was mounted on a 4 by 4 foot sheet of plywood. I got as far as creating a working system to perform multiplication from 1 x 1 up to 10 x 10. I had built a computer.

Today I received the Elegoo kit. This is a kit based on the Arduino processor.

 

For less than sixty dollars I received a huge amount of components with enough computing power to rival the mainframe computers of the 1960s. The whole thing comes in a nice plastic case the size of a large coffee table book.

Now I just have to build something.

When I was 14, I had all the time in the world. Not so much now!

A new headline today shows that Boeing, in an apparent effort to save money, outsourced software to HCL, an Indian company, at rates as low as $9 / hour. Other articles claim $12.80 / hour.

I happen to know HCL. About 10 years ago our company competed for a major state contract and HCL won. For price. The contract subsequently became a boondoggle, and was abandoned after a few years. HCL never delivered a working system.

I have been following the press on the Boeing software debacle. Apparently, the software that pushed the nose of the plane down was relying on a single sensor. No software in the world can be designed to make control decisions based on the output of a single sensor. That software eventually crashes the system. If the software is a flight control system for an airliner, that airliner will eventually crash.

And it did.

Twice.

I would have predicted it if you had asked me in advance and given me a chance to review the design, the approach, and the software itself. You cannot ever base software decisions of a critical nature to a single sensor. Even two sensors are marginal. Two parallel systems, both voting, both based on multiple sensors of different input dimensions are required to make positive control system responses. The default response should not have been pushing the nose down, but it should have been disengagement of the autopilot and sending alarms to the pilots.

The HCL engineers and managers should have known that. The poor programmer who implemented the code should have yanked the alarm chains. He knew what he was doing, but he was probably overruled by his superiors. The program manager should have escalated the concern to Boeing, the customer.

This is not the last time an intelligent control system kills humans. It will happen again, as more and more systems are automated.

We are subjected to automatic control systems every day, and we have come to entrust our lives to them. Smart cars and self-driving cars are the newest examples. But every automatic train at every airport is a simple example. Software moves us around at high speeds.

It’s time for Boeing to fess up to the serious mistakes in judgment it made, take full responsibility, bring its software development back into the country and pay its engineers what it needs to pay them. Saving money by outsourcing to low bidders in India has cost them very dearly, and it’s not clear at all to me if Boeing will ever recover from this.

There are thousands of scientists all over the world who study our climate and of course climate change. The overwhelming consensus is that humans play a significant role in global warming.

[click to enlarge] Source Wikipedia:Click here for article.

There are some people that want us to believe that the world isn’t warming right now, partly because the way we are measuring temperature is not right. For instance, some people argue that thermometers are mostly distributed in the northern hemisphere and there are not very many in the south, so while we’re thinking the earth is warming, we’re not actually sure it is. To me this seems like a crazy, far-fetched idea. It would imply that all those thousands of people measuring temperature around the world haven’t taken that into consideration and are deliberately ignoring this fact.

Whether the earth is actually warming or not, the glaciers are definitely disappearing. That even I can see with my amateur eye. Take any glacier picture from 10 years ago and from today, and you can see the difference pretty obviously, and it seems to be happening in the southern hemisphere, too. If it’s not temperature that’s melting the glaciers, what is?

CO2 in the atmosphere is now as high as it last was 800,000 years ago. People have argued with me: Well, there you have it – 800,000 years ago we had CO2 levels this high. The world is always changing, whether we’re in it or not.

Two points: The CO2 level took hundreds of thousands of years to go from lower levels to over 400 ppm, and then back down again. Our latest grand change took 50 years. That gives me pause.

Second point: 800,000 years ago, when we had CO2 levels of 400 ppm, the seas were 50 feet higher. Most of Manhattan would be under water, all of Miami, all of Boston, all of Los Angeles, and much of San Francisco, San Diego and Seattle.

The so-called climate deniers argue that somehow scientists are in a conspiracy. They are falsifying findings to make money.

So, thousands of the world’s climate scientists are conspiring and make stuff up to cause us to not buy fossil fuel for some weird reason. And the only saviors are an American president, a few dozen American senators, a few dozen American congressmen and about 10 oil companies?

I am not buying it.

 

There are a lot of headlines about gerrymandering by the Republicans these days. I was curious about where the word came from.

In Massachusetts in the year 1812, the governor was Gerry Elbridge. His party redistricted the state to preserve the Antifederalist majority. After they were done, one district in Essex County resembled a salamander.

Here is a picture of an article in the Boston Gazette of March 26, 1812. You can click to enlarge.

“The Gerrymander: a New Species of Monster” Boston Gazette, March 26, 1812, page 2, Library of Congress Newspaper, Serials and Government Publications Division.

And that’s how Gerry and (sala)mander created the word gerrymander that we still use today.

Do you have anything that can trump that?

 

On August 22, 1974, I was a bright-eyed 18-year-old AFS foreign exchange student, when I arrived in Lakewood, New York. The Saxton family took me in for a year and made me one of theirs within the first few hours of my arrival. When we pulled up to the house at 22 E. Summit, they had hoisted two flags, the German one next to the American one. I took this picture within a few hours of arriving there on that hot August evening, the first day of a drastically changed life.

I gave the camera to my host sister Val who then took this picture of me by the flag. Check out my crazy cut-off shorts! The kids never let me hear the end of it, and those shorts went into the trash quickly never to be worn again.

Here is a view from the side of the house, looking toward the street. The house that was to be my home for the next year was so drastically different from the house in Germany that I had just left. The entire architecture in America is very different from that in Germany.

Many months later I went outside and took another picture of the place in winter, with the icicles pointing down from the roof.

Here I am in the hallway toward the end of the year, a proud high school graduate. By then, 22 E. Summit had become as much my home as any place in my life. I still remember the countless hours lying on my back on the thick, plush carpet, next to the stereo, listening the Elton John records using the headphones: “Ticking, Ticking, don’t ever ride on the devil’s knee, Momma said.”

Five years later, in the summer of 1979, I brought my German parents to the U.S. and we drove across the country from Arizona to New York. While we were there, my stepfather and I painted the house. Here we are, he on the left, myself on the right, working away in the hot summer morning.

The Saxtons sold the house within a couple of years after that and moved on with their lives, and so did I.

Now let’s turn the clock forward 40 years to last Sunday, Father’s Day 2019. My sister Val and I drove by the old place. It is now long abandoned and tagged by the authorities. There is a red warning sign on the wall. The place is infested with mold, bed bugs and anything else you can imagine after being left to the elements for years. I assume it will eventually be torn down. There are no other options left.

The yard is overgrown and the house is literally crumbling.

Here I am in front of the steps where I stood in my cutoff with fringes 45 years ago as a boy.

Looking in I see that the place is completely gutted. I can see the spot where I stood when I had my graduation picture taken. I see where the couch used to be where I watched Gilligan’s Island after school every afternoon, where I learned listening to rapidly spoken English in the first couple of months. The old house is full of memories.

No visit to the old house would be complete without a parting selfie. Here we are, Val and I, after a lifetime of memories and a friendship that started in these very rooms so long ago.

Good bye, 22 E. Summit.

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