Monday, July 31, 2017

Trump threatens to end ObamaCare payments unless repeal passes

The following article appeared in the Hill on July 29th

President Trump on Saturday threatened to end key payments to insurance companies made under ObamaCare if a repeal-and-replace bill is not passed.

"After seven years of 'talking' Repeal & Replace, the people of our great country are still being forced to live with imploding ObamaCare!" the president wrote in a tweet.

"If a new HealthCare Bill is not approved quickly, BAILOUTS for Insurance Companies and BAILOUTS for Members of Congress will end very soon!" he added. 

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) fired back Saturday, saying Trump should "stop playing politics with people's lives and health care, start leading, and finally begin acting presidential."

"If the president refuses to make the cost sharing reduction payments, every expert agrees that premiums will go up and health care will be more expensive for millions of Americans," Schumer said in a statement.

Trump has previously threatened to withhold the payments, known as cost-sharing reduction (CSR) payments, which lower the amount individuals have to pay for deductibles, copayments and insurance. 

The White House announced earlier this month that key ObamaCare subsidies to insurers would be paid this month, but the administration did not make a commitment beyond July. 

Trump's comments come after Senate Republican efforts to repeal and replace ObamaCare failed in the early hours of Friday morning after three Republicans and all 48 Democrats and Independents rejected pared-down repeal legislation, known as a "skinny" bill.

The issue is of critical importance to Republicans in all three branches of government because the party campaigned for seven years to repeal former President Barack Obama's signature healthcare law.

San Diego Unified to fight Islamophobia, bullying

The following article appeared in the San Diego Union Tribune on April 5, 2017

By Gary Warth  

San Diego Unified School District administrators and teachers will have calendars showing Islamic holidays, students will learn more about the religion in social studies classes and safe places will be created on campuses for Muslim students as part of a multi-tiered approach to combat Islamophobia.

Trustees on Tuesday voted 4-0, with board member Michael McQuary absent, to approve a plan to confront Islamophobia and bullying against Muslim students.

Stan Anjan, executive director of Family and Community Engagement at the district, said elements of the plan will be laid out before the end of the school year with a goal of having it in place at the start of the fall semester. 
Dhimmis United!

“It’s more of a comprehensive program, not just a curriculum,” he said. “We’re looking at it from a very integrated and holistic approach.”

One of the first steps in the plan will be to distribute letters to staff members and parents addressing Islamophobia and identifying resources to learn about the religion and fight discrimination. District calendars will be reviewed to ensure Islam holidays are recognized, which Anjan said is important so schools will schedule campus events that also can be attended by Muslim families.

Schools also will review and vet materials related to Muslim culture and history in media centers and provide resources and material for teachers.

Anjan said social studies lessons may include more information on prominent Muslims and their impact on history and other steps to promote a more positive image of Islam.

“Sometimes curriculum has had a much more Eurocentric approach,” he said. “We’re now thinking of how to diversify social studies curriculum.”

The plan also calls for a different approach in disciplining students who bully Muslim students. Rather than detention, the school will use a restorative justice method involving the student who did the bullying speaking with the other student to restore their relationship.

Community groups, parents, stake-holders and others outside the district also will be involved in the plan, Anjan said.

The roots of the plan date to November 2015, with the school board recognized the educational work of the Council for American-Islamic Relations, the largest American Muslim civil rights advocacy group in the country.

A report released by CAIR that year found 55 percent of American Muslim students surveyed in California said they were bullied because on their religion, which was twice as high as the national statistic of students reporting being bullied at school.

Last July, the board directed the district staff to work with CAIR in developing a plan to address the issue.

Looking back to November 2015, Superintendent Cindy Marten said Tuesday that the issue of Islamophobia is even more important today. 
Dhimmis Always Assume the Same Posture
The district doesn’t have data on how many students are Muslim, but Anjan’s report to the board Tuesday included a breakdown of incidents of bullying for various reasons from July 1 to Dec. 31, 2016.

The report showed seven bullying incidents because of religion, although it did not specific the faith. There were 36 reports were bullying because of race, the largest category, followed by 21 for sex, 11 for LGBTQ identity and seven for disabilities.

Following a presidential campaign season that saw now-President Donald Trump calling for a ban on Muslim immigrants, there have been anecdotal reports nationwide of confrontations and sometimes violent incidents against Muslims.

“There’s a sense of urgency around this work, especially post-election,” Anjan said.

Counselors and teachers in schools and colleges throughout the county have said Muslim students are feeling anxious these days, but Anjan said he’s also seen more students wanting to work to create more peaceful campuses.

“We’ve had students say they want to be leaders around equality issues,” he said.

Trustees were enthusiastic about moving ahead with the plan.

“When we create a climate where it’s OK to celebrate diversity and difference, then it makes all of our children safer,” said Trustee Kevin Beiser. “Not just the children who happen to be Muslim.”

Trustee John Lee Evans said the issue of Islamophobia and bullying against Muslim is greater today than when the board first called for a plan to address the issue.

“Now we have on a national stage where people openly discuss hatred and discrimination against various groups,” he said. We really need to redouble our efforts at a time like this.”

Tuesday’s meeting was attended by about 150 members of San Diego’s Muslim community, including Hanif Mohebia, executive director of the San Diego office of CAIR, who called the Tuesday night vote an important first step.

“If we do this right, San Diego Unified School District would be the leading school district in the nation to come up with a robust and beautiful anti-bully and anti-Islamophobic program,” he said. “I’m really happy we’re going toward the right direction. I am excited, but also careful and cautious because the work ahead is something we will all be responsible for.”

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Ghost in the Shell a surprisingly watchable sci-fi Blu-ray disc

By Jim Bray

It may have started life as a Japanese comic book, but Paramount's Ghost in the Shell is a compelling and eye-dazzling adventure that's much better than I had expected going in.

The movie, debuting on 4K and conventional Blu-ray (our sample was the Blu-ray, darn it, which comes with a DVD and digital code in the package as well - and a 3D version is available, too) hearkens more than a little to Blade Runner, in its look and overall storyline, but more in an "inspired by" or "homage" manner than being a complete rip-off. It made me curious to see how the Blade Runner sequel will turn out when it debuts later this year.

Speaking of a not-too-distant future, Ghost in the Shell is set in just such an environment. Look at the streets, with their obtrusive (but perfectly logical given the way our society is going) holographic ads all over the place - and the abundance of neon and other signage, and it looks exactly like a 21st century take on the 21st century envisioned by Ridley Scott and his collaborators back in the 1982 Blade Runner (though I don't remember seeing flying cars in "Ghost"). There's less rain in this vision of the future, it seems, but that's okay because perhaps it means the seas didn't really rise after the United States withdrew from the Paris Climate accord.  

Anyway, above and beyond the terrific setting (which looks really great in 1080p! Darn them again for not sending the 4K version, but 4K review copies are few and far between right now), Ghost in the Shell follows Major (Scarlett Johansson), who is apparently the first true human/machine hybrid and now works as a kind of cop/spy fighting against cyber-crime (Felonia von Pantsuit - thanks, Kurt! - could have used her in 2016!).

While cyber enhancement is very popular in this world - some people get their eyes done to have extra sight  capabilities while one guy here gets enhanced so he can drink more beer - Major is the first person to combine a completely human brain with a completely robotic body (which just happens to look like Johansson's, a nice bonus considering her acting chops or, according to my wife, lack of same), supposedly as a result of her body's death while she was a kind of "boat person" refugee.

Naturally, there's a lot more to that than meets the eye and during the course of her quest Major discovers some really disturbing potential facts about her true genesis, facts that have her questioning not only who  she is but what she is doing as a career. By movie's end she makes some life-affirming decisions that, I must admit, really surprised me. I'm not going to spoil the story by even hinting what happens, however, other than to note that there wasn't as much capitalism bashing as I expected.

In fact, there's far more action than ideology here and it gets pretty intense at times, though not particularly gross or gory (perhaps the movie's ordnance department got a deal on ammo and they had to expend it). There's also some interesting character development beyond Major's, some really interesting ideas and, of course, the movie's simply gorgeous look (it was shot in New Zealand, and the effects done by Weta, the company and studio set up by Peter Jackson for his Lord of the Rings masterpiece).

The international cast is great, though I've never heard of any of them other than Johansson. Major's boss ('Beat' Takeshi Kitano) is very stoic and by the time the movie was half over I was convinced the actor couldn't walk in real life - until he did so to great effect near the end. His lines are spoken in what I assume is Japanese, with subtitles, though everyone else speaks English. Major's "sidekick," played by Pilou Asbæk, reminds me a lot of Rutger Hauer's Roy Batty, though this time he's one of the "good men."

Johansson does a good job here, and as you can see via the extras, she really threw herself into the role, including doing a lot of her own physical acting. It appears to have been a lot of work, but probably a lot of fun, too. Some people were apparently put off by her casting - and apparently not because of any perceived lack of thespian talents. I seem to remember a bit of a kerfuffle when it was announced she'd be playing Major because Major is supposed to be Asian. So the ranks of the perpetually offended apparently whined about cultural appropriation, even though the fact that a comic book (or Manga, as they call it) from the Land of the Rising Sun was made into a Hollywood movie in the first place could be construed as cultural appropriate if you're into such stuff.

Hey, no one said these chronic complainers have to be capable of using logical thought!  

Ghost in the Shell (the ghost, by the way, refers to a person's soul/personality etc., while the shell is the body in which it's situated) didn't do a lot of business when it came out, which is a shame. According to IMDB, the movie cost $110,000,000 to produce and between its debut in March of 2017 and May 19 it had brought in only about $40 million domestically (though it looks as if it made a bit of money worldwide). This is a shame, and it reminds me of the fate of Passengers, another terrific sci-fi flick that mostly stiffed theatrically.

As a Blu-ray, Ghost in the Shell excels. I watched it on a Panasonic 4K TV played via the latest audio and video equipment from Oppo Digital and Rotel (whose reviews will be coming over the next few weeks). I started it in 1080p for the sake of the review, and the (1.85:1 aspect ratio ) picture quality was excellent. Detail is incredible and the black levels are deep, with rich and very satisfying colours. It's a real treat for your home theatre eyes.

It got even better when I let the Oppo up convert it to 4K, which made me pine even more for a 4K version. Oh well; 4K review copies are as scarce as hen's teeth right now and one reviews the version they send.

The audio is presented in Dolby Atmos, but most people (including me) don't have that capability yet and so in such cases the Blu-ray dumbs itself down to Dolby TrueHD instead, automatically, and that works just fine. It's a very dynamic sound track, making use of all the surround channels and subwoofer very well. This comes in handy in a movie like this, with lots of gunfire and explosions and "atmosphere", and Ghost is very satisfying indeed.

There aren't a lot of extras, but the three featurettes that are included are very interesting. First up is about a half hour "making of" documentary that not only helps introduce the concept and its history, but also gives a lot of interesting insight into the filming process. The other two look more at Section 9 (the gang for whom Major works) as well as the concept of cyber-enhanced humanity itself. All three are worth seeing.

It's a shame Ghost in the Shell didn't do better in theatres. It's an interesting story told well, with an exquisite near-future world that's rendered believably. It's also an excellent home theatre experience.

Minnesota Public Schools Advised to ‘Segregate’ Students Objecting to New Transgender Guidelines

The following article appeared on the Heat Street site on July 27th

By Heat Street Staff

New K-12 school guidelines in Minnesota are mandating public schools to “segregate” students who object to transgender locker rooms and bathrooms to foster inclusion of “gender nonconforming” and transgender people.

Last week, the Minnesota Department of Education advisory council approved a new gender toolkit aimed at protecting and including transgender students in the state’s public education system. 

The goal of the new guidelines is to “help school districts and charter schools create school environments where transgender and gender nonconforming students are safe, supported and fully included, and have equal access to the educational opportunities provided to all students as required by federal or state law.”

The gender toolkit also instructs schools to “segregate” students who feel uncomfortable with the new transgender-inclusive rules, The Blaze reported.

“Schools should work with transgender and gender nonconforming students to ensure that they are able to access needed facilities in a manner that is safe, consistent with their gender identity and does not stigmatize them, the guidelines read.

And then more:

Privacy objections raised by a student in interacting with a transgender or gender nonconforming student may be addressed by segregating the student raising the objection provided that the action of the school officials does not result in stigmatizing the transgender and gender nonconforming student.

As well as separating students uncomfortable with the newly-approved rules, the guidelines insist teachers use the preferred pronouns and names of students who identify with a different gender without the need for a medical confirmation. 

It warns school officials and teachers of the consequences of not using preferred gender pronouns, claiming it could violate federal laws.

“Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) protects the privacy of students. Schools should note that neither a student’s gender nor pronouns are considered public or directory information. Casual use of a student’s incorrect pronoun or incorrect name may violate FERPA,” the toolkit reads.