Thursday, June 30, 2016

Pentagon Ends Ban on Transgender Service Effective Immediately!

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced today that, effective immediately, transgender people will be allowed to serve in the United States military without fear of separation from the armed forces due to their gender identity or gender expression.

NBC News reports:
Transgender men and women will be allowed to openly serve in the military, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced on Thursday — the latest move in a series of historic shifts on gender policy for the nation's military. 
"This is the right thing to do for our people and for the force," Carter said. "We're talking about talented Americans who are serving with distinction or who want the opportunity to serve. We can't allow barriers unrelated to a person's qualifications (to) prevent us from recruiting and retaining those who can best accomplish the mission." 
By October, the Department of Defense will craft and distribute a commanders' training handbook, medical protocol and guidance for changing a service member's gender in the Defense Eligibility Enrollment System. That is also the deadline that all the services will be required to provide medically appropriate care and treatment to transgender service members, according to Department of Defense protocols. 
Current members of the armed forces with a diagnosis from a military physician that gender transition is medically needed will receive that care.
However, DoD "policy will require an individual to have completed any medical treatment that their doctor has determined is necessary in connection with their gender transition, and to have been stable in their preferred gender for 18 months, as certified by their doctor, before they can enter the military," according to the Pentagon.
The number of people who will be affected by the policy change is much smaller than the similar policy change when the ban on members of the LGB community serving in the military was ended in 2010. The estimates range from 2,500 to 15,000, which is approximately 0.1% of the 1.3 million members of the U.S. military.

BOOK REVIEW: The Last Mortal Bond (Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, #3) by Brian Staveley

Wow! I thought the first two books in Brian Staveley's the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne trilogy (The Emperor's Blades and The Providence of Fire) were intense, enthralling and engaging but everything gets ratcheted up several notches in The Last Mortal Bond, the third (and final) book in the Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne trilogy.

The trilogy revolves around a trio of royal siblings, Adare, the eldest child and her two brothers, Kaden (the heir to the Unhewn Throne) and Valyn (the "spare heir"). There were some critiques of the first book (The Emperor's Bladesthat it was too focused on following the exploits and adventures of the male protagonists (Kaden and Valyn) while the primary female protagonist (Adare) was left at home to deal with more domestic concerns (of dealing with the ramifications of the assassination of their father, Emperor Sanlitun hui'Malkeenian). However this critique was muzzled when the second book The Providence of Fire not only increased Adare's profile in the plot considerably, but also gave increased "screen time" to awesome female characters like Pyrre, Gwenna, Triste, Huutsuu and Kegellen. In fact, one very beneficial change is that in The Last Mortal Bond has been Gwenna raised to a point-of-view character on her own (similar to Adare, Valyn and Kaden) and this is great because Gwenna is awesome!

However, what really makes the entire Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne series really tick is the compelling writing by Staveley which forces the reader to care about the characters and makes the book almost impossible to put down, especially in its last third or so. In addition to the central question(s) of what will happen to our key characters (Kaden, Adare, Valyn and Gwenna) Staveley raises the stakes by adding a plot development that threatens ALL of humanity in the compelling world he has created and built. The entire series of books is action-packed and incredibly bloody and since the third book takes place while a war is devouring the Annurian Empire (or is it a Republic?) there are scenes of incredible carnage and thrilling chases.

One unusal (but interesting) aspect of the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne series is the infusion of religion, faith and belief throughout. One would think this would annoy or repel an atheist such as myself but it doesn't. Instead, Staveley's depiction of this society's various gods (Intarra, Goddess of Light and Fire; Meshkent, God of Pain and Hate; Ciena, Goddess of Pleasure and Love; Hull, Lord of Darkness; Ananshael, God of Death; Bedisa, Goddess of Birth) provides the kind of details on which his engaging and believable world-building is based. Many of our protagonists spend a fair amount of their time delivering imprecations and exhortations to various Gods (e.g. "'Kent-kissing" is a common curse). But since this fantasy, it turns out that some of the Gods in question (particularly Intarra, Meshkent and Ciena) become actual breathing and speaking characters in the story.

But the key feature of this book is really the action and the subsequent ruminations on the nature of courage and cowardice. This mostly happens in Gwenna's section of the story as she has to learn how to turn a group of people who had been branded as cowards and failures into a deadly fighting force. Gwenna and Valyn are members of  an elite fighting force called the Kettral. They are named after giant (i.e. 50 feet long) birds called kettrals that are used to gain air superiority on their enemies. To become Kettral you have to lose all sense of fear as you become hardened killing machines and a very small percentage of people who try out to be Kettral actually make it (and a large percentage of people die during the training, or during the Last Trial). All three Malkeenian siblings are put into some terrifying situations, which each of them deal with in different, but ultimately reasonable ways. Staveley presents several different ways in which characters deal with potentially fatal scenarios and it is incredibly compelling (and nerve-wracking, because Staveley is not shy about killing off characters we care about.)

Overall, I would argue that any fan of high epic fantasy (like those written by Peter Brett, Daniel Abraham, Brent Weeks, Brandon Sanderson and Richard Morgan) will greatly enjoy the work of Brian Staveley. I can't wait to read all his future books!!

Title: The Last Mortal Bond (Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, Book 3).
Brian Staveley.
Paperback: 656 pages.
 Tor Books.
Date Published: March 15, 2016.
Date Read: April 10, 2016.

OVERALL GRADE: A- (4.33/4.0).


Monday, June 27, 2016

EYE CANDY: Veto Swain

Veto Isaac Swain (usually goes by Veto Swain) is a fitness model and body builder. He is active on Instagram (@veto.swain) and Twitter (@vswain_8). There's a Veto Swain Fan Page on Facebook.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

GAME OF THRONES: (S6E09) "Battle of the Bastards"

Episode 9 of Season 6 (S6E04) of HBO's Game Of Thrones is titled "The Battle of the Bastards." Of course the bastards the title refers to are Jon Snow and Ramsay Snow (now Bolton).  As has become tradition, the ninth episode of the season contained both the most impressive production and the most dramatically significant scenes of the entire season. The 9th episodes in each Season of Game of Thrones have been:

  • Season 1: "Baelor" (Lordd Eddard Stark is beheaded when Joffrey reneges on)
  • Season 2: "Blackwater" (Stannis Barratheon's attack of King's Landing is repulsed with wildfire)
  • Season 3: "The Rains of Castamere" (The infamous Red Wedding)
  • Season 4: "The Watchers on the Wall" (The Wildlings attack the Wall)
  • Season 5: "The Dance of the Dragons" (Daenerys Targaryen escapes assassination by fleeing on her dragon Drogon)
  • Season 6: "The Battle of the Bastards" (Jon and Sansa retake Winterfell from Ramsay Bolton after an epic battle)
It was expected that the events of this episode would be entirely set in the North, featuring the battle between Ramsey Bolton's forces defending Winterfell and the Wildlings fighting with Jon Snow and other small Northern Houses trying to remove the Flayed Man's banner of House Bolton from the Stark ancestral home. However, the episode began in Essos, with Dany and Tyrion discussing what to do now that Meereen is under attack by sea from the slaveholding masters of Yunkai and Astapor. Dany calmly tells Tyrion that her plan is to kill all the masters and reduce their cities to ash and rubble. "Let's try another way" he suggests. We cut to a scene where Dany and Tyrion (and her advisers Grey Worm and Missandei) are facing the three Masters and Tyrion says "We are here to discuss terms of surrender." The Masters begin to recite all sorts of conditions that they would like to impose on Dany and she says "Perhaps we weren't clear, we're here to discuss the terms of your surrender." The Masters look bewildered and their leader says "Your reign is over." Dany looks amused and says, "My reign has just begun" and suddenly we hear the flap of leathery wings and a clearly full-grown Dragon appears and lands right behind Dany. Grey Worm says to he soldiers defending the masters "Either you can return home to your families or you can fight and die for these Masters who would not do the same for you" and all of them flee immediately. Tyrion then announces that one of the Masters must die, and two of them turn on the third, whom they push forward to face the advancing Grey Worm. The third gets on his knees, begging for his life and in a very cool move Grey Worm whips out his knife and in one motion slices the throats of the two masters still standing, killing them. Tyrion walks over to the surviving master and tells him, "Go back to your city and tell everyone you see what happens when you try to attack Queen Daenerys Targaryen." The Queen herself clambers onto Drogon and flies over the attacking boats and (together with her two other dragons) incinerates several of them.

But we're not done with Essos because we get a scene with Dany and Tyrion speaking with Yara and Theon Greyjoy, making an agreement where the Greyjoys will support Daenerys' claim to the Iron Throne, in exchange for her granting the Iron Islands independence. Daenerys also insists that the Ironborn will also have to give up reaving and raping the shores of Westeros and they agree.

The main action of the episode is in the North. There's a fun little scene before the battle when Ramsay and Jon meet for the first time, in a parley, where Ramsay proves he's holding Rickon Stark captive by showing them the severed head of his direwolf Shaggydog. Jon taunts Ramsay by suggesting they could forego the battle between their assembled forces, sparing the lives of hundreds or thousands if instead they determine the victor via single combat. Ramsay is of course to smart to fall for that ruse (he has more men, and usually in medieval battles, numerical superiority would be considered the primary predictor of victory) but Sansa has the last word, telling him "You're going to die tomorrow, Lord Bolton. Sleep well!" and riding away on her horse.

The battle begins with a heartbreaking scene where Ramsay brings out Rickon, and instead of just killing him quicky, he cuts him free and allows him to run between the two armies, giving the illusion of hope, as he casually shoots arrows at the fleeing boy which miss. Jon rides on his horse into the no man's land between the armies and just as he is within a horselength of his half-brother, an arrow goes through Rickon's back and out his sternum, killing him instantly. If that wasn't enough, at Ramsay' signal House Bolton's archers unleashes a hail of arrows, which somehow miss Jon but several impale Rickon's supine body. Jon runs towards the Bolton forces, and it looks like he will be overrun by the advancing forces on horseback when suddenly, at the last second, the Northern forces come up from behind him and the hand-to-hand battle is joined.

The battle scenes are incredibly bloody, chaotic and realistic, with people literally dying in the scores; it's reminiscent of the famous D-Day scene in Saving Private Ryan (but instead of bullets, there are arrows and dudes with swords and knives hacking away at each other). We mostly follow Jon as he stabd and hacks his way across the field and eventually we see other faces we recognize (Tormund and Ser Davos). Bolton's superior numbers and tactics eventually lead to the Borthern forces being completely surrounded and a near-certain defeat and slaughter of everyone becomes imminent. (At one point, Jon is almost trampled to death under his own men as they are jammed together in an ever-decreasing amount of space by Ramsay's forces.) But then the Knights of the Vale show up and break through the line, saving the day and basically routing Ramsey's army. He retreats to Winterfell, closely followed by Jon and Wun Wun (the Giant, who has been impaled by at least a dozen arrows and not a few pikes). The Bolton forces lock the gates of Winterfell but the giant is able to break through it and allow the good guys into the fortress. He is finally felled by an arrow through the eye (and brain) just as Jon enters Winterfell. Ramsay then decides he wants to try one-on-one combat with Jon, but he still has his bow and arrow, which he uses to try to kill Jon repeatedly until finally Jon is within arms length and knocks him to the ground and starts pummeling him with fists, turning Ramsay's face into pulp. During this Sansa walks in and Jon stops.

Later on we finally see House Stark's banners unfurled from the ramparts of Winterfell and we know the good guys have won, but there's one last piece of business to deal with. "Where is he?" Sansa asks Jon.

We find Ramsay tied to a chair in a darkened space, which we recognize is the kennels and slowly we see his dogs come out and finally do to their master what they had done to so many of his victims: tear his flesh apart and devour him in the most painful way imaginable.

Overall, this was probably one of the most satisfying episodes of the entire series for an avid reader of George R.R. Martin's book and a fan of the HBO adaptation like myself. The primary villain has been dispatched, and the Starks have finally reclaimed their home.

The highlights of this episode were:
  • The best lines of the episode are Sansa's taunts to her abusive husband "You're going to die tomorrow, Lord Bolton. Sleep well!" and when she tell him that his name and house will disappear, that he will be erased from history.
  • The second best line is probably Dany's "We're here to discuss your surrender, not ours."
  • Most valuable player of the episode is almost certainly Wun Wun, the giant. The battle would not have been won without him.
  • The entire battle scene was astonishing, but the scenes where Jon is gasping for breath as he is being slowly squeezed to death due to the Bolton tactics is one of the great moments of the entire series.
  • And this previous great moment comes later in the same episode where another great moment of the show, which is when we finally see Dany using her dragons in battle and realize that she has the most powerful weaponry in the world at her disposal. 
There were no low lights! Parts of the battle got incredibly gruesome and graphic, but I appreciate that it is necessary to provide emotional resonance for the battle scenes.

Grade: 10/10.

June 26 is National #LGBTEquality Day (1 Year Since Nationwide Marriage Equality!)

Today is June 26 and it is being called "National LGBT Equality Day" by openly lesbian United States Senator (I just love saying that!!) Tammy Baldwin. This year, June 26th is the one-year anniversary of the release of Obergefell v. Hodges (which legalized marriage equality nationwide), the 3-year anniversary of United States v. Windsor (which repealed the so-called Defense of Marriage Act) and Hollingsworth v. Perry (which repealed Proposition 8 and restored marriage equality to California) and the 13-year anniversary of Lawrence v. Texas (which struck down any remaining laws criminalizing homosexuality).

Those are some pretty momentous events which should be officially commemorated, I think!

Hillary Clinton thinks so, as well:
“One year ago today, we celebrated a watershed moment for equality in America. Thanks to the bravery of LGBT Americans like Jim Obergefell and Edie Windsor, and the determination and tireless organizing of the LGBT community and their allies, marriage equality became the law of the land in all 50 states. 
“Over the last year, more barriers to equality have fallen – including, finally, the last state law banning same-sex couples from adopting. Just this month, President Obama designated Stonewall as the first national monument commemorating LGBT history in America. 
“We’ve also seen how much work is still unfinished. The attack in Orlando broke our hearts, and reminded us that LGBT people – particularly people of color – are still targets for harassment and violence. Discriminatory laws in states like North Carolina highlight the need for full federal equality under the law for LGBT Americans. And Donald Trump’s pledge to consider appointing Supreme Court justices who would overturn marriage equality underscores the fact that so much of the progress we’ve made is at stake in November. 
“But even when the road ahead seems daunting, never forget: on this day in history, love triumphed in the highest court in the land. Today, our march toward a more perfect union continues—toward equality, dignity, and justice for all.”

LGBT HISTORY: Obama Designates Stonewall National Monument

President Obama is celebrating the one-year anniversary of marriage equality and LGBT Pride month by designating the Stonewall Inn and its environs the Stonewall National Monument! The Stonewall Inn is widely regarded as the site of the uprisings which sparked the development of the modern LGBT equality movement in June 1969. The video above (narrated by the President) discusses the history of Stonewall and gives the rationale for the designation.
The designation will create the first official National Park Service unit dedicated to telling the story of LGBT Americans, just days before the one year anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision guaranteeing marriage equality in all 50 states. Additionally, in celebration of the designation and New York City’s Pride festival, the White House, in coordination with the National Park Foundation and the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, is releasing a video that will be played on the billboards in Times Square on Saturday, June 25, beginning at 12:00pm ET. 
The new Stonewall National Monument will permanently protect Christopher Park, a historic community park at the intersection of Christopher Street, West 4th Street and Grove Street directly across from the Stonewall Inn in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. The monument’s boundary encompasses approximately 7.7 acres of land, including Christopher Park, the Stonewall Inn, and the surrounding streets and sidewalks that were the site of the 1969 Stonewall Uprising. 
Thanks, President Obama! 

Friday, June 24, 2016

2016 WIMBLEDON: Men's and Women's Draws Released

There is big news out of Great Britain today.... The 2016 Wimbledon Championships draw is out!

On the men's side, the projected quarterfinals are:

  • Novak Djokovic (1) versus Milos Raonic (6)
  • Roger Federer (3) versus Kei Nishikori (5)
  • Stan Wawrinka (4) versus Dominic Thiem (7)
  • Andy Murray (2) versus Richard Gasquet (8)
On the women's side the projected quarterfinals are:

  • Serena Williams (1) vs. Roberta Vinci (6)
  • Agnieska Radwanska (3) vs. Belinda Bencic (7)
  • Angelique Kerber (4) vs. Simona Halep (5)
  • Garbine Muguruza (2) vs. Venus Williams (8)
Serena and Djokovic are the defending champions, with Djokovic going for his 5th consecutive major win (and 3rd consecutive Wimbledon). Serena is trying to win her 22nd major title (6th Wimbledon) and has lost in the first two major finals she played this year.

Monday, June 20, 2016

EYE CANDY: Derek Keeton

Derek Keeton is a well-known African-American male model. According to the L'Homme Du Jour, he was born February 25, 1986 and according to his Red NYC Model page, he is 6-foot-1 but I see no weight listed.

He is definitely Eye Candy material!

Sunday, June 19, 2016


Episode 8 of Season 6 (S6E04) of HBO's Game Of Thrones is titled "No One." This is clearly a reference to Arya and her attempts to join the guild of Faceless Men assassins in Braavos and become "no one" and give up her identity as a member of one of the key families in Westeros. But it is also a reference to identity and class, because in A Song of Ice and Fire, one's status in society is directly related to one's name, and so someone who is "No One" has no status, and if someone loses status (like Cersei has by losing her title of Queen, Queen Mother and Regent) then those people are being treated as "no one." And one of the key plot points is who gets to decide who has status and who does not, i.e. deciding who will become "no one."

One of the main themes of this episode was about honor and how people's sense of honor complicates their understanding of what "the right thing to do is." The Blackfish can't see past his sense of honor to survive the siege of Riverrun and escape with Brienne and would rather have an "honorable death" instead of helping his niece's daughter, Sansa regain her household home.

Catelyn Stark's brother, Lord Edmure Tully decides that it is better to surrender his ancestral home of Riverrun to the Lannister-Frey army and trust Jaime Lannister's honorable word that his wife and heir will not be harmed.

In King's Landing, the political intrigues continue with Cersei's son, King Tommen Barratheon outlawing trial by combat, which is the one thing that she was counting on saving her life in any trial that will be called by the High Septon to account for her crimes against the Faith. She has the reanimated Ser Gregor Clegane (The Mountain) to fight as her champion who can defeat any man in one-on-one combat, so the Septon outmaneuvers her to have the practice of trial by combat abolished by the King.

Meanwhile, Sandor Clegane is reunited with the Brotherhood without Banners, and he gets to see the murderous ruffians who slaughtered his friends in the previous episode "The Broken Man" (S6E07).
But he find out about "the real fight" against the white walkers from the North.

Back in Braavos, we finally get a showdown between the Waif and the Arya which turns into a thrilling Hollywood chase reminiscent of Jason Bourne. With corresponding Hollywood ending.

The highlights of this episode were:
  • The best line of the episode went to Jaime Lannister, "The things we do for love" (which is  also what he had previously said way back in Season 1, Episode 1 when he kicked Brandon Stark off the ledge at Winterfell)
  • There were several other contenders for best line in this week's episode, starting with Cersei Lannister's "I choose violence," to Tyrion Lannister's "Most famous dwarf in the world" (line said to Varys), Bronn's "Do you think they're f***ing?" to Podrick Payne (talking about Brienne and Jaime) and Arya's "A girl is Arya Stark of Winterfell and I'm going home!" 
  • The most exciting moment of the episode was when Arya blew out the candle in her hovel as she faced the Waif, and you immediately realized that despite the fact that she was bruised, bleeding and battered, she had turned the tables and would probably be the one girl walking out of their encounter alive, which is not what we would have expected to happen just a few second before. 
  • The second most exciting moment in the episode was the timely return of Daenerys to Mereen, just as the slavemasters of Essos have decided to burn the city down in spite of the pact they made with Tyrion to end hostilities over Daenery's abolition of slavery.
The parts of the episode I could have done without:
  • Did we really need to se The Hound hack down four other people, replete with split heads and dripping human entrails?

Grade: 9/10.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Trident's Forge (Children of a Dead Earth, #2) by Patrick S. Tomlinson

Trident's Forge is the second book in The Children of the Dead Earth series by Patrick S. Tomlinson. I really loved the first book in the series, The Ark, because it was a fast-paced, funny mash-up of mystery-thriller and post-apocalyptic science fiction. It's sequel is a very different book, but with several familiar characters from the first book returning: Bryan "The Zero Hero" Benson, his wife Teresa, their former nemesis Chao Feng, and Bryan's sidekick Pavel Korolev.

Trident's Forge is set three years after the events of The Ark and now the 30,000-member strong remnants of humanity are settling down and surviving on the planet Gaia. It is more than 250 years after a black hole destroyed Earth and forced humanity to abandon our home planet and seek another. The planet we found is inhabited by aliens the humans call Atlantians (and who call themselves the G'tel). I didn't get a good image of the G'tel in my mind's eye but one interesting move by the author is to give the reader point-of-view chapters from the perspective of one of the aliens. The alien in particular, named Kexx, is a "truth-digger" which is an important role in G'tel society (sort of a cross between a religious leader and academic/intellectual). Because the aliens have three genders (although this is not really fully explained that well), Kexx uses the pronouns ze and zer instead of she/he and his/her to describe zer fellow Atlantians. 

Tomlinson has a way of combining action scenes with comedic situations that remind me of John Scalzi (Redshirts) and Wesley Chu (The Rebirths of Tao). I don't know if this is a compliment or a dis (your mileage may vary) but I intend it as a positive recommendation.

The reason why I loved The Ark so much was that the stakes for the characters were so high ( all of humanity is on one ship and the villains want to blow it up with nukes!) and one problem I had with Trident's Forge is that level of tension is not repeated. Yes, Benson is put in one incredibly dangerous situation after the other (and is actually declared dead at one point when his heart stops) but I never believed for a second that the Zero Hero would bite the dust. Thus I think Tomlinson realized he needed to find dramatic tension in different ways and he tried to do so by complicating the political situation at Shambhala, the main colony city for the former Ark residents, with a surprising assassination. 

The best part of Trident's Forge for me is in the interactions between Benson and the aliens as they uncover a sinister plot to exploit the planet Gaia and learn (grudgingly at times) to overcome their differences and suspicions in order to cooperate and survive against common enemies. 

I do love mash-ups, and Trident's Forge has a melange  of a plot combining alien first-contact, frontier intrigue, colony politics, fast-paced action, quirky and irreverent humor and some (minimal) mystery/thriller elements. I am definitely looking forward to the third book in the series, but I hope it is set far enough in the future that maybe Benson is no longer the main character. I also hope that we get a resolution about whether the black hole that destroyed the Earth was a deliberate act and if so, we get to meet those aliens. Now that would be raising the stakes!

Title: Trident's Forge.
Patrick S. Tomlinson.
Paperback: 448 pages.
Date Published: April 5, 2016.
Date Read: June 11, 2016.


OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).


Monday, June 13, 2016

EYE CANDY: Edison Rivas

Edison Rivas is a male model who, according to his Model Mayhem page, is 28 years old and 5-foot-10 and 155 pounds. The pictures above were taken by Brian Taylor Johnson.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

GAME OF THRONES (S6E07): "The Broken Man"

Episode 4 of Season 6 (S6E07) of HBO's Game Of Thrones is titled "The Broken Man." Sometimes the titles of episodes are difficult to interpret but here it is clear that the "broken man" of the title is Gregor Clegane, also known as The Hound. The other prominent broken man in this episode is, of course, Theon Greyjoy. In addition to stories involving both these broken men, the plot advances nicely in King's Landing, in the Riverlands and in Braavos in this episode

This is one of the rare Game of Thrones episodes with what is known as a "cold open"--the action begins without seeing the title credits first. We see a very large axe, and then we see a very large man using that axe to chop wood and immediately recognize the man as Gregor Clegane, last seen being left to die by Arya Stark in (S4E07) "Mockingbird" after losing a battle with Brienne of Tarth. The Hound lives! Interestingly, he explains to the Septon who saved his life that what brought him back from the brink of death was "hate" and that he was bested by a woman (whether he means Arya or Brienne is not clear). There are multiple scenes with Clegane and after the Brotherhood with Banners massacres the entire group of people that were following the septon (and the septon himself) it is significant that the only thing he grabs as he departs is his axe. It's doubtful he will be using it to only chop wood.

The other broken man is Theon, who is still recovering from his abuse and torture as Ramsay Snow's plaything Reek. He and his sister Yara have stolen away with the fastest ships of the Ironborn. Yara is tired of the person her brother has become and basically bullies him into making a decision to "get over" his losses and fully support her and the Ironborn in their search for Daenerys Stormborn before their Uncle Euron or "to end it." Theon chooses life, but it is not clear to me that he is enthusiastic about it.

The other important events in the episode were: Jaime and the Blackfish meeting in the Riverlands as the Lannisters take over the siege of Riverrun from the incompetent Freys; Arya books passage to Westeros (with two hefty bags of coin) and then gets stabbed repeatedly in the stomach by the Waif; the High Sparrow urges Margaery Tyrell to convince her grandmother to join the Faith of the Seven; Margaery meets with Olenna and sneaks a piece of paper with House Tyrell's sigil on it as she urges her grandmother to leave King's Landing; Cersei Lannister and Olenna Tyrell have another exquisite war of words; Sansa, Jon and Ser Davos have limited success in convincing Northerners to join them in their attempt to recover Winterfell.

The highlights of this episode were:
  • For the umpteenth time Lady Olenna Tyrell (i.e. The Queen of Thorns) has the best line of the episode when she tell Cersei "I think you are the most horrible person I have ever met" and "You’ve lost, Cersei—it’s the only joy I can find in all this misery." 
  • A close second-best line was delivered by the pacifist septon who says "Violence is a disease" and that you don't cure it by spreading it.
  • The discovery (or confirmation) that Yara Greyjoy is a lesbian (or at the very least likes to have sex with women)
  • The entire scene with Lyanna Mormont of Bear Island was a highlight, with the child actor (Bella Ramsey) completely stealing the scene from three important characters (Jon Snow, Sansa Stark and Ser Davos Seaworth)
  • Confirmation that Margaery's religious conversion is not as real as the High Sparrow seems to believe (although it is doubt that someone so sharp as he will truly fall for her deception) was great to see.
The parts of the episode I could have done without:
  •  Arya's stabbing seemed totally unsurprising to me. Surely someone who knows that assassins can wear any face should have been more cautious when an unknown old lady approached her on the street.
Grade: 8/10.

Worst Mass Shooting In US History At Gay Nightclub in Orlando, Florida (50 Dead, 53 Injured)

The worst mass shooting in U.S. history occurred late Saturday night at an LGBT nightclub called Pulse in Orlando, Florida. Omar Mateen, 29, has been identified as the person armed with an AR-15 and a handgun who killed 50 people and wounded 53 others.

President Barack Obama delivered a live address to the nation on the tragedy:
This is an especially heartbreaking day for all our friends -- our fellow Americans -- who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. The shooter targeted a nightclub where people came together to be with friends, to dance and to sing, and to live. The place where they were attacked is more than a nightclub -- it is a place of solidarity and empowerment where people have come together to raise awareness, to speak their minds, and to advocate for their civil rights.  So this is a sobering reminder that attacks on any American -- regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation -- is an attack on all of us and on the fundamental values of equality and dignity that define us as a country. And no act of hate or terror will ever change who we are or the values that make us Americans. Today marks the most deadly shooting in American history. The shooter was apparently armed with a handgun and a powerful assault rifle. This massacre is therefore a further reminder of how easy it is for someone to get their hands on a weapon that lets them shoot people in a school, or in a house of worship, or a movie theater, or in a nightclub. And we have to decide if that’s the kind of country we want to be. And to actively do nothing is a decision as well.
A very sad day indeed!

Friday, June 10, 2016

CELEBRITY FRIDAY: Sharapova Suspended For TWO YEARS Over Doping Violation

Maria Sharapova was banned from participating in professional tennis for 2 years, starting in January 2016, due to her March announcement of a positive drug test for meldonium and her subsequent admission that she had been taking the substance for over  a decade.

Here is a useful summary of the Sharapova saga from
In 2005, an 18-year-old Sharapova was suffering from various cold-related ailments and upper-abdomen pain. Her father, Yuri, took her to Dr. Anatoly Skalny in Moscow. Dr. Skalny prescribed “a detailed medicinal and nutritional regime which at the outset comprised about 18 medications and supplements” to boost her immune system. One of those medications was Mildronate—whose active ingredient is Meldonium—which he said should be taken before competing.  
For six years, Sharapova followed his regimen. By the end of 2012, though, having “found the taking of lots of pills overwhelming,” she hired a nutritionist and left Dr. Skalny’s care. Sharapova continued to use three of the substances he recommended, one of which was Mildronate, without telling her nutritionist, her coach, her trainer, her physio, her doctor in California, or any WTA medical personnel. 
“Nor was the use of Mildronate disclosed to the anti-doping authorities on any of the doping control forms which Ms. Sharapova signed in 2014 and 2015.” According to testimony, only Yuri and Sharapova’s agent, Max Eisenbud, knew that she took 500 mg of Mildronate on match days.  
The tribunal, in its boldest statement, flatly contradicted Sharapova’s assertion that she took the drug for medical reasons. 
“The manner in which [Meldonium] was taken,” it concluded, “its concealment from the anti-doping authorities, her failure to disclose it even to her own team, and the lack of any medical justification must inevitably lead to the conclusion that she took Mildronate for the purpose of enhancing her performance.”
I suspect  the World Anti-Doping Agency  (WADA) will reduce the ban from two years after Sharapova's appeal but WADA has definitely made a statement by going big on penalizing the most prominent female athlete in the world for a doping violation. Sharapova turned 29 on April 19th so if she served the full ban she would not be able to compete again until she is almost 31. Already she has ceded her longtime title as the world's highest-paid female athlete to Serena Williams. Would Sharapova retire if her appeal is unsuccessful at reducing the length of the ban? Marin Cilic was initially banned for 9 months and then it was reduced to the four months he had already served. When he came back from his suspension he was very motivated to play his best tennis and went on to win his first and only major (2014 US Open). Only time will tell how the Sharapova saga will unfold....

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

TENNIS TUESDAY: Muguruza Soars To WTA #2, Thiem Hits ATP #7, Grass Season Begins

WTA Rankings: Muguruza #2 (And Closing On Serena), Venus Back In Top 10, Kiki Goes +68
This week's WTA rankings are out and, as expected, 2016 French Open champion Garbine Muguruza is at World #2. She is close enough behind Serena that it is possible (but unlikely) that if the Spaniard were to defend all her 1365 Wimbledon finalist points and Serena Williams not defend her Wimbledon champion points, the 22-year-old could claim the #1 spot for the first time. Venus Williams has returned to the WTA top 10, landing at #9 and will most likely be seeded #8 at Wimbledon because #8 Belinda Bencic is injured. After her Roland Garros triumphs, Kiki Bertens jumps 68 places from #96 to #27. She will almost certainly be seeded at Wimbledon, and play for a medal in Rio.

ATP Rankings: Thiem Enters Top 10, Goffin Knocking At #11, Djokovic Nearly Double #2
After battling each other for a major semifinal spot, Dominic Thiem and David Goffin have career high rankings, landing at #7 and #11, respectively. By dint of his holding all four major titles simultaneously, Djokovic has a record number of ATP ranking points (16,950) which is almost double the total of World #2 Andy Murray. Despite leaving his favorite tournament early due to a serious wrist injury, Rafael Nadal moved up to #4 in the rankings which should prevent him from a quarterfinal meeting with anyone else in the Top 4 at Wimbledon.

Djokovic Blows Past $100 Million Career Prize Money:  $101,917,404
With his win on Sunday, Novak Djokovic is slowly making his case to be considered the greatest of all time. By holding all four major titles simultaneously he has accomplished something neither of his contemporaries (Federer and Nadal) have done, and thanks to the monotonic increase in prize money with time, Djokovic is almost certain to end with more prize money than either of them either. Due to his unprecedented success in the ATP Masters Series event, he has earned more than $101 million in his time on tour, and he is not yet 30.

The Grass Season Begins And Federer Returns In Stuttgart, Brown Wins in Manchester
This year Federer is playing not one but two Wimbledon warm-up tournaments, in Stuttgart and Halle. He has reached the Wimbledon final the last two years, losing both times to Novak. Dustin Brown won a grass court challenger tournament in Manchester over the weekend and is now back into the Top 100.

Tommy Haas Hasn't Retired (Yet) But Has Been Announced As Indian Wells Tournament Director
After the collapse of support for Raymond Moore as longtime director of the ATP masters tournament in Indian Wells due to his rampant misogyny and sexism, a search was conducted for a new TD. The announcement was made last week that Tommy Haas (who is still an active member of the ATP Tour, and very popular among the players) has been named as the new Indian Wells tournament director, subject to the approval of the boards of the WTA and ATP.

Monday, June 06, 2016

EYE CANDY: Travis Winfrey

Travis Winfrey is a 35-year-old African-American actor known best for playing the character of Omar, an openly gay best friend of the lead actresses on the VH-1 series Single Ladies. He is active on Twitter (@TravisWinfrey) and Instagram (@TravisWinfrey).


Sunday, June 05, 2016

2016 FRENCH OPEN: Djokovic Wins 12th Major, Achieves Career Slam & Nole Slam At Same Time

As I predicted, Novak Djokovic won the 2016 Roland Garros men's singles title by defeating Andy Murray 3-6 6-1 6-2 6-4. Djokovic's win was historic: he finally won his first French Open title in his fourth appearance in the Roland Garros final, becoming the eighth man in history to achieve the career slam. In fact, he has now won the last four consecutive majors, becoming the first man in 47 years to simultaneously hold all four major titles, sometimes called the Nole slam.

The final was of relatively high quality, although both players started off nervously, trading breaks at the very beginning. Murray settled down first and was able to nurse his break advantage to take the first set 6-3. Djokovic settled down almost immediately once the second set began and broke Murray immediately and ran away with the first set 6-1. It was clear by the time the third set was half over that Murray's moment had passed and it was only a matter of time before Djokovic would be achieving his longterm goal of the career slam.

Djokovic is now fourth on the all-time list of major singles titles, behind Roger Federer (17), Rafael Nadal and Pete Sampras (14). He increased his head-to-head  to 24-10 against Murray and is  now 5-2 in major finals against Murray and 12-8 in major finals overall. Murray falls to 2-8 in major finals.

GAME OF THRONES (S6E06): "Blood of My Blood"

Episode 6 of Season 6 (S6E06) of HBO's Game Of Thrones is titled "Blood of my Blood." This is clearly a reference to family and kinship, which are often concepts around which alliances and betrayals occur in A Song of Ice and Fire.  This could also be a reference to the tangled relationship between Cersei and Jaime Lannister or between Cersei and Jaime and their son, King Tommen Barratheon. The specific family relationships we see in this episode involve the return of a long-lost relative, a disowned son's return to the family manse to his stern father's disapproval and a usually obedient son who breaks with his parents at the most inopportune time on what the best path forward to the future is.

I think the most significant of the examples I listed above is also the most surprising. For the entire series, Tommen has been a dutiful, obedient son interested in other things (Ser Pounce, comes to mind) so it is quite stunning when it is revealed that Tommen (and Margaery, I'm sure) have joined with the High Sparrow, who imprisoned and humiliated his mother (in S5E10 "Mother's Mercy") to form an alliance of Crown and Faith. This allows him to get his wife back safely under his protection, but completely counteracts the plans that a strategic alliance of the Tyrells and Lannisters have made to try and take out a threat to their dominance of King's Landing. It's still too early to tell who will be the winner in this contest but it does show that the High Sparrow is no pushover. I still think Margaery has some  tricks up her sleeve, and her brother, the future of House Tyrell is still in the High Sparrow's dungeons.

The return of Benjen Stark was a long time coming. Benjen is the brother of Lord Eddard Stark who we last saw in Season 1 talking with Jon Snow and going out ranging beyond The Wall. His name has often been on character's lips, for example, it was the (false) report that Benjen had returned to Castle Black that Jon Snow's assassins used to lure him out of his office before stabbing him to death. After the tragic events of (S6E05) "The Door" Brandon Stark and Meera Reed are stuck out in the snow far North of The Wall with out any food or shelter. Happily, just as the wights catch up with Bran and Meera a dark stranger on a  dark horse appears out of nowhere and using a flaming brazier is able to dispatch them all.  Afterwards he reveals that he was saved by the Children of the Forest from becoming a wight himself by plunging dragonglass into his heart (like Bran saw in his vision) and says that Bran is the "three-eyed raven now."

The heart of the episode is built around the return of Sam and Gilly to Horn Hill, the ancestral home of the Tarlys. Although Sam is the first-born son, because of his bookish and unathletic nature his father disowned him and told him to either join the Night's Watch or he wouldn't survive the next hunt he was forced to go on. However, Sam has been ordered by the Lord Commander to go to the Citadel to become a Maester. But Sam doesn't return home alone, he has Gilly and a little baby boy with him. However, Sam's father, Lord Randyll Tarly hates wildlings and during an incredibly tense dinner with Sam's family Gilly inadvertently lets the truth about her origins out of the bag. Of course, Lord Tarly thinks that Sam has picked a wildling bride just to spite him and belittles and denigrates him in front of the rest of the family and banishes from Horn Hill forever. Sam gets his revenge by changing his plan of leaving Gilly and babe with his family while he goes to the Citadel and instead all three of them sneak out of Horn Hill, and on his way out Sam pilfers Heartsbane, the Valyrian sword which has been in Tarly hands for over 500 years.

There are other important moments in the episode, but they are not completely aligned with the "blood" theme. A Girl With No Name Arya decides NOT to join the Faceless Men after all, instead she seems  enamored with the family of choice created by the cast of traveling mummers, deciding instead to save the person she was supposed to kill. She goes back and unearths Needle from its hiding place and waits for The Waif to come punish her for her disobedience.

In Essos, Drogon finally appears and is reunited with Dany, who implores the Dothraki to follow her over the Narrow Sea to conquer Westeros. Hard to argue with a Khaleesi on the back of a dragon!

Another scene that is setting up the major conflict for the season is the re-appearance of the odious Walder Frey. He is going to try to appeal to blood ties in order to ransom the life of Edmure Tully (the groom in the Red Wedding) in order to get the Blackfish (Ser Brynden Tully) to give up his hold over Riverrun.

The highlights of this episode were:
  • For the first time Gilly probably has the best line of an episode when she tells Sam "You aren't what they think you are." A close second is from a multiple winner of the "best line" contest, which is Olenna Tyrell saying tartly "He's beaten us
  • Gilly all cleaned up and dressed up for dinner at Horn Hill was most definitely a highlight.
  • Drogon continues to look amazing. Now that the show appears to have a near-infinite visual effects budget, they are stinting no expense in the depiction of the dragons and it shows.
  • Another episode with no Ramsay Bolton is always a highlight!
There was no low light in this week's episode.

Grade: 9/10.


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