Monday, February 19, 2018

Albums2010 #98: Divide

The Missus is all about Ed Sheeran and therefore, I've learned to get used to listening to the old ginger crooner, so when I was scrambling around, trying to find an album to review for this month, it hit me: why not take Ed Sheeran's latest album Divide out for awhirl and really see what it was really like- and no real surprise it was a pretty good listen- if you're super into dreamy dudes with a guitar this will be 100% in your wheelhouse.

So, Divide.

The thing that stands out about this album is that there is a mix of sounds throughout this album. It's not all soft love songs and acoustic guitar, which I think makes it a strong album, because there is a little bit of everything for everyone. The tracks that stood out for me- in no particular order: 'Nancy Mulligan' an Irish tinged up tempo ballad telling the romantic story about how his grandparents met and got married. 'Bibia Be Ye Ye' is an a bouncy, African-tinged (specifically: Ghana) track that just makes you want to dance. 'Barcelona' is another up-tempo track that makes you want to dance- though this time the flavor is Spanish. 'Galway Girl' gets a lot of grief out on the interwebs, because well, how are you going to top Steve Earle? But it's still a good song! 'Shape of You' is probably the track with the most radio play (and weirdly, it got him into a wee bit of trouble with TLC of all people.)

'Castle On The Hill' is probably my favorite track, simply because it gets me all nostalgic for my youth and reminds me of how utterly old I'm becoming. It's also a good track.

So all the up-tempo tracks are really really good. The slower ones: 'Supermarket Flowers' is a tribute to Sheeran's late grandmother who died while he was making the album- it's absolutely beautiful and if you don't shed at least one tear thinking about your own grandmother who's already left you then you have no soul. 'Perfect' is just a beautiful love song that he wrote for his fiancee. 'Happier' is a sort of love lost/love unrequited/the one that got away ballad that Adele and T-Swift dabble in, but Sheeran does a perfectly excellent job with. 'Hearts Don't Break Around Here' is another one that stands out- mainly I think for the refrain, which seems to stick in the head a bit. 'How Would You Feel' rounds out the best of the slower tracks.

The 'meh' or 'didn't really stick in my head tracks': 'Dive', 'New Man', 'What Do I Know?' and 'Save Myself.'

The one questionable choice, weirdly enough is the opening track, 'Eraser.'  All credit to Ed for attempting a pretty decent wrap, but at the end of the song, he's still a ginger trying to rap. Not awful, but it stands out as a weaker track on an album full of solid to excellent work.

I'm not really a 'dreamy dude with guitar' kind of guy usually, but I'll make an exception for this album. My personal barometer for any given album tends to be how many tracks I like on any given album divided by the total number of tracks on an album, which means that Divide scores an 12/15 (I'll throw in 'Eraser' just for kicks) on my personal scale of awesomeness.

Overall: This is a really good album...  I would 100% buy it again and enjoyed listening to it. (Hopefully, the Missus and I can cross off an item on her bucket list and get to see Ed Sheeran later in the year somewhere!) My Grade: **** out of ****

Saturday, February 17, 2018

This Week In Vexillology #248

We're heading across the border, This Week In Vexillology to celebrate Yukon Heritage Day by taking a peek at the flag of the Yukon Territory:
Adopted on March 1st, 1968, the flag of the Yukon was chosen following a territory-wide competition to celebrate Canada's centennial of 1967. Out of 137 designs, Yukon College graduate Lynn Lambert was the lucky winner. A prototype was sent to Ottawa to get all heralded up and stuff and they sent back an amended version, but they stuck to their guns and kept the original winning design.

The flag itself is a tricolor defaced with the Coat of Arms of the Yukon. ('Defaced' is a technical design term and not meant to be derisive.) The three colors of the tricolor part of the flag are pretty easy to break down: the green represents Yukon's forests, white stands for snow and blue stands for the lakes and rivers of the territory. The coat of arms is placed in the center above a wreath of fireweed, the flower of the Yukon. Let's break down the Coat of Arms a little bit more:


If you were curious, yes that is an Alaskan malamute standing on what's supposed to be a mound of snow. Below that in the 'chief' or upper part of the shield, you have a red cross representing England a disc surmounting it in in a pattern called 'vair' which is the heraldic equivalent of fur for all the fur-bearing animals in the Territory. Below that, the lower section of the shield represents the mountains of the Yurkon- the gold disks stand for the mineral wealth of the territory and the two wavy lines stand for the rivers of the territory.

(I've seen some criticism of 'coats of arms' on flags here and there, but I'm not a design snob and while this flag may well be the Canadian equivalent of a 'seal on a bedsheet' I'm actually down with this flag. I dig the colors. I dig the Coat of Arms- I mean, how can you not love a Coat of Arms featuring a Malamute? I mean, for serious now.)

And that's the flag of the Yukon! Remember, until next time keep your flags flying- FREAK or otherwise!

Friday, February 16, 2018

My Biennial Rant About The Olympics

Bitching about NBC's coverage of the Olympics is almost an Olympic event in and of itself, at least here in the United States anyway. Everything's on tape delay- even the events that are nominally 'live', the streaming has gotten better, but still is nowhere near as good as it should be and there are far far too many human interest puff pieces that take time away from you know, the actual sports themselves. With all that in mind, as is tradition, it's time for My Biennial Rant About The Olympics*, so sit down, pull up a chair and enjoy!

Maybe it's my increasing age, but I actually find myself with less to complain about than usual this time around. I think it's the presence of NBCSN that's helping the cause for these Olympics. They're showing a good mix of events during the day- many of them live and even the prime time events aren't nearly as sloppily packaged as they have been in years past. If I was in charge of broadcasting the Olympics though, my principle would be a simple one: every event should be broadcast live and streaming should be awesome and, more importantly, it shouldn't require a log-in. (Which it still does.)

In the age of cord-cutting, there is simple no excuse for having barriers to your streaming platform. You should have a website that goes live and people should be able to stream every damn thing they want and you know what? Throw some banner ads in there- hell, throw commercials in there. Don't tell me you can't make money by lowering the barriers to your streaming of the Olympics, because that's bullshit. You can. If ESPN can run three different streams of the Rose Bowl- at the same time, you can figure this out NBC. I have faith in you.

But oddly enough, I feel like NBC is inching toward sanity with their coverage which is a pleasant surprise. They seem to have a program focused on figure skating called 'Olympic Ice.' Local news seems to be partnering with them to do a 'what's it really like at the Olympic games' segment called 'The Olympic Zone.' You just need a 'Medal Zone' like a 'Red Zone' feature to show every medal being won and maybe like a half hour daily human interest block and concentrate on sports for the rest and you might getting somewhere. But for sure: lower barriers to streaming!

While the coverage is getting better, The Olympics themselves have sort of seen better days. Nobody wants to host them, because it's a huge pain in the ass and costs are insane. Hosting them has become a prestige project for authoritarian regimes who don't care about costs and an increasingly hard sell to dubious members of the public in democratic countries as well. Cities are usually left with crumbling venues that don't get used and few, if any, see solid legacies and gains from hosting the games.

Plainly, the model needs to change- and I think the IOC is aware of that. Hopefully some reforms start to take root and revitalize the games, but two ideas that I'd be about are simple ones: joint bids- even ones that cross borders, like the proposed Seattle-Vancouver bid that was being talked about a few years back and moving to a regional/national model for the games. Of these two, i think the former is far more likely than the latter, but I think the latter makes more sense over the long term.

A regional/national model would enable the IOC to put events where the infrastructure is best equipped to support them. For instance, take a hypothetical summer games here in America. You'd have cities bid for the opening/closing ceremonies and whoever wins could have their pick of events- the idea would be to maximize tickets solid/attendance, but you'd also farm some out to other cities to help with costs. For instance, if you put Olympic Wrestling in Los Angeles, you'd probably get a pretty good crowd. But, if you put it on the campus of Penn State, Iowa or Oklahoma State- hell any Midwestern college campus, you'd be playing to packed houses of devoted wrestling fanatics. You can find an equivalency in just about every other sport I can think of. Put some distance running up in Oregon, for instance... or swimming where the swimmers be at.

To be fair, I don't know how well this model would translate to other countries, but sharing the wealth would take the pressure off of individual cities and spread costs out some, which I think might increase the appeal of hosting the games a bit more.

In the end though, as much as I might complain about the Olympics, I'm always going to watch them. There's sports you don't see on your television every day. Stories that inspire you, even if they are packaged with soft lighting and inspirational piano music. It's something I look forward to, every two years- and listening to the kids be all 'Whoa!' and 'That's so cool!' at the snowboarding this past week makes me think they'll be looking forward to them as well.

*I seem to recall in 9th Grade English we had to give a speech on any given topic and I think my topic was how much the coverage of the Olympics sucked that year. I'm pretty sure we had a five minute time limit, but no one ever gave me any indication of how long I had gone over, so I ranted for a full thirteen minutes about it. No, I can't recall what grade I got either. 

Monday, February 12, 2018

Who Decides The Canon?

When I read the article that Duluth was planning to remove Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird from their school's literature curriculum, I sort of sighed. This isn't a new trend, in the grand scheme of things. Some school district somewhere is always getting into trouble for banning a book or removing a book from their curriculum- but removing books from a classroom because of language contained in them, however insensitive should give everyone pause.

I think if you're in the business of education, you have to find a way to balance the sensitivities of your students of color with the need not to whitewash (and yes I'm aware of the irony of using the word 'white' in that word) some very ugly parts of our history. I've got a collection of short stories by Flannery O'Connor kicking around on a bookcase somewhere and I started reading them, but then I had to stop, because she used the n-word more than Jay-Z does on his latest album- hell, probably in his entire discography.

Now, O'Connor is writing from the point of view 1920s Georgia. It's both horrifying to see how people spoke back then and heartening to see the progress we've made since then, but I can see why educators would want to be sensitive to the excessive use of words like that, because if it's hard for me to read as an adult, then without placing these novels in the proper context, it would be easy for teenagers to misunderstand. (This article points out that To Kill A Mockingbird does have a 'white savior narrative,' which is a fair criticism, I have to admit.)

The good thing in this controversy is that people are having a debate about literature, which I'm all about. But whether you think removal of the two books is a good thing or a bad thing, it does raise the question: who decides the canon? And what's the best possible canon of literature you can pick for the students of today?

I think you have to acknowledge from the outset that whatever you pick, the kids will probably hate it- at least in the class at the time. I hated The Great Gatsby when I read it in school, but came to appreciate it more when I picked it up a few years ago. Same thing with The Catcher In The Rye: I hated in high school but appreciated it more when I read it in a non-school setting.

The second thing I think you're going to want is flexibility. Not every school district or every state is going to want to have their kids read the same books. So, let's look at my ideal canon:

1. Shakespeare. I know he's not sufficiently 'woke' for some people these days, but if you're studying the literature of the English language, you have to include him. I'm not sure about every high school out there, but the 'traditional' chestnuts seem to be 'Romeo and Juliet' and 'Hamlet' but I would avoid those, because The Bard has far more interesting plays out there.

2. Regional authors. For example, if I'm a student in Nebraska, I should probably be reading some Willa Cather. If I'm in Minnesota, I should be reading Maud Hart Lovelace, Sinclair Lewis, Laura Ingalls Wilder- you get the idea. Students should be reading some literature that connects to where they live.

3. World Literature: if you're teaching a world lit class, authors from Africa, Central and South America and Asia should all be at the top of your list before you get to anyone from Europe. (Shusaku Endo, Chinua Achebe, Jorge Amado, Jorge Luis Borges, Isabel Allende, Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel Garcia Marquez are all good examples- though my personal experience tends to be more with South America than Asia or Africa.)

4. American Literature: here's where things get interesting. I don't think you can stick with the traditional Mark Twain/Harper Lee/F Scott Fitzgerald thing anymore, because I don't think they represent the American experience as a whole. Authors like Octavia Butler, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, John dos Passos, Sherman Alexie, Sandra Cisneros, Junot Diaz all have a place in the canon, because when combined with the usual suspects you get a truly complete picture of literature of America. It shouldn't be either or. It should be both.

5. My Personal Wishlist: 'The Martian Chronicles', by Ray Bradbury. 'The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress' by Robert Heinlein (though you could make a case for 'Starship Troopers' or anything else), 'Dune', by Frank Herbert.

So, my Dream/Ideal Lit Class:

Shakespeare + World Lit (Not From Europe) + American Lit (Old Classics + Diverse Voices) + My Personal Wishlist = a well rounded canon. The more voices, the better in my book. But what about you, dear reader- what authors should students be reading in the classrooms of today?

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Netflix & Chill #38: The Cloverfield Paradox

Watched On: Netflix
Released: 2018
Starring: Daniel Bruhl, Elizabeth Debicki, Aksel Hennie, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Chris O'Dowd, John Ortiz, David Oyelowo, Zhang Ziyi
Rotten Tomatoes: 17%
Pick: Mine

I watched Cloverfield and thought it was pretty good- a nicely contemporary take on a Godzilla like monster that rampaged through New York City. (This predated the new Godzilla by a bit so at the time, all we had to go on was the Matthew Broderick/Jean Reno one with that awful P. Diddy/Led Zeppelin mash-up of Kashmir in the soundtrack.) I didn't bother with 10 Cloverfield Lane. I'm not sure why. I just never really felt an urge to go and see it and it's never caught my eye at a Redbox enough to say, 'hey, let's watch that.' So I'm still not sure why I even bothered with The Cloverfield Paradox- other than it's arrival in the world was sort of a Super Bowl surprise courtesy of Netflix so I was curious to see if it was a surprise worth watching.

Spoiler alert: it's not.

Set ten years in the future when the Earth is suffering from a global energy crisis, the space faring nations of the world have built a particle accelerator in space which they hope to use to provide the planet with infinite energy. Some alarmists fear that it will open portals between dimensions and allow horrors to destroy the planet. Among the crew is Ava Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who was reluctant to leave her husband, Michael a doctor, and is still grieving the loss of her children in a house fire.

Their tests prove unsuccessful for two years until they finally seem to get a stable beam until it overloads and the next thing you know, they're lost, the gyroscope they need to help them navigate is missing and a strange woman is trapped in one of their walls. It doesn't take them long to figure out that the woman, Mina Jensen (Elizabeth Debicki) is a member of their crew- just from an alternate universe. And after that, weird things start happening (as they tend to do on space stations where the lights flicker a lot) and to make a long story short: they figure out where they are and eventually get the particle accelerator to work so they can go home. Naturally there are only two survivors and when they get home?

Well, Ava's husband Michael starts yelling at Mission Control for letting her come back down to Earth because the monster in the original Cloverfield? Well, he's back and brought plenty of friends with him.

I really don't want to spend a lot of time on the plot of this movie, because it was less of a plot and more a collection of every sci-fi/horror movie cliche you can think of...  it wasn't a total trainwreck, because it was...  mildly entertaining? I guess? But you knew pretty early on that there either be one or two survivors and that if they managed to get home it would probably be all messed up, because you know, particle accelerator.

The cast does the best with what they have: Gugu Mbatha-Raw has been excellent in everything I've ever seen her in. Daniel Bruhl, David Oyelowo and Zhang Ziyi also bring their considerable talents to make the movie better. However, the one member of the cast that comes pretty damn close to stealing the show is Chris O'Dowd. The 'comic relief' (who of course, meets an unhappy ending) O'Dowd's approach is pretty subtle in many ways. He's not going for funny, but between his asides and one liners he consistently gets there and proves to be one of the best parts of this movie.

Where are they going with this franchise? I have no idea and there are rumors of another Cloverfield movie lurking in the ether already, but I feel like it might be time to wind this sucker down, because I have no idea where they could possibly take it next. (I've always thought that looking what happens after these sort of monster/disaster movies would be interesting, but who knows. Wait! I know! Plot Twist: Cloverfield 4: Pacific Rim.)

Overall: A bundle of science fiction cliches, The Cloverfield Paradox more than earns its 17% rating from Rotten Tomatoes. Gugu Mbatha-Raw remains excellent in everything I see her in and if there's a reason to watch this movie, it's probably Chris O'Dowd. My Grade: ** out of ****

Saturday, February 10, 2018

This Week In Vexillology #247

We're dipping back into the 'Lost Archives' this weekend and heading back to Central Europe to take a look at the flag of Hungary:
True story: we had goulash last night for dinner (American-style goulash and not the more traditional Hungarian version) AND I'm still listening to Mike Duncan's excellent Revolutions Podcast which is currently tackling the revolutionary year of 1848 that convulsed so many countries in Central Europe. Plus, I think paprika is probably one of my favorite spices. So I'm all about Hungary.

The exact form of the flag has been official since May 23rd, 1957, but the tricolor has been around since the Republican movements int he 18th and 19th centuries and the colors have been associated with Hungary for even longer than that- dating all the way back to the Middle Ages. (More specifically, the colors were taken from the Hungarian Coat of Arms that's been in the same form since the 15th Century, but they also were showing us as early as the 12th and 13th Century in the arms of the Arpads, the founding dynasty of Hungary.)

The evolution of the flag is somewhat interesting to read about- they went horizontal instead of vertical to avoid confusion with the flag of Italy, but they also kept the tricolor as a nod to France and their revolution. (Theoretically you could have pulled a Mexico if you really really wanted to keep the vertical tricolor and thrown the arms in there as well to differentiate it from Italy, but I think Italy has variant flags that include their arms as well, so maybe that wouldn't have been as helpful.) In general, the tricolor + coat of arms combination has been pretty constant since 1848- there are some exceptions though. There was a Hungarian Soviet Republic that was around for like a minute in 1919 that used a solid red banner- but even post-WWII Communist Hungary went with tricolor + coat of arms, leading to this:
And then this, following the failed Hungarian Uprising of 1956:
It's interesting, having listened to a whole bunch of episodes on 1848 and their Revolution to see how strongly Hungary's national identity shines through in the evolution of their flag. The Communists didn't have the balls to ditch the tricolor post-WWII and post-1956 they toned down the hammers, sickles and the big-ass red star and toned up the national tricolor again. It makes me wonder if Hungary's strong sense of national identity was enough to almost trump ideology. A lot of former Communist countries went back to older pre-Communist flags following the fall of the Soviet Union or went in a totally different direction post-independence. I'd have to check to be sure, but it'd be interesting to see if there were any other countries that sort of broke the mold during their communist period.

But what does it all mean? Well, the colors have been attributed to virtues: red for strength, white for fidelity and green for hope- something which was confirmed by the new Constitution in 2012. (But there's also an alternative explanation, which has red standing for the blood spilled for the fatherland*, white for freedom and green for the land/pastures of Hungary.)

And that is pretty much all there is to the flag of Hungary! Remember, until next time, keep your flags flying- FREAK or otherwise!

*Another thing it would be interesting to look into: which countries are 'motherlands' and which are 'fatherlands.'

Friday, February 9, 2018

Squawk Box: The Good Place & Manhunt: Unabomber

Squawk Box this month tackles two shows that couldn't be more different: the off-beat (yet surprisingly deep and intelligent) sitcom antics of The Good Place and the true crime docudrama Manhunt: Unabomber. I'm not sure what to think of the former and I still can't quite believe that the latter aired on the Discovery Channel and assembled the amazing cast it did.

I don't know what to think of The Good Place. The Missus and I gave the pilot episode awhirl and didn't really know what to think of it (she had just finished Love Sick, an excellent Netflix show if you're in the market for something to watch and then she moved onto Atypical) but I was curious enough to burn through the rest of the twelve episodes to see if I could make up my mind about it and...  I still can't.

I tend to picky about sitcoms. If they're funny enough to make me laugh out loud on a regular basis (like Arrested Development) then I'll pay attention, get invested and actually watch. If they're only mildly amusing, then I'll sort of throw them on as background noise while I do stuff and sort of check in from time to time (like Grace and Frankie). The Good Place sort of falls someplace in between on my personal sitcom spectrum. It opens with Eleanor (Kristen Bell) being told by Michael (Ted Danson) that she's dead and in heaven. She gets to learn the rules of 'The Good Place' as it's called and meets all the other people in 'The Good Place' including her soul mate Chidi (William Jackson Harper) who is an ethic professor from Senegal.

The rules of The Good Place are pretty simple: you accrue points while you're alive by doing good deeds and lose points for unethical decisions. If you're good enough, you go to The Good Place if not, you go to The Bad Place (which seems to be the equivalent of hell) for an eternity of torture and pain. Eleanor gets shown all the 'amenities' including her house which includes clown art, because why not, but then, plot twist! Turns out they've got the wrong Eleanor- this particular Eleanor made a living selling a supplement to the sick and elderly that was worthless and was crass and uncaring- in short, she was not a good person and chaos begins popping up in The Good Place as it reacts to her presence and misbehavior.

You would think that the concept alone would give this show the survival probability of a snowball in hell, but curiously this works. It infused with a sort of shiny ethereal charm that reminds me a lot of Pushing Daisies and then, just when you think it's going for sweet and charming it turns into a surprisingly intelligent and deep discussion of morals, ethics, philosophy and what makes a person really and truly good. This show wasn't at all what I was expecting, but it's refreshing to see a show that brimming with intelligence and exploring some seriously deep shit- especially a sitcom. (There are some twists and turns worth talking about, but I'm won't, because spoilers.)

In contrast to The Good Place, Manhunt: Unabomber isn't exactly a fun, happy time, but it is a fascinating one. The story of the FBI's manhunt for the Unabomber and the tools they used to catch him, Manhunt: Unabomber is a taut, eight episode ride that features an outstanding performance from Paul Bettany as Ted Kaczynski who bounces off Sam Worthington (who plays Special Agent Jim Fitzgerald) perfectly.

The break in the case comes courtesy of Fitzgerald, a newly minted and much heralded profiler who zeroes in on the idea of using linguistic patterns to find the man they're looking for, developing a practice of forensic linguistics as a result. Fitzgerald struggles to adapt to the tight knit Unabomber task force, who prove to be tough to sell on new theories about the case they've been working on for years, but he finds an ally in street agent Tabby Milgrim (Keisha Castle-Hughes) and works to convince his bosses that he's onto something.

The Unabomber has been oddly inactive for awhile, but when his manifesto surfaces with a threat to bomb a plane, authorities at the highest level must wrestle with a decision to publish the manifesto or not. (Chris Noth is excellent as usual as Agent Don Ackerman and Jane Lynch is a solid and surprisingly delightful choice to play then Attorney General Janet Reno.) They ultimately decide to do it and eventually, Ted's writing style is recognized by his brother, David (Mark Duplass) who reports it to the FBI who initially dismisses the link, but Fitzgerald knows better and gets the evidence they need to get their man.

Interwoven between this, they flash forward to just before the start of Kaczynski's trial. Agent Fitzgerald is living high in the mountains, alone and is initially reluctant to help the FBI again- but the Feds are eager to avoid a trial, thinking that Kaczynski will turn it into a media circus and could potentially get off as a result. Fitzgerald is a broken man in many ways. His marriage imploded in the stress of working the case and he is no mood to re-engage with a case that has cost him so much professionally and personally. But he gets back in the ring with Kaczynski one more time and eventually convinces him to enter a guilty plea and finally bringing the Unabomber case to a close and finding some peace in the process.

There seems to be a weird fascinating with the crimes of the 1990s of late in television. American Crime Story tackled OJ and is now moving onto Gianni Versace. The Network formerly known as Spike has a Waco mini series about to start dropping and the Discovery Channel tackled the Unabomber. I only vaguely remember the basics of this case, but the mini series talked about a lot and made me want to learn more about it- so there's that, I guess. It feels a bit like the Discovery Channel sort of snuck this is under the radar a bit, because I remember seeing nothing about it when it was actually airing, but hopefully Netflix gives this series the exposure and the praise that it deserves- because it deserves a lot. Paul Bettany is good in just about everything he's in, but he's really good here and they assemble a capable and talented cast to back him up. Plus: at eight episodes, it's nice and short- and worth watching.

My Verdicts:
The Good Place: sweet, charming and thought provoking enough I'll probably watch more if it shows up on Netflix again. Don't think it quite qualifies as 'appointment television' though.

Manhunt Unabomber: 8 episodes with Sam Worthington and Paul Bettany? Sit down and watch this already.