Saturday, March 17, 2018

This Week In Vexillology #251

It seems only appropriate that we somehow find ourselves in the Irish province of Leinster on St. Patrick's Day itself. Why, you ask? Well, its flag is, perhaps, the most obviously Irish of the four provinces of Ireland:
A symbol of Ireland since the 17th Century, the harp on a green field was the flag of Owen Roe O'Neil, who entered the Spanish service in 1601 and rose to prominence, returning to Ireland in 1642 to assist the Irish Confederation. Which brings us to the next obvious question: what the heck is the Irish Confederation? Well, while England was busy having its civil war, the Catholic nobles, clergy and military leaders go together and formed a Confederation and established self-rule while England was busy chopping off the head of Charles the First and being all puritan and Cromwellian about it, they set about setting up a government (which did swear allegiance to Charles the First, but that's neither here nor there) and for eleven years or so, they ran Ireland.

Where Leinster comes into all of this is the location of the Irish Confederation, which based itself in Kilkenny, 'the principal city of Leinster without the Pale.'* And that really is the long and short of how Leinster got it's flag. The current present day province started out as three ancient Irish Kingdoms of Mide, Osraige and Leinser, but after the 12th Century Invasion of the Normans (when the Pale first sort of appeared) and by then Mide and Leinster had sort of merged into one.

The present day province has a population of 2,630,720 which makes it the most populous province of the four and it's made up of the present day counties of Carlow, Dublin, Kildare, Kilkenny, Laois, Longford, Louth, Meath, Offaly,Westmeath, Wexford and Wicklow. As to where it is in the grand scheme of Ireland, well, it's the green part of the map of Ireland you see to the right of this sentence.

We've done three out of four provinces of Ireland so far, which just leaves Ulster left to go.

In the meantime, keep your flags flying- FREAK or otherwise and make sure you enjoy St. Patrick's Day- but just not too much.

*Next obvious question: what's the Pale? Well, it's an area of Ireland centered around Dublin that was under the direct control of the English Kings and Queens from the late Middle Ages onward. It's also the origin of the expression 'beyond the pale' because the original word 'pale' derives from the Latin 'palus' which means stake- specifically one used to support a fence, the meaning of which sort of moved from a literal fence to more of a settlement boundary once you stepped up in scale, which brings us back around to that expression: 'beyond the pale.'

Friday, March 16, 2018

Short Fiction Friday: The Door

The initial seed for this story came courtesy of a one volume history of the Ottoman Empire that I devoured late last year. (Well, not really devoured. More like enjoyed a seven course meal at a relatively sedate pace with plenty of breaks in between.) In the midst of making my way through this, I read an account of a Sultan who came to power and locked his brother away, but the world turned and times changed and then suddenly he was being overthrown and executed and they needed a new Sultan.

Except, when they went to knock on the door where his brother was being kept, he didn't believe them. He absolutely refused to believe them, thinking that he was going to be taken away and executed (which was a perfectly reasonable fear in those days, Sultans weren't exactly crazy about leaving potential rivals to their thrones out there) and they had to actually come in and drag him out and take him away to be crowned.

The idea sort of flowed from there and eventually became, "The Door"

(You can either click on the link above, or here's the full link: )

Hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Sportsyball: Bracketology Edition

Bracketology: Yes, it's time for the annual exercise in futility that is filling out a bracket in the month of March. It's strange, the amount of happiness that can be derived from filling out a simple bracket and making your picks- knowing, nay expecting that many of them will be wrong and your bracket will lie in ruins before the end of the first weekend. This was my first year actually looking at ESPN's little team vs team comparisons which helped me make a pick here or there. So, without further ado- let's get down to it with the South Region:

Creighton over Kansas State (could go either way, but I have peeps in Omaha, so solidarity!)
Kentucky over Davidson (so tempted to go the other way here, b/c I am no Calipari fan, but just can't do it.)
Arizona over Buffalo (every tournament needs a villain, why not Zona?)
Loyola-Chicago over Miami (my upset special of the South)
Tennessee over Wright State
Nevada over Texas
Cincy over Georgia State

UVA gets past Creighton
Zona over Kentucky in the Battle of the Wildcats
Tennessee over Loyola
Cincy over Nevada

Which sets up UVA versus Tennessee in the regional final, with UVA going to the Final Four.

The East Region:

Nova over Radford
VaTech over Bama
West Va over Murray State
Wichita State over Marshall (but I'm unsure about this one)
St. Bonaventure over Florida (Bonnies for the Upset!)
Texas Tech over SFA
Butler over Arkansas
Purdue over CSU Fullerton

Nova over VaTech
Wichita State over WestVa
St. Bonaventure over Texas Tech (Cinderella, because why not?_
Purdue over Butler

Which sets up Villanova versus Purdue in the regional final, with Purdue going to the Final Four.

The West Region:
Xavier over the Play-In Game Winner
Mizzou over FSU
OSU over South Dakota State (so tempting to go the other way here. This one might burn me.)
Gonzaga over UNCG (gotta go with my 'Zags)
Houston over SDSU
Michigan over Montana
Providence over TAMU
UNC over Lipscomb

Xavier gets past Mizzou
Gonzaga gets past OSU
Michigan gets past Houston
UNC gets past Providence

Which sets up Michigan versus Xavier in the regional final, with Xavier going to the Final Four.

The Midwest Region:
Kansas over Penn
NC State over Seton Hall
Clemson over New Mexico State
Auburn over Charleston
TCU over Play-In Winner
Michigan State over Bucknell
Oklahoma over URI
Duke over Iona (but I do think it would be hilarious if this was the 15-2 upset)

Kansas over NC State
Auburn over Clemson
Sparty over TCU
Oklahoma over Duke (Trae Young is apparently good? and I hate Duke.)

Auburn beats Kansas (because Kansas always screws me somewhere and this year it's going to be against Auburn) and Michigan State gets past Oklahoma, which sets up Auburn and Sparty for the regional final with Sparty going to the Final Four.

Final Four: I have UVA vs Xavier and an all B1G match-up with Sparty vs. Purdue... I'm going with UVA vs Purdue in the Final and although I'd really like to think that Purdue can finally do it, I'm going with UVA here. I think they've been knocking on the door of a Final Four appearance for awhile now and I think this is the year they get it all done. As always, this Bracket will be a smoking ruin by Sunday, so I might as well enjoy it while I can.

Adopt-A-Team: Well, Defensa Y Justicia is turning into a solid mid-table performance so far this season, which makes me feel pretty good, especially given the fate of NEC Nijmegen last season. (Spoiler Alert: they were relegated.) Since we last checked in with them:

L to Argentinos Juniors
W over Chacharita Juniors
L to America de Cali (1st Round, Copa Sudamericana)
D to Tigre
W over Patronato
W over Atletico Tucuman
W over America de Cali (2nd Round, Copa Sudamericana- Defensa wins 3-1 on aggregate)
D to Belgrano

So, they're currently sitting at 12th in the table, which is pretty damn solid, all things considered. Down the stretch, they've got Talleres Cordoba  (2nd in the table, probably an L or a D), River Plate (17th in the table, should be a W on paper, but who knows), Boca Juniors (1st in the table, probable L), Racing Club (6th in the table, could be some points to be had here), Independiente (3rd in the table, probable L), Rosario Central (15th in the table, could go either way), Newell's (23rd, should be a W) and Arsenal Sarandi (dead last in the table, so should be a W.) They've got some tough tests ahead of them, but they've had a good run of form for a couple of months now, so who knows what their potential really is, but I feel pretty confident in saying that they're not going to be relegated this year.

Arsenal: Beat AC Milan in the First Leg, beat Watford 3-0 and got Peter Cech his 200th Clean Sheet and has the second leg against AC Milan tomorrow. They've got Stoke City, Southampton, Newcastle, West Ham, Manchester United, Burnley and Huddersfield down the stretch in the League, plus whatever the Europa League throws at them. (Assuming, of course, they get past AC Milan tomorrow.) Right now, Top 4 looks like a stretch, but it sure would be nice to take the maximum points possible off of their remaining 7 games and see where they end up. My expectations, however, remain delightfully low. In a perfect world: 21 points from 7 games and winning the Europa League followed by Arsene Wenger taking a bow and exiting stage left would be quite nice. None of that will happen, so I'll just enjoy the rest of the season free of worry.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Netflix & Chill #40: Lincoln

Watched On: Netflix
Released: 2012
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones*
Rotten Tomatoes: 90%
Pick: Mine

This movie has been on my 'must-watch' list for quite a few years now, but for whatever reason I have never gotten around to it, so when it popped up on Netflix- I'm assuming as an President's Day gift, I loaded it up and plunged right in.

The movie opens in January of 1865 and President Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) is expecting the Civil War to be over soon. Anticipating this and worried that his Emancipation Proclamation could be discarded by the courts after the war, he is adamant and determined to secure passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to abolish slavery before the end of the war when the returning Confederate States would presumably vote it down. He wants to eliminate any possibility that freed slaves could be re-enslaved.

However, the political atmosphere that confronts him is challenging. Radical Republicans worry that they cannot secure the support of western and border Republicans to pass. With multiple Democrats having lost their re-election bids in the fall of 1864, many urge the President to wait for the new Congress to be admitted, but the President will not bend: he wants the Amendment passed before the end of the war, which means they will need support from Democrats in Congress as well.

To shore up the support of the Republican Party, Lincoln must rely on Francis Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook) a founder of the Republican Party who is keen to end hostilities sooner rather than later, as victory for the Union seems highly likely but is not yet fully secured. In exchange for his support on the amendment, Blair wants Lincoln to allow him to immediately engage the Confederate government in peace negotiations- which Lincoln knows might cause him trouble with the Radical Republican faction in the party, but in order to secure the support of Blair and his faction he authorizes the mission.

Lincoln and his Secretary of State, William Seward (David Strathairn) work to secure Democratic votes- but are unwilling to go so far as to offer bribes, instead offering patronage instead. The debate on the amendment begins and at a crucial point in it, racial equality advocate Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) moderates his position, arguing that the Amendment represents only legal equality and not actual equality. When rumors of Confederate peace envoys (whom Lincoln has instructed be kept out of Washington) begin to circulate, many call to postpone the vote, but Lincoln's instructions allow him to inform Congress that there are no peace envoys in the city, which allows the vote to proceed and it passes by a two vote margin.

This allows Lincoln to meet with the Confederates and tell them that slavery cannot and will not be restored before the end of the war- as the Northern States will vote to ratify as well as reconstructed legislatures in the south- enough to secure approval of the Amendment. The writing is on the wall for the South soon thereafter and they surrender, ending the war.

The movie closes with Lincoln heading off to Ford's Theater, where he is assassinated. They show his death the next morning and close with him delivering his 2nd Inaugural address.

This was an incredible movie. I loved the choice to focus on one part of Lincoln's presidency rather than casting a wider net to try and capture the whole thing. So much went down in his life and career, so I think that focusing on just the 13th Amendment actually helped to capture the essence of the man more effectively than a more general biopic would have. Daniel Day-Lewis is just... well, he is Lincoln. Sally Field is great as Mary Todd Lincoln. Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens- also excellent- in fact, there's really not a bad performance in this movie.

Even though you know that the 13th Amendment passes, the debate and the vote are awfully tense and nail biting. (And the rough and tumble nature of the debate in the House makes me wish we could import a little of that to the present day, instead of watching people drone on and on and on to a half empty chamber on C-SPAN.)

Overall: a beautiful historical moment with the right script and the right actor for the role of a lifetime. I think a lot about Bruno Ganz's performance as Hitler in Downfall- he seemed to inhabit the role and almost become the dude and Daniel Day-Lewis more than matches Ganz by becoming one of our greatest Presidents. My Grade: **** out of ****

*There are a TON of actors you will recognize in this movie. Just going through the IMDB full cast list, I find: John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill, Tim Black Nelson, Jared Harris, Lee Pace, Gloria Reuben, Jeremy Strong, Walton Goggins, David Oyelowo, Dane DeHaan, Dakin Matthews, Gregory Itzin, Adam Driver and S. Epatha Merkerson just to name the ones I recognized from either movies or television.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

This Week In Vexillology #251

We're continuing our journey through the flags of Ireland this week, heading south from Connacht to take a look at the flag of Munster:
That Kerrygold butter that everyone raves about? Well, it comes from Munster. Weirdly though, the cheese doesn't- which is kind of a bummer, because it would dovetail nicely with the whole 'awesome butter' thing that Kerry has going on. It consists of the counties of Clare, Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford- it's also the home of the Blarney Stone, Skellig Michael of The Last Jedi fame and of course, Jameson Whiskey and Waterford- so you can get the whiskey and the crystal glasses to drink it in. So Munster is apparently where all the fun stuff is. So that brings us back to our most pressing question of all: just where the heck is Munster? Well, our handy-dandy map of Ireland is back and ready to assist us.

The green part shaded in on the map down there on the southwest chunk of Ireland? That's Munster. (And thinking about it: I've probably flown over Munster at least once. I have a very vivid memory of flying over to the UK in 1992 on Air Canada, no less. We had awesome entertainment options and none of us really slept on the flight, but I remember, when the map finally showed us over Ireland, I peek out of the window and far below in the dim morning light I saw the craggy beginnings of the coast of Ireland and knew we were getting close to our destination.)

It's got an area of 9,527 square miles and a population of 1,280,020 with it's most populated city being Cork.

So let's get down to brass tacks and take a look at the flag of Munster...  it's a far cry from Connacht with it's bad ass mutant eagle, but the initial glance is pretty damn striking- though in a more understated way than Connacht's. Munster and it's three crowns have been showing up on flags and coats of arms for nearly four hundred years now. The three crowns were also seen on many flags and symbols of Ireland until the harp symbol became prominent on a more national level.

Here's the thing though: no one is quite sure about the meaning of the crowns on the flag- many have theorized that crowns stand for three of the medieval lordships in Munster: the O'Briens, the Butlers and the Fitzgeralds.

And that;s the flag of Munster! Remember, until next time keep your flags flying, FREAK or otherwise!

Friday, March 9, 2018

Squawk Box: Dirty Money/Altered Carbon

There is a lot to like about one of Netflix's newest shows, Dirty Money. A six episode look at a variety of corporate and business scandals that have dominated the headlines over the past few years, its hard not to be outraged and some of the examples of corporate malfeasance and corruption that they explore.

The quote that's sort of sticking in my craw about this series is found on it's Wiki-Page, which cites Brian Lowry of CNN saying: "for pro-business advocates of deregulation... offers a simple yet powerful rejoinder: Look at the terrible, unethical behavior that corporate entities try getting away with when they think nobody's looking." I kind of agree with this, but I also think it's nowhere near as simple as this quotes pretends.

Yes, Dirty Money does tackle corporate scandals like the VW Emissions scandal and yes, it's shocking. I just assumed that VW had cheated in a regular, shitty big corporate kind of way, but no- it was far more sinister than that. They actually created a device that detected when their cars were in a testing environment versus an actual road environment, so the emissions looked good in the lab, but went hog-wild on the road. (There's also a jaw dropping revelation that they were considered testing the effects of these emissions on human subjects, but decided not too, because of 'bad optics.')

But VW is probably the most run of the mill corporate scandal, 'this is why deregulation is bad' the show tackles. They delve into shitty industries that prey on poor people (payday loans), look at the ethics of stock shorting and drug pricing (I'm honestly not sure where the show lands on that episode. Drug price shenanigans bad, but they seem oddly neutral on the idea of stock shorting, which is interesting given the role that practice played in the housing crisis of 2008.) They look at big picture corruption when they look at HSBC and how much money they laundered for the Sinaloa Cartel. (What happened to HSBC, you might ask? Oh, that's right. Nothing.)

The final two episodes though are probably the most interesting. They delve into Canada's great Maple Syrup Heist and look at the ongoing struggle between the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers and the rebel producers that don't want to follow the Federation's rules. (This would be an episode where regulation is the problem, not the solution to me.)

And then they tackle the biggest and most obvious fish of them all: President Donald J. Trump. I had some hope for the Trump episode. I thought they were going to present a fascinating portrait of a man who bet big in the 80s, lost it all and then spent the 90s reinventing himself as a master of branding and marketing. Yes, he's a P.T. Barnum and a snake oil salesman, but the history of American politics is littered with examples of politicians of a similar vein. I would have been more interested in finding out how much of his schtick he actually believes, but of course, Dirty Money can't help themselves, so they trip and fall into the Russia trap just like everyone else does. Oddly enough, they bring in one of the Planet Money guys to interview and he raised the possibility that Trump might genuinely not know the full extent of his business dealings, but mentioned that designing your business to insure that you don't know (willfull blindess) is still a crime.

Altered Carbon, Netflix's new cyber-punk drama based off of the Richard Morgan novel of the same name doesn't quite measure up to the glorious perfection that is Blade Runner (but then again, who does) but has a hell of a good time trying too. Set nearly four hundred years in the future, where humanity has reverse engineered cortical stacks that are implanted on the base of the neck and can store your consciousness and enable to be transferred between bodies (which are now known as sleeves.) Awakened after two centuries 'on ice' and placed into a new sleeve, Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman) is given a choice by Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), one of the wealthiest men of the settled worlds: go back 'on ice' for the remainder of his prison sentence or to help Bancroft solve his own murder.

Kovacs settles on the latter option and spends the rest of the show's ten episode run fighting and shooting and having lots and lots of sex with a variety of people in his single minded quest to find the truth. To be honest, there were points watching this where it seemed to drag on a bit, but the show never managed to get itself into a rut. By the end run of episodes, when Kovacs begins to figure out that a familiar face from his past (two centuries or so ago) is in fact alive, well and behind it all, that, I think is when Altered Carbon really begins to come into it's own. Kovacs is an Envoy, the last soldier of a failed uprising against the new world order two centuries before and he's haunted by his past and the loss of his love and fellow Envoy leader, Quellcrist Falconer (Renee Elise Goldsberry). As more details of his past come back to haunt him, I think it deepens the complexity of the character and allows the show to tell a more complete story.

I think it'd be interesting to interview some of the actors about how they approached this show, given the ability to move your consciousness into a different body whenever you want. Without fault, all of the actors portraying characters that have shifted bodies do an amazing job of convincing you that they are that other person- just in a new body, but I think it's worth shouting out Matt Biedel's performance especially. A tattooed and bearded gangbanger one episode, he plays someone's Abuela (back for Dia de Los Muertos) the next and a full blown Russian mobster after that- his appearance doesn't change a bit, but the shifts in his performance are incredibly well done. (He's a pretty minor-ish character overall, but he stole a few scenes here and there just making the most of the role he had.)

I've always said that good science fiction always has something to say about the present and Altered Carbon is no exception- though in there case, they're casting their eyes forward a few decades to coming conversations about the nature of humanity itself. At some point in the future, someone's going to figure out radical life extension or uploading or something of that nature at which point, talking about what makes humanity actually human is going to become a very interesting conversation indeed. (I'm honestly not sure what to think about it all yet. I wouldn't want to be like a 90 year old for fifty extra years, but if you could get a little more time to do everything you want to do with your life, that might be okay by me.)

Dirty Money: a solid addition to Netflix's growing collection of documentary series, it wanders into weeds a little when tackling the President, but not fatally so. My Grade: *** out of ****

Altered Carbon: a cyber-punk romp through the future, it gets a little uneven in parts, but not enough to get the show stuck in the mud. A vision of humanity's future that is dazzling and troubling by turns, I can't wait for more of this one. My Grade: **** out of ****

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Kidlit: Roald Dahl

This collection was perhaps the best birthday present the Missus and I have come up with thus far for the Elder Spawn. I'm not sure he'd necessarily agree with us- at least not yet- he's a big fan of his Nintendo DS and playing Mario Kart right now, but one thing he always loves and always gets sad if we run out of time to do, is reading books.

Our Roald Dahl adventure began with Fantastic Mr. Fox. It was always my favorite Roald Dahl book growing up, just because Mr. Fox seemed like so much fun and it was a short, adventurous read. We followed that up with The BFG (which I hadn't read before) and then James and The Giant Peach and Danny The Champion of The World, The Giraffe, The Pelly and Me, Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, Esio Trot and we're getting toward the end of Charlie and The Great Glass Elevator.

Dahl can tell one hell of a story and retains so much of his charm even when you're reading these books as an adult. I never managed to become a Dahl completist as a kid, so it's been a lot of fun reading some of his books that I never managed to get around to reading. Both The Giraffe, The Pelly and Me* and Esio Trot are short, fast reads though I found to be the former to be far more whimsical and charming that the latter. That's not to say Esio Trot is bad, per say, it's just... sort of troubling in a way. I mean he goes to all the trouble to make her think that he tortoise has grown with her magic words and then marries her and then Alfie just sort of becomes an after thought that requires what seems to be a hurried post-script to let the reader know that in fact, Alfie had a great life- just with someone else entirely.

The other fascinating thing- which I must look into at some point, are the vague references to Willy Wonka that are peppered throughout the latter half of The Giraffe, The Pelly and Me. It makes sense, since the whole point of that book is that George wants to open a candy store where the Ladderless Window Company makes their headquarters. ('At some point' turned out to be right now: The Giraffe, The Pelly and Me was published in 1985, while Charlie and the Chocolate Factory preceded it by a couple of decades, being published in 1964.) The idea of a shared universe is what I found the most appealing about the book though. I think it would have been more appealing had hints of Willy Wonka had been planted in a book prior to Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, but it's still a charming, fast read never the less.

The BFG was another one I hadn't read before and I was impressed by how faithful the movie adaptation was- though, really, I shouldn't have been that surprised by that, given the fact that Steven Spielburg directed it. Of all the books of Dahl's that I hadn't read, the one that I found to be most intriguing was Danny The Champion Of The World. I wanted to be disappointed in the book, because it seemed to promise more than it delivered, but by the end of it I was on board- and I think honestly, it might showcase the best of Dahl's storytelling abilities and his incredible gift at taking those medium sized moments of childhood and making them seem like the grandest adventures in the world- and that, I think is Danny The Champion Of The World in a nutshell. I also love the fact that it was a story about a father and his son. I feel like those are rare finds these days.

Five and six are strange ages when you're trying to figure out what to start reading to your kid. My own experience is something of a bad example as my deep, deep nerddom and love of books meant that I was reading things like 'The Illiad' at that age. So the trick is that you need to find something that's age appropriate, not too long and fun enough that they'll pay attention. The Elder Spawn and I have had mixed results sometimes: The Wayside School books by Louis Sachar and Bruce Coville's My Teacher Is An Alien were both big hits, while Redwall and Harry Potter we might have pulled the trigger on a year or two ahead of schedule. The one author I keep coming back to, the one author that has been consistent at holding the attention and capturing the imagination of the Elder Spawn has been Roald Dahl.

If you're tired of the same old children's books night and night out and are looking to find that balance between too short and too long, then I can recommend Roald Dahl. (The Elder Spawn loved Fantastic Mr. Fox so much that we now own the movie and we've seen the movie adaptation of The BFG, but we've got plenty movie adaptations to go. Plus, if you're a fan of Roald Dahl and James Bond (a strange intersection, I know) he wrote the screenplay for You Only Live Twice.)