Awesome Villain In History: Rasputin

Ah, yes, it has been far too long since we have done one of these. It’s Awesome People in History time!

This week, I’m doing something different. Previously, my Awesome People have all been heroes of some sort, people who made a positive difference in the world. But what’s an awesome hero without an awesome villain?

With that in mind, let me introduce you to an early 20th century Russian mystic by the name of Rasputin.

He's the one in the middle with a white shirt, beard, and Charles Mansion "Welcome to The Family" eyes.

You’ve probably already heard of the man (full name Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin), who became famous for gaining the trust and confidence of Russia’s last tsar after “miraculously healing” the ruler’s son.

Because that is the face of a man you trust your children with.

There is a reason the man has a haunting presence in our cultural memory, and it isn’t just that creepy, creepy face.

Let’s start with his childhood. Born in Siberia to a peasant family (meaning he would have had a tough childhood like Abe Lincoln, except IN SIBERIA!!!!), the first sign he might be something special came when he was still a very young boy. His older brother, Dmitri, fell through the ice into a frozen pond, and young Rasputin jumped in to save him. This put both boys in danger (remember: SIBERIA), but luckily a passerby was able to pull them out. Afterwards, Dmitri succumbed to the cold, got pneumonia, and died. Rasputin didn’t.

As the boy grew older, his villagers began to claim he had supernatural powers. In adulthood he took the mantle of a religious mystic, travelling to Greece and Jerusalem on pilgrimages before settling in Saint Petersburg.

Enter Tsar Nicholas II and his hemophiliac son, Alexei. A rare hereditary blood disorder, hemophilia prevents blood from clotting, meaning little Alexei could bleed to death from the littlest cut or bruise. Yet Rasputin somehow was able to heal the boy, meaning it wasn’t long before Tsar Nicholas II and his wife began calling this weird, creepy mystic to help more and more frequently. But what about when Rasputin wasn’t there, you ask? Well, in 1912 there is a report that he was able to heal Alexei by telegram.

But Rasputin was no good guy, and the tsar’s advisers knew it. He was surrounded by a cult of followers to whom he preached that in order to be saved by faith in Jesus, people must first commit sins. So, he had lots and lots of sex with his lady followers. He also took bribes, and was a heavy drinker. By Russian standards.

And Rasputin knew how to use the trust the Tsar and his wife gave him to gain power. World War I broke out, and Rasputin “prophesized” that the war would go badly for Russia unless the Tsar went to the front and took personal command of the army. So, the Tsar did, leaving his wife, the German-born Tsarina Alexandra, in charge of the country. As it turns out, the war didn’t go so well for Russia even with the Tsar in command, and Rasputin became so close to Alexandra that he was able to put his cronies in charge of the government.

This, as it turns out, was the undoing of the Russian monarchy. Critics of the regime, who could be arrested for criticizing the tsar, could openly criticize “That freaky bearded wacko with a cult who has the palace captive.” It could be said that Rasputin helped bring about the Russian Revolution.

As you may have guessed, there were plenty of people who wanted Rasputin dead. In 1914, he was attacked by a woman who cut out his entrails. AND HE SURVIVED.

Eventually, someone did succeed at killing him, but it wasn’t easy. According to Felix Yuspov, his killer, he invited Rasputin to a party on December 16, 1916. He tried poisoning Rasputin with cyanide-laced cake and wine, but to no avail. Then, Yuspov shot Rasputin in the back. This didn’t work; Rasputin turned on Yuspov and attacked. Yuspov’s friends fired on the mystic, beat on him with clubs, wrapped him in a carpet, and threw him in a river. When Rasputin’s body was found four days later, the autopsy found his cause of death was drowning in the river.

Yet even this wasn’t the end of the story. According to one legend, when Rasputin’s body was cremated, it suddenly sat upright in the fire. A fittingly frightening ending to a frightening person.

Information from this article on Wikipedia.

Four things from the Avengers comics that WON’T be in the movie

So, we’ve all seen the new Avengers movie trailer by now, right? Well, if you haven’t, here it is:

I have already mentioned that I am really, really looking forward to this movie. The very ideas of a superhero team-up and a massive cross-franchise continuity have never been attempted in a major Hollywood movie before. I am so excited, I can hardly wait until May to see it!

Of course, the Avengers movie may be new, but the Avengers comics have been around since 1963. Decades and decades of publication with many, many different writers tends to bring with it a wide variety of stories – some good, some bad, and, well, some rather bizarre and controversial. It is kind of inevitable that there would be some things that, looking back, Marvel Studios won’t want to put into any of their movies.

While most of the internet buzz has been speculating about what will be in the movie, I’m going to go through some things that I can say with absolute certainty WON’T be in the movie.

Captain America becomes The Nomad

The whole point of Captain America is that he is the embodiment of everything America values and believes in. He is the perfect person: noble, brave, kind, self-sacrificing, stoic, always doing the right thing. He stands for what America’s flag stands for, which is why his uniform is so red-white-and-blue.

But what happens when that flag has been stained with scandal, corruption, and evil? What happens when Captain America’s country betrays his values? In the wake of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, Marvel’s writers decided to explore this idea. They wrote a story where ol’ Cap got fed up, and changed his superhero name and costume. From now on, he was to be “The Nomad”!

Why we won’t see it: This costume.

AAAAAAHHH! Disco fashion! My eyes are burning!

That, and I don’t think audiences would like the idea of “Now even Captain America hates America? What is the world coming to!” Fans didn’t like it back then, either, and it wasn’t long before the writers had the Captain change his mind.

The Dark Reign Saga

This one is kind of a shame, because I really think it would make for an amazing movie. The story begins with an alien invasion of Earth, that our heroes can’t seem to beat. Then, suddenly, Spider-Man’s arch-nemesis, the supervillain known as the Green Goblin, appears…

…and defeats the alien queen, saving the day! As a reward for his efforts, the Goblin is given a full pardon and made the new head of S.H.I.E.L.D. Now as de facto leader of the good guys, the Goblin decides to fill the Avengers’ roster with other villains claiming to have had a change of heart. This goes about as well as you would expect.

As in, not well at all.

Why we won’t see it: Copyrights and contracts.

Back before Marvel had the idea of making its own movies in-house, it used to contract out the movie rights to Marvel characters. Today, Sony has the rights to Spider-Man and everyone from the Spider-Man franchise, including Green Goblin. As long as they keep making Spider-Man movies, they will keep those rights. And they are making a Spider-Man movie as we speak, also to be released this summer:

Ant-Man Betrays the Avengers

Ant-Man is not exactly the most well-known or popular superhero, what with his main ability being the ability to change his size.

Bad guys could probably just step on him.

I guess it is only natural, then, for him to have some emotional issues. When one of his outbursts threatens a mission, Captain America suspends him from the Avengers and orders him court-martialed. To prove himself, he builds a robot and plans to have it attack the Avengers. His hope is that if he saves the team from this robot, they will forgive him and let him back in. The trouble: his wife, the Wasp, discovers his plan and decides to stop him.

Why we won’t see it: That’s when this happens.

Yes, they are both superheroes, and she is just as strong as he is. But that is still his wife. Not cool. I don’t think audiences would take kindly to that.

But if you think that would spark some fires, there was one issue of the Avengers comics that has gone down as the worst, most tasteless, most offensive comic possibly ever published. The notorious…

Avengers #200

Okay, here’s where things get bizarre, creepy, and just plain wrong.

So in 1980, Marvel published the 200th issue of the Avengers comic. In it, Ms. Marvel, a superheroine and periodic pal of the Avengers, woke up one day to discover she was pregnant, with no memory of how she became so. The baby grew unnaturally quickly, and in three days, Ms. Marvel gave birth to a baby boy that in no time at all became a grown man. Helpfully, he explains what happened, and it is a doozy.

Apparently this guy is some kind of weird inter-dimensional being that wanted to see what life as a human would be like. He kidnapped Ms. Marvel, used his mind control powers to “seduce” her and impregnate her with… um, himself, apparently… and then wiped her memory and sent her back to Earth.

Now satisfied that he learned what being a human was like, he decides to return to the dimension from whence he came, and takes Ms. Marvel with him. What do the Avengers do about all of this? Mostly just stand around and go, “Boy, that was weird, huh?”

Why we won’t see it: Do I even need to say it?

This very famous letter to the editor called The Rape of Ms. Marvel decried this travesty, and even many of Marvel’s own writers openly criticized the sheer misogyny of this issue. I am pretty sure that today, Marvel would like to pretend that this comic never happened.

Information from Wikipedia and The Escapist

Why the J.C. Penney shakeup is going to backfire (and what they should have done instead)

An Editorial

So Ron Johnson, creator of the Apple stores, has taken over J.C. Penney and is radically reshaping its business model. Struggling to compete in a market filled with more profitable retailers like Kohl’s, Target, and Bed, Bath, and Beyond, J.C. Penney has become desperate for a plan that will help the company survive. They think they have found just that. I think they have actually found a suicide pill.

They have adopted a new pricing strategy called “Fair and Square”, where they are getting rid of the special-sale-every-week pricing model that they have used for so long in favor of a standard pricing scheme. The new prices are lower than they were before the transition, and will be pretty much steady, apart from a once-per-month sale on the most popular items sold that month. It is essentially an “everyday low prices” promise.

They will also change their store layouts. Each store will have a “Town Square”, where important customer service functions will be located, and a “Main Street”, where instead of traditional departments, each brand will be given its own space. Gone, they claim, will be the tangled mess of decade-old racks and displays that snag jackets and purses.

This is a promotional image with a new store manager. That means this is the LEAST cluttered corner they could find. Image from the Chanute Tribune.

Lastly, they will rename their J.C. Penney Outlet stores “5-Star”, and they will be carrying new brands and changing the product lines of some brands they already carry, in order to appeal to a younger demographic.

Ah, yes. The famous 18-35 market that everyone is trying to reach. We Millenials are just now graduating college, getting jobs, getting married, and having children. We are still figuring out which brands and stores we like, while our ageing parents have already become lifelong customers of their favorite brands and stores. Plus, as the Baby Boomers age and die (sorry, it’s just a fact), they are no longer a reliable customer base to draw from. This combination of factors means pretty much every product is now going to be aimed at us, because we have the most economic power in the entire nation.

All of the changes to J.C. Penney are meant to attract us. I think we are more likely to be turned off and shop elsewhere.

Let’s start with the core of the new business model: the so-called “Fair and Square” pricing. The logic behind it is this: Customers know how much something is worth. They also know department stores routinely raise prices in order to put them on sale for what they are actually worth and claim it is a 40% discount. Therefore, customers don’t trust retailers and would rather have an “everyday low price” that matches the product’s value.

This logic has such an utter disconnect from human nature, I am truly baffled that they think this would work. First of all,  yes, customers know stores inflate prices to create false discounts. However, people like to game the system. We like to feel that we beat the store at its own game and got the best deal possible. That is why our annual taxes are such a complicated hunt for the best tax refund. It is also why Kohl’s has been doing so amazingly well. At our house, we love Kohl’s and shop there regularly. Why? They have a system in place that encourages repeat business. In addition to their sales and coupons, big purchases are rewarded with “Kohl’s cash”, a special coupon that gives an extra discount but expires in something like two weeks. This Kohl’s cash, if you make a big enough purchase, may be enough to pay for a free item! Kohl’s lets customers game their system, and rewards them for doing so.

The second problem is association. J.C. Penney’s has always been a somewhat more upscale store. I mean, it is no Macy’s or Neiman Marcus, but it is definitely more upscale than, say, Wal-Mart. Except that when people think of “everyday low prices”, what comes to mind?

I’m sorry, but people will look at the new pricing model and subconsciously think the products are downgraded in quality, simply because of the images that those words, “everyday low prices”, evoke in people’s minds.

Not that the new J.C. Penney’s prices are all that much better, anyway. Here is a pair of Levi’s jeans at J.C. Penney offered for $40-$50. This same pair is offered at Kohl’s for $58, but with a difference: it is “buy one, get one half off”. That means two pairs from J.C. Penney will set you back $80-$100, but those same exact two pairs will cost $87 at Kohl’s. In other words, there is a chance you will get a better deal at J.C. Penney, but also a chance you will pay more! Furthermore, if you have a Kohl’s coupon or Kohl’s cash to slash that $87 to, say, $77, $67, or $57, why would you even shop at J.C. Penney?

Then there is the store layout redesign. Yes, J.C. Penney has long been in need of that, what with cash registers located every which place except where it is convenient, cluttered displays and narrow aisles, but something this radical is too far. We have departments in department stores for a reason. You are shopping for shoes? You go to the shoe section. You want an outfit for your teenage daughter? You go to the teen girl’s section. You want perfume? Go to the perfume section, etc. This brand-based layout will only make finding what you want harder.

Most people that I know comparison-shop for their whatever-it-is. If they were looking for, say, dress slacks, they would go to the dress slack display, compare the prices of the different brands, and buy the one that they thought was the best price for the quality. There are some people who insist on buying only Dockers, but those are probably not the majority. I don’t want to have to hunt through the whole store to find one pair of dress slacks.

Pretty much the only good decision J.C. Penney has made is changing up their product line. All of the rest of these decisions are only going to steer customers toward their competitors.

Customers typically don’t like these kinds of radical, sudden changes. Remember when people freaked because Gap changed its logo?

Or when there was an uproar over Netflix’s decision to split itself?

Older readers may also remember the utter fiasco that was New Coke, back in the 1980s. Coca-Cola saw a huge customer backlash when they tried to introduce changes in the Coca-Cola formula, and they were forced to quickly backtrack.

Forever going down in history as the dumbest marketing move ever.

What J.C. Penney should have done was introduce gradual changes to improve their customer service. Instead of radically reshaping their layout, they should have simply gotten rid of most of the clutter, setting up more organized departments with featured, millenial-friendly brands at the front and wide enough aisles to get through to the rest of the merchandise without bumping into things. They should have also set up a single checkout area at the front of the store. They should also have done what Kohl’s and Sears did and offer carts to shoppers to encourage bigger purchases, so customers don’t have to carry all their stuff by hand. They should not have scrapped their sales system and pricing structure. If these really were a problem, they could have scrapped some of the sales at off-peak shopping times, and focused on drawing in customers with deep discounts at the beginning of the four main shopping seasons.

I predict that J.C. Penney’s sales are only going to plummet in the months ahead. They will realize their folly the hard way, and by the time they figure out what went wrong, it may already be too late to save their sinking ship.

Information from Forbes, Yahoo! Finance, and the Daily Finance.

Behind the Headline: Florida bill would restrict what can be purchased with welfare

I told you at the beginning of the year there would be some changes on Cat Flag. Today, I’m introducing a new category of news story: Behind the Headline. In these articles, I will take a look at a news story somewhere in the world and find answers to questions about the headline that I find myself asking, questions that I’m sure others would have in mind when they read the story as well.

Today, I’m taking a look at this story from Florida. There, the state legislature is considering a bill to restrict how welfare recipients can spend their money. If the bill passes, money from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program would no longer be able to use the money they get from the government to buy junk food such as candy, cookies, and chips. They would also be barred from withdrawing cash from their TANF accounts from out-of-state ATMs, or from ATMs in casinos and strip clubs.

The bill was proposed by Republican state Sen. Ronda Storms, and if passed by the state it would still require the approval of the federal government to take effect, because it is federal agencies that control the implementation of welfare programs.

Why should we even care?

This is not the first time such a bill has been proposed. Bills that would restrict how TANF funds can be used have been proposed, but not passed, in Minnesota, New York, Iowa, Texas, and California.

With things like welfare, states often copy each others’ policies; especially when many state budgets are running in the red and the need to cut somewhere becomes urgent. After Florida passed a bill requiring welfare recipients to pass a drug test to receive their benefits, a similar bill was passed in Pennsylvania, and another one is making its way through the Indiana legislature. This could affect people across the nation.

Besides, if there is one thing I have made clear in this blog, it is that I feel we should always care about the poor and underprivileged. I feel it is an important civic responsibility.

Is the misspending of welfare funds really a problem?

According to an investigative report by WSB-TV 2 in Atlanta, TANF money has been spent at liquor stores, golf courses, amusement parks, and even strip clubs. One liquor store reported $13,494 welfare dollars were spent there. A Godiva chocolate seller made $400 of of sales through welfare.

Another report from Georgia, this one made by The Albany Herald, found that 35% of TANF transactions took place either at ATMs to withdraw cash, or at liquor stores. The ATM transactions are suspicious because cash can’t be traced.

How did these news agencies find this information? They got hold of the actual transaction records of Georgia’s Department of Children and Family Services, which handles the program in that state. The Albany Herald said they did this through an Open Records Request.

See, federal and state governments do not provide this information on websites for people to find. I looked. They will provide statistics on how much money is spent on welfare programs, how many people are on these programs, and where these people live and how large of a family they live in, but not on where they spend their money.

Unless I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with every state in the union, I have no way of knowing if the situation in Georgia is the exception or the rule.

I'm just not in a paper-filing mood right now... *YAWN*

And for that matter, I am not surprised by the ATM transactions – it could simply be that many welfare recipients are embarrassed that by their poverty and are trying to hide this fact when they go shopping. And the last time I checked, the liquor stores where I live sell food, home cleaning products, baby formula, pet food, and many other things besides liquor and cigarettes. So, these transactions might be perfectly innocent, they might not.

Remember those laws I mentioned requiring drug testing for welfare recipients? When the tests were run only 2% of those tested were found to be drug-positive.

Can the government even restrict how welfare recipients use their money like this?

The short answer is yes.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – better known as “Food Stamps” – already restricts what its clients can use their money on. They can’t be used to buy beer, paper products, and pet food, for example.

Here in California, low-income mothers can qualify for the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, which provides health care and money for food. However, WIC money has to be spent on certain kinds of food, in many cases even specific brands!

We are, after all, talking about taxpayer money. There is nothing making the government give people money besides the laws they write themselves. Welfare in the United States didn’t exist until the New Deal.

Even the Supreme Court has ruled on this one. In Dandridge v. Williams (1970), the court upheld controversial welfare restrictions in Maryland by stating, “Conflicting claims of morality and intelligence are raised by opponents and proponents of almost every measure, certainly including the one before us. But the intractable economic, social, and even philosophical problems presented by public welfare assistance programs are not the business of this Court.”

SHOULD the government even restrict how welfare recipients use their money like this?

I leave that up to you.

Click on the links to find my sources.

Dinner and a Movie: Two Reviews for the Price of One!

Sorry for the delay in getting this post up… I’ve been in a bit of a funk lately, feeling tired and not really motivated to do much. One thing I know about being in a funk is I tend to eat a lot, and sit around watching TV or DVDs. Since that wouldn’t make for a very good blog post, I decided to review a local restaurant and a movie in theaters! See, it’s kind of different.

At least, it requires going outside. That’s an improvement, right?

The Restaurant: Wee Shack Burger Cafe in Morro Bay

This small, out-of-the-way, cozy little restaurant is tucked into the trees along Main Street in Morro Bay, just next to Old Morro Creek. Boy, it is home to some of the best burgers you will ever try!

You may recall that I interviewed the founder and co-owner of this restaurant when it was still under construction. Well, Wee Shack Burger Cafe is now open for business, and it was worth the wait! Serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Wee Shack specializes in original burgers like the Wee-Man Burger, which is served with a jalapeño bacon that gives just the right amount of kick without being too spicy; the Beach Bum Burger, served with avocado, Swiss cheese, and mayo; and the Chic Burger, a chicken sandwich with red onions on a whole-wheat bun. Their K-9 hot dog, which comes with onions and cheese, is just an absolute delight. But my most recent discovery was the Chipotle Sliders, served with their same  jalapeño bacon plus a delicious Chipotle sauce.

I’m making myself hungry!

And I haven’t even mentioned the best part: fresh-cut, never-frozen french fries! Did I mention they also serve pastries such as cinnamon rolls, muffins, and brownies all day? Or that everything on the menu is less than $10?

Can you tell that I like this place?

Not that there aren’t still a few kinks to work out, as is common in any new restaurant. For example, they don’t have a menu on the walls, you have to read your order off of a paper menu. But I’m sure as this place gets more established these minor issues will be resolved. It’s a great place for lunch, or for an early dinner on your way to a movie!

The Movie: The Grey

The Grey is an independent film from director Joe Carnahan (Narc, Smokin’ Aces, The A-Team) and starring Liam Neeson (Schindler’s List, Batman Begins, Taken), filmed primarily in Canada. It took top place opening weekend, earning $19.7 million. And for good reason. It is one of the best movies I have seen in months, and certainly the best indie film since Winter’s Bone to have attracted my attention.

The movie has a pretty basic set-up. Neeson plays an Irish sniper hired by an oil company to protect their workers in the Alaskan wilderness from dangerous animals, particularly wolves. While on his way home, his plane goes down in the middle of nowhere, leaving only a handful of survivors. Before long, they make the unpleasant discovery that they crashed near a wolf’s den, and the pack is not happy about their presence on their turf. Neeson’s character must keep the survivors alive with his wilderness survival skills and his knowledge of wolf behavior.

It is kind of hard to classify this movie – parts of it seem like wilderness survival stuff, but some parts seem more like a horror movie and others seem more like an action movie. Whatever it is, it is very much guy territory. This is a movie made by men, for men.

MEN!

Neeson is at his best in these kinds of roles (witness his amazing performance in Taken); his age, his scars, and his facial expressions convey “I’ve been through hell and back again, many times. I can get through this.” Not to mention he has a great cast to work with in this one. Plus, director Joe Carnahan is definitely in his element. One of my favorite movie critics describes him as “What Michael Bay could be if he was actually good”, and I think this really shows in this movie.

Yeah, disclaimer, I’m not a Michael Bay fan, if you didn’t know.

Oh, and it’s nice that the characters’ decisions in the movie make sense. I’m kind of tired of movies where the plot can only move forward if somebody does something stupid or the characters know something they can’t know unless they have read the script.

Be warned, though, this film is by no means perfect. The CGI wolves are clunky, the animatronic ones are even clunkier, and the ending, not to spoil anything, but it’s kind of a let-down. However, this is all-in-all an entertaining ride and the pros far outweigh the cons. Definitely recommended. A 4 out of 5.